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?

Signed,

N.A.

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.

Signed,

N.A.

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.

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.

Signed,

N.A.

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.

Signed,

N.A.

Ụmụ Nwanyị Akwụkwọ: Crossing the Diaspora

everyman by M Shelly Conner

In my very first signed, N.A. blog post, I wrote that “I have found books to be an incredibly candid mirror upon which to self reflect.” This still rings true, but perhaps in a different sense than I originally intended. The book that catalysed my now voracious reading habit, and hence is the seed that sprouted this blog, was Transcendent Kingdom by Yaa Gyasi (read my lit musing of it here). Now that was a book in which I truly felt reflected! The commonalities between myself and the protagonist really blew me away. However, as I’ve continued on this bibliophilic journey, I’ve found books can also be a mirror in a “pot calling the kettle black” kind of way: We’re both black – many times we’re even both Black – but we’re definitely different shapes, we have different backgrounds and different experiences, yet it seems there’s something to this shared color and shared fire under our asses that can lead us down a pathway of connection and insight.

I’m aware that this may come off vague, and maybe even like a metaphor gone too far, but I’ll elaborate. Reading everyman by M Shelly Conner was like following a secret pathway I never knew existed, convincing myself I was lost, then ending up at my own front door, home. Everyman’s protagonist Eve is a woman on a mission to discover herself. An orphan and a product of the Great Migration, Eve feels lost, and hopes retracing her family tree will also give some shape to her own identity.

Eve and I have very different stories and very different histories. As a Black person in the United States whose ancestors do not trace back to the western portion of the Atlantic slave trade, I often find myself pushing against the confines of a perceived monolithic Black America. I sometimes feel as if variations of this erroneous perception follow me around, even as I’ve left the US to live in other parts of the Americas. Furthermore, I am well aware that my disdain for being mischaracterized as “the wrong kind of Black” has nothing to do with these other cultures, and everything to do with what I perceive as a deficit in my own Igbo-ness.

All of this to say, I don’t read a book like everyman, about a character like Eve, expecting anything other than a great story; but, everyman gave me so much more! I see so many parts of myself in Eve; we share a visceral and intimate sense of a great unknown and an insatiable impulse to search and find. I found myself buoyed and comforted by everyman‘s numerous depictions of influential and integral Black women who assisted Eve on her journey of self-discovery; and, I recognized in them so many of those who have and continue to help me on my own journey. I often marvel at the African diaspora for its multitude of iterations around the world, but this time around, I was awed by the ties that bind.

Signed,

N.A.


p.s. I would also like to recognize all of the extraordinary Black women characters in everyman whom I left unnamed, Eve is definitely a product of her invaluable community and heredity. If you’d like to read more stories about real-life extraordinary Black women, take a look at my 3-part series for The Conflicted Womanist entitled An Ode to Black Women who Resist: Revolution, Activism, & Rest.

My Imaginary Friend, Signora

Whereabouts by Jhumpa Lahiri

Whereabouts by Jhumpa Lahiri is a people-watching introvert’s paradise. All of the intimate intricacies of a revealing observation are laid out effortlessly on the page. This book is a gallery full of strange faces waiting to be explored; reading Whereabouts is the ultimate park bench experience!

The protagonist and narrator of this book, a woman only identified as “Signora,” writes a series of reflections on her life and perspective as a middle-aged, single woman in an unnamed Italian town. Signora shares contemplative commentary through her eager inquiries into the lives of those with whom she crosses paths, as well as through her ready divulgence of the inner workings of her own mind. Her descriptions of the  mundane locales that make up her life’s journey – the piazza, various coffee bars, the grocery store – elicit a sort of ethereal whimsy, imagery blurring the line between reality and fantasy in a manner I can only liken to the palpable company of an imaginary friend. 

Signora is disarmingly honest about her thoughts and feelings. In moments of lust, anger, and melancholy, her authenticity is unfailing. Signora’s intensely personal accounts, sprinkled with quaint Italian anecdotes, create a sense of timelessness for the reader – a feeling experienced in solidarity with Signora as she herself tends to lose track of time. Her narration is so engrossing that I found myself bewildered when I was pulled back to reality by references to modern technology. 

Whereabouts is the type of book that takes you on a journey, a book in which you can truly get lost in the story. This book resembles an intense conversation with a stranger on a long train ride: Upon arriving at your destination, you know you most probably will never see this person again, but you’re left with a forever connection. If you’re longing for the sentiment of a pensive stroll, Whereabouts will quench that thirst.

Signed, 

N.A.

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.

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.