A List of Quiet Things

“A list of quiet things: the sun, snakes, stars, Aminah’s heart every morning, the thick forest surrounding Wofa Sarpong’s farm, seeds, millet seedlings bursting from seeds, the furry mold sprouting on everything, Hassana since arriving on the farm, Wofa Sarpong entering Aminah and Hassana’s room at night, his excited exhalations, Hassana breathing by Aminah, Wofa Sarpong slinking out, the night, heaviness falling and contouring every part of Aminah till morning came, Wofa Sarpong’s wives on the goings-on in Aminah’s room, moonlight.”

-page 86, The Hundred Wells of Salaga by Ayesha Harruna Attah

 

For a person who talks so loud and so much, one would be surprised to know how often I choose silence (here as well). Maybe other only children or people who were the youngest siblings by far can understand the fact of inhabiting worlds that you’ve mostly imagined and rarely or never share with other people.

Choosing silence used to feel freeing; it meant climbing trees I was too scared to jump down from, inventing languages only I could understand, and reveling in the sweet secrecy of it all. Sometimes it still feels this way, like when I laugh to myself as I witness irate passengers on the Orange Line huffing and puffing as though it will make the train move faster/make it less crowded or more fragrant-smelling, or when I think the funniest thought while crossing the street made all the more hilarious because I know I will never repeat it to anyone else. Sometimes, it feels like receiving good news and keeping it to myself for a few days or weeks, not because I doubt that I deserve the news, but just to savor it privately like smiling behind my own hand.

This evening, I’m choosing silence only to a certain extent, because writing this blog still feels like speaking out loud, except that I’m free to withhold or conceal whatever I want in a way I probably couldn’t if I called a friend or a relative in tears. I’m choosing silence because no matter how many times I’m convinced of the contrary, I’m always seeking confirmation for what I believe to be true, which is that my frightening lows and exuberant highs are too confusing and just too much to expect other people to navigate with me.

This silence looks like scrolling through my phone and coming up with reasons not to call each name that flashes across the screen: it’s too late there; she’s been a little distant lately and is probably struggling herself; she is definitely struggling herself; they are definitely struggling themselves; she has exams to prepare for; she is teaching; she will panic; she has too much work already and too many responsibilities; he will worry too much and call everyone else; so will he; it’s too late there.

Then there are also the warnings from recent and more distant pasts: [don’t call because] you will eventually overdo it; you will confuse/overwhelm/frustrate; you will bring down the mood; you will be too negative; you will be an uncomfortable presence other people will have to tiptoe around when they are also trying to be well; your sadness is inconvenient and even worse, contagious; you will take up too much space, you will confuse/overwhelm/frustrate– as an aside, I met someone new, but he has disappeared and reappeared and disappeared again, and I fear that it may be because I have shared too much and confused and overwhelmed and frustrated him. It’s also possible he’s just trifling. Who knows?

Today is a Tuesday, which means a long day, but not as bad as Mondays when I split my day between two different jobs. Today’s silence sounds like drumming my acrylic nails on the desk for exaggerated comedic effect, and talking faster and louder and trying to land more punchlines and more laughs. It sounds like responding to several text threads, gifs included, through tears as if nothing is wrong. It sounds like comforting and encouraging someone I admire with a gentleness and conviction that I rarely if ever show myself. It sounds like trying to cry quietly while I call my therapist’s voicemail box, and trying even harder when I hear my roommate in the other room because I don’t want to worry her (I get through because luckily the therapist happens to be working late.) It sounds like my phone buzzing on my bedside table from the people I did try to contact asking if everything is ok. I know I will not answer tonight. Maybe tomorrow, so I can say, “Thanks for checking in. I’m fine!”

Even in this post, I’m saying a lot without saying much at all. What I am able to say out loud is that I am working at a place where I feel my soul bowing down a little when I walk through the door. It feels that dire because I witness and experience all kinds of belittling and disrespect almost daily, and because I see so much wealth and power being hoarded in the name of “justice and equity” or “meeting goals and targets” or “turning theory into action,” meanwhile the world grows ill and dies while we have an unfair share of the necessary remedies. (If you know where I work you will probably ask why I expected it to be different). I am so exhausted and also ashamed for feeling this way, because I would not exist if my mothers did not have the fortitude (something I fear I am lacking or deficient in) to choose to live in the ways they did. I also know they would not want me to despair.

Because of this shame, I was hesitant to include the quote in full at the top of this page, for fear that it would appear as if I was drawing a disrespectful parallel between my life and Aminah’s experience of being commodified and enslaved in colonial era Ghana. Aminah lives most of the novel in her mind, and more importantly she was written in honor of the author’s own great-great-grandmother who was enslaved in Ghana during that era. Aminah means so much to me because she is almost always turned towards herself and her internal life, and I was lucky enough to be able to share this impression with Ayesha Harruna Attah, the author, when I interviewed her at an event at the Boston Public Library a few weeks ago. Most importantly, I love Aminah because she occupied a similar time period as my own great-great-grandmother, whose story I hope to honor one day.

