Archive for the ‘Africa’ Category

c08_000peterI haven’t blogged much lately. Partly because I was trying to finish Judah’s Tale (I didn’t) and partly because I can’t stand to spend too much time thinking about all the bad news in the world lately (I’m looking at you, SCOTUS). Right now Gasland II is on in the background but I’m not really watching because I’m thinking about islands—England and Nevis. I spent an hour earlier this evening perusing the correspondence of esteemed British gentlemen on either side of a gruesome 1810 case in Nevis in which a planter was accused of cruelly punishing 32 of his enslaved men and women. Their crime? Not doing their work and threatening to leave the plantation. I leave for my fourth trip to Nevis soon and I’m not sure what to expect. A year has passed since I was there last and I haven’t done much writing on The Hummingbird’s Tongue. I’ve given it a lot of thought, however, and will be presenting on experimental writing at a Commonwealth literature conference in early August. It’s time to give these ideas some kind of form, but what do you do with this?

Witness went and sat down in Dr. Crosse’s gallery–Says, that two drivers continued flogging said negro man for about fifteen minutes.–Says, that as this man appeared to be severely whipped, he was induced to count the lashes given the others, conceiving the country would take up the business.–Says, that defendant gave one man 115 lashes; to another 65; to another 47; to another 165; to another 242; to another 212; to another 181; to another 59; to another 187; to a negro woman 110; to another woman 58; to another woman 97; to another woman 212; another woman 291; another woman 83; another woman 49; another woman 68; another woman 89; and another woman 56.

Witness says, that the woman who received 291 lashes, appeared to be young, but most cruelly flogged.

I’m hoping to find the original court documents. I have a few names: Quashy, Ned, William Coker, Nellys Juba, Madges Juba, Catherine, Castile, and Range. Then a slew of witnesses—all white men, of course—testified that they had seen punishments just as severe elsewhere. In other words, this kind of torture was not unusual or extraordinary in the Caribbean at that time. The planter, Edward Huggins, was found not guilty by a jury of his peers but abolitionists back in England used reports of this case to further their cause. I don’t know if I’ve got all my facts straight, but I believe these brutalized men and women worked on the Montravers Estate, and I will be touring the ruins sometime this week. I used some of my grant money to buy a video camera but I’m not sure if there’s any point filming the ruins of a plantation. It reminds me of Claude Lanzmann’s footage of demolished concentration camps. Why document an absence, show what’s no longer there? Because there’s a residue that persists. I need to write…

P7015625Last night I was angry, wishing I hadn’t scheduled the trip for this month. I haven’t finished Judah’s Tale and I can’t gain momentum when I’m constantly shifting my attention to other projects. I have yet another article to revise and swear I will NEVER submit my work to another academic journal. My bad mood took a turn for the worse when I realized that given the choice, I’d rather go to Oxford. I’ve been watching Inspector Lewis lately, which is filmed in Oxford, and there was one shot where two characters were walking by the river and the path went past a golden, walled building that had a gorgeous border of shrubs and flowers. It was a gloomy day, the actors were wearing autumn clothes…one of the suspects worked in a tea shoppe. And the truth is, that is my dream. I don’t like hot weather; I’m not a tropical kind of girl. We’re in a heat wave right now, which might account for my miserable mood. And I realize that when I think about Nevis, I don’t think about serenity. And perhaps that’s why it has taken me so long to start writing this book. My own discomfort around this history, my own family history, the climate, the landscape–it’s hard to look at sometimes (my discomfort, that is). And that’s how I know this book will be SHORT. It’s too hard to balance my shameless fixation with British culture against my righteous indignation at the lasting damage of slavery and colonialism–part of which IS my fixation with British culture…

So bear with me. It could be a bumpy ride.


