AN ORDINARY WONDER
By Buki Papillon
Even in the best of circumstances, adolescence is a strange, uncomfortable experience. But for people who exist outside of their community’s norms, that discomfort is often exacerbated, especially when they are compelled to keep their differences hidden. This difficult secret-keeping is at the heart of Buki Papillon’s ambitious debut novel, “An Ordinary Wonder.”
The book, which takes place in Nigeria in the late 1980s and early 1990s, is about an intersex teenager named Otolorin. Otolorin identifies as a girl, Lori, but is forced to live as a boy, Oto (the name she uses throughout the book). Because she is intersex, Oto believes that she is cursed and shameful. “I’ve been called ‘monster,’” Oto explains. Her parents in particular demonize her. Early in the novel, Oto’s beloved twin sister gets a new dress and allows Oto to try it on. But when her mother catches Oto wearing it, she throws Oto down a flight of stairs. Her aggression only gets worse from there.
The first part of the novel, written in alternating “Before” and “Now” chapters, moves between the claustrophobia of Oto’s home life and her experiences two years later, when she is at boarding school. The violence early in the book is so protracted that it gives the “Before” chapters an airless quality, in part necessarily, as it allows readers to understand just how precarious Oto’s life is, though the descriptions of beatings, molestations and near-drownings at times border on voyeuristic.
In Part 2, the “Before/Now” structure drops, and the novel focuses just on Oto’s time at school. Even when she is away from her family, Oto’s difficulties continue. She is still living as a boy, and typical teenage discomforts, from changing for bed to attending a school dance, are dangerous for her. But Oto perseveres, remaining at the top of her class in hopes to “earn that scholarship to America where they’ll know what to do about my body before the worst happens and it’s too late and I’m forever stuck the wrong way.”
While fear plays a role in the boarding school sections, those chapters give space for joy, too. Without her mother’s disgust and violence to contend with, Oto has room for friendship, creative expression and all-consuming crushes. This adolescent exuberance is especially evident in Oto’s relationship with her roommate, who quickly becomes her dearest friend.
The plot of the book is, at times, overstuffed. Toward the end it feels as if Papillon is rushing to conclude each story line. Additionally, Oto’s relationship with her sister is often explained in summary, making the particular intimacies of their bond harder to see.
But Papillon’s work shines when she delves into the complexity of Oto’s experiences. Moments of excitement and brutality are rendered with vivid urgency. And Papillon weaves folk tales and proverbs into the narrative, like the story of Obatala, a god who is “in charge of making human bodies,” whose story reverberates with Oto’s plight in unexpected and disturbing ways.
Oto is a keenly observed character, and it is one of Papillon’s achievements that Oto is larger than the sum of the many traumas she experiences. Oto’s sly humor, for example, highlights her playful intelligence. She is a character of great empathy, one who works to protect her sister and understand her mother even as she herself faces terrifying violence.
“An Ordinary Wonder” ends in a place of optimism: Oto has a chance to show her true self and begins to live as Lori. Her story highlights the limiting dangers of the gender binary, while also reminding us of the power storytelling has to help us envision a more expansive and inclusive world.