Mute

I just had a short story published in the “Power and Money” issue of Saraba Magazine! You can find my work here, alongside several great pieces of fiction and poetry.

I was very anxious about this story from the time I turned it in to a fiction workshop last year, and all throughout submissions and rejections from different magazines. I’m still anxious about it now, mainly because it’s part of a larger project to trace links between Ewe and Fon folklore and cosmology in traditions to other parts of the African diaspora.

Who am I to even attempt this? I’m not from the land that is now known as Benin. I’ve never visited Haiti or Louisiana, two other locations my research has led me. How can I do my work without turning deities and beliefs I know little about into objects for sale? Who am I to even attempt this, when on my best day I can’t write a full sentence in Ewe that is grammatically correct without help from relatives?  How much can I fictionalize without being disrespectful? Also, is every market scene in an African story automatically cliché?

The pressure of these unanswered questions was made much more bearable by the Saraba Magazine editors who were incredibly patient and thoughtful during the editing process. I never once felt like I was being forced into changing any aspect of the story to fit the magazine’s aesthetic, nor did I ever sense that my concerns and suggestions weren’t being taken seriously. It’s an amazing feeling to entrust your work to people whose approach shows that they actually care about your writing.

This particular story isn’t based on any one folktale that I’ve come across, but rather combines details about actual places I have lived in and visited with the narrative of a supreme being that exists in my imagination as much as she does in Ewe religious beliefs. This story is part of a much larger project that still mostly exists as a mood board, scattered passages and research notes. It wouldn’t make sense to say much else at this time.

You can find links to my other published work here.

(Image: Cover page of Saraba Magazine’s “Money and Power” issue. Artwork: Daniels, Aisha. “Untitled.” 2016.

Kiss the Ring

Happy New Year! And we’re back to our regularly scheduled programming…

***

It has been a long 8 years, but Sunday morning has finally arrived and your white linen is hanging stiffly around your body, hardened by starch and lack of wear. The congregation mumbles their way through the hymn before the sermon, and you try to ignore the sweat dripping down the side of your face into your collar, the smell of perfumed powder cut through with sweat, and the back of a dusty wardrobe-old cloth shaken out and worn only for special occasions such as this

The “increase” you have been fasting and praying for is here. Later, the celebration will take place in a pointed white tent, its interior draped with chiffon and washed in purple light. Gospel songs will be remixed to include the name of your benefactor: we thank God that he has showered you with blessings. You have done your duty, worn the right colors, lobbied outside locked doors in ministries for hours for 5 minutes to pay your respects, to pay for your forms to be considered for a little longer before they are tossed in the shredder or at the bottom of the big man’s out tray beneath invoices

per diem for staff training payable to

Your time is now; you deserve this. Contracts that have stalled will now come complete with a narrow sign board stamped with your name and that of your company, school fees will no longer involve shifting around funds from other parts of the budget, or borrowing from relatives who are better off but begrudging. You will see appointments to a small advisory board for deciding the color of street name signs, maybe even scholarships and opportunities for your children to study abroad, or at least at a private university somewhere on the outskirts of Accra, invites to the most talked about weddings and opportunities for your white linen to loosen up from frequent use and proximity to luxury

The pastor screams POWER IS MOVING! The church rumbles in chorus Amen! Meanwhile, you, sitting at the back in your righteous disdain for all the people you dismiss as social climbers, you typing this account at a frenetic pace, trying to atone for sinful acts you didn’t have a choice but to partake in. You tell yourself, it’s just the way things are around here, you say, it’s a question of survival. You are usually law-abiding and resistant to the decadence festering about you, you will sit in the waiting room at DVLA with the air conditioning sputtering and groaning to cool a room full of increasingly restless people for 3,4,5 hours with a book you’re reading for the second time, have I really been waiting this long?

But you see, this time is different. You’re hoping to travel to Lagos in the new year and you need this passport before then and you just *hate* to do this…so you will give a regretful grimace-like smile to the mother whose child will not stop crying, the man whose lunch break is almost over and pretend you don’t see their eyes rolling in frustration, they know how this works, they owe you no pleasantries

It doesn’t matter how

uncomfortable you are how

deferential you are how

many “good mornings” and how

much earnest eye contact you make you can’t ignore the way jammed doors creak open, how impatient frowns ease into knowing smirks, this is HIS niece and no one ever has to utter his name for all the officials to follow the other protocol for people with your sort of connections

No one knows or cares how many jobs you’re holding down outside, the difference in status elsewhere for someone with your blackness and woman-ness.

