Swallowing the Sun

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I’ve realized that the more anxious and helpless I feel about the horrific state of the world, the more hyperbolic my writing becomes. I feel compelled to stretch my imagination as far as it will go and even further still, but I usually end up with the same “colossal Black woman towers over the world” images, which I fear are still unsatisfactory, in light of the tired and tiring tropes around Black women’s supposed superhuman strength, or Black women’s diminished humanity in relation to just about anyone else. Maybe I have a childish desire to find or to be my own superhero, or to escape. It’s also likely that this influence comes from my obsession with an Ewe worldview which includes a giant snake holding up the entire universe with its coils as a perfectly reasonable thing to exist. It’s never just “either/or,” and there are several other things– including the aforementioned horrific state of the world– that contribute to my inclination to write this way, or to write at all.

We are all here with each other, with an immense amount of work to do.

***

“She pulled in her horizon like a great fish-net. Pulled it from around the waist of the world and draped it over her shoulder. So much of life in its meshes! She called in her soul to come and see.”

-from Their Eyes Were Watching God by Zora Neale Hurston

“But God,

doesn’t she wear

the world well?”

-from “Ugly” by Warsan Shire

It went down much easier than I expected, except around my ribs where it stuck for a while.

I coughed up volcanic ash and black smoke for days. The fire swelled and spread fast across the floor of my stomach before settling in my thighs. I became the fire–

 you who deserve are not prepared for my wrath–

I tucked some of the spilled over rays inside my cloth so that they could not fall where they shouldn’t, onto

you

my innocents

and

you

born with some blame and some liquid gold coating the wisps in the middle of your heads.

 The rest I poured over you and you all, honeyed light spilling between the spaces in my fingers and onto your heads, over your shoulders, pooling around your feet.

I was not satisfied, so I ate greed for dessert with a dusting of sugary after-rain clouds on top.

Then, I turned the sky untouched side up, and used it to wipe the corners of my mouth clean.

I trampled murder beneath my feet, and laid my head to rest on a bed of all our several tomorrows.

It went down much easier than I expected, and I have the sweet yellow stains of our future feasts to show for it.

For Miss Freda, and for all my Lilians

A lot of my recent writing has been an attempt to gain understanding of Ewe and Haitian vodou, without being disrespectful or misrepresenting these already maligned and misunderstood religions. I’m Ewe, but have not been initiated into nor do I practice vodou. I didn’t grow up listening to our creation myths, or folktales about why certain animals behave a certain way, and so on. One of my most persistent fears is to turn these beautifully fearsome spirits and gods into glossy and easily consumed half-versions of themselves, or to co-opt imagery with little care for its origin or significance. I haven’t yet been able to get over the discomfort of trying to tap into a heritage that I know mostly in name and phrases mixed with English only. I’m also careful not to idealize pre-colonial ways of being and of understanding the world as some sort of utopia as yet unsullied or destroyed by European colonialism.

I feel as though I’m always seeking approval or permission to be curious about these things, even though they are the very things that have made me and my imagination possible. So, I’ve been reading and researching as much as I can about Anlo-Ewe spirituality, and about life before and during European conquest in my part of what is now Ghana. I’ve been asking my relatives a lot of questions, and trying to be as careful a student as I can be. I’ve been writing characters and settings, as well as praise songs and prayers that seem authentic to these spiritualities, while making a conscious effort to avoid copying elements wholesale into my work. I’m trying to write a world that appears as though it would fit into the universe my forebears imagined and created for themselves.

I’ve also been thinking a lot about love, partly because of Erzulie Freda– lwa of love, luxury, and sensuality– who is always trying to take up more space in my work than I have given her. The rhetoric around love being a superior response to rage, and a cure-all for oppressive structures has also been on my mind a lot, mostly because it frustrates me so much. Most of the “well-meaning” people who try to bludgeon the (rightfully) enraged with this sort of rhetoric do not usually mean love in any meaningful or transformative way. They simply mean “Lie down and die quietly; your protests are a nuisance and make me uncomfortable.”

