Several months ago, Tor.com announced the table of contents for an upcoming speculative fiction anthology from Africa and the African diaspora. And guess who featured, among several other incredible writers, on that table of contents? Your favorite Spider Kid!
I cannot downplay how big an achievement it is for me to be published in a Tor.com book. They are literally my dream publisher! And to have my story “Exiles of Witchery” (inspired by Doctor Who and fueled by the distress about Ghana’s relationship to women who are considered “witches”) sitting amongst writing from the likes of Ytasha L. Woamck, Wole Talabi, Tananarive Due and more? Stop, I’ll asphyxiate.
I am also pleased to announced that it is available for preorder now! The book itself comes out on November 8th, 2022. Order a copy, friends. Tell your friends to order copies, friends. Tell your booksellers, tell your librarians. Inside Ghana (this is very important to me!), outside Ghana. Though speculative fiction doesn’t seem very popular in Ghana now, I can almost guarantee that this gorgeous cover simply being on bookshelves (or Instagram tiles from our favorite Ghanaian bookstagrammers!) is going to draw people’s attention.
This, unfortunately, is my disability origin story.
It is November 2018. I’m going in and out of the most intense mental health meltdown of my life, and, like any self-respecting young person in a psychological crisis, I decide to alter my appearance.
For the past few months, I have been studying abroad at UCT in South Africa, the country in which my best friend at the time is also living. On this day, in the middle of November, I have one final exam paper to write. Once that is over with and I’m back in my Cape Town apartment, I head out with my now-ex-bestie into the town with two agenda items:
Dye my hair.
Pierce my nose.
In a matter of hours, both goals have been achieved, and I am belatedly freaking out about what my parents and grandparents are going to think when they see me. I eventually calm down because I am a badass, and because if they had no choice but to deal with the tattoo I got earlier that year, they will find a way to deal with this other stuff as well.
Speaking of telling my parents things, something I have told them is that there is no way I am going back to school in California next semester. If they send me back to school without the mental health break I need, I assure them I will not come back alive. They agree to let me stay at home for a semester, and I make arrangements with my California school accordingly.
Sometime after this decision has been made, a commission comes my way. A singer/actress I know has recommended me to a producer she’s worked with, who is looking for a writer to do some screenwriting. I accept the job, because I’m going to be back in Ghana for several months and it would be cool to have something to occupy myself with, right?
Unfortunately, there are several factors I fail to properly consider.
Before November is out, I’m back in Ghana, in my parents’ house. One would think, now that my semester is done, and I’m on break, and I look like a righteous badass, that my mental health would improve somewhat. Alas, imbalanced chemicals can be extremely stubborn, and I am as bad as ever, for several weeks even after I return. I often sleep for close to 20 hours out of every 24. When I am conscious, I am often crying. It’s as if, by the time I wake up, I am already in tears. I consistently interrupt my mother’s affairs with tearful declarations that I do not want to be alive anymore. While all this is happening, my screenwriting project is sitting there, waiting for me to get myself together. The client wants it done by end of January, or perhaps February. The new year is approaching, and I still can’t bring myself to want to exist, much less write.
Deep into January, when I am still showing no signs of improvement, my mother coerces me into psychotherapy, and the therapist, in turn, nudges me towards a psychiatrist who puts me on antidepressants. With concurrent therapy and medication, I start to slowly feel like a human being again, as opposed to a dead thing in animated flesh.
Maybe, I think, I can try to be serious about this screenwriting gig.
It is so much harder than expected.
First of all, I am a complete novice to this storytelling form and related software. New things take time to get comfortable with, and besides, I am a slow, deliberate writer. But there is so much pressure. Some of it is from the client. They want the thing by the fast-approaching deadline, and my pace prompts them to frequently check in. I already have anxiety. Every time I get a message from them, my heart falters. Every request for an update is interpreted by my brain as a blasting, even if it is requested in the kindest possible tone. Each set of notes I get on a script makes me think, “Oh God, they think I’m not good enough. They think I’m a trash writer and it’s probably true.” These thoughts come to me regardless of how positive their feedback may be.
Once I start working in earnest, I realize how much I underestimated the amount of work it takes to write an entire season’s worth of a web series by oneself. Goodness, people have whole writers’ rooms for this sort of thing! And here I am trying to do this all on my lonesome—apart from my client’s editorial input—during my first experience with the artform, no less! Hectic.
