by Alice Stephens
On the banks of the Anacostia River, a young boy talks to a man no one else sees. When news gets to Nephthys that her grand-nephew Dash is talking to himself, she knows he is actually communicating with her twin brother—Dash’s grandfather Osiris, murdered by white men who were never brought to justice. Shortly thereafter, his pregnant widow was run over by a car. While in the womb as her mother lost her life, Amber, who will become Dash’s mother, was endowed with the ability to foretell death.
Then one day, when Dash is 10, he tells Nephthys about a dream his mother had. Immediately, Nephthys realizes her brother’s grandson is in danger but does not yet know from whom.
After her twin’s death, Nephthys became the owner of a supernatural cab, a 1967 Plymouth Belvedere that requires no upkeep, giving her a purpose despite the irreparable wound left by Osiris’ absence. Her passengers are a cross-section of Black DC residents, from the well-off, respectable colonel’s wife who visits her son in the psychiatric ward of St. Elizabeths Hospital to the 15-year-old prostitute Rosetta, a victim of sexual abuse. All of these stories weave together for a deeply layered novel of astonishing scope, suffused in the mythical, accented by the magical, but viscerally rooted in elemental human emotions.
Alice Stephens: So much to talk about with this powerful, lushly written, and inventive novel, Morowa. The publishing world loves to define the genre of a book for marketing purposes. What genre did you place this book in when pitching it?
Morowa Yejidé: Creatures of Passage is a lot of things with a lot of elements that I had a marvelous time blending but above all I see it as literary fiction, a categorization I feel is wide and deep enough to hold it. I wrote the story much in the way I enjoy reading stories, where the reader may turn it one way or another in his or her mind and get a different view.
AS: I love the map at the beginning of the book that delineates the setting and pinpoints the locations specific to the story, because even though the story ventures into otherworldly dimensions, the main characters live most of their lives in a small section of a compact city. What was your intent in including the map?
MY: I love books with maps because I think they give a sense of adventure from the moment you look at them. Maps can bring written locations to life in the mind as real places. But many of the places described in Creatures of Passage are both real and reimagined. So the map is a way of adding a visual sense of the physical locations—touch points, if you will—that actually exist in the DC area but also add reference points in accordance with the mythology of the story. You open the book and see “Acropolis” or “Big Chair” on the map and then when you get into the story, you get an even greater sense of the scope of what that means in the topography of the book. While the Potomac and Anacostia rivers are real, the kingdoms and fiefdoms described are mythological versions of the real.
AS: Yes, I wondered about the use of kingdoms and fiefdoms in place of current political institutional units like states and cities. The story takes place in 1977, and references the bicentennial. For a book that is so layered in history, frequently referring back to the first Native residents of Anacostia, the Nacotchtank, why do you reassign feudal designations for republican ones?
MY: The recasting gives the physical locations a certain distance that I wanted in relief to the close-up, interior worlds of the characters. I think often while the labeling of a place may change, much of the foundation of what “used to be,” the essence of what makes a place what it is, remains and it gets played out or “felt” in how we experience it. After all, names are often a political way of attempting to erase what exists or remake it into something palatable for someone else.
Scoping out to a wider view, I wanted to take away familiar titles and replace them with titles that force a closer look at the entities themselves and the behaviors of people within them. We can stand back and look at “America” as “the territories”—which is what it always was—and get a different view of who controls the territories, what happens within them, and why. I was also playing with the unique concept of the “DMV” (District of Columbia, Maryland, and Virginia) because the suburbs here are not just suburbs, but other states, separate but somehow essential to shaping what the city is. But more importantly, there is a DC beneath what we see today that has been covered and versioned many times over—one that existed before and remains. Renaming something or refusing to talk about it does not change the nature in which it was conceived or the footprint it leaves. Years change but often the power dynamics remain. I wanted to alter the connotations that names can typically invoke with regards to the DC area on a small scale, and this country at large, in order to get a closer look at how places are felt and experienced.
AS: The plot is deeply imbued in the mythological, reflected in the main character’s name Nephthys and her dead twin brother Osiris. What is the original story of Nephthys and Osiris and why did you choose to name your characters after them?
MY: I love pulling from the deepest and oldest well of storytelling—Egyptian mythology. There are countless myths with many versions, which gave me a marvelous landscape of concepts for the story. This musing became Nephthys and Osiris, two of the original five sibling gods, all of whom had certain characteristics. So the “Car Lady,” our heroine of the story, is based on the concept of the Egyptian goddess of the dead, Nephthys, or “friend of the dead.” In older texts she is a protector god, a companion alongside the living and the dead. Her “ferrying” people through the “darkness” of their lives in her Plymouth Belvedere is a reflection of all of that. Likewise, her brother, the god Osiris, is murdered, cut into pieces, and scattered but then resurrected in the mythology. In Creatures of Passage, we see Osiris murdered and then come back as a ghost.
