A Heartbreaking Novel About a Teen Forced to Live as an Intersex


by Buki Papillon

Even in the best of circumstances, puberty is a strange, uncomfortable experience. But for people who exist outside the norms of their community, this discomfort is often exacerbated, especially when they are forced to keep their differences hidden. This difficult secrecy is central to Buki Papillon’s ambitious debut novel, An Ordinary Miracle.

Set in Nigeria in the late 1980s and early 1990s, the book is about an intersex teenager named Otolorin. Otolorin identifies herself as a girl, Lori, but is forced to live as a boy, Oto (the name she uses throughout the book). Oto believes it’s cursed and shameful because she’s intersex. “I’ve been called a ‘monster’,” Oto explains. Especially his family demonizes him. Early in the novel, Oto’s beloved twin sister buys a new dress and lets Oto try it on. But when his mother catches Oto wearing it, he throws Oto down the stairs. His aggression gets worse from there.

Written with alternating “Before” and “Now,” the first chapter of the novel alternates between Oto’s claustrophobia of home life and his experiences while in boarding school two years later. The violence at the beginning of the book lasts so long that it gives the “Before” chapters a stuffy quality, partly by necessity, allowing readers to understand how dangerous Oto’s life was, but simultaneously describing the beating, harassment, and danger of suffocation. times bordering on voyeurism.

In Chapter 2, the “Before/Now” structure is dropped and the novel focuses only on Oto’s time at school. Even when he is away from his family, Oto’s difficulties continue. He still lives as a man, and his typical teenage ailments, from changing beds to going to the school dance, are dangerous for him. But Auto remains at the top of her class in hopes of “winning that scholarship to America where they’ll know what to do with my body before the worst happens and it’s too late and I’m forever stuck on the wrong track.”

While fear plays a role in boarding school episodes, these episodes also include joy. Unable to cope with her mother’s disgust and violence, Oto has room for friendship, creative expression and all-consuming love. This adolescent enthusiasm is particularly evident in Oto’s relationship with his roommate, who quickly becomes his best friend.

The subject matter of the book is sometimes exaggerated. Towards the end it feels like Papillon is in a rush to finish each story line. In addition, Oto’s relationship with his sister is often briefly described, which makes it difficult to see certain affinities between them.

But Papillon’s work shines when he explores the complexity of Oto’s experiences. Moments of excitement and brutality are rendered with lively urgency. Papillon weaves folk tales and proverbs into the narrative, such as the story of Obatala, a god “in charge of making human bodies,” whose story resonates in unexpected and disturbing ways with Oto’s plight.

Oto is a carefully observed character, and it is one of Papillon’s achievements that it is greater than the sum of the many traumas Oto has gone through. For example, Oto’s wily humor underlines his acting wit. He is a character with great empathy who works to protect his sister and understand his mother even when he is facing terrible violence.

“An Ordinary Wonder” ends in an optimistic place: Oto has a chance to show his true self and starts living as Lori. While her story highlights the limiting dangers of gender binary, it also reminds us that storytelling must help us envision a wider and more inclusive world.


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