One day, I will offend you. It may be intentional, unintentional, partly intentional, or perhaps something I do will disappoint you, especially if you have admired me for so long, especially if you have done so from afar. In fact, that day may have come for you already, or it may be today. I may offend/ may have offended you in my writing, in my poetry, with my clothes, with my faith or with my existence. All I ask is that you be prepared for it – because Jesus knows I’m trying to be, if and when it happens on a grand scale.
Kindly do not “queen” me or “goddess” me or make me your role model. I am none of these things and I do not want to be – especially not if these attributes are ascribed to me because of physical features or a nationality I had no say in choosing. Do not ascribe these attributes to me because of things I actually have achieved myself, or will in the future either. Refrain from regarding me as anything more or less than human, no matter how renowned – or infamous – I ever happen to get.
When the Day of Great Offense comes (and there might be multiple), I need you to remember your ideals, if you have them, and continuously question your capacity for forgiveness and love, despite your disappointment, because I will certainly be questioning these things about myself and everyone around me. Before you ruthlessly “cancel” me, I want you to evaluate the gravity of my misstep and what you think should be done if you had made a similar one. But I also want you to think about what you would do if the action had been done by a stranger on the street rather than me – assuming I had a platform influential enough for more people than yourself to know my name and be affected by my words and actions. I need you to ask yourself if your standards are fair enough to judge me with the same criteria you would judge any human being (that is, if you had to judge at all). As yourself if you see the human in me and in yourself. [Human: simultaneously intrinsically flawed and intrinsically capable of compassion and virtue.]
If I retract my speech or action, in genuine repentance, I need you not to already have written me off completely, with zero shot at redemption in your eyes. I have seen things I have done, thought or said a few years ago – or ten minutes ago – that disgust me now. That’s okay. I allow myself license to change because I make myself acutely aware of my humanity. When the Day of Great Offense comes, I aspire to maintain the same attitude. I want you to forgive me because I am learning to forgive myself, and I think if you forgive me, it will be easier for you to forgive yourself whenever you need to.
If I do not retract my speech or action because I genuinely believe in what I said or did, please still do not write me off completely. We may disagree. We may possibly never agree. But as I am determined to treat everyone with whom I unfortunately must disagree with as much respect as I am humanly capable of (even if I have not done so in the past), I desire the same kind of respect to be applied to me. I do not expect respect. (It would be highly egotistical to expect to believe anything I have done with my life merits automatic respect.) But I do desire it. If we have disagreed and I do not retract my speech or action, it is not because I expect you or the rest of the world to agree with my eventually. Nevertheless, I highly doubt an avalanche of online slander directed at me (that I may or may not ever see) will help me solve the problems you believe I have. And with regards to these problems, I hope you never think that I am too far out of redemption’s reach. If you cannot love me through this incident, I would at least ask that you try to tolerate our differences.
I know – in fact, it would be more accurate to say that I hope – that there are some things in which I shall remain steadfast all my life, despite the societal pressure against them. One of these things is my faith, which will offend someone somewhere whether I am being actively offensive or merely being – and I must learn to be okay with this. And so if it is for any of those reasons that I do not retract my speech or action, I genuinely hope that you will be able to live without hating me. If you can’t – and I am sorry for you if you can’t – I pray the animosity neither kills nor breaks me.
In all this, though, I would like us all to continue to keep in mind that no ordinary human being is above fault or mistake and that neither stupidity nor ignorance have age limits. I am stupid and ignorant now, as I write this at eighteen years old, about a lot of things. Depending on how long I live, I know I will be stupid sometimes, ignorant about some things and occasionally both at the same time when I am twenty-one or seventy-seven. I stopped believing in the myth of the direct correlation between age and how good a person is (at anything, including wisdom) a long time ago, and perhaps you should too. I hope I never let myself off the hook for being “too young”, or punish myself too hard for believing I am “too old” to have done something. I hope I always, always show myself – and am shown – grace, in every circumstance.
I suppose when you heard that no girl’s job was to make people like her, that she should never be afraid of offending people, you applauded the speaker’s fearlessness – and you never considered that you could be “people,” did you?