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anthillI never had a chance to capture the amazing anthills we saw in Ghana, but this internet image comes close. From inside the tour bus I marveled at their height—some certainly exceeded six feet—and the intricate design made from millions of grains of Ghana’s distinctive red soil. I also wondered about the unseen world within and beneath those striking mountains that dotted the countryside. Today I’m trying to write and so I’m looking inward, reflecting on the forces that built the identity I currently inhabit. It’s complex! And always “in process,” though at 40 I can say that some aspects of my identity seem fixed. I booked my flight to Nevis last night and so pulled up The Hummingbird’s Tongue today. I don’t have much so far, just fragments of memories and the opening lines of what I hope will become paragraphs or even chapters. Here’s one example: “I have never trusted the sea.” And just now I made two lists: “How I know I’m not truly Caribbean” and “How I know I may indeed be Caribbean.” I’m being facetious, of course, but issues of authenticity are ridiculous and real. As we continue to think about the future of OWWA, one thing I feel strongly about is the addition of a “D” to represent either “diaspora” or “descent,” because I don’t identity as a woman writer of Africa. I appreciate the symbolic significance of choosing “Africa” instead of “black” a few decades ago, but in this historical moment I think we need to acknowledge the difference between African women and women of African descent. When I was in Nevis last July, my host always introduced me as a writer of Nevisian descent, and that was perfectly fine with me. I am a citizen now, but that doesn’t make me Nevisian. And when I was asked to read in a Caribbean literary festival, I hesitated—mostly because I know others will question my right to participate. A colleague recently sent me a contest for Caribbean writers, urging me to submit but the rules were very clear: they want writers based in the region and published by a Caribbean press. Which means that a white woman from the UK who has lived in Barbados for fifteen years could become the recipient of that prize, and black writers born in the Caribbean but publishing in the US could be deemed ineligible. And I think I’m ok with that. What troubles me is when the focus shifts to the content of the books, as in “A Caribbean writer must write about the Caribbean.” For this one-day festival I’m on a panel called “Off Island,” which is appropriate since I haven’t yet written a story set in the Caribbean. It’s slippery, though, and it does feel as though content is ranked, with stories set in the Caribbean at the top, followed by stories about Caribbean people living elsewhere, followed by stories that don’t deal with the Caribbean at all. If a black girl wants to write poems about a unicorn, she has that right—and she’s still a black poet. That’s something I talk about with my students when we cover the Black Arts Movement. Do black artists have to make protest art? Or is anything made by a black-identified artist “black art?”  I didn’t expect to grapple with my identity as a Caribbean writer until I published The Hummingbird’s Tongue, but the book is partly about my identity so let the grappling begin…


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IMG_1777Up again. Listening to the Lauryn Hill channel on You Tube, which reminded me of a conversation we had in Accra on Sunday night. After the closing plenary we got into two buses and headed over to a reception held at the Pan-African Writers Association; plastic chairs were set up on the lawn and under the gazebo and so we gathered there to eat, drink, discuss the conference and the next day’s trip to Elmina. Then the dj showed up and ALL the elders started to groove…even Ama Ata Aidoo was dancing! I hope my friends and I will be dancing like that when we’re seventy. It’s strange how invested we are in seeing one another succeed. When a group of us was ready to go, we headed over to the bus but couldn’t find our driver and so we stood there in the dark and somehow started talking about Lauryn. She was recently sentenced to three months in federal prison for tax evasion and we speculated on the reason why—was she too defiant in court? Was it somehow Rohan Marley’s fault? How many kids has she got—five or six? It wasn’t catty gossip; it was a genuine discussion about her well-being, a desire to see her “make it.” Of all the black women artists out there, Lauryn feels like she belongs to us. We worry about her in a way we don’t worry about the others…

