Whispers Down the Lane: an immersive, wholesome experience

I’ve been to several Gallery 1957 exhibitions since the galleries opened, but none of them have impressed me as much as Whispers Down the Lane, a solo exhibition by Araba Opoku, who is, in my opinion, some sort of prodigy. After seeing the exhibition once, I was so impressed by it that I had to memorialize my experience of it in writing and see it a second time.

The Spider Kid standing before the chalkboard outside the exhibiton

One of the greatest things about Whispers Down the Lane is that it is intentionally designed to be a truly immersive experience. It is too unique to resort to the usual experience of walking through a white-walled room to look at a collection of paintings. As a matter of fact, this exhibition starts even before you walk into the gallery.

Just outside the exhibition space, there is a green chalkboard that has become almost a more iconic backdrop for me-too-I-saw-the-exhibition-some pictures than the paintings themselves. The chalkboard is not only a title poster but a mind map showing, presumably, the thoughts that went into the conception of the project. Because I’m a sucker for lexical scrutiny, I notice a few typos in the mind map, like “cobrebs” for cobwebs, and the word corrugated, spelled with only one “r”. Surprisingly enough, what these misspellings give me is a sense of authenticity. These are the sorts of mistakes one makes when one is in a creative frenzy, trying to write down as many ideas as one can, as fast as they can, without sparing much thought for correctness. The chalkboard makes me feel like I am looking at a copy of the real, deliberately unedited sheet of paper on which Opoku penned down her very first ideas. Besides which, it is just so aesthetically pleasing, from the hand-drawn aesthetic to the green-pink-white color scheme, to how it is framed with palm fronds on either side. The sprawling, spider web arrangement of the map feels well into the exhibition’s surprisingly coherent, though large, set of themes.

The mind map of a chalkboard just outside the exhibition

Entering the exhibition space feels like stepping into a fluid, surreal, possibly underwater universe. Nowhere in sight are the classic white walls of modern museums. Instead, deep green drapery serve as the backdrop to all the paintings, and hang from the ceiling in billowy, inverted pleats. Begging for a visitor’s attention as soon as they walk in is a screen, directly opposite the entrance, on which a short film plays on a loop, made even more inviting by the small arrangement of velvet green beanbag chairs a short distance from the screen. Or at least, I think it’s a screen. It isn’t until my second viewing of the exhibition, when I really take my time to go through the list of paintings on the exhibition’s QR code-linked webpage, that I realize the “screen” is itself a painting listed in the exhibition: I Saw a World Without a Moon, acrylic on canvas. Indeed, on closer inspection, I discover that the irregularities on the “screen” which are reminiscent of the tiles at the bottom of a fancy pool, are painted and deliberate. This blows my mind.

Before allowing myself to become too immediately enticed by the film, I insist on exploring the installation tucked away to the left, near the entrance of the exhibition space. I can’t lie, I am astonished to find a whole sink inside an exhibition space, but it is so appropriate and so artfully done that I have to respect it. (A certain owner of a certain social media company could take notes, shade intended.) An arrangement of potted plants beneath the sink gives a sense of the outdoors, even in the air-conditioned gallery, further complemented by the basin, buckets and empty gallons around the sink. Simultaneously subtle and obvious, the installation speaks more to the theme of water in a way that feels remarkably grounded in the Ghanaian context. Behind the sink installation is another green chalkboard, which contains words from the exhibition’s curator, Katherine Finerty, bookended by snippets of a poetic passage presumably written by Opoku herself. This chalkboard is also loaded with themes that prime you, orienting your mind to properly absorb what you are about to see: midnight and the moon; water scarcity in Ghana; sci-fi and fantasy TV; dreams; a childhood whispering game; upside-down orientations and rotation.