About a month ago (as you can see, I have fantastic time-keeping blogging habits) most people who take interest in my life saw my Snapchat and Instagram stories about me teaching a class on “lexivism,” a term I completely made up, which is virtually unknown outside of this blog and my personal social media accounts. Most people had the same questions:
There is a program called Splash that originated at MIT about 60 years ago, or so I’m told, where high school students come in to be taught by college students. The program has since grown larger and been adopted by other higher learning institutes across America, and now the consortium of colleges I’m in has its own similar program, called Claremont Splash. The idea for Claremont Splash is for the students of the Claremont Colleges to teach any subject they are interested in, which ordinarily wouldn’t be taught in a conventional classroom setting. You get to design your own class from top to bottom, and even choose the length of the class and how many students you would like in yours. And so I heard about it from my sponsor, who’s a sophomore, who thought that such a program was really up my alley. So I signed up when the time came, and I created my lesson plan the day before I had to teach it. (It’s not like we don’t already know I’m a wizard with time and planning and stuff. *flips hair*) Shout-out to Tronomie for staying up on the phone with me until 1 a.m. Cape Town time helping me create the lesson plan last-minute. As usual.
How did it go?
I designed my class to be 1 hour long, and made my maximum capacity for students 10. Surprisingly enough, the class got full. I hadn’t been expecting even two people to sign up, for a class based on a term that nobody knew. My maximum capacity was so small because for one, I don’t like people very much and I don’t believe in my ability to deal with too many of them at a time; for another, an intimate class for wholesome discussion was what I was aiming for.
Now I’m going to actually walk you through the lesson.
Part 1: What’s In A Name?
I thought it would be a good idea to start a lexivism class off with names, because our names are probably the most useful words we know. They are our identifiers, and our placeholders among people and in society. To set it off, I began with explaining the legend of my own name.
Even I am surprised that I’ve never blogged about the meaning of my name, but now’s as good a time as any to do it, I guess.
I was named after my paternal grandmother, and when I got to high school, I realized I had never known what my name meant. So I decided to ask my grandma, and lo and behold – she didn’t know what it meant either. She referred me to her sister, who is possibly the oldest woman I know (about 95 years old) and expert on history and legends surrounding our family. She told wrote a note that my dad delivered to me in the boarding house, telling me what her cousin had told her when she was a child, about the Akoto name.
First of all, the name in all its different forms runs in the family. I got to take a look at some of our family’s historical documents, and from about 1800, I’ve seen people in the family called Akoto, Akotoa, Akotaa, Akotowa, Akotowaa, and the list goes on. My grandma and I are Akotowaa (double A). I have a cousin called Akoto and another called Akotowa (single A). It’s probably going to keep getting passed down for centuries more.
In her note, my great-aunt told me two stories. One of them was fairly practical – which is probably why I can’t remember it. (It’s not lost, though; it’s in a notebook back in Ghana. Next time I go home, I’ll look for it.) The second one was much more absurd, amusing, and that’s likely why I remember it so well.
The legend: In an ancient Akwamu village, there was a chief who had several wives, the first of which was pregnant with a child who was prophesied to be the greatest leader the Akwamu people had ever seen. One day, the chief was out and the heavily pregnant wife was walking around the palace, and she came across a plate of delicious-looking and -smelling food. Unable to resist, she ate all of it. The chief came back and was enraged that his food had been eaten. After all, he was the chief, and that was basically sacrilege. He called for a confession from the culprit but nobody came forward. His hand forced, he declared that whenever the culprit was found, they would be sentenced to death. Upon discovering that the culprit was his precious first wife, he could not take back his word, so the execution had to take place regardless. The people, however, would not stand for the savior of the nation to be taken away from them before he’d even had a chance to live – so a C-section was performed on this woman to retrieve the baby, and only after this was she killed. Because this baby had to be reached for and fetched out of the mother’s stomach directly, they called him “Akɔ tu,” as in, something like “[someone] has gone to pull [something] out”. The many factors of culture turned the name into Akoto. So, to quote verbatim from my great-aunt, Akoto means “that which was fetched or brought forth (for its anticipated value).” So I told the high school students all of this, and understandably, they were like, Whoa. (Same tho’.)
After this, I handed it over to them, and they each said their name and what it meant. Aside this being interesting and lexical, it was a great way to incorporate self-introduction into the lesson itself. See, I’m smart.