Through my depression-corrupted thought patterns, it is impossible for me to see that these conditions are among the many reasons I should give more grace to myself. Instead, all I can think is that the reason I’m not doing this work as easily or quickly as my client desires is that I’m deficient and useless.
The slowness of my pace drives me up the wall. Never mind that 13 episodes is plenty, that the revision process is long, that I am fighting for clarity of thought through a fog of mental illness each time I sit down to write, or that I’m unfairly comparing myself to the lightning-quick brain and production rate of my client, who is a veteran in this artform and industry and is simply a very different sort of creative worker than I am.
My self-reprehension filters down from my attitude towards this professional writing assignment and further into my feelings around my own personal writing habits. My portfolio is scant—if we’re talking about writing that I consider even close to professional-grade quality—and I hate it! I think of all the brilliant ideas I have that I rarely manage to turn into completed pieces of writing because my work ethic is basically nonexistent. Indeed, I am always using the busyness of school, or demands of work, or the incapacitation of mental illness as excuses. None of these would stop me if I were truly serious. I say I want to be a professional writer, but here I am sleeping and crying because I’m tired and sad. Tiredness and sadness don’t get you published, idiot! Here I am taking at least three days each to produce 15 pages of screenplay because I’m agonizing about “taking my time” and “doing it well.” Lame cop-outs from an incompetent writer.
I chastise myself: If you want to be a writer, you will need to do the work, no matter what your mind state or physical circumstances. You will need to be ruthless with yourself, show no mercy, work like you’re on crack. And you deserve to be punished for all the life and time you have wasted so far. Your punishment shall double as your atonement. You will translate stories in your head onto the page until you are either done, insane, or you drop dead. Don’t ask me any questions, just start writing, you useless, lazy maggot.
This dangerous self-talk, fueled by years of pent-up anger and frustration at myself leads me to pick a story idea—there, I have one—and decide to put it to paper in the most merciless writing process I have ever subjected myself to.
I start to write words down: a vomit draft of a brand-new speculative fiction story, the idea of which has been simmering in my brain for at least two years. My vomit drafts are almost always traditionally written, in longhand, with a pen and a notebook, and this story is not an exception. I break in a new notebook just for this undertaking. I write. And write. And write.
I am hungry, but I do not eat. Only writers who can actually write well and produce finished stories deserve to eat, therefore, I do not deserve to eat. I am exhausted. I do not sleep. Only writers who do a sufficient day’s work each day deserve to call themselves “tired,” deserve to sleep. I do not deserve same, and thus, must write until my eyes bleed.
I am sure I get headaches. I am too mad to pay attention to them. Who cares if I am physically miserable? Punishment isn’t supposed to be enjoyable, and I tell myself I do not care if I burst a whole blood vessel, but this story must get written. The era of starting and stopping without finishing is over.
I lose my mind. For several days, I am in some sort of trance. My body is decaying, my mind is deteriorating, all I can think about is that I must finish a story for once in my life, and if it hurts, it’s because I deserve it, and if it kills me, it’s only because I was never a cut out for my own dreams.
At this time, my house is not conducive for any intensive writing or studying. I do not have a desk; the closest thing to an adequate workstation is the dining table, which is often scattered with baked cakes, paper and rubber packaging, and other paraphernalia my mother needs to run her solo baking business. Besides, the blender and radio are constantly running, and it is a hassle to hear my own thoughts from the dining room.
But I must write, and so I write, everywhere I can. On my bedroom floor, on my bed, on the TV room couch, on the living room sofas. Everything is uncomfortable or requires some weird contortion of my body so that my right hand can continue peppering page after page with feverish words. When my right hand gets so strained that I can hardly use it for a while, I switch to my left hand. But my left hand’s writing is not as developed, and the slowness worsens my frustration, so I can bear it only briefly until I force my right hand back into torturous action.
Some part of me recognizes through the mental frenzy that I need a writing desk. I ask my parents for one, as a “birthday present,” but it does not arrive before June.
Interlude: Related incident. Flashback to Class 6.
