My Secondhand Lonely

I’m so grateful that my professor in the fall non fiction workshop, Jerald Walker, recommended my essay to be published in the May issue of Slice Magazine! My bio is just casually on the same page as Edwidge Danticat! I had a few more thoughts, because unfortunately the essay is as true for me today as it was when I wrote it in October. I’m doing alright for the most part, even though it may not necessarily seem like it. I’m grateful to be alive, and to have had the chance to focus completely on my writing in a way that I may not have done so easily had I not gone the MFA route. I’m just trying my best to navigate this thing called my 20s, along with everything else happening in the world right now, while still finding room for a little joy and some rest.

***

My favorite kind of message to receive is from people who read this blog and tell me that my being open about my mental health, anger among other things resonates deeply with them, or that my words have expressed their own personal experiences in ways they hadn’t been able to do before. This has nothing to do with any potential massages to my ego, but is completely about the relief I feel that I am not as alone as I may think, and that this writing practice, this thing I love to do the most out of anything in this world, has been helpful in some small way for others. I had recently started to think that I got such a positive response on posts about all these raw emotions because people love to consume others’ pain, particularly if the writer or artist is a Black woman carrying many things on her back. This may be true to some extent, but mostly people genuinely appreciate seeing themselves reflected in art, and it brings me such joy to be a part of that process.

I still feel isolated, because “opening up” in writing and in person, and setting boundaries for what I can and can’t take from others doesn’t seem to have changed much of anything. I’ve tried to shift from cries for help buried in jokes and sarcasm to speaking plainly about my needs and my hurt, but somehow the resounding response seems to be “You’ll be fine. You always are.” Loneliness seems to be the best way to describe the resulting state of being after the “just checking on you” messages stutter to a stop, or the person in need of my care or advice has found their solution or someone else to lean on. As I’ve said before, I don’t resent at all being called on at any hour to put out a little fire, but it would be amazing to hear from people just for the sake of a pleasant chat, or “just thinking of you.”

There’s this phrase in Ewe my mum says regularly, whenever a friend or significant other begins to take one for granted. Loosely translated it means “loosen the rope” or “loosen the thread,” as in, begin to distance yourself. She’s always reminding me that life is too short to endure more heartbreak than is necessary, when one can just uproot oneself and leave in pursuit of contentment and more equal and nurturing relationships, platonic and otherwise.

I understand where that advice comes from, but I used to wonder, if I start pulling away the minute someone disappoints me, won’t that mean I’ll eventually have no one left? If we all take this approach, where would that leave us? Self-absorbed and unable to see past our own noses, and miserable and unloved all at the same time? I find myself wishing that people would just actually listen and be a little more gentle, so that we wouldn’t have to resort to coldness and withdrawal in the hopes of getting our needs considered more seriously. (It hurts even more when the “loosening of the tie” goes unnoticed, almost as if you’ve ceased to exist unless to offer some humor or a word of advice.)

Which brings me to the essay I had published in Slice Magazine in May, “My Secondhand Lonely,” The title comes from one of the most painful moments for me (among many) in Toni Morrison’s novel Sula. My piece is about keeping up the kind of performance I’ve learnt from my mother, to always pretend to be well-adjusted and available for others, no matter the pain I’m going through. The timeline of the essay ends right before my first visit to a therapist and learning about PMDD. I also talk about recognizing this always-on-top-of-things performance in Molly from the HBO show Insecure. I wrote this essay before the point in the TV series where they turned Molly into a walking think-piece and began using her character to showcase what felt like every problematic worldview possible; homophobia, classism, respectability politics, you name it. There was just something about her strutting her flawless self around the office, paralleled by her crying alone in the bathroom at her office that felt so familiar.

Ultimately, the essay is about feeling ashamed for yearning for the company and care of others, because according to Sula the fearless, and the trope of the independent Black woman I see everywhere, I should be enough for myself. On some days, I do feel like enough, unstoppable and self-sufficient. Mostly, I’m still human and in need of connection with others, just like other human beings, but unsure of how else I can make this known without becoming irritating or repetitive (I fear I already am the latter.)  I don’t think it’s sustainable to live this way, to weep privately, like I did while writing this post this evening, to grin and joke in public, and to keep loving and caring with little reciprocation while deteriorating on the inside. At the moment though, I don’t know how else to be.

