Tag Archives: pain

#9 ~ Americanah & Being a (rootless) British African

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I really didn’t want to like Adichie’s new book, Americanah. Despite the fact that I got one of the first copies, and a signed one at that, I didn’t read it for almost two years. It sat, hardback cover and confident signature on my many university-room bookshelves, it’s large spine taking up pride of place, it’s crisp jacket (now oil stained) speaking of a newness, a freshness that should have been inciting, intoxicating even in its desirability. It blended cleanly into my pretence at a literary knowledge along with other ‘must-read’ African or African-American books, swilling from prose, to poetry, drama to criticism. Yet, for every month it went un-opnened, even throughout the summer when I couldn’t blame essays or supervisions, it reminded me of a fraudulence, a veneer of fakery that I had knowingly pasted over my face, its scent cloying, speaking of a knowingness, an intelligence, an awareness about the African experience which really wasn’t skin deep.

As Adichie has grown in the affections of white-educated-liberal society, the clamour for her work has, in a way, become cloying. I remember reading Purple Hibiscus when I was still a pre-pubescent teen and loving it (my own well thumbed copy has gone on a long loan/walk to a friend). I had always preferred it to Half of a Yellow Sun. There was a simplicity about the novel, a freshness and a pain in the characters – but never pity. Adichie didn’t (and still doesn’t) try too hard to breathe life into her world. Whilst my own attempts at any kind of creative writing have always been lugubrious, heavy handed and verbose, hers was stark, naked, clear and in that cleanliness it was seering, pernicious almost, unflinching. Whilst Half of a Yellow Sun became the literary love-child of all those politically-conscious white folks who were just so keen to ‘get’ the Post-Colonial experience, I didn’t love the book. I loved the meta-narrative that ran throughout, I loved learning about my matrilineal heritage. I loved a book that featured twins, but the narrative was detached from me – something to observe but not to feel. I felt the same when I dutifully ploughed through her collection of short stories (The Thing Around Your Neck) for A-levels. Her style effortless as though she doesn’t try she just tells. But I couldn’t help but fall into the romance of her craft when I analysed the stories, wrote essays about them – essays that got me my place at University, I learnt to admire her, yet still felt my heart ached as I saw glimpses, shadows of myself in her syntax, shadows that I recognised but did not fully understand.

So, when it came to reading Americanah, egged on by the girlfriends and soul sistas who kept plugging the book, the whispered comments of a smugness that surrounded Adichie now she was an established figure in the ‘African canon’, gave me a weak, immature excuse not to open it. I wanted to find a reason to resent her, to find fault with her, or at least her work. I wanted to struggle, I wanted her to be novel, unique, and not as celebrated as she was – as known. I wanted her to be mine, the way I had thought of her when I read the still unknown Purple Hibiscus. So instead I returned to her literary father and discovered that Achebe’s prose is indeed like palm wine, his criticism sharp, his fiction…beautiful. I devoured Things Fall Apart,reading the whole novel out loud in a 2-day sitting during my exam term last year. It’s one of the only times I ever sat in the armchairs of my lavish room. I don’t speak Igbo, but speaking Okonkwo’s name out loud, attempting to intone the proverbs I imagined my Grandfather would let slip from his lips as he sat on his verandah in Onitsha, gave me a degree of firmness, like a long lost child returning home after a long time, discovering the dusty memories of old rooms and forgotten wallpaper that had always been there, but one hadn’t had the clarity of mind to see. The last few sentences stilled my heart, and even speaking of it to a friend only a week ago, I felt my body plunge again into the wretched pool of pain and awe at his craftsmanship, at the reality that he described so unflinchingly, so un-ironically. I devoured A Man of the People, and began No Longer at Ease, and all the while my mind was pulled back to Adichie, and I saw just how well her form matched her forefather, just how talented her written sculptures were.

So, at the start of this term, I decided to cut the pages of Americanah at last and begin reading. I laughed, I was intrigued, but I grew bored and it sat on my bedside table for weeks on-end as the mania of term swept me away (or rather I turned on the fan and said – Micahelmas – Take me Now!). But then today, having passed out from sheer exhaustion after working till 5am and waking up at 1.30pm causally missing my 10am lecture, I thought – screw it – i’m going to indulge myself. And I read, and read, and read, and only just finished.