IMG_1785I skipped a couple of panels on Saturday in order to have time to work on my talk, but in the end I ran out of time and never even got to The Hummingbird’s Tongue. I did talk about mental illness and family legacy, though, and since I was the first presenter I didn’t have to worry about the two blackouts that came toward the end of our panel (kudos to Cheryl Sterling who kept right on talking in the dark!). On Saturday the day ended with three amazing performances by Wura Ogunji (top), Rosamond S. King (right), and Gabrielle Civil (below). As Rosamond led us from the conference venue to the sea, I talked with Gina Athena Ulysse about activism and the future of OWWA. Later that night I tried to write about my ambivalence around activism—how can you change the world when you’re hoarding time to write? I wrote, “I don’t want to be a martyr.” My friends give far more than I do to the various causes concerned with the welfare of black women, and I have witnessed their triumphs along with the toll such projects can take on their own health and well-being. Gina assured me that there are lots of different ways to contribute to “the cause,” and each woman has to find the way that’s right for her. Writing a check doesn’t feel like activism but sometimes that kind of contribution keeps the wheels turning. This weekend I have to grade final exams and finish the revisions for this latest article. I’m not “in the trenches”—I stir the pot in my own way, but mostly I protect myself and my writing time. Is Toni Morrison an activist? The women I most admire died young—June Jordan, Audre Lorde—and I don’t want to share their fate. But can you achieve that level of greatness without taking risks? I’m risk-averse but maybe that’s something I need to work on. I’ve got the example of my daring friends before me so I guess it’s time to step out of the shadows…


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IMG_1819I woke at 3:30 this morning—7:30 in Ghana, which was the time I woke each morning for the conference. We touched down at JFK just before dawn yesterday; ten hours to cross the Atlantic Ocean, half a day to fly over 5000 miles. So much about this trip has to do with contrast—between here and there, then and now. I didn’t think of our visit to Elmina Castle as a homecoming; I didn’t stand in the narrow Door of No Return and think I had somehow performed a gesture of reconciliation. I said a brief, silent prayer and tried to keep moving—there were so many rooms, so many levels to explore, so many facts to absorb. The governor’s chambers were at the very top of the castle—and it is a castle, even though that seems like a misnomer to me. There’s a moat and a drawbridge, there are cannon pointedcannons out at sea and inland at “the natives.” And rightly so, since the local Africans helped the Dutch to overthrow the Portuguese, not that that was much of an improvement. The British took over after 250 years but regardless of the colonial ruler, enslaved Africans continued to be marched from the interior to the coast and at any given time at least a thousand people (400 women, 600 men) were held in dark, filthy, airless cells on the ground floor of the castle.  When soldiers condemned2drank too much or abused their “privileges” with the enslaved women, they were locked in a cell that had three windows and plenty of light. But when a slave rebelled, he was locked in the condemned room and left to die—no window, no air, no light. From atop the walls of the castle you could walk in the sun, enjoy the refreshing breeze, look out over the sea and almost forget about the dungeons below—forget about the interior courtyard and the governor’s balcony where hegovernorsbalconycistern stood to survey the enslaved women in order to select his next rape victim. She was then bathed by soldiers with water from a cistern beneath the courtyard before being led up a private staircase the conveniently ended at a trap door right in front of the governor’s chambers. It was hard to stay angry—you felt disgust and rage but then your sorrow outweighed everything else. I was ready to leave Elmina before the tour IMG_1824even ended. Our guide Ato was excellent; I asked him how he managed his emotions and he said he used to come to work early and stand in the dungeons to cry. What did we do? We piled back onto our little bus—after buying books or crafts or fabric from the shops located throughout the castle—and went to a stunning beach resort to have lunch. As soon as we stepped off the bus at Elmina we were surrounded by young men trying to learn our names so they could make personalized bracelets or sea shells for us to purchase after the tour. Elmina’s main industry is fishing but it remains a place of commerce and trade. Tourists pay admission to enter the castle (double if you want to take photos); Ato felt tourism had dropped off since 9/11 but noted that the flight is also expensive. It’s a strange irony that the descendants of those whose ancestors were once enslaved here in West Africa now have the means (some of us) to return and “pay tribute”…IMG_1814

