#Chicago: The Black Ink Book Exchange

A project I’m very excited about:

Black Ink Book Exchange is a pop up library open for the exchange of books by black authors, and about black culture. The project aims to create a space around books as a cultural currency, and consists of creative workshops, a reading lounge and book barter. The project will begin at the Arts Incubator in Washington Park this spring, and with support, will continue through the end of the summer in other South Side Chicago locations.

Contribute to the IndieGoGo. Like the Black Ink Book Exchange on Facebook.

Event Recap: Ghana Must Go at Shacks & Shanties

IMG_1322It was maybe a few years ago that I first learned the name of these bags that I had seen often in my childhood home. I was reading a post on a blog from Oroma Elewa. I was immediately confused as to her naming of the bag — Ghana Must Go. Reading the Google search results for the term infuriated me. How could a traumatic event such as the mass expulsion of immigrants be trivialized so? Last year, was probably the first time I heard my mother use the phrase. We were in standing in her friend’s kitchen in a suburb of Accra. She pointed at stack of empty bags and asked me to hand her a Ghana Must Go bag. When I asked her why she would use that term, she said it’s no different from Black people using the N-word. As writer invested in migration, identity, and postmemory, it was a bit disturbing to hear but my mother’s language is not reflective of all Ghanaians, of course. I’ve heard that some reference the bag with a phrase that means “A White man has died.” Needless to say, I was intrigued when I heard that a Nigerian-American artist (Abbéy Odunlami) created an installation and performance inspired by the Ghana Must Go bags as part of the Shacks & Shanties Project. My recap follows:

Abbéy Odunlami‘s performance at Shacks & Shanties was, according to an attendee, much different from his other performance pieces. On a wooden platform situated in front of the shack (the physical structure for the installations in the Shacks & Shanties Project), Odunlami, sat at a small white table with his laptop in front of him. Instead of seeking an active participation from the audience during the performance, he read an essay that was interluded with tracks he played from his laptop. The effect — at least in the eyes of Faheem Majeed, organizer of Shacks & Shanties — was newscaster-like. Even so the performance was engaging (check the guy holding his chin in the picture below).

For Odunlami’s installation, entitled “Ghana Must Go!” he covered the shack with the plaid plastic material that is used to make Ghana Must Go bags. Inside the shack, were stuffed Ghana Must Go bags. On top of a plastic US postal service container sat a red boom box. A track (comprised of six individual tracks that Odunlami layered on each other) emulated the sounds of a busy market in the space. Odunlami’s essay began with a few examples of the appropriation of “poverty culture”: cowboy gear donned by those who could well enough make beyond the median salary of a real cowboy (20,000 USD); overalls worn by non-farmers who probably don’t run businesses that are consistently in the red; ripped jeans that may cost hundreds of dollars; and lastly, high-end bags made by designers like Louis Vuitton that feature the patten of Ghana Must Go bags.IMG_1327

As Odunlami noted in his essay, the Ghana Must Go bag and pattern didn’t originate in West Africa, yet it holds historical significance in the region. During the 1970s, the Nigerian oil boom attracted many Ghanaians to the nearby nation. In the 1980s, as Ghana was dragged into greater political and economic instability, increasing numbers of Ghanaians left their homeland (or chose to remain wherever they had migrated for school or work). As the oil boom began to subside and conditions in Nigeria began to deteriorate, immigrants became a target. In 1983 and again in 1985, the Nigerian government expelled significant numbers of immigrants, most of whom were Ghanaians. Those being expelled packed their belongings in these plaid plastic bags that were subsequently referred to as Ghana Must Go bags.

Ironically, Odunlami’s installation was hosted in a garden adjacent to a building that supposedly houses many Ghanaians.

For more images of last Saturday’s Shacks & Shanties performance, check them out here. And for the remaining installations schedule, click here.

My Own Brother’s Face (While Reading Jesmyn Ward’s ‘No Mercy in Motion’)

I was hours away from submitting my application to a creative writing workshop. I sat/stood/kneeled in front of my laptop, my eyes squinting at the screen as if they were trying to hold the pieces of my story. It was falling a part. It was no longer worthy of submission. And there was no way I was going to see my brother play ball that night. I watched his face fall as I told him so. In the five years that it had been since I moved away from home, I had allowed too much physical and emotional space between my brother and I. I should not have been surprised by his face, as I had been. Even he tried to fill some unfitting role in that moment, telling me that there would be another chance the next time I was in town. He did not insist on me coming. Yet, there was no way I could focus on my falling apart story with that image of my brother’s fallen face burning at my forehead.

Now when I recall the moment, it is paired with another: some ceremony at the close of one of his elementary school years. My mother and I arrived late. When we found our seats, I could see my brother, expectant, scanning the audience. When he spotted us, his dimples pressed into his cheeks, his eyelids closed tight around the far ends of his eyes, and he showed everyone the spaces where too-big teeth were crookedly fitting their way into baby spaces.

I’m remembering this as I make my way through Jesmyn Ward’s No Mercy in Motion. I had started the piece in an office I was temping in today. I had struggled even as I began. As I rode home, I had to remind myself over and over that I hadn’t actually left anything in the office, that I had only left this essay unfinished. As Ward described her last memory of being with her brother: watching his face fall as she told him she was leaving for New York, I decided it was time for dinner. As Ward imagined her brother driving along the beach road, I broke to share it with my partner. Finding no solace, I decided to write this. My forehead is tight with fire.

