Hilarious, heartbreaking and unapologetically original, James Hannaham’s Joyce-inspired odyssey of a novel centres trans heroine Carlotta Mercedes and her experience of ‘re-entering society’ after 22 years of unjust incarceration.
When we first meet the heroine of James Hannaham’s Didn’t Nobody Give a Shit What Happened to Carlotta (Europa Editions), she is preparing for an interview with the New York State Board of Parole, seeking release from Ithaca men’s penitentiary, where she has been doing time for 22 years on a crime she never committed. She has been having second thoughts about the prospect of ‘re-entering society’ – the same term that, she notes, is used for people returning home from prison as well as from outer space – and confides in her lover and fellow inmate, only for the latter to scoff at her: “Y’all females is all the same.” But there is nobody quite like Carlotta Mercedes, and there are no stories quite like her incredible odyssey of transitioning from unjust incarceration to a life of freedom.
However, freedom has its costs, and for a Black Colombian transwoman accused – however wrongly – of robbery and aggravated assault with a deadly weapon, the costs are all the more. Didn’t Nobody Give a Shit What Happened to Carlotta chronicles the first 48 hours of its heroine’s homecoming to a wildly gentrified Brooklyn, deploying her unique perspective to throw into relief the manifold un-freedoms and injustices of a world most of us inhabit without so much as flinching. By thus following a character-in-flux through a series of unfortunate but systemically produced events, Hannaham – who received the PEN/Faulkner award for his 2015 novel, Delicious Foods – urges readers to give a shit about what happened to Carlotta, as well as all ‘others’, imprisoned by the state or otherwise, whom we are taught to overlook and forget about.
Regardless of the anxieties she felt before her parole was granted, Carlotta is jubilant on her release five months later, busting into the Neutron Dance the moment she steps off the prison bus and smelling all the flowers she can on her way home. She arrives at her doorstep in Fort Greene giddy with excitement, expecting a warm welcome from the family and friends she has been longing to meet for over two decades. Instead, her welcome is lukewarm at best: nobody seems to have remembered that she was coming back out, and what she assumes to be a party being hosted in her honour turns out to be a ludicrously rave-like wake for one of her grandmother’s departed friends. Further, having transitioned during her time in confinement, she finds that barely anyone from her past recognises her; her once lively mother has retreated into her own prison of advanced dementia, her brothers are cold, and her son Ibe – the memory of whose young face helped her to sail through her dismay all these years – rejects both her love and her gender identity. In fact, the only one who is excited to see Carlotta is a young niece who was born during her time away at Ithaca and thus has no difficulty in acknowledging her womanhood.
In turn, Carlotta too finds her surroundings unrecognizable. The streets of her once poor, Black, working-class neighbourhood have transformed into a place where “linen-white mothers shoved strollers over the concrete, and Black women pushed yet more white children in other strollers,” which leads her to wonder: “Dag, what happened, did they cancel black chillun round here?”. The rest of the city is transformed, too: Times Square has been cleared of its “adult booth-stores and nasty theatres” in favour of a chaotic assemblage of skyscrapers and giant, flashy screens, and familiar mom-and-pop businesses have been replaced by upscale cupcake-only shops, ginormous supermarket chains “loved by liberal do-gooders with deep pockets,” and ridiculously expensive shoe stores that boast minimalistic décor and names like Amanda. In thus juxtaposing the family’s reception of Carlotta’s transition with such overwhelming changes as the gentrification that breaks down communities, the hyperconsumerism that forces people to lead lives they cannot afford, and the commodity fetishism that makes many treat their cars with more care than they have for other human beings, Hannaham cleverly pushes us to consider which of these is truly absurd and worthy of our horror.
As Carlotta goes about her first day as a free woman – hobbling about the city on the mismatched shoes she sneaks off of Amanda, wondering “if there were more stars in the sky than black gum spots on the pavements of Greater New York,” trying her best to avoid the boozy corridors of her own house so as not to violate the conditions of her release or fall out of favour with the parole officer, and navigating her employment options as an ex-convict – we are dipped into the stream of her ever-so-sassy consciousness and immersed in her eagerness to gulp down every drop of life. The text switches skillfully between her distinctive, charming voice and the standard English diction of its third-person narrator, often foregoing punctuation so as to engage the reader closely with Carlotta’s vertiginous experiences from both within and without, fleshing her out as an unforgettable character who is impossible not to laugh with and root for.