Sink installation just inside the exhibition space

Whispers Down the Lane has probably the most cohesive set of paintings I have ever seen in an exhibition. Each painting is remarkably similar to (although quite distinct from) the next one, because of the consistent colors and swirling brushstrokes, and the common elements and objects in the paintings. In each one, I see a creepy forest at midnight. The most identifiable elements, for me, are brown tree trunks, predominantly green-blue-yellow foliage, dark-feathered birds, and black stars. Nevertheless, each painting is abstract enough that two people can interpret the same paintings completely differently. The ambiguous swirls and blends of shapes and colors really do reflect for me what dreaming feels like: the conscious part of your brain knows that this is too surreal to be reality, but according to dream logic, and the specific context of the dream (or, in this case, Opoku’s speculative universe), everything makes sense. At the same time, the swirls and blends remind me of the distortion of objects and reflections caused by rippling, swirling water in the real world, especially in the nighttime, under the illumination of the moon.

If you move through the exhibition too quickly, it could feel dizzying, as though you are seeing the very same painting over and over again, but slightly different each time. The same scene of the woods at night, reoriented; turned upside down or sideways, or spliced into pieces and reassembled in a different configuration. Although the explanation for this is written plain and bold in chalk, it takes me until my second, more unrushed visit to understand what Whispers Down the Lane means. Because I didn’t grow up calling it that; I grew up calling it “Chinese Whispers.” Picture a group of children in a line. The first one comes up with a phrase and whispers it into the ear of the child beside them. The child whispers what they hear into the next child’s ear, and on and on, until the last child has to say aloud what they heard—often an incredible distortion of what the first child said, phonetically similar, yet absolute gibberish. Now, instead of a group of children in a line, picture a group of paintings, and there you have Opoku’s collection of paintings.

For the record, my favorite painting is the one called On a Voyage into Blue’s Euporie (one that several others are automatically drawn to, if the pictures I’ve seen online are any indication!), and a close second is The Pillars of Galilea.

The exhibition’s accompanying film, directed by Christine Boateng, is slow and meditative. The narrative—two sisters waking up at dawn to fetch as much water as possible—is at once mundane and beautiful, a poetic representation of a practice that is a quintessential part of the modern Ghanaian resident’s experience. The theme of water scarcity is not explored as a tragedy but as a nostalgic, dreamlike, collective, and bonding experience. The sense of nostalgia, in particular, is heightened by Claudia Owusu’s poem, narrated by the director, Christine, in lines such as these: “There was a time the water came, and we filled buckets into neat lines. Elbows locked and knees set to life and carry all that came with it.” I can’t help thinking about the experience of fetching water before sunrise in boarding school and some of the severe water shortages we experienced in those times. And indeed, there’s a sense in Claudia’s poem that flowing water is the exception rather than the norm. In the film, Opoku and her sister fill an almost absurd number of buckets, which, I think, is part of the commentary: you never know when water is going to be flowing again, so you might as well milk every drop you can, now.

Like everything else about the exhibition, the film is loaded with themes and a distinctive atmosphere. Everything that occurs in the film feels like it is happening in a dream, even the most regular, real-life things, like clothes drying on a line, or a Polytank running out of water. Some of the more out-there elements, like Araba submerged in a full tub of water, give visuals to the idea, planted by Claudia’s poem, of dreaming as submersion: a literal metaphor, very similar to how it feels to be in the exhibition space itself. There are a few editing elements that make me smile, like how, in the beginning of the film, the sound of almost every single drop of water coincides perfectly with Araba blinking herself awake.

By the time the film ends, I feel a sense of warmth, not only from how the film is paced and edited, but because of the beautiful, unspoken camaraderie between the two sisters, and how, in settling back down around sunrise for a morning nap, they give off a sense of satisfaction from a necessary job well done. I, too, after watching the film a handful of times, finally leave the gallery for the second time, satisfied at the wholesome, immersive experience of Whispers Down the Lane.

-Akotowaa 🕸️

Burdens of (Art) Activism

When I first conceived the idea for this post, I wanted to title it, “Artists in Ghana be doing too much” or something of the sort. As life sped on relentlessly, procrastination grabbed me in a chokehold, and I continued to think about this post while never actually getting around to writing it, I realized that the issue that vexed me enough to conceive the idea was larger than I initially thought.

