Personal Use

Here is my latest paradox: I work full time and recently went from a fully remote job to one on a hybrid schedule, leaving only narrow slivers of time for long, laugh-full phone calls; moving my body, long, tear-full phone calls; endless voice memos; my writing; and shame spirals about how the amount of effort one puts into work never seems to quite align with material gain or stability. In this money-mad, murderous matrix[1], doctor’s visits cost, lunch costs, and rent costs 27.5 times more than both combined, and somehow the ends remain the twain never to meet, no matter how many hours one puts in to work. [Did the bootstrap theorists lie? The answer is yes.] Because I am a full-time cubicle-sitter and a less than part-time artist, I feel less deserving of room to be still, to be left alone with my bibliographies and research rabbit holes and the nagging, joyful, enticing, desperate voices of the characters I brought forth into being. Classic upside-down thinking that only makes sense in my anxious brain: I have limited time to do my work because capitalism calls, and somehow that means I don’t deserve the solitude necessary to immerse my self in the kind of work that feels more like loving, that keeps me alive, because I’m not a “real” artist. This is particularly absurd and unnecessarily harsh on my self in this current reality where I’m getting reacquainted with some approximation of pre-pandemic work life at a new job and where I’m experiencing all kinds of unpleasant side effects—nausea, dizziness, itching like being bitten by insects moving too fast for you to catch, something that isn’t dizziness but feels like you’re falling for a split-second, fatigue, generally feeling out of sorts—from getting off the anti-depressant medications I’ve taken for the past four years, no matter how slowly I try to take the tapering process.

I am also always reminding my self that I am a person first before I make art, and I have convinced my self that being a person means being readily and consistently available to touch, commiserate, cry with, calm down, and cheer up the people dearest to my self. One of my biggest nightmares is being the sort of person who is so single-minded and takes their art so seriously that they are unreliable or absent, with no room to turn with love to other human beings who exist beyond the blinking cursor and the lined page. Even bigger than that frightful thought is the possibility of not being useful or not being needed or not being light in spirit and presence whenever the situation demands. Eight years and other relationships have passed, but the echoes of “you are selfish and use your emotions as an excuse for behaving badly” are faint but not dead. It’s been four years, and any time I call someone with tears instead of a joke or a reassuring word, I still feel the slight sting of “things are great when you’re funny and we’re having fun, but when you’re down it feels like carrying a burden because no one else is there for you the way you need, so I have to be” or “when you check in it feels like you care more whether I’m upset with you than about how I’m doing.” I feel a little ashamed for remembering these and other painful words so clearly all these years later, because I should be “over it” by now, because sometimes I think my mum is disappointed that my upper lip isn’t a little stiffer.

When I wrote about falling silent [and here] in the summer following my master’s program graduation, it was in part because I heard “I prefer when you’re fun and funny,” resulting in the overwhelm of anxiety that my mental state was a tremendous void waiting to swallow anyone who accompanied me too close to the edge of my life, that I wasn’t hiding my tears as well as I thought I was, that I was taking up too much space just by being, and most importantly, that lots of my other friends felt the same exhaustion with me and just hadn’t said so aloud. The part of me that tries my hardest to be careful on the page with people whose words or actions have hurt me feels like it might be unfair to present these memories with no context, but honestly, the full stories from my perspective would probably make those people sound worse, which I’m not interested in doing. What would be the use? This is just a small part of my ongoing efforts to excise the harsh voices that have become part of my inner chorus.

There is also the issue of the posture I take towards my self, one of punishment and self-denial, because various friendships and relationships that twisted away from sweet and turned bitter and sharp made me feel like I needed to do penance for the fact that I was [just was, and was the way I was]. In my mind, I’m still atoning for the time I spoke green-tinged snark behind the back of a younger schoolmate who I’m pretty sure overheard my comment, or all the times I missed office hours and appointments because I could no longer get out of bed, or some others of my most shameful moments where I was not behaving like my best selves. According to some of my closest friends, the things that keep me up at night are so tame, I might need to consider living even a fraction as wildly as my aesthetics and poems about knives suggest I do.

This punitive posture looks like not being able to fully enjoy New Orleans or New Year’s at a hotel in Accra with my mum because of some unspoken vow of austerity that means blaming my self for any financial precarity because the cost of that ring or roll-on perfume oil could have paid for about 1/5 of a grocery trip, or probably even less, the way these prices are looking. [Considering my undergrad and my current place of employment, can I blame Saint Ignatius for this? The answer is no, because since when did I listen to saints, but I thought this was kind of funny.] It also means taking being an ethical and responsible person and artist to the furthest extent, because I should not be able to sleep soundly or lay on a beach when so many other human beings must starve and die to make my leisure possible.

Any small niceties I allow myself cannot be fully indulged or enjoyed without lengthy considerations about why I’m not deserving or whether this momentary pleasure is worth all the horrific consequences rippling far beyond my little life. Is it a sign of hubris or self-centeredness to obsess over the fact that the cost of the palm oil in my beauty products are the lives of women laboring on plantations in Indonesia every time I line my eyes? Am I casting the Ivorian cocoa farmers and their children who have never tasted the chocolate that is the product of their work as unwilling background characters in my circular, neurotic thought processes? Without having read too much about why people take on vows like silence and austerity, my first inclination is to ask what the use is of denying one’s self pleasure if that denial cannot necessarily guarantee the alleviation of other people’s suffering? What is the use of symbolic solidarity? I’m not talking about strategic boycotts called for by the people or groups most harmed by the production of a good, like BDS for example. I’m talking about making a monastery out of a one-bedroom apartment you can sometimes afford on a good day…And again, it wouldn’t be just symbolic if enough of us committed to consuming and accumulating less so that someone else might breathe a little bit easier, would it?

