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)

 

My Secondhand Lonely

I’m so grateful that my professor in the fall non fiction workshop, Jerald Walker, recommended my essay to be published in the May issue of Slice Magazine. My bio is just casually on the same page as Edwidge Danticat. I had a few more thoughts, because unfortunately the essay is as true for me today as it was when I wrote it in October. I’m doing alright for the most part, even though it may not necessarily seem like it. I’m grateful to be alive, and to have had the chance to focus completely on my writing in a way that I may not have done so easily had I not gone the MFA route. I’m just trying my best to navigate this thing called my 20s, along with everything else happening in the world right now, while still finding room for a little joy and some rest.

***

My favorite kind of message to receive is from people who read this blog and tell me that my being open about my mental health, anger among other things resonates deeply with them, or that my words have expressed their own personal experiences in ways they hadn’t been able to do before. This has nothing to do with any potential massages to my ego, but is completely about the relief I feel that I am not as alone as I may think, and that this writing practice, this thing I love to do the most out of anything in this world, has been helpful in some small way for others. I had recently started to think that I got such a positive response on posts about all these raw emotions because people love to consume others’ pain, particularly if the writer or artist is a Black woman carrying many things on her back. This may be true to some extent, but mostly people genuinely appreciate seeing themselves reflected in art, and it brings me such joy to be a part of that process.

I still feel isolated, because “opening up” in writing and in person, and setting boundaries for what I can and can’t take from others doesn’t seem to have changed much of anything. I’ve tried to shift from cries for help buried in jokes and sarcasm to speaking plainly about my needs and my hurt, but somehow the resounding response seems to be “You’ll be fine. You always are.” Loneliness seems to be the best way to describe the resulting state of being after the “just checking on you” messages stutter to a stop, or the person in need of my care or advice has found their solution or someone else to lean on. As I’ve said before, I don’t resent at all being called on at any hour to put out a little fire, but it would be amazing to hear from people just for the sake of a pleasant chat, or “just thinking of you.”

There’s this phrase in Ewe my mum says regularly, whenever a friend or significant other begins to take one for granted. Loosely translated it means “loosen the rope” or “loosen the thread,” as in, begin to distance yourself. She’s always reminding me that life is too short to endure more heartbreak than is necessary, when one can just uproot oneself and leave in pursuit of contentment and more equal and nurturing relationships, platonic and otherwise.

I understand where that advice comes from, but I used to wonder, if I start pulling away the minute someone disappoints me, won’t that mean I’ll eventually have no one left? If we all take this approach, where would that leave us? Self-absorbed and unable to see past our own noses, and miserable and unloved all at the same time? I find myself wishing that people would just actually listen and be a little more gentle, so that we wouldn’t have to resort to coldness and withdrawal in the hopes of getting our needs considered more seriously. (It hurts even more when the “loosening of the tie” goes unnoticed, almost as if you’ve ceased to exist unless to offer some humor or a word of advice.)

Which brings me to the essay I had published in Slice Magazine in May, “My Secondhand Lonely,” The title comes from one of the most painful moments for me (among many) in Toni Morrison’s novel Sula. My piece is about keeping up the kind of performance I’ve learnt from my mother, to always pretend to be well-adjusted and available for others, no matter the pain I’m going through. The timeline of the essay ends right before my first visit to a therapist and learning about PMDD. I also talk about recognizing this always-on-top-of-things performance in Molly from the HBO show Insecure. I wrote this essay before the point in the TV series where they turned Molly into a walking think-piece and began using her character to showcase what felt like every problematic worldview possible; homophobia, classism, respectability politics, you name it. There was just something about her strutting her flawless self around the office, paralleled by her crying alone in the bathroom at her office that felt so familiar.

Ultimately, the essay is about feeling ashamed for yearning for the company and care of others, because according to Sula the fearless, and the trope of the independent Black woman I see everywhere, I should be enough for myself. On some days, I do feel like enough, unstoppable and self-sufficient. Mostly, I’m still human and in need of connection with others, just like other human beings, but unsure of how else I can make this known without becoming irritating or repetitive (I fear I already am the latter.)  I don’t think it’s sustainable to live this way, to weep privately, like I did while writing this post this evening, to grin and joke in public, and to keep loving and caring with little reciprocation while deteriorating on the inside. At the moment though, I don’t know how else to be.

You can read a preview of the essay and get a copy of the magazine here.

[The full essay was republished on Longreads in December 2017. You can read it here.]

