February 27, 2023

The Unfortunates

By J K Chukwu
The Unfortunates is a powerful call to arms by a promising young writer who is not afraid to take risks, and for that we are very fortunate indeed.
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An exhilarating work of experimental metafiction, The Unfortunates is a novel masquerading as a senior thesis (complete with footnotes) meant to unmask the injustices, microaggressions, hypocrisy and racism experienced by nonwhite students at an unnamed upper-tier college in the Midwest.

Sahara Kesandu Nwadike, the protagonist of J K Chukwu’s brazen and bold debut novel, is a living, breathing poster girl for the “sophomore slump.” Already exhausted following her first year of college, Sahara decides to jump ahead to her senior thesis and begins to document the reality of being Black on campus. A troubling number of Black students (dubbed “the Unfortunates” by their Black peers that remain) have disappeared, dropped out or died. Grappling with a “D” of her own—depression—Sahara secretly aspires to join the ranks of the Unfortunates before the academic year is done, frequently fantasizing about how she’ll end her suffering and finally silence the voice in her head that has been with her since childhood. The voice, which Sahara has nicknamed LP, short for “Life Partner,” insists that she is not good enough, a message that’s reinforced by the majority of her peers, professors and family. She’s not smart enough, not straight enough, not rich enough, not skinny enough, not Nigerian enough.

But even if Sahara really is useless, she feels she cannot end her life without doing one thing that truly matters. So she writes about the mental toll of being at the university and skewers the performative allyship, the racial inequalities in health care access and treatment, and the white supremacy tacitly condoned by the university. She bares her soul and shares all the things no one else wants to hear. Finally, her own voice—her rage—will be heard.

The Unfortunates is an electrifying read that’s meant to disrupt and disturb; as a result, it can be deeply uncomfortable and disheartening. Yet despite the novel’s sobering subject matter, it is not devoid of hope or humor. Much to her credit, Chukwu punctuates Sahara’s despair with witty turns of phrase and wordplay to keep readers from spiraling into an existential crisis of their own.

While refusing to gloss over the bitter realities of the Black experience in modern America, Chukwu has written a tale about how those who “[live] in a school—no, state—no, country that hates—no, kills—no, destroys, so much of us” are still able to survive. The Unfortunates is a powerful call to arms by a promising young writer who is not afraid to take risks, and for that we are very fortunate indeed.

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The Unfortunates

The Unfortunates

By J K Chukwu
ISBN 9780358650263

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