Soft Luxury in Chicago

The Mariane Ibrahim gallery is a consistently edifying experience. Last year, I found myself stunned and awed at the Mariane Ibrahim gallery in Paris. Stunned because who knew that my whimsical decision to explore Blackness in Paris could lead me to such a breathtaking experience? And awed because of the inspiration and comfort I felt in the face of Amoako Boafo’s expansive painting of a woman playing tennis. This moment was the impetus for my continued whimsy, and led to my walking into the Mariane Ibrahim gallery in Chicago’s West Town 9 months later.

What I felt this time was once again unpredictable. I was met in the entrance by a list of names, unknown to me, yet familiar in their Nigerian-ness. Upon seeing the first painting, I exhaled a breath I wasn’t aware I was holding. As I strolled, I was enveloped by feminine energy, Blackness, and a sound that embodied all the lovely parts of noise and all the juicy parts of quiet.

The highlight of my sojourn in the gallery this time around was the viewing of Olukemi Lijadu’s Guardian Angel. A piece which touched on love and history, family and art, religion and colonialism. In short, everything I could have asked for.

The Mariane Ibrahim gallery is a soft luxury that always rejuvenates my spirit. It was the ostentatious centerpiece of my Chicago experience.

My first stop in Chicago was Semicolon bookstore, a Black woman owned bookstore in River West. The store has a very homey vibe and the shelves are filled with every genre of Black literature a diaspora loving bibliophile like myself can enjoy. While there I bought a womanist poetry anthology: Wild Imperfections; I immediately sat down in the store to read and instantly felt I had started my trip off on the right foot.

Gallery Guichard in Bronzeville showcased dynamic art from across Africa and it’s diaspora, with an air of friendship and community wafting through the gallery as artists spoke of their drive to create.

Sofar Chicago’s Black History Month show in the historic building that was once Vee-Jay Records featured the incredible Mara Love. Mara blessed the audience with a deep soulful voice that seemed a serendipitous throwback to the legends who once recorded in the same space.

The American Writers Museum is an homage to literary legends and a muse to literary legends to be. There I learned: Your words will live forever, and will inspire the people your dreams are not even capable of imagining.

Slow is my poem reflecting on the many poems of Wild Imperfections that accompanied me around Chicago.


Your wild imperfection
you're perfectly wild

My companion
as I roam
this city
remind me
rest; read

Teach me
read, see, feel
the last word
the last touch
of ink on page

moving fingers
turn the page

I am
a slow learner
then become
slow, learning



A Familiar Resemblance

“Oh my gosh! I’ve never met anyone that looks like me!” These were the first words my teenage cousin, we’ll call her Sis, said to me after a decade of not speaking or seeing each other’s faces.

A divorce when we were young meant that those who were too young to keep in touch, lost touch. When I was finally old enough to make my own contact, and determined enough to find a current phone number, I reached out. After a phone call filled with joy and surprise, we hopped on facetime later that day, and the first words to leave my baby (though not a baby anymore) cousin’s mouth were like a shot to the heart. I was lucky enough to have remained in contact with the family from whom she had become estranged over the years. There are so many of us, and we all really do look very much alike. Yet, for her, at 15, to see herself reflected in someone else that wasn’t immediate family was a completely new experience.

My family is spread out across several countries on three separate continents. And while it’s cool to have lots of free-housing vacation options, it also means going years, and sometimes decades without seeing each other. Now, in my mid-twenties, I find that while it does take a concerted effort, keeping in touch with most people is definitely doable. But as a child, if I had never met you, or was too young to remember meeting you, it was basically out of sight out of mind.

I remember having a similar experience to Sis when I met some of our cousins for the first time a few years prior. I had always known these cousins existed, and had gotten the occasional email or card after a particularly joyous or tragic life event; but I had never met them, nor had any sort of meaningful relationship with them. I clearly recall walking around a corner and seeing my cousin’s face for the first time and thinking, hey, you look like me.

It was a rare family vacation during which a lot of us were meeting for the first time, or for the first time in many years. We spent a remarkable amount of time commenting on our similarly slender hands, wide noses, bow legs, and squinty eyes. Most of us were teenagers, living completely different lives with arguably very little in common. Yet, we saw ourselves in each other and that made us feel like family.

