At some point this year, I realized that the angst (familiar to many artists) about the “use” of one’s work, or the question to who it will be of service could easily turn into hubris. What may begin as a genuine concern for the fact that making art on its own will not improve the material conditions or alleviate the suffering of other people can easily become a desperate need to hear that what you think and have to say are “important,” “urgent,” or even “necessary.” (On a tangential note, you should watch Residue on Netflix, especially if you’re a black artist in need of something to get you together).
Deciding to lay down these anxieties and get on with my work was not a turning away from the death and dispossession that characterize this unsustainable world. Rather, it was a slight self-drag and firm reorientation of purpose; get on with your work because you need it stay alive and in the process of making and sharing, maybe one other person might find something resonant, if even for a brief moment.
So here’s what I’ve been working on to maintain my peace of mind during quarantine. The site is a gathering together of what I’ve been thinking about and making. There are parts where I am unsure of myself and maybe a little whiny. As many times as I’ve combed through, there will be typos. Almost all of the visuals are combinations of old instagram vides from my phone and clips I took in my apartment during quarantine as my initial plans had to adjust to the conditions created by 2020. But is’s all there, because “process is the project” is one of the guiding principles of Mother Mercy’s work. My project will be available to view until the end of this year. I have so much more work to do before this work comes back into the world at some point in the future.
I’m so grateful to JME and the amazing members of the Call to Create cohort for creating this space for dreaming and making. After all that being said, will you wander with me? And another question: what are you willing to do?
I’m trying not to talk about this year in past tense, as in I was going to start a new project; I was going to learn more about visual media; I was going to look into moving to a new city etc. because I’m still alive, still trying to imagine and to bear witness. So instead, I’ll share my gratitude for being included in the 2020 Call to Create cohort of Mother Mercy, an incubator and a community of incredible women artists. You can read about the project I’ll be working on this year here.
[Image: my great-grandmother, Alwin Mana in a collage I made using the VSCO app]
Love. Tar Baby. A Mercy. Home. Beloved. In this order, I revisited and in some cases read for the first time these works by Toni Morrison. My mum had all the books she had published up until the 80s, and I felt this urgent impulse to fill in the remaining gaps. I spent the entire month of July doing this, leaving Beloved for the end of the month near my birthday. I can’t say I would recommend doing what I did, reading several of her works in quick succession, unless you can spare significant amounts of time to catch your breath. I finished a few weeks ago, and I’m still breathless from the language, hypnotized by her brilliance, and unsettled by the aspects of human nature that she revealed and compelled her readers to reckon with. Even as I went from book to book knowing I should take a break, I kept going because I felt so strongly that I couldn’t stop. I left work a little early one afternoon to catch the documentary The Pieces I Am as part of the Roxbury Film Festival, and enjoyed it thoroughly while also feeling as though I had seen it before after spending hours watching any interviews and archival footage of her that I could find. Probably because I was spending so much time thinking about her and reading her work, I also dreamt one night that she was my teacher, literally, standing at a white board and writing out a lesson for me to take notes. My best friend said something in my spirit must have known.
Toni Morrison, Toni the gawd, Toni Morrison as in one of the greatest to ever do it, became an ancestor on Monday night. This news was the first thing to greet me when I sat at my desk at work on Tuesday morning, on time for once and feeling unusually optimistic about the day. Toni Morrison is now an ancestor. Hey, Celestial! I don’t know what else to say except that I have never felt so deeply about the death of someone I didn’t know personally. I don’t know what else to say that people far more eloquent than me are already saying about what it has been like to live on this earth at the same time as someone so legendary. I don’t know what else to say except that I wrote nearly 2000 words last night which is far more than I’ve written in one sitting in weeks. I don’t know what else to say except that we are now living in a world where Toni Morrison is no longer sitting by a window somewhere laughing that distinct laugh and being wise and hilarious and sarcastic all at once. Except we are. She is still with us. Hey Celestial.
Here’s what I posted on my social media accounts last night:
I talk about her all the time. As it is with so many other people, her name usually comes first for me as one of the writers who made it possible for me to imagine widely and to attempt to put that imagination into words. The yet to be finished book project I turned in as my masters thesis would literally be nowhere without Song of Solomon.
