Image of Confrontations
Release Date: 
January 30, 2024
Bloomsbury Publishing
Reviewed by: 

Bekono captures Salomé’s narrative voice. It is a voice at once tender, crass, intellectual, and rebellious, every bit as compelling as Henry Hill in Martin Scorsese’s Goodfellas.”

“I haven’t always been like this, but since last summer, maybe a little longer, my head’s been full of chaos.” Salomé Atabong, the 16-year-old narrator and inmate of The Donut, explains in Confrontations, by Simone Atangana Bekono.

Translated from the Dutch by Suzanne Heukensfeldt Jansen, Bekono captures Salomé’s narrative voice. It is a voice at once tender, crass, intellectual, and rebellious, every bit as compelling as Henry Hill in Martin Scorsese’s Goodfellas. Unlike the coke-fueled toxic masculinity of Henry Hill, Salomé, imprisoned in The Donut, has time to stew on the consequences of her action. Ms. Bekono, an award-winning poet living in Amsterdam, spins a narrative that could be described as cine-poetic. With verbal concision and brilliant imagery, she gets inside Salomé’s head and makes her feel like a real, lived-in teenager. (In the Acknowledgements, she explains how the Donut is a fictional institution and how she conducted interviews during the writing process.)

Despite Salomé’s unlawful act and her detainment, The Donut is not really a prison. She has been remanded here by the state for rehabilitation. Other women in the facility are either destined for release or onward to more severe juvenile detention centers. Salomé spends her days reminiscing about her life and speculating about what “the other Salomé” would be doing.

As part of the agreement with legal counsel, Salomé must attend therapy sessions. Her therapist is named Frits and she remembered seeing him on a racist reality show called Hello Jungle. Salomé is a Dutch teenager with a Cameroonian father and Dutch mother. Because of this mixed background, she has to endure ethnic slurs and racist bullying from fellow classmates. From this environment of constant hostile harassment, Salomé’s anger and frustration only fester, threatening to boil over.

Confrontations reveals both the power and emptiness of words. Frits’ therapeutic work, at once half-assed and condescending, comes across to Salomé as rote and pointless. Having to be a rehabilitated in such a mandatory fashion by a racist dingbat is seen as stupid. She calls Frits a narcissist and then schools him on the myth of Narcissus. When she tells him that when Narcissus loses himself by staring at his reflection, he doesn’t realize he looks the fool. Frits, in a defensive reply, tells her “that’s not the lesson she was supposed to learn.”

Over and over again in her life, she is blocked by gatekeepers lazily coasting by on their white privilege. She wants to find a place in the world to be accepted and treated with dignity, but just because she’s a teenager it doesn’t mean she’s stupid. Unfortunately, due to the unequal relationship inherent in the prison rehabilitation process, she isn’t given due respect, which is one of the key factors in why she is in juvenile detention to begin with. The contradictory nature of the entire process makes her head hurt.

The emptiness of words reveals itself in her relationships with her father and her Aunt Céleste. Her father gives her advice like “Work hard. No moaning.” Meanwhile, Aunt Céleste keeps telling her to use her experience as part of an effort to “overthrow the colonialist patriarchy.” Lots of trendy academic buzzwords, but nothing about how to do that. Both her father and her aunt come across as equally useless, spouting empty gibberish that means nothing and does nothing. The usual bumper sticker rhetoric masquerading as wisdom. Besides her mother and father, Salomé has a sibling named Miriam, who would like nothing more than to move away from her hometown.

Throughout the novel, Salomé reflects on her actions by interpreting them through the lenses of Greek mythology and literature. While the words of relatives and her therapist provide nothing more than a yawning emptiness, literature and Greek mythology provide a kind of psychological salvation. She begins to identify with Medusa, not as a villain, but a powerful mythological icon. If only she could turn her torturers into stone and free herself from their malevolence. “The first pile of books Mum brought along for me included The Old Man and the Sea. I found it such a depressing book that I threw it in the bin.” She continues, “If I’ve learned anything over the past year, both at school and at home, it’s that things simply happen and that clever people can be just as stupid as stupid people. That working hard and not moaning isn’t enough. It doesn’t make you invisible. You continue to be a target.” Valuable wisdom from a young narrator written by a young author. Perhaps elders do not have all the answers and possess authority both mishandled and un-earned.

Confrontations is a short book, a compact explosive device, and a brisk eye-opening narrative. The prison narrative involves a timely meditation on crime and its consequences, while simultaneously calling into question the redemptive arc associated with the genre. What if the redemptive arc, in this case, is a bunch of crap and her victims got what they deserved? Atangana Bekono gives voice to the voiceless, but also exposes the moral rot and racist foundations of a society too complacent and oblivious to care.