Reconstruct & Reform: On N/A Oparah’s ‘Thick Skin’
Alexander Carrigan talks about toxic relationships, self-discovery, and surrealist prose in N/A Oparah’s new novella.
Novella | 156 pages | 6” x 9” | Reviewed: PDF ARC
978–1732325197 | First Edition | $20.00
Kernpunkt Press| Hamilton, New York| BUY HERE
N/A Oparah’s Thick Skin is a novella about life after the end of an emotionally abusive relationship and the narrator’s attempt to grow from it. Nneka’s relationship with Jacob ended poorly, and now she tries to thicken her skin through literal and figurative means. This ritual may come across as misguided at times, but through Oparah’s wonderfully surrealistic writing, it exposes deeper meanings beneath the layers of dirt.
The path to thickening in this novella reads at times like colorful flourishes to acts that can be self-destructive. The most common element is Nneka’s avoidance of water and cleansing, allowing herself to build a thick layer of dirt to clothe herself. “Now I’m more sediment than skin,” she proclaims. This helps transform Nneka’s body into something less that she can handle when she begins perceiving her body as something strange to control. She’s able to mold herself, remove parts of herself, add them back, and more. This suggests that Nneka has lost a connection to her self and that her attempt to transform it into something else is her way of either rebuilding herself or turning herself into something entirely new.
It’s a bit disheartening to see the stages Nneka undergoes throughout the novella. Early portions show a desperate attachment to Jacob, calling his voicemail even though he’s blocked her, and reminiscing on moments in their relationship that weren’t all that rosy to look back upon. There’s clearly an imbalance in their relationship, where Jacob, a tall, white male, is able to put her down and use his privilege to abuse her. For example, in one passage, Nneka recalls,
You were the first person I wanted to tell all of my good news but I knew I must time it perfectly. It could not be when you were sad or angry. It could not be before you found a job that didn’t disappoint you, one you felt was worth returning to. It could not be before or after you wanted a drink or while you were trying to quit smoking. It could not be before coffee or any time after 3 p.m. when the caffeine faded and all that was left was the body’s will. It could not be while others were around so it didn’t seem like I was trying to one-up you or make you feel like you were just as important as sister or friend. You were not. It could not be after sex: you would feel like I was buttering you up to tell you the news. It could not be before sex: you would think I wanted you to owe me something. It could not be.
What’s also fascinating about the novella is how, in her journey to reconstruct and reform her body, Nneka focuses a lot on the bodies and forms of those around her. There’s a few times where Nneka pays notice to the skin color of children, the first being one Jacob says could be their future kid, and another when she observes a child on a train. She also reduces a man in her life to the term “Not-You,” in regard to his similarities with and differences from Jacob, and it’s clear “Not-You” isn’t the only “Not-Jacob” she has encountered.
The last time I was with a Not-You, he said he couldn’t understand me. Every story about you ruins the listener. But it had been days since my throat held your name. So when a Not-You asked, I told him. But when questions of why, what happened, entered the room, I tried to end the story.
It comes off like she’s trying to observe how others are composed and formed to see if she can reconstruct herself to be like them, while also using that thick layer to guard herself to a degree where she can’t even see past their own surface layers.
The story found in Thick Skin is one that requires intense digging to uncover its hidden gems. Oparah’s writing is succinct but quite complex, making the work one that will leave an impact on nearly every page. It’s a fantastic story that will show how one woman’s examination of her self after the end of a toxic relationship can unveil hidden truths, but doesn’t shy away from showing how potentially destructive that process can be if one chooses harmful ways to change.