I’ve lost count of the number of application essays, reflection papers for class, and casual conversations in which I reference reading my mum’s copies of Morrison’s books when I was too young to fully understand, and yet somehow I did, and kept reading and re-reading her for years after that, trying to understand what kind of mind produces the sort of sentences she puts together.
She gave a series of lectures in Boston in 2016, at a time when I was feeling burnt out and discouraged at school and at work, and violated and angry in my personal life. I went to four of those lectures to hear her speak, and the way her presence filled the room was nothing short of divine. I’m still feeling discouraged these days, and especially today, but I guess because of Toni Morrison and what she has made possible, it is my responsibility to keep trying to do this thing called life.
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.
“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.”
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.
She cut her teeth on Cry the Beloved Country, and Maya Angelou’s defiant biography nursed her growing pains. Matilda and What Katy Did were quickly discarded for more irreverent works. She craved writing that didn’t feel safe and homely, writing that was definitely inappropriate for a girl her age. Her appetite for books was insatiable, and yet, it grew to become a natural part of her being. Devouring books for breakfast, or in the car on the long commute home, or on the toilet before bed, where everyday occurrences for her. She laughed a raucous, daring laugh with Sula and played with the children in Anita Desai’s luscious garden in the balmy Indian sunset. She was never really curled up in an old armchair in a small house on a dusty street somewhere in Accra; she was watching in awe as the owner of the plantation controlled Liana so effortlessly and mean-spiritedly, and she wept when Pecola finally found her blue eyes.
So how did she get here? How did she reach this place where she constantly asked herself, “What would Sula do?” She looked at her feeble reflection in the window flecked with the unseasonal December rain. The smudged louver blades created a disjointed reflection that appeared to shake its head slowly in disgust at its sorry excuse for an owner. Sula, who she was convinced was her more powerful alter ego (sort of like Sasha Fierce, but a lot more reckless), would most certainly disapprove of her apathy. Writing was supposed to be a release; her private getaway to a flawless white beach with water that was such a striking shade of blue it hurt the eyes in a single glance. Maybe her protagonist would have piercing blue eyes? A little black girl with blue eyes and an unruly bush perched in the center of her head? How obvious. Tell me again how you’re the new age lovechild of Toni Morrison and Virginia Woolf? Doesn’t that just make you crazy with a hint of soul? Writing was both her fountain of youth and her kryptonite, and yet she sat twiddling her proverbial thumbs idly in front of a blank white screen, with the specters of Yaa Asantewaa and the long forgotten ancestral mothers glaring down at her with eyes ablaze, “What a disgrace! We thought you would be strong like us!”
Clearly delusional, she slammed her state-of-the-art laptop shut. It had been a gift from her publishers after the signing of her very first contract and she remembered the uninviting cold of its metal surface as she rubbed her hands back and forth over its cover, feigning a benevolent smile as she attempted to choke back tears of fright, and regret, and “Did I make the right choice?” She blinked furiously in the non-existent glare of the naked overhead bulb, attempting to fight those same salty tears that lurked behind her eyelids, threatening to burst forth with a vengeance the minute someone uttered the word “deadline” or “Pulitzer”. The computer hummed and came to a slow halt, and in the silence that followed she confronted her empty future like she had done a hundred times before. The engagement called off in favor of the good little wife freshly called to the Ghana bar. Ghana Barbie: fully equipped with an innocuous smile, crisply pressed black robes and dainty wig, and an unbelievably fine-tuned recipe for groundnut soup (batteries not included.) But of course she’s only going to the chambers twice a week, twins on the way after all! The relatives clucking with disappointment, jowls quivering in shame as they hash out what a waste of a scholarship she had turned into. A dozen missed calls and text alerts flashing on her phone screen like the feverish strobe lights in some sick adaptation of her life, Quentin Tarantino style. Only this time, instead of a heroine squeezed into a bright yellow bodysuit, she felt about as invincible as the sickly gecko crawling on the once- turquoise wall of the childhood room she still called home. She answered the landline with a resounding sigh, “Yes, I am serious about this writing thing…”