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.

 

 

 

 

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, Dzelukoƒe, 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.

 

 

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.

Back Here Where I Belong

There’s been a temporary glitch in the system, the glitch being end of semester stress combined with trying to finalize summer job plans and dealing with some weird personal stuff at the same time. Basically, everyday life is the glitch, but here I am! The creative pieces I’ve been working on lately haven’t been coming along well– or at all– so I decided to share something I wrote for a class (half a cookie for anyone who can guess which class it is, because it’s always the same one)!

This is an extract from my final essay titled, “Back Here Where I Belong,” in which I start to explore what happens when continental Africans and people of African descent from the diaspora can no longer recognize each other, and what that means for the way African culture is preserved (or not) in the diaspora. It is so difficult to write about the kind of forgetting that happens when cultural memory is interrupted by the beginning of colonial history, since there’s so much I’ve “forgotten” and so much I don’t know.

The essay includes some analysis of Cuban abolitionist novels, a brief shout out to Love Jones, Yoruba deities you’ve heard of but don’t really understand, a yearning for identifying my own culture in the diaspora in more than just faint traces, Toni Morrison, “plantains and good vibes,”and an examination of African symbolism in the diaspora, as an attempt to recuperate and reclaim memory and NOT as a form of appropriation. I’ll post a few more sections of this work over the next few days. The actual paper may or may not have been longer than the limit *cringes in shame for being that person giving the professor extra work*

[I’m still enjoying the excitement of recognizing a few Ewe words in a novel about Haiti, and trying not to think too much about the implications of these tiny fragments of cultural memory and how they came to be fragments from a once-cohesive whole. Hint: the answer has a lot to do with colonial violence. In this essay, I use the names of Yoruba deities as they are spelled in Cuban Santería.]

***

Elsewhere in the Diaspora- A Beginning

The Africa I knew as a child was often not the one I saw reflected in books and film. I can’t even say that Africa was an immediate reality I experienced on a daily basis, unless it was the imaginary version reflected back from the West. Africa was a documentary about wildlife I had never seen leaping from bush to savannah in a single frame. It was a textbook caricature of a map fashioned into a cake, being devoured by personified European countries with fangs for teeth and drool spilling into Cap-Vert and the Gulf of Guinea. It was sung onscreen in dark clubs on open mic night in the name of Yemáyá and Ochún and in praise of a woman in an all black outfit. It was found in repetitive prints and drumbeats of indeterminate origin. It was wooden plaques shaped like the continent and framed pictures of women carrying pots on their heads. It was commercials for hungry children with pleas in their eyes and chests racked by coughs induced by the effort to laugh for the cameras despite their suffering.

The Africa that I encountered everyday didn’t really exist for me. My experience was confined to the borders of Ghana, and to Accra more specifically, with a hazy understanding that there were people in other countries who spoke a host of languages and enjoyed meals I didn’t know and whose dances followed a different style and cadence.

Beyond the Africa that was being constructed for me and around me, I had little understanding of the traces of it still living in parts of the diaspora. Glimpses into this unknown entity known as the diaspora were provided mainly by the few people I knew who had returned from there and built their lives in Accra. There was an older Jamaican woman with white hair arranged into a bun underneath a hat, always in flowery dresses for church on Sunday, and an African-American woman with a huge smile who still runs a successful bakery in town.

Popular culture, and music in particular, provided me with some insight into this concept or place called the diaspora. Reggae, dancehall, soca and hip hop were in a never-ending loop on most radio stations, blues from Bill Withers’ tapes and CDs if my mother was driving, stickers of the Jamaican flag and Bob Marley’s face held pride of place on the back windows of trucks and trotros usually accompanied with phrases like “Who Jah Bless” in peeling lettering. I saw Eve’s Bayou several times at an age I can’t quite remember, but I’m sure I was too young to fully understand the richness and complexity of the film. I read and re-read Sula over and over after my first reading at the age of eleven or twelve. I didn’t yet comprehend what the connection was between me and people of African descent in the diaspora. As far as I was concerned, they were just from an “elsewhere” I had not been to and now they just so happened to be “here,” physically or on pages, screens or in the speakers of a car radio.

