On the Latter Side of Next

So, I graduated with my masters, but this won’t be a long, dramatic post. I don’t think there’s anything wrong with drama, not in the slightest. I mean, you read this blog. You know. I’m only trying to be as concise as I can be because I fear that if I go on too long I will only allow the usual fear and self-doubt to take over. I will start to spiral into the usual sequence of unproductive (and untrue) thoughts that follow any significant accomplishment; I could’ve worked harder, written more pages, been kinder, been far better at keeping in touch, been a better person overall.

unnamed (1).jpgthat bitch2

My entire last semester was characterized by constant apprehension about the near future, and now that I’m here­– or there– it’s really not as scary as I anticipated. I’m here, and pretty proud of myself, considering all the simultaneous chaos that often seemed to run me behind and beside me during the past three years of working towards my MFA. I’m also incredibly grateful and lucky to have had several mentors and professors who let me overstay my welcome in office hours or use up their lunch breaks with my latest teary dilemma. I’m also thankful for friends and family who endured my long-winded explanations of my research and writing projects. Self-deprecating commentary aside, it means more than I’ll be able to explain here that so many people I love and admire see me and are actually there for me, since I’m somewhat “allergic” to asking for help.

With my dear mother and aunty (photos by Lloyd K. Sarpong)

Clockwise from top left: Lloyd, my brilliant and kind Laura, and Katerina and Erika, two of my absolute favorite people at Emerson.

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Keenah boo! (photo by Melissa, who managed to escape taking a single photo with me that day *side eye*) 

I used to think that when I got older, my self-esteem would somehow become healthier. My idealistic notion of what it meant to “grow up” involved me turning into someone who thought of herself more highly than I did at the time, someone who was self-assured and belonged to herself wholly. Essentially, I hoped to turn into the kind of woman my mother is. I’m still pretty young– bill collectors and student loan services appear to disagree– but I am unfortunately as down on myself as my insecure past self has been.

Arriving at the other side of next, that is, after the graduation fanfare has subsided and all the work is momentarily “done,” also means realizing that I have no idea how to be still. I have calculated my worth by tallying completed tasks against what is left “to do” in my agenda. I never feel enough for myself, let alone for anyone else. I don’t know how to give myself room to just be, considering that there is so much I urgently need to write about, so many events more complicated and more monumental than my usual anxieties. I don’t know how to let myself just be, without feeling as though I’m not worthy of breathing up all this air and taking up space on earth, unless of course I’m working hard, and unless that work is mostly to benefit someone else. This may sound a little hyperbolic, and I know “objectively” that none of it is true.

I’m trying to learn how to be kinder to myself. My self-esteem has been subterranean for quite some time, and I would love to bring it above ground, at the very least. I would love to experience some joy, even against the backdrop of so much horror and so much uncertainty in the world. You can find me in the sun these next few weeks, breathing up all the air (and pollen), and writing as if my life depends on it.

So much for brevity and no drama…

***

I wrote the following post about halfway through the semester but didn’t feel comfortable posting it at the time on the off chance that any of my students came across it and felt as though I was teaching them with a bad grace. I put in all the effort and care I could muster to make space for them to express and debate their ideas and to grow as writers. My restlessness had little to do with them and more about the impending uncertainty of postgrad life. I realize now that it reads a little like a riddle, an effect I wasn’t going for at all and don’t much care for. I guess it’s an indication of how confused and outside of myself I was feeling. In any case, I’m here. I made it!

 ***

My Self Every Elsewhere

I feel as if I’m living everyday on a deep inhale, except without the promise of an exhale’s sweet relief at the end. I am not present. Some of me is sitting in my grandma’s living room watching the fan waving around with the same content laziness I feel as I sink deeper into the flattened foam of the sofa cushions. Another piece of myself is waiting to cross the street somewhere in New Orleans where I would love to be living, scattered with potholes and lined with shaded verandas that might as well be Accra. There is also the no-place I’m longing to be, one that exists only in my imagination, or at the crossroads of my favorite novels and scholarly writing about the African diaspora.

