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

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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.

On Being Unpublished & Not Winning

The ‘About Me’ page of the Life As Fiction tumblr reads, “My name is Nicholas Ochiel. I am an unpublished Kenyan writer, striving to be published. Mostly, I read a lot and quote things. I have an opinion about everything.”

In the past few months I’ve felt the weight of what it means to tell others that I’m a writer. On many occasions, my declaration is followed up with questions — the most dreadful thus far: “where can I read your work?” Beyond For Harriet, I have not submitted my work anywhere, but I imagine that if I did, I’d be using my “rejection is redirection” affirmation a lot more. I am a writer who spends a lot of time reading and writing and trying to discern what is good and what is not so good as both reader and writer. In not even attempting to explain this to others, it sometimes feels like the embodiment of non-achievement.

On a recent post entitled, “On not winning literary prizes” Nicholas shares some thoughts on writing after not making the shortlist of this year’s Commonwealth Short Story Prize:

For those of us who lose (because it really is losing if one does not win: judgement has been passed; “the shadow remains cast”) the publication of yet another list on which our names do not feature is an opportunity to remember that writing fiction is to embrace an absurdity: one writes with the conceit of hope that one’s words and thoughts matter, that one’s imagination is bright enough to illumine the hearts, minds, and lives of a small cohort of unknown kindred others, that perhaps the writer is in fact brilliant, her output perspicacious or even vatic, her existence necessary. However, those of us who remain unpublished write not because we really believe these things which we hope but because there is not an alternative: the hand that holds the pen propels itself, wending its way across the page, and it matters very little if anyone else reads these words.

A good reminder.

Chicago as a Galaxy

Probably the most important thing I heard this weekend during the Black Collectivities Conference (which at times was overwhelming in the way that the academy is):

“Like a galaxy giving birth to stars, that’s what Chicago is to black people” – Cauleen Smith, experimental filmmaker, afrofuturist

Whenever I tell folks from my past that I live in Chicago now, there is almost an immediate reference to the city’s problem with violence. I’m not naive; but I know that I’ve had some of the most healthful encounters and relationships with black people since I’ve been here. I also know that my artistry has grown exponentially in the past several months. So as a black woman exploring herself as an artist in a city with black population often denigrated by the media, Cauleen’s statement was perfectly timed and thoroughly felt.

#Longreads from Rachel Kaadzi Ghansah

I struggle with reading long pieces online. When everyone was hyping that piece on Kendrick Lamar in the LA Review of Books, I attempted to read it a couple of times before giving up. Each time, I made it to somewhere around the 10th paragraph and I don’t ever remember checking the byline. Last week I discovered Transition Magazine’s archives (their full archives can be found here). Skimming the list, a piece entitled My Mother’s House caught my eye. The one-line description read: “Rachel Kaadzi Ghansah reverses the Great Migration, going south with her fiancé to find and lose her way among the ghosts of family graves.” My curiosity was piqued. A Ghanaian (isn’t Ghansah Ghanaian? well I suppose she could have got the name through a naming ceremony) writing about her mother at a time that I’m trying to do the same; and somehow the southern U.S. (where I was born and raised) is involved.

The piece proved to be evocative on all of these points. Ghansah is in fact a Ghanaian name, one that the author inherited, not through a rites of passage program, but from her father. From the essay, I deduced that her parents probably met in Philadelphia — the city her mother moved to after leaving her childhood home of Alexandria, Louisiana. Here is where I feel limited. I don’t know that I can appropriately capture the excitement I felt when I first saw the name “Alexandria” on my screen.

Just last summer, I took a trip with my mother to Alexandria, Louisiana. It was our first time back in well over two decades. I had no memories of the place and was hoping to create some, and at the same time, hoping the trip would help extract some of my mother’s more positive ones. If she had any, they were buried so far below in that time when she was both new to motherhood and to America. It had been nearly 10 years since she left Ghana for the United States, yet I don’t think the permanence of her move had been realized.

Her pregnancy with me was not easy. My energetic sister was nearly two, my father struggled to find work, and I resisted leaving her womb even as we surpassed 37 weeks. Ten months pregnant and filled with frustration, my mother drove herself to her obstetrician one afternoon. Upon her arrival at the hospital (one named after the patron saint of immigrants), I conceded. My mother gave birth without my father present (as she did for all of her pregnancies). No matter the marriage certificate nor the wedding ring (that she’d bought herself), she was a single black woman. When I came out not quite right, the nurses questioned my mother about her use of illicit drugs. This was what I knew of Alexandria for most of my life; it was a place where the racism was far from subtle. Even as I planned last summer’s trip, my mother, who insisted that I could not go alone, warned “I heard they buried a black man alive there not too long ago.”

But our story is for another time and space.

After I finished My Mother’s House, I read three other pieces from Ghansah that not only challenged my patience for reading long pieces online, but also taught me a few lessons in storytelling:Read More »

AfroFuturism with Kibwe Tavares & Keguro Macharia

Jonah (trailer above) premiered at Sundance 2013. A synopsis of the film from its creators follows:

Mbwana and his best friend Juma are two young men with big dreams. These dreams become reality when they photograph a gigantic fish leaping out of the sea and their small town blossoms into a tourist hot-spot as a result. But for Mbwana, the reality isn’t what he dreamed – and when he meets the fish again, both of them forgotten, ruined and old, he decides only one of them can survive. Jonah is a big fish story about the old and the new, and the links and the distances between them. A visual feast, shot though with humour and warmth, it tells an old story in a completely new way.

The visuals alone captured my attention, but reading up on the director, Kibwe Tavares, got me excited. On the TED Blog, Tavares discusses the relationship between his training as an architect and the science fiction aesthetic of his films:

As an architect, you’re always thinking about the future, too. You build in narratives that are in the future, because you’re always thinking, “When I design a building, I’m designing it for what happens 10, 15 years into the future.” And when you start looking at the future, it’s hard not to have that kind of science-fiction element.

Tavares’ commentary took me back to my initial impression of the film trailer. Afrofuturistic.

Hopefully you haven’t grown too tired of the word’s (mis)use because I think it’s really important here, especially after I’ve read Keguro Macharia’s Imagine in Black. In the blog post, Macharia offers a parallel between our everyday lives and those in dystopia:Read More »