The title of James Hannaham’s new novel is at once a potential deterrent to fainthearted readers and a bold declaration of its author’s unwavering fidelity to his heroine’s forceful voice, her highly energized inner life. If Carlotta Mercedes—a Black and Colombian trans woman—could turn her personal history into “a Lifetime TV miniseries event,” Didn’t Nobody Give a Shit What Happened to Carlotta is what, she says, she’d call it: a one-sentence summary of what she discovers when she’s paroled from prison in upstate New York and sent home to find Brooklyn greatly changed from the place she left twenty years before.
Carlotta has been wrongly incarcerated for robbery and assault with a deadly weapon, when in fact her only mistake was “showing off her talent for bad timing.” In August 1993 she stopped into the Sippy Sip liquor store, on Myrtle Avenue in Bedford-Stuyvesant, to buy a bottle of sparkling wine to bring to her best friend Doodle’s birthday party. Just then, Carlotta’s cousin Kaffy came into the store to rob its elderly owner, Mrs. Green, who was shot in the scuffle:
The lady woke up again, but the bullet lowered her IQ to a chimpanzee’s and she could hardly brush her own teeth anymore…. The lights were on in that noggin, but somebody had locked the door—Kaffy, specifically.
Carlotta’s description of her cousin’s gravely injured, innocent victim may seem harsh. But Mrs. Green’s furious daughter has wheeled her unfortunate mother into each of Carlotta’s parole hearings as evidence of why she needs to remain in jail. Carlotta’s relationship with the Greens is neither sympathetic nor penitent but fiercely adversarial, and—as in every sentence of this remarkable novel—the unfiltered, uncensored view of them is wholly Carlotta’s, and it’s all that we get.
In a famous letter to the critic Alexei Suvorin, who had reproved him for his insufficiently moralistic portrayal of a pair of thugs, Chekhov wrote, “To depict horse-thieves in seven hundred lines I must all the time speak and think in their tone and feel in their spirit.” Chekhov didn’t always follow his own advice; many of his stories begin with the literary equivalent of a panoramic drone shot. But his notion of the author’s job helped pave the way for modernism’s shift from the exterior—the omniscient narrator’s providing background and reporting on what happens—to a more intimate representation of the psyche and of how the world appears from within.
If writers are meant to think and speak entirely in the spirit of their characters, as Chekhov suggests, why not lose the authorial voice altogether? If we stop George Eliot’s narrator from reflecting on Middlemarch social conventions and human behavior in general, if we keep Melville from interrupting Moby-Dick with lessons on cetology, we’re left with something closer to Mrs. Dalloway: observing London through Clarissa Dalloway’s eyes, recalling moments from her past, buying flowers for a party, unaccompanied by the guidance—the ghostly interference—of Virginia Woolf.*
Hannaham’s novel owes more to Woolf than to Eliot. Though the narrative skips deftly between first and close third person, we never think that the author (or the narrator) is speaking directly to us, or that we are seeing or being encouraged to feel anything other than what Carlotta sees and feels. The rhythms, the vocabulary, the barbed observations and flashes of insight strike us as flawless transmissions of the voice she’s hearing inside her head.
Born in 1968, Hannaham grew up in Yonkers, New York, where his mother, an investigative journalist, covered the campaign to desegregate the public school system. In his first novel, God Says No (2009), his hero, the deeply religious and tormented Gary Gray, enrolls in a program, Resurrection Ministries, designed to help him become a “normal Christian man” and overcome his homosexuality with a masculinizing education in football, auto repair, and home construction. The narrative is propelled by a dark, ironic, highly animated spirit that reappears in Delicious Foods (2015), which won the PEN/Faulkner Award and which takes its title from the name of a sinister company that exploits Black workers on a farm in Louisiana by compelling them to accrue debts (for food, housing, and drugs) that they cannot repay. Among its victims are Darlene Hardison, all but destroyed by the murder of her activist husband. In Darlene’s voice, and in that of the imaginary Scotty—the chatty, seductive personification of the crack cocaine to which Darlene is addicted—we can hear the hilarity, the sharpness, and the wild lyricism that will resurface in Carlotta, along with an interest in racism, community, family, love, the possibilities of language, and the preciousness of the freedom to be who you are.
Hannaham is also a visual artist. His most recent show, “Jim Crow Hell No” (2021), was an ironic, outraged take in mixed media on the signage of the segregated South. In the lettering and style of an earlier era, the signs invite viewers to “kindly act as COLORED as you please!” and ask, “have you kissed our black asses yet? try it today!” A previous show satirized art exhibition wall texts, filling the gallery not with images but with the vacuous and pretentious placards that so often accompany them. In another, Hannaham also wrote on the wall laughably honest critiques (“not my best work”) in place of the nonexistent art. In addition to his work as a writer and artist, he is a founding member of Elevator Repair Service, a theatrical group best known for Gatz, their staged reading of F. Scott Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby.