The single digits dwindling in your bank account still come out green when you withdraw cash

You will only be able to disassociate yourself so far from the power pulling out thrones from under certain backsides and placing velvet pillows beneath others, power that operates silently in the background no matter which colors fly from the majority of windows and rear view mirrors

It’s Sunday morning, and you can keep your pretentious musings to yourself, like the fact that even where we worship is determined by how many zeros we write onto our tax returns (if we pay them) and how well we can roll r’s on demand in front of the window at the US embassy. Or how odd it is for us to be nostalgic for a time when we would not have been able to dirty the polished marble floors of the kinds of hotels we now enjoy, even in our best shoes: Gold Coast City, Villa, Manor, Castle, Colonial Suites… Power is moving in the same halls it has always adorned with its presence by way of framed black and white portraits of “freedom” brokers, it is trapped tightly in the fists that will punch the shoe shine boys and street hawkers in the stomach and the pocket, it is a generational blessing the leftovers of which you can only taste when those who are most “blessed” and most “hardworking,” most deserving and in possession of the most contacts have had their share

keep quiet and unfold your white hanky, wave it high, give praises to democracy working to kill as it always has and always will

(Image: Ghana Independence overprint on Gold Coast 1s stamp, https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Ghana_Independence_overprint_on_Gold_Coast_1s_stamp_1957.jpg)

Recovery

reverse the order

It is a wonder there are any parts of myself left to write about. Take the rusty hook digging into my cheek, forcing my face into a grimace for a smile. I am the one holding it, it is this pen and workshops and operating rooms and places other sharp objects sit waiting to tear and reconstruct ugly parody of natural self. Recovery is not a destination; it is a place I keep writing myself away from

She is holding the scalpel ripping away at herself and now she has turned it on me. I am pulling further away from her and she has not noticed that her attempts at comfort and commiseration feel like the same unnecessary procedures she has had to endure. Just because our bones settle together into the same shape does not mean I want to die her sort of death

reversal of the order

is impossible. I’m writing against recovery but cannot write myself into wholeness. I speak most fluently in broken teeth spat into a hand– not mine– small strips of flesh hanging off the edges of my nail beds, splits in damaged hair pulled together too roughly. Is there anything else left to disfigure in the name of getting over and beyond…recovery will never be a destination

I have written too far away from it and everyone expects my remains as proof

reverse the order

I will still end up in ruin where I have put myself every single time, but she helped me get here and so did you

***

Rewrite after poetry workshop, spring 2017

To Wholeness

(as Michelle Cliff tried to do)

It is a wonder there are any parts of myself left to write about. Take the rusty hook digging into my cheek, forcing my face to form a grimace for a smile. I am the one holding it, it is this pen and workshops and operating rooms and places other sharp objects sit waiting to tear and reconstruct ugly parody of natural self. Recovery is not a destination; it is a place I keep writing myself away from.

My spirit mother is holding the scalpel ripping away at herself and now she has turned it on me. I am pulling further away from her and she has not noticed that her attempts at comfort and commiseration feel like the same unnecessary procedures she has had to endure. Just because our bones settle into the same shape does not mean I want to die her sort of death.

I’m writing against recovery but cannot write myself to wholeness. I speak most fluently in broken teeth spat in my hand, small strips of flesh hanging off the edges of my nail beds, splits in damaged hair pulled together too roughly. Is there anything else left to disfigure in the name of getting over and beyond–

Recovery will never be a destination. I have written too far away from it and everyone expects my remains as proof.

 

 

Cityscape

The city is winning. It follows me into the bathroom and rains murky water onto my head when I turn on the tap. This city has buried itself beneath my skin, a layer deeper than I can scrub, so I can never escape the smell. I’m on my third wash and my scalp has passed the point of burning protest and is now numb. My hair still smells like the man on the train who doesn’t care that I don’t want to chat. This morning’s coffee, cigarette smoke and saliva hiding behind spearmint.

My ex girlfriend called me up today and said come and have lunch with me. She works over at MGH. I call her nurse raging bitch.

The city won’t let me contribute to my own thoughts; my stream of consciousness has blank spaces for every time it has been interrupted by screeching on train tracks, dry cough and vomit splashing on concrete, heavy bass breaking through a car window at the traffic light. I sit up and inwards in an attempt to shrink my width so I don’t touch the woman reading student papers on my left and the drip of this man’s slushie on my right.

I made her pay my phone bill then I told her fuck off cuz I’m not interested. You believe that?