What I’m trying to get at is that I lose sleep over the high price that capitalism exacts for small luxuries we don’t actually need but are told we cannot live without, and there should be enough humanity in the world so that we should all be losing sleep, and we should all come to a complete halt any time there is a person in tears asking for money outside a store in the city’s wealthiest neighborhood or any time a child dies mining for the metal we use for our soon-to-be obsolete gadgets. Every time the police gun down a Black child at home or at the playground or in their front yard or in the earliest bloom of their life, the sky should not be so blue and there should not be so many people strolling with dogs and grocery bags down a street, and there should not be money changing hands and work meetings to attend.[2] [But such humanity would demand a completely new way of organizing the world that would make it possible for us to stay home from places of commerce—without losing livelihoods—and pleasure to keep each other safe, to hold each other, and to mourn millions of lives lost to a pandemic.] So. This oath that I did not realize I took means that to me, missing out on the bar or the beach or the spa is a miniscule price to pay for someone else’s life, and that I do not “deserve” rest more than the person who would serve me my cocktail avec too much water, syrup, and tiny toothpick umbrella.

If nothing else is clear, I can plainly say that years of being underpaid for work I love and that felt important when I was doing it and the story I have told my self about the use and utility of my humor and touch and calm mean that I am terrified of withdrawing those things even when I am depleted or even when I want to give more than thin slices of attention to my writing, the thing I am so thoroughly in love with and need most in this world. I have a little over three months to submit my second round of novel revisions, and so far it feels like it’s going well, it feels lush and like ritual (or at least the idealized, flowery, and fragrant way I imagine ritual to be—sometimes, I wonder if my ancestors are satisfied with fruit and cups of tea), like a trance-like state where I have to loosen up and surrender enough to let the words arrange themselves how they must. And it also feels like shame, because that severe part of my self—at total odds with the part of my self constantly seeking beauty—doesn’t think I should be indulging my self so much by enjoying the process of making my art.

I’m not just writing about writing and how much I wish I could do it, nor is this post about refusing the urge to put one’s self on display in ways that prioritize the luster over the pain. I don’t feel that way about social media, because alongside the tattoo thirst traps and the group selfies are as much vulnerability as I’m able to share about the times I wanted to walk over the edge and keep falling. It’s more about releasing the need to avoid or disperse other people’s disappointment if I am slow to answer the phone or if I say I can’t meet at whichever place at whichever time because I am with my work or because funds are tight until my next payday, and about letting go of the fear that the people I love will no longer have any use for me if I am a little less present than usual.

I’m inviting you to bear witness to me taking my self seriously enough to take Michaela Coel’s advice to writers to be unafraid “to disappear and see what comes [to me] in the silence.” I need witnesses who will remind me that my sole purpose is not to be of use in all the different and at times conflicting ways that other people may need, that I don’t need to punish my self so stringently to be a kind, ethical person, that trying to do work that might be of use to a reader somewhere also looks like sitting still with my words, even if it feels like love and not like that soul-bowing-down feeling that most work brings. I am always available to those I love, but/and I know that I am loved even when I am not. And, I must be wholly available to my self first before all else.  

This feels like it needs a sign off, though it is not an ending, just giving in wholeheartedly with all the fear and shame and relish and uncertainty— 


[1] This alliteration feels extra and a little corny considering what I’m trying to describe and considering what “literary” writers are supposed to do, but I kept it in for the 14-year-old me who learnt about the “punchy 3” and alliteration in English class and became obsessed with spotting and coming up with examples of both. I think she would be really proud of grown us.

[2] This is about more than empty, useless guilt and DEI committees and 30 seconds of silence preceding business as usual. We should be so maddened by exhaustion and grief that we tear the world to pieces in hopes of pulling something better out of the wreckage. And many people already are. But also, what am I doing materially towards this/these end[s] beyond this page? I don’t know that I can accept that my job is to say the words that steal your sleep at night in the hopes that you “act,” the implication that making art is itself not a worthy way to “act,” more overly harsh, upside-down thinking?

Breaking Open

A few things about how turning 30 feels (I can’t say “being” since I’ve only been here two weeks):

It feels like gold paper crowns and glow in the dark beads strung together by my six-year-old hands, eight spheres, then a star, eight spheres, then a star;

a neat tear straight down from frilly collar to lacy hem to flowery sock because dresses that puff out like iced cupcakes are ideal for bouncy castle jumping down and tumbling up;

uncles who carry you on their shoulders until you don’t fear falling, and aunties who paint your toes purple with red dots on one foot and red with purple dots on the other and aunties who sew you clothes covered in a pattern of your favorite fruit to match the slippers they bought you;

a full set that stays looking neon and new three weeks after your salon visit, and continuing to practice the patience that warns against ripping through week-old braids with the square tips of said set, reminding you instead to take oil and water from a spray bottle and a tail comb to the ends of your hair and be gentle, precious even, even if it means being a little or a lot late;

trying to bite back the self-loathing and feelings of defeat that froth to the surface of your consciousness every time a letter comes in the mail labeled IRS or due soon, whether or not you can afford to pay; 

waking up to more and more of your mother’s face in the bathroom vanity every day;

realizing that being generous with your spirit and your time does not or should not necessitate self-betrayal, and that not everyone who cannot care the way you crave wants to rend you to pieces (except for when they do);

when will you stop stepping on your self, how much harder do you think you can possibly work your way out of a trap with a jaw full of teeth jagged and lethal and fanged like the worst things you have ever said about your self and how much you’re worth;

 was there ever a little girl as loved and as loving as you.