This experience of literally seeing myself in others is pretty central to my experience of family. However, in Carmen Rita Wong’s memoir Why Didn’t You Tell Me? she describes a photo taken after a family dinner by noting, “Most people would look at that photo and not see one family but a hodgepodge of what looks like unrelated people of all different races. But we were family and are.”

In her book, Wong rivetingly accounts how uncovering a metaphorical Russian doll of her mother’s secrets leads her to question not only her familial relations, but also her entire racial and cultural identity. Wong’s story is shocking, and sometimes sad, but the aspect that really amazed me was that with every uncovered secret, she never lost a family member, she only continued to gain them.

Wong grew up in a family in which she felt like an outsider, not quite looking enough like her mother or sisters or brother. Yet she never reneged on the conviction that they were indeed her family, as disjointed and unconventional as they might be.

For me, oftentimes, I can physically see myself in the faces of my relatives. They literally remind me of the face I see in the mirror every single day. Wong, on the other hand, may not have literally seen herself in her relatives, but they shared so much more than a physical resemblance.

What if you looked at someone else and didn’t see your own face, but you saw your culture, and your language, and your childhood stories? Does this not lend the same immediate sense of recognition? Carmen Rita Wong’s incredibly diverse and convoluted story of family has caused me to question: What is it really that makes family familiar?



My Small Offerings

Some months ago, I was sitting in a meeting with several of my peers and the conversation wandered to the topic of pets and the, in my opinion, ever-exasperating debate of dogs versus cats. As we went around the room declaring our stances I was met with the usual appall at my calm pronouncement that I don’t like either and that my preferred relationship with animals is that we each stay in our separate corners. One of my friends, in an effort to redeem me in the eyes of our dismayed crowd, asked if I at least have plants. I replied negatively and was met with a response I had never before considered in all of my experience with the perpetual pet debate. It was something along the lines of, and I paraphrase, So you’re the only living being in your home??

That was something I had never considered. I pondered that idea for a moment, but a fleeting one.

In Robin Wall Kimmerer’s Braiding Sweetgrass, she explains that Potawatomi culture (and many other Native North American cultures) holds human and nonhuman life in similar regard. In Potawatomi language there is a distinct pronoun for nonhuman living beings, parallel to he or she for human beings. Plants, trees, lakes, etc. are honored for their contributions to daily life just as we honor the people who add to our lives.

I was intrigued by this paradigm that ascribed to nature a value I had never imagined. I always appreciate a new perspective, but again, I filed it away.

Then, some weeks ago, I was introduced to the word “ecocide.”

Ecocide, noun; destruction of the natural environment by deliberate or negligent human action. (Google).

I heard this word from Yoalli Rodriguez, scholar of environmental racism, ecological grief, and other equally impressive disciplines. In her interview on the For The Wild podcast, Rodriguez delves into the collective grieving of a particular Indigenous community in Oaxaca as the lagoons in their ancestral lands slowly die due to ecocide enacted by the Mexican State. I was struck by the word’s conspicuous similitude to the more common (at least in my line of work) “homicide,” “femicide,” and “suicide.” I was also struck by her explanation of a people grieving for their nonhuman community members, the lagoons.

This time, I reflected for more than a fleeting moment. This community in Oaxaca, and many others all around the world are grieving the loss of loved ones, nonhuman loved ones, but loved nonetheless. And, as Kimmerer explained in her book, these natural beings that are disappearing are not strangers, but family members with whom many Indigenous peoples have had reciprocal, life-sustaining relationships for generations.

I don’t consider myself a participant in this grieving. How can I be when I am only just now learning of the higher value of these dying natural beings, their value independent of my use of them? However, I too know grief, as many of us do. And I don’t believe that empathy is worth much without action.

So, I began to think of what I can do, and here’s what I came up with: 1) learn more, the obvious step one to any change-making. I’ll strive to learn more about the long-held and cherished relationships between earth and people, specifically Indigenous peoples. And 2) I bought a plant. I figured it was time to make some space in my home and heart for another living being.

Many cultures have traditions or rituals of paying respects to those that our grieving. These are my small offerings.



