The Exiled Eloko Princess: Naema Tells Her Side | Looking at A Chorus Rises


Warning: This blog has spoilers for A Chorus Rises by Bethany C. Morrow

“Whatever you think I can do or will do, I promise, you don’t.”
While Naema is an antagonist in A Song Below Water, she is surely not a villain because frankly, in my opinion, teen girls cannot be villains—especially girls who are victims, like Naema. Although, as Morrow writes, “Victims can have victims”. 

A Chorus Rises picks up a year after the events of the first book and is told from Naema’s point of view. It has sections of online articles and messaging transcripts mixed in, which I thought broadened the world and grounded it. Naema is described as a popular girl in the first book with an online following on Eloko Verified, also known as LOVE, which is explored more here. We’re also privy to Naema’s personal journey of dealing with life after being Stoned and her identity not only as Eloko but as a Black girl. It is all incredibly well done and written with delicacy and care. 

At least the story I’m going to tell will be true. At least they’ll know at last, who the real villain is.”

What Morrow does wonderfully is take real life situations and put them in a fantastical space that I really love. Noting this, I think it’s interesting how most girls’ problems and interests are trivialized, but not these girls. Something that was between two girls, Tavia and Naema, became a movie that spurred a website, an exile of THE Eloko Princess and a whole lot of mess. Tavia and Naema are not only victims to each other, but also to others, though they’re both just magical Black girls who made mistakes. 

It’s as if there was only one girl allowed to be loved at a given moment in time—which is completely vile—and in this book, Tavia is basking in newfound popularity while Naema’s life is in constant readjustment after she was awakened. Feeling betrayed, she decides to leave Portland altogether, even if it’s only to visit her family in the southwest for a while. 

It was really cool to learn more Eloko lore, which I was really interested in back when I first read ASBW, and it was also cool to pick up with Tavia and see her growth. However, let’s not get it confused, this is Naema’s story. As someone who loves when family dynamics are explored in literature, I love that Naema is not only able to connect to her living relatives she previously had little connection with, but she is also able to tap into a lost Eloko power and connect with her ancestors. Through this power, we see her develop her more empathy than what we already saw in ASBW. While she did harmful things in the first book, she inevitably still remains true to the network and doesn’t expose their secrets, despite the harm they cause her. Naema could’ve been spiteful, and many times over but she isn’t, not really, especially to those who aren’t deserving of it. All she wanted was for Tavia and Effie’s actions to be held accountable in the same way she was.

“What we’re not gonna do is start thanking our attackers for our personal growth.”

Naema is no martyr, hero, or symbol for anyone’s cause. She is Eloko and a Black girl and neither cancels out the other, which I love most about her. She is guided by Naema and she never stops loving herself. I think what’s really great about this book is it recontextualizes the events of the first book, that no one lives in a bubble and everyone’s choices have consequences. I think what a lot of people, including myself, misunderstood about Naema is that she is not someone who thinks “I am better than you”. She simply states with every fiber of her being “I am worthy”, and for that I love and respect her character so so much! 

This book is fantastic for so many reasons that I want to get into now. Again, the ancestral wisdom that Naema wields is so cool, I think I need another book with her, or maybe we can pick up with her and Effie in a third installment—I’m just not ready to completely leave this world yet. Then, there are the scenes when she is visiting her cousin in prison and I really appreciate prison scenes in YA because a lot of us have had family members, even multiple ones, in prison. And though I don’t want to necessarily normalize prison, I think it’s great how Morrow sheds light on the experience of seeing loved ones in that space and the effort that goes into those visits. I also just appreciate the discussion about the prison industrial complex as a whole because a lot of people, if not most, are locked away unjustly. Then, there’s Courtney. I absolutely love his character and how he interacts with Naema. From the nicknames to the extended family details, I just thought this aspect was awesome. Since we really only saw Naema as a mean girl in the first book, thanks to Tavia and Effie’s narration, it was nice to see her as the same girl, but not just an antagonist. This book shows that there’s more than one side to every story. Instead of trying to redeem Naema, this book allows her to learn from her mistakes and finds the commonality between her and Tavia. Most importantly I love how Naema does not stand for the erasure of her Blackness, it’s truly profound.

Also, something that Morrow does with this book as she did with her first is to examine and indict the systems at play, as she put it in our past interview. As noted, she does this with the prison system as well as with discussions of privilege, race, and how the interplay of these things can impact liability and social status in and out of the social media sphere. Morrow pushes readers to consider how Black girls are pit against each other and how Black and Brown people are made to believe we’re only worthy as ‘tokens’. I adored the first book last year and even reread it for a third time before I read this one but man, I must say, A Chorus Rises is a sequel that knocks its predecessor out of being my #1 Bethany C. Morrow book. It’s really amazing and captures a type of character I think we need more of. Naema Bradshaw is unapologetic, confident, and snarky—which if she were a male character I’m sure there’d be more fanfare— but that’s a discussion for another day. Speaking of fanfare, I really liked how Naema had a whole fanbase and how we see that shift due to the events of the first novel and the uprise of the Knights of Naema site. The way that Morrow calls out the super weird side of stan culture and palatability. 

Overall, this book felt really meta, like the first few chapters were really Morrow taking jabs at herself or even reiterating hate comments and reviews and I live for that kind of self-referential playfulness. As a huge fan of Morrow as an author and person, I can’t wait to read her next book, which won’t be long since So Many Beginnings: A Little Women Remix is out September 7th! Pre-Order it now! 

PRR Writer, Jackie Balbastro