In an attempt to keep writing in spite of my current anxieties about the general state of the world/career/debt/life/relationships, I’ve been picking quotes or passages as prompts for my posts, and it’s been a pretty productive exercise. Here is a praise song/prose poem in response to two quotes, one from Sula, and the other from Terence Nance’s 2012 film An Oversimplification of her Beauty.

***

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My beloved and beautiful Grandma Lilian. I’m named after her– I have two middle names– but I don’t think the name suits me that well. I don’t have the requisite kind eyes and pleasant disposition, I feel.

“Love: an art form slightly removed from its intended context.”

-from an Oversimplification of Her Beauty

“Like an artist without an art form, she became dangerous.”

-from Sula

And so Erzulie Freda’s lastborn sings:

Love has chosen my own head as a seat for her crown.

I am gilded fury hardened in the heat of clenched fists, and I am sweet joy whispered in your ear on the night side of dawn. I come from beyond the Universe’s horizon, sweeping across the sea in a hot wind, troubling the water, and the sand, and the flimsy cloth in your windows, and the tufts of hair and dust in the corners of your room.

Love has lent me her face and the better one of her eyes that shines mischief and liquid silver when I laugh.

I am everywhere you look and, and especially where you hide. I live on your heaving shoulders after a healthy cry, and in the curves of your ears where the salt from your tears turned crystal.

Love has blessed my hands with enough power.

I am firm fingers scrubbing stubborn sweat and grit from your scalp each evening, and I am lifting your work-weary arms to tie your sleeping scarf­ –careful like– so my nails won’t catch on the threads that have fallen loose from its weave.

careful

I am of Erzulie Freda’s dangerous charm.

I am of colossal proportions.

I am everything.

Erzulie’s Last and Firstborn

The following post is a lot more sentimental than I usually am in my writing. I can’t remember when or how I learned that sentimentality was undesirable and ineffective in writing, but I’d say ” in my MFA” would be a good guess. I’m especially sentimental when writing to and about my mother(s). I’m especially sentimental right this moment, because I’m reading Alice Walker’s In Search of Our Mothers’ Gardens, with all its attendant complicated feelings about motherhood, (literary) lineage and what we do with our Black women geniuses when they are no longer living (and in life). I’m also surprised to say I’m more homesick than I’ve been in the seven years since I first left, and it probably has something to do with the recent visit of my mum and aunt for my graduation.

***

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Lilian, Mana, and Essie (Grandma, Great-Grandma, and Mother to me)

Erzulie’s Last and Firstborn

“Everything bore the weight of everything else.”

-from Homegoing by Yaa Gyasi

Before we began to sink, we were a house full of women, in a town surrounded by yellow sand like sawdust. In that house, we gave birth to each other’s children– niece’s hands at the end of daughter’s arms; aunty’s eyes inside great-grandmother’s well-worn face; the gravel in mother’s voice coming out of sister’s mouth.

Before we began to sink, we were slim-footed and polishing the speckled floor tiles with our pacing. We were a favorite dress checkered yellow and white, ironed stiff in anticipation of fathers we didn’t need, fathers who were always arriving but never quite making it.

Before we began to sink, we were more vast and plenty than any father’s absence; we were frustrated and clench-teethed that those gaps in his presence wrote their way into our songs at all. We were enough and all at once; we were carrying around our curses and calmness in each other’s pockets.

Before we began to sink, we were the Big, Wide, Solemn Blue and the hands holding us sturdy by the shoulders so we could not dive beyond the waving surface. We were deep laughter over fingers picking through grilled fish, their bones curved and threatening like hooks. We were heavy thighs atop too-thin legs shone over with lotion. We were free and easy joy without the threat of stifle.

Until a certain day, when that Big Wide Blue– vengeful and mourning– rolled over itself and onto the land, over our shingled roof and our crooked windows, and over our selves. We were fractured sorrow, and we were willful letting go. We were guilt.