My own list of quiet things continues to grow, especially because it includes memories and events I’m still terrified to think about, let alone to speak aloud. I’m choosing silence just for this evening but hopefully not for long after this, as I know that I can only poison myself eventually if I continue to hold some of these things in. I am trying to remember that I am not too much for seeking to be heard and loved in particular ways, and also that not everyone I choose will be able or willing to choose me and my breaking silence.

 

 

A Rendering

still working on turning a loving gaze on myself, but it’s easier to hide behind abstractions than to write plainly some of the things that have been on my mind lately…

***

“What the author has[…] An aspect […] A misplaced photograph she finds at times in a mirror.”

-“Verso” pp. 172, The Blue Clerk, Dionne Brand

I stretched my left hand out of the mirror and towards myself so I could feel with my fingertips the point where self and reflection were indistinguishable, mostly because I was hoping it would burn or at least sting to look on and experience one’s own self with something other than contempt, maybe not exactly with admiration, but at least curiosity, or an openness to being.

So I stretched out my hand expecting to breach in some way the naturally cruel ordering of things in which I am to understand that my self is only able to exist in so far as it is pliable and easy to dismantle, but not too brittle or quick to crumble, just willing to endure the swallowing of small indignities daily, followed by certain destruction.

 

But aside from the uncomfortable slip and slide of the mirror’s surface—old toothpaste-tainted water and fingerprints marked in hair oil—our meeting was basically painless. The slickness of the mirror’s [un]clean meant that I didn’t really feel the pieces of glass burrowing into the most fleshy parts of my palms. She did though, and she frowned at me, or at self, or together, as I continued to climb out, hardly taking an eye off our face except to avoid the wet places on the countertop so I wouldn’t fall.

“And both of them, all they could do was give birth to fragments of possible selves and then more fragments of themselves would sit in a window…”

-“Verso 2.3.1” pp. 18, The Blue Clerk, Dionne Brand

There was no splinter in the continuity of space and time; the sound of the neighbors now crying, then laughing continued in that muffled way like they were screaming into pillows, the on and off clicks of light switches in the next room went on with their usual sharp efficiency, engines stuttered and growled outside, fighting the freeze of February air. There was nothing monumental about this sort of reflection, this deliberate self-regard.

Your vision is blurry because when the tear film is dry, the light scatters.

-optician’s office on a Monday afternoon waiting to hear how much of my sight neglect may have cost me

I, (the reflection), and me, (the self of whom I am the imperfect likeness), had in the near past been spreading out and searching for the fragments we were wherever we could. We sought glimpses of our self in the glass of someone else’s eye, shining with want and momentary care that lasted only until the want subsided or was sated. We caught our self in refractions between spots of rust on a silver door handle, and again in the water-stained window of a store we would never think to enter—

“La façade en miroir d’une vitrine me renvoya le reflet de mon visage. Je n’en crus pas mes yeux […] Oui, j’étais une étrangère et c’était la première fois que je m’en rendais compte.”

Le baobab fou, Ken Bugul, pp. 59-60

In pieces and not enough, we began to despair. I, reflection, watched me, self, turn against us. She pressed a powder compact into our palm so fiercely its glass shattered and dripped grainy brown and red sliding to a stop at our wrist. I shouted at me to stop, but our scream was one and the same. She could not hear. We scoured our wound into the sink and scoured our mind for people we knew we would not ask for help for fear that they saw us too clearly­—

…but I guess I was tweeting hoping someone would reach out. Thank you for always seeing me

-sent 9:43PM

 I see you, my brilliant child. You’ll be okay.

-received 9:49PM

 So, I and me, we have decided to turn to our self. We are new to our self, maybe even a little infatuated. Knowing that the world will not halt its terror and its magnificence neither for me nor for I, we turn to our self with kindness, and as if we know we are the most miraculous thing we have.

“-Don’t you go nowhere, mirror bitch.

-Where imma go?”

-Insecure Season 4, Ep. 4, “Fresh Like.” (1:19)

(Images by me: my bathroom mirror featuring the incredible Carrie Mae Weems, my reflection in a glass case holding a mask from the DRC at the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston, an old mirror selfie after a haircut I hated)

 

 

 

 

Feeling Womanish

I was planning to write to you about some things I’m bringing into 2019 that I wish I wasn’t, things like shame and insecurity and other such emotional experiences that often feel awkward to explain and almost untouchable when presented in front of other people. I was going to describe my teetering between constantly feeling guilty for often failing at being the compassionate and capable  friend/daughter/colleague I would like to be, and trying to be more conscious of the effects of my actions on others without making myself the center of or solution to their problems when I am not.