My thought process began with the topic of Poetra Asantewa, who had been on my mind increasingly, for various reasons.

In my opinion, Poetra is one of Ghana’s most prominent, internationally rising writers/poets. She’s done commercials, tours, residencies, solo shows inside and outside Ghana, operated on grants, is an academic scholar, as well as an entrepreneur in ways I cannot exhaustively name. Poetra is also one of the most practical examples of a lexivist I can think of. (In case this is your first time encountering this word, here is the summarized definition: “lexical” + “activist” = literary activist/advocate for word- or literature-related causes. And yes, I made the word up. About three years ago.)

She’s particularly significant to me because, not only did she kickstart my spoken word career by making space for me wherever she had space, but she has continued advocating for me to this day, both loudly and silently over the years since she discovered my name. Besides the personal relevance, she was and is heavily involved with an organization called Love Rocks, which provides e-readers and books to young children. She is also the founder of Black Girls Glow, an all-female residency program for Ghanaian audio artists. Additionally, she recently launched a new magazine called Tampered Press, to showcase the works of African artists (in more than purely literary media), with a bias for Ghanaian artists. Do you see where I’m going with this? What I’m trying to say is: Poetra be doing a lot.

This is not a bad thing. In fact, her career is saturated with good things. But there are things about the context of this otherwise stellar biography that I don’t consider good and which have nothing to do with her.

Photo Source: LoveRocks on Twitter (https://twitter.com/LoveRocksOrg/status/654708396814282752)

While I am both in awe of and grateful for all the work Poetra does for the artist communities in Ghana and beyond, I often wonder why it seems that it’s necessary for her to be doing all this work. One may argue that it’s not necessary at all. On more than one occasion, she herself has said, in my presence, “Who sent me?” I acknowledge my own need to check myself, because I can’t pretend to know exactly how she feels about juggling all these things at the same time as being a living artist. I know that my sentiments are not necessarily hers, but still, however one looks at it, before and after all her activist work, Poetra Asantewa is a living artist: visual artist, poet, prose writer, stage artist, page artist, fashion artist. And I naturally assume that the primary function of a living artist is that they sit their behinds down (metaphorically; no shade to creators who stand or dance) and make art!

But what happens when you’ve grown up in a culture where sitting your behind down and making art is murderously unsustainable? Perhaps the answer is that this—this very lifestyle, which I’ve spent the past few paragraphs describing of one individual—is exactly what happens. All the excess work is not necessary… but it is. Art infrastructure in this country is a mess, and someone must address it. If it continues to be a mess, sitting one’s behind down to make art will continue to be a near-impossibility, and the pressure to abandon the entire field in favor of a more infrastructurally sound one will certainly increase. And it’s high enough as it is.

The question remains, though: whose responsibility is this work? Responsibility is the often-misunderstood factor that determines for whom certain work is necessary and for whom it shouldn’t be.

Recently, a Ghanaian rapper who’s been making hella waves lately did a mini-social media rant imploring the more established Ghanaian musicians to use whatever influence they’ve gathered to pull the more emergent, underground artists like himself higher. As much respect as I have for said artist, when I read it, I sighed and thought to myself: You’re talking to the wrong people, bro. It is noteworthy that this man also does what I consider to be activist work within the artist community (I use this word both physically and with respect to field of artistry) that he works within. So, when I say he’s talking to the wrong people, one of the “wrong people” in question is himself.

His statement testified to a mentality I’ve observed is particularly prevalent in—although, I’m certain, not exclusive to—the entertainment industry. People keep showing how they apparently believe that the establishment and maintenance of technical (infra)structure in Ghana’s entertainment industry are responsibilities of the entertainers themselves—which for God’s sake, is simply not the case. When we keep pushing our arguments as if it is the case, it is really our own selves that we are doing. The only thing I think is a legitimate career responsibility of an entertainer is to entertain. Feel free to disagree with me, although I will probably disagree with you back.