It feels like trying to eat the guilt of all the times you have and will hurt or offend other people and finding peace in knowing that nothing said about you in malice or misunderstanding (including the worst things you have ever thought or said about myself) rewrites who you believe and know your self to be;

meeting your self with gentleness so you can remind your self: put that thing down that you’re hitting your self about the head with;

encountering the self in multi-dimensions where all the most afraid and most exuberant and most compassionate selves you are and have been have each gathered to place a candle on the cake baked in all of your honor;

wanting and yearning and craving like you truly believe that desire is never a mistake;

singing the praises of the sharp-edged, brittle parts of the self that have dimpled and rounded, turned full and soft beneath hands, the parts that have grown as you’ve grown, without excuse or justification (and with patience and the most tender of touch even when shame threatens to propel you forward to excuses) about how medication working alongside all the people that see and love you and the yoga mat and 8 mile walks across town and city lines and two-week notices brought you back to the side of the horizon where you are alive, so that now you live in the part of the story where you keep living, where you are still still, and where you remember what foods you like to eat and eat them until you feel full because you know the roof will not collapse if the cupboard runs empty and you have to go back to the store;

giving thanks to any of the ancestors who might still be listening after your thousandth wail that you are no longer in a place where the atmosphere shifts whiplash-fast and your fun and funny are preferable to your needy and confused and where the bathroom never feels clean no matter how much baking soda and vinegar you throw at it;

every song in a major key and some minor ones too if they remind you of the giggling infatuation of the feeling right before;

wondering when you will finally be able to turn down the volume on the voices much more cruel than you would ever be to another person, those voices asking when will you stop with the self-aggrandizing fluff like what you have just written on this page, when you will stop seeing rigor as contempt for self and fear of judgment for your lack of seriousness in times such as these, and when you will refuse the impulse to see any writing with your self at its heart as such unless you are hiding in “fiction.”

If I’m honest, the euphoria of this milestone is less about the roundness of the zero in 30 and more about the fact that I come from people who cut cake with your name on it whether or not you have been home in a year or five and pop champagne for odd number birthdays and school admissions not yet confirmed, who have “a drop” of wine just because it is Sunday and the sky is or is not grey. And each time it turns seven minutes past midnight on the 24th day of the 7th month, that is a reminder that my mother brought me into being for my heart to be at peace—Dzifa—and that I have chosen to stay.

I am my self, in bold.

Photo of a dark-skinned black woman holding a set of pink balloons above her head and open-mouth laughing, with gold balloons and streamers behind her.
Photo taken on 7/23, the day before my birthday, by my dear Mel

My initial intent was to introduce the next movement in this post with the usual self-diminishing irony, pointing out how cliché and almost too good to be true it is that this particular development coincides with this birthday of all birthdays. Then, I gave my self an inch more of breathing room, some grace, some space in the waistline for wiggling and adjustments if necessary. Besides, it would only be too obvious if one believed that this news is the pinnacle of success rather than one indication out of many that the life of my own design is indeed possible and continues to take shape. Why am I stalling?

My first novel, Blue Futures, Break Open is being published by West Virginia University Press. I have been submitting my work to agents and publishing houses since around the fall of 2020. At the time, I knew my work wasn’t quite ready to be considered for publication, so that the pitch or query looked more promising than the actual mess of a book that was the finished draft, but I desperately needed some good news or some reassurance that all that work had not been a waste. I got a lot of no replies and a lot of really thoughtful rejections, including some agents who gave me the chance to revise before ultimately passing on my work, and I was discouraged because I had started to see my writing as the easiest way out of the discomfort and frustration that characterized my day job. Or, more realistically, I knew that one published book does not a fortune make, but my work existing in the world could reveal more possibilities beyond that job, or at least would make it easier to bear if I knew the thing I loved the most was actually moving from aspiration to material reality. As trite or, to use my therapist’s favorite word, “Pollyannaish,” as it may sound, it was only when I paused submissions for some months, sought out more feedback from loved ones patient enough to also be readers, and did countless more revisions that I started getting more positive feedback and ultimately a contract offer.

Without the characters and the place where the book is set waiting for me every evening after work, I feel lost in the world. I won’t flail for long, because I still have much more to add and to revise between now and the end of this year. And anyway, it is not that the characters ever left me, they are still there with their lives unfolding before them, and I am still compulsively saving images and articles and book titles and videos for “research” every day.

There is something else I need to write (or process internally first) about how much my writing process parallels desire, so much so that the “end” of this book and the long inhale before what I hope will be the next one feel like I broke up with someone who is patiently waiting for me to come to my senses and call them back. Surrendering to dead-end crushes on virtual strangers sent my hands flying across the keyboard, as did listening to music heavy with bass and longing and playing the web series “First” and episodes of the delightfully naughty Thirst Aid Kit podcast in the background while I work. I think surrender is what makes the process feel like desire, loosening a tightly wound self enough for all the words to flood in.

I also considered the possibility that watching and re-watching Terence Nance’s An Oversimplification of Her Beauty so many times throughout the years I worked on my novel had created a pathway in my mind that forced an association between desire and artistic pursuit. But then, I felt this link so viscerally, and it seemed so intuitive that I realized there was no way I was the only one experiencing this creative infatuation and even tried to look up some psychological or spiritual knowledge to help me make more sense of the feeling. Saying that this practice, this craft, this obsession is my first love may sound like a throwaway shorthand, because I haven’t yet found the words to describe adequately how terrifying and exhilarating it is to realize that there is something I love so wholly and in all ways that any romantic feeling or yearning I might feel for another person would only be a usurpation. Too dramatic? Too extreme? Or maybe, it feels easier and safer, the prospect for pain lower, if I sublimate all this want into the cursor’s blinking rather than someone who might break me in the process of breaking themselves. Does this mean that any love poem I’ve ever written is less about the subject themselves than it is about my love affair with the actual words? If so, sorry to every egomaniac who ever puffed up their chest at the prospect of being my muse. You were always just a bystander or a spectator, a side fling, at best.

