Our Protections are Earthly: N/A Oparah’s Thick Skin
To describe the basic premise of N/A Oparah’s highly metaphorical, lyrical novella, it would be familiar stuff: a young woman is dumped by her boyfriend, with most of the story following Nneka as she struggles, grieves and ultimately undergoes her healing process. We have all encountered many narratives that examine the complexity of love and love lost, and we continue to do so because it is a wisdom we are obsessed with gleaning. However, that is not what Thick Skin is truly revealing. Oparah has instead created a character in Nneka that operates more as an examination of the way we embody grief, how we process the damages present in our relationships—in this case one that includes the various abuses of an interracial dynamic—and what lengths we will take in the effort to heal ourselves.
After Nneka is abandoned by the insecure and self-centered Jason, she undertakes a series of rituals to deal with the absence. She engages in a mysterious therapy process, she applies protective layers to her body—mud, hardened earth, even her own body weight—all narrated in lush, lyrical gestures, glimpses, scenes, non-linear vignettes. We stay very close to Nneka, even though the point-of-view is very often presented in the second person, and aside from occasional cameos by her best friend, mother and therapist, we largely are alone with Nneka, her actions in isolation, and her recollections of the relationship with Jacob.
The language of this hybrid novella is what ensnares the reader. Much like the layers Nneka applies to herself (“Let the mud harden, turn wall”) the prose is equally textured, with a heft that mirrors the weight of the protagonist’s duress. Though much of the context and circumstance is not explicitly clear, we slog along with Nneka through the morass of the language itself, experiencing linguistically something akin to her emotional state. Language in this novel serves as a physical material—a reality all its own—much like the metaphors of mud and meat and knife, and we are forced to be mired, just like Nneka. It is a powerful experience for language to exact such corporeal feeling.
A particular theme that painfully emerges in Thick Skin is the intersection of Nneka’s interracial relationship and her body shame. In a moment when Jacob and Nneka spot a mixed young girl and Jacob comments that the girl could be theirs, Nneka reveals that she is hurt by the conversation but doesn’t know why. “You say you don’t care what our unborn kid looks like. But I think you do. You turn my reasoning into a joke. Bully me with no audience. But you know my point. I’m darker. I don’t want you to be surprised. I don’t want that to be a problem.” Later in the scene she admits, “I won’t confess that I was bred to hate this body, that I know how much effort it takes, daily, moment to moment, to ignore the myths that are force-fed through every medium to see the beauty that is me.” This juxtaposition suggests that the interracial relationship intensifies Nneka’s perception of her body as dictated by white supremacist beauty standards. Being with Jacob, a white man, makes it more pointed, and Nneka admits to him, “I can’t help but fight. I can’t help but stuff your mouth, your head, with all the things I was taught you might think.” This scene—one of many in the novella—was most heartbreaking to read, especially when she is so clear in her admission later in the story: “That I must harbor hate for my own body because of who I choose to love.”
What I appreciated so much about this particular story was its fearlessness in representing the complexities of abuse in a relationship. It wasn’t specifically a survival narrative, nor one of victimization. Jacob and Nneka are both rendered damaged, flawed and vulnerable. At one moment we see the monstrous in Jacob, in his quick ability to be harmful and then apologize easily and blame other factors for his behavior, a clear signifier of a sociopath: “You look into my eyes. Your eyes. Those color-shifting eyes. Those eyes that say sorry better, faster than they say anything else… You might tuck me in with your apologies. Blame the nicotine. Blame the time of day. Then, in another moment we see Nneka’s capacity for obsession: “When therapist asks about father, I tell her yours. I repeat your history as best I can, becoming you. Reliving, relieving you.” The person becoming a non-self—a form of self-abuse, one might argue—occupies many of Nneka’s actions and thoughts, and extends into the world around her with the potential for damage.
However, we also glean so much insight about being in a relationship with an abusive partner that bears a universality, no matter the circumstance: “What they don’t tell you is that as low as the lows can get, the highs are higher. It is ecstasy…For every yell, every too-rough touch, every time he threatens…every admission of hate, every “ugly,” every “dumb,” every “disgusting,” there is desire, someone who needs me, who wants me around, someone who takes my side against the world, reminding me of what I deserve.” As someone who in their childhood watched their mother exhibit the same rationale in their abusive relationship, I kept nodding my head through this passage. Oparah conveys these conceits with a deliberate sensibility, one that is not maudlin or sensational. It sticks close to the body, where all trauma resides, and that is what makes it more truthful and authentic than most narratives representing the subject.
Thick Skin will not answer many questions for us, but it certainly will have us reflect on our own relationships. The novel demands us to face the moments we have been the abuser, when we were abused, and how we heal after abandonment. As Oparah writes, “There is a difference between loving and living.” Nneka certainly needs to understand this in Thick Skin, in order to heal, to “make a me out of me again.” Upon reading this gorgeous hybrid story, I wonder if maybe we all do.
Thick Skin is available now from Kernpunkt Press.
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