The stability and structure of art industries, as several people seem to be overlooking, is dependent not on artists themselves, but on the work of individuals and organizations explicitly dedicated to making and keeping them functional. These may or may not include content creators themselves, but they need to include people for whom the technicalities of management are career strengths! Being a stunning vocalist doesn’t automatically grant you magical abilities to make a dysfunctional industry start working. The responsibility I’m talking about falls onto managers, company CEOs, business-savvy financial experts, talent scouts that aren’t necessarily artists themselves; coaches, teachers, institutions dedicated to maximizing the potential of artists (such as schools or ministries); rich people willing to sponsor shows, give grants, facilitate residencies, rent physical spaces out for events; governments who see the value of a powerful, national entertainment industry and are willing to invest in it the way they’re willing to invest in airports that make them look cool to visiting foreigners.

The point I am trying to make is that people have their respective roles, talents and professions. Placing responsibilities on artists, especially those who haven’t expressed that their self-perceived role is anything other than (or additional to) art creation is, to me, like saying, “Oh, you want to be a writer? Then you better find a job in the ink production industry, so that shops can sell pens to people who want to be writers.” It’s a bit kwasia, to say the least.

Our misguided sense of responsibilities isn’t unfounded, even though it may not be the most sensible thing. I suspect a huge contributing factor to our misguidedness is that artists are generally the most hyper-visible individuals in their respective industries. It almost goes without saying; they’re the faces of their professions because they are the ones into whom resources are being pumped and around whom marketing is centered. When people think of the music business, I suspect they think of their favorite musicians long before they think of the manager hustling her butt off to get them gigs, or the CEO calculating money earned from streams the past month and trying to figure out how to double that figure for next month. For this, I blame miseducation more than anything else. I don’t think the general public is sufficiently made aware of how much behind-the-scenes work it truly takes to make certain things run. (I suppose the only reason I have an idea is the brief period I spent being part of a group that was a creative collective in practice and a record label on paper.)

I have recently come to understand that the burdens we place on artists are often for them to essentially become activists—something a bit more profound than simply artivists. And although I myself self-identify as a lexivist, it would bother me to no end if people consistently expected me to spend more of my time fighting wars to prove literature is relevant than sitting my large behind down and composing actual sentences. Because at the beginning, middle and end of the day, I consider myself a writer first.


Allow me to briefly digress in saying that the attitudes we bring to art activism extend from and flow back into the attitudes we often have regarding survival activism. We apply a similar misplacement of responsibility within some of the more traditional and politically popular modes of activism such as feminism and mental health awareness. In a way that should not be automatic, we seem to be consistently expecting—foremost and sometimes solely—the members of whichever oppressed or disadvantaged group is in question to do the activism that promotes their own bests interests. Think about how counter-intuitive this is. The people who are already suffering are the ones being made to expend even more energy to trouble the culture and save themselves.

In a world that was ideally on its way towards fixing itself (because an ideal world wouldn’t have these oppressions in the first place), members of any non-oppressed population would be at the forefront of trying to relieve the burdens of the oppressed, not add the burdens of activism to the oppressed’s already-plentiful troubles. And if we have any sense at all as humans, honestly, what we should be doing is constantly fighting for each other—especially in the most dangerous situations. (In a country where certain identities can get a person stoned just for existing as they are, do you think their communities would hold on to the stones in their hands long enough to hear them speak?) I would rather that nobody should have to fight for anything at all, but we live in a morose and fallen world. Still, even with the necessity of fighting reluctantly accepted, why should it even be anyone’s responsibility to do anything other than one’s own work (which is one type of fighting), or to live one’s own life as oneself (which is also its own type of fighting)?

Take my relationship with mental health activism, for instance. Most of the time, when I witness mental health discourse—an alarming amount of which, especially on the internet, is highly problematic—I simply get tired and tune out. The energy that I don’t even have enough of to get out of my bed, no, is that what you want me to now go and shout with? Pardon me, but I’m too busy trying to remember how to breathe. The only times I feel capable of even being a mental health activist are moments when I’m not suffering. But when you’re systematically oppressed (woman, race minority in your country, sexual minority etc.), are you honestly ever not suffering?