Or more daunting; the guilt of seeking pursuits just for the sake of my personal joy, like writing, and dreaming; for potentially letting my mum down if I don’t make her work worth it, followed by the guilt of passing back over the same insecurities for the thousandth time, and the shame of not being over hurtful words and actions that are now years old.

you always use your emotions to justify your bad behavior; you’re selfish; you care too much what other people think; you were trying so hard to be perfect, weren’t you; you’re being irrational; you can’t handle someone like me; your feelings are less important to me than hers; you’re acting like this after a few weeks, how do you think she feels;  you know I’m a bully, right?

More daunting still, the guilt of daring to look down on myself after all my foremothers have been through to give me life, for my weakness next to their fortitude, as though they would be ashamed of me if they could see how easy it was for my self-worth to be tossed around on the tides of circumstances and the changing whims and opinions of other people.

I would continue by detailing all of my flaws I am deeply aware of, (I won’t because I’ve done so over and over on this blog, as you know) the missteps, personal and professional, that in my mind have proven that I am an irredeemable mess. All this followed by the guilt induced by Toni Morrison’s disapproval, definitely imagined because of course I don’t know her in person. I assume she would disapprove of my incessant chorus of “I’m terrible and unworthy, and here are all the reasons why” because I once heard a clip from an interview where she explained how she would tell her students that she doesn’t want to read about them or their grandmas, encouraging them instead to inhabit and write about the lives of people very different from themselves, to build empathy and to concern themselves with human experiences beyond themselves. But instead, here I am doing this, fixated on the tip of my own nose. So, I’m also failing the “What Would Toni Morrison Do” test in my mind at least.

womanishtwitterheader3

As always, I turned to books for comfort and advice, not wanting to bother anyone else with problems I believe are imaginary or “not that serious” on most days. In her latest work, Womanish: A Grown Black Woman Speaks on Love and Life, Kim McLarin writes about what it means to be a Black woman who loves herself and is fully in possession of that self, about what it means to be womanish. She also has an essay aptly titled “On Self-Delusion” which I have returned to several times since finishing the book in just over a day. Following a series of “I” statements she refers to as “self-deceptions” that include “I am more misunderstood than the average person,” “I am angry but my anger is righteous and thereby justified,” and “I don’t hurt others, others hurt me,” she writes,

“These seven sentences share a common theme and a common word: I. This both is and is not egotistical, in the sense that all human beings are egocentric and all writing is egotistical…and yet, if that writing is worthwhile, it endeavors to point to something true beyond itself.” (Womanish, pg. 103).

This passage means so much to me because it arrived in a moment where I seemed to need to read it the most, as most of Kim’s words often did when she was my thesis advisor. I don’t think I’ve ever told her how I would re-read her writing on her mental health when I felt most like it would be better for everyone else if I wasn’t around, and even on days when I didn’t feel that way. She recognized how low I was feeling in grad school as I continued to sink lower, and she printed out things for me to read, sent me a therapist’s contact information, and gave me her cellphone number. I knew I wouldn’t use it because I didn’t want to be a bother, but it was a huge comfort to know that she saw me. I definitely haven’t told her that I was always wishing I could prolong our thesis meetings beyond the one-hour we had just so I could hang out with her— Did you see that article? Oh God did I tell you what this classmate said to me?

Maybe “her advice was right on time” is a little cliché, especially when she is the person who has given me some of the most vital guidance about the sort of writer I want to be in the world. But that’s how it feels, especially coming from a woman I admire who is actually grown, and not what grown looks like according to my *yikes-I’m-three-years from thirty-and-still-a-mess* perspective. I’m trying to learn how I can re-orient the ways I think about myself, to be honest to myself without being cruel, and to use my writing “to point to something true” for those who read it. (The intensely negative thoughts and self-perceptions might be delusions too.)

bealestreet
Still from If Beale Street Could Talk (dir. Barry Jenkins, 2018) This shot is of the stunning Kiki Layne who plays Tish in the film.

So instead of continuing to dwell on how I’m failing as a person, I’m deciding to think about Barry Jenkins’ film adaptation of James Baldwin’s novel If Beale Street Could Talk which I saw  with a dear friend recently, and about how much Jenkins loves Black people through every frame, and about how I felt loved in each moment as I watched, and how I want people reading my work to feel loved in the same way, and about how I want the light in every scene of fiction I write to be as perfectly illuminating of beautiful and painful parts of Black people’s lives as the lighting in Jenkins’ work. I want to show to myself and to others the same kind of fortifying love that Ernestine shows when she says to Tish, “Unbow your head, sister.” Even as much as I allowed myself to be caught up in the beauty of the film and its soundtrack, I’m also thinking about Baldwin’s portrayals of women, and about how Kim, who knows more about his work than anyone else I know, loves him enough to recognize that the women and mothers in his work are somehow incomplete, their images distorted through the patriarchal lens that even Baldwin saw through.