My Journey to the Sacred Black Feminine

One year ago today I wrote my first Signed, N.A. blog post. The creation of this blog is in large part owed to Transcendant Kingdom by Yaa Gyasi, a book that taught me that books I can relate to actually exist. Since I read Transcendent Kingdom in January 2021, I’ve continued to find books that make me feel truly seen. And now, at the one year milestone of this blogging endeavor, one book stands out among the rest: Dr. Christena Cleveland’s God Is a Black Woman.

In my first Signed, N.A. post a year ago, I mused on my identification with the title Nwanyị Akwụkwọ and set an intention to write and share “reflections on what I’ve learned about myself and the world around me through literature.” When I read God Is a Black Woman I learned things about myself in a deeper way than I ever have before. I felt connection, not only to the author and her story, but also to my ancestors, and maybe even to my chi (s/o to the Signed, N.A. readers who know what I’m talking about). The things I learned and felt from this book were of such a personal nature that I wasn’t sure I wanted to share, and I went back and forth quite a bit on the decision. But, as we arrive at a year of Signed, N.A., and I reflect on the intentions I set at the beginning of this so called pilgrimage, I could only come to one conclusion: to share with you all My Journey to the Sacred Black Feminine

* * *

In the church I grew up in, the most frequently used image of Christ is a painting of Jesus as a blonde-haired, blue-eyed, broad-shouldered, phenotypically white man wearing a bold red robe. Several times over the course of my life, and particularly during my time as an active member of this church, I have paused to think about the implications of this image, or similar ones, being the one I most easily associate with God or the Divine. In recent years, I have taken a furtive and concerted look inward to unpack how what Dr. Christena Cleveland refers to as white male god has influenced how I see myself and how I move through the world.

My journey away from the church I was raised in and toward a more personal divine experience has raised many questions from others, and I often find myself without what I would consider adequate answers. And while I have always and continue to assert that my experience needs no explanation as its depths defy the bounds of human language, I would also like to thank Dr. Cleveland for her book, God Is a Black Woman, which, for the first time, has provided me with some language that I feel comes close to explaining the transformative journey I am on.

Throughout the book, Dr. Cleveland introduces the readers to a Sacred Black Feminine who displays characteristics of a Divine Mother and who descends from on high to wallow in humanity with their child. The Sacred Black Feminine is not perfect and does not look down on me, rather, She shares my experiences, intimately knows my trials, and struggles alongside me. Dr. Cleveland also writes about the importance of valuing and giving credence to Black women’s lived experiences with divinity even when they contradict religious theory or doctrine. Personally, this is a principle I appreciate in all aspects of life. I truly believe that  just because something hasn’t been dissected and extrapolated using scientific theory doesn’t mean that what I or anyone else feels and/or experiences is not true and real. 

It was this distinct cognitive dissonance that caused me to leave behind white male god and seek out the Sacred Black Feminine. As a womanist and human rights advocate, I have a deep conviction for the ideals that we are not free until we are all free, and that the most marginalized hold the key to liberation. These are ideals I try my best to exemplify in my work for justice and equity. Yet, when I stepped back and examined the manner in which I was approaching my personal spiritual liberation, I realized the god I was acquainted with was very distant from my pain, was not familiar with my life experiences, and often made me feel as though I was sprinting in the sand to catch up with someone who started before me, ahead of me, and on solid ground.

It was about four years ago that I first began to more consciously and consistently notice this dissonance in how I saw the world and how I believed god saw me. But as I look back on the expanse of my short life, I do see that the Sacred Black Feminine was whispering in my ear all along.

The first time I heard Joan Osborne’s “One of Us ” in my early teens, I was enamored. It was the first time I remember considering a god like me rather than one whom I was trying to be like. And though I was raised to believe in a loving god, the kind of god Joan Osborne sang about seemed capable of a level of empathy I had never before attributed to the Divine.

This was one of my first whispers. Since then, I’ve become better acquainted with this sort of divine empathy. I’ve known and felt it from the Divine, as well as from the divinity I’ve encountered in others, and manifested in myself. And through a series of gentle whispers and words of encouragement I arrived at an undeniable fork in the road with white male god on high on one hand, and Sacred Black Feminine beside on the other. So, I chose the path of understanding and empathy, the path whose love was designed specifically for me, and was immense enough to be designed distinctly for each individual.

