Tag Archives: rootless

#10 ~ Being beautifully rooted in the Diaspora

africa-roots

I have a friend who’s from my mothers home state in south eastern Nigeria. I think he finds me intriguing in a you’re-interesting-but-kinda-weird-way. Sometimes when we’re talking , I can tell that he humours me, he doesn’t necessarily ‘get’ me, but he listens and he finds it interesting. Sometimes I imagine that in his eyes I look like a lost sheep, slightly homeless and befuddled, but fuelled with a sense of directionless purpose. I feel this most often when i talk about my identity, my sense of belonging. He speaks Igbo, lived (if only for a short while) in Nigeria and knows the point at which he migrated to the UK. It was something he was contextually conscious of. He tells me if I went back i’d be welcomed home as a returnee daughter. Sure, for a period i’d be called oyinbo  or ‘just-come’, but in time I would settle, I would be accepted. He doesn’t, I feel, quite understand that diasporics never fully settle in already established homelands. He is rooted in a context, I, as I see it now, am rooted in rootlessness. 

My sister has never had an issue with this. Growing up my Dad’s pet name for her was ‘the Rock’, because she was solid. Some of this had to do with her physical build, which my Mum gave my Dad an earful about, but I think a lot of it had to do with her character. T is solid. When she sets her feet on something, it’s because she’s sure, and when she’s sure she stands her ground. She weighs her words carefully and speaks sparingly, often the quiet one in conversations. I used to think it was because she was shy, or didn’t always ‘get’ what was going on. Time told me it was because most of the time she had already worked out the answer, and found all us babbling self-proclaimed young ‘intellectuals’ wallowing in our existential crises at best irritating, at worst stupid and self indulgent. T is a firm foundation. She is rooted. And I think she’s rooted, because she is secure in what she is, and she’s made peace with that. In that sense we make a perfect team. I used to be called feet-on-the-ground-head-in-the-clouds and my mother’s nickname for me was spitfire, because I would flare and burn and run full steam ahead before burning out, sometimes with the job, passion or vision left unfinished.

These are crass and simplistic distinctions, but for a generalistic musing they’ll work for now. Whereas I pined for ‘home’, T was comfortable from the get-go with being British and Nigerian, being a Londoner and  from Anambra and from Ilesha – it wasn’t really a thing, it was just her, whereas I flitted from British, to English, to Nigerian, to British Nigerian, to Nigerian British, to Igbo, Yourba and Bristolian – I was very lost, and frustrated by this perceived loss.

I think part of it was to do with a strong racial conception of self from a very young age. I might regret saying this, but then Piaf had a more messed up life and managed to declare she had no regrets, so hey-ho. Growing up my mum was very fair. She’s never seen herself as anything less than Nigerian, never thought of herself as white but as the whole biracial discourse became more politically correct, when pushed she’ll say she’s mixed raced, but she was always secure in her Nigerianness,as though English was an historical technicality but had little cultural or even personal bearing. Yet when I looked around I was very aware that Mummy looked like the other parents, and the other parents were ‘right’. I was embarrassed by what the connotations of being black were, and growing up around non-Nigerians I didn’t quite get Caribbean culture, because that wasn’t home-life, and the Nigerian culture I saw was foreign (I’ve later realised that class has a lot to do with culture in the UK and ethnicity, but that’s for a later post). So, to be like Mum was to be better. If T was the chocolate baby, I was the yellow baby. But T had ‘fine features’ and I had the ‘African nose’ the ‘thick lips’, the things that made me more ‘Nigerian’ than her, the ‘coarse’ features.