Americanah is exquisite. Painfully, beautifully, exquisite. People throw slogans like – best thing ever written – around too easily. But it was bloody brilliant. And I could launch into a wonderful critique of its arcs and curves, but that would spoil your own journey of it (because you will read it). But reading it made me understand more why I so wanted to dislike it.

There is a certainty in Adichie that is both compelling and unsettling. She knows who she is. Like Ifemelu, she might be buffeted by transition but she is not overblown. She might ‘code-switch’ but her tongue is not loose, not flaccid, it is not confused, it can always return to its original nuances and intonations. Though Adichie primarily writes in English (her work is littered, like Achebe, with Igbo sayings), she is not confined to speak in a language that is not her own. Hers is a choice, not an expressive requirement.

In the first half of the book, Ifemelu, our striking, forthright yet at times vulnerable protagonist attends the African Society of her university, where she is told, laughingly (but not mockingly) that African Americans who seek to be part of the society are those who ‘write poems about Mother Africa and think every black woman is a Nubian Queen’. I laughed wistfully when I read it, because I realised that was me.

For those of us born and raised in, and here i’m specifically talking about the UK diaspora, we are not rootless, like African Americans. Many of us know ‘where we come from’, whether we are Caribbean or African – and will say (now with pride, when we were in primary school the question either confused or mortified us) – I’m from Nigeria, Jamaica, Grenada, Ghana etc. Even if we are not that attached to those countries of ‘ethnic origin’ (as if 2nd generation Polish, German or Spanish people don’t also have a country of ‘ethnic origin’), we will at least state – my parents are from XYZ. So we are not rootless. But we, or at least I, have still suffered a trauma, a blow to that fragile process anthropology will call the constitution of self. Because though we are not rootless, we are also not rooted.

I wasn’t raised to think of England as my home, neither was I raised to think of Nigeria as my home. Home was something that existed in the present, where I was right now, it didn’t extend into the future and it didn’t link into an ancestral past, at least not in daily life. On applying to University my father emphatically challenged me about saying I was British Nigerian, insisting I was British but cited the fact that I had never lived in Nigeria and carried a red passport as the reason. My mother agreed, but only because she feared my CV could be rejected on account of 419s and other shitty prejudice. But aside from that, whenever we did something bad, they would remind us that we were not from England, therefore we dare not act like these oyinbo people with no home training. Sometimes it would even resort to – Do you know who your people are, where you come from – by which they referred to our tribal people group or home village – a culture we barely understood, a language we didn’t speak, a place we had never been to (or if we had, we’d been too young to formulate concrete memories). Sometimes my mother would say, why do you want to claim Nigerian, when I went through my ‘Mother-Africa-down-with-Colonisalism-BS phase’ – what has Nigeria ever done for you?! But then we rarely spoke about what England had done for me. It was taken as a given: education, amenities, healthcare, safety – but in terms of culture, values, history, I was never taught to be grateful to England for those things. So we (I) existed in a liminal space – a non-space, having to carve out Rushdie’s imaginary homeland. A space where people who looked like me and carried, as Adichie beautifully typed, the fine stamp of culture, existed. A space where people who had taught themselves to code switch spoke loudly and over-confidently. Reading Americanah, I wondered when that had happened. My ability to at best mimic at worst parody a Nigerian accent. In primary school I was as English as they came, in fact I remember actively learning long complex words to make sure by Englishness was permanent. And then, towards the end of year 6 this weird craving for America arose.

Fresh on the wave of TLC and Destiny’s Child, being African American wasn’t just sexy (as If 11 year old me even knew what sexy was, though in a way we did) it was acceptable. So I walked into secondry with the fakest Californian accent ever straight out of Saved by the Bell, My Wife and Kids and all that Disney crap. I remember feeling so proud when two year 10 girls asked me curiously if I was from the States one break time. But then the softness of the accent got to me, and I found myself switching from my Shepherds Bush accent into a weird cockney mockery, into faux American into Received Standard English, until I got to Uni. I got to Uni and met real Nigerians, the one’s that actually knew what to say in pidgin’ and not just how to intone it. They humoured me, and my tonal flexibilities increased, but always hollow. I made my voice. I don’t actually know what it should sound like, but today it’s a beautiful pan-world mishmash that is simultaneously ugly, phoney and lifeless.

