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.

The Pen Would Always Find Her

She cut her teeth on Cry the Beloved Country, and Maya Angelou’s defiant biography nursed her growing pains.  Matilda and What Katy Did were quickly discarded for more irreverent works. She craved writing that didn’t feel safe and homely, writing that was definitely inappropriate for a girl her age. Her appetite for books was insatiable, and yet, it grew to become a natural part of her being. Devouring books for breakfast, or in the car on the long commute home, or on the toilet before bed, were everyday occurrences for her. She laughed a raucous, daring laugh with Sula and played with the children in Anita Desai’s luscious garden in the balmy Indian sunset.  She was never really curled up in an old armchair in a small house on a dusty street somewhere in Accra; she was watching in awe as the owner of the plantation controlled Liana so effortlessly and mean-spiritedly, and she wept when Pecola finally found her blue eyes.

So how did she get here? How did she reach this place where she constantly asked herself, “What would Chimamanda do?” She looked at her feeble reflection in the window flecked with the unseasonal December rain. The smudged louver blades created a disjointed reflection that appeared to shake its head slowly in disgust at its sorry excuse for an owner. Chimamanda Adichie, who she was convinced was her more powerful alter ego (sort of like Sasha Fierce except infinitely more intellectual and without the faux-feminist beauty pageant finish), would most certainly disapprove of her apathy. Writing was supposed to be a release; her private getaway to a flawless white beach with water that was such a striking shade of blue it hurt the eyes in a single glance. Maybe her protagonist would have piercing blue eyes? A little black girl with blue eyes and an unruly bush perched in the center of her head? How obvious. Tell me again how you’re the new age lovechild of Toni Morrison and Virginia Woolf? Doesn’t that just make you crazy with a hint of soul? Writing was both her fountain of youth and her kryptonite, and yet she sat twiddling her proverbial thumbs idly in front of a blank white screen, with the specters of Yaa Asantewaa and the long forgotten ancestral mothers glaring down at her with eyes ablaze, “What a disgrace! We thought you would be strong like us!”

Clearly delusional, she slammed her state-of-the-art laptop shut. It had been a gift from her publishers after the signing of her very first contract and she remembered the uninviting cold of its metal surface as she rubbed her hands back and forth over its cover, feigning a benevolent smile as she attempted to choke back tears of fright, and regret, and “Did I make the right choice?” She blinked furiously in the non-existent glare of the naked overhead bulb, attempting to fight those same salty tears that lurked behind her eyelids, threatening to burst forth with a vengeance the minute someone uttered the word “deadline” or “Pulitzer”. The computer hummed and came to a slow halt, and in the silence that followed she confronted her empty future like she had done a hundred times before. The engagement called off in favor of the good little wife freshly called to the Ghana bar. Ghana Barbie: fully equipped with an innocuous smile, crisply pressed black robes and dainty wig, and an unbelievably fine-tuned recipe for groundnut soup (batteries not included.) But of course she’s only going to the chambers twice a week, twins on the way after all! The relatives clucking with disappointment, jowls quivering in shame as they hash out what a waste of a scholarship she had turned into. A dozen missed calls and text alerts flashing on her phone screen like the feverish strobe lights in some sick adaptation of her life, Quentin Tarantino style. Only this time, instead of a heroine squeezed into a bright yellow bodysuit, she felt about as invincible as the sickly gecko crawling on the once- turquoise wall of the childhood room she still called home. She answered the landline with a resounding sigh, “Yes, I am serious about this writing thing…”