Writing an Immigrant Narrative

BeautifulThingsI have these three works-in-progress — melancholic short stories of people in search of something and hoping that some place (other than where they are) will give them that thing. The protagonists are all Africans, they are all displaced (away from home), and two have become immigrants in the United States. I recently workshopped one of these pieces at a two-week creative writing program. One of the workshop instructors suggested that I read Dinaw Menegestu’s The Beautiful Things That Heaven Bears as a way to see how a narrative about Africans living in the U.S. could be constructed.

I was a bit hesitant at first, given the book’s low rating on GoodReads, but browsing the reviews gave some insight as to why it only averaged 3.5/5. Quite a few people have very specific expectations of what an immigrant narrative should be. One reviewer stated that the first person narration didn’t work because it was too insightful for someone who was a shopkeeper. Another reviewer didn’t like how downbeat the novel was. There was another reader who was frustrated that the protagonist could not help himself enough, that it was his own mind holding him back, not his environment. You get the picture. These people want the ultimate immigrant narrative. The escape of death in a dark country, the commitment to work hard regardless of circumstance in the new country, then the humble yet exciting rise to success or some other type of fulfillment. They want something insightful and evocative, but not in the voice of the actual man who has become an immigrant.

Mengestu disrupts these expectations with his debut novel. His style of writing is both uncomplicated and unassuming but his characters are in no way as simple. They are navigating displacement on multiple levels. The protagonist, Sepha Stephanos was forced to leave Ethiopia during the revolution. Nearly two decades later, he plays a Name That African Coup Leader game with two of his other friends who are also navigating displacement. Joseph, who is from the Congo, works as a waiter at a restaurant called The Colonial Grill. Kenneth, originally from Kenya, works as an Engineer. The three men met while working at the Capitol Hotel. Now, they often gather in the shop that Stephanos owns — a convenience store located in the gentrifying Logan Circle neighborhood of Washington, D.C.

Mengestu idealizes nothing in the narrative. Even Sepha’s attempts at romance are far from any romanticized notions of love. Judith is a single mother and professor of American history currently on sabbatical. She and her daughter have moved into a large, reconstructed home in the Logan Circle. Sepha and Judith are near opposite ends of the economic class spectrum, yet equally matched in their loneliness. Together they are awkward and uncomfortable. As a reader you may want them to win, just as you may want your own unsuitable relationships to win. You know it’s not a good thing for anyone involved. Not to spoil the story, but the narrative around the romance is as real as every other aspect of the novel.

I don’t know that this novel has directly impacted my work, other than to reaffirm that “immigrant” is a label that doesn’t characterize one’s identity in any universal way (or maybe not at all). If I were to put (black) immigrant narratives on a (non hierarchical) scale of 1 to 5, 1 being a novel like Teju Cole’s Open City and 5 being like Taiye Selasi’s Ghana Must Go. I think The Beautiful Things That Heaven Bears lingers around a 2. If you like quiet stories with many layers of subtext, you’d appreciate the narrative that Mengestu has created.

I picked up this copy from my local library. You can purchase a copy from
Barnes & Noble
IndieBound
Powell’s

About Me

When I penned the About Me section of this blog, I intentionally kept it short. I only wanted to mention the things that I believe will always hold true about me. I also didn’t want it to seem as if I was selling myself (and to be honest, I wasn’t sure if there was anything to be sold). I’m so reluctant to acknowledge this blog as an act of personal branding (Joseph E. Davis captures why here) but blogging has played an important role in my life in both personal and professional ways. I’d go as far as to say that it has helped changed the trajectory of my life. The short version of this story: After a particularly rough period of life in Manhattan, I moved to Newark where I was surrounded by quiet. The idea of blogging kept intruding on thoughts of how pitiful my life had become. Eventually I started a personal blog. Blogging there was mostly a therapeutic experience. It led me to rediscover my love for writing.  Since then, so many good things have come from that (including Muse & Words). I, now, write with professional and personal goals in mind.  I have no plans to update the About Me section but if you’re curious about the woman behind this blog and some more of my creative projects, please check out my profile in Jane O.’s Meet A Blogger series.

Revisiting Bessie Head’s ‘A Question of Power’ for #WPGhBookClub

In my initial review of A Question of Power, I was quite ambivalent about the book — I had questions about Bessie Head’s stance on issues of race and sexuality and I was mostly confused by the parts of the story that cover the protagonist’s mental breakdown. I considered reading it again but pushed that thought aside as I made my way through my other planned readings. The thought resurfaced when I saw that the Writer’s Project of Ghana was hosting a discussion of the book on Twitter. I didn’t get to re-read the novel in full prior to the discussion, but revisiting it and discussing it with others has made a full re-read seem well worth it.

To read some highlights of the Twitter discussion, please click here.

My response to that closing questions comes from one of my favorite statements made in the book:

“It seemed to be a makeshift replacement for love, absenting oneself from stifling atmospheres, because love basically was a torrential storm of feeling; it thrived only in partnership with laughing generosity and truthfulness.”

This statement and also Elizabeth’s relationships with others who work the garden in Motabeng are what have stuck with me most since my first reading. In some ways this book is also a guide to navigating the world for marginalized folks. Elizabeth’s mental breakdown is brutal (Head was uninhibited in her descriptions of Elizabeth’s torture) but the story is not completely hopeless; one clear message from the novel–influenced by Head’s interest in Buddhism–is that God is in everyone and that good and evil are both a part of each individual.

I’d highly recommend these reviews of A Question of Power (as suggested to Twitter book discussants by the Writers Project):
13. A Question of Power by Bessie Head | ImageNation

A Question of Power by Bessie Head | Madness and Literature Network

The #WPGhBookClub discussion is a monthly event that happens online and offline; to participate, follow @writersPG. The next selection is Amos Tutuola’s The Palm-Wine Drinkard.