Chez Moi via Atlantic Sea

Let’s pretend this post isn’t three days later than it’s supposed to be, shall we? Please enjoy this notebook poem I wrote for my Cuban Literature class. We read “Notebook of a Return to the Native Land” by Aimé Césaire, and the assignment was to write our own notebook poem addressing “the coloniality of home.” I would also like to point out that words I’ve started using in grad school like “coloniality” are underlined in red every single time I type them. How can Word try to challenge the academy like this? Unacceptable, really…One last thing. Try not to roll your eyes too hard at my use of the word “labyrinthine.” It’s my favorite word at the moment, and I’ll keep using it until I no longer have to check the spelling each time 🙂

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1. They have all left ellipses and hyphens and white space, room for me to rest my head. Bare stretches of sand to bury tired feet. A dotted line to fill in my address and sign my name: Césaire? Morrison? Aidoo? Who are you? Insert-black-subversive-diasporic-writer-here.

2. I was so self-centered that I believed that rupture and disjointed fragments of thought were symptoms of post-colonial subjectivity and only that. Today’s reading is about surrealism. I didn’t finish it. Next week, postmodernism. Still not interested. Who says I must be immersed in hegemonic cultural production and intellectual movements to understand writing from my own bookshelf? William isn’t holding Toni’s hand holding a pen, helping her to trace the words. France is not pulling Mariama’s tongue till she gives up and sings their songs. Ama does not need Virginia to show her how to write women with labyrinthine internal geography and unapologetic desires to build their own rooms. I must be immersed in hegemonic cultural production and intellectual movements to understand writing from my own bookshelf. Your alphabet came with certain contractual stipulations I cannot break.

3. I have written home into being over and over and it is always:

red sand staining itchy church socks beyond redemption

tiny pebbles that bite your feet when they get caught between the straps of your sandals the suffocating blend of the scent of flowers grandma planted before her hands bent sideways

–you will adjust after 10 minutes of sitting on the veranda–

nameless dateless days stretching into the pleasant laziness of late afternoon

listening to the lilt and sway of a language I didn’t know I could forget

–I should’ve written it down–

4. You should start tallying how many times you have used the words “access” and “gap” in the past year, in the past week even. Searching for a place where the dents in the mattress match the contours of your body has become less about writing back through childhood memories and more about using words to reach across tears in documents you can never possibly stitch back together. You are trying to match archival data from a trunk with rusty locks in a small house in Savanna-la-Mar, to a census entry about a woman named CoinCoin (Kokui is that you??) in Natchitoches; and then holding them up against explorer accounts about “Religious practices of the Ewe people along the Volta River.” You will hesitate to admit that you selected those places not necessarily for historical significance but mainly because the sound of their names swirl around the inside of your mouth, falling off the tip of your tongue sliding down your chin. You are trying to gain access to something that you fear is nothing more than an empty filing cabinet with only the corners of yellowed pages left behind, holes in arguments about “barbaric ritual practices”, nothing more than a gap.

5. Exist comfortably, if only for a few hours, in arms that belong to a person who keeps in the muscles of their thighs, a nostalgia almost identical to yours. Try to inhale any last trace of whatever home smells like from their scalp: wood smoke and kebab pepper, sanitized new mall air, freshly polished leather shoes, the dust inside your mother’s albums of faded photos, frangipani. Frangipani? I never realized it was a frangipani tree I used to climb and get stuck in more times than I would like to share. I read frangipani in a poem once and decided it sounded very “there” and just kept using it. We used to call it Forget-me-not. Rub your fingertips along the length of their chest until you are satisfied that you have stripped off enough of that feeling of your old Ago blanket and can now use it to cover yourself. After this, leaving home will always feel like the motion of air plunging in your chest when they decide to abandon the task of housing your chaos in their calm. Be careful.

6. I must admit I was skeptical when you announced you would be writing about this topic. These days I have little interest in what people like you have to say about where you come from. I have struggled through poem after novel after TED talk about visa applications and phone area codes, accents that can make anyone feel at ease from Marrakech to Des Moines. I thought I was going to have to scold you for glorifying the privilege you enjoy to be able to shuffle between time zones without fear of being fenced in with others seeking refuge, sifting mud between their toes while they wait, praying the children can eat leaves for dinner one more time before shaking and seizing and ceasing to be. Everyone here is fed up of humoring all your –politan ways. For the last time, if it is obsessing you to the point of tedium in this way, pack your things and arrange for a ticket heading in the right direction.

7. Writing home has a high cost. I have to pay for postage for my thoughts to pass through places I have seen only in words and not in flesh. What is the destination?

 (Image: These are probably the best group photos in my family’s history since the times my aunts were forced to wear matching dresses, one always in red, the other in blue.)