I’m proud of my self for flinging this body and soul towards and around the sun 30 times and living to tell the tale, and for committing tens of thousands of words to the page over years of overwork and mental and physical shattering from school and day jobs that paradoxically were meant to help me make something out of life. I don’t wear the misery with pride, and I can only imagine how much ease would be at my fingertips had those jobs and other challenges not threatened to squeeze my creative world out of the way into non-existence. But I’m here, and so is this first offering of what I hope will be many books to come. I hope you will find some use in it.

All Flourish and Sweet

Saturday 4/2–early morning on Sunday 4/3

First,

Because what would the point be if I didn’t have something to which I could respond, a starting block, however shaky:

“There are buds on my fingertips growing beautiful things…”

Aye, Mereba (from the album Azeb, 2021)

“My color’s green. I’m spring.”

Sorrow is Not My Name, Ross Gay

“Florals? For spring. Groundbreaking.”

-Miranda Priestly played by Meryl Streep, The Devil Wears Prada (dir., David Frankel, 2006)

***

I’ve been working on my shoulder stand. It has been just over three years since my first yoga class, meaning that I am still very much an amateur, still awed when new muscles appear, still so giddy when I can stay in a pose for a little longer than the last time, so much so that I nearly fall out of it. I’m not sure that I have ever been physically stronger than I feel currently, though it remains a feeling, its accuracy only tested out by how much more powerful I feel dancing, lifting a heavy package, getting up off the floor, or how many miles I can walk before I start to ache (this is not new), or how many trips I can make up to the third floor where I live with 2–3 weeks’ worth of groceries.

In years of dance classes and swimming, I don’t think I was able to inhabit my body the way I do today, mostly because I was much younger and with a self very much in flux, glitching at every encounter with my own insecurities, external judgment, teasing, anything that looked like displeasure or disapproval directed towards me, sanctimonious church ushers, creeps at the butcher or at my workplace or on the street near my dorm or on the corner near my host mother’s house, or older boys whose attention I desperately craved. But I also think that I could not have squat as low or split as wide or “stood” on my shoulders, because at the first pinch of discomfort I would stop for fear of injury. I am still careful, but then, I was not caring for my self by stopping at my limit, I didn’t know what my limit was and how far I was from it sliding across the sometimes dusty, sometimes slick dance studio floor. I didn’t know how to breathe through stretches, to breathe fearlessness into the tight parts of my self, to expand.

These days, my spirit is standing up inside my self, not to its fullest unfolding but as far as it can currently go, ten toes planted and arms stretched and reaching low and wide. I mean, I am full of my self. Would this count as a delusion? Or maybe an over-correction from all the times my soul bowed and stayed life-threateningly low? My delusions, or aspirations to or yearnings for plenty, for sweetness, for beauty running over and down the sides of clasped hands (I am trying to talk to and about my self with more kindness and less derision) show up in many forms, including buying more chains to wear next to my nameplate. My intention was to find a temporary replacement for my grandma’s Lilian chain until I can get the broken link fixed. I wore the two names all the time as soon as my grandma let me have it; I’m her junior in middle name, which was the argument she used to prevent me from taking it because, who knows you by that name? Pursuing beauty I cannot always afford puts me in lovely company: I come from women who wear perfume to bed whether or not they are alone, whose jewelry collection only increases in luster when they are most anxious about money they don’t have, who put their first names on plaques outside the houses they built. I would like to think my grandma’s grandma left us her love for shimmer and shine, as someone who lent [or sold?] gold to people for their special occasions, but it’s more likely than she rarely thought about us at all, beyond her [dying?] wishes that our lives would be less fraught with the desires of men who want us to belong to them and not to our selves.

(Third photo taken by my friend Mel in DC, March 2022)

I belong to my mother and her mother and all the mothers to the nth power, and to my aunts and uncles and cousins, in that I am loved by them, in that my feet end in my uncle’s toes, in that my big little cousin has the same dimples another uncle had as a child, in that my grandma gave her twenty-something-year-old face to my other big little cousin and I, in that I always have somewhere to go should my spirit crouch too close to six-feet-below again. This is not a threat nor a cry for help, it is the constant reaffirmation that I must do to remember that I am well, loved, and not alone, for which I am grateful.

With or without the new necklaces on and independent of all the people who make me possible, I am full and brimming over, and all this self belong to me, and I have been cultivating this too-much in a growing garden of tattoos along both my arms. For many months it was just a fern I had been planning for years on my right forearm and an orange rose from a long-gone version of my grandma’s garden on my left were my everlasting strings of beads used to sit. Eventually, the frangipani flowers we call forget-me-not, from the tree I would climb without thought for my fear of getting back down, grew further up my arm. The feathers from the peacocks that used to screech in my primary school playground if you were early enough to meet them fanned out over my left shoulder and upper arm. From that garden at home, two different views of the flame-of-the-forest flowers burnt into the space between the feathers and the first blooms.

