A Space for Women of the World
My memory is in my nose. Not in my marrow, not in my torso, not in the pit of my stomach. My memory is not even in my hands. Sometimes my fingers lie on the laptop keys. Even I do not know what things I have evaded, what stories I have storeyed; stacked like the floors in an abandoned courthouse or compressed into prettier, easier packages. If resurrection of what once existed in my sinuses occurs, without warning and out of time, I am jarred because my truths become less beautiful. But I am saved. My truths become more full. The day I fly from Kotoka to California my feet smell like wet canvas.
Before I recall that specific odour, possessed by all things freshly-sanitized and insufficiently baked, what I retain of leaving home is that I was young, and small, and scared, and a speck of happenstance. When the nose-tickling beads of Omo washing soap and the metallic edge of water purchased from mobile tankers come to mind I also recall that I was cocky. Thrilled. Impatient. In love.
Africans wear their Sunday best when they are getting on planes as if their exile is a baptism they will emerge from sanctified. I am no exception. For when entering someone else’s country, even invited by the Ivy League, and armed with crisp diction and privileged access, any aspect of your being might be your disqualifier. And so you take no chances. My Nikes are freshly washed. Fifteen thousand final things have finally been accomplished.
The man I am committed to at the time smells like “Pi,” by Givenchy. He is a Ghanaian man, by which I mean he doesn’t use the fragrance sparingly. He’s carrying delicious sweat from the suit he wears to work in ninety-four degree heat deep inside the rich cologne. When he kisses me in front of my father and asks if in four years I will marry him I can taste the ribald flavours on his throat. Twenty-two over seven. Just two digits from twenty four-seven which is how constantly we will yearn for each other. I say yes. We think this will last forever.
The day that same man asks me that final question about gays and about sin, in an overdone hotel room in San Francisco, I say no. “I don’t believe it is a sin, how could you even think that?”
And three weeks later when I leave him through a laptop with a mouse-click, terrified I am dissolving the last resting place I have, all I can smell is the contrived perfume of pumpkin candles, the real stench of unwashed clothes, the dormroomness of this new life.
Now I am with you, a new man. The night we jumped apart, as if startled by clowns, when we realized there was a song about your people lynching mine playing in the background while we made love, there was the saccharine overload of honeydew and cantaloupe wafting from the fridge. The night I decided to love you, as we lay breathless, glued together like tape to paper, picking joy out of our teeth like mango strings I could not smell a thing; I was tasting our desire, hearing our single pulsing throat, touching the dripping between my thighs, seeing the undulating hike ahead of us.
You bought me walking boots from R.E.I. Still, there are many things that frighten me in loving you, new man of mine. The way you run miles in the rain, I run from it; the way you leave your room with no lotion on, being seen ashy curdles saliva between my jaws; the way you tell me tiny truths in your pale-person way, sometimes I swallow things before their aroma fills the room. One day you say to me “I am most frightened that if we have children I might love them, and adore them, but I might not think they are beautiful. Because they will not have your skin.” I am forced to confess: “I am most frightened that if we have children, that I might think that they are.” And in addition to loving them, adoring them, raising them decisive and circumspect, I might gaze at them in sleep, inhale the tops of their powdered heads and think them more perfect than creation. I am terrified that if we have a daughter I might perform my maternity with all the trite gusto it deserves and validate and praise, interrogate and guide, respect and refine till I have built a woman of real strength within a frame of fragile hips, butterscotch skin, friendly curls that perform trampoline tricks and bounce under petting hands at times when mine would adamantly resist, and raised a child who knows her worth and can hold a compliment with the ease with which a white man holds a fork. But I will not allow myself to look at her and tell her how beautiful she is.
Of all the ghosts in our bed this is what keeps me up at night. What we will make and what I will make of it demands the most analysis of place and time and choice. Those are the three small things women like me should not have. Much like lovers like you. Children, of any sort. Awareness, of the many things that separate person from person, you from me, me from her.