You can read a preview of the essay and get a copy of the magazine here.

(Image: Cover of Slice Magazine Issue 20: Corporeal. Artwork by Jenny Morgan, courtesy of Driscoll Babcock Galleries, New York. Cover design by Jennifer K. Beal Davis.)

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(The Final) Inventory

For some reason, I keep coming back to this piece I wrote in 2015 called Inventory, and the short story I tried to make out of it (here and here). I’m still not interested in finishing it, nor am I any more inclined to start writing *that* immigrant student story that so many African literary critics and readers have declared self-indulgent, tired, and geared towards the “Western gaze.” These critiques of others work aren’t a deterrent for me at all, partly because I hate being told what to do, but mainly because I’m just far more excited by being able to set stories in Accra or in some other magical African diasporic elsewhere that only exists in my imagination (shout out to the thesis I should be working on!) I think i’ve returned to this old story again because I’m finally at a place where the real events that inspired the writing aren’t as upsetting to me as they once were (and I mean both the things I did and those that were done to me). I left out the most hurtful parts that were a little too real, and altered certain details to make the protagonist feel a little less like me. I can’t claim to know what “letting go” really looks like, except to say that for me it’s a continuous process that feels more final and successful on some days than others.  

***

assorted lingerie

I think the store assistant called them “periwinkle.” I couldn’t be sure, because she was evidently uninterested in my stuttering inquiries; the novelty of mocking nervous first-time shoppers had long evaporated and she blinked slow lids up and down as though she was minutes from falling asleep. “So, do you want these gift-wrapped, or not?”  I liked this particular pair of panties because their color was somewhere between purple and blue. The white lace trim reminded me of the heavy porcelain jewelry box a distant aunt had given me as a gift at a time when I was far too young and not pretentious enough to appreciate faux Victorian-era trinkets with November dust permanently stuck in its crevices. I already had a bra to match, and I stood in the crowded hall at Union Station grinning like a birthday girl because I felt as though I had a secret destined only for your discovery.

You were going to be visiting family in Maryland for the summer, a 30-minute drive from where I lived in DC, and I found it to be the perfect opportunity to make poor attempts at hiding the bitterness which I spat at you on a video call.

Ugh. I just– I hate to be selfish or to even bring this up at all, but I’m the one always coming up to see you though I know you can afford the trip and then some. You know I’m on work study, and this summer my campus job only gives me four days off, but my roommate is away, we can have the place to ourselves and I just–

I have to admit that I didn’t do a good job of concealing the manipulation I had fooled myself into calling I-just-want-to-spend-time-with you and It’s-only-fair. Emotional blackmail was only  if you looked closely and a little too long at the shadows behind words and the pauses between them.

“Hmmm. Ok you…I’ll see what I can do.”

Yesss alright! So here’s what I was thinking. There’s a Ghanaian restaurant in Adams Morgan–

“I’m not making any promises though, so don’t get too excited.”

I had been fidgeting with the pink tissue paper my new underwear came wrapped in, but for some reason your response made me want to rip it between my jaws and stuff it down my throat. I was getting what I  wanted, what was my problem now? I wanted you to come and visit me, but I also wanted you to want the exact same thing and to be happy about it. Be happy, whatever it takes.

I stood at the station with one hand behind my back, just above the point where the blue lace began, pulling imaginary puppet strings so that when I spotted you walking the yellow-lined maze of the parking garage, I could almost pretend that you did not already have a strained expression on your face. We would act out a scene from one of those novelas that used to bring us to the point of tearful laughter, because the characters had pale faces but had been dubbed to speak English just like we did, complete with “oh” and “ei” to show alarm.

You would set your weekend bag on the ground next to your feet and sweep me up into the air in a ridiculous spin of euphoria, and old women pushing babies in strollers and young couples sharing ice cream cones would smile at us indulgently as we said hellos set to background music of whiny guitar strings. The reality was that the ground was spotted with puddles of engine oil and dirty rainwater and you would never set down your expensive suede duffel on it, and the lovely grandmas and picture perfect couples were actually frustrated travelers with curved pillows dangling from their necks and toddlers screaming their exhaustion as they trailed behind.

