Saturday, January 9, 2021

Review - Taking Flight

Original Title: Taking Flight: From War Orphan to Star Ballerina
Series: -
Author: Michaela DePrince, Elaine DePrince
Published: October 14th, 2014

Publisher: Knopf Books for Young Readers

Damn, what a story.

I’ve been meaning to read this book for a long time, but I kept postponing it because I’m not a huge nonfiction reader. However, every page of this memoir was worth reading.

First of all, it’s necessary to mention that both authors, the ballerina Michaela DePrince and her mother, Elaine DePrince, are not writers per se, but simply two people who felt that sharing their journey was worthy. That is why the writing style feels kind of cozy, making me feel like I’m with both of them sitting in a coffeehouse, while they tell me their story, in a friendly, intimate way.

Even thought Michaela’s story is heartbreaking, it is still inspiring, in so many ways! Without recurring to the huge words and poetic prose of professional writers, she simply tells us her story, and let us know about the truth she lives by. And although it definitely isn’t a fairytale, I can’t help thinking that the episode around the magazine cover seems to have a certain magical realism quality on it, being both incredible, and moving. Practically a miracle, because, what are the odds that a gust of wind, and an old magazine published in 1979, that we will never know how it even got to that far corner of the world, could define a four year-old war orphan’s identity, giving her hope when she had nothing else in the world? Michaela, by then going by Mabinty Bangura, would cling to that picture and the happiness it promised, only to find out, years and years later, that she was the European/American ballerina Magali Messac.

This is the cover of that magazine.

It’s chilling, isn’t it? Even hard to believe, but true, nonetheless. Anything in her life going differently than it did, would have never seen her becoming the person she is today. It’s nothing short of unbelievable.

One of the things that moved me the most about this book, is the amount of love in it, in every possible way. Michaela’s adoptive parents, Charles and Elaine DePrince, are worthy of a standing ovation, because even after going through terrible pain and loss, they did not let that crush them, as the love in their hearts moved them to adopt these neglected little girls from war-torn Sierra Leone, giving them the unique chance to have a family and be happy, rescuing them from a place that would have surely see them dead in the short-term. Their huge hearts and endless compassion, in my opinion, makes them heroes in their own way, deserving the utmost respect. Although it’s sad that the girls say that there’s certain fears that will never leave them, like the sound of loud male voices, that remind them of the rebels that committed those terrible atrocities in front of them, the work done by Charles and Elaine is everything every parent in the world should do, teaching love, and encouraging children to open their wings instead of clipping them. It’s worthy of admiration. That is the kind of love the world should be filled with.

On a re-read, I noticed something that I really want to mention, that I think it's wonderful: the fact that when Michaela talks about her days in the orphanage, and about the aunties giving them food, in the pecking order, she mentions some of the kids by their name, instead of the number they had been so despicably known by. Kadiatu Mansarey, Sento Dumbaya, Mariama Kargbo, and Isatu Bangura (funnily enough, with the same last name Michaela was born with, and later, becoming Mariel DePrince, adopted by the same family). Seems small, but for me, it's incredibly important and meaningful, as it gives worth to those children whose life had been so tragically torn apart before it could even begin.

Another thing this book got me thinking about is how I can’t take my surroundings for granted. Michaela and her sisters witnessed things, while in the orphanage, that no child should, ever, and nowhere. Things many of us can’t even imagine. And although no country is perfect, nor Heaven on Earth, it’s essential that we reconsider how lucky we are living in a free one, where, if you want, you can freely practice your religion, or pursue any art form, without the fear that it will get you killed, or deported. Where education is enough for people to understand that a harmless skin condition –like Michaela’s vitiligo–, or being left-handed –like Michaela’s sister, Mia– are not synonymous with being cursed, and that you should not blame an innocent child for things like the rain not coming that year, or failing crops (sounds medieval, but it happened in the 90s). I honestly felt a renewed appreciation for my own country, and for all those things we take for granted, but are still a huge blessing.

