I, Wild Woman

I wrote this almost exactly two years ago to this day, so naturally some parts of it now make me cringe. I’m reposting anyway, because it’s been a long while since I’ve felt this bold and this wild.

she who writes reality

A few days ago, the kind of thing happened that tends to happen when you dare to swell and fill more space than has been allotted to you. Person who is black/brown/anything other than default setting, you must have been confused in thinking that your role involved more than absolving people of their ancestral guilt by assuring them that your gods are no longer angry. On behalf of you and all your people, all has been forgiven. Don’t worry, we’re good.

A classmate giving a presentation expressed her opinions concerning the imposition of “political correctness” as a tool for certain students to deny writers the right to tell the “truth.” This was a graduate-level class about travel literature, a kind of writing that happens to follow a long tradition of people from the West journeying to and turning a colonial gaze on far-flung, God-forsaken, dark places, where they encounter savages who only…

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Safe House

I’m sharing this again with a special dedication to those of us who are strangely fixated on “The Africa They Don’t Show You.” Even without going full pretentious writer with the “let me deconstruct real quick,” I’m really just curious…what exactly is it that we’re trying to prove? That brunch cocktails taste the same in Osu as they do in DuPont Circle? (It’s also possible that in addition to my writerly concern, I’m a little salty because my bank account says I can’t afford brunch in either of those places.)

But again, I ask, what are you trying to prove? To who? And why do you think they care? That our swimming pools gleam with the same kind of blue as that one delightful boutique hotel in Portugal? That we too know how to do social inequality with the best of the other “global citizens,” with the right amount of class and an extra healthy offering on Sunday to thank God for all the blessings our parents worked so hard for?

At the same time I know it’s difficult for you to look down at those new suede boots and see that you are using them to stand on someone’s back, or that your penthouse apartments and island getaways are paid for money that a rundown clinic somewhere will never see. We’re all held up by the collar, yes, you too in the Prada, some far more tightly than others, so what can you/are you going to do?

I’m not interested in any kind of “global citizenship” that doesn’t acknowledge how much further a blue passport will carry you than a green one, and why that is (or carrying both, as I do), nor do I want to become numb to the sound of European cars rolling over the hands of “those people would make it too if they studied and worked hard like we did.” Aren’t you horrified? Do you not think you lose little slices of your humanity when you see and treat others as less human too?

I also do not mean to suggest that you deny yourself enjoyment for the good of those whose suffering props up your comfort. After all, one missed club night will not magically redistribute resources and recognize the humanity of every single person across our country. But be responsible. Or rather, be honest with yourself, no matter how much it stings to look at yourself without the veneer of wealth as virtue, virtuous wealth, that you have been wearing all your life.

I want to add that with the following piece, “Safe House,” I imagined the persona I was addressing as a straight man for various reasons. It’s true that may women who have access to education, healthcare, social status among other resources are able to wield their power in terrible ways. Most of the time though, at least from what I have seen in my short life, this power isn’t enough to remove these women from the reach of what Flora Nwapa’s Efuru recognizes as a “conspiracy,” the patriarchy, quite simply, where men can harm and destroy and somehow evade accountability altogether.

What I’ve been reading;
The Desperate Journey of a Trafficked Girl, The New Yorker
Slavery’s Last Stronghold, CNN
Italy Holds Funeral for 26 Nigerian Women Drowned in the Mediterranean, Reuters

she who writes reality

There is no home to go to. Where do you think you’re going? Right now you are living in the Western Hemisphere regional branch of a corporation that built itself up on bodies that looked very much like yours that were snatched at night, that were dragged from terrified families, that were traded for some schnapps, that learnt to endure because there was no other option. The right side of the sea for you is a place where the same monster breathes down your neck; it’s breath just stinks a little differently.

But there, your 4×4 smells like abroad. It is pristine and you can yell at the driver for leaving oily fingerprints on the steering wheel covered in beige leather just like the rest of the car interior. And you can use that car to roll over the hands and feet of the people on crutches and in wheelchairs…

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Benediction for Black Madonna

“The immigrant artist shares with all other artists the desire to interpret and possibly remake his or her own world. So though we may not be creating as dangerously as our forebears—though we are not risking torture, beatings, execution, though exile does not threaten us into perpetual silence— still, while we are at work bodies are littering the streets somewhere. People are buried under rubble somewhere. Mass graves are being dug somewhere. Survivors are living in makeshift tent cities and refugee camps somewhere, shielding their heads from the rain, closing their eyes, covering their ears, to shut out the sounds of military “aid” helicopters. And still, many are reading, and writing, quietly, quietly.”

