Conception by Kalisha Buckhanon
I picked this new YA novel off our shelf because it won the Terry McMillan Young Author Award. I think of Terry McMillan as light reading. Although she does deal with the issues of Black women, she can be pretty funny. The serious tone of “Conception” then caught me off guard.
Fifteen-year-old Shivana Montgomery is an African American girl living with her mother in inner-city Chicago. Her future looks pretty bleak—there doesn’t seem to be much learning going on at her high school, and Shivana’s mom is bitter about men and life (with good reason), often taking it out on Shivana. Shivana herself is a product of her environment. Far from perfect, she is having an affair with the father of the children she babysits for—a thirty-five year-old man who deals drugs to supplement the family income. Of course, the wife who is paying Shivana to stay with the kids doesn’t know this. The man, LeRoy, doesn’t seem to care much about birth control, and Shivana ends up pregnant. She decides to have an abortion as the only way to jump out of the cycle of poverty. As she tries to come to terms with her life, she meets nineteen-year-old Rasul, and he gives her hope that they can have a better future together.
The unusual thing about this novel is that the unborn baby is a major character. It is her job to try to convince Shivana not to have an abortion. She is an old soul that has never been born, although she’s tries several times. Each of her ‘moms’ is a young Black woman who comes to a tragic end while pregnant—a slave who is beaten to death, a girl who is lynched, a woman who commits suicide. (As I said, this is a bleak story). But as an old soul, the baby is omniscient—she knows everything about the outside world and describes it lyrically, beautifully.
Shivana is something of a paradox. When she speaks and interacts with her friends, she sound like a poor, inner-city girl. Her language is often crude and she can toss the ‘n-word’ around pretty frequently. When she thinks, her language is elevated, her vocabulary very rich and her talent for creating beautiful images and figurative language is enviable. As a critical reader, I can see this as a fault of the author’s—if Shivana is leading a hard-scrabble life and lacks all opportunity and a decent education, it’s hard to believe in her depth of knowledge, vocabulary, etc. However, this second Shivana allows the author to display her own tremendous writing talent—which is, I am sure, why she hasn’t worried about consistency.
I would only recommend this novel to mature readers. Some might find the language offensive; and it deals explicitly with adult issues of sexuality and abortion. But if it’s a gritty ‘real’ drama you’re looking for, this may be the book.