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.
Happy New Year! And we’re back to our regularly scheduled programming…
It has been a long 8 years, but Sunday morning has finally arrived and your white linen is hanging stiffly around your body, hardened by starch and lack of wear. The congregation mumbles their way through the hymn before the sermon, and you try to ignore the sweat dripping down the side of your face into your collar, the smell of perfumed powder cut through with sweat, and the back of a dusty wardrobe-old cloth shaken out and worn only for special occasions such as this
The “increase” you have been fasting and praying for is here. Later, the celebration will take place in a pointed white tent, its interior draped with chiffon and washed in purple light. Gospel songs will be remixed to include the name of your benefactor: we thank God that he has showered you with blessings. You have done your duty, worn the right colors, lobbied outside locked doors in ministries for hours for 5 minutes to pay your respects, to pay for your forms to be considered for a little longer before they are tossed in the shredder or at the bottom of the big man’s out tray beneath invoices
–per diem for staff training payable to–
Your time is now; you deserve this. Contracts that have stalled will now come complete with a narrow sign board stamped with your name and that of your company, school fees will no longer involve shifting around funds from other parts of the budget, or borrowing from relatives who are better off but begrudging. You will see appointments to a small advisory board for deciding the color of street name signs, maybe even scholarships and opportunities for your children to study abroad, or at least at a private university somewhere on the outskirts of Accra, invites to the most talked about weddings and opportunities for your white linen to loosen up from frequent use and proximity to luxury
The pastor screams POWER IS MOVING! The church rumbles in chorus Amen! Meanwhile, you, sitting at the back in your righteous disdain for all the people you dismiss as social climbers, you typing this account at a frenetic pace, trying to atone for sinful acts you didn’t have a choice but to partake in. You tell yourself, it’s just the way things are around here, you say, it’s a question of survival. You are usually law-abiding and resistant to the decadence festering about you, you will sit in the waiting room at DVLA with the air conditioning sputtering and groaning to cool a room full of increasingly restless people for 3,4,5 hours with a book you’re reading for the second time, have I really been waiting this long?
But you see, this time is different. You’re hoping to travel to Lagos in the new year and you need this passport before then and you just *hate* to do this…so you will give a regretful grimace-like smile to the mother whose child will not stop crying, the man whose lunch break is almost over and pretend you don’t see their eyes rolling in frustration, they know how this works, they owe you no pleasantries
It doesn’t matter how
uncomfortable you are how
deferential you are how
many “good mornings” and how
much earnest eye contact you make you can’t ignore the way jammed doors creak open, how impatient frowns ease into knowing smirks, this is HIS niece and no one ever has to utter his name for all the officials to follow the other protocol for people with your sort of connections
No one knows or cares how many jobs you’re holding down outside, the difference in status elsewhere for someone with your blackness and woman-ness.
The single digits dwindling in your bank account still come out green when you withdraw cash
You will only be able to disassociate yourself so far from the power pulling out thrones from under certain backsides and placing velvet pillows beneath others, power that operates silently in the background no matter which colors fly from the majority of windows and rear view mirrors
It’s Sunday morning, and you can keep your pretentious musings to yourself, like the fact that even where we worship is determined by how many zeros we write onto our tax returns (if we pay them) and how well we can roll r’s on demand in front of the window at the US embassy. Or how odd it is for us to be nostalgic for a time when we would not have been able to dirty the polished marble floors of the kinds of hotels we now enjoy, even in our best shoes: Gold Coast City, Villa, Manor, Castle, Colonial Suites… Power is moving in the same halls it has always adorned with its presence by way of framed black and white portraits of “freedom” brokers, it is trapped tightly in the fists that will punch the shoe shine boys and street hawkers in the stomach and the pocket, it is a generational blessing the leftovers of which you can only taste when those who are most “blessed” and most “hardworking,” most deserving and in possession of the most contacts have had their share
keep quiet and unfold your white hanky, wave it high, give praises to democracy working to kill as it always has and always will
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 the bodies of people who looked very much like you who were snatched at night, who were dragged from terrified families, that were traded for some schnapps, who 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 reaching to your windows misted over from the condensation of the cold AC meeting the hot glass. You can toss a few coins to the children grabbing at the pockets of your designer jeans as you exit the club, and maybe you’ll donate last year’s clothes to an orphanage knowing that you’ve done your civic duty.