“So are you gonna move? Goddam disrespectful kids…”

I don’t know why you’re angry. It’s not my fault the bus was delayed.

I don’t know why you’re even here. Nobody forced you to come.

Now my hands often wander to the part of my hip where the bone juts out, and it feels rough and unpleasant, as if someone has filed it down in an attempt to make it softer, less obtrusive. I realize that it is the imprint left from the lace scratching me in the same place every time, imprinting on my skin with its curling patterns intended to look like flowers. I am wounded in the same spot where your persistent hands burnt through the fabric with urgency like latent heat, so that the scar now looks more like the inside of a dead tree, each swirl and crisscrossing lines showing just how long this excruciating process of “getting over it” is going to take.

I begin to rifle through the underwear folded in my top drawer, checking the seams and frills, ripping out loose threads every so often. I even used my teeth to pull out the cream lace from that bra you liked. I didn’t realize those were the same threads tying the muscles in my face together to keep myself from slipping sideways and away.

1 ring finger (loosely jointed)

I’ve taken to cracking the ring finger on my left hand, so I’ll take out the knuckle and place it beside all my other things. It’s relatively easy to do, but the difficult part comes when I try to pry the residue of back-when-it-was-different from underneath my fingernails. I’m trying to sift through all the mistakes to find out when the gap between what I thought and what I actually said began to widen, until I learned to fill it with what you wanted me to say. I’m taking stock of myself today. I’m digging through empty chewing gum wrappers at the bottom of my handbag and scrolling through unanswered messages, trying to locate the moment my weight threatened to snap your back, or the moment I realized that with you I was the worst possible version of myself. Was it when the formerly steady stream of phone calls dwindled to a reluctant drip? Or when you were very clear that I was “stuck in the past, acting like we’re still 17 and 18 in high school” and didn’t I know that we had left the “honeymoon phase” behind? Or maybe it was when you started assigning “points” to rate my performance as someone who was supposed to love you; thumbs up for driving to your house late at night in a car I’m still scared to drive, and for performing remorse for all the self-centered monologues I forced you to endure about school, friends, the weather. Penalties for refusing to drive you to town for dinner, for bowing my head and letting you call me out my name and “call me out”–

“Shame on you. You don’t try. Are you…crying? You know I’m a bully, right?”

Is that a smile? Is that the sound of you enjoying this?

I hope that one day we can meet at one of those over-priced restaurants close to my job, where bright red umbrellas stand next to storefronts almost entirely covered in gold paint and stamped all over with the same designer logo. We can pass empty conversation back and forth between ourselves.

“I finally got the investment bank job I’ve been sweating for.”

That’s nice. Happy for you. I’m thinking of applying to grad school. Can’t work retail forever. At least I can say I really understand people now? Should help with psych, right?

Ha. Ha. Ha. Ha. Ha.

Actually, let’s not. I still have a lot of self-cataloguing to do, and your “bullying” has set me back much further than I may ever be able to catch up. It’s taken me so long to discover that I may have been asking the wrong questions, how can I be better, instead of when did you give up? Or when did you start talking to her again? When did it start feeling like cheating? I just found a scratched mix CD and a coupon for a free dance class. I’m shuffling papers for the trash and shuffling selves until I find the original one that I cracked

when I tried to fit it into the right self for you.

Benediction for Black Madonna

I’m stopping by briefly to share this work I turned in to my poetry workshop last semester. This poem is related to my thesis, but as usual, I can’t give more details than that because it feels like bad luck (?) to share information about something that is still so…scattered. I feel very protective of my project, and it’s not because I think I’m Beyoncé on some surprise album drop type of thing, because who am I??? (Ok maybe a little bit Beyoncé *twirls in Lemonade yellow*) Still, I’ve only talked about this work in detail with a few people. I cringe a little when people make definitive “when it’s done” statements, or when someone says, “Oh I told so-and-so about your work and they think it’s really cool!” I get that excitement can be contagious, but talking about it too much out loud before it’s anywhere close to ready feels a little like testing fate.