I don’t think my mother minded the tattoos so much until they became plural, began to multiply. Yet, worried about the immorality and deviance people might project onto my person[a] because of them and knowing firsthand what it means to be punished for daring to be deviant or to be perceived as such, she warned me against getting more. (Zalika U. Ibaorimi’s “Jawn Theory” has given me so much to think through around deviance and shame, not just in these pages but in the living sense of releasing fear of the former and the hold of the latter[1]). I’ve tried to waft away these concerns with half-joking references to ancestral scarification and body modification practices, the joke being that I am being extra or tongue-in-cheek, a discredit to people like Temple of Her Skin who have made it their business to connect contemporary African women’s tattooing to the context colonization obscured with the heavy, itchy veil of Christian ideas of propriety. “Our ancestors were the original punks” is a real sentence I have uttered, because it is easier to hide totally serious sentiment about pre- and early colonial practices of adornment and general flyness behind a humorous or even lazy turn of phrase, to poke fun and belittle the self before someone else gets the chance, unless, you agree and would like to hear what I really mean?

(Left and right: Guezo Foundation via Instagram. Center: taken from my bedroom window in my old apartment, quarantine 2020)

I have employed even more jokes to try and turn respectability on its head or at least point out its absurdity, the way it is a snake eating its own tail forevermore because unless white supremacy falls tomorrow, I don’t know what a Black girl who grew into this woman’s body can do to convince people whose house of sand is built on the assumption of our excess, our inhumanity, our too-much, that we are otherwise.

You see me? I’m boring, I’m at my desk, I’m on the couch reading. Shouldn’t that tell you maybe the person with neck tattoos your eyes slide over on the train could work at the bank or the hospital? Don’t you see? Powerful people get zipped and buttoned into designer suits and crop their hair respectably close to their scalps before it springs, only to order the innocent deaths and pump poison into wetlands and coastlines now coated in slime where there was once coral. Too far? Who is making these rules, and where can we send a petition or torches on fire to burn their headquarters down? You taught me to fold other people’s opinions and judgments and burn them with incense or birthday candles, and now I am finally powerful enough to do so. You see me? I’m safe and mentally well, so why does this matter?

These are not accusations, but a longing to be seen in whole and without condition.

Now I’m asking my self: why would any of these talking points matter? Does working at a desk or behind someone’s counter make you more of a human being? Does being small girl/ashawo/sugar baby/slay queen/no better than you should be make you less of one? Why do the same people who “borrowed” tattooing and body modification from indigenous peoples across the world get to dictate what is presentable and professional while simultaneously making millions of stylized versions of what they “borrowed?” Why do we, the people who have had our selves and our practices of adornment stolen, accept these standards without question? And if all one’s respectable accomplishments, collected along the long course of a life like gold tokens that are in fact wooden underneath, can be called into question by altering one’s appearance in ways deemed unacceptable, then where those accomplishments not thinner than stale communion wafers all along? I know what the answer is, but please humor me. What if the person with the neck tattoos is as dirty and daring as they might look? What if they are indeed no better than they should be? What is that really doing to anyone? What if it isn’t that deep?

Or, what if I escape into metaphor, an attempt at a more poetic approach at explanation, or justification, if I’m totally honest: I can make things grow in the winter, if the plants I have been keeping since 2019, at my lowest point, are any indication. Granted, they are in the artificial climate that is my apartment and not in the ground of one of the courtyards in the maze that was my great-grandma’s house (I only recently found out that these existed). That my plants are not in the actual ground should not deter you from allowing me this romanticizing. (Delusion, again?) Let me try instead a lesson learned: I can sit for hours in conversation with the artist while my new tattoo burns, stings, grows numb, take shape with only occasional breaks, but my skin is too sensitive and will threaten to scar even if the pain never crossed the threshold into being unbearable. Just because I can bear it, doesn’t mean I should. Sometimes it is necessary to be too precious with one’s self (especially if you are to heal well and full), in Ewe we would say precious as in, “listening too closely to one’s self,” but that is supposed to be another essay. I have also found that my only scar happened were there was a tiny stroke of white ink, a detail that might be dismissed as too obvious or cliché had I written it into fiction.

(All taken by me March 2022)

There is also the fact of taking my body back from people who tried to bend it in their imagination or to break it in waking life, like the time I could no longer sleep a full night in my house because someone told me that place was too nice for me and maybe I didn’t say no…I love that these pieces compel me to move with the knife edge and boldness I have previously only pretended to have or that I have only had the courage to render on paper and screen. These tattoos say my oyster knife is never dull; they do what my previously five (or ten), now three (or six) ear piercings did and do, that is marking moments of restlessness and/or growth and/or self-celebration; they say I am still trying not to believe the lie that I am unworthy of anything sweet just because it is Tuesday and I exist, they say I am all flourish and sweet, and too much of me will ruin you, they say I can withstand and have withstood pain that might rend the givers of that pain clean in two even in its tiniest doses, they say I have made a garden of my self that I tend to with diligence and delight. I also take pleasure in the fact that they are a revelation to other dark-skinned people who previously thought our tone too dark for colors that heal bright, and in forgetting they are there until I reach to stop a book from falling off a shelf or to pick up a stranger’s something from the ground.

Belonging to one’s self is not the declaration of that self an autonomous entity without need for tending and care and approval from others, but it can be threatening or even terrifying to other people who have folded various parts of themselves into compliance, at least as long as the sanctimonious church people and the creeps—they are often one and the same—are watching. I don’t mean that having the ability to put aside money to adorn the self in different ways makes me radical or more free in some way than those who choose other modes of self-expression, or what those who count themselves among the holier might call vices.