“Black people. Women. Queer people. Disabled people. But we are nobody’s saviours. We’re people without answers, too, who to varying degrees are all already sore from advocating for ourselves in our lives – against strangers, against life, against even our families.” – Eloghosa Osunde


To return from my digression, I think we, as a society, ought to become mentally mature enough to let artists make art, because heaven knows the act of creation itself is often maddeningly difficult, especially in some of our culturally-specific art-hating cultural climates. We also ought to dispel within ourselves the notion that only artists have anything to contribute to art industries. We need the businesspeople, the rich people, and yes, the people trying to get rich off other, talented people. (Within ethical means, hopefully.) If we keep distracting artists, they can’t actually do their work. And if they do manage to work anyway, it’s often in the midst of unnecessary struggle (this “hustler” lifestyle that we honestly have to grow up enough to stop glamorizing) or producing sub-par work because the requisite time, energy and expertise weren’t affordable during the creation process.

To conclude, here’s another quote from the Longreads essay I quoted from above, which I personally relate to.

“Something I’ve come to understand since becoming a full-time writer is that when we do things that deplete the spirit or clog us at the heart, it becomes more difficult to do the work we’re good at; the kind where our voices stand apart from echoes, strong enough to shape collective consciousness. When we get distracted by what other people want from us, the work takes longer. And when we leave our roles to underplay the work we do, we don’t win anyway.” -Eloghosa Osunde

What I’m trying to say is that human beings should, firstly, be empathetic; and secondly, have sense. I know that neither of these things is easy. I don’t know why I’m writing this.


Where I Been? (A Spider Kid Newsletter of Sorts)

My name seems to have appeared in quite a few places over the past few months, so I thought it would be convenient to give my blog readers an update on all of them at once. I’m not usually this involved in things, so I don’t expect blog posts like this to be frequent. But, for now, here we go:


A few weeks ago, I found out I was longlisted for the 2018 Writivism Short Story Prize. The shortlist was released yesterday and I did not make it that far, but making it onto the longlist means that my short story, as well as all the other longlisted writers’ short stories, are going to be published in an anthology by Black Letter Media later. So, that’s fantastic.

More on the Writivism initiative/competition here. You can follow them on Twitter as well, here.

Photo via @Writivism on Twitter

Tampered Press

Poetra Asantewa launched a new art magazine in July, and for its first issue, she got a few people to contribute. My contribution was a very dissatisfying story that we can pretend is sci-fi flash fiction for classification purposes, highly augmented by some lit photography by Josephine Kuuire. The magazine is really refreshing in terms of layout, vibrancy, minimalism, collaboration and the general nature of its content. I highly recommend you take a read – it’s very short – and digital versions are available on the Tampered Press website.

Photo via @Tampered_Press on Twitter (This isn’t my page, BTW. It’s a poem by Tryphena Yeboah and artwork by Kpe Innocent.)

Paapa’s Technical Difficulties 2

Paapa hMensa, a musical and lyrical legend whom I’ve met once (he probably doesn’t remember it, though, because I was entirely irrelevant then, and it was during his concert, so he was meeting a ton of people at once anyway), released the second installment to his Technical Difficulties EP series, and the title track features me! It’s a beautiful song, going perfectly excellently as it plays, and then I barge in and start talking plenty in the name of spoken word poetry, SMH. I also briefly introduced each song, so my voice is on literally every track.