(Image: Cover of Slice Magazine Issue 20: Corporeal. Artwork by Jenny Morgan, courtesy of Driscoll Babcock Galleries, New York. Cover design by Jennifer K. Beal Davis.)

(The Final) Inventory

For some reason, I keep coming back to this piece I wrote in 2015 called Inventory, and the short story I tried to make out of it (here and here). I’m still not interested in finishing it, nor am I any more inclined to start writing *that* immigrant student story that so many African literary critics and readers have declared self-indulgent, tired, and geared towards the “Western gaze.” These critiques of others work aren’t a deterrent for me at all, partly because I hate being told what to do, but mainly because I’m just far more excited by being able to set stories in Accra or in some other magical African diasporic elsewhere that only exists in my imagination (shout out to the thesis I should be working on!) I think i’ve returned to this old story again because I’m finally at a place where the real events that inspired the writing aren’t as upsetting to me as they once were (and I mean both the things I did and those that were done to me). I left out the most hurtful parts that were a little too real, and altered certain details to make the protagonist feel a little less like me. I can’t claim to know what “letting go” really looks like, except to say that for me it’s a continuous process that feels more final and successful on some days than others.  

***

assorted lingerie

I think the store assistant called them “periwinkle.” I couldn’t be sure, because she was evidently uninterested in my stuttering inquiries; the novelty of mocking nervous first-time shoppers had long evaporated and she blinked slow lids up and down as though she was minutes from falling asleep. “So, do you want these gift-wrapped, or not?”  I liked this particular pair of panties because their color was somewhere between purple and blue. The white lace trim reminded me of the heavy porcelain jewelry box a distant aunt had given me as a gift at a time when I was far too young and not pretentious enough to appreciate faux Victorian-era trinkets with November dust permanently stuck in its crevices. I already had a bra to match, and I stood in the crowded hall at Union Station grinning like a birthday girl because I felt as though I had a secret destined only for your discovery.

You were going to be visiting family in Maryland for the summer, a 30-minute drive from where I lived in DC, and I found it to be the perfect opportunity to make poor attempts at hiding the bitterness which I spat at you on a video call.

Ugh. I just– I hate to be selfish or to even bring this up at all, but I’m the one always coming up to see you though I know you can afford the trip and then some. You know I’m on work study, and this summer my campus job only gives me four days off, but my roommate is away, we can have the place to ourselves and I just–

I have to admit that I didn’t do a good job of concealing the manipulation I had fooled myself into calling I-just-want-to-spend-time-with you and It’s-only-fair. Emotional blackmail was only  if you looked closely and a little too long at the shadows behind words and the pauses between them.

“Hmmm. Ok you…I’ll see what I can do.”

Yesss alright! So here’s what I was thinking. There’s a Ghanaian restaurant in Adams Morgan–

“I’m not making any promises though, so don’t get too excited.”

I had been fidgeting with the pink tissue paper my new underwear came wrapped in, but for some reason your response made me want to rip it between my jaws and stuff it down my throat. I was getting what I  wanted, what was my problem now? I wanted you to come and visit me, but I also wanted you to want the exact same thing and to be happy about it. Be happy, whatever it takes.

I stood at the station with one hand behind my back, just above the point where the blue lace began, pulling imaginary puppet strings so that when I spotted you walking the yellow-lined maze of the parking garage, I could almost pretend that you did not already have a strained expression on your face. We would act out a scene from one of those novelas that used to bring us to the point of tearful laughter, because the characters had pale faces but had been dubbed to speak English just like we did, complete with “oh” and “ei” to show alarm.

You would set your weekend bag on the ground next to your feet and sweep me up into the air in a ridiculous spin of euphoria, and old women pushing babies in strollers and young couples sharing ice cream cones would smile at us indulgently as we said hellos set to background music of whiny guitar strings. The reality was that the ground was spotted with puddles of engine oil and dirty rainwater and you would never set down your expensive suede duffel on it, and the lovely grandmas and picture perfect couples were actually frustrated travelers with curved pillows dangling from their necks and toddlers screaming their exhaustion as they trailed behind.

“So are you gonna move? Goddam disrespectful kids…”

I don’t know why you’re angry. It’s not my fault the bus was delayed.

I don’t know why you’re even here. Nobody forced you to come.

