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A Million Aunties: by Alecia McKenzie

Americans laud self-sufficiency and individualism, but in times of need, it’s often a community that aids one’s healing. Alecia McKenzie’s A Million Aunties exemplifies such a phenomenon, starting with a Black man’s pilgrimage to his mother’s homeland. An ensemble cast is then introduced, each anecdote unveiling the interconnectedness of extended, chosen family. The story spreads across nations and continents, glimpsing the universality of societies fighting for change, grappling with racism and healing through nature’s beauty and artistic endeavors.

Chris arrives in Jamaica upon his friend Stephen’s suggestion he stay in Miss Della’s home, where he’ll be afforded time and space to paint. By visiting his mother’s nation of birth and through painting flowers, Chris aspires to a sense of peace after his wife Lidia’s death during a terrorist attack on New York City. He pushes against and pulls towards connection and healing as he gets acquainted with Miss Della’s friends, reunites with his maternal uncle and is abruptly summoned to his estranged father’s side in the States after a health scare.

Miss Della is a matriarch among the “million aunties” her adoptive nephew Stephen grew up with and Chris gains during his vacation. Stephen bridges the gap between this Jamaican community and the cadre of artists in New York that he’s befriended and represents as their agent. The rest of the cast features an installation artist of French and Ivory Coastal descent caught between cultures and love interests, an unsettled soul who walks fervently in her fur coat to deal with her physical and emotional trauma and a dressmaker whose waning passion for her craft is renewed by a woodcarver from abroad, among other characters.

The wide range of first- and third-person points of view within a slim tome somewhat shortchanges supporting players of fully fleshed stories and personalities. While these chapters on a larger scale bear limited relevance to the central axis point in Chris, Stephen and Miss Della, they do offer poignant perspectives. Feliciane muses about her mixed heritage confusing and discomforting other people, as well as sheds light on France’s enduring history of revolt against the government. Chris’ Uncle Alton recounts his involvement in the Jamaican independence movement and his attempt to record national and familial history through his portraits. Observations on American racism pre- and post-Vietnam War by Chris’ father Herb stand out, particularly when he laments his late wife ignoring it as “arrogance and confidence of growing up as a majority” in her Caribbean country. Despite how rounded or flat each cast member is characterized, McKenzie does vividly depict how people spread across nationalities and generations link together, enjoy one another’s company, overcome conflicts and see their comrades through dark times.

Each character harbors their own struggles and trauma, and the narrative shows how grief never goes away. Though he evades the shadow of Lidia’s death back home, Chris sees the aftermath of a bus accident on his way to visit his uncle. Having lost family by devastating ends, Stephen and Miss Pretty form a special bond she affords to few others. McKenzie’s ensemble use art and nature to tackle their pain, even if at times these coping mechanisms trigger it. Lidia dedicated herself to tending public gardens, and in her memory Chris practices painting flowers to make her proud of his banishing the hidden darkness in his work and finding light in it. After welcoming Chris in her home and lining her walls with his paintings, Miss Della opens it to other artists. A garden in France reminds her of one in Jamaica that emboldened her to leave her abusive boyfriend, cultivate her own plants and open her heart to a young, orphaned Stephen. The novel demonstrates nuance in its cast’s healing journeys in small moments — laughter that disappeared after tragedy, a hug between characters more austere in displaying their love and a new role taken on to assuage someone who’s hurting.

In some ways, A Million Aunties may only provide a surface level dive into characters and scenarios teasing meatier plot explorations. However, it brings to life a loving, vibrant family steeped in personal, communal and cultural perseverance that, intentionally or otherwise, enriches each of its members’ lives.

Brings to life a loving, vibrant family steeped in personal, communal and cultural perseverance that, intentionally or otherwise, enriches each of its members’ lives.
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Transcendent Family Ties

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