The EP is amazing, it’s been on heavy rotation in my music library since it dropped, and it’s musically even better than its prequel. (Is the word prequel applicable to musical projects? I don’t know.) Paapa is a magician, because I don’t even understand how he managed to achieve that. No Heart Left, ft. M.anifest, is a favorite. You can find his EP on pretty much every major music distribution site. 🙂


The DJ duo, #IFKR, which is composed of Eff the DJ and DJ K3V, released a new EP yesterday, exclusively on the Ghanaian musical platform, Aftown. I introduced that EP as well, with a lot of talking in the beginning that feels very weird to hear because I wrote it years ago and hadn’t heard it for a while. The entire EP has been years in the making, and I can personally vouch for the true banger-ness of particularly Lie B3n which features Ayat, and, of course, the pre-released single Omi Gbono, which features Odunsi. You can find the link to the EP here.



I know a previous blog post has mentioned this already, but I compiled Kuukua Annan’s OTC stories into a single PDF and created a new site for the OTC project so ayyy check it out and tell a friend!


Okay. Dazzit. Spider Kid out!







An Unfortunately Political Post About the Importance of Non-Political Art

Warning: I circumlocute. (And I don’t mind it – or the fact that I just used a word which doesn’t officially exist – at all.)

Before we begin, let me establish that what I am not saying is that political art is not important. In fact, I am as capable of writing a whole post either about why it is so important, or even insisting that all art is political anyway – but that’s not what I feel the need to do right at this moment. Despite this introduction, I know from first-hand experience that human beings on the internet will roast whomever they want to roast no matter how legit, clear or how many the disclaimers are. I’mma keep writing tho’.

Now, I believe we’re all smart enough to barb that “political” implies far more than anything strictly governmental. It is with this broader connotation of “political” in mind that I am writing this post.

I know quite a number of people who seem unable to get particularly excited about any matters – especially creative matters – that do not, at least at surface level, have much to do with, for instance, the oppression of Black people in America, or political corruption in Africa, or fetishization, or patriarchy, or homophobia or, or, or…. So when it comes to art that seems to just want to exist because it can, art that although may contain some of these extremely relevant themes, does not necessarily make commentary on them their explicit focus, such people would rather just move on and try to find something more politically “relevant” to engage with. I genuinely believe that excessive display of this behavior/mindset is retrogressive. Now I’m going to go Jesus on you and give you a parable.

Once upon a time, there was a man who really wanted to be a landscape artist, to paint a variety of gorgeous mountains, rivers, deserts, and forests around the world. But one day, while in the paint shop purchasing numerous bottles of paint, the vendor told him, “I hope you know your paintings will never sell. Not with all this blue that you’re buying.”

The painter asked the vendor why not, and the vendor explained, “Because you’re wrong, as are all you landscape artists. The sky isn’t blue, never has been blue and never will be blue. It is only ever and will only ever be yellow.”

The painter got incredibly upset at the vendor and the two got into a heated argument. The vendor never acquiesced, though, and resorted to throwing insult after insult at the painter, who also refused for a long time to leave the matter alone, grab his paint and go. Hours later, the painter finally left the store.

Too upset to go home to his studio just yet, he sought the listening ear of his fellow citizens on his way back, seeking to vent to anyone. He stopped in a bakery and tried to garner sympathy for the ordeal he’d just been through. However, to his surprise, after listening to the painter for a minute, the baker responded, “But of course, the vendor was right. Who in this world ever heard of a blue sky?”

The painter was dumbfounded, but when he moved on, the haberdasher too took the side of the vendor. So did the grocer, the seamstress and the carpenter. It was past midnight when the painter returned home, despairing and wondering when the world had gone mad. But presently, the despair and confusion were replaced with a determined anger. He decided he was going to prove once and for all that the sky was indeed blue. So, he painted. He spent all night and all morning painting a blue sky.

Then, in the afternoon, with his latest canvas, he left his studio and went into town, and showed his beautiful sky to everyone he could find. Many people, however, were confused.

“What is it?” they would ask.

“Why, it’s a sky,” he would respond.

“But why is it blue?” they would criticize. “Skies are any color but blue!”