“Suffering was not made for us alone,” collage by me, 2021

I’m not free because I have money to spare for tighter clothes and more ink, depending on the month and what side jobs I have energy and time to take on, or take on anyway even if I am short on sleep and hours in the day. I’m not free so long as my indulgences are fueled by the labor and lives of people toiling the land or the factory floor. I’m not free just because [I think] I do whatever I want with impunity, if that was true, these words would unwrite themselves. Stretching further into myself is a chance to learn that I have to allow those I love their contradictions just as I try to make sense of my own, and also that my courage cannot only be bravado I wear like tattoo-covered arms and earrings shaped like swords and dragons and snakes, it sometimes means crafting a self that departs from what my loved ones would have chosen for themselves or imagined for me, from what the anonymous yet overbearing “society” deem appropriate, beyond aesthetics, and whatever their reasons for disapproval may be.

I’m not free, but I’m practicing, and this is how I imagine it could feel. 

***

Some thoughts from years prior, from my ongoing project, Glamouring As a Way [Not] to Live:

The criminalization of what is perceived to be excessive and/or non-normative adornment of the self is a form of material and institutional violence I am familiar with in a Ghanaian context, with tattoos, anklets, piercings, locs, and other forms of presentation—beautiful to the wearer—understood as signals of queerness, sexual immorality, and other “deviant” ways of being. There are also the countless stories of Nigerian people harassed and murdered by the state for daring to live every day as a “beautiful experiment.[2]” In other words, being oppressed for appearing to chop life, to be a bon vivant, a vagabond, an enfant terrible too grown up for their own good, is one of many pieces of evidence of the long reach of the neocolonial African state in the lives of the ungovernable and the wayward. Chopping life is a refusal of colonial morality disguised as “African tradition” (unless of course you are doing so with public funds, in which case your excess is God-ordained, but that is another matter…)

I’m solely and deeply interested in making myself[3], in denying access to any and all who feel so entitled to my self that they will argue that my “no” is a sign of my coldness or selfishness or a personal affront to them, in choosing not to concern my self with what I “should” be doing at any given stage in my life. I want to be the sort of woman who elicits the question “What will they think if I bring you home?” I actually don’t want to be brought home at all if it is by someone who would have such a concern to begin with. Moving beyond reproach towards a Sula-esque life, I want these things for black queer women, for all of us to inhabit a world where it is no longer the case that dangerous freedoms are exclusive to those who can pay to live in a gated, tree-lined part of Accra, where the ability to wander towards a pleasure-filled existence is not simply consumerism dressed up as caring for one’s self. I want it to be so that our freedom goes without saying rather than being a threat to a world that thrives on our repression. I want it to be that this repressive world is no more. I want to make my self without having to explain “what happened” to make me this way, without being punished and ostracized for turning towards my self with care and admiration. I want my eyes to continue to “open wide to the moon” rather than having them “bent into grimy sickles of concern”[4]. I want there to be no price, whether social or material, for us claiming the right to our selves, the right to glamour, to withdraw from and deny those who presume to use us for their own ends. I want dangerous freedom for all of us.


[1] Zalika U. Ibaorimi recently gave a two-part teach-in, “The Bottom Dwellers: On Spiritual, Material, and Ontological Sites of Deviant Making, about Black femme being and deviance with the School for Black Feminist Politics that you can watch here and here.

[2] From “Wayward: A Short Entry on the Possible,” in Saidiya Hartman’s Wayward Lives, Beautiful Experiments

[3] After 10 years of wandering away from the Bottom, Sula returns to this question from her grandmother, Eva: “When you gone to get married? You need to have some babies. It will settle you,” to which Sula replies: “I don’t want to make somebody else. I want to make myself.”

[4] Morrison, Toni. Sula. Grafton Books, 1982.

A Laying Down of Sorrows

well I wanted to braid my hair

bathe and bedeck my

self so fine

so fully aforethought for

your pleasure

see:

I wanted to travel and read

and runaround fantastic…

…But I had to remember to write down

margarine on the list

and shoepolish and a can of

sliced pineapple in casea company

The Talking Back of Miss Valentine Jones: Poem # one, June Jordan

lady in red

i waz missin somethin

lady in purple

somethin so important

lady in brown

somethin promised

lady in blue

a layin on of hands…

-from for colored girls who have considered suicide when the rainbow is enuf by Ntozake Shange

I’m now throwing away most of the things people have tried to teach me about art and writing and story structure and how things must be done. There is too much grief and too much death, too much misery for me to continue to use writing as another way to punish myself for my shortcomings; to hyper-fixate on the use or utility of my work to the point of inaction; to point out all the areas of failure, all the evidence that these words have no transformative or radical potential; or, how nobody cares to hear from another African international-school-to-abroad pipeline person who thinks their third eye has…

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There Is Death, and There Are Spreadsheets —

Hundreds of thousands of people die around me, and I open up a new workbook in Excel to tally the points I must earn for my completed tasks. Hundreds of thousands of people die around me, around us, and I count feverishly so maybe I will be rewarded with a raise that will leave my […]

There Is Death, and There Are Spreadsheets —

“Aspiration. Aspiration is the word that I arrived at for keeping and putting breath in the Black body…we yet, reimagine and transform spaces for and practices of an ethics of care (as in repair, maintenance, attention), an ethics of seeing, and of being in the wake as consciousness; as a way of remembering and observance that started with the door of no return, continued in the hold of the ship and on the shore.”

-Christina Sharpe, In the Wake: On Blackness and Being, page 130

There is death, and there are spreadsheets, and I am here, still.

