The New World Way

There’s a thought-provoking piece in the June 30th online edition of The New York Times about African writers, their international bent, and their sudden (or what seems like sudden) literary fêting:
New Wave of African Writers With an Internationalist Bent
. To be certain, African writers have been celebrated in the past. Writers such as Chinua Achebe and Wole Soyinka received awards and international attention over the works, rooted heavily in the lives of Africans in Africa, they produced. Contemporary writers like Helen Oyeyemi and Dinaw Mengestu draw on their experiences as Africans in so-called western lands (Oyeyemi in England and Mengestu in the United States) and produce works about characters who are similar to them, who are making their way in the new world.

As a writer I’ve done the same in fiction–create West African characters who live in the U.S.–because it makes sense to me. It has also made sense to create strictly black American characters in other stories because I straddle both worlds. In the home that I was raised, my mother never hesitated to tell me “I’m an African mother. This is how it’s going to be.” However, when I was in school I tried to be as American as possible, which for the time period in which I came of age (late 80s/early to mid-90s) meant being entertained by episodes of A Different World, 90210, or Martin, or listening to artists like Salt n Pepa, Tupac, or 112.

Yet even with those outside influences, my home remained one where I heard conversations about the civil war in Liberia or interacted with the Nigerian side of the family (my mother’s cousins and uncles) or attended African weddings and listened to African music. The effect of all this was to produce the woman I am today who writes black American characters or West African characters.

What the NYT piece makes me contemplate is this new trend toward the “African in the West” trope and what would it mean for me as a writer of African characters if my name were readily recognizable as African as opposed to the very Anglo that it is (my middle name is solidly Igbo, however). There’s a story in there about how three-quarters of my family have Anglo last names despite the quite obvious locations of their births: My paternal grandfather; my paternal grandmother with her Anglo maiden name as well as Anglo re-married name; and my maternal grandmother whose maiden name is as Anglo as one can get. The story in few words is that there must be some connection to those who were sent back to Liberia and Sierra Leone at some point during or toward the end of slavery in the new world; that they docked in Liberia and Sierra Leone bearing the names of their previous owners.

If editors at literary journals are more convinced of a story about Africans by a writer with a traditional ethnic African name, I wonder where that places me? The complexities of a child of immigrants in the new world is something I’ve lived. It’s also something that I’ve attempted to pull from when writing a particular short story. However, if it’s submitted by someone with a Jane Smith-like name, does that affect “sellability,” as in could a reader buy the culture represented as it is, of the narrative? Would it read as not authentic? Are assumptions being made that I’m trying on another culture by virtue of having the name that I have? Would the story be more convincing if it were written by a Grace Obinna or Amaka Agu rather than Jane Smith? I struggle with these questions. I don’t have the answers.

The Faulty State of Memory

We tell ourselves stories in order to live… We interpret what we see, select the most workable of the multiple choices. We live entirely…by impression of a narrative line upon disparate images, by the ‘ideas’ with which we have learned to freeze the shifting phantasmagoria–which is our actual experience.

Joan Didion

For the past two weeks, I’ve been kicking around the idea of memories and how they play a role in one’s life, particularly when you have a shared space in another’s life. Presumably, the leading of shared existence should mean that Person A’s remembrance of an event corroborates Person B’s memory of the same event. But that isn’t always the case. What set me on this path of rumination was a phone conversation with my father. He loves to tell stories, share memories, recall happenings.

One call I remember had him reminiscing about how he and my mother, his first wife, met. They met in the capital city of their birth when both were in college. The most workable, as Didion says, of my father’s memory of this encounter had it that my mother had designed a way to be just near the outside of one of his classes, and when she’d see him, she’d greet him with a smile. My father shared that his best friend was the one who called it to his attention that my mother was making eyes at him.

Not too long after that conversation, I visited with my mother, who is now remarried and has been with my (step)father since I was a girl of 15. At some point the topic came up about how she and my dad met. (“The narrative line” that I’ve come up with is that my uncle, one of my mother’s younger brothers, must have asked when last I’d spoken to my father, a question my uncle asks me a lot since the two were friends. So as I answered my uncle, sunk deep in his preferred arm chair in my parents’ living room, I remembered the conversation with my dad.) My mother’s recollection was that they’d met at a debut ball on campus. She was dating someone at the time, and they had gotten into an argument at some point before the evening of the dance. A male friend of hers had an extra ticket so she accepted his offer to be his date that night. According to my mom, my dad asked her to dance and continued asking her to dance the entire night. The boy with whom she’d had a relationship became a thing of the past.

When I told her that my father had an altogether different image, she shook her head and said, in a typical fashion of her home country (meaning not to be offensive), “Don’t let him lie to you!” She offered that they didn’t share a class, for one, and that she would have had no reason to be anywhere near his classes.

I spoke to my dad on Thanksgiving, and we talked again about the past and memories. It’s a preferred topic of his, certainly. I told him that my mother simply had a different recollection. He corroborated the debut ball occurrence and the dancing that they did all night, but he remains certain that she used to wait outside his math class just to smile and say “Hi.”