book review: Every Body Looking

title: Every Body Looking
author: Candice Iloh
date: Dutton; September 2020;
main character: Ada
Page numbers refer to an advanced copy.

On the day she graduates from high school, Ada is on her own to maneuvering the logistics of her divorced parents. She feels ready to go to college across the county and to leave the confines of her family behind. Her future had been prescribed from her past, a past she’s about to reconsider and grow from. She’s been so sheltered that she really has a lot learning in front of her. At the HBCU she attends, she encounters those upperclassmen with their appetite from freshwomen, majors that don’t align with talent and, there’s dance. With no close friends, Ada has to figure out this new landscape on her own. but more important to her, Ada wants to be seen on her own terms.

For this to happen, Ada subtly learns to redefine herself; she’s not working to reject her past. I appreciated that this narrative of a first generation Nigerian American isn’t about the need to reject her parent’s cultural identity. It’s more about a young woman embracing all that has influenced her and growing from that. Her narrative voice leads us through how she’s been positioned by her mother, father, aunt and her religion. She says

How Can I tell Dad
about what makes me feel most alive
when since I’ve been born his whole existence
has been sacrificed for me?
what can I tell him when his every breath
has been about keeping me safe
and teaching me to do what’s right?
how can I tell someone who does nothing
before he has a chance to pray
that the god I’m getting to know teaches me
how to seek my own face? (p. 31)

Author Candace Iloh empowers her character by making this a story about her effort for visibility, not a story about immigrant pain. In doing so, she makes this particular story one of universal appeal.

Iloh is a first-generation Nigerian American poet, author and dancer. While she has previously published chapbooks and poems, Every Body Looking is her YA fiction debut. She was invited to the Rhode Island Writers Colony where she developed her novel under the Artistic Directorship of Jason Reynolds. She writes with such clarity and precision that it’s difficult to believe this is her debut.

In work I’ve recently done with Dr. Nancy Tolson at the Highlights Foundation, we realized while working through A Phoenix First Must Burn that we traced our Black young women in YA literature as entering a process through which they are emerging or transforming rather than ‘coming of age’. They evolve more fully into their own bodies, dropping old skin/ways of being. They often rely on matriarchs, like Ada’s auntie who comes to visit from Nigeria, and come to realize a power or talent within themselves that gives them voice or in this case, visibility. Rather than rejecting the complexity of their past, they come to terms and emerge from it.

Dance played a key role in Ada’s emergence.

I don’t recognize myself
in this small group he’s put me in [‘he’ is her dance instructor]
with only four of us and me in the middle
all I know is when he turns the music on
I become a slice of someone I’d always wished
I could be
all I know is that I wanted to see
the girl in my reflection keep up for once
see her do the steps like they came
from somewhere

I strongly recommend this novel in verse for public and high school libraries. I think it will have a broad appeal.