A large part of my journey since then has been arriving at the recognition and acknowledgment that the Divinity within me is just as important as the Divinity outside of me. I’m proud to say that I now exist in “the world of the Sacred Black Feminine in which [I can trust] my experience and embodied wisdom more than reason and tradition. “

So, to others who may be in my shoes, I would like to suggest that you may already know what you’re looking for and where to find it. Just trust yourself, and know that there is indeed a Divine Being who knows you and your experiences so well that she might just be you.



Ịhụnanya, the price of vision

Of course after years of having absolutely no interest in romance novels, Akwaeke Emezi would be the one to reel me into page-turning devotion of their chaotic yet indisputably alluring protagonist Feyi. You Made a Fool of Death with Your Beauty begins with a sex scene *eye roll*. Personally, sex scenes are my least favorite parts of books, and not even necessarily because of the explicitness, but mainly because reading through one, no matter how relevant and integral it is to the storyline, always makes me wrestle with the urge to shriek “ooh girl, that is not my business!” and close the book. But again, Emezi worked their magic and had me hella uncomfy but undeniably intrigued by Feyi and the rando she was hooking up with. But the true magic of Fool of Death and its genius author is the ability to start off with a bang (pun intended) and still convey that though the forthcoming story plays with vanity, it is most assuredly a serious matter of the heart and soul.

Feyi, the bearer and creator of the beauty the title refers to, is the ultimate protagonist. Throughout the book, the reader is enthralled to follow her down a path that at times seems just messy and at others seems downright unforgivable. Yet the intimacy with which Emezi bears Feyi to the reader ensures no other reaction to her chaos than complete loving support. Feyi is a character we all want to win, and that desire caused me to sincerely interrogate myself as to what I believe love is really worth.

The Igbo word for love is ịhụnanya. A literal translation of ịhụnanya is to see in the eye. I love you: a hụrụ m gị n’anya. Literally: I see you in the eye. What a pure interpretation of what it means to love, to truly see someone… the eye: a window to the soul. Is that what a soulmate is? Someone who sees you in the eye, who sees your soul? If so, what is this vision really worth? Feyi compromises friendship, work, societal opinion, maybe even morals for a chance at this sort of love, this sight into the soul. Would I do the same?

To be honest, I’m really not sure. But the fact that Akwaeke Emezi conjured this whimsical depiction from fiction makes my imagination of the real thing all the more invaluable and worthy of sacrifice.

I came away from Fool of Death feeling enlivened, for death truly is a fool in the face of this kine beauty.

A Birthday Off the Beaten Path

About a month ago, I received an enthusiastic text message from my best friend congratulating me for amassing a “whole crew” of friends with whom to celebrate my 25th birthday. Earlier that week I had in included her in a group chat of a whopping seven people with the purpose of making birthday plans. Given that I’m still settling in to a new city, and knowing all too well my proclivity for introversion and my usual no new friends attitude, I assume my friend was as impressed by my interest in celebrating with a group of mostly new friends as she was by the fact of their mere existence.

I basked in her recognition of my feat, but quickly reminded her that I was offsetting this unusual exhibition of extroversion by literally fleeing the country to spend five days alone in a city I’d never been to and where my knowledge of the language was beginner at best.

Following the lead of my inner nomad, I’ve slowly inched travel closer and closer to the top of my priority list. And though I’ve had the privilege of travelling quite a bit throughout my life, this trip to Paris, for my 25th birthday, is my first ever solo trip. Not only am I traveling alone, I also had no plans to meet anyone upon my arrival. Though this was daunting, I also recognized it as a wonderful opportunity to do anything and only things I wanted to do. So when I arrived at Charles de Gaulle Airport on Thursday morning, I intentionally slowed my pace and made the conscious decision and promise to myself that I would not rush or hurry anywhere for the duration of my time in the City of Light.