***

Blackmadonna
The Black Madonna of Częstochowa is often used to represent Erzulie Dantor, a Haitian lwa and patron of mothers, women who have suffered abuse, and queer women. Source: Wikimedia Commons.

Erzulie Dantor slides off an altar in Jérémie and falls into a seat at a bus stop in Dorchester. Blue chiffon and bluer water solidify into metal iced over and stinging to the thigh. She leaves behind houses flattened like matchboxes, like old photographs pressed between the pages of an address book with phone numbers long faded, like luxury car tires over desperate land.

sleet tapping on the bus window ke-ke-ke-ke

She has unraveled herself from linen headwraps and skirts, and now feels pinched in a too tight brown coat missing the top button she fidgeted away. White ruffles and bare stomping feet turn to dry ankles dusted with grey and jutting out of black bedroom slippers, dragged to tatters by hostile ground.

bones protesting when she tries to rise up ke-ke-ke-ke

She has teeth cracking ‘til they splinter far back in her jaw, the dagger in her heart shifting deeper into the muscle with each hacking cough. She runs her fingers over memories of battle, over tender skin of women à Louisiane, Ouidah, Dzelukope, over Earth’s plates never to come together again.

words won’t come with tongue undone ke-ke-ke-ke

Erzulie Dantor

Patron of the sensual and the broken

Toujours en tort

Que la Déesse te bénisse.

 

 

When Did She Get So Angry?

and a few more thoughts for the road

Black women are expected to use our anger only in the service of other people’s salvation or learning. But that time is over. My anger has meant pain to me but it has also meant survival, and before I give it up I’m going to be sure that there is something at least as powerful to replace it on the road to clarity.

-Audre Lorde, “The Uses of Anger: Women Responding to Racism,” 1981.

I’m breaking my hiatus from this blog so soon just to revel for a moment in how freeing I have found it to shrug off the unwanted weight of respectability, and to celebrate my anger loudly and often.

This blog has never been a destination for those in search of butterflies in their stomachs and warm fuzzy feelings in their chests, or wherever those feelings take place. It’s not a coincidence that my writing became harsher, more biting, around the time I studied in Dakar with lots of white people, some of whom were great friends, and the rest of whom were more concerned with getting ill-fitting outfits made out of wax print than they were with actually learning anything about Senegal (special shout out to the few people of color on the program as well, the ongoing shady commentary made the trip worthwhile)!

I was used to being the dissenting or challenging voice in class throughout college, but hadn’t yet began to imagine the limits of the classroom (especially one in a predominantly white university) as a space where any kind of radical work can occur.

My blog posts settled deeper into anger after I graduated and moved to Boston for grad school, which should be no surprise considering the city’s glaring whiteness and its continued efforts to keep people of color in the margins even though they outnumber the number of white Bostonians, (what’s up housing segregation, over-policing and discrimination in schools!)

In my everyday life, I became used to being antagonized and picked at by classmates who seemed to either resent my presence, or wanted to claim me as their “not a racist because Black friend” trophy. These personal incidents were taking place within the larger, frightening context of incessant police violence against Black people in the US, and unchecked (“unchecked” because it is all going according to plan) government corruption ensuring the continued suffering of Black people across the continent I call home.

needed me2

How I feel arguing in class every day. 

(Source: GIPHY)

Most importantly, my graduate courses began to nudge and then shove me to a place of more meaningful political consciousness. I grew ashamed of the complacent state I was living in as an undergraduate, still reasonable “aware” of systems of oppression but unwilling to be hyper-critical of how I was buying into them, and how I was standing on the backs of other Ghanaian women in order to “achieve my dreams.”

For one thing, most of my time outside of class in college was spent planning events for the African student organization, a group I loved dearly, but one whose strong reputation became mostly linked to our large social events (as vital and fulfilling as those were) at the expense of more political organizing, during the time that I moved from member to leader. Our political events were still well-attended, usually by white students who only saw the African continent as a wasteland ravage by conflict, and a site for potential “development” and profit. Still, we thrived, in spite of the somewhat one dimensional narrative around our groups identity, still putting on panel discussions, film screenings and conferences, some of which felt like they were mainly for ourselves rather than for our entire campus community to expand their knowledge about the African continent.

