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)

 

 

 

 

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.)

A Glamouring

I’m feeling very content with and within myself, and I’m not sure what to make of it. I’m not complaining that the ever elusive joy towards which I’ve been writing seems to have finally arrived, not at all. It’s a pleasant surprise after these weeks of feeling strangely “silent” and distant from myself. I feel like I’ve woken up from a deep, dreamless sleep and had a good, wide stretch. What’s most confusing about this shift is that nothing new in particular has happened to remove some of the worries I’ve been harboring. I’m still facing quite a bit of uncertainty, but as I usually do, I’m going to get on with the business of living.

I’m also still sorting through some of the things with which I walked away from grad school. I am the proud owner of a few certificates embossed with curly gold lettering, folders full of PDFs forever on my “to read an annotate” list, jeans that are now a little looser than I would prefer– neglecting oneself is costly, just ask my dental bills and my newly too large wardrobe– and a not insignificant amount of debt.

I won’t miss the condescension masquerading as concern; the fortified self I had to carry around constantly to ensure that no one saw my weakness and tried to use it against me. I won’t miss the being talked over, diminished and stepped on in conversation. I can’t miss any of these things partly because they are still around. I am still frustratingly the only Black woman™ (my summer reading list is helping me move around this isolation: Dionne Brand, Robin Coste Lewis, Tiphanie Yanique, Alice Walker) and I am still how dare you be “mean and impressive” in front of my mediocrity.

Anyway, I’m feeling good– and not just looking like it or pretending– and it feels good to say so.

I wrote the following piece as I was thinking about Toni Morrison’s Sula– as I often am– and how Sula was a sort of necessary evil for the people in her community. They needed her to feel and to act worthy and kind, and I’m wondering if that means we should question if she was really evil, or what it means to be evil at all.

***

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A Glamouring

“I like to say Black people do this thing I like to call glamouring, we glamour…What Black tend to do is we tend to mesmerize the person who’s acting on us. A lot of what we do, everything from shucking and jiving, to Michael Jackson moonwalking, it’s all glamouring.” -Arthur Jafa*

She told me every night, over after-dinner orange slices, the blue edge of the plate chipped so much it looked like part of the pattern. She told me if I kept swallowing whole orange seeds, I would grow a tree from the middle of my head, and then we would keep on growing– the tree and me– through the ceiling and the roof, splintering wood and metal alike.

Determined to become an expanse of living things, I grew.

I stretched my legs into the ground, my back turned black soil flower bed. Orange blossom curled out of my ears and over my shoulders. I became a whole grove, all flourish and sweet, and too much of me will ruin you.

My arms wrapped around myself as long as it takes generations of women to laugh and die and run and glamour. I stood there hugging myself, tall and unwavering, tree trunks draped then strangled by vines.

Then I came back, and this time I wasn’t so precious, so careful.

My high shoes planted their pointy heels between new shoots struggling toward life. She was watching from the window, louver blades drawing long darts of shadow across her frowning face.

I stood under the tallest tree I made of me

Me: one grand motherfucker

I lit a cigarette until fear turned molten in my chest and flowed out

Me: a wild fire

For years to come people would cough ash over their plates of after-dinner oranges, would swear that they could still feel the glow.

***

Image: Selfie by yours truly, “a glamouring” from June 2018.

*This quote comes from a conversation between bell hooks and Arthur Jafa at the New School in 2014, as part of a week-long celebration of the 20th anniversary of the publication of hooks’ Teaching to Transgress: A Education as a Practice of Freedom. This text has become a sort of handbook for me as I try to learn more about teaching, and hooks’ dialogue with Jafa raised some really interesting questions about the camera as an agent of the white gaze, even when there is a Black person behind it, and about surveilling and performing Blackness in public spaces. Still, I disagreed with and was taken aback by some of  Jafa’s comments, especially around some of the analogies and language he used to discuss the enslavement of Black people and white supremacist violence enacted against Black people.

