Cole Lavalais' debut novel Summer of the Cicadas unpacks just how menacing — and disorienting — a bug in your ear can actually be. For Viola Moon, the book's main character, that cicada is so deafening that it alters her perception of what is truly real.
In many ways, Viola Moon is like most incoming college freshmen. She's headed to a small historically black college far from home, in part to get away from her past. She is searching for her own identity and looking to understand how her legacy informs the woman that she has become.
But Viola is also battling her own mental health issues. She spent the summer at a mental health center after trying to "carve out the cancer" that she believed she had inherited from her mother. Yet throughout the novel, she carries with her what once was just a cicada in her mind, but ultimately grew to be something everyone could see but her.
At an early semester party, Viola meets and falls in love with Perry, a recent pledgee of a popular fraternity on campus. Soon it becomes clear that Perry only "crossed the burning sands" for the sake of pleasing his father and to continue his family's elite legacy at the university. She seeks unconditional love from him, despite his betrayal, to fulfill the gap left by the father whom she hardly knew.
Although Vi's relationship with Perry is the driving conflict of the novel, her most dynamic relationship is with Ronnie, a gay student from a nearby town. Initially, Ronnie also struggles to come to terms with his identity, refusing to define his sexuality to others. Eventually, after a heated exchange with a professor about the black male psyche, he comes out to Vi, finally self-assured in his truth.
"Ronnie spoke, and Vi walked through his words as if they were her childhood backyard," Lavalais writes. "He was her cicada, the one that returned her to consciousness and hearing, but better."
Viola Moon is searching for her own identity — and looking to understand how her legacy informs the woman that she has become.
Summer of the Cicadas strikes the perfect balance in its containment of these cicadas — of how Viola and other characters handle issues such as gender, sexuality, mental health and sexual abuse. The complexities of these issues are compounded by their intersection with race, specifically because of Viola's environment.
With each issue, Lavalais slightly amplifies the need for more awareness and action around these issues at HBCUs — whether it be high risks of suicide, disproportionate rates of sexual assault or narrow-minded views about gender and sexuality. That Lavalais centers this story on a black college — without what Toni Morrison refers to as the "white gaze" — is one of the novel's greatest strengths.
"Vi's mental health issues don't have anything to do with white people," Lavalais told the Rumpus. "It's just us living. Our lives are just intersectional by nature."