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.

In a ’90s State of Mind

I’ve been working on a story, the bulk of which takes place in the early ’90s while reveries call back the early and mid-80s. The research for this story has been fun, though I always love conducting research regardless. The things I remember about this particular time period have been helped along by Google searches, but imagine my surprise this afternoon when I discovered Melrose Place, original version, on Netflix. (A Wiki search tells me that it has been available since 2011, in which case, where the hell have I been?!) Because of today’s snow day, I decided, after getting in some writing and hair washing, that I’d look for something to watch. While the documentary that I chose about modeling in L.A. was a bust–it simply did not capture my attention–it did make me feel a certain nostalgia for Melrose Place and its very early ’90s aesthetic.

The show debuted the summer before my eighth grade year, and it was all my friends and I could talk about. We were big fans of 90210 and were into its spin-off from the word “Go!” Today looking at the style from that era–more than 20 years ago!–and thinking about what I see around the city and across the blogosphere, the ’90s are back in a big way. I mean, I own a pair of high-waisted distressed shorts that I distressed myself last summer.

Take a look at these screenshots from the Melrose Place pilot and tell me that these characters wouldn’t fit in if they were transplanted to 2014.

The prints! The high waists! The overalls! It’s the ’90s all over again in this here new millenium (and new decade). I’ll leave you all with the season one opening credits, too. That sound? Is totally and quintessentially early 90s.

I Love Writing. I Love Fashion. Never the Twain Shall Meet?

“Once, at a workshop, I sat with other unpublished writers, silently nursing our hopes and watching the faculty—published writers who seemed to float in their accomplishment. A fellow aspiring writer said of one faculty member, “Look at that dress and makeup! You can’t take her seriously.” I thought the woman looked attractive, and I admired the grace with which she walked in her heels. But I found myself quickly agreeing. Yes, indeed, one could not take this author of three novels seriously, because she wore a pretty dress and two shades of eye shadow.”

Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie

This excerpt from Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie’s essay on elle.com titled Why Can’t a Smart Woman Love Fashion? compelled me to write. Like Ms. Adichie, I am African (though born in the U.S.). My parents are West African, and I was raised by a mother who is much like the mother who Ms. Adichie describes–mindful of her appearance, has an appreciation for various perfumes, makes sure that her jewelry matches. We learn through modeled behavior, and seeing my mother take great care in how she presented herself to the world had an effect on me. I eventually started caring about my appearance, too.

During my pre-teen and teen years, I had subscriptions to Sassy,/i. and Seventeen. I tried to emulate some of the fashions that I saw Lisa Turtle or Brenda Walsh wear on television, I made sure that I wrapped my hair every night so that I could brush it down the next morning for school, I made myself aware of what things were “in” and what was “out.” And while I was conscious of style and fashion, I was also a bookworm who loved writing.

I went on to major in English while in college and later earned a Master’s in writing. During both periods of my life, I simply couldn’t find it in myself to walk into a classroom in my pajamas or wrinkled clothes. Even if I wore jeans to class, I’d likely pair them with some low-heeled boots and a nice v-neck shirt. To this day, if I pull out a shirt or a skirt from my drawer or my closet and it’s wrinkled, I plug in the iron and get to work. These are things my mom instilled in me. She also advocated for higher education. The two were never diametrically opposed in her world or in our household–you didn’t leave the house in ill-fitting or wrinkled clothes and you strived to earn good grades in school.

It never struck me as strange that I could simultaneously love writing and love fashion. I didn’t think it odd that I liked wearing heels. Or that I carried around in my purse whatever novel I happened to be reading. So when I was invited to interview with a company years ago for a writing and communications position, I prepped as best I could: I printed off a clean copy of my resume as well as a couple of writing samples; I chose a slate gray pencil skirt, a black camisole, a black blazer, black tights, and black heels for the interview; and I slipped the sheets of paper into a leather portfolio I’d purchased at Target (sister on a budget here).

I met first with the managing editor of this company (an educational company that produced curriculum), and he and I spoke for perhaps 20 minutes, me listening to the standard “Our company does…” and “What you would do in this position is…” explanations and him entertaining the questions you’re told to ask in interviews so that you exhibit your research skills and interest. After he and I spoke, he told me that he would pull in the associate editor, who, if I were hired, would be my direct suprvisor. She stepped into the glass-walled conference room and he excused himself. She asked similar questions to his and I spoke about my educational background.

It’s been four and a half years since that interview and I still remember with absolute clarity that she looked me in my eyes during our conversation and said, “You don’t look like a writer.” The company had a fairly relaxed dress code and a fairly relaxed environment (people wore jeans and sneakers and some employees had their dogs around the office), but I knew that one should not show up to an interview in just any old thing. “Dress for the job you want…” and all that jazz.

I was taken aback by this woman’s statement. In six words she had essentially called me a fraud. Those six words carried with them the judgment that because I’d dressed nicely it was inconceivable to her that I could also be a writer. I didn’t look the part as determined by…Hollywood? By certain writers’ workshops? By her. I tried not to lose composure and answered that I I wanted to look my best for the interview. That may or may not have been true. Yes, I wanted to present well for the interview, but that was also my approach in my (non-interviewing) life. It’s something that was ingrained from childhood. Needless to say, I didn’t get the job. I wouldn’t have fit in, what with not looking the way she thought writers should look.

That experience, however, didn’t make me re-evaluate my views on appearance and how I should present myself to the world. I’m a smart woman who loves her lipstick and heels as well as her writing journals and Toni Morrison novels. I see no reason to compromise on any of that.

The Door Opens…

This space is always the  hardest to fill. What’s my mission with this blog? How do I start? These are always questions I have when I start any writing project because I love words–the way they flow, or the ways in which the writer pairs them, links them, partners them.

This blog isn’t a writer’s blog, per se. I won’t write about writing; I tried that. I started a Tumblr and everything. I wrote about the texts I read. I analyzed why writer’s block creeps in and settles like an omnipresent gray fog. It started to feel all too meta. I’ve decided that I’ll use this environment to detail the happenings in my world. Of course writing is part of that life, but that won’t be all that finds residence in this here blog.

I relocated to D.C., which is to say that I made the official move from Maryland into the city. The move allows for greater ease. I don’t have to worry too much about dealing with the 95s–95 and 495–just to meet up with friends or go to the gym or go to a yoga class. The last two in the list were in D.C. precisely because I work in Northern Virginia, and it made more sense to complete my workout in D.C. just before getting home. I would have been too tired to have ever finished my metro commute and hop into a car to get to the gym. It simply would not have happened. Now that I live in D.C., I feel as though I have all the time in the world.

If there’s an event after work, I can get to my apartment, drop off my lunch bag (I pack lunch most days. Only less than a handful of times a month will I visit a food truck), freshen up, and be right back out the door. Previously, as I lived in Maryland and left my car at the train station on work days, I had such an awful commute that if I wanted to go to a happy hour or go out for dinner, I either had to tote my large commuter purse (innards include cell phone, umbrella, writing journal, novel, wallet, keys, SMART card, pens, work badge, small makeup bag, ear buds, cell phone charger) along with the lunch bag, which is awkward when real estate in restaurants or on cocktail tables is limited, or meet later. Meeting later consisted of fulfilling my round-trip commute to retrieve my car so that I could drive back into the city. You can imagine the mileage put on my car.

Since the move just over a month ago, I’ve been able to play more in the city without too much hassle. For that I am grateful, and I’ll use this blog to go on about the things that make me smile, that prick at me, that fulfill me.