I predicted that not everybody would know what their name meant – fewer people than I expect usually do – so I had my Google page pulled up on the projector, ready for fire look-ups of name meanings. This, it turns out, was a great thing to plan for, because only one person out of the 9 who showed up had any clue what their name meant. So a few minutes were spent watching people discover the meanings of one of the most important words in their lives and watching them register how their names just might influence/have influenced their identity. That was fun.
Part 2: Who Is A Lexivist?
This is where I explained what lexivism was, as broadly as I could. Lexivism, I believe is an encompassing term that so many things can fit in, and I suspect it’s just going to get broader as time goes on.
The few definitions I gave them were:
“A word activist”
One who believes in or advocates strongly for the recognized value/significance of words.
An activist who operates through literary means (poetry, prose, essays, or any media that incorporates words).
A lover of words.
People take charge of terms and use them in interesting and creative ways. I asked them to imagine, if lexivism truly takes off in my lifetime, what could it possibly mean, say, 50 years after my death? Who really knows?
Parts 3 & 4: The Birth of Lexivism & Its Lexical Composition
Here, I said essentially the same thing I said in my blog post “#Lexivism: It’s A Movement,” but with a photo slideshow to help me tell my story! They were mostly DB27 pictures.
The summary: Once upon a time, there was a girl called Akotowaa who loved reading from a very young age. By the time she was ten years old, she got it into her mind that she was going to be a writer, and so she started writing stories. But whenever she told people she wanted to be a writer, they would shoot her down as if she’d said something offensive. They would pronounce poverty and starvation on her future and write her aspiration off as silly until she eventually began to doubt herself. But then she realized that she was African, she was Ghanaian, she came from a long lineage of lit culture, history and storytelling traditions, and had a pool of stories that were waiting to be told. She saw the irony in a nation that prided itself so much on its arts and culture constantly putting down those who aspired to use their lives and careers to exhibit it. So she decided that against all odds, she would write, and make her aspirations a reality. And, to top it off, she would be an activist on behalf of anyone who was in a situation similar to hers, who dared to aspire against society’s expectations, and as she used her art to realize her own visions, she would simultaneously use her words to advocate for these people. And this cause, she termed “lexivism.”
I explained the lexical composition of the word “lexivism,” which is also explained in the blog post I referenced earlier. Basically, the prefix “lex-” is for any word-related word. A vocabulary set is called a lexicon, one who writes a dictionary is a lexicographer et cetera. We all know what activism is.
Part 5: Making Words
After that we did a fun little exercise where anyone who could think of a situation where they have once needed a word but either couldn’t find the right one or knew that it didn’t exist would tell the class, and then we would collectively work to come up with a word that meant exactly what we wanted it to mean. It’s an interesting exercise breaking the rules of language while following the rules of composition and meaning.
One girl brought up a need she once had to describe a kind of rigorous movement that no existing word could truly capture. She ended up with the word “trampede.”
Another talked about how she couldn’t find a word to describe the physical size of her cat when she was a kid. She made up a word that baffled her parents entirely, but it was so long ago that she couldn’t remember what it was.
Another person wanted a single word for what to call it when your foot fell asleep. We had a LOT of interesting suggestions for that, and we brainstormed around the word in much the same way as “lexivism” was formed: we had two categories, one for “foot” and one for “sleep,” involving all the connected words we already knew that made the parts of the word we wanted to take logical. For example, for “foot,” we had “ped” as in pedestrian, orthodpedist; for “sleep,” we had “dorm” as in dormitory and dormant/”somn” as in insomia and somnambulism. In the end, though, most people settled on the word “footingling” to describe the sensation, which was a very amusing turn of events!
Part 6: Lexivism in Practice (Discussion)
This is the part where we talked a lot about lexivism in general, and the discussion started getting slightly political and philosophical. For one thing, after I asked, I realized that many people had come to the class because they were generally interested in activism. So we had a discussion about identity and how new words had to be created to accommodate for the broad range of identities we had now coming up, in any form. Misogynoir, womanism et cetera. We talked about the word “Chicano,” and how the need for it, as opposed to “Hispanic” or “Latino,” had only arisen from the increased migration of Hispanic people to America. The word Chicano exists to describe the American of Latinx descent. If Americans of Latinx descent did not exist in increasing numbers, there would be no need for the word.
We also spoke a bit about culture mixing, and how hybrid languages were rising – like Spanglish. Of course, I took that opportunity to bring up Twinglish and even pidgin, and the roles they play in expression and society.