Also, I am an only child and I’ve always been fascinated with sibling dynamics. As a parent, I observe the tender complexities of brotherhood between my own three sons. I made the brother and sister twins in the book to further explore the depths of sibling bonds. The magic is in neither of these siblings knowing the origins of their names (as is usually the case with descendants of enslaved Africans in America) but both siblings acting out according to their ancient monikers.
There are other instances where a god’s characteristics are implied without an Egyptian name as in the case of Find Out who, in a way is Anubis, the god of lost souls—the greatest irony of all for his character. For me, the possibilities are endless!
AS: Nephthys drives a mystical cab that never needs repairs or gas and finds her fares through a mist that tells her where to pick up her passengers, carrying damaged souls to their next destination. When her twin is murdered, she loses a part of herself, filling that empty space with booze and her mission as a cab driver to “creatures of passage.” What defines a “creature of passage”? And why is her trunk occupied by the spirit of a dead white girl?
MY: There’s a lot of the idea of “movement” through time via the five “passages” in the story. I guess as I grew older, experienced gain and loss, and witnessed our changing climate and animal habitat devastation, the idea that we are all “creatures” on this planet—our own vessel out here in the vastness of space—struck me. And we’re all moving from one point to another our entire lives, trying to get to or escape from someplace else. We and everything around us is in a constant kinetic state. In the story, I am saying that some of us, though we may be moving, have spirits frozen in place by events that profoundly hurt us or change us forever, like the white girl in the trunk. But we “creatures” are all moving in lines or circles to some end—a mystery to us all.
AS: There is a lot of intergenerational trauma in the book, most starkly depicted by Mercy Ratchet’s infliction of his own childhood abuse on the next generation, but also interwoven into so many of the characters’ histories. Why did you choose to show that traumatic events can reverberate through generations?
MY: Water, our most precious substance, is a big theme in the book. And like water, trauma can start as a ripple and reverberate outward without end. I thought it was important to show through the characters that people don’t just sign up to lead terrible and traumatized lives. Childhood represents the purest state in which to examine trauma and its far-reaching consequences. Taken in a wider context, there are often a series of events—sometimes over years, generations, or centuries—that when summed together manifest in how latter-day lives play out. The inception of a cycle of destruction and pain of a generation often happens in its absence—before its members were even born—but their inheritance is the fallout and impact of that inception. The irony is without knowing or understanding what happened to one generation in the absence of another, it can be difficult to see the remedy, how to head towards the light.
AS: Why do you use the epithet “isle of blood and desire” for Anacostia?
MY: Anacostia is in some ways like many other islands in the world, isolated and full of the contradictions of history, culture, and economic conditions. The epithet comes from the idea that it is filled with the blood of atrocities and injustices by which it was developed and that remain, and also filled with the dreams and desires of people living there throughout time.
MY: There are so many elements that go into publishing, many of them subjective, and you can never control the market or how things will go with a book. For me, there was first the 10 years of publishing short stories. Then there were the years I was writing what became Creatures of Passage, which I started when I was pregnant with my youngest son, who is now 18 years old. In between there were the wonderful and challenging chapters of life—children, marriage, bills, jobs, and more! There was movement and breaks depending on what was going on in my life. I actually put Creatures of Passage away for a long time to write Time of the Locust. So my “debut” was in the middle of my own timeline of working on something else. When I was ready to finally blend everything that had been floating in my mind, and was at a place in my life where the conditions were right, I sat down and finished Creatures of Passage.
The main difference between publishing a debut and a sophomore novel is I had a better sense of what to expect and not expect from the publisher the second time around. And I had a clearer understanding that I had to stay in the cockpit, that no one would ever care more about my work than me. That means I never had an agent and still don’t have one. But what matters to me most is the level of quality I am producing, whether it’s the first book or the tenth one. I figure the book will stand or fall from there.
AS: Do you have any advice for older writers, particularly those whose voices have typically been marginalized?
MY: Everyone has their own path. Many believe that there is some sort of “writing life” that we should all be adhering to. But I think the truth is that there is no writing life—there’s just your life and how writing fits into it. For me, there was no cabin and roaring fire, no mountain top or retreat where I could have literary epiphanies.
I will say that the perspective and scope one develops in later years lends wonderful depth and richness to storytelling, when so much has already been seen and experienced. I don’t think I could have written a book like Creatures of Passage as a young writer, so I take solace in knowing that the story “showed up” when it was supposed to. There’s a kind of magic in blooming “late,” when you may actually be at your most potent self. Say what you need to say, in whatever fashion that it needs to happen, however long or short it takes.
AS: What’s next?
MY: I’m still out here on the open water sailing so who knows? The adventure continues!
Alice Stephens is the author of the novel Famous Adopted People, editor of Bloom, and a book reviewer and columnist for the Washington Independent Review of Books.
Author photo by Sarah Fillman