Everywhere else but here.

I wouldn’t be so concerned about this longing if I didn’t have 18 students expecting me to be with them for 3 hours and 45 minutes a week, and an immense and unspecified number of additional hours on email, or online reading, grading, fixing, always giving. I would hate for them to have the slightest feeling that this is about them, and that I am staring over their heads and into a distant elsewhere that is most appealing at the moment not because of what it is, but by simple virtue of the fact that it is not here with them. Wherever I am, it is definitely not 9:26 on the green line in Boston where I have just lost my ID card as well as my eagerness to stand with a smile fixed on my face as I try to cajole the class into understanding Zora Neale Hurston’s genius (and the importance of citing one’s sources!!!)

My restlessness starts on the same spot towards the back of my scalp, where I scratch between the once-precise parting for my braids until the skin feels raw and bruised, until I am convinced I am one more scrape away from coming away with blood under my nails. I am ashamed of it, because it fidgets and jostles my careful mask out of the way, intruding into every conversation I have about what I plan to do next.

The part of my attitude that troubles me the most is that I am trying to wish away the unbearable present, marking time like a teasing metronome or a clock that is always trying to catch up its lost minutes. I’m trying to wish away my now as if I know that what will come next will somehow be more satisfying, when I can’t actually know that for sure.

I feel like the bratty child I never was, whining at the more-than-enough spread out before me, before pushing it onto the floor with sticky, greedy hands, the same hands I try to grasp at the better time everyone else seems to be having.

When we say “I can’t wait for this to be over,” the implication seems to be that whatever lies at the other side of “over” is more desirable, but that just isn’t true. That should be my consolation.

Yet, I’m wondering where else I have to go if both now and the latter side of next are equally uncertain and even terrifying–

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Photos courtesy of the man, the myth, the broski, Lloyd K. Sarpong, some selfies, and other people I was too excited to remember unfortunately!

I had nothing to do with this cap except for wearing it. Laura and Jeeyoon designed all the little details and I just held the glue gun and passed them scissors etc. Katerina came up with “Best revenge is your pages” based on the line from “Formation” All my own ideas for cap phrases were (more) rude/confrontational song lyrics… 

Killjoy

IMG_5271“Youthfulness

Peace of mind

Feeling free:

Knowing you are a rare article

Being

Loved.”

(Our Sister Killjoy, Ama Ata Aidoo)

***

Sister, you’ve been dancing across your world with some pieces of my self rattling in your pocket

–half pair earrings turning more green over the gold

cracked glass buttons cutting up all the light

dry flowers wasting into dust–

I really need me back

Sister

You play your hands over my shoulders and down my arms when I lean closer to laugh along with you, sister

I think it’s best I keep me to myself

At the other end of arm’s length is where you must put you if we are to remain some sort of sane

I reach for you still, sister

Sister

Killjoy

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–

At a Stranger’s Funeral

Speaking of “hiding” behind fiction…

I wrote the blog post below at the end of a very odd few months. I had moved to a new city two days after my college graduation, and would spend the summer working retail before my graduate program began in September. One of my closest friends, someone I had known since age 10, was on her way out of this new city as I was on my way in. She had also just graduated, and we only got to spend a few weeks together before she moved on to her own uncertain post-grad life. The only other person I had been close to was someone I had to keep convincing myself was best kept on the distant edges of my life, so as not to let him back in. I would wonder for months if that was the right thing to do.

I was drifting around this new city, a strange half-version of myself that I couldn’t recognize. I’m not simply attempting to romanticize my story, to riff on the lonely girl in the big bad city narrative. I mean this literally; I often felt like I was outside myself and observing me from a distance as I

sold beige clothes I couldn’t stand to (mostly) beige people I could tolerate only a little more, and was somehow good at it (?)

took the “T” to random places in the city and walked around to see what there was

wondered if it would really be so bad if I was no longer around to sell the beige clothes, or sit on the T, or take up space in the world

It may not sound like it, but I also felt a lot of moments of contentment, and being at peace, especially after spending 4 years always within arms reach of several people in college dorms, with hardly a moment to oneself.