Now my hands often wander to the part of my hip where the bone juts out, and it feels rough and unpleasant, as if someone has filed it down in an attempt to make it softer, less obtrusive. I realize that it is the imprint left from the lace scratching me in the same place every time, imprinting on my skin with its curling patterns intended to look like flowers. I am wounded in the same spot where your persistent hands burnt through the fabric with urgency like latent heat, so that the scar now looks more like the inside of a dead tree, each swirl and crisscrossing lines showing just how long this excruciating process of “getting over it” is going to take.

I begin to rifle through the underwear folded in my top drawer, checking the seams and frills, ripping out loose threads every so often. I even used my teeth to pull out the cream lace from that bra you liked. I didn’t realize those were the same threads tying the muscles in my face together to keep myself from slipping sideways and away.

1 ring finger (loosely jointed)

I’ve taken to cracking the ring finger on my left hand, so I’ll take out the knuckle and place it beside all my other things. It’s relatively easy to do, but the difficult part comes when I try to pry the residue of back-when-it-was-different from underneath my fingernails. I’m trying to sift through all the mistakes to find out when the gap between what I thought and what I actually said began to widen, until I learned to fill it with what you wanted me to say. I’m taking stock of myself today. I’m digging through empty chewing gum wrappers at the bottom of my handbag and scrolling through unanswered messages, trying to locate the moment my weight threatened to snap your back, or the moment I realized that with you I was the worst possible version of myself. Was it when the formerly steady stream of phone calls dwindled to a reluctant drip? Or when you were very clear that I was “stuck in the past, acting like we’re still 17 and 18 in high school” and didn’t I know that we had left the “honeymoon phase” behind? Or maybe it was when you started assigning “points” to rate my performance as someone who was supposed to love you; thumbs up for driving to your house late at night in a car I’m still scared to drive, and for performing remorse for all the self-centered monologues I forced you to endure about school, friends, the weather. Penalties for refusing to drive you to town for dinner, for bowing my head and letting you call me out my name and “call me out”–

“Shame on you. You don’t try. Are you…crying? You know I’m a bully, right?”

Is that a smile? Is that the sound of you enjoying this?

I hope that one day we can meet at one of those over-priced restaurants close to my job, where bright red umbrellas stand next to storefronts almost entirely covered in gold paint and stamped all over with the same designer logo. We can pass empty conversation back and forth between ourselves.

“I finally got the investment bank job I’ve been sweating for.”

That’s nice. Happy for you. I’m thinking of applying to grad school. Can’t work retail forever. At least I can say I really understand people now? Should help with psych, right?

Ha. Ha. Ha. Ha. Ha.

Actually, let’s not. I still have a lot of self-cataloguing to do, and your “bullying” has set me back much further than I may ever be able to catch up. It’s taken me so long to discover that I may have been asking the wrong questions, how can I be better, instead of when did you give up? Or when did you start talking to her again? When did it start feeling like cheating? I just found a scratched mix CD and a coupon for a free dance class. I’m shuffling papers for the trash and shuffling selves until I find the original one that I cracked

when I tried to fit it into the right self for you.

Dutiful Daughter

I’m starting to worry that people who are close to me will start to peace out when they realize that they could be written about in a not so favorable light at any time. Still, this blog continues to be an outlet for me and I had to get this out.  The main “character” of this post has been forewarned, and there are quite a few aspects that I have decided to keep private. At the very least, I hope someone who shares similar experiences will feel some sort of catharsis after seeing themselves reflected in my story. I have returned to this quote from Anne Lamott several times in the past few months, “You own everything that happened to you. Tell your stories. If people wanted you to write warmly about them, they should have behaved better.”

***

One of the more unsettling things I have found out about writing honestly about my personal experiences without the disguise offered by the label “fiction” is the potential to manipulate, or to put it in less sinister terms, to guide the reader to have a particular emotional experience. With the right word choice and sequencing of events, along with a subtle push from the readers’ own taste and prior experiences, a writer can work towards ensuring that one laughs or is outraged almost exactly on cue as the text demands.

For example, I could have chosen to start this post with a description of a younger me in my yellow and white gingham dress with the square neckline, hair cornrowed into two bunches on either side of my head, waiting on my grandma’s couch all Saturday afternoon for my father to pick me up. I could go on to show how my grandma bustled about, unusually busy for a weekend, trying to act like she wasn’t waiting as well and attempting to distract me with errands like walking down the road to buy sugar or some other thing we didn’t need. That may be leaning too far towards the cliché TV movie genre, especially since the story of an absent father isn’t exactly groundbreaking material.