Thank you for reading, and for letting me know that you see something about yourself in what I write, and for bearing witness as I attempt to turn that loving gaze on myself while lying to myself (and to you) a little less.

 

 

My Intention is to Survive

This post is full of a lot of “my mother always says.” She can’t help being so wise. One of these sayings is “Start as you mean to go on.” I can’t be silent until I’m an important enough somebody to speak up. What’s the guarantee I’ll speak up then, if my silence is what helped me to “make it” in the first place? As Queen Zora Neale Hurston, said, “If you are silent about your pain, they’ll kill you and say you enjoyed it.”

***

I sometimes have these moments where I’m convinced Issa Rae is going to jump out from behind a pillar and yell, “Cut!” It’s very possible I’m just narcissistic because I’m a Leo (if you believe in what the stars have to say), or because I’m an only child and a writer (if you don’t). Let’s consider the stats for a moment: irritating mid-twenties millennial, owns brightly-colored coats with ridiculous sleeves that are always too extra for any given weather or occasion, acts like she’s too feminist for Migos but secretly knows her fair share of Takeoff verses. And honestly, I would probably be at brunch more often if I lived somewhere that wasn’t Boston and if I could afford it. You see where I’m coming from?

Anyway, on this particular evening, I was on my usual walk through the covered car park on my way home, hysterically crying on the phone to my mum. Sadly, Issa didn’t jump out—she never does—and that’s because the scenario was more bleak than I have tried to make it out to be with the slightly cheesy Insecure-themed humor. “I’m exhausted,” I said “I don’t know what giving up looks like, but I’m ready to do it.” At this point my voice is bouncing off the walls and all around the car park, but in my experience people tend to give crying strangers a wide berth no matter how hard to ignore they might be. I can’t say I blame them. After all, Effie we all got pain.

As always, my mum is wise and calm in a way I’m not sure I will ever be. She asked, what does giving up look like? Moving home? I would absolutely find something to do. It’s not like people aren’t making incredible art in spite of the difficulties around structural support (I’m also not saying it’s easy to do so). I would be home, there’s nothing shameful in that. Except it implies that home would somehow be more tenable, that I would automatically be more at peace in a way that isn’t always possible in Boston.

As soon as the words are out of my mouth I realize how twisted it is for me to perceive “moving home” as a sign of failure, as if those who are striving, thriving, making their art and making their way in the world are somehow carving some lesser path than the one on which I find myself because I happen to be abroad while they are not. And as my mother reminded me, there would be nothing necessarily easier about being a young woman with lots of opinions and little fear to express them just because I would be in Accra and not Boston. My mother is brilliant, and  has always been unafraid to refuse orders she takes issue with. She spent most of her career at odds with “big men” who could not stand anyone who wouldn’t toe the line, let alone a woman. She has been punished for her brilliance and her refusal over and over again, and yet has always remained uncompromising and solidly in possession of herself.

In my personal relationships, I may not be as self-assured because I’m not very confident in my roles of daughter and friend, but at work and school, I truly am my mother’s daughter. I usually know what I’m talking about, and no one can tell me otherwise. But this day in the car park, just a few evenings ago, was not an isolated tantrum. It came out of weeks (or maybe even months, if I’m honest) of wallowing in desperation, of making room for misery to fester and expand. After completing grad school, I am still struggling with the feeling of being unmoored, and with the [false] belief that I am worthless without the right credentials and financial stability that would make me deserving of the luxury or privilege of peace of mind and time to research and write.

I have worked hard, I have “gone above and beyond” which usually means finding solutions to problems I didn’t create, I have spoken up and out for myself and other people, I have tried to be brilliant, to refuse when possible. I have also been feeling depleted, nursing old hurts, spending weekends depressed and teary after weekdays trying to be my shiniest and most impressive self at two different jobs and in social settings, exhausted from this relentless pursuit of financial stability that I am finding it increasingly difficult to socialize, attend dance classes, visit museums, volunteer, write, imagine; to do anything really that is spirit-sustaining for me.

I am slowly accepting lack, exhaustion, and precariousness as necessary for my journey in writing and life.

This runs deeper than the harmful “one has to suffer for one’s art” cliché. Through actions, words, and also the silences, I have encountered deliberate efforts to convince me and other Black women and queer people that we are unworthy of care, of living and working in places where we are not treated as though we are disposable.