 Later, I’ll turn in my bed and see the same faces glaring at me for daring to take up too much space. I went to sleep compressed, with my legs tucked as closely together as possible, and woke up with the slushie spreading its unnatural blue on my sheets, and the student papers crumpled in a ball and stuffed in my mouth.

This city follows me to other places I’ve long since forgotten to call home. When I see the aunt who insists on calling me “Jehnet” for reasons I never really found funny, all I see is the body double she doesn’t know she has sitting on a bench outside a thrift store, smoking slim brown sticks and asking for change. The only reason I smiled and said, “No. I don’t mind” when she asked if she could smoke was because her hairnet looked familiar as did her chin that seamlessly folded into her neck.

The city is determined to follow me wherever I go. It scales the sides of buildings and hooks itself onto cracked open windows, before sliding down walls on the inside. It is mingling with the scent of tea brewing and traces of perfume, used books, cardboard and microwaved takeout. The city is heavy and only lifts itself off me long enough for me to say, “I’m good, howareyou?” It settles back down once I get the words out, pinning me to the chair and daring me to try again. I still can’t say, “Actually, I’m not ok. Do you have a minute?” because these people are here to teach and not to listen to the problems I think I have.

Yeah I’m good! I just stopped by to say hello!

be sure to collect all the exclamation points you have used freely and falsely and stuff them back in your fist for the next time

I think I’ve gotten a moment to myself, but this city pries the elevator doors open just before I start my descent. It is with me as I walk past rows of candy colored houses whose interiors are probably and tragically identical to mine. Shiny red pieces of plastic scratch the sides of my face as I wait to cross the street next to a group of cheerleaders dressed in uniforms as red and shiny as the pompoms they’re waving in my face.

I cannot end with a reminder that city dwellers are really just people pretending to be dark grey pinstriped jackets drifting from metal box to metal building and back again, waiting for someone to shake them out and wear them with pride, for someone to love them. This place just will not let me do it.

(Image: Taken by me, June 2016)

Encore

It’s been a long summer of hoarding anger and pouring it all out into my writing. At this point, I’ve realized that I’m not so much venting and trying to get rid of all my toxic feelings, as I am just using my words to be as hurtful as possible to the person that hurt me. I’ve been trying to make up for all the  lost sleep/writing time/peace of mind/joy over a person and situation that didn’t deserve any of this trouble. My hurt didn’t come from the regret of losing out, because I know for a fact that I’m not missing out on much. It came from being disrespected and left powerless to do anything about it. So, I wrote. This is going to be the last post of its kind, because in that person’s own words “There are more important things to worry about; it’s not that deep.” It was only a couple of months, right? Chill. 🙂

***

Does it get exhausting to be so careful? Did you ever take piano lessons? Probably not, and I don’t judge you for it, although you will find some way to braid this fact into the tapestry that is your rise to success, from neighborhoods we shall not name to the beds of women with accents sliding past immigration regulations. I only asked about the piano lessons because I would imagine that they taught you discipline, to keep steady hands at a meeting where you are being silenced over and over for your age, your stature, for bearing the wrong passport. I imagine that in those lessons you would hear how to measure time carefully, how to drop staccato points of argument, to play softly when the mood calls for it, to close the deal with a high-pitched tinkle of whiskey tumblers at the extreme right of the keyboard. What do you do to unwind? Do you ever relax? I assume that is the purpose I served. I was a novelty ornament sitting on a dusty shelf behind invoices yet to be accounted for. I would rise slowly out of the box at your request, sometimes sharp, other times slow and teasing– whatever you would like today.

But this is not about me. You are probably not surprised at my harsh judgment because you believe that feathers and imaginary middle class anxieties cushion my every fall. Any attempt at a sob story is only a pathetic play to match yours, and it doesn’t matter what toilets my mothers scrubbed and what broken shoes they had to wear so that I could hide diplomas I cannot read in a drawer I never open. As far as you’re concerned, a baby born with success clinging to the folds of her chubby arms turns into one of those “fancy girls” you see enjoying unusual blends of tea in the café down the street from your job.

Now you have access, in space, in wallet, in meticulously maintained but still crooked and unconvincing smile, and you can destroy your previous enemies from the inside out. The heart is the tastiest part; start there. But this is not about me. This is about you and how hard you’ve worked to live in a house very far away from the one of your childhood. You can shake your head at the little boys with dust covering their arms from wrist to shoulder, the ones aiming jagged stones at unripe mangoes. “That is no longer who I am.” That is no longer who you are unless, of course, it can add to your charming brand.