The diaspora is a trauma, and not just the trauma of the Trans Atlantic Slave Trade. Even when we moved by choice, moved for a better life, for safety, for whatever London streets promised or required, trauma was inflicted. And not just on the parents, safe in their knowledge of ‘home’, safe in the knowledge that they even have place to call ‘home’, where they don’t have to explain why their English is so good even if their name is ‘foreign’, where they don’t have to straddle a place that gave them culture and a place that gave the rudiments of basic survival of human nurture.  Where they are not limited to expressing themselves in one medium even when they are surrounded by a multiplicity of other languages which teaches them to create parts of themselves that can only be expressed in non-English sounding words (when i’m angry, or impassioned I want to reach for Yoruba like my parents, but just end up with an exasperated Ahn-Ahn, You know, Ha! Because I can’t say anything, I can just sound things).

I hate being rootless. I hate being rooted in that rootlessness. I hate having multiple homes that are more like rented apartments rather than deeply dug foundations. But I acknowledge that it is an emerging existence, and it is something Americanah pulls out so teasingly, so exquisitely. I loved it. I loved Americanah and I mourned when it ended because, some small part of me, wanted the security Ifemelu has at the end, wanted someone to say to me ‘Come In’, and to take my hand, and lead me home. But I am glad Adichie wrote it, and I know that now, those of us that are the Non-African (but perhaps still Afrcan) Blacks, need to write for our own – for we are an ‘our’ now, as much so as we’ve ever been.

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#3 ~ For Colored Girls: Beginning

How to start a play. Or perhaps, instead of a statement, a question – how do you start a play?

It’s a tricky question. Often I jump to the end, to the applause, the emotion, the adrenaline and the sleep that follows. But how to begin. How to harness the reeking anticipation of your audience and the nervous sweat of your cast as you dare to produce something spectacular.

The first stage is the atmosphere. Yesterday, crammed into London Underground i read through the first page of the script. The Stage Directions state:

The stage is in darkness. Harsh music is heard as dim blue lights come up. One after another, seven women run onto the stage from each of the exits. They all freeze in postures of distress. The follow spot picks up the lady in brown. She comes to life and looks at the other ladies. All of the others are still. 

I start scribbling furiously. In those precious few moments, the audience have to shift from excitement and curiosity to an uncomfortable awareness that something ominous is coming. Something painful. On one hand I start thinking about the lighting design. How the colour of that blue has to sear through the audience and automatically communicate an iciness, a pain, that mirrors the tortured freeze frames of the actresses. Moreover, music is flowing through my mind. What kind of music? How will that Am arpeggio modulate, or the use of the cymbals create a discord, a screeching sound, and perhaps the thrumming of the bass get people’s pulse rising like the hairs on their arms. It’s all about setting the scene before we move onto the first poem.

‘Dark Phrases’.

But that’s for later on today.

Join the journey.

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#350 ~ Miscellaneous.1: Sticks and Stones

(Written during my month long absence)

Sticks and stones may break my bones – but more often than not words really do hurt me.

They can be pernicious and penetrating wriggling deep into the crevices of your heart, your inner sanctuary, the hidden caves that even you are fearful of entering. Do you ever do that thing, when you send off an email or a text, and you know that you’ll be disappointing someone – letting them down. Maybe you have to quit an activity, pull out of a race or even miss a class, because you’re about to fragment into a million shards of flesh and bone, and you know without your glasses you’ll never find all the pieces or the thread to stitch yourself back together again. You gather all the courage that lingers like used up dregs of tea in your none assertive self, and click send. Boom – into the ether it zooms.

You wait – linger, hover on the thresholds of depressive anticipation, and then you get a vibration, or a new email pops into your inbox, and you wait, tentatively. Doing everything you can to not click open, at last your finger slips, or the dredges of courage somehow coagulate and you stupidly think you’re brave.

Shot down like an enemy plane, even the most polite response blows you apart. And English people have a way, a very tricky and sly way of phrasing reproof in a cold, polite but detached manner which encourages you to implode on your own – with no promise whatsoever of Red Cross aid.