Before we began to sink, we were a whole cosmos always beyond our own reach.

We are, still.

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(Very blurry) me, great-grandma, and grandma. I wish my mum was in this too.

erzulie veve

A note about Erzulie: She is one of the Haitian lwas that I have been fixated on since I started my research in graduate school. A lot of my characters resemble her so closely in a way that still surprises me, considering the fact that I wrote them before I ever even heard her name or read anything about her. In writing the post above, I was thinking of Lasyrenn (or La Sirène) who is one of the aspects of Erzulie, and dwells in the sea. The symbol pictured above is Erzulie’s veve, used in ceremonies as a sort of gateway to summon and welcome loas to earth. Each loa has a unique veve, usually drawn on the ground out of flour or similar materials.

On the Latter Side of Next

So, I graduated with my masters, but this won’t be a long, dramatic post. I don’t think there’s anything wrong with drama, not in the slightest; I mean, you read this blog. I’m only trying to be as concise as I can be because I fear that if I go on too long I will only allow the usual fear and self-doubt to take over. I will start to spiral into the usual sequence of unproductive (and untrue) thoughts that follow any significant accomplishment; I could’ve worked harder, written more pages, been kinder, been far better at keeping in touch, been a better person overall.

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My entire last semester was characterized by constant apprehension about the near future, and now that I’m here­– or there– it’s really not as scary as I anticipated. I’m here, and pretty proud of myself, considering all the simultaneous chaos that often seemed to run me behind and beside me during the past three years of working towards my MFA. I’m also incredibly grateful and lucky to have had several mentors and professors who let me overstay my welcome in office hours or use up their lunch breaks with my latest teary dilemma. I’m also thankful for friends and family who endured my long-winded explanations of my research and writing projects. Self-deprecating commentary aside, it means more than I’ll be able to explain here that so many people I love and admire see me and are actually there for me, since I’m somewhat “allergic” to asking for help.

With my dear mother and aunty (photos by Lloyd K. Sarpong)

Clockwise from top left: Lloyd, my brilliant and kind Laura, and Katerina and Erika, two of my absolute favorite people at Emerson.

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Keenah boo! (photo by Melissa, who managed to escape taking a single photo with me that day *side eye*) 

I used to think that when I got older, my self-esteem would somehow become healthier. My idealistic notion of what it meant to “grow up” involved me turning into someone who thought of herself more highly than I did at the time, someone who was self-assured and belonged to herself wholly. Essentially, I hoped to turn into the kind of woman my mother is. I’m still pretty young– bill collectors and student loan services appear to disagree– but I am unfortunately as down on myself as my insecure past self has been.

Arriving at the other side of next, that is, after the graduation fanfare has subsided and all the work is momentarily “done,” also means realizing that I have no idea how to be still. I have calculated my worth by tallying completed tasks against what is left “to do” in my agenda. I never feel enough for myself, let alone for anyone else. I don’t know how to give myself room to just be, considering that there is so much I urgently need to write about, so many events more complicated and more monumental than my usual anxieties. I don’t know how to let myself just be, without feeling as though I’m not worthy of breathing up all this air and taking up space on earth, unless of course I’m working hard, and unless that work is mostly to benefit someone else. This may sound a little hyperbolic, and I know “objectively” that none of it is true.

I’m trying to learn how to be kinder to myself. My self-esteem has been subterranean for quite some time, and I would love to bring it above ground, at the very least. I would love to experience some joy, even against the backdrop of so much horror and so much uncertainty in the world. You can find me in the sun these next few weeks, breathing up all the air (and pollen), and writing as if my life depends on it.

So much for brevity and no drama…

***

I wrote the following post about halfway through the semester but didn’t feel comfortable posting it at the time on the off chance that any of my students came across it and felt as though I was teaching them with a bad grace. I put in all the effort and care I could muster to make space for them to express and debate their ideas and to grow as writers. My restlessness had little to do with them and more about the impending uncertainty of postgrad life. I realize now that it reads a little like a riddle, an effect I wasn’t going for at all and don’t much care for. I guess it’s an indication of how confused and outside of myself I was feeling. In any case, I’m here. I made it!