But I am not convinced. The other day, I read this incredible essay by Alexis Pauline Gumbs titled “The Shape of my Impact,” and I have since posted quotes from it on my office wall opposite some other quotes of hers I put up after reading her book Spill: Scenes of Black Feminist Fugitivity. She articulates all my fears and misgivings about giving myself and my brilliance over to institutions that do not care about my well-being or my life. In the essay, she writes,

“Let us be clear. Universities keep huge endowments, money on reserve, because they are supposed to keep money.  They will always tell you they cannot afford you. They will not spend their money to save the life of a Black feminist.  Poet Laureate though she may be.  Let us be clear. The universities that we mistakenly label as our bright quirky only refuge for Black brilliance have worked our geniuses to death, and have denied us help when we asked for it. The universities that employed June Jordan, Audre Lorde and so many others, watched cancer eat away at our geniuses, as they simultaneously ate away at black women’s labor. An institution knows how to preserve itself and it knows that Black feminists are a trouble more useful as dead invocation than as live troublemakers, raising concerns in faculty meetings. And those institutions continue to make money and garner prestige off of their once affiliated now dead faculty members.”

I have had this exact conversation with people working across industries. We are being depleted, but it is “for our own good.” We are reminded that somehow the places that cause us harm are also exactly where we need to force our “seat at the table” in order to do our work.

It is not hyperbole when I say to you that I have been in some of my worst health over the past few years in graduate school and immediately after. I am 26, and in the space of a few months in 2017 I had a surprise root canal, several fillings, and two eye infections (one in each eye), all ailments I had never ever struggled with until then. I’ve had panic attacks right before going out into the world with fake-slay intact. I have random knee and back pain that pop up on non-Zumba class days, and sometimes stay longer than must be normal. I may not have the medical credentials to say for sure that these are directly related to academic and professional stress as a grad student, but I am saying that being paid inadequately [sans benefits] for doing some really vital work including teaching [as an adjunct], means that you might not realize that tooth pain can turn into teeth falling out of your mouth, or rather that you might have to ignore those aches and pains in the hopes that they will disappear on their own.

I am not convinced that it’s normal for me to feel so undeserving of good things that even signing a lease for a lovely new apartment with a roommate who laughs and bakes and has the Bronx all over her sarcasm and sense of humor feels “too nice” for me to deserve. Every rent payment feels like an unnecessary splurge, because somehow I have come to believe that I don’t deserve the joy of looking forward to returning to my own living space, even when I can afford it.

In a recent conversation, I admitted to my mum that when I first started grad school, I used to feel so anxious about my finances that I would spend the barest minimum on groceries. She had given me money for my rent, and I felt so guilty that I had failed for not being able to pay on my own despite working multiple jobs, that I had failed for deciding to take out loans to attend graduate school because I didn’t get a scholarship (was this irresponsible of me?), so much so that it didn’t matter that I had always tried to be as self-sufficient as possible after leaving home because I felt she had already done more than enough for me, and because I knew she would give whether she had or not. So, snacks were non-essential. Fresh fruit and vegetables? Unnecessary. My fridge might as well have been an arctic wasteland until payday, and even then it was hardly any better.

Audre Lorde
“I love the word survival, it always sounds to me like a promise.  It makes me wonder sometimes though, how do I define the shape of my impact upon this earth?” reflection cut from an early draft of “Eye to Eye: Black Women, Hatred and Anger” by Audre Lorde (Audre Lorde Papers, Spelman College Archive) (from “The Shape of My Impact” by Alexis Pauline Gumbs)

I am not romanticizing the “struggling artist” trope. It is not just some cute aesthetic. I’m trying to tell you that I watched my physical and mental health fall all over the place because I believed the lie that I didn’t deserve any better. I still feel so much shame in speaking about this publicly because of the constant reminders, subtle and explicit, that “making it” has more to do with wealth, class status, and returning home to attempt to climb Accra’s rickety social ladder than it does pursuing a path that I find joy and fulfillment in despite the (largely structural) obstacles, and trying to do work that might benefit other people no matter how small the effect may end up being. All her brains, and this is what she is using them for?- a direct quote, as if making art and cultivating concern for other people beyond oneself in thought and action is inferior to raking in money for doing an exploitative corporate job…

I am not silly or presumptuous for seeking health, peace of mind, space, and time to do things that bring me joy. I am not ungrateful for requiring appropriate credit and compensation for work that I do, most of which is usually at the service of other people. I am not a “just for the time being until we have squeezed out all we can from you.” I am nobody’s negation or blank-space-until-filled. I am not disposable. I am trying to remember that desperation is not my default, that my peace lives with me and not where I have the most elite co-sign.

One of my favorite sayings I’ve borrowed from my mother is “I didn’t come into this world to come and suffer.” One of her middle names is Obiageli, loosely translating from Igbo to mean “she came to enjoy life.” Usually, in my mouth it turns into something along the lines of “My mother didn’t give birth for me to sit down and suffer quietly.” She definitely didn’t bring me into this world to be beholden to people and institutions that would love to see me kill myself slowly for their benefit. I am formidable and curious and kind and  hilarious.

And I intend to survive.

