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.

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 usually have a strong aversion to 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. Yet, I feel as though it’s important to have the facts clear.

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 Louverture’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 as well, 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 and as generously 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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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.