Eves-Bayou
Eve’s Bayou (1997)

Frequent school trips to Cape Coast to visit monuments marking the Transatlantic Slave Trade, during which millions of enslaved Africans were forced onto ships heading towards the unknown elsewhere of the Americas, began to sharpen my awareness of some numbed pain sitting in the background of Ghanaian history, waiting for the right jolt to bring it back with intensity. The way I picture it, the harsh white walls are still sturdy, the canons look as though they could still be in working condition, the bedrooms with wooden paneled floors lead to a narrow balcony overlooking the courtyard where colonial officials would choose the women they “wanted”, a tour guide’s voice echoes in a tiny chamber with the lingering metallic smell of blood and human life thickening the air: “I’m going to put the light off for you to see what it was like.” The tour guide points to the narrow exit that leads towards the ominous “door of no return” and how much smaller it is than the entrance of the dungeon because those that survive that nightmarish confinement will have lost considerable weight by the time they are brought out. The silence is interrupted only by the quiet sobs of a few tourists who are being led back through the door of no return, with a few fishermen casting casual glances at a scene they’ve definitely witnessed before and hushed schoolchildren trying and failing to avoid staring at these returnees from that ambiguous diasporic elsewhere.

cape coast castle
Cape Coast Castle

Even then, I failed to grasp the importance of the memories contained within the horrific walls of monuments like these, the memories that had crossed the Atlantic, some lost and some preserved along the way, and the people on a mission to restore the faint remnants of the forgetting they had inherited. When Toni Morrison’s characters flew back to Africa in Song of Solomon, I missed how important the hope of a home or a haven to fly to was for the descendants of enslaved Africans trying to hold on to the fraying threads of their ancestors’ culture and to create a new identity out of these elements. At 18, I packed into my suitcase a very shallow understanding of what it meant to be black in the vague elsewhere, pulled from passages in Angelou, Morrison and Hurston, an insight that resulted in the kind of shaky frame one is in danger of building after simply reading without interrogating or actually experiencing the reality awaiting in the US.

(Image of Cape Coast Castle: http://www.ghanamuseums.org/forts/cape-coast-castle.php)

My latest music obsession is Daymé Arocena, whose photo I used at the top of this post! If you enjoy jazz and the feeling of chasing away all your stress, or both, give her a listen. That sentence is proof that I will probably never be asked to write about music. In my defense, I just don’t have  the words to explain how much I’ve been enjoying her music for the past few weeks. My favorite tracks are “El 456” and “Come to Me.” You can buy her music on iTunes!

Chez Moi via Atlantic Sea

Let’s pretend this post isn’t three days later than it’s supposed to be, shall we? Please enjoy this notebook poem I wrote for my Cuban Literature class. We read “Notebook of a Return to the Native Land” by Aimé Césaire, and the assignment was to write our own notebook poem addressing “the coloniality of home.” I would also like to point out that words I’ve started using in grad school like “coloniality” are underlined in red every single time I type them. How can Word try to challenge the academy like this? Unacceptable, really…One last thing. Try not to roll your eyes too hard at my use of the word “labyrinthine.” It’s my favorite word at the moment, and I’ll keep using it until I no longer have to check the spelling each time 🙂

***

1. They have all left ellipses and hyphens and white space, room for me to rest my head. Bare stretches of sand to bury tired feet. A dotted line to fill in my address and sign my name: Césaire? Morrison? Aidoo? Who are you? Insert-black-subversive-diasporic-writer-here.

2. I was so self-centered that I believed that rupture and disjointed fragments of thought were symptoms of post-colonial subjectivity and only that. Today’s reading is about surrealism. I didn’t finish it. Next week, postmodernism. Still not interested. Who says I must be immersed in hegemonic cultural production and intellectual movements to understand writing from my own bookshelf? William isn’t holding Toni’s hand holding a pen, helping her to trace the words. France is not pulling Mariama’s tongue till she gives up and sings their songs. Ama does not need Virginia to show her how to write women with labyrinthine internal geography and unapologetic desires to build their own rooms. I must be immersed in hegemonic cultural production and intellectual movements to understand writing from my own bookshelf. Your alphabet came with certain contractual stipulations I cannot break.

3. I have written home into being over and over and it is always:

red sand staining itchy church socks beyond redemption

tiny pebbles that bite your feet when they get caught between the straps of your sandals the suffocating blend of the scent of flowers grandma planted before her hands bent sideways

–you will adjust after 10 minutes of sitting on the veranda–

nameless dateless days stretching into the pleasant laziness of late afternoon

listening to the lilt and sway of a language I didn’t know I could forget

–I should’ve written it down–

4. You should start tallying how many times you have used the words “access” and “gap” in the past year, in the past week even. Searching for a place where the dents in the mattress match the contours of your body has become less about writing back through childhood memories and more about using words to reach across tears in documents you can never possibly stitch back together. You are trying to match archival data from a trunk with rusty locks in a small house in Savanna-la-Mar, to a census entry about a woman named CoinCoin (Kokui is that you??) in Natchitoches; and then holding them up against explorer accounts about “Religious practices of the Ewe people along the Volta River.” You will hesitate to admit that you selected those places not necessarily for historical significance but mainly because the sound of their names swirl around the inside of your mouth, falling off the tip of your tongue sliding down your chin. You are trying to gain access to something that you fear is nothing more than an empty filing cabinet with only the corners of yellowed pages left behind, holes in arguments about “barbaric ritual practices”, nothing more than a gap.