I ask if it gets exhausting, but I actually do not care. Even if there were traces of actual human sentiment left hiding in the hollows of your ears, I would not believe you if you tried to say, sincerely, that sometimes you need a respite from the cruel mime you have performed for many years. You are the engineer of what appears to be a perfect system, at least for now. No creaks in the joints, every joke carefully placed between product pitches, every private memory carefully curated to show off the cosmopolitan sheen glinting off your face.

I could also be wrong. You could be perfectly human and flawed in less sinister ways than I have dreamt up. You could be happy in the same uninteresting way that drives people to hold hands in public and block doorways with their embraces while strangers offer indulgent looks of approval. The tools that I have, you lack access to, words like weapons to gouge out all the parts you thought were hidden, an intelligence you cannot begin to fit into spreadsheets and three hour sessions dreaming up incomplete solutions to problems to which you contribute yourself. But of course, I could just be bitter and unable to let go. You could be totally happy and regular. It is obvious that I do not wish you to be, but mostly I do not care.

fuck you
Source: Tumblr

 

 

 

Unlooking

I had planned to write a short blurb to explain this piece, to provide some context about the education I’ve received and how it has led me to view whiteness and so on. I’ve changed my mind, not because I don’t care if you understand or not, but because I’m exhausted from talking about this constantly. There are three more names we’ve had to learn these past few days: Joyce Quaweay, Skye Mockabee and Korryn Gaines. There are probably so many more that didn’t make the news. Say Her Name. I’m exhausted, and I hope this piece speaks for itself.

***

There’s a young man on the train, very slim, maybe in his mid-twenties. For someone who spends almost all my time observing strangers moving about in their strange worlds, I’m terrible at estimating people’s ages. I blame that on the fact that all the older people I know have wrinkle-free faces frozen somewhere in their mid-thirties, with only a few flecks of grey at the hairline as evidence of their age. This man is wearing a grey suit, wrinkled in the back from where he has been leaning on the seat, with a pale blue shirt and a matching tie. He has red hair combed over to the left side of his head, a little limp because of the summer heat, or maybe from an overdue wash. He is having an energy drink for breakfast, and the can is the only thing he is carrying. He has on brown shoes that look cartoonish in their largeness, in the way that men’s shoes always appear to me. His white headphones loop over his collar to the inside of his shirt, maybe connected to a phone, maybe connected to nothing but giving the impression that he is unavailable for any kind of conversation. It could be that he got on the train at the other end of the B line, and that the look of irritation on his face is a remnant of dealing with the BU students crowding and shuffling on and off between stops. Maybe he didn’t get much sleep because he spent the night worrying about his old parents wilting slowly in a Mid-western town. Maybe he is just tired because he stayed up late drinking within his work buddies as if college ended last night, and not three years before when he moved to Boston.

There’s a young woman in blue pleated pants, with white squares dotted all over them. I believe they’re from the clothing store where I used to work. If I think hard enough, I may even be able to remember the exact name of the style: Ann, Kate or Devin? She has an orange shirt tucked into her trousers with a white belt to secure the outfit, and a black bag with the designer’s name and logo fixed on in gold lettering. She is wearing square tortoise shell glasses that she pushes back up her nose absent mindedly, and her hair is an indeterminate brown. Indeterminate because it doesn’t look like anything that I have known before. In all the books I read growing up, the children looked like the mischievous Cupid laughing jumping of the surface of gaudy cards in a filling station shop in February, and their hair was always the color of hay, or of sunlight filtered through thin orange curtains, or of a lake at night. This is none of those things, and I don’t have the words. I try to imagine a life for her, like I did the man. Maybe she is an intern at a shiny ad agency in the financial district, only in Boston for the summer before she returns to an elite college elsewhere on the east coast. She probably knocked her bag into the small of my back because the only faces like mine she registers are the ones fixing their eyes on mop buckets and dirty floors when she exits the shower of her dorm, even though there are probably many more in her classes, and in the city, than she notices because they are not supposed to be there.

I’m a disappointment to a curriculum that pounded lines of poetry into my skull to the rhythm of iambic pentameter. All I can remember is the absurdity of memorizing lines of drama from Hamlet on a boiling day in a school hidden by full hedges and tall gates from the gaze of people who were not international enough. I was obligated to concern myself with this Hamlet character who, if he were alive today, would probably be found posting terrible haikus on Tumblr and plotting how he was going to leave his parents apartment for good this time. Obsessing over the significance of Ophelia’s drowning when my own ability to stay afloat was going to be tested, dangerously so, in classrooms and residence halls and workplaces full of people who would not be able to hear my own cries for help. I have been called upon to jump into strange skins and to understand what it’s like to inhabit them, while looking at my own as a thing to be studied objectively, to be grateful for this redemption orchestrated by high culture and long-suffering Jesus with the freshly permed wave to his hair.