Prior to a few months ago, I had no real interest in visiting Paris, or France in general for that matter. As someone immersed in the world of international human rights, when I thought of France the first things that came to mind were islamophobic laws masked in the name of secularism and women getting arrested on the beach for wearing burqinis; not exactly an inviting vision. Though I’m not Muslim, nor do I cover my hair for religious purposes, as a young Black woman planning a solo trip to a foreign country, systemic racism was not really the attraction I was looking for. But just as my plans to visit another city seemed to be falling through, I stumbled upon a podcast talking about all of the incredible contributions Black people from Africa and across the diaspora have made to Paris throughout the city’s history. The podcast mentioned a bookstore and publishing house called Présence Africaine that published some of the 20th century’s great Black writers. Instantly, I was hooked!

As I moseyed through Paris at the intentionally slow pace I set for myself at the beginning of my trip, I reveled in the pockets of Blackness I found all around: the cozy and warm interior of Présence Africaine; the Ivorian food stuffs shop where the owner, Ivan, jarred peanut butter at the checkout desk and the shelves were filled with more variations of farine than I knew existed; quiet moments I shared with myself and the painted humans on the walls on the comfy couch on the second floor of Mariane Ibrahim gallery, rising from the metro at Barbès to a microcosm of African street fashion, the flavorful heap of caramelized onions at Madiba Afro Hot Dogs, the slow and steady of the rocking chair I sat on in Nil Gallery surrounded by the work of Prince Gyasi and Abe Odedina. All of these things filled me with so much light.

Paris is known as the City of Light. For me, the Blackness of the city, the Black food, the Black art, the vibrant Black energy are what really make the moniker ring true.

I don’t know when or if I’ll return to Paris, but, as my trip comes to a close, I feel the sweetest sense of satisfaction. My first solo trip is in the books, and in celebration of my 25th birthday and the trajectory in which I hope to move, it was slow, and restful, and very Black.

Turns out five days alone in a new city was just the refresh I needed to hype me up for a celebratory night out with my “whole crew.”



p.s. If you enjoy the Signed, N.A. blog (or you’d just like to wish me happy birthday), please do subscribe and share with a friend.

Black Women’s Exile

Exile. I’ve been pondering the concept quite a bit of late. Merriam-Webster has two definitions of the word: (1) the state or a period of forced absence from one’s country or home; and (2) the state or a period of voluntary absence from one’s country or home.

There is only one word of difference between the two definitions: “forced” versus “voluntary.” And I ask myself, who has ever voluntarily been in exile?? Is an exit voluntary simply because no one is physically pushing you out?

Tiffanie Drayton’s Black American Refugee elucidates how the United States’ relationship to Black people is abusive. Her book follows her journey of leaving two abusive relationships, one with her partner, and one with America, and returning to her home in Trinidad. Did Tiffanie choose exile?

In the autobiography of Assata Shakur, she details the witch hunt carried out by the US government and its security forces, that came very close to taking her life on more than one occasion, which led to her fleeing to Cuba. Did Assata choose exile?

Blue by Emmelie Prophète details the lives of (fictional) Black women who are trying to escape life in a country with the misfortune of being a former colony and not a former colonizer. But she laments that all that is truly achieved are lonely funerals that loved ones on both sides are too distant and too poor to attend. Do they too choose exile?

So what exactly is a “voluntary” exile? Maybe it is choosing personal liberation over hollow promises of opportunity; choosing a hard life over no life at all.

But are these really choices at all?

Another interesting detail of Merriam-Webster’s definitions is the use of the phrase “country or home.” While the dichotomy of “forced” versus “voluntary” exile leaves me disconcerted, I am at the same time affirmed by the explicit distinction between “country” and “home.” The type of exile I am most intrigued by is the type that afflicts those for whom country and home are not synonymous.

What makes a country a possession if not a feeling of home? What allows for ease of tongue in the utterance of the phrase “my country”? Is it the seal and color of a passport? Is it the culmination of one’s life experiences within a particular border? And what makes a home if there is no country on which it stands? Is it the language of one’s dreams? Is it the smell of a favorite dish ?

Maybe exile is the empty space in the Venn diagram of country and home. Maybe exile is the absence of the privilege, bestowed on so few, to see no delineation between country and home, between passport and pass the plate, between mother tongue and motherland.