The above also means that we as readers come to feel for her deeply: while she is confident, outspoken, and funny, Carlotta is also scarred by her years in Ithaca, which “did not have a separate facility for people like her – hell, they had no vocabulary for people like her” and either put her in prolonged periods of solitary confinement ‘for her own protection’ or left her vulnerable to physical and sexual assault from inmates and guards (“There wasn’t never no guards to guard the guards”). Even when free from its conditions, she is still haunted and weighed down by her dark memories from the prison, unable to let down the defences that helped her survive it. Thus, though her narrative is full of zest, we sometimes catch her in waves of post-traumatic stress, perceiving dangers where there aren’t many and cautiously suppressing her surges of animal fear and the memories of abuse that “hollowed her out.” All that makes Carlotta paranoid is also what makes her so funny – indeed, her sense of humour is her manner of processing this trauma and escaping it: “The only way I know how to handle shit is to make a joke an keep movin on.” And move on she does: instead of allowing the reader to gloss over her suffering or pigeonhole her as a helpless victim, her comic manner lends a certain weight to the ideas she considers with seriousness, revealing the manner in which racial, sexual, and class-based prejudices operate and the thin line that keeps us from experiencing the terror these put her through.
As insurmountable as it seems, this line between freedom and control is really very thin, and Hannaham demonstrates this in the book with remarkable subtlety. While Carlotta’s harrowing experience of incarceration sheds light on the brutality of the criminal justice system, the story also makes use of her first brush with 21st century technology as a launchpad to examining its perilous implications for our ideas of freedom. One of the first things Carlotta takes pleasure in after getting out is the fact she is no longer being watched: “Nobody had her in their sights. No white guy’s eye, robot or human, eavesdropped on her.” Having been under constant surveillance for over two decades, she is horrified when she sees hordes of people walking down 42nd street with their faces glued to their screens and notices the pervasiveness of GPS systems, knowing what they could be used for. Later, joking with her childhood friend about the squalid conditions of correctional facilities – “Chile, they ain’t correcting no kinda nothing in no upstate prisons, but they sure know how to incorrect a motherfucker” – she notes the inhumane psychological torture meted to convicts, comparing it with ‘research’ that tortures animals in the name of science in order to “use that shit in the next war against people of color.”
Thus, while it may on the face of it appear to be concerned with the fate of a single character, Didn’t Nobody Give a Shit What Happened to Carlotta is a prismatic novel that works to reveal the systemic prejudices that colour all of society without resorting to didacticism, and whilst retaining so much heart. It is a story like none other, while also functioning as the author’s fantastic tribute to James Joyce’s Ulysses: Hannaham’s Carlotta breaks open the belly of Brooklyn with the same fervour and ferocity as Joyce’s Dublin, and in similarly making us privy to his protagonist’s most quotidian thoughts – her joy and pain, her empathy and judgement – he calls attention to other forms of marginalisation that bubble around her and around us: that of mixed-race people, immigrants, the disabled, the poor, the elderly, and all others in-between. Against all this – all the sorrow and displacement and disenchantment and injustice – echoes the protagonist’s rallying cry of self-assertion: “I just wanna be me, I just wanna be a human fuckin person like ev’-body else, without nobody telling me not to do who I am, holding me against my will, don’t wanna be no statistic or no tragedy or no symbol of nothing going wrong in society. Cause I’m what’s right, honey, I’m what’s going right.”
Hilarious, heartbreaking, and unapologetically original, Didn’t Nobody Give a Shit What Happened to Carlotta is a book not to be missed, the kind of ingenious tragicomedy that fills the reader up while also injecting us with a hunger for more: more freedom, more rights, more life. Though there is much struggle to come for Carlotta when we leave her, we cannot help but hold hands with her indomitable spirit, face the music, and say yes – “I’ma say Yes honey, I do, honey I’ma say Yes motherfucker” – to whatever it is that the future holds, because, at least, it exists, and so do we.
James Hannaham’s Didn’t Nobody Give a Shit What Happened to Carlotta is published by Europa Editions and is available to purchase online and in all good bookshops.