 ***

My Self Every Elsewhere

I feel as if I’m living everyday on a deep inhale, except without the promise of an exhale’s sweet relief at the end. I am not present. Some of me is sitting in my grandma’s living room watching the fan waving around with the same content laziness I feel as I sink deeper into the flattened foam of the sofa cushions. Another piece of myself is waiting to cross the street somewhere in New Orleans where I would love to be living, scattered with potholes and lined with shaded verandas that might as well be Accra. There is also the no-place I’m longing to be, one that exists only in my imagination, or at the crossroads of my favorite novels and scholarly writing about the African diaspora.

Everywhere else but here.

I wouldn’t be so concerned about this longing if I didn’t have 18 students expecting me to be with them for 3 hours and 45 minutes a week, and an immense and unspecified number of additional hours on email, or online reading, grading, fixing, always giving. I would hate for them to have the slightest feeling that this is about them, and that I am staring over their heads and into a distant elsewhere that is most appealing at the moment not because of what it is, but by simple virtue of the fact that it is not here with them. Wherever I am, it is definitely not 9:26 on the green line in Boston where I have just lost my ID card as well as my eagerness to stand with a smile fixed on my face as I try to cajole the class into understanding Zora Neale Hurston’s genius (and the importance of citing one’s sources!!!)

My restlessness starts on the same spot towards the back of my scalp, where I scratch between the once-precise parting for my braids until the skin feels raw and bruised, until I am convinced I am one more scrape away from coming away with blood under my nails. I am ashamed of it, because it fidgets and jostles my careful mask out of the way, intruding into every conversation I have about what I plan to do next.

The part of my attitude that troubles me the most is that I am trying to wish away the unbearable present, marking time like a teasing metronome or a clock that is always trying to catch up its lost minutes. I’m trying to wish away my now as if I know that what will come next will somehow be more satisfying, when I can’t actually know that for sure.

I feel like the bratty child I never was, whining at the more-than-enough spread out before me, before pushing it onto the floor with sticky, greedy hands, the same hands I try to grasp at the better time everyone else seems to be having.

When we say “I can’t wait for this to be over,” the implication seems to be that whatever lies at the other side of “over” is more desirable, but that just isn’t true. That should be my consolation.

Yet, I’m wondering where else I have to go if both now and the latter side of next are equally uncertain and even terrifying–

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Photos courtesy of the man, the myth, the broski, Lloyd K. Sarpong, some selfies, and other people I was too excited to remember unfortunately!

I had nothing to do with this cap except for wearing it. Laura and Jeeyoon designed all the little details and I just held the glue gun and passed them scissors etc. Katerina came up with “Best revenge is your pages” based on the line from “Formation” All my own ideas for cap phrases were (more) rude/confrontational song lyrics… 

Killjoy

IMG_5271“Youthfulness

Peace of mind

Feeling free:

Knowing you are a rare article

Being

Loved.”

(Our Sister Killjoy, Ama Ata Aidoo)

***

Sister, you’ve been dancing across your world with some pieces of my self rattling in your pocket

–half pair earrings turning more green over the gold

cracked glass buttons cutting up all the light

dry flowers wasting into dust–

I really need me back

Sister

You play your hands over my shoulders and down my arms when I lean closer to laugh along with you, sister

I think it’s best I keep me to myself

At the other end of arm’s length is where you must put you if we are to remain some sort of sane

I reach for you still, sister

Sister

Killjoy

First, the Fire

“Eva looked into Hannah’s eyes. “Is? My baby? Burning?” “

“…Eva said yes, but inside she disagreed and remained convinced that Sula had watched Hannah burn not because she was paralyzed, but because she was interested.”

