Talking to Chijindu Emereole about why I don’t want my work in the “African Literature” section of the bookstore.
The most important lesson I’ve learned so far is that it’s okay to be uncertain.
We approach the unknown with dread so thick and viscous that we are terrified we will suffocate in its grip. We can handle a lot. Pain and suffering? Bring it on. But doubt is the quiet scratching in the dark that threatens to unravel us completely. We can’t let it in. We can’t even turn around to look at it. So we hide behind layers and layers and layers of “Yes, damn it, I’m sure!”
We’re not just afraid of not knowing. We’re afraid of being wrong. Countless times I have listened to the words coming out of my mouth, knowing that they made no sense, that I was about to drive myself off a cliff, but I kept on going. Even though I knew I was wrong, I had to pretend to be right until the very end. God forbid I confessed that I had no clue what I was talking about, that I was being a stubborn pain in the butt, that there was a painful pulsing heat inside me that said if I was wrong I would die. But I was wrong, and I’m still here.
The desire for certainty is so deeply ingrained in us that we apply it even to the most idiotic things, things that are so clearly subjective that there can be no “right” answer. Yes, I am POSITIVE that this is the worst album of this artist’s career, and OHMYGOD how can you possibly think otherwise you are a lunatic and we are no longer friends.
As kids we are expected to have a rough idea of our future careers. When I was a kid I wanted to be an astronaut, actress and scientist, with superpowers. That didn’t work out for me. As teenagers we are expected to decide our path, and then follow it. No one seems to grasp the sheer absurdity of this. At 16 the most vital question in my life was whether my crush noticed me, and a year later I was supposed to be able to map out the next fifty years. How, when even people over fifty are still figuring it out?
We think certainty will save us from uncertainty, but it won’t. Our certainty changes nothing. The only thing we can truly be sure of is that we will survive whatever life throws at us, and then one day we won’t. In the meantime we’ll keep waking up to another day, another opportunity. As long as we’re conscious, we can make choices. We might not be able to change circumstances, but we can change ourselves. That is pretty extraordinary, and yet it’s not enough.
We want be certain that the person we love is “The One”, whatever that means, and that our love will last forever. But we don’t know what will happen next week, let alone a few decades down the line. All we know is that right now this is what we want more than anything. Right now we’re in it 100%; beyond that all we can do is try. And that’s okay.
We want to be sure that the people we spend our time with will be buried beside us. But maybe we’re not Best Friends Forever. Maybe we have different friends at different stages in our lives. And that’s okay.
We want to be certain that the job we’ve picked is the one we really want. But maybe we need to explore, take chances, try things out. We can change our minds, and that’s okay, too.
When people ask whether I’m sure about something, I panic. I second-guess myself, because of course I’m not sure. I have no idea how I’ll feel down the line. I now realise that there’s no shame in admitting that. There’s no shame in going back and forth, trying to make the best choice. There’s no shame in saying, “At the time I was convinced this was the right thing to do, but now I feel differently.” There’s no shame in admitting how afraid we are of screwing up and how often we feign certainty to save face. Nobody likes a person who “flip-flops”. We’re expected to stay the same, like mannequins in shop displays. But you can’t grow without changing.
When it comes to the big issues – our principles, our spirituality (or lack thereof), our ethics – the mere thought of doubt is anathema. We HAVE to know. We HAVE to be certain, because if we’re not certain of the things that give our lives meaning, the things that govern us, then what is there? What foundation do we have? The answer? None. But instead of fleeing the terror that comes with that, let’s just sit with it for a minute. Let’s wait and we see what comes next.
Because here is the secret, the thing we don’t discuss about doubt: until we reach that place of not-knowing, admitting that we have no clue what we’re doing, we can never experience genuine surrender. And faith, regardless of what form it takes, is all about surrender. There is an arrogance that comes with certainty, a desperate clinging to the notion that we, with our small, subjective, utterly limited perspectives, can even begin to understand any aspect of this complex puzzle called life, let alone know anything for sure. We think. We hope. We believe. But we don’t know a damn thing. And guess what? That’s okay.