I am ten or eleven years old, still in primary school. Perhaps I am too old to still be messing with the new monkey bars on our school’s playground, but I do not particularly care. And, as with everything I do, I am intense with my playing. I swing and swing, throughout break time, straining the muscles in my arms and stressing the skin of my palms on the metal rods as I pivot with my feet dangling above the ground.
I don’t even realize how much damage I am causing until the bell rings, signaling the end of break time, and I finally get off the bars, look at my hands, and my palms are rubbed raw and bleeding. They sting badly, but I’m a tough kid, and I hurt myself all the time.
I think I wash my hands quickly in the bathroom before returning to class for French. But, back at my classroom desk, I try to hold my pen in my hand and hiss as it makes contact with the sore rawness. I try to hold the pen in my left hand, and though that palm is suffering too, the pain is much more bearable.
It is in this moment that it strikes me as completely absurd that I can only write with one hand. Why are we socialized to be so dependent on a single hand? How are we supposed to take notes when the monkey bars tear up our right palms more than our left?
I resolve to fix this problem for myself. For the remainder of my pre-teen years, I stress myself and nearly all my teachers out, with my insistence on teaching myself how to write with my left. I am intense with this too. I force myself to take as many classroom notes as I can with my left hand, and it makes me dreadfully slow, to my own chagrin. The frustration only fuels me to try harder. I submit assignments that were written with my left hand, teachers complain of illegibility. I do not stop. By Form 2, at least one teacher is telling me that he likes my left handwriting more than my right. (“How the turn tables,” as the Tik Tok generation says.)
In the present day, I can write quite fluidly with my left hand. Some people call me ambidextrous, although I would not use the title on myself, since my right hand is still better and faster at nearly everything than my left.
End of interlude.
Back to 2019 and my self-inflicted punishment.
It is now about June or July. My screenwriting commission is obviously way past its January/February deadline, and I am sure my client is tired as hell of me. I get a new writing desk, but my body is so used to its bad habits that they persist.
My story is not yet complete, but I have made so much progress and written so much that the notebook I broke in is nearly full now, from cover to cover. I have, perhaps, one scene left, and I know exactly how this story is going to end.
I am still not at ease, and I still have my screenwriting project waiting for me, but I am beyond spent, and so wired that I can neither sleep nor continue to write, and so I recline on the TV room couch with my Kindle and try to read. The book is A Court of Thorns and Roses, by Sarah J. Maas. I don’t yet love this fantasy-romance series, of which this is the first book, but by book 2, it would have thoroughly sucked me in. For now, though, I am reading passively enough to recognize that something strange is happening in my body.
The muscles in my legs are twitching. I feel them. Calf. Thigh. Left leg. Right leg. Different parts of each leg. A twitch every 10 to 20 seconds, on average. The twitching isn’t abrupt. It is slow and, for some reason, sinuous. I don’t understand it. It creeps me out. I decide to look at it while it’s happening. I put my Kindle down and sit up a bit to observe.
I am watching my own body do things I have not commanded it to do, and it makes my skin crawl. The twitches in my legs look like animated earthworms living inside my flesh, making humps, sliding forward a few millimeters at a time, flattening, then reappearing elsewhere on my legs to repeat the motions. I have to wonder if I’m going mad.
I don’t want to think about myself going mad, so I go back to reading. But it’s only a few moments later that I notice something else that has, in fact, been going on for a while: my fingers are twitching, too!
From time to time, without my permission, a finger lifts itself off the Kindle and returns after a second or two. I can see it happening, but I can’t feel a thing. The fingers of my right hand do this more often than those on my left. I am flabbergasted at how any of this could be happening, and I can no longer concentrate on my book.
My next action is hazy in my memories, but I think I decide to distract my thoughts from my body with something more cognitively demanding: a return to my personal punishment. This is not a good idea.
An hour or so after I continue to strain my already stressed body, the twitching is no longer periodic. It is continuous, and now I have totally lost the ability to keep my fingers still.
My ten digits have decided that I am bloody Beethoven, and now they are moving like they are playing some symphony on an air piano, and they are not stopping, and at this point, I actually cannot tell if this is reality or not, and I am silently freaking the eff out.
Is it time to repent for daring to usurp God as judge by meting out punishment to myself?
I push the pause button on my purgatory. It’s about 2 a.m. I shouldn’t even be functioning right now. I finally permit myself to go to bed, at least for a little while.