And there you are safe, and the police yes sah and yes madam to your slippery accent and their giant rifles might as well be water guns because they would never dream of turning them on a big somebody like you. There you are safe, and blackness is only remarked upon when your grandma complains you have stayed out in the sun too long, or when the finest girl in the class is the shade of the inside of the palm you will use to try and get a feel of her wavy hair, or when the waiter is rude to you at a luxury resort full of white people turning red in the sun and you will shout at him, spit flying and veins threatening to explode: “Heh do you know who I am???”
Back home you are safe, and you are not a try-too-hard laughing a little louder and sharper because you don’t want to kill the vibe when your white friends are at a house party singing along in unison: “at least a nigger nigger rich” and making sure you hear the R at the end. You will roll that ‘r’ onto the ends of words like “wadur,” and insert them unnecessarily in words like Sakumono– you are safe.
But you don’t know that now you are living in the West African Headquarters of Keeping up Appearances. Your parents will list all your Latin honors when you shuffle into the living room after rolling out of bed at 1pm on a Tuesday and you will threaten to slap the house help for burning a hole through your silk shirt. Or maybe you won’t even speak to her except for a curt “Thank you” with the ends clipped off, at least everything is dignified you see. She has a uniform and has been working for your family for years, and maybe she has kids in the village somewhere but you really don’t know or care, and you definitely didn’t see her crying in the pantry after your father denied her permission to go home and attend to some sick relative.
You are safe, and the driver will warn you to avert your eyes when the neighborhood people are about to burn an armed robber with some old tires and kerosene and you will shake your head and kiss your teeth, why do these people always have to resort to such behavior? And you will flinch when the front pages of Saturday tabloids are covered with the image of dead bodies of people who were only guilty of loving each other in a way that your parents’ Bible does not permit and you know it’s wrong but Ghana is safe, who asked them to display their love in public–
Now you are safe and you don’t have to let the white girl get away with anything and everything because she’ll cry if you try to point out her privilege– you are in a dive bar and all her friends are hitting you with drunken, slow punches and you know if you don’t leave soon, you won’t be safe because you will definitely be painted as the aggressor and the police will ensure that you don’t make it to the next morning. But now you are safe and this white girl is different and she cares about Africa’s development with a big ‘D’ and she loves black people, until she has a black daughter she is terrified and envious of and will drag a fine toothed comb without water or coconut oil through the same curls you used to admire on the girl that sat in front of you in class. But you are all safe–
And you will wrinkle your nose when the drains are too ripe and there are parts of the city you will never see. The tires of your car cannot roll over un-tarred roads, but they have built in treads for crushing the backs of the people who have been bought and sold, who are still being bought and sold, so you can sit over drinks on Friday night and celebrate how far hard work has brought you.
And you are safe because on your way home the policeman will wave you past the checkpoint with a flash of the torch and his teeth, even though you both know your “something small for the weekend” is what allowed him to ignore your expired license and the Jack Daniels mist hanging around your head. There you are safe, because the only way you will become a hashtag is if you become a local celebrity known for taking girls on dates with the intention of raping them or if you develop an app that is only useful to tourists looking for a good time and Ghanaians who have data bundles and iPhones manufactured wherever it’s cheapest. And the only slur you will know is the average Ghanaian because you are definitely not average you are special and you are safe.
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.
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.
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!
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.)
Today there is only your favorite song playing on the radio, and your freshly washed feet meeting the cool of the tiled floor. Right now your life is a little country music cliché and a lot of laughter because no one can understand what a banjo and some blues have to do with you all the way here in Adenta. This very moment is the first lick of a FanPop, even more refreshing because the weather is…well we would know if we checked (although we never do) but it’s probably 33 degrees celsius, like yesterday, today and for a million tomorrows. This is your hand nestled in his palm, slightly sweaty but just enough for you to ignore it and continue to paddle in your contentment, the breeze whisking your braids in your face, and a wave running through the spaces between your toes and back into the ocean.