It is possible that it would be a little more poignant to explain why it is that I still don’t know how to ride a bike even at the advanced age of 24. My father gave me a bike with a neon green frame, accompanied by a set of crooked training wheels when I was 7 and a promise to teach me how to ride it that was never met. For years my uncle tried to convince me that it was really easy and that he could teach me if I wanted. I’m still not sure why I haven’t taken him or any of the many others who tried up on their offer.

At this point, it might be appropriate to list many milestones that he missed or was not invited to because I did not want nor expect him to come. The more generic ones: school prize giving days, piano recitals, the time I caught mumps from the boy I sat next to in class, dance shows, birthdays, Sunday School plays, the time I sweated my way through my high school valedictory address, two graduations. To add some personal color with bolder traces of nostalgia, I could also include; black and white French films at Alliance Française, the time my mother started buying me notebooks to fill with my little scribbles that would turn into journals, long walks to the part of the neighborhood with the huge houses blinking their bright lights behind full hedges, not to mention the fact that I didn’t realize until I was much older that I was supposed to miss the presence of a father figure because I was surrounded by five incredible mothers and uncles that more than made up for the expected “gap.”

I probably sound quite cynical, and I am to a large extent. I tried forgiveness and openness once, because I felt ashamed for holding on to my anger for such a long time after someone I used to know and care about told me that I was only doing so because I didn’t know who I was if I wasn’t “the girl whose dad wasn’t there.” I agreed, especially because what I’ve come to see as a mundane piece of personal information since moving to the U.S. was still relatively rare in most of the families I knew. So, I would try. Never mind that when it came time to apply to college, he refused to fill out his portion of my financial aid applications because it would look like we had more money than we did, and I would get less financial aid as a result. It was for my own good, you see. Never mind that he stood in the doorway to my mother’s bedroom explaining that he couldn’t fill in his half of financial aid forms in case he was expected to give up some money. This disclaimer hovered over me for the entire application season, “Unwillingness to fill the forms are not grounds enough to waive the requirement,” as did the persistent ticking of the ceiling fan that filled the awkward silence between my father’s abandoning of responsibility (once again) and my mother’s disdain.

No, there was no real reason to continue keeping my father at arm’s length. I should give him a chance, let bygones be water under a bridge that we would build and all kinds of other metaphors and platitudes, because he was trying. Trying looked like forcing relationships with my step –siblings with labels like “big sis” that I still don’t claim, and waiting expectantly for me to respond “I love you too” at the end of phone calls and at the gate to my grandmother’s house on the weekends he actually showed up. Is it obvious that my cynicism is an act? I actually don’t enjoy parading my father’s absence just to make myself more interesting, mainly because I would like to think that there is an unending list of things about myself that are more fascinating, and also because there is nothing new in this world, and a father who isn’t around is among the oldest of things.

Maybe I will appear more sincere, or my bitterness a more palpable, if I address him in the second person, you the reader, to make you feel uncomfortable, to compel you to occupy his position for just a moment as you read this. You, my father. My hurt is complicated and deep, and not just an unsettled score or a grudge. It pushes itself further into my self in spite of everyone’s efforts to dance gingerly around the truth. There is also the anxiety that comes with the suspicion that your care comes on the condition that I keep succeeding in a way that will permit you to point proudly at the last name I wish I didn’t have. My memory is crystalline in its accuracy, and I can recall that the times your requests to see me have been most stringent have immediately followed some kind of public achievement of mine. I graduated from college and you posted photos of the widest grin I wore that day on Facebook without once inquiring how it was all paid for. I posted some of my writing online, and you shared the link, proud father. I was in Accra reading some of my work the radio, and you raged and demanded to know why no one forced me to call you to let you know I was in town. Are these the only times you think about me?

I understand that you may have been able to trick yourself into thinking that you’ve done the best you can, that I’m picking up one out of every five phone calls, that up until recently I have responded promptly and politely to one text message every few months. It was almost easy for me to smile tight smiles across a stained tablecloth at a Chinese restaurant no one goes to anymore, to even pose for a picture afterwards because I wasn’t really there, I was floating somewhere above your head, dodging all your jokes, wishing the afternoon away because at least I was doing my duty as a daughter. I am only a few years older, but my hurt has turned into resentment, and any desire to engage, to mend, to try, to be “dutiful” has dwindled to zero.