Firstly I want to call Bullshit on such a distinction. That’s right, I call BULL-SHIT on the whole fine/coarse features thing. What it implies is that there is something refined and noble about caucasian features and something rough and ungainly about ‘traditional’ African features (read Aphra Behn’s Oronooko to see what I mean). Basically it means white pretty black ugly. So even though I had lighter skin I was still more ‘African’ than my sister – and people remarked on that shit. Ah Kehinde you have such coarse/strong/striking/Nigerian features. Ah Taiwo, you have such fine/european/english/pretty features. It doesn’t mean I wasn’t told I was beautiful, but it was a different type of beauty – so I went to find that type. I went to discover where that beauty came from. I wanted to go ‘home’ to an imaginary Africa, an imaginary Nigeria where my features were the norm.

Now the issue with such a distinction is that it creates a contrast. What if caucasian features were classed as ‘undefined, less-defined’ in stead of ‘fine’,as though they were delicate, fragile, precious. Think about it, if generic african features ( which really are generic, because if you look at the variety in African features from the Fulani to Ethiopians, Khoisan to the Sudanese you’d realise African features encompass ALL types of facial features, but, I digress) if things such as wide noses, thick lips, strong jaw-lines, big thighs etc etc were the norm, then anything other would be less, right? But I grew up in the UK, so it wasn’t the norm, and it sent me looking for it, it sent me towards this idyllic fairyland called the ‘home’ of black-consciousness and self-worth, it sent me back to ‘Mother Africa’.

A Diaspora is a ‘scattered population with a common origin in a smaller geographic area, or a movement of people from their homeland’. It implies that there is a ‘real’ place that you ‘truly’ come from, but for some reason or other you are not there.

And it’s  definitely true. There are plenty of diaspora’s the world over. Some of them have settled and are no longer viewed as diasporas (white people in America), others are less stable (Jewish diaspora, Turks in Germany), but they exist. The issue I have with diaspora as a definition is that I think it belongs to 1st generation migrants. The one’s that have ‘just-come’, the ‘freshies’. I think it applies to second-gen migrants who go back to that country of ‘ethnic origin’ regularly, speak the language, can flit easily between the two.

But for many children of African migrants who don’t go back, who have settled in e.g. the UK but still exist within their parents culture, we have another homeland emerging. See, I’m beginning to see things like my sister, to realise there isn’t one place that I ‘truly’ come from, or rather there is, it just isn’t a recognised nation-state. See, I come from the diaspora. I am a child of the diaspora, born and raised. I speak the language, I understand the culture, I breathe the history. I have that beautiful ability to morph regularly, to be at ease with Nigerians, with Africans in general, with whites, with Indians, with Far East Asians. I speak slang, I speak Received, and not just in English. When I go abroad I know how to adapt my body language, how to blend in and stick out at the same time. I understand cultural symbols, I understand how to act with elders, even if its elders from another culture. My straight up immigrant friends don’t know how to deal with that drunk roommate, or the friend who calls their aunts by their first name. The kids who tell their parents to fuck off in the supermarket cause they can’t get a Fanta and they’re not even in year 2! They think – He dey craze oooh. My homegrown friends don’t understand to call their ‘immigrant’ friends parents Aunty and Uncle, not Femi and Gbemisola, or Raj and Amina. But I do, because I am a child of the diaspora.

That doesn’t mean i’m totally secure in me (me is a fluid thing constantly evolving), but it means I am not diagramme_de_vennhomeless. I have a home. I’m not a global citizen (that phrase is so daft, cause we all know citizenship rights are NOT accorded to how many passports you have, citizenship is more than legalities), I am a disaporic national – and that can be ok. My home can be like a ven-diagram with Nigeria and the UK as the far circles that overlap to make ‘My Home’ in the middle. I can be rooted in that, and in being rooted in it, I can find a freedom that other people before haven’t had.

I can also begin to understand that human history is one of migration. Even those who’ve ‘been here for generations’ aren’t people of the soil. As one of my best supervisors once said (at least in regards to recent World History but it certainly goes back to the beginning of time)

Indigenous people were just the people who were there when the Europeans (read any kind of coloniser/invader) turned up. 

So yeah, i’m beginning to find my home -and i think i might just like it.

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

Americahna2

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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