Once the initial damage has been done, and you realize what a complete failure and disappointment you are in the eyes of whoever you had to let down, when you are aware that your excuses seemed like puerile dribble in front of their retina, and they are not in the least bit understanding, but rather more incensed or even pissed off by/at you, you begin to wilt faster than watercress in a nursery kitchen. Even after you’ve rationalized and played their argument over, seen it from their side of the fence, and even, to a marginal degree, agreed with them, all the confidence to keep trundling along and getting the rest of the work completed evaporates.

You find yourself writing a blog post for a 365 day blog that you have neglected for these past 40 days or so, instead of focusing on the presentation on poetic symbolism which is due in 30minutes. You get frustrated, and begin scratching your well oiled scalp until the coconut lubricant builds up under your fingernails, and your head is once more exposed to the raging elements which have washed your university city in a cluster of unromantic water pellets and dirty puddles – and all the while you’ve allowed somebody to make you feel shit.

You are fearful of the impending meeting in 48hours, trying to work out whether you should try to bold face your’e way out, put on a nonchalant attitude of –  Dude, it was in the past, get over it, and hey, this is life, people be busy – but you know that any balls you might’ve had at conception certainly never dropped. You aren’t like that – you’re a crowd pleaser. At your best this is wonderful, at your worst it makes you cower, fearful of even attempting to be assertive. You hate letting people down, because you have sold yourself into the fetters of someone else’s opinion – someone you don’t even know well enough to truly care about, but because they have a title, you submit.

And you’re angry. Angry as you realize this is a constant feature of your character, but the whirlpool of depression still hangs round you, tainting the edges of your being. Could you have done it any differently? Well, no. You were exhausted, you woke up 20minutes into the class and hand’t done the reading or the essay that was due in 3 hours. It was never going to happen – but you still wish it had, even if it was just to please them. Will you make promises and denigrate yourself even further as a worthless fool who shouldn’t be participating the extra-curricular activities which actually give you a reason to live (and might also provide a job in the next few years), you probably will say Yes to that.

Will you always be fearful of someone else’s words? Or will you get to a point where you acknowledge them, but can ultimately move through them, the sticks and the stones to create your own words, your own works and one day, be the writer whose texts are being discussed – and smile benignly on the student who won’t hear them, as their too busy doing their own stuff.

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#318 ~ Psalm Series. No.22

The Blessed. The Set Apart. Somehow they never seem to crave

They never seem to desire arms wrapped around waists

They never envy the talents that drip effortlessly from those who have  perfection

as an intrinsic part of their genetic information.

And yet, they try to tell you they’re human – just as you are too.

Yet when you look down at your hands, stained in jealousy

the lines of your stomach, rolling with slothly, inertia and flaccidity

when you see your mouth twisted in spite

You groan in pain, looking afar at the Blessed and wonder

why have I done this again? Why can I not be steadfast in my ways –

and therein lies the problem

It isn’t about you, me, we

But Him

the great I AM

and all his righteous ways.

Psalm 119 vs 5 – Oh that my ways were steadfast in obeying your decrees!

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#315 ~ Psalm Series. No. 19

It sticks to every pore

it filters into every inhalation

it claws at every crevice

and lines every follicle that dares to sleep against the exfoliated skin of my arms and legs

the dust that coats me

as I lie, sunken before the sneering world, clawing onto your word.

 

Psalm 119 vs 25 – I am laid low in the dust; preserve my life according to your word. 

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#308 ~ One Hundred Words and a Photo: 28

picture28I hated that picture. You know the one, of the bay. So perfect it was fake. So bright it gauged my eyes. Why did we ever frame it? She was never very good at taking photo’s anyway. They were too…neat, so linear, like the press ironed lines  of her A-frame skirt. The colors were lifelessly rich. The street unstained, no one walked on it – like her closet, never worn, picture perfect boredom. Why did we ever frame that bloody picture, of the ferris wheel rising in the background, the giggling and laughing that never creased into a smile?

Copyright: Victoria. O

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#241 ~ Ithemba Projects: Day 8

I asked God to break my heart for people who are suffering. Today he made it bleed. It hasn’t stopped.

Zanini Bantwana (Come Children) is a charity which does outreach in three government hospitals in Maritzburg; Edendale, Northdale and Greys. Run by Alan Gaston and his wife Sheila, the charity has been providing much needed childcare and attention in the impoverished children’s wards of these ‘black’, therefore poor, hospitals.

