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Review: 'Saga Boy: My Life of Blackness and Becoming,' by Antonio Michael Downing
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Review: 'Saga Boy: My Life of Blackness and Becoming,' by Antonio Michael Downing

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"Saga Boy," by Antonio Michael Downing.

"Saga Boy," by Antonio Michael Downing. (Milkweed Editions/TNS)

NONFICTION: A keenly observed memoir about the author's arduous travels in search of himself.

"Saga Boy" by Antonio Michael Downing; Milkweed Editions (344 pages, $25)

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"You can only become the person you always were," Antonio Michael Downing writes in "Saga Boy: My Life of Blackness and Becoming," a rich memoir about how far some folks have to travel just to arrive where they began. In this case, Downing navigates multiple lands and personas. He lives in Trinidad, Canada, America and England. He navigates the world as Tony, an innocent child; as Mic Dainjah in his chaotic youth; as Michael Downing, a corporate careerist; as Molasses, his spiritual self, then as John Orpheus, a persona he maintains in his life as a musician.

Downing was born in Venezuela but didn't stay there long. His father, a rolling stone who tumbles in and out of his life, disappeared, leaving his mother unable to parent him. She dropped him off in Trinidad, where he was reared by his grandmother, Miss Excelly, a devoutly religious woman who lived a humble life in a lush and dangerous area called Monkeytown.

Downing deploys spectacular details in describing those childhood years, the sights, sounds and violence of that place and time. The prose in those early passages is exalted and melodic. Even as the tremendous care in its crafting seems evident, the words also flow naturally. Downing never seems to press. We see vast and granular marvels through the eyes of a child still capable of awe.

When Downing saw the sea for the first time, "it shocked me awake in a way that has yet to sleep again," he writes. "At first it poked from behind the coconut and palm trees like specks of aqua, impossibly bright. Then, piece by piece, the blue became one continuous miracle."

Those early years in Trinidad shaped Downing in ways that are beautiful and tragic. He cleaved to Miss Excelly, and, beyond the author himself, she is the closest "Saga Boy" gets to a hero. This is true even though Miss Excelly gets it stupendously wrong, ultimately failing in the primary obligation every caregiver owes every ward — the duty of protection.

We come to understand that Downing's fate would likely have been significantly worse if not for Miss Excelly. Her death in Downing's early teenage years is a disruptive event, sending Downing suddenly to rural Canada and what would turn out to be a brisk and harsh series of multiple stand-in parents, few of whom were up to the job.

But all of them made an effort in their way, while carrying unprocessed grief and generational trauma. Downing leaves Trinidad, a place still damaged by the legacy of colonialism, to move to a part of Canada that is ravaged by colonialism. The cycles of violence are in the soil of both places and in the marrow of those who live in the shadows of what happened there.

A saga boy is a West Indian playboy dandy, a tradition dating back to World War II. Saga boys favor luxury in all matters of appearance. Often, behind the scenes, the lifestyle required ugly hustle. It is, therefore, a facade, a mask obscuring the true character underneath, even as the person behind the mask was there the whole time, trying to be who he was before everything changed.

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Michael Kleber-Diggs is a writer in St. Paul, Minnesota. His debut collection of poetry, "Worldly Things," won the Max Ritvo Poetry Prize.

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