Also, after reading this, it’s understandable how and why countries like the US, the UK, Spain, Australia, France, or even Argentina itself, become beacons of hope for so many immigrants and refugees. I know I’m not the first person wondering this, but, when will the world understand that wars lead nowhere? That they solve nothing? That there are no winners, only survivors, and that kids like Michaela and her sisters are the real victims? Because those who start and lead the wars rarely suffer for it. Those who play no part in them are the ones who end up paying the steepest of prices, being stripped from things they don’t even have yet, like an identity, opportunities, and hope. Plus, the fact that we don’t know what it is to live in a country torn apart by war, treatable diseases, and starvation, with access to clean water with the turn of a tap, is a true blessing we have to be grateful for, every morning we wake up. Because although we consider them basic things, they are still denied to a lot of people around the world, who struggle for them every single day. Michaela’s story is a devastating proof of it, as she tells it with raw honesty, and smashing your heart into a million pieces in the process.

Moving to America with her new parents gave both Michaela and Mia a second chance, and so they could start discovering their artistic sides. Through her story, Michaela tells us how her ballet journey started, and so, we learn that it is way more than just beautiful costumes and pointe shoes. It is years and years of practice, injuries, and sacrifice, being considered the most difficult dance form for a reason. All the beauty that we see on stage, has a price, and Michaela doesn’t hold anything back, telling us about the pros and cons of this magnificent art form, all the while exuding an intense passion for it. You can’t deny she loves every step of it, and that she truly is what she was meant to be, in despite of her difficult life. It’s wonderfully done.

By the way, you can find her videos on YouTube, she’s an amazingly graceful ballerina. I picked this one because she talks about it in her book, it’s a variation of La Esmeralda, when she was only 13 years-old.

Beautiful, isn’t it? Love the costume.

But also, Michaela uses this book to bring awareness around a matter that most of the time gets overlooked, that is the discrimination in the world of ballet. I hadn’t realized, until I knew about her, that ballet has, in fact, a very small number of black dancers, and when you look further into it, you know it wasn’t even meant for them in the first place. Already from something as easily unnoticeable –but huge at the same time– as the colour ballet footwear comes in, traditionally pink or nude (but never brown), the message is very clear. Michaela herself tells us that she heard a teacher saying that they never put a lot of effort on black dancers, because they tended to get fat, so there’s rejection right from the get go. But I’m glad that thanks to people like her, that is changing nowadays, because dancing (and art in general) is for everyone, no matter how you look like. Besides, any person out there who decides to take ballet has my instant respect, because it’s not easy at all.

The only thing I criticize about this book is that, at certain points, when Michaela talks about her different auditions and dance training, she gives entire paragraphs like this:

For example, in Level 1, you might be expected to do a combination of dance steps like: tendu to second, relevé, demi-plié, return to first. But in Level 3X you would be expected to do a combination like: fondu front en relevé, close; fondu back, inside leg en relevé, close; fondu outside leg to second en relevé, then plié with the standing leg while the working leg is at forty-five degrees, then go to passé. Repeat in reverse.

These steps and specific ballet position are okay, they have to be there. And is fine if the reader is a dancer too, but that is not my case, so all those terms do not make any sense to me. However, this is isn’t frequent and doesn’t not affect the purpose of the book at all.

In general, I think that this memoir sends a great message, not only about war and poverty, but also about how your dreams are valid, and how important it is to follow them, no matter what, especially in a world that, right from the get-go, tells you not to, that those are not your spaces, and that you should settle for things that are “more suited” for you because of how you look like. Also, it brings awareness of the importance of representation in the different fields (that being art, science, etc.), of how significant it is to see someone that looks like us in the media, doing all those things we could, or want to do. Not opening these circles with the same amount of effort and support, to every single person who wishes to access them, is contributing to the deepening of problems such as a depression, bullying, and low self-esteem, cutting people short in the process of following their passions and finding their true identities, just because of what is, essentially, a whim, a stupid attitude of pointing fingers and saying “you can, but you can’t”.

I want to punch people who do that. Let’s not contribute to it, please.

So, in short, it’s a great read, and I recommend it to anyone who likes memoirs, because it’s a story worthy of being told. Also, if you want to hear it from Michaela herself, I’ll leave her Ted Talk here.


Thank you so much for reading!
See you soon!


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