Didn’t Nobody Give a Shit What Happened to Carlotta review – an exuberant odyssey

In James Hannaham’s breakneck novel, a trans woman returns from prison to a New York she barely recognises“So let’s see it! Where my nothing at?” When Carlotta Mercedes finally gets bail after “two decades and change” in jail, her lover warns her not to get h…

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“So let’s see it! Where my nothing at?” When Carlotta Mercedes finally gets bail after “two decades and change” in jail, her lover warns her not to get her hopes up.

And the cards have long been stacked against her. Carlotta has been serving time for armed assault and robbery, though she had entered the bodega her brother was holding up by accident and was begging him not to shoot. But feeble public defence left her unprotected from society’s assumptions about a young Black Colombian New Yorker.

And that was only the beginning of how bad things got, for Carlotta went on to embrace her gender identity in jail. She was sentenced as a man and the authorities refused to move her to a women’s prison. In solitary for long stretches of time, she became an obsession for one prison officer who repeatedly raped her, insisting that it was she who assaulted him.

But now she’s free, to a degree – bail stipulations forbid her from alcohol, which will be tricky on Independence Day holiday weekend – and breathlessly hungry to exult in her liberty.

Obstacles pile up at every turn. Her beloved son Ibe, with whom she lost contact in prison, has become an evangelical rapper who considers her gender identity the work of the devil. Her grandmother’s house is being used for a raucous, boozy wake, meaning she should stay well clear if she is to avoid being summarily returned to jail.

James Hannaham’s novel is besotted with the stories and local legends of Brooklyn, and the perspective of a returning native on the borough’s galloping gentrification is irresistible. So there’s some light satire on the crafty white boutiques displacing the businesses Carlotta grew up with; this provides distraction from the intensity of the trauma she lives with, even if it doesn’t really strengthen the novel.

Still, Carlotta’s passion for life is unstoppable. Her story beats on, the narrative third person regularly bursting open into a surging stream of consciousness: “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.”

Carlotta’s charm and zest allow the reader at times to forget the horror she has lived through, although Hannaham does not stint on some appalling abuse. To end a story like this with a self-consciously Joycean affirmation might seem inappropriate – and yet his heroine’s dauntless spirit means that when it comes, the “Yes honey, I do, honey, I’m a say Yes motherfucker” is wholly fitting.

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