Doubt is fundamental to a healthy existence. It is the foundation on which faith is built. It is not weakness, but the beginning of strength. It seems counter-intuitive, but doubt requires us to let go of all we cling to, all forms of protection. It’s jumping without a parachute, with no clue what will happen when we land. If we land. Doubt demands the greatest act of faith of all – trusting that somehow, with no ground beneath our feet, no ropes tethering us and no safety net, we will still be okay. It’s only after we move through that curtain that we can start believing again, for real this time, without fear. Because now we know that doubt is just part of the process. That place of groundlessness is home. We’ll come back to it as often as we need to, and leave it a little stronger each time.
This is what I believe, what I have learned, the result of my small, subjective, utterly limited perspective. I wish I could say I’m sure, but I’d be lying. What I will say is I’m as sure as I can be, for now. And that will have to be enough.
Tune in today to hear me and fellow author Cathy Bramley talk about the ups and downs of women’s fiction.
Life is a Salvador Dali painting. The figures are stretched, pliant and elastic, eyes bulging out of heads far too small to contain them, the hard solidity of reality dripping down the side of a rickety table. Every element is out of place, warping and melting beneath the gaze of observers, shifting to fit into whatever mould is made for it.
Dela Appiah-Wey knows this. It might have taken her three decades to figure it out, but she knows it now for certain. Beneath the shiny candy-wrapper surface is a rainbow-ringed sphere. A planet of players. Everyone’s got an image to protect, a persona to project, a story to sell. No one wants to be seen as foolish, even if it means going against their instincts, so they stretch, and melt, and slip into whatever shape is relevant.
Dela sits in a concrete sewer-pipe, knees drawn up to her chest. The floor is damp, but she doesn’t notice. She looks out through the round opening at the little country of Alexandra. Alex, like all the world’s players, is in her graffiti-covered, corrugated iron gown, face freshly painted by some well-meaning community group. Alex is almost pretty now, in that “authentic” way that used to be fashionable.
Hidden in this tiny corner of a post-makeover township, Dela reflects on her life thus far. She has made a mistake. A major, monstrous, life-altering mistake. If she were younger, prettier and with longer legs, she might be allowed to get away with it, but in this paper doll universe mistakes are not forgiven. Those tempted to pity her realise quickly that such sympathy is of the devil, and stamp it out before it corrupts them.
Dela asked for it. She knows she did; she has no one to blame but herself. You see, she had it all. She was part of the inner circle and then – sigh! – she took it upon herself to be the kid who tells the emperor he’s walking down the street in his birthday suit. No one likes a know-it-all.
For five years she was allowed to plague her colleagues with her insistence on a certain level of integrity, because it kept them all out of trouble. Dela believed this was her best quality. She has always been reasonably intelligent and capable, but that was nothing compared to her ability to close the gaps. She stood at the gates of the fortress, pen in hand, defending her agency from lawsuits and customer complaints. She was the girl everyone could count on. Until…well, until she wasn’t.
“There you are.” A figure crawls into the pipe and hunches over in a ball beside her. The person’s face is hidden in shadow and Dela decides it can only be her elder brother, TOS.
“Why are you hiding in here?” The voice ricochets off the cold cement walls.
“My life has fallen apart,” Dela moans. “I’ve ruined everything.”
“Are you sure?”
A flame flares with a hiss, and TOS lights a cigarette. This is odd because he doesn’t smoke. Also, he’s dead. Dela may not know much about the afterlife, but she is certain there are no cigarettes.
“I’m sitting in a sewer in the middle of the night, talking to a ghost. Out loud, for that matter. I think we can agree that I’ve hit rock bottom.”
“A ghost, Copycat? What the hell does that mean?”
She turns to him with a start. He’s never called her that before. Come to think of it, TOS was never that slender, and his voice wasn’t that high-pitched. He also looks rather solid for a ghost. The figure grins, smoke curling out from between its teeth.
“You’re not my brother.”
“Uh, no. Do I look like your brother?”