My own wishy-washy politics didn’t allow me to fully process the boundaries that existed between the Black groups on campus and how to turn those into potential for more solidarity with concerns from across the African diaspora. I couldn’t get past the feelings of invisibility or hurt I felt in seemingly insignificant moments when, for example, I tried to explain the Adinkra symbol our collective of Black on-campus groups had been using as a logo, with someone choosing to consult Google over listening to what I had to say as an actual Ghanaian person in the room.

I didn’t know how to understand how the idea of “the motherland” as it was frequently used positioned me somewhere in a distant and inaccessible past, and that all of us Black people were seeing incomplete and inaccurate images of one another filtered through white supremacist channels. I didn’t know how to express how I felt about most of the on-campus organizing for Black liberation centering on the US in a way that was necessary but also confusing in the broader context of Black people’s struggles elsewhere. I couldn’t fully grasp the toxic effects of our highly competitive campus environment that placed immense pressure on Black women, who often occupied several leadership positions at once, to be magical all the time with little regard for our personal relationships and our well-being.

How would I learn to walk the line between the tired and unfair expectation that Black American students take on the burden of fighting for every single other cause, and the yearning for a solidarity that transcended divisions within the African diaspora? How would I make differentiate between personal misunderstandings and conflicts that represented larger fractures between us as people of African descent? How would I begin to move beyond a place of authenticating Blackness, and obsessing over who gets let in or shut out based on “cultural difference” and old resentment remaining from childhood taunts?

After reading my mother’s books throughout secondary school, I had the voices of characters created by Toni Morrison, Ama Ata Aidoo, Zora Neale Hurston, and many others shaping my understanding of Black feminism, pushing me to think more deeply about power and oppression as immediate life and death issues rather than abstract theories, as well as the celebration that it is to be a Black woman. I didn’t know what to do with these influences, and so I didn’t really listen.

All these conflicting forces within and outside of myself stirred up with an unexpected disaster of a “relationship” however brief…

This is a friendly reminder to avoid any man that uses the terms “socially responsible” and “capitalist” in the same sentence without a shred of irony or shame. Avoid any man that makes it a point to tell you that he has a “global dating pool” because of frequent work-related travel, and feels the need to mention that he has dated mostly white women (as a Black man) and always imagined he would ultimately have biracial children until he met you.

Run fast the minute that person says, “You know I’m just a really private person so don’t post any photos of us.” Turn that run into a sprint for your life when this man makes disparaging comments about other women he has dated, and shows you multiple other examples of his misogyny, internalized anti-blackness and general gaslighting and terrible-ness.

you in danger.gif
(Source: GIPHY)

When you have gotten far enough away, think about how blessed you are to have escaped this misfortune, especially since you may eventually discover that all along you were playing second fiddle to his real relationship with Becky with the split ends… I’m trying to get an essay about this published so you’ll have to wait a little longer  for the full story!

Disclaimer: Most men have proven themselves to be terrible in some way, whether they can cite bell hooks from memory, or expect you to cook fresh meals every night after work. Or both. Proceed with caution.

I still don’t know what to make of the fact that much of my embracing and tapping into my anger has happened in reaction to external factors in my personal life, the overbearing whiteness of my MFA program, being abandoned by a guy I hadn’t sought out to begin with, dealing with a non-existent relationship with my father, and so on (and not because of some latent impulse to contribute to righting the world’s wrongs).

fuck you

After two years in graduate school of learning to become a more careful reader and writer, I am now able to see anger as more than a moment of meaningless lashing out, and rather as a source of creative fuel and a path to possible healing. I can now throw curse words into conversation as much as I please, and I think I’m a lot funnier and more tolerable to spend time with now that all the fucks I give have expired. I am after all the daughter of a woman who does the same. (Can you imagine how annoying I was when I used to be to shy to be anything but the prim and sometimes sarcastic persona I was performing??? I still have so much love for my reserved and/or slightly awkward girls, we are all on different journeys.)

In no way I am I suggesting that learning to curse is the way to get us all free. Rather, it is a small personal change that has shown me how being “well-behaved” is the ultimate scam, and that Black women have the right to express anger and frustration at oppressive structures in any way they see fit. I’m also aware that I can adopt this attitude with little risk for my personal safety because I still enjoy the respectability conferred by degrees and other trappings of middle class life, and (particularly when I am in the US), an accent that is hard to place and is immediately read as less threatening when it is convenient for others to make unnecessary distinctions between me and other Black women, my sisters.