Lover of Flowers

I bought an end table because it looks like I could’ve plucked it out of a photo of my grandma’s living room in the 70s, dusted off, reassembled, and no longer tinted a faded pink like the surface of the photo from which it emerged. Mango flavored things are often more enjoyable than mangos themselves but I bought some anyway just for the self-indulgent nostalgia of it all; well the real, less snarky reason is that I used to think fresh fruits and veggies a luxury I did not deserve. The moon is visible from every window in my place except the one in the kitchen, and whoever has to develop the film from the disposable camera I bought will have to share the joy of the blurry shots of this view with me. I feel safe and at ease at home, even with work seeping through the webcam and between my feet if I don’t close the door fast enough. There are several comfortable places to doze and drift away from wakefulness for me and any number of friends who visit. My plants grow sturdy and vivid green. The floor is mostly spotless and always free of someone else’s broken glass. There are mismatched blankets, an emerald couch, and fresh flowers for the altar every week. My grandma, mum, aunts, uncles, and my 7-year-old self grin and laugh at my present self from two frames of the same photo, from a day of the purest joy I have experienced so far, even with the uninvited guest lurking behind us, only a hem in view. Grief and uncertainty do not feel less grim here, but I’m sleeping better than I have in months. I’m saying all this aloud so that I can tell my self from 2016 or 2019 that I am in fact not a neurotic disgrace, that ease and contentment are possible, that punishing my self for every failure—perceived or true—is unsustainable and a diversion from all the living I still want to do. Most days in this place, I feel like my favorite poem, and the satisfaction is so deep that I almost don’t care that a lot of what I have just shared may make little sense, logically or narratively speaking.

To My Mama Alwin Mana

I’m so tired of my regular indoor voice being heard as a scream; of being presumed to be arrogant, harsh, abrasive, or ungrateful for existing or, God forbid, advocating for myself; of being denied benefit of the doubt; of my attempts at stretching out wide and letting my bowed-down soul stand up being perceived as an offensive posture; of being humbled, belittled, “put in my place,” or knocked off an invisible pedestal, one I neither asked for nor do I desire, by the same ones who place me there. I don’t need help shrinking, I’m already as small as can be. I watch myself trying to keep my face neutral and non-threatening on Zoom. I try not to feel shame for being so fragile and anxious (after all, the times could not be more dire, unless they can). I’m wondering if it wouldn’t make sense to just be the arrogant bitch that I have been understood to be so that there is no longer any tension between performance and inner world. Might that be easier? I don’t know how to talk about this without sounding like my complaint is being shut out from white worlds or craving “a seat a the table,” because that is absolutely not the thorn here. (These are absolutely not confessions of a Black girl climber; I’ll be damned). My soul has been bowing down for years at work, and at home now that the walls have collapsed between those places, and I feel more tired than I should considering I have barely lived, compared to what my mothers would have been seeing at their age anyway. Tired and ashamed, for being so–

Looping image of rapper Flo Milli striking poses behind a bright pink podium topped with pink mics. The words "Like that" float above her head in blue and "bitch" flashes in the foreground, also in blue.

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…

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There Is Death, and There Are Spreadsheets

Hundreds of thousands of people die around me, and I open up a new workbook in Excel to tally the points I must earn for my completed tasks. Hundreds of thousands of people die around me, around us, and I count feverishly so maybe I will be rewarded with a raise that will leave my account at a comfortable $45 overdraft instead of $150. Hundreds of thousands of people die, and I apologize: sorry for my oversight; I took some time off and I am now behind; I took some time off and I missed your email; I took some time off and now I must be punished. Hundreds of thousands of people die with saltwater where their lungs should be, hundreds of thousands of people die as the land burns and the shore sinks below itself, hundreds of thousands of people die and the horizon’s promise retreats further out…

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Tripping

When I took this photo, I was waiting for the same Silver line I mention later, on my way to take part in a poetry festival organized in part by the same friend I describe. For the blur and crookedness of the image, I will blame the heat, the 30-minute bus delay, my attempt to snap while on the phone with my mum, shyness to squat to get the right angle, and excitement at seeing faces I have not seen since pre-pandemic times.

In the summer of 2013, I decided to get a job at my college that came with free on-campus housing so I could stay in DC for the summer. Work study paychecks weren’t enough to pay for a ticket home, and I couldn’t stand for my mum to pay for things I didn’t consider absolutely essential. I know my reluctance and at times outright refusal to ask for any kind of help (material, emotional, or anything else) causes her distress, though my own unbending self-reliance is something I learnt from her.

My fear of coming up short and anxieties around scarcity meant that I convinced myself that the Safeway across the bridge from my campus was more affordable than its shiny counterpart in the middle of the multimillion dollar neighborhood the school shared with politicians and various other people with wealth of dubious origin (Is this a misnomer? If one is that wealthy in the face of so much suffering, isn’t all the wealth acquired by dubious means, or in other words, stolen?) Whether that store branch was actually cheaper, I can no longer remember, but on any given weekend or day off work and regardless of weather, I would faithfully find myself across the bridge for my weekly groceries. This mundane errand became some sort of anchor for me, so much so that even when carrying it out wasn’t ideal because the weather was too wet or too hot, or if the window of time I had to get to the store and back before my next work shift, I would still insist on completing this ritual. When my boyfriend at the time came to visit, I forced him to accompany me, even with his [justified] complaints about the heat, the distance, and the impracticality of the whole affair. As we waited for the bus that would take us home, he waved his hands in frustration towards the line of empty taxis waiting for passengers, even offering to pay the fare if money was my concern. I refused, and we carried the groceries on and off the bus and all the way back to my dorm.