Consequently, this painter, for twenty years, painted blue sky after blue sky after blue sky. Rarely did he paint anything other than a blue sky. He became like a broken record, continuing to paint blue skies as the rest of the world moved on. At every exhibition and exposition, his messages were nearly identical. By the time he gave up the task, retired and put his paintbrushes down permanently, this man who had once wanted to be a world-famous landscape painter had never, even once, exhibited a single canvas of a whole landscape.


This Toni Morrison quote expresses what I want to say particularly with respect to racism:

“The function, the very serious function of racism, is distraction. It keeps you from doing your work. It keeps you explaining, over and over again, your reason for being. Somebody says you have no language, so you spend twenty years proving that you do. Somebody says your head isn’t shaped properly, so you have scientists working on the fact that it is. Someone says you have no art, so you dredge that up. Somebody says you have no kingdoms, so you dredge that up. None of that is necessary. There will always be one more thing.” – Toni Morrison.

Distraction. Miso-whatever is distraction, whatever-phobia is distraction, discrimination is distraction. It’s all distraction.

As if you couldn’t adequately include blue skies in several pictures of wholesome landscapes. Why let yourself be reduced? By the time my hypothetical painter dies, the only legacy he’s left is a one-dimensional representation of nothing but the same thing, when he had the opportunity to be so much more, even without ever compromising his conviction that skies could indeed be blue.

White authors write about any topic they like and get away with it. But heaven help the African-American who wants to make art about anything except Blackness, the African writer who wants to tell stories of anything other than colonialism, war or governmental corruption. Please, please, ma yɛn dwen. Let us think. The white people don’t have to waste years proving their existence is valid. They write whatever they like because their legitimacy to be is taken for granted – as everyone’s legitimacy to be should be. So, you see, the irony of the matter is that, as long as we keep predominantly responding to the dominant powers’ insistence that everyone else isn’t legit, we’re going to waste our whole lives saying, “We’re legit!” instead of legitimately living. Distraction.

I still think the best way to fight the distraction, oppression and reduction is to just be the complete human beings that we are. Being, oo. Not constantly talking about being, or talking about why it’s so important to talk about being, or throwing hands about people who keep suffocating being – but actually fighting the suffocation by continuing to be. To be. To be!

I recently watched, and thoroughly enjoyed a movie by France-exiled Vietnamese filmmaker, Tran Anh Hung, called “The Scent of Green Papayas.” It was about a house girl’s journey from poverty to pregnancy. It was a quiet, sensual and intimate movie. The circumstance of this girl’s living condition was, of course, the Vietnamese war. But the story was about her, this single human being, who wasn’t a soldier, wasn’t politically involved, wasn’t being chased down. Just being a house girl. And this movie made me as happy as the filmmaker’s response to a question he was asked in an interview. It’s not that I like that movie so much for what it was not. I liked it because what it was was beautiful. The movie was just being, and so were the characters. Here’s what Tran Anh Hung said:

“At first I thought, well, I can’t not talk about the war […]. I could have included certain things like news on the radio, a neighbor whose son is doing his military service […]. It did occur to me, but all this had nothing to do with the poem I wished to create. I was just not capable of having such external historical details enter into the poetic whole of my effort.” -Tran Anh Hung.

Let’s return to my painter parable. There’s at least one major problem with it: in real life, there might have been a super-huge number of people who would have been encouraging this painter to stay stuck on repeat, lying to him that he’s doing the Lord’s work by painting blue sky after blue sky. Not knowing, they themselves are being enemies of progress. Distraction and reduction. Danger of a single story. Speaking of the dangers of a single story, let’s talk about how our contribution to single story culture is related to the person who recently popularized the phrase.

I could rant about the pigeonholing of African writers – although nothing I can say will be more eloquent than Taiye Selasi’s words in what is still my favorite article on the internet.

As I write this, Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie has three novels out. Her first is my favorite: Purple Hibiscus. It’s also her least popular.  This used to confuse me and make me upset, but now that I think about it, the way the system is set up, it makes all the sense in the world. I don’t like the way the system is set up; I just understand the way it works a little more now. Her second novel is my least favorite, though it’s a good book and I’ve read it twice: Half of a Yellow Sun. I’m not speaking in this paragraph of how well I believe each novel was written; I’m speaking of the stories that appeal to me the most. I like stories, and the story of Purple Hibiscus happens to be the Adichie story I like the most.