Something is out of joint. This is more than a fog settling on the horizon, something more disturbing than a bad omen. More than the twisted ankle you got that day you tried to grasp the branch just fingertips out of reach. The darkest storm clouds are swirling in the middle of harmattan. Something unnatural has occurred, like a hand reaching beyond the chest and squeezing the heart ever so slightly. The once-eager cadets in their shiny uniforms are offbeat and out of step, gold buttons hanging by a thread on the front of their jackets. Our mothers would say the gods have been angered. Welcome to dysfunction, where the owners of the house are long past the point of keeping up appearances. They have inherited a homestead in ruins, a place haunted by the phantoms of its torrid past. A relic, a shrine to fallen greatness long forgotten, stands in the place where the Atlantic once kissed shores littered with gold dust and “undiscovered” treasures. A view of the past filtered through the longing of sepia-toned lenses is necessary, to demonstrate just how weak the foundations have become.
Welcome to a place where the owners of the house stopped trying generations ago to cover the cracks with lashings of whitewash, whitewash spilled everywhere, whitewash smothered on the curb to demonstrate prosperity and booming bank balances for the visitors. And yet the real heirs to this relic are the ones who suffer. They have become tenants, squatters even, as they watch their protectors sell away what’s left of their inheritance, brick by crumbling brick. Where food once burst forth from the ground, now only weeds and parasites deign to sprout. The owners have carried the juiciest fruit away to foreign lands, only to bring back a glossy product encased with slogans and false hope, promising to transform lives. That new car means an automatic promotion, a house in a gated community, and water that flows all the time and not when it so chooses, (almost as though a petulant child is tampering with the source just to annoy those dreadful people who think they are important because they happen to be taller.) That bar of chocolate and bottle of purified water mean that your hair (also imported) will flow behind you, driven by an invisible fan, as you step into the world of your dreams.
Dreams sold at exorbitant prices, after all…(“Abeg you know petrol has gone higher ooh”). Dreams built on the backs of a few people’s hard work, only for an even smaller select few to enjoy. But what haven’t you already heard? Worry is welded to the faces of everyone you know. Anxiety is a permanent and unwanted houseguest, that relative that promises to leave once they’re back on their feet, but is still there after years of “weighing the best options”. Furrowed foreheads are the latest accessories and a chorus of deep sighs is sweeping across language barriers, and ages, and degrees, and classes. Actually, maybe not classes. Trust is an antiquated abstraction that has been filed away in case a use is found for it somewhere in the distant future. And the house owners pretend to sympathize, but they hide behind inappropriate jokes and poorly timed pep talks, relying on that staple sense of humor to make it through.
You are now entering dysfunction, where the tenants can see the reflection of their distended bellies in the tinted windows of the new toy the owner brought home today. Even the neighbors who used to peek disdainfully through the hedge at those “other people” are now beginning to feel the outrage. Can we break off this shiny metal and turn it into something useful? Burn it to ignite a fire in the deactivated consciences of those who have sat idly while the house continued to crash around our heads, or those who actively dismantled it, a piece of gravel here, a louver blade there. Now the neighbors and distant relatives are clamoring to be heard. But the landlord’s primary interest is keeping the title deeds clutched tightly to his chest, or balled up in the same fist he uses to shower blows on a populace on their knees. But you see, now, outrage has become a legitimate emotion to express. It has been signed in triplicate and has sat on a civil servant’s desk for six months. It has even been rubber-stamped, notarized, sealed with wax and has obtained all the relevant permits. It has been brought before committees and tribunals and found worthy. It has also been discussed in ministry offices, barbershops, chop bars, and over brunch at the latest hotspot. It’s official; dysfunction may be here to stay?
All animals are equal, but some are more equal than others.