Sagaa. I can’t sleep. And for the love of God, my fingers won’t stop playing air piano! To make things worse, I now feel this buzzing in my brain that could be anxiety, or sleep deprivation, or none of the above. It’s like Brownian motion, making it impossible to calm down enough to go unconscious, despite my exhaustion. I rise from my bed and pace around my room.
It’s 3 a.m. I am on the verge of a panic attack, and whenever I am not consciously moving my fingers, they are moving themselves. In that moment, this is the most terrifying thing that has ever happened to me.
I’m crying. I go to my parents’ room and wake them up.
My father books an appointment for the next morning with the only neurologist he knows in Accra. Neither of us trusts my twitchy body to drive, and so my father commits to taking me to the hospital and tells me to sleep until morning. I can’t. He gives me a sleeping tablet he claims will knock me out for at least four hours. I’m barely out for three, and when I open my eyes again, it feels like I never slept, only that I blinked out of existence for a second, and have suddenly reappeared. I’m unrested. And my fingers are still playing air piano.
I try a few things, like submerging my hands in cool water. Submerging my hands in warm water. Putting ice on my hands. I’m still Beethoven and still losing my mind. Eventually, it is time to go see the neurologist, and my father comes to drive me away.
I cannot trust my hands to fill the patient registration forms at the hospital, and so my father fills them for me. When it’s my turn, the doctor sees me and tests my reflexes, finds things lacking. He asks me several questions and tells me that my problem certainly looks like a nerve problem; what he is unsure about is whether it is a brain problem.
Naturally, as soon as I hear this, I conclude that I am probably on the verge of death. Ever since I read Michael Grant’s BZRK series as an early teen, I have harbored a persistent, somewhat irrational fear of getting an aneurysm and not knowing about it until it explodes and kills me. I don’t know if aneurysms can make your fingers and leg muscles spasm out of your control, but at this point, the doctor is literally speculating about brain damage, so I am one hundred percent freaking out regardless.
The doctor orders that I take some tests, including an MRI, so he can analyze me properly. My father takes me to a medical imaging facility. If you’ve ever had to do medical imaging, perhaps you will recognize, at this point, how my nose ring comes into the picture.
The medical staff inform me that no metal whatsoever is allowed into the MRI machine. The watch comes off. A staff member points to my nose, and I am genuinely startled; it has been about eight months since I got the ring put in, and I am so used to it that I often forget it is there. I’ve never deliberately taken it off, and it’s just classic that the first time I have to perform this delicate process, it’s when I can barely control my own fingers.
I try, multiple times, in multiple ways, to unscrew the stud, and fail. Some aunties in the waiting room/reception of this medical imaging facility watch me struggle and they seize their chance to moralize about piercings to me, their words coated in kindness and concern. One of them expressly tells me that once I get it out, I should never put it back. In the context of a potential medical emergency, I see her logic, but I still don’t like it.
Eventually, I resign myself to asking my father for help. He returns to the reception from wherever he went, and in about five seconds, unscrews the stud—something I had not been able to accomplish in fifteen minutes.
I put the stud in my wallet and go in for the MRI. I have to wait a day for the results.
Hours after I get back home, I need another sleeping tablet to fall asleep. I am so shaken, so anxious, so close to being convinced that I could die at any second once the unconfirmed thing in my brain bursts open. My purgatory is suddenly the least important thing in the world. How can I think about my story when I’m literally dying? Ei, God, when I said I would write until I dropped dead, why did you take me so literally?
So I don’t write—but I also don’t put my nose ring back in. After all, what if further tests are needed?
The next day, I get my results, and my father takes me back to the neurologist. The neurologist mounts my medical images on the wall and explains my results to me.
I do not have a brain tumor—thank you, God! But here’s what I do have: decayed spinal cartilage.
Here’s what I understand from the doctor’s explanation: Years of writing longhand, anywhere and everywhere, in atrocious posture, and overworking my hands, have led to the decay of the cartilage that separates the bones in my spine from the nearby nerves. The cartilage is frayed from individual vertebrae rubbing against each other too often. Now, with little cartilage to serve as a buffer, the bones of my spine are making contact with the nerves in my neck where they should not, and now the nerves in my hands, which are directly connected to the nerves in my neck, are receiving signals when they should not. Hence the involuntary movement.