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.

 

For Miss Freda, and for all my Lilians

A lot of my recent writing has been an attempt to gain understanding of Ewe and Haitian vodou, without being disrespectful or misrepresenting these already maligned and misunderstood religions. I’m Ewe, but have not been initiated into nor do I practice vodou. I didn’t grow up listening to our creation myths, or folktales about why certain animals behave a certain way, and so on. One of my most persistent fears is to turn these beautifully fearsome spirits and gods into glossy and easily consumed half-versions of themselves, or to co-opt imagery with little care for its origin or significance. I haven’t yet been able to get over the discomfort of trying to tap into a heritage that I know mostly in name and phrases mixed with English only. I’m also careful not to idealize pre-colonial ways of being and of understanding the world as some sort of utopia as yet unsullied or destroyed by European colonialism.

I feel as though I’m always seeking approval or permission to be curious about these things, even though they are the very things that have made me and my imagination possible. So, I’ve been reading and researching as much as I can about Anlo-Ewe spirituality, and about life before and during European conquest in my part of what is now Ghana. I’ve been asking my relatives a lot of questions, and trying to be as careful a student as I can be. I’ve been writing characters and settings, as well as praise songs and prayers that seem authentic to these spiritualities, while making a conscious effort to avoid copying elements wholesale into my work. I’m trying to write a world that appears as though it would fit into the universe my forebears imagined and created for themselves.

I’ve also been thinking a lot about love, partly because of Erzulie Freda– lwa of love, luxury, and sensuality– who is always trying to take up more space in my work than I have given her. The rhetoric around love being a superior response to rage, and a cure-all for oppressive structures has also been on my mind a lot, mostly because it frustrates me so much. Most of the “well-meaning” people who try to bludgeon the (rightfully) enraged with this sort of rhetoric do not usually mean love in any meaningful or transformative way. They simply mean “Lie down and die quietly; your protests are a nuisance and make me uncomfortable.”

In an attempt to keep writing in spite of my current anxieties about the general state of the world/career/debt/life/relationships, I’ve been picking quotes or passages as prompts for my posts, and it’s been a pretty productive exercise. Here is a praise song/prose poem in response to two quotes, one from Sula, and the other from Terence Nance’s 2012 film An Oversimplification of her Beauty.

***

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My beloved and beautiful Grandma Lilian. I’m named after her– I have two middle names– but I don’t think the name suits me that well. I don’t have the requisite kind eyes and pleasant disposition, I feel.

“Love: an art form slightly removed from its intended context.”

-from an Oversimplification of Her Beauty

“Like an artist without an art form, she became dangerous.”

-from Sula

And so Erzulie Freda’s lastborn sings:

Love has chosen my own head as a seat for her crown.

I am gilded fury hardened in the heat of clenched fists, and I am sweet joy whispered in your ear on the night side of dawn. I come from beyond the Universe’s horizon, sweeping across the sea in a hot wind, troubling the water, and the sand, and the flimsy cloth in your windows, and the tufts of hair and dust in the corners of your room.

Love has lent me her face and the better one of her eyes that shines mischief and liquid silver when I laugh.

I am everywhere you look and, and especially where you hide. I live on your heaving shoulders after a healthy cry, and in the curves of your ears where the salt from your tears turned crystal.

Love has blessed my hands with enough power.

I am firm fingers scrubbing stubborn sweat and grit from your scalp each evening, and I am lifting your work-weary arms to tie your sleeping scarf­ –careful like– so my nails won’t catch on the threads that have fallen loose from its weave.

careful

I am of Erzulie Freda’s dangerous charm.

I am of colossal proportions.

I am everything.

First, the Fire

“Eva looked into Hannah’s eyes. “Is? My baby? Burning?” “

“…Eva said yes, but inside she disagreed and remained convinced that Sula had watched Hannah burn not because she was paralyzed, but because she was interested.”

-from Sula by Toni Morrison

***

So, I’m writing.