This blog post eventually turned into a short story with the same title, recently published in the literary journal Blackbird. (You can find it here.) It was the first story I turned in for my first MFA workshop after my strange, isolated summer, and it felt a lot like dying to have a group of twelve or so strangers debating “What exactly is going on in this story?” because I couldn’t answer that myself. I would soon find out that most of graduate school, apart from the more scholarly and theoretical classes and sometimes even then, would consist of strangers picking through the disjointed pieces of your life you dared to share, to find out which bits would make for the best story with the highest “stakes.”

Now, I don’t think about dying as much I did then, or rather not in the same way. I’m again in an odd position, returning from the best holiday at home I’ve had in a long time, and at the end of my graduate program with a job I adore but will probably not be able to remain at beyond graduation. I have a recently found love for teaching as much as it can sometimes drain and exasperate a person. I have also found that my mind is not vast enough to contain the worlds and lives I have come to know and create through all the reading and research I’ve done. I need to get them out.

This post-grad uncertainty feels a lot more acute, against the backdrop of political leaders who are trying to killing us in many of the same ways others have before, but just more boldly this time. My main priorities are to do the thing that keeps me living– to write– and to find a way to use that to access the material things that make living possible, ie. to be paid to write, or to do something else that keeps me clothed and fed so I can write when I’m not doing that other work.

Even as I continue to focus on this writing I love with every bit of myself, it’s frightening to face all the external pressures that dictate the metrics of your success: institutions that place rubber stamps of approval on your forehead and on your novel pages, being followed/retweeted by the *right* editor in hopes of the much sought after follow up email, being recognized “at home” as more than someone begging for Western attention, and so on.

I don’t know how to talk about this without sounding as if I harbor bitterness for these things, because I don’t, not necessarily anyway. I knew going into graduate school would afford me access to people and places that I may or may not have had without it, but I am still frightened by the latent, ugly competitiveness, at times seeming like less of a community and more of a collective clamoring for elusive spots in the *right* journals or on the *right* podiums.

You would probably click out of this page if I said I didn’t care if I was read or not, because me and my writerly ego definitely think my work is worth reading. This blog wouldn’t exist otherwise. I’m writing for myself, but I love that my mother and aunts read me, that old school friends I haven’t spoken to a while read me, that acquaintances and internet strangers alike see echoes of themselves in my words. But that’s more than enough for me.

I simply want to be left alone to do this thing that I love, this thing that keeps me living, to write, and to do it as often as I can and need to (which is everyday) and to do it as well as I can.

a blog by her wildness, zoë gadegbeku

The back of the pew is the only thing holding up your spine, and so you bear the discomfort in silence. The sounds of mourning hang around your head like the sheet of hair you chopped off that day you decided you were looking for a reawakening. How does it feel to attend a stranger’s funeral? It feels like someone close to you died and everyone forgot to tell you, so that when you got home and saw the slippers still perched at the threshold of the door and Our Daily Bread folded on the bedside table you didn’t suspect anything. The deceptive warmth of the mug of coffee in the kitchen and the indent in the cushion on the left side of the sofa led you to believe that this did not happen. This is what it feels like to attend a stranger’s funeral. It’s something like waking up…

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Sometimes, Teaching

About halfway through my first semester teaching “Introduction to College Writing,” I remember making an offhand comment to my students about how I would like to include writers from “more backgrounds” than I had at the moment on my syllabus. I forgot about it until it was time to look at my course evaluations, where one student pointed out that they enjoyed the readings, but also thought it would be good for me to follow up with my desire to add different writers to my syllabus in the future.