Then we talked about the trials of a limited vocabulary, and someone brought up George Orwell’s 1984 “Newspeak,” which excited me because a large part of the book was focused on the subplot of the government revising the English language to decrease the vocabulary dramatically, for the reason that if people have less words to think in, they will think about things less (critically) and essentially become stupider. I’m paraphrasing, of course, but I promise you, it’s in that book, and it truly struck me when I read it because hello – it’s true. Imagine having a vocabulary so limited that not only can you not call a skyscraper and a bungalow by two different words, but you can’t explain how they’re different either because the words to define saf don’t exist.
A lot more discussion happened but I honestly can’t remember it, so you’ll have to be satisfied with what I’ve already written. LOL. (Of course, if you have cool thoughts, I’d love to hear about them in the comments.)
Part 7: Anti-Indoctrination (Conclusion)
Can Akotowaa teach a class without adding spoken word to the whole show? LOL. We closed the class with my first ever spoken word video, obviously a lexivist poem which you really should have watched by now, “Anti-Indoctrination“.
And so concluded the class.
That’s it for an introduction. It’s interesting to think about what you could do if you first of all had more than an hour, and second, the opportunity to stretch it out into a months-long course. Any ideas of what that would look like?
[After the class, this really sweet 14-year-old girl came to talk to me because she’d been so inspired by my story and the video because she was going through nearly the exact same thing with her family. This kind of thing is what makes all the stress worth it. Yes, there are people who might have a bit of fun – or be bored out of their minds, of course – with a wacky class like this, but there are some people who will walk out emotionally touched by it. And I’m glad I did that for at least one person.]
At this point I’ve seen people bash this book so much that I’m not even sure anyone wants to read any more “reviews” on it. That being said, here’s a review on it!
I did not hate the book. Several people said it was trash. Several others said that while the book wasn’t horrible, it left them unimpressed. I think I fall into the latter category, while also wanting to admit that I kind of enjoyed it, especially around the middle to the end, and I also think that this novel is immensely relevant for the culture, and I shall explain why soon. But before that, I too have some issues. Let me start with the least: the cover.
Aren’t we tired of the “African book” color scheme yet? The yellows and oranges are really starting to irritate me whenever I see them. (LOL, as I was writing this, I noticed Swing Time also has that color scheme. But at least that one doesn’t have a sun on it. Can’t we have a blue cover? With a moon? Is there one already? I don’t know.)
Now, let’s talk about the publicity. Yo – if this is the kind of hype Alfred A. Knopf would give to young writers of African descent, could they publish me too, pretty please? The hype was ridiculous! I have seen the most successful marketing for Homegoing than I have seen for any “African literature” (I may be using this term more broadly than it is conventionally used) book in like, forever. I feel like its publicity was even more successful than Swing Time’s! Also, I can’t remember what the publicity for Americanah was. But I could almost physically feel the anticipation for Homegoing and the consistent reiterations of people who wanted to read the book before and after it came out…only to be met when they finally got their hands on it with “Effia”, “Cobbe” and “Quey”.
My absolute biggest problem with the book was the characters – including but not limited to their names. Effia, Cobbe and Quey. I just can’t understand why their names are spelled like that. Author’s creative license? Taking liberty with the idea that Anglicized literacy culture wasn’t fully formed at the time these characters were in their prime? I mean, I don’t have a problem with people deciding to onomatopoeically transcribe their names. I like spelling my day name as “Ewuraefua”, which isn’t common (by which I mean I’ve never seen anyone else use it), I love Efya’s branding, and I have an uncle who more-or-less renamed himself Quesy when he was young. But what I want to know is, if someone who has little to no idea of what Ghanaian culture is actually like reads this book, would they walk out of the pages thinking, “Yes, Quey is a fairly common Ghanaian name”? I mean, Ghanaians might be able to figure out what Yaa Gyasi’s doing with the names (even if it takes a minute to click, like “Quey” did for me), but what about everyone else? And I know this is kind of a sketchy subject because of the idea of all the rest of the English-speaking world having to “explain” ourselves/our culture but when Americans/British people write about theirs, they do not explain, assuming that all readers already know. And when we don’t, we have to find out ourselves. And it is not like I am asking Yaa Gyasi to spoon-feed non-Ghanaian readers. But I can hardly imagine myself as a non-Ghanaian bothering to Google “Quey”, and either way, I don’t know what I’d find. [Note: I just Googled it, and got the definition “young cow”. Consider me deceased.]