Hannaham’s Pilot Impostor (2021) is composed of brief texts—descriptions of travel, meditations, anecdotes, and poems—thoughtfully designed and illustrated with collages, film stills, and photographs (many of plane crashes and accident sites). The idea for it, we are told, was conceived on a flight to Lisbon, two months after Donald Trump’s election, a journey during which Hannaham was reading the poems of Fernando Pessoa. Scattered throughout the volume, in the corners of pages and in tiny letters, are snippets from the Portuguese poet: “I divide what I know”; “The child that laughs in the street.” The consummate literary shape-shifter, Pessoa wrote under the names and in the personae of more than seventy alternate identities, which he referred to as his “heteronyms,” because “pseudonyms” seemed reductive and insufficient. He is perhaps the most extreme example of the writer’s desire to become, at least on the page, another person.
Reading Hannaham’s work, we sense something similar in his decision—and in his ability—to wholly submerge his own identity in that of a fictional creation. Telling a story like Carlotta’s entirely through interior monologue provides a certain freedom, especially when the character is as smart, funny, metaphorical, philosophical, and uninhibited as she is. But for the novelist, self-erasure also imposes certain restrictions and limitations. The reader cannot know any more than the character does. The writer is unable to rely on the long flashbacks so useful in providing background information—and so unlike the way that anyone thinks about the past. For the first part of Hannaham’s novel we must assemble our knowledge of Carlotta’s sufferings in prison from the unwelcome fragments that intrude on her awareness and from how much, at any one point, she can stand to remember. We have no choice but to wait and let the full story emerge, as it were, on its own.
When we meet Carlotta, she’s on her way to her fifth parole hearing. Fretting about her makeup (smuggled pool chalk has provided enough blue powder to shadow only one eyelid), she’s rehearsing the platitudes of recovery and repentance she’ll need to mouth—and steeling herself to suppress the funny, honest answers that come to mind:
After the whole Get Smart routine with the halls and gates and checkpoints came to an end, the COs pushed open a green door Green like Frankenstein and there sat three poker faces from the NYSPB See Evil, Hear Evil, an Speak Evil fingers poised on padfolios stuffed with the details of every beef they’d give a shot that day Look at them smug-ass faces, think they some kinda gods sittin at a tribunal gon decide my fate, which I guess they kinda are, uh-oh, fuck me.
When an official asks why she was in possession of a gun when she stopped into the Sippy Sip—“Are you the sort of person who carries a loaded weapon to a birthday party?”—Carlotta thinks:
What kinda condescending bullshit question is that? Who gon be fool enough to say yes to that. Like, Yes, ma’am, I’m so crazy I’d bring a flamethrower to a baby shower. As a gift!
But of course she doesn’t say that. She doesn’t explain that on that August night, in that neighborhood, being armed didn’t suggest criminality so much as common sense: “I guess in Bed-Stuy in them days, there almost wasn’t really no other type of person but one who was holding. Cause the other type was called dead.”
Carlotta can’t even say her own name, which is not the name on her official court record. Asked to identify herself, she replies, after closing her eyes and taking a big breath, “Dustin Chambers, sir”:
She snarfed down a loogie, trying not to show off too much hate for her deadname…. A little smile found its way onto her face, though—its fakeness felt like a layer of hot wax over her real face…. She pretended he’d asked for her brother’s name. “Dustin Chambers.”
Later she refers to her deadname as “a ugly man name that sound like somethin the maid be doin.” Carlotta has put Dustin out of her mind. And if she’s not thinking (or trying not to think) about something, it remains outside the novel’s scope. We learn relatively little about the previous version of herself, the person whom she now refers to as “that guy”—and we hear even less about her transition. “She’d grown into herself a year and a half after her prison bid got going,” we’re told.
All we know about Carlotta’s name change is that it happened when she was in solitary confinement, high on psychoactive drugs, deep in conversation with a rotten potato who appeared to have listened to the same scary radio program she’d heard as a child, a drama starring the actress Mercedes McCambridge: “So Mr. Potato Face told me, or I guess he reminded me, that the actress full name be Carlotta Mercedes Agnes McCambridge an that I should take that as my name. He’s like, ‘Be the woman you are.’” At no point in the book are we encouraged to imagine Carlotta as Dustin. She’s always Carlotta to us, just as she is to herself. If Dustin blundered into the Sippy Sip, it’s Carlotta who paid the price, and she’s the person we know.
