Reviewed: Natasha Brown, Assembly, Hamish Hamilton, 112 pp.
Assembly is twenty-four hours in the mind of a young Black British woman. To the untrained eye she has it all, but beneath the surface she is consumed by a rising dread that her constructed identity is becoming uninhabitable. Written in the first person, Natasha Brown’s debut book is a meditation on the ‘assembly’ of the self—how our lives and even our identities are influenced by our environment. In the case of our protagonist, who remains unnamed throughout, it is the colonial legacy of racism that has shaped her every move:
Be the best. Work harder, work smarter. Exceed every expectation. But also, be invisible, imperceptible. Don’t make anyone uncomfortable. Don’t inconvenience. Exist in the negative only. The space around. Do not insert yourself into the main narrative. Go unnoticed. Become the air.
When our protagonist is diagnosed with cancer, she begins to unravel. In only 100 pages, the novella utilises modernist literary characteristics, playing with form and language to describe the toll of being a Black woman in a white-supremacist society. Our protagonist owns a flat, has a high-powered job in finance, a white boyfriend from old money, and a ‘lean in feminist’ best friend. She uses these identities—as homeowner, executive, wealthy guy’s girlfriend, white-feminist-adjacent—as armour. Each one is another layer of camouflage, an attempt to minimise the target(s) on her back.
Assembly blows apart the notion of success as a means of survival for the oppressed, outlining how success does not hide you from racism but instead introduces you to a new problem. While success in this context brings about a proximity to whiteness, it also comes at a cost: complicity. In performing the role of the archetypal model minority, our protagonist is actively upholding and contributing to white supremacy. But this book forces readers to assess whether these are autonomous choices. Are those who shield themselves behind whiteness to blame or is this simply a by-product of having to exist and survive in a hostile environment?
It’s easy to mistake Assembly as yet another millennial text of discontent. As the book opens, Brown’s prose is punchy and almost Twitter-esque as she makes witty remarks on modern life, millennial culture and the hypocrisy that often accompanies self-expression in strict societal and capitalist structures. But we discover that our protagonist’s performance is not simply one of traditional femininity or middle-class respectability used to fulfil a cultural expectation or personal goal. Rather, it is a necessary trade-off for survival, as is expressed harrowingly towards the end of the book:
Say: I love you. I love working here. I loved speaking today. No, no it was nothing. I am fine, I am; I’m excited, yes, for the future—say whatever they tell you to say or not say, just survive it; march on into the inevitable. As our mother, and father, did. Our grandparents before them. Survive.
This is not merely the existential musing of a tired millennial at their desk job, but the cry of realisation from a Black woman who has spent her life forced to perform a role.
For me, for Black women, for women of colour, Assembly has provoked uneasy familiarity and relief. To find comfort in another’s description of trauma and oppression may seem strange or incongruous to someone who may not be in similar circumstances, but the comfort is felt not in the pain but in recognition. Even now, it is uncommon to see our struggles or experiences represented in literature.
Early in Assembly, our narrator gives a speech to an assembly of young women. ‘I do these talks,’ she says, ‘schools and universities, women’s panels, recruiting fairs—every few weeks. It’s an expectation of the job. The diversity must be seen.’ Her presence indicates that the company she works for is safe for women like her. Safe for those filled with dread at the constant dance of existing in white spaces, of always performing the role of ‘the good Black’.
I know this dance all too well. Once, amid a pretty severe breakdown, I acted as a representative for a university society, ironically the central cause of said breakdown. I was warm and friendly; I performed my role. Although I now have little memory of what I said exactly, I still remember realising that it was only my attendance that mattered. It was a self-congratulatory gesture for the organisation, that within those walls ‘diversity mattered’, that here ‘you too could belong’.
After giving the speech, our narrator asks herself, ‘How many women and girls have I lied to?’ This is a question many other ‘token minorities’, including me, have asked. This is a central paradox of existing as a person of colour in white-supremacist societies: do you position yourself in order to secure the best possible chance at survival and success in their system, or do you simply refuse, revolt and be branded as even more of an outcast? It is unsurprising that so many choose the latter.
