Novel: Calling My Name by Liara Tamani | Goodreads
Release Date: October 24, 2017
Publisher: Greenwillow Books
Taja Brown lives with her parents and older brother and younger sister, in Houston, Texas. Taja has always known what the expectations of her conservative and tightly-knit African American family are—do well in school, go to church every Sunday, no intimacy before marriage. But Taja is trying to keep up with friends as they get their first kisses, first boyfriends, first everythings. And she’s tired of cheering for her athletic younger sister and an older brother who has more freedom just because he’s a boy. Taja dreams of going to college and forging her own relationship with the world and with God, but when she falls in love for the first time, those dreams are suddenly in danger of evaporating.
Calling My Name is one of the most creative books I’ve read in the past year or so, largely due to the abstract nature of the narrative. It follows Taja Brown over the course of her formative years, while she navigates questions relating to love, identity, and faith. While I generally don’t read books that deal almost exclusively with religion — unless they’re philosophical rather than fictional — this one wasn’t too sappy or preachy. The fluid writing style both made it hard to read at some points, while challenging my idea of what a “conventional” novel should be like.
It reminds me a lot of an older version of the Winnie Years books by Lauren Myracle, which contributed heavily to how I grew up. Whenever I had a question or a situation, I turned to those books, and Winnie is exactly the type of girl I’d like to be like. Similarly, it also had some uncomfortable humor and observations that — while lifelike — are always the sort of thing I like to gloss over in the books I read. I tend to prefer elegance in books. Especially because the novel starts with Taja in middle school, there was some immaturity that just developed her further as a character.
Calling My Name isn’t as approachable as those books, but certain bits of it echo. Structurally, the book skips massive chunks of time in Taja’s life, which could sometimes make it difficult to know exactly what was going on. Some continuity would have been lovely. The momentary nature of the book is something I can appreciate with a different part of my head though. Vignette-style.
This is the most coming-of-age of the coming-of-age books I’ve read lately, probably since first reading Winger. We really do see Taja adapt and question herself as time goes on, which leads to more adaptation. Still, she remains the same in terms of what she cares about, although the rules that dictate that might have changed over the course of Calling My Name.
In truth, it makes me think about how I deal with my own faith. I’m religious, yes, but not in a moral, rule-drawn way like Taja’s family; it instead dictates what I wonder about in terms of why we’re all here. At the risk of getting into that whole discussion, I loved that Taja’s questions were the backbone of her growing up, because I think that is a sign of getting older: not taking everything at face value but instead being curious about what it all means if it is in fact true. (Also considering that testing your boundaries or adapting the way you think doesn’t mean you don’t believe in the same thing you did when you were little.) I’m a person who defines life by the little things, and so Taja’s observations made me happy.
Taja reminds me a lot of a Margaret Atwood quote I’ve always liked, one that’s pinned to my bulletin boards by my bed:
but it’s not easy being quiet and good, it’s like hanging on to the edge of a bridge when you’ve already fallen over; you don’t seem to be moving, just dangling there, and yet it is taking all your strength.
Taja had to work so hard to stay within the lines that her parents drew for her. I adored the complexity of their family. While her parents’ rules could be frustrating, it’s clear that they want the best for her and strive for that in the ways they know how. Even the sibling relationships were well-articulated and had definite arcs. Calling My Name was incredibly sensitive to how relationships change, a subtlety that I appreciated.
I enjoy books that bring up ideas and themes that explore and tackle the status quo. While self-contained stories are nice, it’s even better to pair with commentary that expands or enforces my worldview. Taja had some thoughtful insights on growing up a black girl, sexuality, and gender, among others. She had a delicate voice, with spine.
There were lines that I found beautiful — or ideas I found beautiful — while others I found to be a little too try-hard. The prose is very purple. While I err on the side of lyrical writing, it could get tiring to be reading rambling, abstract, atmospheric lines that didn’t always make much sense. If it had been constrained a little more, it would have been much more hard-hitting. Then again, maybe that’s not its job.
Overall, I thought Calling My Name took some risks that paid off and others that definitely didn’t. As a whole, I enjoyed it and thought it made a good coming-of-age. Furthermore, I think Taja is a girl who a lot of people can relate to, and I think that’s even more necessary. The writing was pretty, but a little much; if you’re a fan of abstract, disconnected lines or ones that err a little on the cheesy side, it’s perfect. If you want a little tighter of a narrative, maybe not. But it’s worth checking out.