It occurs to Dela then that she should probably be worried. She’s in a sewer-pipe with a stranger. She is heavily intoxicated, and she can’t remember what happened to her shoes. She looks into the thin face and bulging eyes, and recognition sparks. There’s only one person who knows her as Copycat.
“Good girl.” The shadow named Fence flicks ash from the cigarette and looks at Dela.
“Don’t worry. You’re safe with me.”
Dela leans back into the wall, not quite convinced, but too miserable to care. “I don’t normally drink this much, you know.” She sits up suddenly as a terrible thought strikes her. “Am I slurring my words? In my head I sound perfectly articulate, but if I’m drunk, truly, properly drunk, I can’t be articulate. Right?”
Fence blinks. “I can understand you just fine.”
Although that doesn’t answer the question, Dela resumes her slumped position with a sigh. What does it matter? The only reality she can engage with is the one in her head, anyway. That’s part of the reason she’s in a pipe in Alexandra instead of her flat in Gaborone.
“I’m normally so sensible,” she tells Fence. “I do the right thing.”
“All the time?”
“Most of the time.”
“No one does the right thing most of the time. People can’t even decide what the right thing is.”
“Not me. I know what I’m supposed to do. The path is clear.” Dela points straight ahead. “There’s no room for error. The rules are black and white, and I’m good at following the rules. It was just this one time. This one stupid thing.”
A sigh. A nod. A whimper.
“That’s where it all began?”
“Well, no. It was before that. It was TOS’s fault.”
“TOS. I mean Kwabena.”
“The dead brother.”
“Yes. He led me down the wrong path.”
There’s a long pause. “The dead brother?”
“Yes! He was always there, hovering, worse than Mummy. He was the devil and Mummy was the angel, and then they switched places. I got confused.”
“Everyone gets confused sometimes.”
“You don’t understand. My life was perfect!”
Fence’s chuckle is dry and breathy. “I doubt that. Tell me what happened.”
Dela feels quite gauche suddenly, a middle class girl lost in the township, wallowing in her bourgeois problems. “No, it’s OK. It’s not important.”
“Ja?” Fence blows a stream of smoke into Dela’s face, making her splutter. “You got something better to do?”
There are a thousand excuses on the tip of Dela’s tongue. She realises, with a sudden gaping hollow in her belly, that none of the excuses are valid. She has nothing to do. Nowhere to be. She has nothing but time.
There are no tears yet, just the faint prickly threat of them, but despair descends without warning. Dela’s frantic flight to Johannesburg didn’t keep it at bay, after all. Seeking out Fence didn’t, either, and the alcohol… Oh, the alcohol. After all those years of watching her friend Cy down shot after shot and emerge in a haze of bliss, Dela was convinced drinking to excess would chase the bad things away. Isn’t that why people do it?
“Copycat.” Fence taps a finger against Dela’s cheek. It’s an oddly comforting gesture. “Start talking. Talking helps. Isn’t that what all the smart people say?”
Dela wants to tell her story. She’s a wordsmith, and she has been reconstructing and rehashing it in her head in an attempt to figure out exactly where she went wrong. Perhaps telling it to Fence makes more sense than telling it to herself.
“Come on.” Fence stubs out her cigarette. “Your life was perfect, yadda, yadda.” Her long fingers reach up under her beanie and scratch thoughtfully. “Hey, this might take a while, né?”
Dela’s head bobs in a rueful nod.
“OK.” Fence reaches into the pocket of her hoodie. “I’m gonna need more cigarettes.”
I knew it would end the way it did. I knew it from the moment we met. He was lust personified, all that was wrong with the world, fire and rage and deep, dark corners. I could smell it on him. Rot. As if the grave was open and beckoning. And there I was, damaged and desperate, so how could I resist?
My eyes were open. I knew there would be blood. Looking back through the veil, I see that there had always been blood, small, secret stains that foreshadowed what was to come. There had always been choking pleas, flailing, eyes seeing stars. There had always been frantic, clawing attempts to breathe, and then…relief.
How else could it have ended? I set the tone. I had been gasping all my life.