I can’t express enough gratitude to my all my Sisters Killjoy, my roommate and my friends who have given me (probably too much) space to be messy and complicated without apology, and to all the wonderful professors and mentors who have talked me off many a ledge. These women have shown me that feminism is more than a cutesy movement that stops at women getting into power suits and graduation regalia, and involves a concerted and difficult effort to dismantle complex networks of power that place value on people based on strict and harmful constraints based on race, gender, sexuality, disability and on how much they produce and consume among many other factors.

And of course, a million thanks to Beyoncé for the angry section of Lemonade that comes before all the softness and reconciliation. My 2016 would have been a lot less bearable without “Don’t Hurt Yourself” on repeat.

(Header Image: A life-giving book that I’ve only recently come to understand fully. In the background is one of my grandma’s many beautiful scarves.)

Choosing Joy

or something like trying 

The list of PMDD symptoms on the clinic’s website are clearly separated with bullet points marching down the page like ants following a trail to their nest. “Psychological Symptoms: Anxiety. Feeling overwhelmed or out of control. Sensitivity to rejection. Social withdrawal.  Physical: Abdominal bloating. Appetite disturbance (usually increased). Sleep disturbance (usually hypersomnia.) Behavioral: Fatigue. Forgetfulness. Poor concentration.”

The list may as well be a roll call of old friends from my contacts list. They explain why I have been known to snap my reply to my roommate’s simple question, “Are you the one boiling water?”

I am becoming increasingly fixated on and disgusted by my bloated belly during the weeks leading up to my period and remain unsatisfied when it reverts to its usual and lesser roundness in proportion to the roundness of my hips and thighs.

I got home early from work a few days and was driven by this latest preoccupation to spend all afternoon trying on all the fancy dresses I wore during my graduation season in 2015 to make sure they still fit.

I spend entire days in deep sleep and unable to complete the simplest of tasks when I wake– send that email, reply that text message, braid your hair, take a shower. Every single mundane obligation seems to require effort that I can’t find in any corner of myself.

The dependable memory I often brag about feels more like a mosquito net with huge holes in it, details of stories I heard just days before immediately escaping after I hear them; Ah, didn’t I already tell you this?

My messier, more complicated states of mind defy the order of any list. The minute I start searching old text messages and emails for hurtful or unprofessional things I said, no matter how many years have passed since, I can bet my entire student debt that it’s two weeks before my period.

IMG_5170
These photos remind me of the Sunlight commercials that used to be on Ghanaian TV channels when I was little. Those people looked so excited to be doing laundry. (Lloyd K. Sarpong, April 2017)
Two weeks of picking through past mistakes obsessively, the time I was a terrible student leader and sacrificed a team member’s well-being for the “reputation” of our organization, or when I ended up hurting and losing a friend for venting about ways she irritated me to everyone but her, or the time at morning assembly circa 2010 when I made a rude comment about a girl’s outfit loud enough for her to hear. I now feel compelled to provide a disclaimer that I’m not rolling out these memories in some complicated attempt at self-deprecation, to paint myself as the supremely self-aware person who has grown for her past mistakes.

The kind of guilt I feel at these and a multitude of other mistakes sits on my chest at night like a bully daring me to get up, to fight back, knowing that I do not have the strength to. The list of wrongdoings extends before me, off the edge of my bed and into the shadows of my room; like the time I missed several office hours meetings with a professor I respect greatly because I just couldn’t make it out of bed and didn’t fully understand why at the time. I’m just burnt out, I thought. Senior spring after all, I thought.

The bully’s voice gives way to a more sinister one, something like a hiss, working hard to convince me that this collection of evidence affirms what I ready know, that I am undeserving of care or even the right to exist at all. Where do I fit these on the approved symptoms? How much of this is regular human obsession over cringeworthy moments? How much should I worry?