To this day, I still believe that the commercialization of Half of a Yellow Sun is reliant on the fact that it heavily involves the Biafran War. I wouldn’t go so far as to say that it is about the war – I think it is a love story – but I don’t believe it’s the love part of the novel that was its selling point in the commercial world. See, Those People love it when Africans be writing ’bout wars. Goodness knows why. But what I suspect is that to Them, anybody can write a love story – but don’t Africans have more important tragedies to be worrying about than love, anyway? Or, to put it in disrobed, Akotowian phrasing, “Aren’t Africans too busy being reduced to only tiny aspects of existence to be displaying themselves as complex, multifaceted, wholesome humans?”

“Can we really not imagine that the African novelist writes for love: love of craft, love of subject? Do we really believe that she is not an artist but an anthropologist, not a storyteller but a native informant?” – Taiye Selasi

Sometimes, I get sad because I feel like many of us don’t know how to simply let stories be stories when we’re dealing with any kind of product from creators we consider to be of historically or presently marginalized/oppressed identities. We always want them to do something, to challenge something, critique something, be representative of something – and not just any somethings, but the somethings we believe they should be doing, challenging, critiquing or representing – furthermore, not just anyhow, but explicitly; not like incorporating blue skies into our landscapes naturally, but making the blue skies take over nearly all of the canvas. Otherwise, the stories are not “relevant” to our societies. Ma yɛn dwen.

I believe many Africans I know dislike Americanah or find it inadequate because they came in not expecting to find a story about a Nigerian woman and a Nigerian man. They came in expecting the novel to do something political, like represent a nation, or a continent, or themselves, or to critique a nation, an oppressor, or someone else they don’t like, to do something other than tell you what Ifemelu and Obinze said, thought, did and felt. How can you be complaining that you don’t see yourself in the story or how it’s relevant to you, as if you hired Ms. Adichie to pseudonymously write your biography? Why is it so important for you to see yourself in Ifemelu? You live your real life, she lives her fictional one. But you’re too distracted by what you want one single character to represent for you, to properly lose yourself in a story that simply wants to self-identify as a story, or a character that simply wants to be herself or himself, a single character, not a template. Complaints that involve judgment about what kind of demographic an author’s audience is, or judgment of a character’s cultural relatability are in a completely different league from complaints such as “The story was boring,” or “The story was not well-told.” At least with the latter kind, you’ve paid attention to the story instead of being distracted by politics, reducing the art, reducing the author and reducing your mind.

I repeat: we fight distraction and reduction not just by talking about being, but by being. May we find the grace and the sense to let creators of various kinds be, and to let their creations be, and to realize that we are strengthening ourselves by being – and this, in the long run, is probably going to infuriate our oppressors more than nearly anything else we could do.

“People keep asking me to write about what I do (diversity, African scifi, powerful female characters, etc). I’d rather DO what I do.” – Nnedi Okorafor

Yasss, tell dem, sis!

We know we’ve made progress with being when the things we create aren’t seen as particularly extraordinary, earth-shattering novelties. Further expanded in a previous blog post (Stating the Obvious, I Think), and I stand by it.

Because of the nature of this post and how drenched it is in irony, I hope this is something that I won’t have to keep saying throughout my life. But the way the world is set up, I’m probably going to have to. Enough times to get sick of it. But even as I do that, I refuse to let it distract or reduce me. I have stories to write. I can’t waste my whole life trying to convince the world that skies can be blue. Ain’t gotta try to prove the truth everyday – although sometimes, the apologetics really dey hia. Moretimes, though, all I have to do is incorporate the truth without compromise. I am not a politician, I am not an academic, I am not a person who wants to spend my whole life critiquing, teaching or commenting on content. My personal responsibility as a creator is making content. Hell, I am the content. Selah.