My earliest memory is of my mother lying dead in the bathtub, covered in blood.
I was five, maybe six. I had woken up in the night and walked across the corridor from my bedroom to the bathroom to get a drink of water. The door was closed. I opened it, stepped inside, wondered why the light was already on. The tiles were cold. I remember that. It’s funny how details like that stick in your head. Cold tiles, soft light, silence.
I went straight to the basin. Reached for the tap. Glanced in the mirror and saw her. Mummy. Naked in the tub, water reaching only to her navel. Still. Eyes closed. Bleeding. I screamed.
Her eyes opened, because of course she wasn’t dead. I kept on screaming as she got up, splashing red-tinged water on the floor, grabbed her robe and pattered across the tiles to slam and lock the door. And then I stopped screaming, because logic kicked in. Mummy was alive and well and looked somewhat annoyed that I had interrupted her bloody bath and then screamed blue murder in the middle of the night.
She shushed me, knelt down, still pulling the robe over her nakedness, but not quickly enough to prevent me seeing the gashes on her upper arms, her thighs, her sides. Like she was a chicken breast someone had carved up, ready to soak in the seasoning.
I babbled. I was scared. Confused. What had happened? Why was she using this bathroom instead of her own? Who had hurt her? Why was she so calm?
Someone pounded on the door. My father. Sleepy and irritable, demanding to know what the problem was.
Nothing, Mummy told him. Just one of Selah’s monsters.
He left us, grumbling under his breath. I looked at my mother, waiting for her to explain. She did. She told me a story, as colourful as the folktales of our homeland, with their anthropomorphised animals and trickster gods. But this was a different story, about a god who never smiled, a god of steel and stone and cold sidelong glances. A god of knives and wounds and blood, and redemption, a god they called Aran.
She told me of times long past, before doctors in spotless wards, before potions and techno tricks and manipulative magic, when people treated their ailments through trial and error. Times of cutting and leeching to purify the blood. She told me of an angel coming to her in a dream with a message from Aran, a message she had no choice but to heed. To follow in the footsteps of those who went before, to bleed to heal what ailed her.
But we don’t believe in angels, I said, or in the god Aran. Daddy doesn’t like us to talk of gods.
She shushed me again, and told me Daddy didn’t like a lot of things. Kareaan believes, she said. Isn’t that enough?
And I nodded because I loved Kareaan, my paternal grandmother, and didn’t want to shame her by disparaging her faith. But I didn’t understand. I was too young, my soul too dappled with rainbow prisms. I held onto my mother and pretended to agree, to believe her, because she needed me to. But I knew she had lied. There was no angel, no message. She had decided to bleed all on her own.
Did it work? I asked her. Are you healed now?
She held me tight against her and said, Yes.
But that was a lie, too.
Upon discovering that I’m a vegetarian, my relatives respond in various ways. My uncle and brother, being practical African men with no time to waste on trivialities, immediately deal with the question at hand.
“Okay, what will you eat? Rice? Plantain?” A quick nod from me and the matter is closed.
But my grandmother is another story. She’s stumped. She hasn’t seen me in years, and the only appropriate way to make up for lost time seems to be to feed me as much as possible in the little time we have. But what do you feed a girl who doesn’t eat meat, or chicken, or fish? That rules out all manner of soups and without soup all hope is lost.
She’s already unhappy with me after discovering that I no longer go to church and have lost my rosary. I don’t want to shock her too much, so I don’t start going on about Zen, the human condition, the simplicity of a peaceful and compassionate life and my honest belief that God couldn’t be bothered with Hail Marys and Our Fathers. I sit there, feeling inexplicably guilt-ridden, wishing for a moment I was just a docile little girl who believes what her folks tell her to believe and eats what everyone else is eating. I experience a flash of frustration, followed by gratitude to my parents for raising me in an environment that allowed me to think for myself.
She asks the dreaded question – why on earth am I vegetarian? Rather than get into a long conversation about ethics, environmentalism, the global food crisis and the evils of modern agriculture, I take the easy way out and tell her I just don’t like the stuff. She’s baffled. She doesn’t seem to believe me when I tell her I enjoy food without meat. She gives me this look that suggests she’s going to humour me, even though she thinks I’m an idiotic, backwards apostate who has no real job, no direction and doesn’t even know how to say the rosary.