Your reaching out is a few years too late and I can’t imagine how I could catch you up, or how to even carry on anew by putting all the missed opportunities behind us. That may be possible for others, but I don’t know how any relationship we could begin now could be successful if you don’t know that at a point I was so self-conscious I couldn’t wear my hair up and away from my face. Or that I spend far more time living in my head than I do actually allowing people to see me, and that I’m terrified of being unlovable and being rejected by potential friends and romantic interests alike, to the point where I just exist and hope that the other person will say something first. Or that I’m constantly fretting about money but would rather maintain my bank balance teetering on the edge of an overdraft than ask for help from my mother because she has done more than enough for me. Or that I’ve kept 2-3 jobs since I started grad school so I can be as financially independent as possible, and being the kind of self-sufficient person my mother would be proud of. I’m very stubborn, but you wouldn’t know that about me either. You also don’t know that the quickest way to push me away is to crowd me, and to give fatherly directions and commands with authority you haven’t earned because I absolutely hate being told what to do. Or that I am fiercely protective of my mother and so you have broken the last few links of the rusty bridge that hung between us by trying to blame her for being “spiteful,” from trying to keep me away from you.

I can admit that I’m a little frightened of the amount of animosity I’m still holding within, while simultaneously taking note of how little remorse I feel for speaking to you like I have done over the past few days. I hope you see that we actually do have problems, contrary to your insistence that father-daughter relationships are “natural.” It may be more convenient for you to point fingers at my mother or my aunts for turning me against you, but the truth is that if you knew me at all you would know that for years my cool politeness has been all I’ve been willing to give, and even that I have done grudgingly. I should have been honest all along. You haven’t been there, and I don’t know how I’m going to get over it, if I ever get over it at all.

(Image: I have been so loved by these amazing women: my mother, grandmother and great-grandmother.)

A Kind of Woman

She, the kind of woman who curses around other people’s children and smiles and sticks her tongue out when they tug their innocent ones away from her evil. A Sula kind of woman, collarbones jutting out threats yet to be spoken, squinting eyes and trusting of no one­– you thought you were special– the daughter that slipped through Mama Day’s hands so she could cradle the dreams of others, nurse them to health, hand them cups of punch, and candles, never got the chance to be the child that went astray, brought shame to the steps of the silver trailer

She, torturing sleepless souls she doesn’t plan to love, you the woman she left behind in Miami in the small house with yellow walls and white metal curling around the windows, veins in a vanilla-scented neck pulsing in fruitless craving for the kind of woman who never looks back– she hasn’t called in months but her hair is still knotted around your hairbrush bristles

The kind of woman who has ground up any pride you thought you had and sprinkled the powder first over her right shoulder, then over the left, she has walked away wearing your possibility of future love around her neck held high, metal pendant heating the thin skin stretched across her breast bone, she is the kind of menace you were warned to avoid and now you pay

Hiding in Plain Sight

A lot more personal than I usually get…

***

Teri Joseph, Nicole Ari Parker’s character on the TV series “Soul Food,” was one of my first introductions to the idea that being a successful black woman involved suits with over the top shoulder pads, a brisk purposeful walk, and waking nightmares lived in secret; shortness of breath and blinding panic quickly stowed away before anyone could come to discover what was wrong. The other woman who taught me that lesson was my mother. She always said that the worse she felt, the better she made herself look. Shoulder pads slightly more understated than Teri’s, dark brown lipstick to match an immaculate manicure, cheekbones accentuated with face powder for that “try me” effect.

Years after my 8-year-old self watched these women display in public like they were untouchable, like everything they did was effortless, I adopted that costume as well, and the words came so naturally to me that I forgot that they weren’t originally mine. I’m trying not to look how I feel. The worse I felt, the better I looked; not severe lack of sleep, not a messy breakup, not homesickness would make it beyond the walls of my room, not even beyond the boundaries of my own body. It became a self-fulfilling prophecy. No one around me was explicitly asking for me to perform flawlessness, but put on a show, I did (and still do.) Minimal makeup, but enough to trick the inexperienced eye into thinking that my skin is naturally glowing and free of blemish. Dramatic eyeliner becomes the sharpest weapon in my arsenal of self-preservation and self-destruction. Form-fitting and low cut, bright and quirky, all outfit choices carefully selected the night before for precise execution the next morning. Every compliment is validation, and added pressure to never let the mask slip. I would make people feel uncomfortable otherwise, and I can’t have that.

