*Given a copy from the publisher in exchange for an honest review*
Departure Story by Rowana Abbensetts-Dobson is a coming-of-age novel following a Black woman growing into her own at a predominantly White college in another country as she feels the weight of her family evolving without her back home.
On the cusp of graduating from high school, Celestine is preparing to take the long trip from her homeland of Guyana to the United States to attend a liberal arts college in Indiana. The studious middle child of a single mother who has a penchant for bringing the wrong men home, Celestine feels guilty leaving her family, which also includes her self-absorbed singing older sister Anika, rapper wannabe hustler younger brother Joey, and her Aunt Zoe who is married to her Uncle Marvin, who works in the dangerous field of Guyanese politics. Though moving to a strange land scares her, Celestine knows leaving the mainland will be the opportunity of a lifetime.
She lands in Indiana at Simon College and immediately becomes best friends with her roommates: Gerty, Caitlyn, and Margo. Gerty and Caitlyn are White, and Margo is Latina and secretly queer. As freshman year transitions into sophomore year, the girls are no longer inseparable.
One reason is romantic relationships. Celestine even finds herself falling for a White guy named Richard, an awkward addition to the popular group on campus. Celestine notices him, and they quickly become an item. Richard also has his share of family issues. His father raised him since his mother died when he was younger. Celestine has the opposite issue with her father believed to be dead and her being raised by her mother. She realizes she never quite heard the full story of how her father disappeared from her life. This sparks a conversation with her father’s relatives in New York, now her nearest family. And Celestine soon discovers her father’s true identity and his whereabouts, a secret she is worried to divulge to her siblings.
We were all but pawns, black and brown people fighting their own skin, the afterimages of dreams western empires once dreamt. Still dreamt. And I was going where the dream was still alive, apparently. One of the places where whiteness still roosts, tired of our hot sun and wild, knowing land. Sure, there were others there, but on TV and in the movies we got to see, it seemed there would be so many perfect white families there, living on miles and miles of stretching suburbia. Unless I was in New York, or LA. But I was going to Indiana. I was scared to be the only black girl there.
Another reason for Celestine’s changing social dynamics is race. She finds herself feeling too different among her non-Black friends. The tiny group of Black women she does see on campus are involved in an African dance group. As she makes friends, she becomes a student council liaison to promote the dance group and request funds to keep it operating on the predominantly White campus. Of course, this is met with opposition not only from the White students but some Black students like football player and fellow student council member Don, who thinks Celestine is asking for too much. To keep her mind off her friend and family problems, she forges ahead in an effort to find where she truly belongs.
College life in itself as a storyline brings in a multitude of issues. Celestine feels like she abandoned her family to go to school and struggles to find a social rhythm, especially when original campus relationships begin to evaporate. The evaporation is partly due to race and class where Celestine senses the uniqueness of her Black identity more, especially in a new country.
She wants to configure her own path as a Black female wanting a financially comfortable life since she never had that luxury growing up in Guyana, a country her American classmates confuse for Ghana. The story has elements of Americanah by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie where in that story a young Black woman arrives in the U.S. from Nigeria to attend college and looks to keep her roots alive in a new White world, even also attracting a White boyfriend along the way of pursuing the dreams she couldn’t follow at home.
Overall, this novel is fast-paced and covers ground well from Celestine’s life in Guyana to her life in Indiana as she wrestles with comparing her two homes and keeping ties with the people in both homes. It’s also well-written with a poetic touch to the story being told from Celestine’s point of view. As a self-published book, it does have some grammatical errors, but they don’t distract from the story at hand. The author is the founder of Spoken Black Girl, a publishing and media company dedicated to promoting mental health and wellness among women of color by amplifying emerging voices.