(Image of Audre Lorde: Wikimedia Commons)

A Reckoning

In several interviews, Q&As, and most recently in this conversation with Marc Lamont Hill, Kiese Laymon has talked about being the kind of Black writer whose love for Black people will not allow him to devote his art to pleading with “good” white people to change their ways. Each time he’s said this, I nod in self-righteous agreement. Same. I think to myself that my concern for Black people spans locations in time and space; luxury hotels and wealthy buyers displacing communities in Ghana, and in the Sea Islands off the coast of Georgia, communities being lost to the relentless and raging Atlantic, African migrants drowning in the Mediterranean, police brutality from Ghana to Brazil to the US, government neglect of or refusal to provide safe infrastructure, and so many other intentional cruelties. Yes, I think to myself, I am concerned, and my concern is justified and right and urgent.

And yet I am afraid that I have become a parody of a parody in the following ways:

 moves thousands of miles away from home

goes to grad school

encounters casual and overt racism in and out of the classroom

encounters Suzanne Césaire

encounters self

shaves a not insignificant portion of head

throws the phrase class struggle into casual conversation

My “concern” only goes as far as I will let it, so that I’m realizing that even if I’m not interested in speaking to white readers at all (I mean really, you all can take this or leave it and I’d be totally alright) I might be the writer who is making it her ministry to plead with “good,” “well-meaning” elite Ghanaians that they too must change, and to attack the ones who do not even try to pretend they mean well towards those who are affected by their hoarding of wealth . My situation and Laymon’s are not analogous; in my “us” and “them” scenario, I belong more closely to the group who is resting their feet on the backs of the large exploited majority.

“The race for economic fortune, diplomas, unscrupulous social climbing. A struggle shrunken to the standard of being middle class. The pursuit of monkeyshines. Vanity Fair.”

-from “The Malaise of a Civilization,” Suzanne Césaire

We—and if you feel yourself implicated in this we then I’m definitely talking to you—sat in the same classrooms together, accruing an obscene amount of social capital, together, even those of us who see ourselves closer to the “middle,” those whose parents who had it like that some years and didn’t at other times, those whose parents didn’t not clear school fees checks with ease. You, whose grandfather’s face is on Ghana’s banknotes, and you, whose parents own several businesses most Ghanaians do not have the money to patronize, and you, who felt bad that most Ghanaian children lacked what we had in such excess we barely sniffed at but carried on in blissful entitlement anyway, and you, self-obsessed writer who is preoccupied with how often you write about the sun and the moon in all these precious and sentimental ways as if we aren’t all so close to burning alive. I’ve also been worrying about how basic, unexpansive, and decidedly not breathtaking my writing is. I’ve been reading a lot of Dionne Brand and every word I’ve written has felt unworthy ever since.

I’ve been talking a lot about people wearing white and sipping champagne at 2pm at the polo match, and I need a new image—I’ve used this one so much I might as well have it tattooed—but you know who you/we are. It’s not that I think I’m superior, more “radical” or more forward thinking, or that a few self-righteous blog posts equal class treason (but in the right direction, in solidarity with those most oppressed) or some other pretentious exaggeration, nor do I feel that  now I have read Claudia Jones I’m ready to tell everyone how ridiculous and terrible we all are, how grotesque and excessive your “high society” is and has been.

I’m just wondering if I’m making it my job to do this cajoling and convincing, and if I even have the words to be successful. There’s always something prickly to me about aligning myself with people who have done or benefit from so much harm to other people, even if this alignment is a device put in place to point out that I’ve seen you up close and you need to be stopped. Power acts and consolidates in ways writers far more impressive and diligent than myself have not succeeded in stalling, or is that too narrow-minded, too pessimistic? Laymon expresses this same sentiment in the conversation I reference earlier, citing Toni Morrison and James Baldwin as examples of people who haven’t quite been able to coax the “good” white people away from their racism and the power it confers upon them. [Although I don’t know that Toni Morrison was ever interested in doing so…] If I were to stand in the center of Accra and scream about proletarian revolution, wouldn’t someone ask me, so you’ve finished enjoying in America and now you want to shout about equality?

I am standing at an important point in my writing, not a crossroads (too over-traveled) more like a dusty no-place in the back of my own subconscious. I have decided that I cannot afford the indulgence or the audacity of losing hope when other writers who have made me and my writing possible have written under threat of harm or death, in times maybe more bleak than these. Reckoning with the dangerous power you wield doesn’t mean that you are solely responsible for all of Ghana’s inequality. (This caveat also feels prickly to me. Why do I feel the need to give you this small wriggle room?) It means that your life is being made possible by exploitation and death, yes, the cost is in human life, and I feel I must say so again, this is not hyperbole. So reckon with this, and then decide what you will do. I’m reckoning and writing, as always, even as I know this is not nearly enough. So what next?

