An enthralling, deeply personal account of a young immigrant's search for belonging and black identity amid the long-lasting effects of cultural dislocation.
Antonio Michael Downing's memoir of creativity and transformation is a startling mash-up of memories and mythology, told in gripping, lyrical prose. Raised by his indomitable grandmother in the lush rainforest of southern Trinidad, Downing, at age 11, is uprooted to Canada when she dies. But to a very unusual part of Canada: he and his older brother are sent to live with his stern, evangelical Aunt Joan, in Wabigoon, a tiny northern Ontario community where they are the only black children in the town. In this wilderness, he begins his journey as an immigrant minority, using music and performance to dramatically transform himself. At the heart of his odyssey is the longing for a home. He is re-united with his birth parents who he has known only through stories. But this proves disappointing: Al is a womanizing con man and drug addict, and Gloria, twice abandoned by Al, seems to regard her sons as cash machines.
He tries to flee his messy family life by transforming into a series of extravagant musical personalities: "Mic Dainjah", a punk rock rapper, "Molasses", a soul music crooner and finally "John Orpheus", a gold chained, sequin- and leather-clad pop star. Yet, like his father and grandfather, he has become a "Saga Boy", a Trinidadian playboy, addicted to escapism, attention, and sex. When the inevitable crash happens, he finds himself in a cold, stone jail cell. He has become everything he was trying to escape and must finally face himself.
Richly evocative, Saga Boy is a heart-wrenching but uplifting story of a lonely immigrant boy who overcomes adversity and abandonment to reclaim his black identity and embrace a rich heritage.
ANTONIO MICHAEL DOWNING grew up in southern Trinidad, Northern Ontario, Scarborough, and Kitchener. He is a musician, writer, and activist based in Toronto. His 2010 debut novel, Molasses (Blaurock Press), was published to critical acclaim. In 2017 he was named by the RBC Taylor Prize as one of Canada's top Emerging Authors for nonfiction. He performs and composes music as John Orpheus.
“Antonio Michael Downing’s Saga Boy is a vibrant, evocative, and searing account of the lives of Black immigrants. Downing helps us understand the rage and resilience of Black boys—motherless, fatherless, itinerant—and the communities that intervene to raise them. The triumph of Saga Boy is the triumph of Blackness everywhere—the irrepressible instinct for survival in a world where Blacks are prey.”
—Ian Williams, Giller Prize–winning author of Reproduction
“Saga Boy is an emotionally captivating, heartbreaking read on one man’s journey to understand who he is, where he comes from and where he belongs. From being the only Black family in Wabigoon to moving transformatively through the music scene in the city, Saga Boy makes us all question the strength of the ties that bind and where our future lies.”
—Tanya Talaga, author of Seven Fallen Feathers and All Our Relations
“Downing transports readers to the steamy, scented jungle of Trinidad where he lived with his grandmother as a child. Miss Excelly stands with ramrod dignity, glories in the Lord’s love, and jumps off the page with her strength, her joy, and her suffering. As Faulkner created the powerful Dilsey in The Sound and the Fury, Downing has created Miss Excelly. A story of resilience and character, Saga Boy is bound to become a Canadian classic.”
—Catherine Gildiner, author of Good Morning, Monster and Too Close to the Falls
“In Saga Boy, Antonio Michael Downing offers expertise and experience, intellect and intimacy; this is a book that names the griefs and violences of colonialism and insists on the tentacular ways they reach into all facets of being. It is also a book about kinship, pleasure, celebration, and love. Saga Boy is the story of a remarkable life, one both relatable and not, told with intricacy. It charts the ways space and time shape people into many, discernible persons within a lifetime. Truly unforgettable.”
—Jenny Heijun Wills, author of Older Sister, Not Necessarily Related
“In the bespoke tome of impossible stories, Antonio Michael Downing’s Saga Boy enters the arena through its own misshapen doorway. Downing’s liquid, deeply felt memoir thrums with the materials of a life forged in the chaotic deficiencies of the British Empire. With a hallucinatory blend of earthquake-like drama, storm-like retrospection and a dreamscape of sounds that stretch from the Caribbean to Europe to Canada, he sees the hurricanes that colonial subjugation has made into his life and raises it a boy who is held by the dissolved dimensions where Blackness is not an appeal for human identity but the resolute, world-shifting creativity and power and dream of those who live well beyond the anaemic imaginations that create such harm. Even through catastrophe, the fevered scale of Downing’s story is testament to how actions—against all odds, and again, against the follies of the self—are made from the elegant and jagged spaces where generations hold each other, even in unlikely places. Read this book and witness this particular story of a struggle for transcendent becoming.”
—Canisia Lubrin, author of The Dyzgraphxst
“Downing seamlessly blends poetic images, music, and storytelling to create a poignant and stunningly honest memoir of a young man’s adamant determination to navigate his position and find himself despite the boundaries of colonialism, racism, and the endless sense of disbelonging.”
—Lamees al Ethari, author of Waiting for the Rain: An Iraqi Memoir and From the Wounded Banks of the Tigris
“Singularly dazzling, Saga Boy is a brilliant collage of the twenty-first century's most incredible memoirs. Told with an unforgettable and innovative pace, this a book I will reread forever.”
—Kiese Laymon, author of Heavy