“Still and always”: Bitter by Akwaeke Emezi

In Pet, Akwaeke Emezi’s 2019 young adult debut, we followed Jam and Redemption as they hunted down an all-too-human monster with the titular creature, an angel from another dimension. Two years later Emezi has bestowed upon the world the follow-up, a prequel about Jam’s eventual parents, Bitter and Aloe, and the brutal world they hoped to spare their future child from.

Lucille is terrorized by police brutality and anti-Black racism. Assata, a group of Black activists, are marching seemingly every day in defiance of their oppression. Meanwhile, behind the gates of the exclusive art academy Eucalyptus, Bitter hides in her craft. Ever since she was little, she’s been able to bring her artwork to life with a little blood and a whole lotta will. As the police crackdowns get worse and her friends suffer the brunt of it, Bitter is pushed from the sidelines to the frontlines. An act of passionate and furious creation brings forth monstrous creatures not unlike Pet, angels bent on total destruction.

Like every novel, Bitter begins with a dedication, but this one hits hard. Emezi honors Toyin Salau, a young Nigerian American woman from Florida who was active in Black Lives Matter protests before she was murdered in 2020. She was just 19 years old, a couple years older than Bitter, a couple years older than the teenagers I work with every day. She should’ve had her whole life ahead of her, but that was taken away by a society that uplifts patriarchy and misogynoir. It breaks my heart that she had to spend what little time she had on this planet marching against state sanctioned violence instead of being a carefree young adult. And I’m angry that we’ve been resisting for four centuries and every time it gets a little better we get dragged backward.

While reading Bitter, the words of James Baldwin echoed in my mind. It’s been a long time since I read his seminal collection of essays The Fire Next Time, but the power of his voice is etched on my soul. Many of his reflections run through Bitter like an undercurrent, but one quote in particular stuck out: “To defend oneself against a fear is simply to insure that one will, one day, be conquered by it; fears must be faced.”

As proud as I am that young adults like Bitter and Toyin are, doing what Baldwin describes as “challenging the white world’s assumptions,” and as much as I know that the challenge is the only way we will gain and retain our rights as Black Americans, I am also afraid for them. I know that they’re “walking in the path of destruction.” I cannot protect them from that violence no matter how much I want to. Bitter knows first hand that violence is coming for Black young adults and children, whether on the streets in the form of police brutality or just by existing in a white supremacist society.

Where Aloe, Eddie, Alex, and Blessing are able to face their fear, Bitter begins the novel already conquered by it. Not that she doesn’t have good reason. Her life has been full of pain and abandonment. She is too afraid to hope for a better future because in her experience hope only leads to crushing disappointment, abuse, and isolation. “I don’t have hope,” Bitter tells Eddie. “The police keep killing us and you does get all up in their faces like they can’t kill you too…Don’t you want to live?” Bitter’s past and her present are defined by making do in the face of impossible, terrifying odds. When you’re too busy surviving, the future can seem terrifying. Taking a risk might make things better, but it could also make things much, much worse.

Bitter believes activism is a loud, combative, intense thing. She resents herself for being unable and unwilling to be out with her peers, and turns that resentment onto others. It’s a very human (and especially teenage) thing, to interpret your struggles as failings and see others’ successes as condemnations of yourself. She feels like she isn’t doing her part to further her people’s civil rights, and it takes until interdimensional, bloodthirsty angels arrive for her to see how important her role really is.

Her fear doesn’t make her a coward, it makes her human. Not everyone can or wants to go toe to toe with billy clubs and sound cannons. Some of us bring the resistance to the page, the mic, the stage, the canvas. And, like we see with Aloe, Eddie, and Bitter, we can change our roles whenever we want or need to. The movement should not make you feel like a soldier trapped in the trenches. If the Black teens who read Bitter take only one lesson from it, it should be that self-care is a crucial component of any protest movement. You cannot fight for anyone if you cannot even fight for yourself.

Anger can be empowering, but it can also be infectious and dangerous. The Black Lives Matter Movement is no more a monolith than any other movement or group, an idea Emezi explores with the arrival of the angels. If you had a chance to eradicate your enemies, would you? With Bitter’s monsters, the Assata activists must consider what kind of future they want. One built on as much blood and bones and tears as the old one or on birthed from hope and a desire to be better? The angels are tools of revenge and retaliation, not reparations or reconstruction. Those who have also read Pet can see the roots of the utopian version of Lucille in the practices of Eucalyptus and Assata, but they also can see how the limitations of the world Bitter and her peers eventually build were an unintentional part of the initial construction.

Sometimes I feel fueled by a righteous fire inspiring me to demand and dismantle. Other times I feel frustrated and exhausted that we’ve come so far but still have so far to go. And sometimes I’m overtaken by a sense of hopelessness that the war against oppression and anti-Blackness will never be won. What makes Bitter so powerful is how it touches on each of those states and takes them as equally valid and true. Akwaeke Emezi gives frightened Black teens the opportunity for hope, the worn down the blessing of self-care, and the energized the gift of wisdom. I’ll let James Baldwin carry us home: “If we do not now dare everything, the fulfillment of that prophecy, re-created from the Bible in song by a slave, is upon us: God gave Noah the rainbow sign, No more water, the fire next time!

Bitter is published by Knopf Books for Young Readers.
Read an excerpt here.

Alex Brown is an Ignyte award-winning critic who writes about speculative fiction, librarianship, and Black history. Find them on twitter (@QueenOfRats), instagram (@bookjockeyalex), and their blog (bookjockeyalex.com).

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