There was no way to explain what was happening in my brain to make me believe that if I deviated from my usual routine, I would be in some kind of danger or experience unbearable panic turned pain, in short that some sort of catastrophe would materialize or if I failed to complete this senseless mission. It was almost as though a circuit had tripped in my mind, leaving sparks and a lackluster puff of smoke where my good sense should have been. Even if I had these words at the time, I don’t know that he would have had the empathy to receive them well. That summer was fraught in our relationship for several reasons, not the least of which where the endless spirals of my emotional reactions and his harshness. I don’t know what it is about straight men and their insecurities that transforms their admiration into contempt, unless perhaps what initially appears to be romantic interest and admiration was really just a desire to possess and control another person. As was often the case with us, I would have to make up for my behavior when it was my turn to visit him, and we walked the whole way from his local grocery store back to his apartment so I could see what I had put him through, a sort of vengeance on his part. I have no interest nor do I gain anything from casting someone I haven’t spoken to in years as a villain, but I would be lying if I said it didn’t sting for a long while afterwards to think about how the beginnings of my mental unravelling were treated like self-indulgence, selfishness, nonsense, by someone who claimed to love me.

Five years later, my state of mind was much the worse for wear after grad school and after having borne witness to and experiencing all kinds of banal and spectacular cruelties that Boston’s racism had to offer. I was also graduating with a number of publications and other “achievements” to my name, and I needed the longest, most extra ponytail to match my teal blazer dress and silver boots and the overall fanfare of the moment, whether or not a full-time job with benefits was waiting on the other side (It was not). I mapped my path from Somerville to the big beauty supply on Mass Ave, its outer walls like an old dollhouse drained of most of its color—there were closer options, but I was going to be downtown for other errands, so my good sense told me to take this route—80 bus to Lechmere, Green line to Park Street, and then SL5 to Washington Street at Mass Ave.

A dear friend was also going to be downtown and wanted to spend time together, so I asked if she would mind going to the store with me before we went on to get some ice cream or whatever else we felt like. I had been repeating the sequence of my journey in my head like an incantation, as if I couldn’t follow this route with my eyes closed: 80, Green Life, Silver Line, 80, Green Line, Silver Line. But as soon as my friend walked up to me and asked, “Which store are you going to? Can we walk?” that circuit tripped and replaced my good sense with panic. Instead of suggesting we wait for the next bus or that we walk down Washington Street along the same route the Silver line would have taken us, I somehow decided we should go the “scenic, long way,” down Boylston past the library, the Prudential, and the Brooks-Brothers clad populace most likely to be shopping there, and eventually a left turn on Mass Ave, maneuvering around music students carrying instrument cases twice their size.

When we reached our destination, I braced myself for the sneering, the contempt, the threat of punishment, but my friend only stamped her foot and play scolded me like the Trini junior-auntie she is, and we went inside to search for my ponytail. She had a way of knowing things I had not told her, mostly because that is one of her gifts, and maybe because of the way she loves, so it’s possible she knew that my confusing actions had their roots in some unspoken pain within me. In any case, we proceeded to have the sweetest evening, including ice cream and a chance meeting with two friends of hers on the street outside the hair store, both black women, one who was mother to a child named Zora. There would be no atonement for inconveniencing or frustrating her, nor would I have to produce evidence of having been previously unimpeachable as a friend (another time I might tell you about the period of time that ex assigned and subtracted points, supposedly as a joke, according to the satisfactory [or not] nature of my actions…) to justify this one transgression.

My fear of retribution was informed not by anything in her character or prior treatment of me, but rather in the contempt I seemed to elicit in the past for not having “my shit together” in the words of that distant ex. I can say with no tongue-biting or hesitation that majority of the people who have met my chaos or my pain with [willful] misunderstanding, refusal to truly see me, or outright malice have been men. This piece of writing is not intended to excuse treating the people around oneself as collateral damage for one’s depressive or incoherent behaviors, nor do I mean to render friends who have extended me abundant care and grace as long-suffering martyrs. I just have the “sheer good fortune” to be loved by so many women as friend and sister, and I spare no opportunity to show them as much praise and appreciation as I can muster, knowing that it can never be enough for the glory that they are.

I’m trying to take a moment to revel in the contentment I feel now, in the immense space that has opened up in my mind now that anxiety is largely absent, meaning I can listen to music that is totally new to me; take different routes around the city than the ones I may have memorized; or deviate from any daily routine without fear that my life will collapse under the advent of anything different or unfamiliar. I’m thrifting clothes in the light colors I used to wear before my fear of financial lack and determination to be as practical and responsible as possible stocked my closet with a uniform of black leggings with black t shirts for warmer weather and black turtlenecks for winter; thrift rather than brand new to try and participate as little as possible in a garment industry that takes lives in exchange for the most flattering high-waisted jeans for someone living in wealthier locales. I do not include this detail to be sanctimonious, but rather to express that I can’t be at peace while knowing that the things I use to adorn my body come at the cost of the lives of factory and agricultural workers, many of them women in places like Indonesia and Bangladesh. I have a writing residency stipend that allows me a living situation I thought I would only ever be able to afford if I moved to a cheaper part of the country. After about a three-week period of feeling despondent, low, and small in spirit and imagination, I’m trying with all the strength I can summon to be the exuberant 7-year-old version of myself who could and would not shrink even if she tried and to refuse the pressure to participate in my own diminution for the benefit of whoever’s check pays the most bills. There is still pain, grief, worry about money and survival, and I hope the positive turn at this ending is not a “Pollyannaish” (as my therapist loves to say), narrative of tripped circuits finding repair and new, brighter light after a period of disfunction. Because I believe in something called the black femme sublime, I know the sparks, the smoke, the glitching connections, and the brightness of all-that-is-possible can coexist; I’m just trying to do a better job of documenting the good as much as I tend to the hurt.

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.

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