One of the novel’s ironies is that while Carlotta’s inner monologue rattles along nonstop, she spends much of her time trying to find someone—anyone—who will listen to her. Her intelligence and awareness range freely, even as she endures various forms of confinement. She’s spent years isolated in coffin-like cells in what is euphemistically known as the Special Housing Unit. When she’s set free, or partly free, she’s constrained by her limited employment and housing options and by the pointless punitive rules on which her continued freedom depends. Because her “crime” occurred in a liquor store, she is forbidden to be anywhere near alcohol, or even someone drinking a beer—a Herculean challenge on the extended Fourth of July weekend during which she returns to her childhood home in Fort Greene.
On her way, she keeps delightedly opening and closing the bus terminal door because it’s the first time in decades that she’s been allowed to open a door for herself. She feels like a space alien, but a happy one, taking giddy pleasure in the sights and sounds:
As she waited outside for the bus, she petted a dog and touched a tree, flipping out like Stevie Wonder checking out the world for the first time I’ma touch every damn tree! I’ma pet every damn dog! The owner had to tug the dog away from her I wanna say hello to ev’body.
When she reaches Times Square, her joy in “the mudslide of humanity” and the smell of pretzels and pralines helps her face the demand of navigating the busy sidewalks. “It took a few near-accidents for Carlotta to fall in step,” Hannaham writes, “and even then she goofed it up. Walking the streets of New York City felt like doing the tango for two seconds at a time with every stranger in a crowded filthy ballroom.” She’s a Blatina Rip Van Winkle, imagining that subway passengers still use metal tokens, marveling at the train cars so clean and sleek they “look like a Rolls-Royce compared to back in the day.”
Emerging from the station, Carlotta is amazed by the drastically altered racial and economic profile of her former neighborhood:
She walked down Greene, staring at all the pale pedestrians, their babies, and their tiny dogs. Linen-white mothers shoved strollers over the concrete, and Black women pushed yet more white children in other strollers Dag, what happened, did they cancel Black chillun round here?… She peeked into a gift shop window and pretended to buy hip furniture and scented candle I’ma take that white couch for 500, Pat?
Despite the radical gentrification and the consequent displacements, Carlotta’s family still lives in the brownstone in which she grew up. She’s had “Hollywood visions” of the welcome awaiting her there:
Happy tears, loving hugs, a total pardon from everybody. The giant pitcher of relatives in the four-story brownstone would pour their sweetness on her like condensed milk drizzling over a pile of cocadas de lechera.
But the full measure of her loved ones’ excitement at her return is a sheet of notebook paper with “WELCOME HOME, DUSTIN!” scribbled in highlighter and taped to a shiny banner that says “CONGRATULATIONS, TAMEEKA!”
The family has gathered to celebrate Carlotta’s odious young niece, Tameeka, a “bodacious little chanteuse” who sings to a delighted crowd “with a spine-chilling lack of pitch control.” Carlotta never learns what’s being celebrated, or exactly how old Tameeka is—so neither do we. With what seems like conscious cruelty, Tameeka interrogates Carlotta about her plans. Is she going to get a job? Can people find a job after they get out of jail? What skills does she have? Where is she going to live? Carlotta tries unsuccessfully to explain herself to Tameeka by quoting a Prince song: “I’m not a woman, I’m not a man/I am something that you’ll never understand.” But Tameeka doesn’t understand, and she’s not the only one of Carlotta’s relatives who is mystified or appalled by her transition.
Eighty-six-year-old Grandma Frona approves, even if she doesn’t get it: “I think you done it right. You had a child as a man and then you made the switcheroo. That was smart.” Carlotta’s sister-in-law doesn’t recognize the “gorgeous butterfly” that “the boring-ass caterpillar” has become, while Carlotta’s brother Tom pretends to forget her name. Carlotta’s son, Ibe—who was born just before Carlotta went to jail and is now about twenty-two years old—insists on being called Iceman and is definitely not on board with his parent’s gender:
“So this my dad, huh?”…He nodded to himself and smiled wryly, like he couldn’t believe anything—not what had happened, not what was happening right then, not what would happen after—and had no intention of accepting any of it.
Paloma, Carlotta’s mother, is too far gone in dementia to know who anyone is:
Mama look like she sitting on the curb waiting for the garbage truck to take her away, shit. The garbage truck a death…. Nobody used to host a party like Paloma, but she sat there deflated, eyes empty, hunched over in her wheelchair, skin tone dulled to a moldy gray, the fantastic glow Carlotta remembered in it now wrinkly like a wadded-up plastic supermarket bag somebody had tried to smooth out.
By now we feel that this is precisely how Carlotta would react to the disappointments of her homecoming and to her mother’s shocking decline. She reflexively converts pain into irony or a snappy metaphor before it has a chance to hurt: “The only way I know how to handle shit is to make a joke an keep movin on.” Before her release, a counselor advised Carlotta that “you can’t be on a hair-trigger out there,” but it’s a test of her forbearance when she hears Tom tell Tameeka, “We’re praying for him.”