And yet, there is still something that obstructs the light of recognition before it reaches my eyes. There is a piece of stone blocking its way that now makes it difficult for me to see humanity in people that cannot see me. That the dehumanized eventually become inhumane is clear to me in the way I look at people on the train as flat pieces of canvas waiting for me to make half-hearted strokes on the surface. I left the empathy that was forced on me between pages of G.M Hopkins’ and Emily Brontë’s works, marking my place in histories of people winning wars fought over graves of the original wonders of the land, pages bled through with florescent pink highlighter ink. I don’t have any empathy left to give. I can look, disinterested, in the same way I glance at semester abroad students with cowries matted into the back of hair that isn’t made for locs, locked arms with their local friends, or the expat mothers moving in a cloud of Paris’ finest perfume and left over air conditioned cold, pulling naughty children away from their uncouth playmates with open pink mouths and dust trapped in the knots of their hair. I can look, but I have lost all interest in a human condition that is only human when it doesn’t include me.

 (Image: The train stations in DC made for really good photo ops. Spring 2014)

Inventory

Here’s another extract from the story-that-shall-never-be-finished 🙂 You can read the first part I shared here.

a spine- folded in half

The curve of my back was the long stretch of road to Labadi beach. We were sitting in the cramped backseat of a taxi, the rattling of the loose parts underneath it competed with and eventually won over the radio static interspersed with football commentary Dede Ayew with the cross, and it’s a gooooaaaaal! It was my birthday, so I didn’t care that the leather seat was sticking to my thighs with sweat in one place, and scratching my skin in another with place where the leather had cracked and where hairpins and groundnuts from some other passenger’s lunch were now embedded in the seat’s foam filling. The faded tarmac fought the sand encroaching onto its sides and the omnipresent waves of the Atlantic grew more restless and furious the more of land and “sea defense” rocks they swallowed. The road knew it would soon follow. You were the first person to ever buy me flowers, so it no longer mattered that hours before, I was prepared to give up on you and spend the rest of my day punching disappointment into the cushions of grandma’s sofa because you arrived at the gate hours after you said you would. My low expectations for you had been exposed, but the embarrassment I was hiding in my throat had almost vanished.

It’s not my fault you’re not reliable

It’s not my fault I’m late. The car–

It’s because I’m not your priority.

Let me finish. The car broke down and I had to take a taxi.

It’s not my fault I have a hard time trusting you.

It’s not my fault you always want me to prove something to you.

But perhaps I am moving too fast down the list of minor slights and sly insults. We had not yet learnt to drag each other on this journey after which I could no longer see myself in mirrors, and you wondered what made you try to understand something as unconceivable as a reflection in flux in the first place. That day it smelled exactly like July should, drizzle clinging to leaves and the next rainstorm never far off, but you couldn’t tell from looking at the tourists roasting themselves, first on side, then on the other, by the pool. We picked our way through discarded slippers and empty bottles of sun cream pressed down in the middle towards the back of the hotel grounds. What looked like just another chalet actually housed an eclectic and slightly confusing array of things; a winding hallway with orange and white tiles and walls covered almost entirely with abstract art that looks like everyday Accra in haphazard brushstrokes, stick men fighting over another stick body lying on the ground, a red trotro in the background. At the end of the hallway and past the Thai restaurant, a porch swing strung between two bronze pillars, its seat full of gold and fuchsia pillows with a few bald spots where there used to be beads. Then, an indoor replica of a lovers’ lane overgrown with vines in such perfectly ordered disarray that they must have been plastic, leading to an ice cream parlor with attendants in starched pale green uniforms, an unfortunate color choice considering the large tub of pistachio ice cream right in the middle of the glass display case.

Maybe it was the air conditioning whistling over our heads, or the series of tingles one brain freeze at a time, or the fact that the tall metal table and chairs were a little awkward to use so that your foot kept meeting my ankle in the same spot every time we shifted, trying to get more comfortable. It could also be the familiarity of this place I had begged my mother to take me whenever I did well on a big test in primary school that relaxed the tension that was yet to build in my back. I did not yet know that I would hold moments like this in the side of my mouth like toffees I didn’t want to melt, running my tongue over them to the point where it was raw and aching, trying to recall the taste of lime sorbet and teenage infatuation not as yet tainted with insecurity and the pressure of long distances and too much time spent apart.