Private Medical Care in South Africa is at an excellent standard. Most people who belong to a middle to upper class have Private Medical Care. That means, considering the incomprehensible gap between the poor and the rich, Government Hospitals are the domain of the poor black population.

At a Government Hospital, located in a former ‘white area’ therefore perhaps a better standard than some Hospitals, there is a little girl on the children’s ward. Her name is ‘M’. She was abandoned at birth. Just over a year old she has HIV, TB and severe social problems. Her eyes are unfocused like Girl’s in the Drop in Centre Creche. She doesn’t form relationships with the staff. She refuses to recognise anyone. Why? The knowledge that she is unloved, worthless and unwanted has already been imprinted onto her fragile infant brain. She could be my daughter.

When I was three weeks old, I came down with a cold. My gums turned blue, my mouth sealed shut, I could barely breathe. My nose was filled with mucus, yet my nostrils were so small my Mum had to suck the mucus out because she couldn’t grip my nose with tissue. I was rushed to hospital, because at three weeks old, I was dying. My mum was by my side every day. My twin sister didn’t sleep. The doctors did everything they could to save my life.

I’m alive today because I was wanted. Yes, I’m asthmatic, but I row. Yes, I have a poor immune system, but I can afford drugs.

‘M’ is the same complexion as myself. She has the same droopy cheeks I have in my baby photos. She has similar almond shaped eyes. Her nose was caked in mucus. A tube ran out of it, probably similar to the tube that ran out of mine when I was three weeks old.

A nurse thought she was my daughter.

She could be my daughter.

At best, she’ll die before she reaches 11. At worst she’ll die within a year. If she lived in Hilton, and had parents that could care for her, TB wouldn’t kill her. There’s medication for those who can afford it.

Her name is ‘M’. She is an abandoned black child who comes from a township. She has no one to buy her those drugs. No one to care for her.

And my heart is screaming, and I have not cried so hard today as I have in years, as I prayed to God. How can I go to church with fellow Christians who believe we are all made in God’s image, yet don’t consider adopting a reflection of God? How can I live within a faith where we preach loving the unloved, and yet we are so blind, blinded by an irrational and an inhumane fear, that we never set foot in a hospital five minutes from our homes? And yes, I am painfully angry at South African society right now, but also British. How often, do we step into a hospital to visit a sick relative, and ignore the patient on the bed next door who is in distress, because we don’t know them?

When will the Church rise up, not out sentiment, but out of duty. Because our theology compels us to love and to nurture and to comfort those even when it harms our idyllic lifestyle, our hopes and dreams our finances. Paul does not preach the Gospel because he wants to, but because the Spirit of God compelled him to, and he had no choice!

And I see ‘M’, who could be my daughter, whose name means flower, and I am angry. I am angry at a world where people can spend up to R180,000 (about £18,000) a year on a child’s education (Hilton College, the most expensive school in Africa), and can’t even give enough spare cash to their community neighbors to have a basic education, diet, medicine. I look at the UK, and how, though in Zulu culture people are loath to adopt incase they inherit the Ancestral spirits of the adopted child, how we are loath to adopt because we place our genetic children as a greater priority. I need to take care of my own. Charity begins at home.

I am torn with a frustrated, righteous anger. And though I yearned to capture every moment I experienced today in words, I have failed. Because I don’t think I can make you see. I don’t think I can make you look into the vacant eyes of ‘M’, who was disposed of after birth. I don’t think I can tell you what it feels like to hold a child who cannot afford the right medication to fight TB, something i‘ll never have to worry about. To know she may be dead in three years time due to HIV. And that no-one cares. Because there are millions like her.

And her name means flower.

And I cry. I am so angry. I weep. I groan. My chest is torn. For a few hours today I could love her as she deserved to be loved. Yet there are a million like her. And her name means flower. She could have been my daughter.

She could have been my daughter.

Prayer for Day 8: That people would love like Christ commands us. That we would be compelled to create a home for the homeless in whatever capacity we can. That our eyes would be opened to the M’s in our own communities, and we would make a poignant decision to love them, to give them hope and a future. That we would be compelled to act justly, love with a God like mercy, and be figures of hope. That we would become parents in whatever capacity we can, to whoever we can.

Please read this next post in order to transform the potential pain of this experience into one of hope. Thank you

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