I’m not sure whose backgrounds I was referring to, but I know that comment came from my persistent anxiety that I would be called out for teaching “only” Black women in a writing class that was ostensibly only about the writing, and not a “niche” topic-based seminar. I believe I was trying to pre-empt resistance from my students, who I imagined would be a lot less receptive  to me and my approach before I had the chance to meet and engage with them.

I also felt as if I had to prove that it was possible to teach  students how to be generous and bold writers and readers from a Black feminist and womanist perspective. I was apprehensive because I thought I would have to prove that I didn’t assemble a syllabus of Black writers and artists simply because they look like they could be my aunties and sisters. I felt pressure to demonstrate that Black women and femmes write and produce knowledge  about the craft of writing itself, and about language and its potential for destructive power, as well as for imagining and constructing better worlds.

Ultimately, no-one ever asked, “What would you say if the reading list was majority white men, the way yours is majority Black women?” Even if they had, I would have been ready with some discussion of false equivalencies, and probably a lot of bitter and incredulous laughter. I’m mostly proud of the work we did, and I no longer feel the misguided need to prove the merits of Black feminist writers and thinkers who definitely don’t need me to justify or validate their brilliance.

I wrote semi-regular reflections about my teaching experience, some of which I shared with my students, some I kept to myself. I would love it if you took a look at some of my work from the fall semester here.

Brand New

***In the spirit of “fresh starts” and finishing my master’s degree, here’s my first post for 2018. And if you have any connects with Sallie Mae, please let a girl know. Being a broke artist is only cute in novels and on TV.***

I’ve spent the first days of this new year much like I spent the last few weeks of the old, fatigued, irritable, and most of all guilty and self-loathing for not being more grateful to be alive and mostly healthy. Whether one is a skeptic that enjoys pointing out that “the new year” is artificial and arbitrary, or a conspiracy theorist who thinks that the New Year’s fervor is manufactured by the calendar and gym industries to con people into spending money they don’t have, the yearning for a fresh start to avoid last year’s wrongs and hurts is almost inescapable. (I clearly haven’t left unnecessarily long sentences behind in 2017). This pursuit of newness is probably what fooled me into thinking that a different date would somehow provide some respite from a condition that I am still in the process of learning how to manage, and hopefully overcome.

I would love to focus this post on affirmative statements, on writing into existence things I would like to see happen over the next few months (figuring out a concrete post-graduation plan, preferably one that includes me living, working and writing in New Orleans), but positivity feels hazy and a little out of my reach at the moment. What I know for sure, is that I no longer have the desire or capacity to juggle other people’s emotions, and to help them painstakingly sort through their chaos while sinking in the middle of mine. I’m no longer interested in being anyone’s panic button, on-demand, therapist or cheerleader, nor can I continue playing mother to grown people when I can barely take care of myself on some days. I’m trying to be comfortable being someone who isn’t always available on the first ring or seconds after the latest text. My phone number cannot continue to be an emergency hotline that only works one-way.

I wish I could say all this is coming out of some re-dedication to caring for myself, but it’s really because “burnt out” has been my default state for months. If I may extend the metaphor a little too far, I would mostly be a pile of ashes at this point. I don’t think that I’m in any way more deserving of joy than the next person, but here’s to hoping that I can find a little more of it to write and to live this year.

a blog by her wildness, zoë gadegbeku

The window was sealed almost permanently; hinges caked over with rust and dirt, glass obscured with cobwebs and stained with raindrops from last season’s monsoon. But she had been gasping for air too long  and the supply of oxygen was frighteningly low and her throat was itching to the point of being raw and- she knew that inhaling rations of air in pitiful lungfuls would soon turn fatal. So she sucked in one last breath, formed a fist and smashed through the grimy glass that had kept out light and life for far too long.

One brave sunbeam burst into the room and swept the sinister shadows from each corner. A shriveled imp stirred suddenly and shielded its one good eye. Today, the characteristic glint of malice was absent from its eye; the sun’s glare had overpowered it completely.

And yet, it persisted…

“Not even that kind, selfless, deserving, intelligent…”

“Not today…

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