The Demands of Motherhood
By Kalisha Buckhanon
St. Martin's. 277 pp. $21.95
On the same day I began reading Kalisha Buckhanon's ambitious new novel, Conception, I just happened to receive a newsletter from a major African American literary Web site featuring its latest bestseller list. Among the top 10 works of fiction were three by the erotic writer Zane, plus books whose titles all included the words Sex, Whore, Hustler or Thug.
That list, however unscientific it may be, perfectly delineates the continental divide between so-called street lit and works by more traditionally literary African American writers, not one of whom appears within shouting distance of the bestseller list. What's interesting to note is how young writers such as Buckhanon seem intent not on taking up positions along this divide but on straddling it.
Conception is Buckhanon's second novel, a work of urban fiction that mixes the usual streetwise tales of woe with casual references to Zora Neale Hurston, Toni Morrison and the occasional bit of French. It is not always a smooth or successful effort, but it is a valiant one.
The heroine is 15-year-old Shivana, who lives in a Chicago slum and believes that most black women stumble blindly into the same painful trap: meet some man, believe his sweet talk, bear his offspring, then watch him leave. "Planning pregnancy was for White women," she says. "Every woman I had ever known just got caught -- caught up in some man to the point where she was foolish enough to drop a load for him, believe all that 'carry my seed I'm gonna love you and my child' sweet talk."
Shivana's own mother has followed this scenario, ending up bitter and alone. The poor woman -- who has survived not only abandonment by her man but a childhood injury, the loss of a mother to cancer, a father to stroke and a brother to crack -- takes a lifetime of fear and disappointment out on Shivana, beating the child so fiercely at the beginning of the novel that her magical transformation into a loving and thoughtful parent halfway through is hard to believe.
Shivana, seeking love in all the wrong places, finds herself pregnant by the first older man who smiles her way. The question of the novel thus becomes whether she will decide to terminate the pregnancy or to keep the unborn child.
Buckhanon is a promising writer, but she has yet to figure out how to make her characters come to life, to step out from the shadow of stereotype into the light of fictional flesh and blood. Not one of the main figures in the book rises convincingly above the grab bag of clich¿s that weighs them down. Leroy is the selfish, drug-dealing black man who seduces a lonely teenager without thinking twice. His wife, Renelle, is the hard-working, baby-making and somehow unseeing spouse. Nakesha is the sassy but loyal best friend. Aunt Jewel is the free spirit who escapes the financial and spiritual urban poverty to which everyone else succumbs.
Shivana comes closest to complexity and depth. Like many teens, she can be at once naive and mature. She is shocked to learn, after months of unprotected sex with her neighbor, that she is pregnant. Yet she is wise enough to observe about her mother, "She couldn't affect or console my shaky self-esteem when her own self-worth had been chiseled down to the nub by bad skin, bad luck, bad men, and bad timing. In my eyes, Ma's life had been a purr and not a howl; she was a hermit whose visitors had dwindled to regret, anger, and self-hate." In her worst moments, Shivana is a maddeningly inconsistent character, but in her best she reminds me, faintly, of Trish in James Baldwin's great novel of young love, If Beale Street Could Talk.
It must be mentioned that part of Conception is narrated by Shivana's unborn child. That choice allows Buckhanon to tour African American history by having the fetus visit various potential black mothers before finally coming to rest in Shivana's womb.
The book feels aimed at a high school crowd, and for those readers, the whirlwind tour through black history may be instructive, perhaps even illuminating. For others, however, the stories revealed as the unborn spirit makes her way along may feel slightly predictable and too swiftly told to carry the emotional weight they deserve: Slavery, check. Jim Crow lynching, check. Urban police brutality, check.
Whatever its shortcomings, though, onception remains the work of a gifted young novelist struggling to weld together the various metals of her experience. Who knows whether the result will hold or not. If it does, it should be something to see. *
Kim McLarin is the author of three novels, including "Jump at the Sun."