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.

People Like “Us”

It’s not your fault. You’ve lost your way. I imagine that now when you look in the mirror your reflection is a stranger, that prodigal son that emerged from the harmattan haze only to find a lone drummer and a one-legged chicken not yet slaughtered. A lackluster welcome.

You’ve forgotten who you are. You’ve traded in that sweet soul for dreams of rooftop views and designer labels, and success, no matter the cost at which it comes. And imaginary friends you pull out of the air; you take them to bed with you and you’re still cold. They adorn your vanity with insincere praise; abstract appreciation and tiny unnatural hearts crowning a head filled with hot air. (It’s great to be “liked” isn’t it?)

Are you not aware that people like us don’t suffer from this? I can’t even call this suffering. Your mothers toiled endlessly, and their sweat was the only moisture to kiss the unrelenting earth. They cracked their nails and spirits, trying to cajole something, anything at all to sprout from the stingy soil. And where were you? Lamenting a supposed loneliness you have created for yourself. You barricaded yourself in a palace of haughtiness, held up by the beams of your superior intellect and all-round virtue, and you scorned any visitors, accusing them of jealousy. Anyone that tried to reach beyond those walls was met with the sting of thorns, barbed wire, fingernails filed to a point.

Lonely? Depressed? Child, people like us are all too familiar with these emotions. They are states of being rather than transient moments of feeling and experience. Your mothers’ leathery skin thickened to contain the void of disappointment and meaningless futures within, and to keep the useless promises of hope out. Theirs was a grim fate, a funeral shroud used as a baptism gown. The threshold of their worlds began and ended at the entrance of the homestead. Meanwhile your horizon remains limitless. What is there to cry about?

People like us don’t do this. Wipe that ungrateful face and suck in your belly, round and satisfied with too much meat. Straighten that back, and watch that slovenly swaying of hips. You don’t need that rest you take everyday, “to clear your head.” People like us are more useful, more instrumental and less ornamental. What a disappointment you have turned out to be.

Air Conditioned Denial

He rolled up the sleek, tinted windows of his brand new, elegantly understated car, his status symbol, the signal that he had finally “arrived” in Accra.  Ivy league degree firmly tucked in his back pocket; he was poised on the edge of success much like a nervous bird teetering on the tip of a frayed tree branch.  He had very lofty but very vague ideas about “urban development” and “corruption in the Third World” and he was convinced that his senior seminars with titles such as these had equipped him with enough knowledge to turn the whole rotten system around. “Just give me 5 years, I have this all figured out!”

He was bolstered by the support of his doting parents who never missed an opportunity to slip him into the monotonous conversations held with cold acquaintances during fundraisers at the African Regent. “He has foresight, vision, you know. And he actually cares about Ghana! Our boy is going places!” Their boastful encouragement buoyed his ego like indulgent ocean waves lovingly propelling a little tugboat along. He was the little canoe that could.  Energized, he donned his white button-down shirt ironed and starched into submission by the house help.  He sped off through the tree-lined streets of East Legon, optimism bubbling forth as he looked around at all the “progress” and “potential” ready and waiting for him to tap into. Somehow he missed the droves of homeless and mentally ill knocking pitifully on his tinted windows asking for some money for the day’s lone meal. After all, if they worked hard like he did they would be where he was. As far as he was concerned, the American dream came wrapped in a fresh green plantain leaf.

Interview after interview, in buildings that all began to look alike with their stuffy rooms and dust-coated fans ticking away until lunchtime, and he still had no job offers. Irritable public servants, and non-profit workers, and bank HR managers scoffed at the affected American drawl and the gleaming cufflinks. “Look at this small boy too. He thinks his father is a big man and so what. Mtchew. NEXT!” His broad shoulders began to lose the confidence and strength they exuded, four years of varsity rowing gone to waste. He began to moan bitterly about the heat, the mosquitoes, the eternity spent waiting in line to pay phone bills. His parents grew more and more agitated, watching their wunderkind turn into just another failed returnee. He spent many more nights slumped over the bar at Republic, guzzling stylized locally-inspired cocktails and reminiscing with college classmates about the subway, and that one Moroccan restaurant in the Meatpacking District. His tank of enthusiasm was running below empty, his high school girlfriend no longer picked up his calls. What did she need him for? She’d started seeing a minister, yes that notorious minister with gold teeth flashing in his lascivious smile and a shiny European car. She had no time for dreamers.

The dusty streets of Accra lost their luster, and our dear boy began making plans to return to the States. Sorry young man, you don’t have all the answers.  Perhaps you should’ve rolled down the windows years ago and let the scent of fried yam and clogged drains waft into your nostrils.  You were never as in touch as you thought you were. The African kid on the rowing team, yeah he’s mad chill. The returnee waiting for Mother Ghana to embrace him with open arms? No, not so much.