But another issue about the characters is that there were too many of them. It seemed that the intention was for each to get their shine in their respective chapters, but this was not a very big book, and for a book this size, the number of “main” characters just might have been overambitious. Unfortunately, I don’t know if any other method of storytelling could have done what Yaa Gyasi intended for the story to do, but the narrative style was complicated. It was a 3rd-person that felt too much like a 1st person narrative sometimes, which was confusing because I could barely remember whose chapter I was reading from, and found myself occasionally wondering if it mattered at all. After reading the book, I still cannot tell you off-head who is related to whom or how. I just might have given up on the novel if not for the availability of the family tree in the front pages. But because of how quickly the chapters jumped, I felt that some of the characters didn’t form fully enough for me to feel their humanity. A few of the earliest characters felt like shadows. They were almost allegorical – which I think is a bad thing for a novel.
I will come back to the characters, but speaking of allegory, there was something about the narration that made me uncomfortable. There was a lot of proverbial talking that struck me as… amateurish (I think I said something similar about the use of parables or something in “Under the Udala Trees”). I know West Africans are famous for their proverbs and stuff but there was something about their placement or usage that didn’t sit right with me. (I am almost scared to write this because there’s a thing about proverbs that I’m trying to incorporate into a story I’m writing, and whenever it comes out, perhaps years from now if ever at all, I fear that someone may say something similar about my work. But in life, you say what you mean, take risks, and deal with the consequences when they arrive so…) I don’t even have examples of these proverbs to illustrate what I mean because whenever I saw them, I just kind of side-eyed them and kept going.
I have an interesting (kind-of-positive?) observation about the characters, though: As the story went on, from the middle to the end, I think the characters started to become more real – specifically the characters in America, closer to the year of today. My hypothesis about this is that it is easier to write naturally about characters you can relate to by the experience of your own reality. If Yaa Gyasi has never known by experience what it means to be a Fante woman in pre-colonial, pre-Ghana Ghana, it would take a lot of imagination – not just research, which I think several people agree she did a lot of – to bring these characters to life. But for a final character like Marjorie, who grew up in the US but had contact with Ghana and felt a conflict in identity, her personhood was far more credible than the earlier characters’. I suspect it’s because Gyasi could pour herself into a character like that. I don’t know. For sure though, the characters after the beginning made me begin to enjoy the book more.
Now, in a way, this book was refreshing. I haven’t read very widely or very much in my life, but I know I haven’t read a book like this before. It probably classifies as historical fiction, yet still stretches out into the modern day. And it’s not immigrant fiction, at least in the conventional sense. Judging by how many people resonated with Siyanda Mohitsuwa’s post about a year ago about being over African immigrant fiction, I suspect that many people were looking forward to a book that wasn’t that, even from a “diaspora” writer. And this wasn’t that (in my opinion)! I really appreciate what it’s doing as a novel.
For me, it was like the book was building a bridge that was easier to understand than, for example, a history book that explains what the routes of the slave trade were. For me, that part of history has been like passively knowing it, but not truly able to feel it or imagine it. The fact that there were individual characters in “Homegoing” with actual names, actual personalities and a family tree that could be easily represented on a page at the beginning of the novel was fantastic for me. I like knowing where things and people come from and being able to make connections. I like that things are reduced from a large, unimaginable scale of huge numbers and long years of slavery, to the almost-simple history of one or two families. In fact, I don’t think I like it when authors try to do some mass-representation. It makes human individuality invisible. This book was the first book that ever brought things full-circle for me, almost literally. I saw people from Ghana taken, selling and sold, gone abroad and returning to Ghana (or not at all), back where it all began. I was finally able to connect, through fiction, African-Americans to Africa, even if those characters themselves didn’t know where they came from; I did, and that was satisfying for me.
I’d recommend this book to an African-American who has trouble understanding his/her connection to an Africa with a tangible culture, and I would also recommend it to an African who has, like me, had trouble visualizing the root of the relationship of common heritage between African-Americans and Africans.
“We believe the one who has the power. He is the one who gets to write the story. So when you study history, you must always ask yourself, Whose story am I missing? Whose voice was suppressed so that this voice could come forth? Once you have figured that out, you must find that story too. From there, you begin to get a clearer, yet still imperfect picture.”