The explanation is followed by recommendations, solutions, and prescriptions. I will have to allow my body to re-grow the cartilage in my spine. This can be aided by eating a lot of green things, including kontomire and seaweed, plus daily calcium supplements. In the meantime, I will have to ease up on my hands, especially my right. The doctor thinks it’s great that I am able to write with both hands, tells me that I must try to use my left whenever I can and allow my right to rest more often. Henceforth, I am forbidden from doing any writing anywhere and in any position that isn’t a proper, flat desk and chair. (“You see, that’s why I went to buy you that desk,” says my father in front of the doctor, as if it was all his idea.) The neurologist also recommends that I resume regular swimming. It is an excellent way to exercise my neck without the pressure of the weight of the rest of my body. In the meantime, some nerve medication should help to put my hands back under control.
I enter a daze that will take me days to come out of. I have written my way into corporal degeneration. Even for me, that is a new level of intensity.
My father and I stop by the pharmacy to fulfill my prescriptions before we go home.
Physically and emotionally, I am beyond exhausted. Perhaps that is why I wait yet another day before I even think about putting my nose ring back in. But when I try to put it in from the top, it goes only a little way before it stops. I am baffled. I try to put it in from inside my nose, but I can’t even find the hole from inside. Impossible!
I try again, several times from the top, where I can, at least, still see the hole, but I press until my eyes start to water, and the ring continues to be blocked by tough flesh, never breaking through to the other side.
I can’t believe it, but it’s true: a healed, 8-month-old piercing closed up in 3 days because nose skin is, apparently, miracle skin.
I am furious with my traitorous nose. So furious that, even when my father sees how upset I am about the closing and offers to take me somewhere to re-pierce it, I refuse. After what it’s just done to me, my nose doesn’t even deserve to be adorned. I withhold from it that privilege.
Epilogue: Conclusion of events, as of 2022.
The screenplays eventually got finished, seven or so months past the deadline. I disrupted my client’s production schedule so thoroughly that the window for producing and shooting it passed, and they were forced to move on with their schedules for other, more pressing projects. Now I am not sure if the scripts I worked on will ever turn into anything concrete. Alas, I am past caring. I’m just glad I made it out of that commission alive.
The story I wrote during my purgatory frenzy was eventually finished and painstakingly revised, and is, to this date, one of the best pieces of writing I have ever produced. It gained me an honorable mention in the Writers of the Future awards, 2021, 3rd quarter. I am still hoping to sell it somewhere, and so I don’t know when it will finally be available for public consumption.
These days, I write almost exclusively at desks. I still do vomit drafts primarily in longhand, because that is just how my brain works. I swim (almost) regularly. My nerves still twitch from time to time, very occasionally, when I forget to regulate my tendency to over-write and abandon my swimming practice for too long.
And I still have not resolved to get my nose re-pierced, because I’m still lowkey kind of upset.
A South African writer I’m personally familiar with, Karen Jennings, is offering a 12-week writing course in English to any South African citizen over the age of 18 – no prior writing experience required.
I met Karen through Writivism’s mentorship program, and she helped me edit a story that eventually made it into the longlist. From working with her over a period of approximately three months, I can personally vouch for her as a great and immensely helpful mentor.
Here’s a statement from Karen herself:
“I am a South African, married to a Brazilian, and in September of 2015, due to various circumstances, we were compelled to move from South Africa to Brazil. It has been a challenging and difficult time for me. Perhaps most difficult has been feeling removed from the country of my birth, a place that I love and had hoped always to be part of. This year I started to look at my life and consider how I could realistically be involved in the future of my country, in even the smallest of ways, at this distance and without the benefit of any sort of income to assist me. I was inspired by the organisers of Short Story Day Africa and Writivism who work incredibly hard to bring opportunities to African writers. With this in mind, I have decided to offer a mentorship/writing course to an aspiring writer for a period of 12 weeks, starting on 1 April 2019.”
The course information and other application details can be found via this link.
So, if you know anyone who might be interested, please pass the info along to them. 🙂
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
People keep asking me to write about what I do (diversity, African scifi, powerful female characters, etc). I'd rather DO what I do.
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.