In a world that revolves around capital, institutions act as beacons to outsiders. They hold power and protection, lending legitimacy to those marginalised by societies with colonial legacies—without them, our access to power is restricted. As our narrator states in Assembly, ‘Any value my words have in this country is derived from my association with its institutions: universities, banks, government. I can only repeat their words and hope to convey a kind of truth.’
As with Brown, who came of age in the early 2000s, this is the new generation: many children of immigrants are now adults, able to articulate the tensions that come with attempting to find your voice and path in a society that still looks at you as an interloper. For many, our first-generation parents have emphasised the importance of personal responsibility and upward mobility, a residual effect from the demonisation of people of colour and immigrants as drains on the nation-state. As Brown’s protagonist muses, we, on our parents’ instruction, must ‘work twice as hard. Be twice as good. And always, assimilate.’
By the same token, Assembly shows the self-destructive nature of assimilation, which some of us—the ‘diversity hires’, ‘token immigrants’ and ‘good Blacks’—must accept to exist (and ultimately, survive) in kyriarchal institutions:
Always, the pressure is there. Assimilate, assimilate … Dissolve yourself into the melting pot. And then flow out, pour into the mould. Bend your bones until they splinter, and crack and you fit. Force yourself into their form. Assimilate, they say it, encouraging. Then frowning. Then again and again.
Despite being the main character, our protagonist is almost a spectator in her own life. She becomes our vessel, fitting into the gaps and crevices left by other characters. Brown creates an effect where readers are familiar only with the persona the narrator presents to the world. We don’t know what she is like otherwise: she is careful with her language, each word chosen with care. ‘I understand the function I am here to perform […] It’s a fictionalisation of who I am,’ she says at one point. This is not a quirk or idiosyncrasy but a carefully constructed personality Brown has created to depict a Black woman living under the watchful eyes of white supremacy.
But as Assembly progresses, we witness the rage build, especially after our narrator journeys to her boyfriend’s family’s country estate for a garden party, which she describes drily as ‘a narrative peak in the story of my social ascent’. It is not until this section in the last third of the novella that Brown’s protagonist begins to come alive, claiming her right to subjectivity and shedding the layers of falsehoods she has been carrying throughout her life. This is where the novella truly shines, as Brown shows how she uses this character—initially coming across as quiet, pleasant, affable—to reveal a deeper story of race and autonomy. As our narrator reiterates halfway through the book, ‘Nothing is a choice […] Nothing is a choice […] Nothing is a choice.’
In an almost jovial meta wink to the audience, the protagonist muses on the use of fiction to tell broader stories: ‘Sugar-coat the rhetoric, embed the politics within a story; make it relatable, personal. Honest […] Shape my truth into a narrative arc.’ And that’s exactly what Brown does in Assembly: she uses the language, techniques and literary devices of the oppressor to tell the story of the oppressed, shaping the truth of oppression into a narrative arc. Earlier in the novella, as the protagonist is exhausted from having to prove racism exists, she asks, ‘How do we examine the legacy of colonisation when the basic facts of its construction are disputed in the minds of its beneficiaries?’ Brown grapples with this question throughout her book.
Assembly is one of a class of books that includes Open Water (Caleb Azumah Nelson), The Yield (Tara June Winch) and Homegoing (Yaa Gyasi), all attempting to combat systemic racism in society and in literature. They ask how we as people of colour tackle white supremacy and live in systems not made for our flourishing. But Brown goes much further—she asks whether or not our lives and identities are truly our own if they are created under white supremacy.
Assembly has been hailed by white critics as a ‘quiet call to revolution’. For people of colour, however, I believe it will feel instead like a friendly nod on the street, a warm handshake, a knowing look. Brown’s indulgent pessimism offers a deeply satisfying acknowledgement of how it feels to exist in a society that sees you as ‘Other’. For those less aware of or familiar with this feeling, it offers an opportunity to sit with the discomfort of privilege.
The book is lyrical and thought-provoking. Brown has written an incisive and honest literary debut on the realities of modern Black womanhood. It is a bleak reminder that to construct ourselves under white supremacy is to construct a mere shadow of the self. •
Rosie Ofori Ward is a Ghanaian-English-Australian writer living on unceded Wurundjeri land. Her work has appeared in Djed Press, Salty and Roots. For more reviews and general nattering visit @what.rosie.reads