A Warm Welcome

You’re The Only One I’ve Told by Dr. Meera Shah

Today I’m writing a review about a book that I have yet to finish. As a matter of fact, I’ve yet to even make a significant dent in it. But Dr. Meera Shah’s introduction to her book You’re The Only One I’ve Told: The Stories Behind Abortion was so impactful to me that I was impulsed to write! So I guess this isn’t really a review, it’s more of a note of gratitude and congratulations to Dr. Shah as I embark on her work. 

I originally picked up this book because I was enticed by the font and colors on the cover (what can I say, I’m vain in this way). However, I decided to take the book home with me because, as I read the title, You’re The Only One I’ve Told: The Stories Behind Abortion, I felt like I had been entrusted with a secret; I was already hooked! 

At the beginning of the introduction, Dr. Shah discloses that she is a doctor who provides abortion care (among other sexual and reproductive health services) and shares that she would like to push past the polarizing politics that often shroud the topic of abortion to facilitate a space for people’s personal stories. That being said, Dr. Shah does not shy away from acknowledging and explaining systemic issues which impact reproductive justice, such as poverty, racism, miseducation, and others. Actually, she goes as far as to cite figures and quote studies; she gives quite a lot of Information, capital I. 

The thing that makes Dr. Shah and this introduction special though, is that she manages to do all this educating while still making the reader feel as if she’s extending an invitation to an open communication. I guess it speaks to Dr. Shah’s prowess as a doctor that she can explain complex topics in a way that invites a listener to think and ask questions as opposed to absent-mindedly smile and nod. In just 32 pages, Dr. Shah curated an accessible environment for me to interact with abortion in a manner I seldom have before: on a personal level, while also establishing guidelines and boundaries for the safety and comfort of the individuals sharing their stories. 

As I write this, I’m only about half way through the first of 17 personal accounts shared in You’re The Only One I’ve Told, but I look forward to learning, to expanding my perspective, and to challenging my opinions. Dr. Shah has surely welcomed me to this book and this experience, and I look forward to carrying on this attitude of empathy and open-heartedness that she has inspired as I read her work. 

Signed, 

N.A.

These Poems.

Black Girl, Call Home by Jasmine Mans

I’ve been a fan of spoken word poetry for about a decade now, and Jasmine Mans was one of my first favorite poets. She was a part of an incredible collective called The Strivers Row, comprised of six very talented poets: Zora Howard, Alysia Harris, Miles Hodges, Joshua Bennett, Carvens Lissaint, and of course, Jasmine Mans. (I listed all of them so you can go look them up, they’re all doing amazing work!) The Strivers Row introduced and welcomed early teenage me into the world of spoken word art and fostered a love that I hold onto to this day. 

Reading and listening to (yes, I did both) Jasmine Mans’ book of poetry, Black Girl, Call Home, was nothing short of delightful for me. The experience felt warm and nostalgic; it was life-affirming. Indeed, it was my call home. 

So, in light of, and in honor of all I’ve learned and felt from Jasmine Mans over the years, I’ve written my own poem in tribute to Black Girl, Call Home

These poems. 
pay homage to blackness 
in so many of its iterations. 

These poems speak.
to personal quarrels 
& systemic battles, 
paint nuanced cultural anecdotes
as vibrant masterpieces. 

These poems elicit. 
visceral nostalgia: 
honoring grand traumas, 
embracing quotidian joys. 

These poems. 
to the eye, 
draw out deep sighs, 
heartfelt mmhm's 
of understanding, 
& identifying. 

These poems. 
to the ear, 
bear witness, 
to profound conviction,
excavate space, 
for profound truths. 

These poems offer. 
hand & heart
to hold. 

These poems. 
birthed of courage 
of audacity, 
hurt and jubilee. 

These poems supersede. 
looking and listening.

These poems demand. 
seeing eye & hearing ear. 

These poems.
cannot 
may not
be ignored. 

Signed,

N.A.

What I Learned from Tabby

Black Girls Must Die Exhausted by Jayne Allen

For the last few weeks I’ve been in a bit of a reading rut. At one point, I was in the middle of four books I was reading for pleasure and three I was reading for work, yet none of them were giving me that I will drop everything to finish this book feeling. I was finding all of them very interesting and very insightful; I’ll probably even write a review about one or two of them. But I was missing that feeling, and the impending date of my next scheduled post was not helping my motivation. 