Then she asks, in a voice teetering on the edge of hope, “Do you eat eggs?”
Success! She leans back, satisfied, and my aunt goes off to the kitchen to boil me some. The fact that I have just eaten is irrelevant, as is the fact that I had egg stew for breakfast and scrambled eggs for lunch. I don’t want to be difficult, so boiled eggs it is. Three of them, to be exact, on a plate with a fork, as if everyone is convinced that this is what constitutes a lacto-ovo vegetarian meal. I’m practicing surrender. I say thank you and eat my boiled eggs without a word.
When my father comes to pick me up a few hours later, my grandmother decides that it would be unseemly for me to leave empty-handed. I’ll give you three guesses what her gift to me is. You got it – eggs. A little plastic bag filled with them, wrapped up so they don’t break, and I put them gingerly into my handbag and express my gratitude.
I have no idea what I’m going to do with them. I leave for Accra the next day and there’s no way I’m getting on a bus and travelling down our terrible roads with eggs in my bag. But I also understand that this is a gift from a grandmother who hardly ever gets to see me, and who is probably a little disappointed by how I’ve turned out. I’m practicing optimism, too, so I decide to look on the bright side: at least I won’t have to worry about breakfast.
I don’t like small talk.
I’m not really interested in where you work or how old you are or how long you’ve lived in such-and-such place. I want to know what you dream about, what your most profound experience has been, what you think is your worst flaw, what could drive you to take a human life. But I’m not allowed to ask that, because it’s not polite. I’m supposed to “chat”.
Chatting is a conversation between personas, not genuine people. I want you to tell me the one thing in life you are deeply uncertain about and how much that uncertainty terrifies you, and I’ll tell you my greatest fear. Otherwise, I don’t really want to talk. I don’t want to come to your party and pretend I care where you bought your shoes. I don’t want to struggle to divide my attention between five strangers while also trying to show off how nice and smart and good I am. The social gymnastics are exhausting. I’d rather sit in a corner and read, because a fictional story is far more honest than the meaningless truths we’re so eager to share.
I could die next year, next month or next week. I don’t want to waste my time posturing. We spend our whole lives being polite, smiling and nodding and learning nothing. When will it be appropriate for us to push beyond the surface, to challenge each other, to grow? When will it be okay to admit that we’re not neat little cardboard figures in neat little boxes, but complicated, crooked things with sharp edges, a riot of garish, flickering lights and nuanced shadows?
So let’s just stop. Let’s be brave. Let’s open up. I’m dying to climb out of the box and breathe the fresh air of Outside. Take my hand, let’s get out of this place. Let’s go and sit on a bench somewhere we can hear the birds. And when we’re ready, when we’ve sloughed off our ego-skins and let the sun finally touch us, I’ll turn to you and say, “So. Talk to me.”
No matter what you think, you are not a feminist.
According to the Feminist Front (aka the FF, the custodians of womanhood who have made it their duty to whip the rest of us into shape) there is a right way to be a feminist. You can only be a member of this exclusive club if you check all the boxes. Trouble is, the boxes like to shape-shift.
You can’t fight with other women, but you can’t be a fake bootlicker either. Women should never be judged by their clothes, but you still can’t dress “provocatively”. You should fight for your reproductive rights, but never put your children first. You must condemn the objectification of women, but feel free to ogle David Beckham in his underwear. You can express your sexuality however you like – unless other women object. Don’t argue, little girl. The FF knows best.
We can throw the F-word around all we like, but the truth of the matter is that most of us just don’t cut it. Forget man-bashing – the biggest problem with today’s feminists is woman-bashing.
I think we’ve got feminism all wrong. It’s become feminisn’t. I could be mistaken, since I wasn’t there in the heat of battle. I’ve never broken the glass ceiling; for a long time I didn’t even know what a glass ceiling was. Maybe I have no business running my mouth, but I was born into a world where everyone has the right to be heard. I grew up learning all about the greatest power we possess – the power of choice. And I thought, silly little girl that I am, that feminism was about ensuring that both men and women were given that power.
