Quadrants and passages, deathwishes and murders all come to a swirling, foggy recollection in Morowa Yejidé’s Creatures of Passage. Told from the perspectives of several characters, Creatures of Passage is an ode to the dismissed southeast quadrant of Washington, DC, and the extraordinary people who inhabit it.
Nephthys is an alcoholic cab driver. Only, the cab she drives is a haunted 1967 Plymouth with a loud ghost locked in the trunk. It also never runs out of gas, never leaves a lost soul, and never gets pulled over by police officers. Reeling from the death of her brother, Osiris, she now worries about her grandnephew, Dash, who has been talking to a mysterious River Man lately. Considering magic runs in her family, she worries this River Man may not be only a made-up friend, but also a sinister creature. Little does she know that the greatest danger lurks in Dash’s schoolyard.
Meanwhile, Nephthys’s sister, Amber, dreams of death and provides these frightful visions to a local Black-owned newspaper. Sometimes the dreams are written in brief notations, but she sits alone with the horrifying depth of the violence she sees. Like Yejidé’s own writing, Amber’s visions often linger, with disturbing and visceral images of death and passing.
Toni Morrison comparisons are well-deserved: Creatures of Passage has a deep, powerful connection between the living and dead and the in-between. Ghosts make frequent appearances, and some even have names. Yejidé has a great capacity for imagining different realms of existence. Her imagery is unique and stunning, often providing otherworldly tapestries right alongside the traffic-clogged bridges that cross DC’s rivers. As someone from the DC area, and whose family has lived in DC area for generations, her depictions of the region are spot-on and subversive at once; she easily discusses the racial tensions that permeate a (back then) predominantly Black town. Not only that, but the dreams of her characters still connect with very real consequences for life in the mortal realm.
While the story is set in the DMV (no, not the car place, the D.C, Maryland, Virginia area) during the 1970s, the region here is quite different than most would remember it: Maryland and Virginia are split into kingdoms for the past two hundred years, and the loftier, parts of DC are forgotten in a gray haze of fog. It’s unclear at first if this is literal or figurative, but Yejidé is resolute in her feelings: those sections of DC are not her focus. Most of the story takes place along the Anacostia river and the predominantly Black DC neighborhood of the same name. It is an area of particular importance—or, as Yejidé writes, “an isle of blood and desire.” She paints a complex picture of a neighborhood that is often dismissed or broadly painted as dangerous. Anacostia is at its liveliest and most authentic because Yejidé resides in the heads of her characters. Location is a key part of the story in this short but powerful novel: it’s a love letter to her native city, but an honest one—and these are perhaps even harder to write than an idealized one. Yes, there are pimps and child abusers, racist cops and violent racist mobs. But there are so many more things to love and see in Anacostia than just that.
Not only that, but the characters are given more life to them then simple nightly news stories or statistics often allow. They are full of life and joy, and the community aspect is written in a very compelling and authentic way. Nepthys is no exception. She’s a tall, intimidating figure that may drive a haunted car, but also has a sweet spot for children. Her alcoholism is understandable, no matter how unfortunate it might be. The story gets increasingly disturbing, however, as the underbelly of evil shows itself through intense descriptions of abuse and neglect of children by those who swore to protect them. Hurt people hurt people in this story. But some of them heal, too.
Beyond location and character, Yejidé elevates the theme of passages, both through physical meanings and spiritual and emotional experiences. The novel’s table of contents is separated into five passages about movement and transient adventures: “Moving through Spaces,” “Staying in One Place,” “Resigning Life to Another,” “Surrendering One’s Life,” and finally, “Entering the Void.” It is as if the structure follows a community’s stages of grief rather than just one individual. While the story may start with Nephthys, her story is incomplete without the others.
Characters, both the living and dead, are constantly in motion. Osris’s story is where I felt the story picked up the most, particularly given the theme of passages: his untimely murder, the dreams of his sister that predicted it, and his ultimate revenge all generated poignant rage and fear in his new afterlife. Much like the Egyptian God by the same name, his hauntings were complex and ripe with morally questionable judgements.
Yejidé nimbly ties these stories together: a ghost’s anger induces fevers in his killers, a woman dreams of sharks slaying her brother, and a white supremacist gazes at a shark exhibit in the Natural History Museum. I imagine that a second close read would garner even more connections. Creatures of Passage is a historically rich tale of safe and traumatic passings and creatures who negotiate between the dead and the living.