(Image source: Wikimedia Commons)

To My Mama Alwin Mana

There’s this voice I have previously referred to as an imp, that seems to have taken up near permanent residence by my side. Its main job is to remind me how terrible I am the minute I start to feel too comfortable, when I seem to be getting closer to living up to my middle name Dzifa, “my heart is at peace.” It has remained there, even as I have adored every moment of working with students this summer, and especially when I have had to speak up to people with more authority in academic spaces in ways that are daunting and tiring because I seem to have to do so often.

You are always the one with the problem *and* the solution.

Taking up too much space.

Presumptuous. Arrogant, even.

The voice is always there because it is me, but it feels more romantic and less frightening to externalize it, to carry on as if I don’t know that I am the main one picking myself to pieces at every turn. Constantly ready to berate myself in anticipation of mistakes, when I actually do make one, it feels world-ending in a way that it wouldn’t if my mind didn’t work the way it does. Between job-searching while trying to be present with students, and navigating relationships and life in general, my self-policing/self-silencing/self-punishment mechanisms have been working overtime, even in the face of exciting news.

I recently started a part-time job, an incredible position I didn’t think would  necessarily be an option for me, as the Editorial Assistant at Transition Magazine, and I’m optimistic about finding another part-time position to add to it. I’ve been reading a whole lot, and writing not as much as I should be, but still writing. Yet, I can’t shake the heightened urgency and anxiety that has characterized my approach to life for the past few years: Nothing is ever enough, especially not myself.

I feel guilty and sorry all the time, just for being the way I am, and for being at all, because my default positioning is that any personal crisis could have been averted if only I had just tried harder to be better. Some of the time, this is actually true. Self-centered, I know, because no one woman [has] all that power*, but it’s hard not to feel like every wrong thing rests on some lack or failing on my part when the imp just won’t shut up and allow me to make sense of life.

I am also terrified of isolation, so much so that I might end up isolating myself anyway as a result of my behavior, or things I say, or things I leave unsaid. I’m trying to stop “unsaying,” and to listen more carefully to myself and to other people, and to try to understand myself as more complicated than the sum of all my wrongdoings, as more than an ever-growing list of the ways I have or will hurt myself and other people. I absolutely want the people in my life to hold me accountable for my actions, and to be able to hold myself accountable, but I’m just wondering if there’s a way to do this without it hurting so deeply. Or maybe it has to hurt, and you just have to eat some of that hurt and put the rest in your pocket for later, for when you start to feel lazy or complacent, for when accountability turns into a buzzword instead of an ongoing practice.

Most of all, I’m realizing that a lot of the work of realizing that I’m not so terrible as the imp– me myself– would have me believe has to be internal, with a lot of help from an amazing therapist, and voice notes from my mother late at night. On another note that isn’t as unrelated as it may seem, I’ve been thinking and dreaming a lot about my great-grandmother, but she hasn’t actually said much to me in those dreams. I’m not sure what I want to ask her or want to hear her say, if I’m honest.

Because today is a more clear-headed, less anxious day, I must also add that I’m feeling grown. Grown like my mum mid-90s with more confidence than you’ve ever seen, and the fluffy roller set and denim minidress combo, except without the child (yours truly) she had at the time. I feel grown, settled into my newly 26-year old body in a way that allows me to see how troubling it is that so much of this blog consists of me turning against myself obsessively, pointing out every flaw I can find in my own thinking, my feminism, my writing, or my actions, and with a strange impulse to do so publicly, as if I’m anticipating other people will chime in with their own harsh critiques of me. These small acts of tearing myself down haven’t been productive in the least, nor have they necessarily made me a better person or writer. It feels exhausting to look back through some of those posts, and I’m so grateful you are still here reading when I tend to say the same things repeatedly in slightly different ways.

And this is where the fear of personal writing usually kicks in, the fear that there is something disingenuous about trying to find the prettiest and most evocative language to describe real life pain, yours and that of other people. And doesn’t the narrator always make themselves martyr, the long-suffering yet still dazzling star of the show, if all the reader can see is through that narrator’s eyes? Now that I have fully devolved into a cryptic babble, I will take it as a sign that this post could have ended a few paragraphs earlier than it has. So I pause, for now.

***

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I miss her all the time, especially these days.

To My Mama Alwin Mana

-through an intercessor because I am too afraid to say

Dadá, you are mother in life, and in memory, which means you live still

And you didn’t enter a room like an avalanche clearing a mountain side only for your child to carry herself like this, to be sifting through pebbles looking for the fractured pieces of good sense she has dashed to the ground

She is looking for you on streets in places too frigid for your spirit to land:

Sweetie, you know what time the bus coming?

They say

Bon…I lost my stop, cherie, you know where I can get the number 1 bus?