I thought the idea was to create a world where no one has to pretend in order to fit in or be accepted. A world where men and women alike can follow their hearts. A world where everyone can choose. What those choices are, as far as I’m concerned, is irrelevant. To strip a woman of her feminist membership because she wears nipple tassels or believes her man should be head of the house is like stripping a citizen of their right to vote because they picked the party you hate.
The Feminist Front is starting to resemble the same patriarchal forces it claims to oppose. What I keep hearing from the media, from my elders, and even from other highly-respected feminists, is that only some female choices are valid. If you choose a different path you’re “setting us back fifty years”. I’m confused. Where in the manifesto does it say that women, once liberated, must become clones? What are we fighting for? To free women from the control of men, only to have them controlled by other women? To trade one cage for another? Shouldn’t we be fighting for an end to ALL cages?
It’s not surprising that this is how things have turned out. We always let our personal preferences get in the way of a good cause. When we don’t feel personally comfortable with a certain type of behaviour, we encourage others to condemn it. We say So-and-so is a “bad example”, as though So-and-so negates all the other women in the world. So-and-so is not a bad example. So-and-so is simply ONE example. For every Miley Cyrus there’s an Emma Watson. For every Megan Fox there’s a Lupita Nyong’o. For every Scarlett Johansson there’s a Frieda Pinto. If all you see is one type of “role model”, you’re not paying attention. You want to tell your kids that there’s only one type of person they can be? You want to tell them you’ll only approve of them if they fulfil your expectations, rather than their own? Really? Isn’t that sort of thinking what got us into this mess in the first place?
The pressure on young girls to be all things to all people is enormous – and ultimately far more dangerous than any fad diet or hyper-sexualised pop star. Young girls don’t buckle because there’s too much sex on TV. They buckle because we expect them to be superhuman, because we expect them to be the perfect, brilliant, inspiring, intelligent, strong, talented, happy, healthy women of the future, because they carry the feminist legacy on their shoulders. First, that damn thing is HEAVY. Second, it’s not up to you who your daughters grow up to be.
There are times I wish for the old days, when parents married you off as quickly as possible and you spent the rest of your life bearing children and managing your home. Good, solid, honest work. By now I’d have three kids. I’d be settled and secure. None of this modern panic. Everywhere you turn there’s someone waiting for you to change the world or die trying. In the era when women can finally have it all, having – or wanting – less is a crime. The result is a new kind of oppression that comes from within. Forget the enemy; nowadays you’re more likely to be killed by friendly fire.
We go on and on about stereotypes. Are they problematic? Of course. But there’s a difference between a stereotype and a woman who chooses a stereotypical life. If you want to beat the centrefold stereotype, stop trying to change your body. If you want to beat the “like a girl” stereotype, stop making comparisons based on gender. If you want to beat the Mean Girls stereotype, stop being mean. Stop condemning other women for making personal choices you don’t like and embrace the fact that – for goodness sake – they have the right to choose. Our grandmothers fought for that right. Thank God those women have the freedom to make the bizarre, confusing, potentially disastrous choices they make! Thank God they’re allowed to live and learn on their own terms. Thank God no one – including you – gets to decide for them.
You know what? Maybe there is a right way to be a feminist. Maybe it starts with cutting all the strings and letting go of the connotations. Maybe a true feminist believes everyone has the right to be happy and free to live in a way that’s true to who they are. Maybe the best way to be a feminist is to be a good old-fashioned decent human being. Be compassionate. Be kind. And be grateful that those women whose choices trouble you are in a position to choose at all. There are still far too many people in the world for whom choice is a luxury.
I’m one of the lucky ones. I won’t be bullied by anyone, including the players on my own team. No one is going to tell me how to be a feminist, how to be a woman, how to be an African, a writer, a geek. If I choose to claim a label, I will decide what it means. My label, my rules.