Beyond aesthetics, the performance includes frequent and thorough conversations about other people’s problems to which I didn’t always have the answer, but always tried to channel all the calm I can conjure to make sure I say something comforting, helpful, or at least something that makes them laugh. I’m never too busy, tired or uninterested to talk through family conflicts or school stress, anxiety about debt, or a hostile work environment. There were also my own studies, jobs and several extra-curricular activities, all to be done with supposed ease. In the process, I’ve learned to fasten my facade a little more tightly, with obstacles like metal gates topped with broken glass and barbed wire between myself and anyone who suspects that all is not as OK with me as I insist.

 Yeah I’m free what’s up?

Of course I can talk!

Nothing ooh, just tired.

I feel guilty for resenting the constant act I feel I have to put on and for resenting the people who have assigned me this role. Stop being a martyr. This is what friends are for, to be there for each other whenever necessary. In the past, I attempted to unload on the one person who I believed should and would be there for me no matter what, not realizing at the time that there were things about myself I didn’t yet know and understand, and that I was basically using that person in the same way I was being used. I’m sorry. I’m not apologizing for existing as the person I am, which I often felt compelled to do when that person was in my life. I couldn’t have “worked on myself” in the ways that I said I would, because I’m not broken and in need of “fixing.” As regretful as I feel sometimes for relying too heavily on that person, I’m also glad that their confusion and frustration with my chaos was drowning out my attempts to understand myself.

Now I’m getting ready for a long day of work, meetings, a four-hour class, and hopefully a chance to hear Angela Davis speak at my school. Minus shoulder pads, but still bearing the anxiety of over-extending myself, of having agreed to undertake projects of which I actually don’t want to be a part, of having too many tasks between me and the weekend, and not enough hours to complete them while feeding myself anything other than coffee to keep going. So, I try my best to look radiant. Here’s the latest perfectly drawn eyeliner wing, the left side always comes out better. Here’s the latest collection of rings I’ve stacked on every finger, again another aesthetic borrowed from my mother. Here are the picturesque Somerville houses in neat rows with statues of the Virgin Mary praying from every other front yard, the first thing I see before my commute downtown. What you won’t see is the pacing around the bedroom, the shortness of breath, the tightening in my chest, the pajama shirt to muffle myself, the tears streaking the concealer I just put on, the frantic phone call to my mother while I try to collect myself before I miss the bus and complicate my day even further.

Even this blog is part of the performance. How much of it is fiction summoned from an overactive imagination with only so many outlets to release itself? How much of it is lifted directly off the pages of my journal? Maybe today I won’t try to hide faint cries for help behind self-deprecating jokes. On multiple occasions, I’ve spent hours talking with professors and other people who I know really mean, “How are you?” when they ask, but every time I feel close to actually expressing parts of this, I stop myself. I’m being self-indulgent and inappropriate, and it really shouldn’t be anyone else’s job to deal with my confusion, aside from a person who is paid specifically for this purpose. The relentless highlight reel showing murders of black people by the police in the US, along with people being killed in protests against the government in the DRC, and the awareness of the backs I have stood on in order to be alive and well right now, all work together with many other factors to aggravate the low feeling I’m carrying around. Writing is the only thing that allows me to unburden myself of some of these feelings, but the crowding of too many other commitments means that I write less, which only deepens my anxiety.

I’m frightening myself, mainly because it’s slowly becoming more difficult and less appealing to put on my stage persona before going out in public. There are also a few other things at play that I don’t quite understand and am not ready to share. What I can say is that I want to be loved in the way that I try to love people, completely, in all ways, on panicky 4am phone calls, in ‘I’ve missed you” conversations turning into “Actually, I need your help…” in impromptu trips to the city if it’s affordable, just to be there in person with whoever.

It feels very isolating to consider the possibility that there are so few people in my life who can love me the way I love them, to the extent that I’m about to make an appointment to speak with someone professionally trained to help me to do this “work” on myself. People are either too practical, too busy, too engrossed in what I think are far more critical situations, or awkwardly silent. Sometimes they aren’t able to see far enough backstage to realize that I’m not ready for the conversation to move on to lighter topics, that I just want to be seen, even if  for just a moment.

Maybe it’s my fault for not knowing exactly what kind of response or support I’m looking for. Maybe I’m too self-centered and over-estimating the role I play in the lives of the people closest to me. The one thing I’m sure of is that I have to want to thrive for myself, to just be, rather than to do so because I can’t answer the question, “What would so-and-so do without me?”

Actually, no. Everything isn’t fine. Can you please talk to me?

(Image: My mum looking absolutely gorgeous on our way to one of the many weddings we used to attend. I had on a a dress with drawings of fruit all over it.)

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.