Then… magic happened. A few days ago I was aimlessly scrolling on Instagram when I saw the cover of the book Black Girls Must Die Exhausted by Jayne Allen. I immediately knew: I need to read this book! 

It was Saturday so my neighborhood library was closed, along with most of the other libraries in the city. Just my luck though, one of the few open-on-weekends libraries had a copy of the book! I hopped out of bed and drove half an hour across town to find it. But when I got to the shelves, the book was nowhere to be found.

I went to the library computer to double check that the book was available, it was. I went to the shelves again, no luck. I asked a library worker who did the same thing I just did, with no luck either, then took me to the desk to ask the librarian. The librarian looked it up, confirming for now the third time that they should have the book. Then, after thinking for a moment, she said, “let’s check the new release display”… and there it was: my book!

Turns out the cover I had seen on Instagram was the new edition cover, which had come out less than two weeks prior. Ironically, I realized later that I had seen the original cover multiple times but it never quite grabbed my attention. It seemed the book found me at just the right time.

As I began reading, I knew immediately this was the book my mind had been waiting for. When I read the title: Black Girls Must Die Exhausted, it resonated with me on a level I was not expecting during my lazy insta-scrolling. And as I read through the misadventures of the protagonist Tabby, she resonated with me.

To be honest, I can’t directly relate to a lot of the situations Tabby faced in the book. I’m not battling for a promotion in corporate America, my friends aren’t facing serious marital issues, I’m definitely not stressing over my biological clock. Yet, I felt like I understood Tabby. There is something comforting, almost homelike, int the experience of reading about someone (no matter their fictional status) going through regular life struggles while acknowledging that being Black, and a woman, and a Black woman exacerbates those struggles. It was satisfying to, along with Tabby, take a second to acknowledge that Damn! This is exhausting!, sit in it for just a moment, then go back to fighting the good fight.

What I think Tabby and I both realized throughout the course of this book is that while Black girls must die exhausted, because of racism, misogynoir, oppression, etc., we also must die exhausted because of the fervor with which we laugh with our friends, love our families, and live long fulfilling lives! So I agree with author Jayne Allen, we Black girls really must die exhausted, but for more reasons, and for more joyful reasons than one might initially think.

Signed,

N.A.

p.s. Don’t judge a book by its cover, it might just be the one you’ve been waiting for.

Onye kwe, chi ya ekwe

dedicated to Nenne m & Enyidiya

An Orchestra of Minorities by Chigozie Obioma

Language shapes understanding because we can often only conceptualize what we can linguistically express. One of the reasons I enjoy learning languages is that I feel it expands my capacity for thought and ideas. Colonialism, it’s linguistic arm in particular, has irreversibly changed perception in that it limits the understanding of indigenous concepts to what can be expressed in foreign language. In my personal case, I refer to the unfortunate reality that most of the little I know of Igbo cosmology and the spiritual beliefs of my ancestors I have learned and consistently analyzed through the lens of the English language. The irony of me writing this very reflection in English is annoyingly epitomic. 

For this reason (and surely others) I’ve found a great comfort in reading novels steeped in Igbo-ness. If not in the language itself, in the people, the culture, the beliefs, and the linguistic mannerisms. I was utterly delighted by the intricacy with which Igbo-ness is woven into An Orchestra of Minorities: the frequent invocations of Chukwu (Almighty God) by his various titles, the effortless allegorical dialogue, the referencing of Jesus as the “alụsị [idol] of the White Man,” I could go on and on. Over and over again this book demanded that I shift my perspective, switch lenses, and steep myself in all things Igbo. I felt I was afforded a glimpse into an alternate universe in which I learned through, rather than learned of, Igbo culture. 

And that’s not even to talk of the story itself! An Orchestra of Minorities is narrated by a chi (guardian spirit) testifying before Chukwu on behalf of his human host Chinonso. The book is a heartbreaking love story of a man, the woman he loves, and his chi who loves him. As the chi recounts the tragic yet endearing story of Chinonso and his love Ndali, and all that befalls Chinonso in his pursuit of her, we bear witness to the unparalleled love and devotion of the chi toward his host. The care with which Chinonso’s chi advocates for him is nothing short of mesmerizing. 