5. Exist comfortably, if only for a few hours, in arms that belong to a person who keeps in the muscles of their thighs, a nostalgia almost identical to yours. Try to inhale any last trace of whatever home smells like from their scalp: wood smoke and kebab pepper, sanitized new mall air, freshly polished leather shoes, the dust inside your mother’s albums of faded photos, frangipani. Frangipani? I never realized it was a frangipani tree I used to climb and get stuck in more times than I would like to share. I read frangipani in a poem once and decided it sounded very “there” and just kept using it. We used to call it Forget-me-not. Rub your fingertips along the length of their chest until you are satisfied that you have stripped off enough of that feeling of your old Ago blanket and can now use it to cover yourself. After this, leaving home will always feel like the motion of air plunging in your chest when they decide to abandon the task of housing your chaos in their calm. Be careful.

6. I must admit I was skeptical when you announced you would be writing about this topic. These days I have little interest in what people like you have to say about where you come from. I have struggled through poem after novel after TED talk about visa applications and phone area codes, accents that can make anyone feel at ease from Marrakech to Des Moines. I thought I was going to have to scold you for glorifying the privilege you enjoy to be able to shuffle between time zones without fear of being fenced in with others seeking refuge, sifting mud between their toes while they wait, praying the children can eat leaves for dinner one more time before shaking and seizing and ceasing to be. Everyone here is fed up of humoring all your –politan ways. For the last time, if it is obsessing you to the point of tedium in this way, pack your things and arrange for a ticket heading in the right direction.

7. Writing home has a high cost. I have to pay for postage for my thoughts to pass through places I have seen only in words and not in flesh. What is the destination?

 (Image: These are probably the best group photos in my family’s history since the times my aunts were forced to wear matching dresses, one always in red, the other in blue.)

Why Must You Be-

It really is a shame. We could have sat together in that foggy purgatory somewhere just outside history, dangling our legs over the edges of the pages and laughing when our dirty feet smudged the print. Blurry renderings of distant cousins and vague portraits with lumpy faces- poor representations of the greatness we never got the chance to enjoy together. But instead you reject my open palm, criss-crossed with lines as long as the many miles you walked away from me. You sneer at the unavoidable cadence of my step, the rhythm undercutting each movement- how unnecessary, how foreign. Why must you be like that, why must you be-

So I will try to win you over with my voice, lure you with the songs plucked on instruments whose names have long been forgotten and tunes that I was never taught, melodies that I can’t begin to remember, that you can only imagine in the most fleeting of thoughts- ghost memories fading and intensifying constantly, but never vibrant enough to pin to a bulletin board, trap in a photo frame and rub your hands lovingly across the glass barrier. It’s no surprise that my voice burns the blood in your veins, inside-out inferno- please STOP. Why must you be at all? Why must you be-

You. Reminder. Scapegoat. Neighbors in that other hazy dimension somewhere apart from history, where civilization only began on Greenwich Mean Time, or with sundials- how did they tell time in ancient Mali? Caricature. “Native intellectual”. What are you trying to prove? Your very existence threatens mine, your supposed authenticity holds a dagger to my resolute neck, veins trembling unwittingly in anticipation of the-

Slice. Away the layers of playground name-calling and experts and pundits explaining- the complexity of the interaction between- a people apart- one people, different what? Is a color still a color if no-one else was there to see God tattoo it on that canvas of cells and nerve-endings? Oh I thought you were just regular- who do you think  you are anyway- why can’t we all just get along- I promise it all started with a misunderstanding- gold was so abundant you see almost a nuisance, we thought they were stupid to want the dust we were washing off our feet in seas that had not yet developed such a wild appetite for blood and bones- when will we stop explaining- history does not care.

Doesn’t care to get to know you better, beyond tired minstrels and-stay away from those people- do you think we worked  so hard to bring you here to waste your time on street corners- but we are the same- shut up and go to bed- be careful with those people they will hate you because they are jealous-insecure- devious- why can’t you just be normal?

Why must you be

Proud. Visible. Unapologetic.

Why must you be at all.

I intentionally didn’t put too many tags on this to see if you could follow where my thoughts were going. On a related note:

http://africa.si.edu/2014/09/conversations-african-and-african-american-artworks-in-dialogue-opens-november-9-2014/