Again, I feel compelled to interrupt myself, to point out that I use metaphor not simply to grab your imagination, but to express that I hear myself being hateful to myself, sometimes like a schoolyard enemy, annoying but mostly harmless, sometimes like something much more cruel and dangerous. I’ve taken to carrying out painstaking scrutiny of my past self, dedicating whole essays to tearing down my half-formed politics from years past. (I’ve done that once here, and there are a few other posts I never put up on this blog.) Mean-spirited navel-gazing, if you will. I mean, girl. how can you claim any kind of radical feminism when your CV includes an organization founded by THE feminist imperialist herself, and another named after Woodrow Wilson? How? And those study abroad blog posts you wrote, girl…

This song improves my mood almost instantly and motivates me to get work done, despite containing the lyrics “Who needs a degree!”

Paranoia is another state of mind that refuses the precision of a bullet-pointed list.

Are the whispers in the next room about me? Did I do something? What did I do?

This is why you are trash.

What does this text message really mean? Was it clear that I was having a hard time, or is this person being dismissive because they can’t pinpoint the gravity of my tone?

This is why you’re trash.

Am I breathing too loudly in this elevator? Did I seem interested enough in that conversation? Am I talking too much? Am I wasting their time? Why aren’t they talking to me? Did I do something?

This is why you’re trash.

Was that story too personal for this setting? Have I used the term PMDD too many times in this conversation? What is self-care, and do I deserve it?

The conclusion to all these unrelenting questions is always, I’m trash, and everyone is just pretending they don’t already know. See? This is why.

What scares me is not being able to draw a straight line through all these elements, to categorize what is “normal” for my at times scattered emotional experience and what isn’t. I would hate to find out that there are more acronyms and names previously unknown to me that describe some other mood disorder. (Is it presumptuous of me to even hint at a self-diagnosis so casually? Am I being too casual?)

It’s been a while since I decided to leave the curtains open to my performance. I offer full access to what happens behind the scenes in the name of full disclosure. I’ve been trying to transcribe the terrible questions circling around inside my head like some nightmarish carousel. In this spirit of full transparency, a few more realities I’ve been trying to share instead of hiding–

I sometimes cancel plans because I can’t bear to leave the house again once I return from work, and not because I have too much homework to do. I’ve chosen to say hidden in my room, hungry and thirsty because I can’t bare to face any human being, purposefully isolated but wishing someone would check in on me. It’s so frustrating to feel completely stuck, craving company and flinching from it at the same time behind my closed bedroom doors. I once spent an entire weekend in intermittent panic, self-loathing and bouts of crying because I felt so awful for not finding it in myself to be as welcoming to a person dear to someone dear to me as I was expected to be. Selfish. This is why you’re trash.

I detest the saying “something’s gotta give.” Of course, I can manage. Keep in touch with everyone, run your errands, calm your nerves if you need me to. I’ve only recently realized, after dropping some of the many conversation threads and obligations I’ve been juggling, that more often than not that “something” is me. For every time a friend reminds me that someone or something in my life is demanding too much time and energy, or is being neglectful and careless, I am often left confused when that friend isn’t able to apply those boundaries to their own actions. “Prioritize yourself, except when it comes to me. And if you don’t hear from me, well. I’m sure you’ll be fine. You always are!”

I almost resisted at this point, but am inevitably giving in to the guilt of how selfish the preceding paragraph may read. What’s even more upsetting is that these voices, or symptoms, are working their hardest to convince me that hardly anyone has noticed the slip in my act. No-one is wondering where you’ve been. No-one will wonder if you’re gone. And again, the guilt reminds me, I am trash for expecting…what? Round the clock attention? For my friends and family to be punching bags for all my emotional twists and turns? To avoid me or hover and fuss at my whim? To drop everything they’re doing and pay attention to me? Whose job is it to do all this? I don’t even know what I want or need. One of the few things I’m sure of is that I don’t expect to get away with hurting or neglecting others because of my chaotic internal life. I can hold myself accountable, I just need to express how much time I spend hating myself just for living.

IMG_4121
I wish I knew what the joke was here!
For the moment, I’m done explaining. I think I’m now generally a more tolerable, maybe even interesting, person than I was when I was an insecure teen torn between the respectability politics flying around my head and the carefree irreverence my mother was constantly nudging me towards, cover up those thighs (or don’t), get that extra piercing (or don’t) ladies don’t curse when they’re angry (but they do), do as you please so long as you are comfortable (your body is a temple).Very soon I must write about how my mother fiercely held on to her agency and autonomy in a male-dominated field that punished her for daring to do so while being brilliant and the best at her job. I will never be as amazing as she is.