Chinonso’s story in An Orchestra of Minorities is a shining example of the common Igbo saying: Onye kwe, chi ya ekwe. Before I get to what this means, a (not so) quick side note.

I am someone who lives by the phrase “say what you mean and mean what you say.” I always make the distinction between a definition and a meaning, especially in writing. Annoyingly so, I can admit. I am the person who understands what you’re trying to say but still corrects how you said it. It can be a hindrance in casual conversation, but it has aided me tremendously throughout the course of my western education. So, in that same vein, while writing this, I wanted to first share a translation of onye kwe, chi ya ekwe before explaining its idiomatic meaning. 

The Igbo language and, in this instance, the specific phrase onye kwe, chi ya ekwe consistently teaches me that the concept of analyzing words and phrases like mathematical equations is foreign to Igbo culture and the Igbo language. Igbo is an allegorical language. In fact, my mother often points out that the language of the Old Testament makes an intrinsic sense to her because of its allegorical style. All of this to say, despite many attempts, neither I, nor my resident Igbo tutor whom I call Mom, could come up with what we felt was a truly encompassing translation of the phrase onye kwe, chi ya ekwe.

So let’s talk about what it means. Onye kwe, chi ya ekwe is a beautiful concept denoting that our chi’s always remain by our sides and will follow our lead as we take charge of our own destinies. 

Igbo cosmology teaches that chi’s go through cycles of reincarnations, but their hosts, us humans, are not equipped with the explicit knowledge of what they have experienced in previous lives. In An Orchestra of Minorities, Chinonso’s chi has lived many lives before Chinonso, and has been the chi of some of Chinonso’s ancestors. Many times he sees things Chinonso does not, sometimes he disagrees with Chinonso’s decisions, but Chinonso’s chi always supports and accompanies him. Chinonso’s chi consistently sees the truth of his intentions and relays those truths as he advocates for him before Chukwu. Through all of Chinonso’s tribulations, his chi is always championing him.

It brings me peace to know that I too have a chi who knows and recognizes my earnest intentions. A chi who knew my ancestors and carries the knowledge they had which has been lost through colonization. 

I cannot recommend An Orchestra of Minorities enough! Whether you’re Igbo or not. It is not only an incredible story of a complex and troubled man; it is also a glimpse into an entirely different world. For those, like myself, who are not intimately familiar with Igbo cosmology, An Orchestra of Minorities is a powerful exercise in shifting perspective and questioning what we consider reality.

Signed,

N.A.

No Words, No Judgement, Just Love

Pew by Catherine Lacey

Pew by Catherine Lacey is equal parts hilarious and startling. Hilarious because Pew — the book’s protagonist — is an excellent curator of ‘that awkward moment’ and consistently makes everyone around them squirm, and startling because of everyone’s unpredictable and outlandish responses to Pew’s behavior. 

Pew is ambiguous in every sense of the word. No one knows Pew’s race, gender, age, or even real name. And to make matters more interesting, Pew is completely silent, a reality that leaves everyone around them scrambling for what to say and do. A sense of vicarious discomfort is extended even to the reader. 

Everyone is asking Pew questions: Who are you? Where did you come from? And everyone is insisting that they need answers, but Pew gives no answers, and in the chasm of silence left behind the entire community spills their darkest secrets. It’s almost as if the lack of a marker by which to judge Pew provides the community members with a sense of security that they will not be judged for or by the skeletons in their own closets.

Throughout the book, it’s eye-opening to reflect on how the inability to assign someone to a label or category can so viscerally discombobulate people. I’m reminded of the sentiments of Poet Alok Vaid-Menon when they observed that people tend to seek understanding rather than simply extending compassion. Why is it that this whole town is so obsessed with discovering Pew’s identity and past? What do the secrets revealed in the absence of answers say about the inquisitors? And more importantly, what integral parts of ourselves are you and I denying as we insist on the details of others?

As I read Pew, I repeatedly thought to myself, this is the weirdest book I’ve ever read. But the oddity of it was not necessarily in the story itself, but in the fact that Pew was such a loveable protagonist, one the reader is enticed to champion and even defend, without knowing a single thing about them. Often, with books and in the real world, we — or more specifically I — search for points of connection with people and experiences before extending empathy or support. Catherine Lacey, devised a story which impels the reader to love Pew just because, no rhyme or reason. What a weird and wonderful world it would be if we could love everyone in that way.

