Determined Not To Disappear, She Tells Her Story

JK Chukwu image via Twitter @J_K_Chukwu


In J K Chukwu’s debut novel, “The Unfortunates,” Black students are disappearing from a predominantly white university. “To be exact, we lost four of the seven Black students who lived in my dorm,” explains Sahara Kesandu Nwadike, a queer half-Nigerian, half-Black student who struggles with depression. “Two transferred, one dropped out”; and the last, Alicia, “joined The Unfortunates” — or, in other words, died by suicide.

This incident, along with every other experience we learn from Sahara’s thesis, forms the backbone of this book. Thanks to Sahara’s creative eye and clever wit, her work resists ceremonious academic airs. In an opening letter to the thesis committee, she thanks her advisers: “Mr. White Supremacy, Mr. Capitalism, Ms. Racism and, of course, my Life Partner for all the guidance they have provided during this process.”

As she recounts her struggle to stay afloat during the fall semester of her sophomore year, Sahara incorporates various forms of media into her project. There are witty diagrams, skits she’s written herself into and pages from a zine created by her Aunt Nita, who died from AIDS-related complications the year Sahara was born. Copious footnotes, ranging from one-line explanations to detailed paragraphs, signal to readers what’s important to her. So does Sahara’s decision to include some names in her thesis while changing or redacting others. (We never learn the name of her university.)

But this thesis is not just a kind of Dear John letter to the world of white academia; it’s a farewell letter too. “Only to you, my readers, will I admit that during the pauses of my games, a growing part of me is preparing to leave like her,” Sahara writes, referring to Alicia. We learn that her depression is her “Life Partner”; Sahara works to keep LP happy by giving her everything she desires — namely, lots of alcohol. “She’ll need her anything — and my everything — just to keep her occupied long enough,” Sahara writes.

The question of if (and sometimes, when) Sahara will decide to “skip into traffic, a lake, or out an open window of a high-enough building” heavily colors her perception of the world. The deeper she pulls readers into her plans to take her own life, the closer the precipice feels. Increasing the pressure are racist and classist microaggressions: A Black Student Coalition celebration takes place in a building named for a eugenicist. A white classmate downplays the Tuskegee Experiment, claiming that the Black patients would have eventually died anyway as a result of their “socioeconomic standing.” Unfortunately, Sahara’s home isn’t much of a refuge; her family struggles with her bisexuality, her weight gain.

Sahara is so open that her words feel like a diary — yet even in this presumed safe space, she’s still mindful of being too honest. “Hopefully when some college student is writing a thesis about this thesis years from now, I will seem a little well-rounded and not too much of an Angry Black Girl,” she admits, speaking to the pressure Black people often feel to stifle their feelings in predominantly white spaces.

But this consciousness also speaks to the stigma surrounding the discussion of mental illness in Black spaces, too. During the aforementioned B.S.C. celebration, the second-best hair braider on campus remarks that she only sees everyone at coalition events or when they need to get their hair done. When no one responds, HB2 (as Sahara calls her) digs deeper: “Seriously, you guys. Where y’all at? I feel like I’m always alone here.”

Sahara writes, “I look down at my plate. We all have a reason for not being around. Some more than others.

“Survival, I think.

“Someone articulates my thought. I’m afraid to look up. I’m worried people will see LP and her sadness leaking from my head.”

Sahara lightens the mood with a joke, telling her readers, “The jokes become more desperate, insistent on drowning out the silence. With laughter, we can remain together.”

But moments of mirth are outweighed by the despair Sahara hides from everyone in her life — even those who seem like lifelines. She doesn’t confide in her “Ride or Die,” her easygoing best friend since freshman year; nor does she open up to Mariah, a compassionate senior who comes close to peeling back Sahara’s layers. “I’d rather be seen as empty than exposed as the suicidal founder, architect and sole student of this schoolgirl crush,” Sahara writes. It’s a poignant reminder of how tight a hold mental illness can have.

While her inner life can be stormy, there are glimmers of catharsis, too, especially in the bond she feels with her late aunt, who shared her artistic spirit. She sees a therapist, starts taking medication and tells her teachers why she’s been absent. While attending Ride or Die’s art show, she wanders through the gallery and remarks upon feeling not just pain and stagnation, but joy and progress too.

Nevertheless, Sahara doesn’t promise everything will always be OK. Of course it won’t be. In the final skit in her thesis, Sahara imagines renewing her vows with Life Partner in front of her therapist. LP snarls at Sahara while Sahara nonchalantly removes LP’s tuxedo. “I’m never leaving,” LP threatens.

Sahara doesn’t argue. Instead, she touches LP, “caressing every jagged piece of flesh.” Calmly, she replies: “I know.”