Here comes the rain. I have a library presentation this morning and final exams this afternoon so I’m glad I had yesterday to rest and reflect on my trip. The Yari Yari Ntoaso conference was great—so much talent and wisdom and possibility packed into four days! I know I won’t be able to recall everything that happened since I last blogged on Friday. One of the things about being abroad is that you have to surrender AND adapt to a different way of life. Now that I’m back in Brooklyn I’ve got uninterrupted internet service and no blackouts to contend with, so when I feel like blogging I just sit down and start typing. But in Accra I often couldn’t get online at the hotel, and instead of writing in a journal I just didn’t write at all. It may take me a while to catch up but this is a start…

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IMG_1816I have SO many things to write about but can’t get a reliable internet connection and Facebook, when I can log on, won’t upload my photos…so stay tuned. More details about the conference and our trip to Elmina will follow in a day or so…


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IMG_1767There’s a reading tonight hosted by the Pan-African Writers Association (PAWA) but I was simply too tired to attend; I think jet lag is finally setting in so I opted to stay at the hotel, order room service, and work on my presentation on “configuring the past and present.” I can hear a preacher screaming “Hallelujah!” outside—there must be a church nearby. I’m watching Ghana TV and a women’s show, The Standpoint, just ended—the Oprah equivalent Dr. Gifty had guests and experts on to discuss life after your husband’s death. This has been a day of death, in a way—today’s program ended with an emotional tribute to Jayne Cortez, OWWA co-founder who passed suddenly last December. I only met Jayne twice but it was clear to me that she was a formidable woman. I was surprised to find myself shedding a few tears during the tribute; I watched Ama Ata Aidoo being helped to her feet—someone holding her cane, someone else holding the mic so her hands were free to hold the bowl—and then she spoke in Fante because she knew Jayne wouldn’t want a libation prayer to be said in English. She had to pause midway to pull a kerchief from her blouse and it was very moving to see this elder weeping for her lost friend. They met in the 1970s so that’s a friendship that lasted nearly fifty years, and I couldn’t help but think to myself, “That will be us someday.” I feel so blessed to be here with my close friends—my life has been enriched and enlarged because of these incredible black women who don’t have the anxiety issues that make me too risk-averse and too content to stay at home. Would I have come to Ghana without them? Maybe, but I’m grateful that they continue to “lift me as they climb.”

IMG_1753I don’t think I can do justice to the four panels I attended today. The first was on getting your work out into the world, and moderator Tara Betts (right, with Camille Dungy) drew rich insights from the three panelists. Latasha Diggs (below right, with Gabrielle Civil)reminded us that it’s not *always* about the book—having one doesn’t make you legitimate, doing the WORK and getting it out there (by yourself, if necessary) is what matters most along with building community. How can you ward off competition between you and your fellow writers? Hang with musicians and other artists working in different media. Kadija George Sesay, publisher of Sable magazine, urged self-publishers to register their publications and get an ISBN/ISSN; that means your work can be catalogued, archived, and then you can be certain that you’re IMG_1754leaving a record behind.

IMG_1759During the brief break Michelle Martin and I went down to the book vendors and did a bit of shopping. No more books! I think I’ve bought ten so far, mostly for my nieces and nephew, though I got a couple of novels for myself today. It’s so wonderful to have the authors sign their books, too. I had lunch with Yolanda Arroyo Pizarro and was thrilled to get an English translation of her novel, Carapace. She and her partner Zulma also wrote out a list of Afro-Latino women writers whose work is available in English. I want to add more Latina content to my Black Women in the Americas class. I was disturbed to learn that Yolanda and Zulma were harassed and threatened in the Osu market earlier this week, but it was wonderful to learn that their homeland of Puerto Rico recently passed legislation protecting the rights of LGBT people. Maybe the jetlag is making me emotional or maybe it’s just being in the presence of so many amazing women—I feel protective of everyone! Protective and powerless at the same time. I should switch gears and go work on my talk because these are the issues I want to address: is it enough to rewrite history, to write black women back into the historical record through art and/or scholarship, or must we MAKE history ourselves? I feel like history is made by women who are bolder than me, but maybe that’s just what I want to believe…

