Calling My Name by Liara Tamani is a lyrical and sensuous story–at times, reading more like poetry than prose. A richly detailed narrative immerses you immediately in the life experiences of Taja Brown: from neighborhood kickball games and sibling rivalry to tumultuous first love and the promise of life to come after high school. While honoring the specific experiences of her Southern black girl upbringing, Taja’s deeply personal, coming-of-age tale eclipses ethnicity and geography to be incredibly relatable to girls of a certain age and women who remember being girls of a certain age.
Childhood memories can stretch out with the endless summers of neighborhood play and family adventures. Some experiences we can remember with excruciating detail, while other moments are forever lost. There are popular songs from our childhood we will forever remember the lyrics to, playground chants we could accurately recite 30 years after the fact. Family trips that come back to us in vivid detail. The shakily scary sensation of getting temporarily separated from our parents forever imprinted in somewhere in our hearts. The annoying burden of having to wake up early and go to church every Sunday. The sneaky pleasure of playing sick to have the house to yourself for a time to do whatever you desire. The unfairness of being treated differently from another sibling by your parents due to your differing age or gender. Harshly bickering with your family one moment, yet finding yourself protecting and defending them the next time some outsider dares to threaten and insult them.
Remarkably familiar and true-to-life scenes like these are peppered throughout this novel. Sometimes, they are presented in the disjointed and seemingly random fashion that we remember moments from our own childhood. Other times, Tamani expertly and eloquently weaves in common threads that knit together the whole narrative of Taja’s youth.
Remembering the Milestone of Childhood
The milestones, of course, can be unforgettable. Similar to what I wrote about in my review of Are You There God? It’s Me Margaret, reading Taja’s critical self-assessment of her changing body was palpably and painfully familiar. I also could relate to the embarrassment of Taja’s early experiences of menstruation. While I had heard and read enough to be sort of prepared for the impending ‘first blood,’ my mother was like Taja’s mother in never having talked about it with me beforehand. Reading the scenes where she’s humiliated for staining her pants immediately took me back to having to wrap a jacket around my waist in class when I’d unexpectedly got my period at school.
Yet, as much as my body could sometimes be a source of embarrassment, like Taja, there were times when I was surprised and pleased by its strength, by its speed, and by its being-ness. Oh, the delicious wonder of the discovery of self! I have never, ever read anything like the sensuously spiritual experiences I had as a child until reading this book’s beautiful passages of Taja sensing and feeling the wonder of her soul, of her connection to the greater Universe. To say this took me back is an understatement; by reading passages like the above, I felt like I was reliving my own awe and amazement over life as if for the first time.
I flood my lungs, watch my chest swell, and hold the air in, feeling my insides stir. like glitter in a globe. I exhale and the tiny dots settle. I take another long breath, and the sparkles swirl and swirl deep beneath my skin in a place I don’t know how to name, from where the songs in my head speak, from where tears race and eyes roll, from where gap-revealing smiles escape, laughter skips, cravings call…where words of love and fear whisper and scream, even if they never come out…the room inside the room inside the room.
Fumbling Toward First Love
The journey toward self-love loops and bends through delicious wonder, then mind-blowing confusion; through self-assurance, then doubtful despair. The path toward romantic life can be similarly tumultuous and heartbreaking, while also joyful and sublime. Taja’s first love in many ways reminded me of my own, with the surprising delight of learning about another’s mind, soul and body so intimately, for the first time.
Teenaged Taja and Andre plotting out their relationship timeline toward marriage and kids seems almost laughably naive now, but I did the same with my first love. And while my parents never forced me to sign a Vow of Purity, years of religious indoctrination left me similarly yearning to be virtuous, yet caught up by the unexpected passion of desire. While I felt some guilt for essentially ‘breaking a commandment’ by making love before marriage, both my boyfriend and I sincerely thought we had found “the One,” and he had given me a promise ring.
While I craved my boyfriend’s attention and adoration, sometimes it could be stifling, as Andre’s was to Taja. I wanted to feel free to see the world, to travel to Europe with my family and go to college across country. Though my first love wasn’t anywhere near as cruel and spiteful as Andre, he too felt threatened by my ambition and desire to spread my wings to fly. Both Taja and I were made to feel guilty for wanting to go far from home–and our first loves–to college, coincidentally both at Stanford. While Andre’s immature insecurity led to their breakup as soon as Taja was accepted to the California university, my own relationship limped on for another year and half, through long-distance and then my temporary return home. But, like Taja, I realized my freedom to fully pursue my passion was a delicious gift to protect and embrace.
Hallelujah! Love is God’s One-Note Song
Calling My Name also deftly interweaves the journey toward acceptance, love and the full expression of one’s self with the journey past communal religious obligations through to the empowerment that comes with a personal connection to Spirit. As someone whose upbringing was also influenced by Southern black culture steeped in strict religious tradition and mindset, I really related to Taja’s spiritual coming-of-age, as well. Early on, Taja senses that coming into connection with God is a highly personal experience that transcends confining church walls and preachers’ predictably castigating, yet hypocritical, sermons.
Unfortunately, familial pressure and social conformity allow fear of damnation and the stranglehold of a Vow of Purity to seep into her heart, casting a dark shadow over her blooming adolescence. Aspiring to be a ‘good girl,’ yet wanting to explore her kaleidoscope of desires, Taja struggles with the crippling guilt and hot shame over her ‘sins’ of wanting to express her first love in all ways. She also wants to be friends with non-Christians without trying to convert them and to be a contributing member of her community without getting weighed down by arbitrary obligations and harsh judgement.
If I had to give God’s one-note song a word, then I would pick hallelujah or love. Yes, Jesus would love love! But love wasn’t spoken today…[Pastor Hayes] repeats, “Do you want Jesus to forgive you for your sins?” No, forget that. Hallelujah already won. I’m done.
Claiming Ownership of the Freed Self
Can Taja come to trust that pure voice within that wholly embraces her true self and engenders hope for an inclusive humanity? The one that encourages her illustrious ambitions, encompasses her deepest desires and allows for real freedom of personal expression? That whispers to her that she too is a “gospel song” in her “highest, purest note, in perfect harmony with what calls to me”? Might the Divine indeed be found in the artful dance of nature, in the interpersonal expressions of love and acceptance, and in the deeply, soulful experiences of burgeoning self-love? You’ll have to read it to find out.