Change of Address

You will

Carry home pressed between the pages of a worn Bible you picked up from your grandfather’s desk when no one was watching. Object furiously anytime someone suggests that you must pledge allegiance to a particular patch of earth within a fixed grid reference. Cradle the sparkling new symbols of your settling down in your fingers, or squeeze them in your palm until they leave an angry imprint of their ridges, a symbol of permanence- or transience- scars fade so soon you often do not notice their departure. Attempt to find home in hasty embraces only half-finished before retreating back merges with next street corner. Scratch at the empty bases of cardboard boxes hoping to clutch remains of childhood blankets and title deeds turned to dust and stuffing of tattered cushions. Sift through misery-laden song lyrics hoping that one day you will find the exact a-minor that rings like the doorbell on that termite-ridden porch a few yesterdays ago. Skim text messages and voicemails, discarded shopping lists and notes written in a hasty scrawl, please mop when you get the chance- try and fail to replicate the warmth of that particular space between arm and chest which you once inhabited so comfortably. Nurse the fear that home will grow to be a place that you detest, one cold long corridor singing with the screams of the unstable, that makes your skin crawl, silent apart from the crunch of eggshells and broken glass beneath your feet, a place where weather patterns and traffic circulation are often discussed for lack of anything more thrilling, a place that you threaten to swallow with the gaping yawns that betray your boredom. Continue to seek home in the spaces between broken benches, chalked on the bricks  of rundown buildings, inside luggage carousels from airport to airport, and in the faint smell of sweat left on your pillowcase.

Image source: Amateur photograph taken by me on the porch at home in Accra, Ghana. December 2014

Happy Song

Today there is only your favorite song playing on the radio, and your freshly washed feet meeting the cool of the tiled floor. Right now your life is a little country music cliché and a lot of laughter because no one can understand what a banjo and some blues have to do with you all the way here in Adenta. This very moment is the first lick of a FanPop, even more refreshing because the weather is…well we would know if we checked (although we never do) but it’s probably 33 degrees celsius, like yesterday, today and for a million tomorrows. This is your hand nestled in his palm, slightly sweaty but just enough for you to ignore it and continue to paddle in your contentment, the breeze whisking your braids in your face, and a wave running through the spaces between your toes and back into the ocean.

Air Conditioned Denial

He rolled up the sleek, tinted windows of his brand new, elegantly understated car, his status symbol, the signal that he had finally “arrived” in Accra.  Ivy league degree firmly tucked in his back pocket; he was poised on the edge of success much like a nervous bird teetering on the tip of a frayed tree branch.  He had very lofty but very vague ideas about “urban development” and “corruption in the Third World” and he was convinced that his senior seminars with titles such as these had equipped him with enough knowledge to turn the whole rotten system around. “Just give me 5 years, I have this all figured out!”

He was bolstered by the support of his doting parents who never missed an opportunity to slip him into the monotonous conversations held with cold acquaintances during fundraisers at the African Regent. “He has foresight, vision, you know. And he actually cares about Ghana! Our boy is going places!” Their boastful encouragement buoyed his ego like indulgent ocean waves lovingly propelling a little tugboat along. He was the little canoe that could.  Energized, he donned his white button-down shirt ironed and starched into submission by the house help.  He sped off through the tree-lined streets of East Legon, optimism bubbling forth as he looked around at all the “progress” and “potential” ready and waiting for him to tap into. Somehow he missed the droves of homeless and mentally ill knocking pitifully on his tinted windows asking for some money for the day’s lone meal. After all, if they worked hard like he did they would be where he was. As far as he was concerned, the American dream came wrapped in a fresh green plantain leaf.

Interview after interview, in buildings that all began to look alike with their stuffy rooms and dust-coated fans ticking away until lunchtime, and he still had no job offers. Irritable public servants, and non-profit workers, and bank HR managers scoffed at the affected American drawl and the gleaming cufflinks. “Look at this small boy too. He thinks his father is a big man and so what. Mtchew. NEXT!” His broad shoulders began to lose the confidence and strength they exuded, four years of varsity rowing gone to waste. He began to moan bitterly about the heat, the mosquitoes, the eternity spent waiting in line to pay phone bills. His parents grew more and more agitated, watching their wunderkind turn into just another failed returnee. He spent many more nights slumped over the bar at Republic, guzzling stylized locally-inspired cocktails and reminiscing with college classmates about the subway, and that one Moroccan restaurant in the Meatpacking District. His tank of enthusiasm was running below empty, his high school girlfriend no longer picked up his calls. What did she need him for? She’d started seeing a minister, yes that notorious minister with gold teeth flashing in his lascivious smile and a shiny European car. She had no time for dreamers.

The dusty streets of Accra lost their luster, and our dear boy began making plans to return to the States. Sorry young man, you don’t have all the answers.  Perhaps you should’ve rolled down the windows years ago and let the scent of fried yam and clogged drains waft into your nostrils.  You were never as in touch as you thought you were. The African kid on the rowing team, yeah he’s mad chill. The returnee waiting for Mother Ghana to embrace him with open arms? No, not so much.