I’ve been giving myself writing exercises in an attempt to free myself for this frustrating halt that I’ve been feeling each time I’ve tried to resume working on my thesis project recently. The way I see it, if I keep writing around and around, I will eventually write towards my actual work, as long as I’m always writing pieces that exist in the same universe as the one that I’ve created for my novel. With that in mind, I’ve invented a series of plagues that are sort of “biblical” in the sense that Christianity and a lot of its symbols and imagery have been fused or absorbed into Ewe and Haitian vodou (This is related to the research I’ve done for most of my time in my MFA program, and I wrote about it briefly here).

I didn’t grow up with the ritual of burning fallen hair after braiding or combing, but I’ve grown fixated on that image after encountering it repeatedly in Black women’s writing across the diaspora. Someone is always burning shed hair immediately before some sort of tragedy, or before the next “strange thing,” as Toni Morrison puts it in Sula.

I re-read Sula a few weeks ago, and it was not the more spectacular instances of burning that stayed with me, not Eva setting fire to Plum in his bed, or even Hannah going up in flames in the yard and Eva leaping out of the window to try and save her.

Rather, it was the smaller, the seemingly more ordinary; Nel’s grandmother using a burnt out match to darken her eyebrows, or Sula’s return, marked by birds, and by Eva burning her shed hair with her back to the same window she once leapt out of. In Gloria Naylor’s Mama Day, we are to believe that it is Cocoa’s fallen hairs, those that didn’t get burnt, those that end up in the jealous Ruby’s pocket, that lead to her painful deterioration. (There’s something I think Sula and Mama Day are saying to each other, and I wrote about that here.)

My first plague is fire.

***

There is oil hissing and spitting inside. It’s possible that it is frying on too high heat until whatever you had wanted to eat is shriveled and burnt, stuck to the pan’s deep rusty belly, forevermore resistant to any scrub. It could be that the stove’s heat is too great, or, that the whole house is burning, and I am going with it.

Don’t you want to see what you can salvage

 There is something frying inside, but you are still and always slim legs, not crossed, but rather arranged one next to the other, grey dusting where your ankles meet from too many dry afternoon hours exposed to the air. Something is on fire, and your skirt is bunched up in messy fistfuls high on your thighs. Your feet are in the dust next to mine on the lower step and something is on fire. Yet, you just sit.

You have gathered the fallen hair from my head into a feathery ball and set it alight, three clicks of a lighter and a curse. There is something burning inside–I am sure– and yet, you sit, with my shed strands flaming first between your pointer and your thumb, and now in the palm of your hand.

Maybe the whole house is burning, or maybe it is just my scalp is scorching sweet mercy. I told you not to make the parts so small this time,

I told you I am something tender–

(Image by Hannah Firmin, from the cover art of the Grafton Books 1982 edition of Sula)

 

Procedure

rewriting (again) or reimagining this post I wrote a while back called “Recovery.”

***

“Are you sure, sweetheart, that you want to be well?”

-Toni Cade Bambara, The Salt Eaters

 “–let me go mad, Grandmother. Let me bleed and be forever lost and no one.”

-Toni Cade Bambara from “The Survivor,” Gorilla, My Love

 The ones on the top row were the first to go.

I spat them out on a plate one day, next to the wrecked remains of chicken bones, and watched them sink into the orange oil smeared across the porcelain. I looked on, bored, almost as if they were not for me.

The wisdom ones went next, the irony so apparent it was almost nauseating.

They shattered into someone else’s mouth. The time has long come and gone, and they still can’t tell if that is grit or bone or me causing their jaws to grind and stick, worn down and rusty as an forgotten mill

Finally, it was right up front, on the left.

I missed the silent warning. The root perishing in place, turning the enamel outside slowly brown and darker still ’til the surface was crumb like the sugar I love in my tea.

How could you let it get this bad?

Well, I decided to crack and vanish myself little by awful little.

I have a little time–