They say

She is looking for you in the scarf creases of someone else’s grandmama or tatie, in metal shopping carts rocking on uneven wheels, and inside old money bills folded between scrap paper with a fading phone number scratched across in blue ink

It’s embarrassing, Dadá, frankly she is embarrassing herself on your account, look

She is calling you all kinds of names and you do not come, names she never knew you as:

Mama Mana

Dadá

La Vierge Noire

Our Lady of la Caridad del Cobre

Star of the Sea

protector, protect me, she says

“Voici la Porte de L’éternel, c’est par elle qu’entrent les Justes.”

She is leaving smudges of herself everywhere, kohl watered and blurred on her fingertip, face powder smeared on her shirt collar (a few shades off for August skin) dust sitting on the ridge of her bed’s headboard, and round the rim of the bath, scum

All this, and your back is still turned against her. And if it wasn’t for your usual no-tune hum hanging around your head, she wouldn’t even know it was you

Dadá, she has failed because she isn’t the kind of steadfast you borned her to be.

She cannot bear to tell you herself, and so she sent me

***

* Kanye *slavery was a choice* West has been on the outs with a lot of us for a long time, but this quote felt appropriate in this context…

(Image: Taken in Somerville, MA by yours truly on Wednesday 8/8/2018. I decided to take the longest walking route home, and I passed this Haitian Seventh Day Adventist church on my way.)

Miss Freda Pays a Visit

Since my last post, I’ve felt myself retreating further into myself, further into silence. I have been talking a lot, but I’m not saying anything of consequence, anything that matters, or saying anything I really want to say. I’ve typed and erased several messages and tweets, and felt the urge to call someone to relay some funny or frustrating or mundane subside as soon as I think to pick up the phone. It may seem odd that I feel so silent when most of my days involve interacting with other people, particularly when most of those people are eager high school students with a lot of fascinating insights to share. I had a really uncomfortable encounter with a stranger in public yesterday (I’m ok). I thought a good cry would help me feel less agitated, but I couldn’t get any tears out.*

But I’m still here, and still writing for myself, for this blog, and for you.

I submitted the following piece of flash fiction for the Afreada x Africa Writes contest judged by Warsan Shire (!!!) I made it to the penultimate round–15 out of 225 submissions– which is pretty encouraging. I’m so grateful to the Afreada editors for considering me and my work. I’ve had some other works published on Afreada, “Pain Control” and “Safe House.” I’m hoping to turn this into something longer, you know, as soon as I find more words.

***

On the third day she came to visit, all the sharp edges in my house fell to pieces. I discovered them hour by painful hour, as I moved from dusty corridor, to bath, to wood-floored bedroom dotted with several months’ worth of shed hair and fluff. Sewing scissors– their gold handle rusted over with neglect– sat scattered on my work table; screw, blades, and finger rests spread far from each other as though they had never been whole. The old-time straight razor I used to shave my head was also apart from itself, its cutting edge bent in half like it was made of paper and not steel. Even the keys jammed into my room’s locks were dull around their teeth.

“The keys too? Is that not a bit much?”

My voice scratched its way out of my mouth, hoarse from lack of use, but she behaved as though she hadn’t heard me.

“Miss Freda?”

She was still, just as she had been on her first two visits, careful not to make any forceful movements that would topple the unsteady kitchen stool she sat on. She usually stayed no more than three hours, sighing whisper-soft every few minutes, and rearranging her lean arms across her chest when she grew stiff.

“Girl. You are still mourning? Still trying to end yourself?”

Her voice lilted and chimed like a dinner bell, but there was some sort of distortion to the sound. It was almost as if my head was submerged in water, and I was listening to her through the muffle. I stood silent in front of her, watching the 4 o’clock sunlight spilling lazy orange warmth over the window sill and onto my feet, narrow and much-veined just like hers.

“Miss Freda, didn’t you die?”

She ignored me. We might as well have been taking part in two different conversations, running parallel and eventually away from one another.

“Anyway, I deadened the keys too, just in case. It would be torturous to go that way, but I thought you might still try.”

She laughed to herself like high heels kicking on concrete and added, “You this child of ours.”

“Of ours? I’m no one’s but my very own.”

Miss Freda kissed her teeth and rolled her eyes so far up and back I thought they would stick.

“Girl. You think you made yourself the way you stitch those clothes? You think you hold yourself together all on your own?

As she spoke, she adjusted the yellow film of fabric she wore for a dress. The way she called me Girl made me forget my real name. I knew she was the aunt that followed her sister, my distant and unloving mother into sickness and then death years ago, but I felt more lifeless before her brazen self. What did she want with me?

“Give the sharp edges a rest, girl. You are all of us. You are a wide sky inside too stifling a house. Let me show you–

***

*My current obsession, Alice Smith’s performance of “I Put a Spell on You” in Black Mary, the short film by Kahlil Joseph, helped me a little with the words and the tears this afternoon.

Black Mary
Still from Black Mary. Directed by Kahlil Joseph, 2017.