It seems to me that there is no choice when it comes to exile. It seems to me that there is only a force, from within or without, but usually both, yearning for a reality in which home and country, and liberation and dignity can all coincide.

Searching for Treasure

He understood this, perhaps: that a child can long for a parent in a way that a parent can never long for a child. He was fully formed when I was born, while I have always been missing a father.

Sankofa by Chibundu Onuzo

From the first page of Sankofa, I was immediately concerned with perspective. Though the book is a novel, I quickly became skeptical about the level of authenticity with which such a young author could write from the viewpoint of a middle aged woman. But, as I became acquainted with Anna (the protagonist), I realized her imminent journey required her to contend with the needs, desires, and deficiencies not of her current self, but of her inner child. And that is a journey familiar to many.

Throughout Sankofa, Anna searches for her father, first literally, then for a ghost of his past self, before finally arriving at a nuanced reality. This is her primary search, and it is deserving of its own independent reflection. But it is not just a father she finds, in fact she finds another piece of herself to be missing: an entire culture.

A culture that she will never fit into, for the time has passed and her ship has sailed. But also a culture that may not have ever been hers, even with all the should haves and would haves and could haves regret has to offer. Some things are simply not meant to be. True as that may be though, I applaud Anna for wanting and searching anyway, for taking what she could get, and for having no shame in her desperation.

I am planning, or perhaps have already embarked on a journey of this sort. A journey in which I already know that what I want is too much, what I’m searching for I may never find, and what I get will simply have to suffice. A journey in which the Cartesian me will not be made up of wholes and voluntary contributions, but rather of bits and pieces and castaway scraps.

As the saying goes: one man’s trash is another man’s treasure. Treasure I will do and treasure I will be.



Beauty and Beast: On Grief and Care

There is the Turkish word hüzün, which cannot be translated into English. Instead of meaning a simple sadness or suffering it denotes a collective, Istanbul-wide phenomenon that some call spiritual, some call nostalgic, but the one thing we know for sure is that the word exists because it is pridefully shared with others. The ideal is not to escape this suffering, but to carry this suffering.

The Four Humors by Mina Seçkin

For my eighth birthday – the one that occurred just weeks after my father’s untimely death – one of my aunts gifted me a special copy of Beauty and the Beast. At first glance it appeared to be a run of the mill Disney picture book, but further inspection revealed that I, along with my brother and cousins, were included in the story as Belle’s friends and helpers. Despite my indifference to princesses at the time, and my growing recognition of and annoyance with Disney’s portrayal of princesses as I got older, this gift is the sole reason that, to this day, I have an answer to the terribly unoriginal question Who is your favorite Disney princess? I still take this 30-page knock-off book – containing a story that I now consider highly problematic – with me everywhere I live because it is one of very few bright spots in what I remember as a very dark time.

I want to say that grief is ugly, or horrid, or awful. But grief is also two-faced in that it manages to be both beauty and beast simultaneously. Grief has an incredible talent for warping perception. Sibel, the protagonist in The Four Humors, is buckling under the weight of grief after the death of her father. She is losing herself while also indulging her wonder by searching for a new self. She exhibits impressive fortitude, or stubbornness, by expressly ignoring the concerns of others and continuing her off beat path through grief.

Sibel eats. Sibel gains weight. Sibel smokes. Sibel is sometimes mean. Sibel walks, but is actually marching due to the sheer tiredness of life. Sibel lies, to everyone, at different times. Sibel is ill, and Sibel is selfish. And in all these ways, Sibel grieves.

But Sibel also cares, immensely. Sibel cares for the comfort of her lover in a strange land. Sibel cares for her grandmother and Sibel cares for her baby sister, both of whom are dying in different ways. Sibel cares to know her great aunt despite her unforgivable past. And in all these ways, Sibel grieves.

The next time I find I must reacquaint with grief, I hope I allow myself to do so with as much poetry and shamelessness and collective melancholy as Sibel; if even just for one day.

Sibel embarks on her summer in Istanbul with a directive to care and a need to grieve. One might wonder if the two can be done simultaneously, but from Sibel it’s learned they are one in the same: beauty and beast.