Inventory

I wrote this prose poem a while ago and decided to try and turn it into a short story because I felt like I had a lot more to say. I soon realized that picking at old scabs and turning real life events into fiction aren’t things I’m interested in, mainly because it hurts a second time to try and make villains out of victims  (or to realize that one can be both) just for the sake of the story, or to walk back through unpleasant events that actually took place. Another difficulty I had working on this story was that it’s my first set somewhere that isn’t Ghana, and I’m not very good at or interested in doing that at the moment. The surreal is much safer territory for me and that’s where I plan to stay, at least for now. This is an extract from the story, which will probably remain unfinished indefinitely. No edits or additions, no submitting to literary blogs/journals (I usually don’t post complete short stories here because I’m trying to get them published), nothing! The story was difficult enough to write the first time around. I think I’m all good 🙂

***

1 eye liner in nuit noire shade

I’ve pulled out a few lashes from my right eye because it’s always the troublesome eye, the one that is oddly shaped and more difficult to hide behind thick coats of liner.

“What is all this black stuff? I can’t even see your eyes.”

My smile remained fixed only in the photo you took of me, ruined slightly by the table and the bright blue menu covered in plastic, and dotted with unnaturally yellow pancakes and waffles dominating the foreground. The grin slid off my face and onto my chest as I tried to formulate an airtight answer that you could not deflate with condescension. I feel braver when my eyes are obscured in black sludge and glitter. This is the only way I can feel feminine since this big chop makes me look like a duckling with the black fuzz on my head, slicked down with leave-in conditioner instead of pond water. I’m trying to look like the old photos of my mother where she was more beautiful than I grew to be, with 60s lashes standing boldly and separate from each other even though it was ’79. All of these answers were dripping with the kind of sentimental slush that you hated, so instead I said:

“Oh. You don’t like it? I’m still learning ooh, don’t worry.”

Neither of us believed the forced peals of laughter I dropped onto the diner table between us with a harsh metallic sound like coins striking granite, but you picked them up regardless of your tired distrust and shifted your weight to one side so you could shove them into the back pocket of your jeans. Later, you would attempt to dissolve the hard grains of stilted conversation that were caught in the corners of both our eyes, in tea so sickly it left smears of brown sugar on the insides of the mug, just the way I liked to drink it.

The only Boston I knew was green linoleum on the kitchen and bathroom floors, small white lines running up and down each tile like veins, it was the JFK/UMASS station with round backs covered in layer upon layer of warm clothing always retreating and advancing – which direction, Ashmont or Alewife- it was how many times can we go out for pancakes before the syrup turns into clumps blocking our arteries? It was using my arm to hide the angry smudges– one for each eye– on your pillowcases and hoping that my visit would not turn out to be a week-long sparring match in which both opponents were not interested enough to take hits at the places that mattered, resorting instead to lazy swats at the other’s ego, causing slight bruising, if even that.

***

name- unaccounted for

I’m inspecting my body for visible signs of damage, just to make sure that my skin will not betray the hurt from the sharp edges of words like: “You’re so selfish, always asking for too much.” I’m taking stock of myself, looking though archived emotions, replacing peeling labels and crossing out inaccurate ones. I’m trying to remember my name. I’ve found a folder in the back of my wardrobe, a solid blue cover and shiny silver rings on the inside. Across the front of it in threatening block letters, one word: SELFISH. I’m confronted with the moment I was given a new name, when I decided that good little Methodist girls from Adenta didn’t spit on reputable degrees before moving cities to fold and fetch overpriced clothes for women who were manicured from their teeth to the blunt ends of their ponytails, and to fold themselves into men who were unwilling hosts.

“Fafali! How can you burn scholarship money like this? What is your plan? It’s that boy, eh? Answer me!”

“Ma, I have to go. My break is over and the manager is giving me eyes.”

Selfish. My mother hurled contempt down the receiving end of the telephone, the same ugly square contraption that had always sat on her bedside table long before I was ever imagined as a small fluttering sensation against the walls of her abdomen. She was probably holding one hand suspended in front of her as she usually does when she is desperate to pull understanding of a horrifying reality out of the air around her. She did not know that I took the blank roll of paper that was pressed into my hands after four years, and used it as a map for a life I did not want to live; an empty desk for an empty office job, the desolation of a research facility with white walls and sheets of white paper with unfilled questionnaires. I often prioritize others before myself. Strongly disagree. She did not know that I had taken my new name, Selfish, the one that you gave me after the last tantrum you could endure from me:

“What’s the meaning of this?” You affected a grotesque imitation of my needy drawl, quoting one of my frenzied text messages: And you call me Fafali instead of babe or beautiful and I know I’ve crossed the line again and I’ve made you angry with me, again.