I’m off to go write about that, among other things. I’m taking a break from this blog, because I have a thesis to write and joy to catch up to even as it may continue to elude me. There’s so much important work to be done, and I’m trying to ignore the guilt and fear of empty self-indulgence long enough to get it done. I’ll be back to post updates if anything exciting happens in my life that I may want to share. Wish me joy!

(Header image: Lloyd K. Sarpong, April 2017)

Mute

I just had a short story published in the “Power and Money” issue of Saraba Magazine! You can find my work here, alongside several great pieces of fiction and poetry.

I was very anxious about this story from the time I turned it in to a fiction workshop last year, and all throughout submissions and rejections from different magazines. I’m still anxious about it now, mainly because it’s part of a larger project to trace links between Ewe and Fon folklore and cosmology in traditions to other parts of the African diaspora.

Who am I to even attempt this? I’m not from the land that is now known as Benin. I’ve never visited Haiti or Louisiana, two other locations my research has led me. How can I do my work without turning deities and beliefs I know little about into objects for sale? Who am I to even attempt this, when on my best day I can’t write a full sentence in Ewe that is grammatically correct without help from relatives?  How much can I fictionalize without being disrespectful? Also, is every market scene in an African story automatically cliché?

The pressure of these unanswered questions was made much more bearable by the Saraba Magazine editors who were incredibly patient and thoughtful during the editing process. I never once felt like I was being forced into changing any aspect of the story to fit the magazine’s aesthetic, nor did I ever sense that my concerns and suggestions weren’t being taken seriously. It’s an amazing feeling to entrust your work to people whose approach shows that they actually care about your writing.

This particular story isn’t based on any one folktale that I’ve come across, but rather combines details about actual places I have lived in and visited with the narrative of a supreme being that exists in my imagination as much as she does in Ewe religious beliefs. This story is part of a much larger project that still mostly exists as a mood board, scattered passages and research notes. It wouldn’t make sense to say much else at this time.

You can find links to my other published work here.

(Image: Cover page of Saraba Magazine’s “Money and Power” issue. Artwork: Daniels, Aisha. “Untitled.” 2016.

All Hail

If there’s anything I’ve learnt in my poetry workshop this semester, it’s that I’m not a poet. I spend most of my time feeling belated embarrassment for all the poetry-related opportunities I’ve applied to, or that I’ve even dared to submit poetry for publication at all. There are different sorts of writing I do well, and I’m not sure poetry is one of them. I solemnly swear that I’m not tying to force positive comments out of you, I’m just stating what I feel to be true.

Still, I’m swerving out of my lane momentarily and I might as well do it wholeheartedly. Here’s a work in progress I wrote for my class. It’s a response to one of favorite poems from Lucille Clifton, “what the mirror said,” second only to “won’t you celebrate with me” also by Clifton.

***

All Hail

 “listen,

you a wonder.

you a city

of a woman.”  (“what the mirror said,” Lucille Clifton)

Here, I

tear up the skyline

fix it to my belt loop and pull alongside me

twist telephone wires into hair ribbons

string trucks for earrings– helpless drivers

dangling from windows screaming terror–

drown panicked car horns in the plenty of my laugh

root firm legs on river bank one side and deep valley one side

snap tree trunks halfway

clean my teeth with the branches

darken lashes with highway tar not yet dry

satisfy thirst on lake water and sun’s rays

Am splendid some person

Universe daughter

hail glory or perish

***

My dear friend Breauna printed out a copy of this poem and left it in my mailbox on-campus after I had a particularly rough week, and I have since memorized and retweeted it more times than I can remember. Apart from Breauna herself, a few other supportive friends, faculty and staff at my school, this poem is one of the only things keeping me focused on that glorious day when I can dance across the graduation stage, because “everyday/ something has tried to kill me/ and has failed.” (If you think this statement is melodramatic, I don’t blame you. You must be new here 🙂 )

(Image: Wikipedia)