In any case, Carlotta hasn’t got much time to grieve over her chilly reception. Waking on her first morning in the former utility closet that is now her bedroom, she experiences “a special delivery of caller-inside-the-house-level panic Like I had a one-night stand with Frankenstein.” She needs to check in with her parole officer and start looking for a job, an odyssey that takes her through several more unrecognizable neighborhoods, including downtown Brooklyn and Gowanus. She finally finds her PO, Lou, a mixture of decency and rigidity, who sends her to a job interview at Access-A-Ride, a van service that transports the elderly and disabled. Carlotta is hired even though she can’t drive. It’s less surprising than it might be, given that nearly everyone Carlotta encounters in the public sector is incompetent at best.
Back home, Carlotta meets a handsome, stupefyingly boring man who drones on about his brilliant strategy for gaming the rules of alternate-side-of-the-street parking and agrees to take her for a ride. From the window of his BMW she spots Doodle. Carlotta’s surprise at her friend’s appearance reminds us that much of the novel is about time, and how much can happen, how much damage can be done, in twenty years:
How weird to see Doodle for the first time in so long and compare her to the image in her mind that had never fallen apart, the image from before August 1993. Who had thickened her neck and cheeks, puffed up the bags below her eyes? What witch had zigzagged her white and gray wand through Doodle’s hair? People said you shouldn’t waste time, but time sure wasted itself, spurting and gushing all over the place like water out of a fire hydrant nobody could turn off.
Doodle is the first person Carlotta has met since her release who seems willing to listen to her, and it’s Doodle in whom she confides as much as we learn, as much as Carlotta wants to say, about her gender:
“I suppose I always been Carlotta from the beginning. I mean, come on, you knew me back when! Was I Carlotta fore I had the name or wasn’t I?” She flung a hip to one side and planted her hand on it…wagging her hair slightly to emphasize her point.
“Truth be told, I ain’t thought much about it then, but sure, I could see how Carlotta line up more with who you was. And is.”
Doodle’s sympathetic attention inspires Carlotta to reveal what happened to her in jail: violence, humiliation, and sexual sadism on the part of her fellow prisoners and one particularly vicious guard. We’ve gotten hints about the brutality that she has suffered, but only now do we learn how truly terrible it was. She’s been raped more often than she can count—and blamed for it every time:
You apposed to be able to go to the COs they selves, but when they the ones rapin you, you can’t, it’s like at home when shit happened and you din’t go to the cops, you couldn’t go to the cops, but this like you couldn’t go to the cops an also the cops is livin in your fuckin apartment.
Hannaham’s decision to put the full story of Carlotta’s misery near the middle of the novel is an inspired one. By then we’ve grown so fond of her that the revelations seem even more appalling and painful than they otherwise might. But even after she’s unburdened herself to Doodle, Carlotta can’t escape the sense that—despite her new freedom—the walls are closing in. She continues her increasingly manic odyssey, a vertical one this time, upstairs in the family brownstone during a wake for a church friend of her grandmother’s, pausing at the dark, foul lair where her massively obese brother Joe Jr. spends his life playing video games. In an unused part of the house Carlotta finds her mother, watched over by a nurse:
She took her mother’s face in her hands and tried again to force eye contact, but staring into Paloma’s eyes meant no more than staring up at the night sky, hoping for a response. She felt she could actually see a starry void in those eyes.
Paloma and Joe Jr. are inmates in another sort of prison, in some ways not so unlike the one that Carlotta left. At home, there’s enough noise and light to keep Carlotta “ugly all night”; her sleep is still disturbed by nightmares, and her daily life disrupted by violence. A volley of gunshots ends the party at her house and sends her back out on the street, then onto the subway to Coney Island. There she sees the fireworks—a trial run before the Fourth of July—as evidence that someone is finally honoring her homecoming the way it should be celebrated. But the happiness that Carlotta finds at an impromptu community dance on the boardwalk is sabotaged by yet more proof that freedom comes with its own risks and dangers.
The book concludes with Carlotta’s version of the soliloquy with which Molly Bloom ends James Joyce’s Ulysses: “I’ma say Yes honey, I do, honey I’ma say Yes motherfucker, said hell to the yes I’m sayin YASSS.” It sends us back through the novel, realizing perhaps only now that Brooklyn is Carlotta’s Dublin and her time on parole her Bloomsday. It’s a daring move, paraphrasing a masterpiece, but James Hannaham shows us why a writer might do it. The passage makes us see that his heroine could be the prodigal Blatina daughter of Clarissa Dalloway and Leopold Bloom—and that modernism has been waiting, all this time, to welcome Carlotta home.