-from Sula by Toni Morrison

***

So, I’m writing.

I’ve been giving myself writing exercises in an attempt to free myself for this frustrating halt that I’ve been feeling each time I’ve tried to resume working on my thesis project recently. The way I see it, if I keep writing around and around, I will eventually write towards my actual work, as long as I’m always writing pieces that exist in the same universe as the one that I’ve created for my novel. With that in mind, I’ve invented a series of plagues that are sort of “biblical” in the sense that Christianity and a lot of its symbols and imagery have been fused or absorbed into Ewe and Haitian vodou (This is related to the research I’ve done for most of my time in my MFA program, and I wrote about it briefly here).

I didn’t grow up with the ritual of burning fallen hair after braiding or combing, but I’ve grown fixated on that image after encountering it repeatedly in Black women’s writing across the diaspora. Someone is always burning shed hair immediately before some sort of tragedy, or before the next “strange thing,” as Toni Morrison puts it in Sula.

I re-read Sula a few weeks ago, and it was not the more spectacular instances of burning that stayed with me, not Eva setting fire to Plum in his bed, or even Hannah going up in flames in the yard and Eva leaping out of the window to try and save her.

Rather, it was the smaller, the seemingly more ordinary; Nel’s grandmother using a burnt out match to darken her eyebrows, or Sula’s return, marked by birds, and by Eva burning her shed hair with her back to the same window she once leapt out of. In Gloria Naylor’s Mama Day, we are to believe that it is Cocoa’s fallen hairs, those that didn’t get burnt, those that end up in the jealous Ruby’s pocket, that lead to her painful deterioration. (There’s something I think Sula and Mama Day are saying to each other, and I wrote about that here.)

My first plague is fire.

***

There is oil hissing and spitting inside. It’s possible that it is frying on too high heat until whatever you had wanted to eat is shriveled and burnt, stuck to the pan’s deep rusty belly, forevermore resistant to any scrub. It could be that the stove’s heat is too great, or, that the whole house is burning, and I am going with it.

Don’t you want to see what you can salvage

 There is something frying inside, but you are still and always slim legs, not crossed, but rather arranged one next to the other, grey dusting where your ankles meet from too many dry afternoon hours exposed to the air. Something is on fire, and your skirt is bunched up in messy fistfuls high on your thighs. Your feet are in the dust next to mine on the lower step and something is on fire. Yet, you just sit.

You have gathered the fallen hair from my head into a feathery ball and set it alight, three clicks of a lighter and a curse. There is something burning inside–I am sure– and yet, you sit, with my shed strands flaming first between your pointer and your thumb, and now in the palm of your hand.

Maybe the whole house is burning, or maybe it is just my scalp is scorching sweet mercy. I told you not to make the parts so small this time,

I told you I am something tender–

(Image by Hannah Firmin, from the cover art of the Grafton Books 1982 edition of Sula)

 

Procedure

rewriting (again) or reimagining this post I wrote a while back called “Recovery.”

***

“Are you sure, sweetheart, that you want to be well?”

-Toni Cade Bambara, The Salt Eaters

 “–let me go mad, Grandmother. Let me bleed and be forever lost and no one.”

-Toni Cade Bambara from “The Survivor,” Gorilla, My Love

 The ones on the top row were the first to go.

I spat them out on a plate one day, next to the wrecked remains of chicken bones, and watched them sink into the orange oil smeared across the porcelain. I looked on, bored, almost as if they were not for me.

The wisdom ones went next, the irony so apparent it was almost nauseating.

They shattered into someone else’s mouth. The time has long come and gone, and they still can’t tell if that is grit or bone or me causing their jaws to grind and stick, worn down and rusty as an forgotten mill

Finally, it was right up front, on the left.

I missed the silent warning. The root perishing in place, turning the enamel outside slowly brown and darker still ’til the surface was crumb like the sugar I love in my tea.

How could you let it get this bad?

Well, I decided to crack and vanish myself little by awful little.

I have a little time–