You remain unaware. You tease about my need to analyze the jigsaw puzzle that is us. Each time you tug at my chin and ruffle my hair I smell your soap and my perfume instead of the heady mix of both our flesh combined. I tell you that your freedom from parsing what we are is buried deep within the mucous membranes of a truth that loving me, for you, is an act of reason while loving you, for me, is an act of treason. But the weight of the disappointment I have turned out to be scares me less than a life without you in it.
You, this new man of mine, are the choice I have made. The realization that this might be my place I am slowly coming to accept. The reality that home might be a thing you and I create together, half in Ghana, half dispersed, half driving over potholes, half learning to ski, has finally become a thought that does not do what it once did: knot my throat, drench my palms, leave spider webs floating in the space between my ribs. The fact that you are what I love, and I can love you and not lose me, I have come to understand. The truth that like so many others I was sent away from home — a letter to be better stamped— I have begun to forgive.
Yet this issue of creation is a bigger thing. To reinvent the little girl that always made me feel like air — and birth her willfully and willingly too, not out of rape, nor out of force, but out of my own desire; to perpetuate, in loving you, a genocide whose scars I bear, an imbalance I fight incessantly to not have to accept, that is something much more complicit than anything else. It is something I am not sure I am strong enough to do.
Maybe I never told you about this book I borrowed from my T.A. because the whiff of camphor it held took me back to the inside of the wardrobe in which my mother keeps her funeral cloths. It was the Autobiography of Malcolm X. His incandescent insights made me smile but above all the personal injustices, the eventual murder by men he loved, what made me cry the hardest was the part about his father — a man called Little who was too large for the small space of their town. There was a chasm between their hues, Malcolm light, his father dark, and in that trough lay the tapestry of all the older man’s hurts. Malcolm’s father loathed him yet hardly beat him. His mother loved him but often did. He had her eyes, her face, her hair. He was hewed from her hue.
His childhood might have puzzled me if I was not intimately acquainted with the spicy tang of whittled rattan branches as they sliced through the air; if I had not been there in Class Two, then in Class Four, then in Class Six, when Mrs. Owusu-Tawiah beat all the children in the room, eight lashes each, designed to maim, and I got ten — two extra because I should have known better — yet walked by Samir and Nijad’s chairs without ever raising her hand; if I had not overheard her tell the teachers in the staff room that she could not bring herself to beat the fair ones because they were too beautiful, too soft and if you hit them hard their skin would shame you with a welt, it would show you instantly the evil you had done.
If I did not have this history perhaps I would be unconvinced, muse that there might be some other reason Malcolm had forgotten to include about why and how his parents raised him as they did, but I was there and so I know. His father’s awe was at birthing something so much more beautiful than he. His mother’s belt was to equalize, to punish him for being seen as better than his blood.
Our child will be some beautiful combination of shoeshine and moonshine. And what I am most afraid of is not that I will love her more, this caramel-hued tiny being, and not that I will love her less, this flaxen-haired future thing. It is that I will show it less. That it will be demanded of me by my tribe — this unknown, unsung consortium of black-looking black women that I have been a member of since I was born— and that my membership with them will hinge on her being raised to be aware that she is only the ideal standard of beauty because something is amiss; amiss with the world as we know it, and as a consequence: with her. I am most afraid that she will always feel like a diluted version of an age-old prototype. And she will go out into the world, as I wish, and scar no one. But that inside she will be a wound, exposed and gaping, and she will think I am the most beautiful woman in the world when I can never bring myself to think it of her. That she will look inside my eyes as I gaze up at another billboard of Alicia Keys and she will note the discrepancy between they and I, the similarity between them and her, and know. That every time I hug her I remember her smell at birth and relive my disappointment at her rosy milkier skin.
As a young reader who devoured everything she could get her hands on, Famia Nkansa rarely came across narratives about people who looked or lived like her. She consistently encountered the subliminal message that African stories were not worth narrating. What she was supposed to take from this, it seemed, was that African lives did not quite matter. She became a writer because she is convinced they do. She believes that work which shows the multifacetedness of African identities—the sites of contradiction, the multiple interpretations, the nuances and complexities—needs to exist and be disseminated. Without it there is a chasm. And everyone is less for it. Her essays, poetry and fiction explore silence, power, illness and sex and try to tell the full, true, human stories of the invisible and the forgotten.