Musings on New York City & Migration

inspired  by Patsy by Nicole Dennis-Benn 

dedicated to my parents, Peace & Sunday Ezeh, your migration is the foundation of my story

As is the case of countless migrants, New York City was the very first place my dad experienced in the United States, and though he was there for what I imagine to be mere hours, it left a lasting impression.

A few years ago, while cleaning out my childhood home in preparation for a move, my family and I found my father’s journal from the year he moved to America: 1981! In it we also found an essay he wrote about his experience landing in New York City for the first time. (I guess I take after my dad in the whole writing essays for fun department). He mentioned his shock at the cold (it was January), but then spent the majority of the essay recounting, seemingly baffled, his experience with a customs agent at JFK airport. 

My dad recounted that the agent opened up his bags to inspect them, unwrapping several food items he had brought on the journey; one of these food items was stockfish, which tends to have a very strong smell. My dad detailed how the customs agent openly complained about the smell of the fish, and made several snide remarks about the foods in his bag. My dad, new to the US, and the particular brand of rude that is New York etiquette,  was astonished. In his essay, he questioned whether this man realized that he was an ambassador of his country. Didn’t he know that he is the first American many are coming into contact with? Is this how he represents his country?? 

As an American who grew up with post-9/11 airport security, I find this comical. These days most of us know that going through customs is a generally uncomfortable and oftentimes frustrating experience, and no one, including those getting paid, wants to be there. But to my dad, as a new immigrant in 1981, this interaction merited an entire essay!

* * *

Several weeks ago I made a quick trip to Manhattan, New York City for a work event. Unlike many others, Americans or not, I am not enamored by the city. While there, on the phone with my mom, she asked me, “How’s New York?” “Loud, crowded, dirty,” I responded without any hesitation, to which she replied a vindicated “mmhm!” New York City is one place for which my mother and I share a mutual distaste. Though I was born in New York City, I only spent the first four years of my life there, so for a long time it was an idealized dreamland in my mind’s eye. However, as I got older and got to know myself better, I realized that, for me, New York City’s quick pace and “attitude” were more headache-inducing than heartwarming. My mother, on the other hand, had my brother and me convinced that she was allergic to yelling for a significant portion of our childhoods, so that’s probably an indicator of how she would take to the Big Apple. 

That being said, as I roamed the streets of Manhattan, which I perceived to be much too busy and confusing, I couldn’t help but think about my mother and what  her immigration experience must have been like. My mother came to the United States as a new immigrant in the early nineties, she was young, well educated, and highly fashionable (honestly, you should see the pictures!), and New York City was her very first experience outside of her home country. I was in New York for less than 48 hours as a well traveled millenial with a smartphone and Google maps, and still I was overwhelmed. As I walked around midtown Manhattan, I found myself looking around and wondering how did she do this? I really admire the mental strength it must have taken to overcome the culture shock and not only survive, but thrive!

* * *

I wrote the above portion of this post when I was about half-way through Nicole Dennis-Benn’s novel Patsy. Patsy tells the story of a young woman who immigrates to New York City from the small town of Pennyfield, Jamaica chasing after love and the American dream. I was particularly intrigued by Dennis-Benn’s impressively realistic and nuanced narration of Patsy’s astonishment at the chasm between her idealized American dream and the reality of being undocumented and jobless in New York City. Patsy’s bewilderment at her whirlwind of experiences upon arriving in New York reminded me of my own recent experience and inspired me to reminisce on those of my parents. 

Then Patsy’s story took many unexpected turns, the kind of complex curveballs that make a novel really loveable! Those same kinds of twists that leave me scrambling to relate this book to the blog post idea I started with 200 pages ago! 

But that’s really the thing about migration, isn’t it? You might head off in a certain direction, with grand intentions and a well thought out plan, and find yourself a decade later with a life you never imagined. I marvel at the bravery of my parents’, Patsy (despite her fictional status), and so many others who immigrate from all corners of the earth to New York City in particular; I mean, talk about betting on yourself! And I am awed by the fortitude of migrants all over the world who leave homes and make homes because of necessity, ambition, adventure, or any combination of an unending variety of reasons. I aspire for your class of self-assuredness and I dream to follow in all of your footsteps.