“Fafali I’m tired! You just like drama. You’re just so…so selfish! I can’t– I won’t do this anymore.”

I was sitting on your lumpy sofa that felt as though it was made of velvet, and I realized that for nearly five years I had dredged up your words in an attempt to understand what you wanted from me, sifted and separated them to the point where you just let me have them. Take them and go. Pack your things and go back to DC. Or back to Ghana. I don’t care. I have wrung my hands to the point where the skin has begun to peel off. I’ve actually gone too far to turn back. We had clung to each other beyond my morning is your late afternoon, past your at times admirable, at times half-hearted attempts to decode the tangled self I handed to you, hoping we could make sense of it together.

Now I’m working hard to scratch off your name from the inside of my cheek. I have left pieces of myself from Adenta to Georgia Ave to Dorchester and back again, flakes of skin between computer keyboards, tears warping pages of a text in another binder which proclaims ABNORMAL PSYCHOLOGY on its cover, childish terms of endearment in languages we have long forgotten. I’m wearing other names around my neck like self-indulgent, sexy, and you are wasting your life. My favorite name is too-beautiful-to-be-working-here, so I tuck it into all the pastel colored cardigans that occupy my days at a job I tolerate in a city that has now extended beyond the ancient linoleum in your house to the faded one in mine, to the B line always delaying and mice tap dancing on my ceiling boards at night.

Negatives

There are two of you sitting on the sofa. One of you is picking dead skin from the sides of your fingernails, and the other one isn’t trying very hard to hide the contempt in your voice. You know I’m a bully, right? There are four of you sitting on the sofa. Two of you should probably make this the last time you see each other but you won’t, because habits are almost impossible to break, especially the dangerous ones. Two of you are doing the least you can to make sure whatever it is that was once between you still exists somewhere, even if it’s only in photographs stuck to a fridge by broken magnets. Two of you need to give up, but the other two are sitting on a bench in an empty playground, laughing with heads thrown back as if you don’t have anywhere else to be.

There is one of you crying into a pillowcase that needs changing. One of you said this would be the last time you would do this, because all it does is betray your weakness with puffy under-eyes that no amount of concealer can fix the next morning. One of you doesn’t understand why you’re taking painful, ugly gulps of breath in between cries, as if you’re scared you’ll suffocate if you stop. One of you needs to exercise self-control. There are two of you lying in bed. One of you is trying to be reasonable. You got everything that you wanted after all, didn’t you? One of you is  childish and self-centered, and one of you is still trying to access that part of yourself that you are convinced you have misplaced, searching for it in overflowing jewelry boxes, in handshakes that last a few moments too long, in bite-sized sermons you throw down your throat without tasting, in horoscopes you don’t believe in. One of you is empty.

There are four of you sitting in a café. Or maybe there are only two. One of you is trying to contain your excitement. It really isn’t that serious; this isn’t one of your stories. Calm down. Don’t embarrass yourself. There are two of you sitting at a too-small table in a café. The other two left because they must have realized you weren’t as exciting as you first appeared to be. There are two of you sitting at a café. One of you is hoping you can just stay here all day, maybe until the baristas start shuffling their feet and turning chairs over tables so you get the hint that it’s over. One of you has hope beating against your chest from the inside, and the other one feels desperately pathetic– pathetically desperate for trying to bend daydreams until they resemble reality. One of you is pretending to be engrossed in theory and texts and theories about texts and time and what is time and what is text and what…and one of you has focused every last bit of your attention on the legs of chairs that have continued to shift in tiny increments and are now touching, and on how you are leaning so far to the side that you might tip over. There is only one of you. One of you wants to go on typing, but doesn’t really know how to describe the thoughts knocking on the back of your skull. One of you wants to go on typing until you’ve said everything that needs to be said and won’t have to type any longer.

One of you probably shouldn’t. One of you has said too much already.

NB: I’ve been trying a lot of different things with my writing, and if you’re reading this you’re essentially my experimental subject. I’m also struggling with and against the different genre restrictions– prose poetry? fiction? if this is a poem, where are the line breaks and verses etc??? What I’m saying is at this point, the categories and tags on this blog mean very little because I can’t seem to pinpoint what exactly it is that I’m writing. You’re probably just as confused as I am. 🙂