“Create dangerously, for people who read dangerously. This is what I’ve always thought it meant to be a writer. Writing, knowing in part that no matter how trivial your words may seem, someday, somewhere, someone may risk his or her life to read them.”

-Edwidge Danticat, from “Create Dangerously: The Immigrant Artist at Work.”

Today, the news broke that *someone*’s president has decided to end Temporary Protected Status (TPS) for nearly 60,000 Haitian people who have been building lives in the United States since the earthquake in Haiti in 2010. I have a strong aversion with opening up thoughts with statistics, mainly because I find it easy to unsee each important and individual human life when they are presented to you as marks on a graph.

When the earthquake hit, I was still in high school in Ghana, and the only other information I knew about Haiti was the story of Toussaint L’Ouverture’s triumph over French colonial rule, recounted in my history teacher’s booming voice. I didn’t yet know that I would spend most of my time in graduate school tracing links and fractures in that story from my own Ewe people in Ghana and Togo, and our Fon cousins to Haiti and Louisiana. I didn’t yet know that the more I would read and study and listen, the more I would find reasons to quit writing and do something else.

What use can my stories possibly do, when the people I claim to care so deeply about, those to whom I’m trying to draw closer in my clumsy cobbling together of folklore, vodou and favorite foods, are being targeted all the time for daring to exist, for continuing to choose life where death was the pre-selected destination. These questions have been chewed over and crumpled up into balls of waste paper for as long as writers have sat alone in rooms in need of airing, in the back of clothing stores between shifts, on freezing park benches, trying to write because they had something vital to add to the world. Edwidge Danticat’s words are a clear admonition and encouragement, “write anyway.”

I have reached a point where I must resolve to stop turning always back to my self in this way, what does it mean for *me* to do this, who says *I* can, etc. The best I can do is write my care and concern for all of these Black people across diaspora, those I know personally and those I love only from afar, into my work. The best I can do is to bear witness, to keep looking and to turn my readers heads to look to, even when we are inclined to look away. The best I can do is accompany my imagining and writing with direct actions that may take a little less time than it does to edit a novel; calling or faxing whichever government official I need to contact (dubious results?) giving up time and money as often as I can, impressing upon my students just how high the stakes have always been, not just “now more than ever.”

UndocuBlack Network and Black Alliance for Just Immigration  are two organizations working persistently for justice for Black immigrants. Please visit their sites to learn how you can contribute to this cause in time or financial means, and to find out about direct actions and rallies that they organize.

“There is no time for despair, no place for self-pity, no need for silence, no room for fear. We speak, we write, we do language. That is how civilizations heal.” -Toni Morrison

she who writes reality

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…

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Lady, like

she who writes reality

(Trigger warning: sexual assault)

I was not raised to be pleasant, to say yes to things because “it’s just how things are done.” I had five mothers, and each of them was preparing me for a world in which it wouldn’tmatter how close together I keptmy knees if someone decided to push them apart against my will. I’m supposed to provide unlimited access to myself, mind, body, soul, sense of humor, mental health, of course you didn’t force me, I didn’t say no outright. Did I? Could I?

Lady, like one who cannot and will not ever complain that she could’ve walked through the day bathing in warm air, instead of cowering indoors with the curtainsclosed because the burden of other people’s worries and perversions have formed a hump on her back she doesn’t want anyone to see. Ladylike, doesn’t wear shorts no matter how hot the August is…

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All Hail

“I can’t be a pessimist because I’m alive. To be a pessimist means that you have agreed that human life is an academic matter, so I’m forced to be an optimist. I’m forced to believe that we can survive whatever we must survive.” -James Baldwin

I’m reblogging this poem I wrote a few months ago because it was inspired by Lucille Clifton, whose “won’t you celebrate with me” has been my chant of choice when I need to remind myself why I am choosing to keep living, and choosing to be optimistic.

she who writes reality

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…

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Doing the Most (and Never Enough)

I really am fine, or as fine as I can be, all things considered…

Teaching is incredibly rewarding and my thesis is pretty much writing itself after all the obsessive research and more than a few false starts.

I’m working on getting the care that I need. If you know me well enough to be worried after reading this blog, you also know that writing is my automatic response for anything that happens in my life, and not necessarily a cry for help nor a word-for-word rendering of the parts of my life no one can ever really know but me.

I’m caught in a place that is familiar to most people who are trying to find the joints between art, activism, academic work, and living as a whole human being. You can do you research about people and cultures, solidify their place in history, but by the time your work is actually done, the people you claim to care about could be long dead. What use are you to them while they are still living?

 I just need to write.