Pew by Catherine Lacey takes a powerful look at silence, the secrets it reveals, and the relationships it can foster. Pew remembers nothing about self but discovers so much about the world and its inhabitants. Pew is a beautiful glimpse into stories untold, and a reminder that if we forget ourselves and forget what we think others ought to be, we just might discover the unimaginable. 

Signed,

N.A.

I Knew It!

Transcendent Kingdom by Yaa Gyasi

Reading is a newfound love of mine, and Transcendent Kingdom is the book that started it all. I  read this book at the very beginning of 2021 and after completing it in just a few days I sat in silence and realized this was the first time in my more than two decades of living (and schooling) that I had ever seen myself so wholly reflected in a book. 

Gifty, the protagonist, is the child of Ghanaian parents, raised in a predominantly white, very religious, and racially micro aggressive community, who turns to her formal education looking for answers to life’s most asked questions. I mean, is that not me?! Of course switch out Ghanaian for Nigerian because naija no dey carry last, #nigerianjollof, insert all of my Nigerian pride here — but I was dumbstruck, for the first time in my life I found me in a book, a novel at that!

Growing up I always knew I loved reading. I say “I knew” in the same way someone exclaims “I knew it!” when a secret they knew to be true finally comes to light. My love of books was not evident as a child or adolescent, as a matter of fact it was constantly contradicted by the number of books I started and never finished.

As I read Transcendent Kingdom I was repeatedly surprised by and welcomed into a realm of familiarity. I could relate to Gifty’s experiences, to her perspective and her worries. I contemplated this experience in comparison to adolescent me, suspicious that I was a bookworm but absolutely bereft of evidence, and thought to myself Is this what all my white bookworm peers were feeling the whole time??

Transcendent Kingdom was a revelation to me. I am a reader, I am nwanyị akwụkwọ, and I always knew it. After reading Transcendent Kingdom I made a goal to read more. I originally wanted to aim for 52 books in 2021, one book per week, but I decided to err on the side of caution, and my track record, and just go for “more.” Joke’s on me though because here I am two-thirds of the way through the year and I’m on book 40!

Since Transcendent Kingdom, I’ve found my neighborhood in the book world so to speak. I’ve communed with stories that remind me of me and my life, and I’ve empathized with characters and people whose experiences I never even thought to consider. I am surely indebted to Yaa Gyasi for writing the book which opened for me a door of unthinkable discovery.

Signed, 

N.A.

The Lit Musings of N.A.

Nwanyị Akwụkwọ: Igbo words meaning “learned woman” and literally translating as “woman of books.” Nwanyị Akwụkwọ is a name, or title I guess you could say, that I’ve come to identify with over the past several months as I’ve discovered my new found yet undying love of books. It’s also indicative of my passion for learning and my consistent dedication to my culture. 

I am a proud Igbo woman — I doubt that there are Igbo people who aren’t proud, if you know, you know — but I was born and raised in the United States, and that has significantly impacted my relationship with Igbo culture. As I’m sure many first gens can relate, connecting with my culture has proved a fickle process. But, as I continue to explore and get to know myself in early adulthood I find my path regularly returns to the culture and language of my ancestors.

Unfortunately though, I am not a fluent Igbo speaker, in fact, the name Nwanyị Akwụkwọ is quite difficult for me to say. So, for the sake of all of our tongues and brain cells, this blog is signed, N.A. 

The signed, N.A. blog will be one of book reviews, personal musings, and cultural commentary — and possibly the occasional academic paper. Recently, I have found books to be an incredibly candid mirror upon which to self reflect. At this particular moment in my life and personal development, I’ve found myself questioning absolutely everything, and I’ve gained a sincere appreciation for what can be revealed through a critical lens. My mom often says “the more you learn, the more you realize you don’t know,” and that’s a journey I’m hoping to embark on here. 

Through this blog I will contemplate and opine on the joys and turmoils of finding one’s truth through another’s experience. These are what I like to call lit musings, not book reviews per se but reflections on what I’ve learned about myself and the world around me through literature.

I hope you’ll stay along for the ride. 

With love,

Signed, 

N.A.