A Response to Disaster: A Review of “Aminatu” by Olufunke Grace Bankole, published in Michigan Quarterly Review

Written by B. Nathanial Steelman

The world as we first see it, as we first are led to believe in it, is anguished, starved: instinctual. In media res “drunken dogs” are enduring, as the humans in their milieu they hollow to tissue and bone. They growl; yet “in that grayish-blue darkness” their “eyes droop heavy with shame,” as if Man’s Best Friend well knows the consequences of his (re)wilding in these circumstances post-storm inside the dome. Things will not be the same. In “Aminatu,” Olufunke Grace Bankole’s poignant, gusty debut short story published by Michigan Quarterly Review, first in print in Fall 2006 and again online in August 2020, a reader is learned in the wake of the US’s costliest natural disaster for whom life is most fragile.

Hurricane Katrina in August 2005 nearly rendered the city of New Orleans like mythological Atlantis. Gales thrashed the metro and made a house of cards of apartments, churches; but it was the ensuing deluge to which the civilization nearly succumbed. It was a disaster in the truest sense of the term: disaster, disastro: apart star, ill fate: inevitability. The city had been evacuated, but tens of thousands could not leave, because exodus is not free. In her modest essay, “Going Solo,” Bankole speaks to, although does not reference by name, “Aminatu”: “Having just moved from New Orleans, and witnessed with the rest of the world, the horror of Katrina and its aftermath, I clicked open a blank page,” Bankole says, “and tried to imagine how the hours between night and dawn, inside the Louisiana Superdome, might have been for someone who hadn’t the sort of choices that allowed me to leave the city in the first place.”

Think about any disaster—or, at the very least, crisis—such as Hurricane Laura in 2020 or the derecho (or any of the outbreaks or any of the shootings or any of the deaths of heroes or any of the obliterations delivered by/embodied in the deluded occupant of this White House in 2020). See roofs peeled open like sardine cans, alarmed neighbors in tents on their lawns among snakes of downed power lines: The undone structures subjugate our focus and the tense is present. We can’t look away. Because the grotesque is so perverse, thrust upon its audience is the impetus of meaning-making. In “Aminatu,” the dogs loiter around the carnage and carcasses strewn across the gridiron of the Superdome-come-grotto. “One has in his teeth and clutched between his skinny legs a blue-yellow damask head tie.” Thus follows meaning-making so much as memory: “A scarf,” the narrator says, “the kind that would adorn the head of a West African woman; and just a short while ago, it did. Her name is Aminatu.”

There appears to be cultural responses to disaster. For instance, after the derecho bulldozed much of Iowa, where I live, folks swarmed with chainsaws and garbage cans the detritus of their houses and lawns. With all the oil and grease of machinery, whole blocks smelled of an amusement park. Spangled across social media were pictures of community aglow with purpose. It was quintessential Iowa Nice. That said, Coming Together displays, and is allowed by, certain culture, certain socioeconomic status. In “Aminatu,” the culture Bankole admirably depicts is that which houses, again, as she says, “someone who hadn’t the sort of choices that allowed me to leave,” the culture, in other words, inhabited by those to whom inevitability arrives faster, as these inhabitants cannot afford protection from and/or to flee various clutches by dint of low socioeconomic status and racial discrimination. Per “Aminatu,” this culture’s disaster response (vide trauma response) is remembrance. Because what else can be done if one has nothing?

Not so much points as characteristics in the middle of the story: Aminatu was the vendor in the small, dimly lit stall in the Big Easy’s French Quarter; she was the woman from Africa in America. Among the fluid colony of market stalls, she was the one with the “permanent space,” seeing that her brother-in-law had bought the stall. She lived in her brother-in-law’s basement, with her daughter, Ghaniyah, and paid no penny of rent, utilities, nor tuition for her daughter’s schooling, because “little was expected of [Aminatu].” And yet she “read the kind of books she had heard black students read at local universities.” She wanted out. A late-twenty-something, single-mother-of-one, she hadn’t been back home to Africa in a decade and now “could not answer for herself where she belonged.” Notwithstanding, when you visited the shop, Aminatu made you feel so “lucky.”

A paragraph of the story: “Aminatu had a way. That way not easily described, but well understood when you met her.”

Not so much backstory as this analepsis is eulogy. And it is eloquent, compelling, and thorough as a eulogy can be, it seems, which is remarkable in light of the fact that the narrator had not been friends with the vendor, never had been, so far as we know, in activities with Aminatu, etcetera. It seems important here to see that the reader does not experience Aminatu move and talk and think. We learn about her. So it goes with eulogies—even with the one I had given of my grandmother, who I had known all my life, with whom I had spent my mornings, afternoons, and summers—that the character never graduates out of static into dynamic; eulogies are synopses. In essence, they convey the informative point that not enough about the person was known or could be. It seems important here, too, to see that the narrator does not attempt to wrest from the fetid, crenellated maw of the dog—as some would—the damask head tie. The narrator lets it be, surrenders it to inevitability. There is so much to “Aminatu”: the irony, existentialism, brilliant language and structure, among other provocative features. I encourage you to give it a read. It can induce reflection on disaster response; for instance, I clean up—tangible debris as well as intangible—I attempt to restore order. (In all likelihood, I confess, I would have tried to reclaim the head tie.) But I am inclined to say this sort of response disallows disaster’s most useful function. Suspension of disbelief is idling; it is avoidance of any critical thinking at the convenient store on the way home from work, and it is forsaking any examination of our mothers at the dinner table. Suspension of disbelief buoys illusion and disaster can snap this. “Aminatu” is tagged in orange, italicized, small font Black Lives Matter. Per suspension, per our culture’s cushion, we do not see that Black lives do, indeed, matter. Disaster can allow us to come back down to earth to see who we have coerced into the trenches. As importantly, it can recalibrate our morals that have altogether been scrambled if not abandoned.