IMG_1745The afternoon panel on Africa, the diaspora, and children’s literature was great. One Ghanaian panelist talked about the need to ensure that girls on the continent have access to education—whether it’s in a traditional school, via cell phone, or on the radio. Another Nigerian panelist, Akachi Ezeigbo, talked about her decision to write girls as heroines in her books for young readers, and Michelle Martin captivated the audience with her slideshow and talk on hair politics in children’s picture books. Deborah Ahenkorah doubled as panelist and moderator and had a chance to share her innovative strategies for getting books into the hands of Ghanaian kids. “If we can send a man to Mars, we can ensure that Ghanaian children have culturally relevant, quality books!” Stay tuned for an interview with Deborah in the next day or two…

The fourth panel was intense; four writers talked about their activism and the ways they channel the ancestors in order to better serve their community around issues like environmental justice and domestic violence. You can learn more about the important, community-based projects coordinated by Angelique Nixon’s nonprofit Ayiti Resurrect. Moderator (and friend!) Ira Dworkin moderated and gave us all an update on the challenges facing women writers in Egypt. You can learn more about the threats facing Mona Prince here.

Ok, time to turn in. I haven’t actually left the hotel compound yet so I’m looking forward to tomorrow’s lineup, which includes a performance by Wura-Natasha Ogunji, Rosamond S. King, and Gabrielle Civil. We start here and then finish at the seashore…

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imagesSomebody keeps moving the goal line post. And that somebody, of course, is me. I’ve written 3,000 words this weekend and figure if I continue to write a thousand words a day, I will finish The Deep before this month ends (exceeding my self-imposed 40K-word limit). I’ve worked the ending out in my mind but getting there isn’t as easy as it seems—or as quick. I’ve got Nevis on the brain, possibly because I met with my faculty writing mentor last week and I know I am *supposed* to be working on The Hummingbird’s Tongue this semester. Then my mother sent me an email and asked when the sequel to A Wish After Midnight will be ready—her friends are eager to read more about Genna and Judah. Then yesterday, while waiting for the train, I started sarahforbesbonettathinking about my niece and how she hasn’t yet read The Secret Garden. I have an illustrated copy and wondered if I should send it to her, but then I wished I could send her a book that could serve as a mirror for her pretty brown self. Could I adapt the story and set it in the Caribbean? Or what if I combined my interest in Sarah Bonetta Forbes with my love of magic and gardens? A little girl is brought from Africa to England and is placed at an estate where she discovers a secret and makes new friends…This is what happens when I’m nearing the end of a project—my anxiety kicks up and I start looking ahead instead of rooting myself in the moment. Yesterday I came home from grocery shopping and found a sequel to The Secret Garden was on TV. I started to watch it and then switched to the 1949 black and white version of the original, which is on YouTube. Then I watched a three-hour special on gun violence in schools, imageswhich included an interview with a teary Arne Duncan. Then the news. Then Death in Paradise, this problematic British crime show set in the Caribbean. Then my favorite Irish film Once. The amazing thing is that all this television consumption doesn’t stop me from writing. In a way, the background noise helps me to focus on the novel. That’s what I tell myself, anyway. My students turn in their papers on Monday so then I’ll have to switch gears again and get my grading done. And, of course, our diversity panel at the NYPL is this coming Saturday. “There’s enough time.” That’s my new mantra. I’m having lunch with a group of friends today and part of me wants to bail. I need time to write! But I also need to get out of my head for a while—and I need to get these cupcakes out of my apartment. This is day twelve without cake…only 28 days to go!

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