For Black and Mixed-Race Women, Hair and Identity Are Tangled Together
By Djaimilia Pereira de Almeida
What do we lose in translation? How do we know we’re getting the story right? In the Portuguese writer Djaimilia Pereira de Almeida’s slim third novel, “That Hair,” this question feels particularly salient, given the nontraditional structure of the narrative. Even in its English translation (from a language that Eric M. B. Becker, the translator, calls “at odds” with this one), Pereira de Almeida’s semi-autobiographical “hybrid novel” is a challenging read. It feels less like a novel than a collection of essays linked together by the author’s preoccupation with her hair — or, rather, the hair of her narrator, Mila. But as anyone blessed to be black knows, one’s identity is inextricably wound up in one’s hair. Fact or fiction, that is ultimately what this book is all about.
Mila begins by telling us, “The story of my curly hair intersects with the story of at least two countries and, by extension, the underlying story of the relations among several continents: a geopolitics.” The daughter of a blond Portuguese father and a Black Angolan mother, Mila leaves her native Angola at the age of 3 to live with her paternal grandparents in Lisbon. We learn that Mila’s mother has remained in Africa, to visit her daughter only occasionally, but the details about her mother’s life, and how this absence unmoors Mila, are frustratingly scarce.
Instead Pereira de Almeida chooses to contextualize Mila’s arc using the paths her paternal and maternal grandparents took separately and together, crisscrossing Portugal’s African colonies to eventually arrive in Lisbon. It’s a fascinating back story, offering a glimpse into the legacy of colonialism, but tracing her ancestors’ journeys from Africa to Europe doesn’t quite help Mila understand her own place in the world.
Her personal appearance does. Using her ever-changing hairstyles as a narrative device, Mila picks through her memories to try to detangle how she, a mixed-race, Afro-Portuguese woman, can exist in a world she never seems to fit into: too African to be Portuguese, too Portuguese to be African. And though much of Pereira de Almeida’s prose reads like lyrical stream of consciousness, her use of Mila’s hair as a metaphor, the perfect stand-in for all her questions of identity, is universal. From getting her first chemical relaxer at 6 (the “abrasive” treatment “consisted of ‘opening up the hair,’ leaving it more supple”), to embracing her long, braided extensions as a teenager, Mila searches for a hairstyle that will provide her with a sense of belonging.
As Mila develops (from a child to a wife), so too does her quest to find someone to teach her how to style herself, inside and out. “The way others at home treated my hair was always symbolic of the confusion between affection and prejudice,” she says, “and this has always been an excuse for my own shortcomings in caring for it.” The confusion she feels is not really about hair at all, of course, but about how to claim an identity that lies somewhere between African and European. “I was once this girl,” Mila remembers, “in a cafe my dad brought me to at the age of 7 and where I would spend several hours observing a young biracial woman who, I thought, I might one day resemble.”
Timely and relevant, “That Hair” contains themes that will be recognizable to so many readers, regardless of their mother tongue, who are wrestling with their own mixed-race experience today — anyone who is attempting to make sense of hair texture, skin color and family ties that cannot fit into little blue census boxes. Despite the label of fiction, Mila’s struggle in “That Hair” is all too real.