***

When the bus plunges forward to an abrupt stop, I feel as though the force is going to take me with it. Take me out, through the window and onto the asphalt on a bed of broken windscreen and motor oil. The woman next to me is laughing too loud, to deep, to wide, too open; all the way back to her wisdom teeth and down her throat. Something on that stranger’s sandwich smells sour, as if it has been sitting on a glass shelf under a sweating spotlight for more hours than the package would recommend. Everything is entirely too much. Needless to say, I feel overwhelmed, and not just by the unending stream of news reporting brutality and collapse that is most certainly not new, but feels somehow even more urgent and threatening by the day.

I’m overwhelmed, so that every late-night message alert from one of my students, or an email reminder “touching base on your student loan,” feels like a bell ringing right next to my ear drum. Goddess forbid someone drop a heavy object upstairs, because that might as well be a rubber boot stomping on the inside of my head. The blender in the kitchen next door is a drill hammering directly onto my collarbone, and the shower running two doors down is more like a burst pipe emptying onto the floor around my bed. I’m overwhelmed in a way that I can only explain in these exaggerated terms, (except this is how it really feels), to demonstrate how any emotional or physical stimuli seem to have taken on several additional dimensions beyond what one would expect of livable reality.

The usually reliable neatness of my symptoms list is now no more than black marks skidding across the page where there used to be words (ants are too orderly). At least, it might as well be, because the sensation of the world pressing against my skin to the point where the pain is unbearable is new and doesn’t fit anywhere between “nervousness” and “paranoia.” Another new and even more concerning development is the compulsion I feel to punish myself for…what, I’m not completely sure. Self-deprecation is one thing; I’m so familiar with that mild sort of shame that my footprints leave footprints in the same grooves where I have stepped down that path many times before.

Normally, my issue is that I’m embarrassed or annoyed with myself for an inconsiderate or cruel thing I did or said years before I could have claimed to know better.

But this is different. The problem now seems to be that I exist at all. My smallest infractions send me spiraling around and down towards self-loathing and other horrid and unutterable thoughts. My default setting is now that I don’t deserve rest or reward because I haven’t worked hard enough, haven’t graded enough papers, haven’t written enough pages of my thesis, haven’t been pleasant enough to the people in my life who become collateral damage to my chaotic self.

Because it’ll never be enough. I’ve been given too much I don’t deserve and there will never be a way to pay…I’ll eat when I’ve completed a satisfactory amount of work, which is usually hours after the stomach ache from hunger itself gives up in the hopes that I’ll change my mind and stop for food at some point.

I’ll take a break and go to meet with that person, or just go outside for fresh air when I’ve earned it, so probably never.

I’ll pause and join the rest of the house for a chat when I’m done reading this book, I need it for my research, I need it to tell me how to more present, to be more useful and the next and the next…read on the bus, in bed, in between in-betweens, even when fatigued from learning more about how we’ve created a world that is killing us all some more quickly than others.

It’s urgent.

I’ll wash and oil and braid my hair when I have a moment to spare, so not for the next few weeks until the next deadline passes, or until my curls and kinks can only be coaxed out of knots with a wide-toothed comb (and I am sure to lose a lot in the process).

I am my own predator. Anything about myself is fair game. Every unanswered message and missed meet-up is another failure. Any mundane setback is evidence of another thing I can’t do, another indication that I am not worthy. My current target is now the cavernous gap between my political convictions and the way I am living my life. Cavernous because my only option is to fall fast and far through the weak foundation of what I think I know and what I actually do…

Girl, like the one and only time you gave in to name-dropping an influential, or maybe even [in]famous, relative to slide around the bureaucracy of the passport office at home. Is “one and only” one time too many when I claim to understand how corruption works? Let’s hear some of that talk about privilege, hmm? How many volunteer shifts missed until I just stop going? How many times to be judgmental, or to compromise my own humanity by my inability or unwillingness to empathize with anyone who cries “white tears?” Or like the fact that I’m using this space to seek validation that I am indeed a “good” person doing my best? Is that what I’m doing? Who has time for my self-indulgence/self-flagellation-self at all?

Whatever is happening now is ugly. My writing has turned from confession and the occasional celebration into another opportunity to turn against my myself. I am living the combination of trying to move around as an artist concerned with what my work is going to mean in this world, attempting to navigate how I wield power and squirm under its heel at the same time, and this genetic? hormonal? all of the above? tendency to be ruthless with my self where I should be gentle. Whatever is happening now is ugly, and I would be lying if I said I wasn’t a little frightened.

***

Here are some of the things outside off (but not necessarily unrelated to) my self that I’ve been thinking and talking and teaching about over the past few weeks (and also trying to figure out things I can *do*.) Give them a read? It’s urgent.

 

 

 

 

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.)