a reading lesson
(in five flashes)
to be published in Feminist Studies
I am told that I learnt to read later than other children. At seven. Does that seem right?
I memorized the symbols in my childhood books. In pictures of myself, I am often staring with wide greedy eyes at other people. And so I imagine myself learning to read by staring at the books with the golden spine. Later, always connecting barb to Barbie, cat to catenation, hate to hat. The barb in the thorn is always a little bit of a spa-lover. Hate is something you wear on the head to cover your face or to keep you warm. Catenation, the bonding of atoms, is feline, whether tame or feral.
How can I explain?
As a child, I was slow to speak. I mispronounced words. I savored them. I still do.
If I were to describe in a particularly convoluted fashion the scene before me :
The document has frozen twice and deleted twice. My hard drive is full of pictures.
I write in Google docs frustrated, facing a messy room.
In the previous draft I was sitting on a chair facing the ocean.
Cars rounded the bend, their lights pulsing orange and white.
The evening electric suns buoyed and bobbing on the shimmering surface of water.
The next morning the air cold, the mailman’s rhythm controlling my typing.
If I were a child, reading this I would get caught, I think, at the first sentence.
If I were to des - desk - destin - scribe - rib - eye - in a PARTicularLY - con - container - VOLume - luted - the lute
I think, already, caught at the first line that
Describing is the destiny of the scribe,
at the desk we match the rib to eye,
determined in part by the volume of the container -
this, a song.
This may be a fiction. But it helps be kinder to myself. To remember the child that spent time laughing and pleased and the strangeness of language. My mother tells me of that child, who after a rain storm, walked over to a puddle, touched it and said wonderingly, smiling ‘Is this a puddle? It’s not a puddle - it’s a muddle. It’s confused!’
I learnt, eventually, to sound words out as sounds, syllables, combinations of letters.
I say this to remember that language is strange.
And that meeting this strangeness is the pleasure of reading. I am perpetually learning how to read.
We bathe in blood.
Akosua* is the word I remember to mean this. Blood. Bloodline. But I know it is not the right word. I cannot google it to find out. But I know it is wrong from its sound. Ah, the mouth inhaling open. Kay, posing for a smile with teeth. Su, the lips puckering for a kiss. Ah, the mouth preparing again to intake breath. This cannot be the word for blood.
I call my uncle on skype to learn the names for gold and green. I remember from a lesson that the word blue is simply bru, but there are infinite shades of green and gold.
adada - a bluish earth brought up in digging gold before that which contains gold
I cannot remember the words but I know that the right would contain a feeling on the mouth that is quite different from erasure, loss. My bloodline is broken. I want the feeling in my mouth of a whole one, an unbroken one. The word would not contain the sound of my mother having no mother.
My grandmother was not from the tribe. She was treated fine, but she went home. The word I want to remember is about that power that come through the mother’s blood, that unbroken line - before it was ruptured or erased.
My mother is her own mother, as far as it goes. She is not a kingmaker, but perhaps one of her daughters could be. Or at least this is what I wonder when my cousin Derek sucks his teeth and says ‘oho! why do you carry your father’s name? Forget your father!’ Marry back into the clan, take it.
It’s a joke that everyone loves.
The story goes that my grandfather wanted to marry a West Indian woman. It was an important political relationship. Still, in Kumasi, my uncles say ‘You are special children. Our link across the oceans.’
The ocean does not separate but joins us.
The word would have the fluid motion of the tongue, containing disparate sounds, gliding smoothly through.
I write about eating fufu in Elmina Castle, my mother crying. I was not young, but I was too young to appreciate the slave holdings underneath. I looked at the ocean and saw the grey water, the crashing churning white. This part of my family were not slaves. We are politicians and scholars and sages and chiefs. But there - in my mother not having a mother - lay that blank space in my bloodline like the ocean - I want to think of it as connection, not separation. Not erasure but voyaging. We have not lost the bloodline but remade it.
My mother has a mother and her mother has a mother. My mother’s mother’s name is June . She says this of herself, ‘ that bitch!’ laughing when her dogs die eating frogs or swallowing crickets and sugar cane. I don’t want to repeat the stories of her going to Ghana from Trinidad, leaving Ghana with her children under the dead of night, the backs of a coup about to come, the rumors of infidelity, her unhappiness at not speaking Akan and not being part of the tribe, of being common. I don’t want to repeat the stories my mother tells me of how she went to Africa thinking she’d find savages, thinking she - color changed by a little bit of Scottish went thinking that she’d show them.
(I am trying to find records of Scottish slave owners, I know the name I carry is of this - Scottish, the mulatto dropped off on the steps, I wonder if my father’s father’s family and my mother’s mother’s family voyaged literally in the same bloodline).
When June got to Ghana the first thing she asked was ‘Did you have ice cream here?’ And they laughed. They laughed at this poor colonized West Indian girl. This poor child who had only known an island.
I want to know and write about the journey, the time in the plane, the boat, the crossing. Before they met the land mass, before they met each other’s crystallized conceptions of slave.
I am sitting here looking at the ocean, blocked and dammed, the connection I have, this parallel of ocean and blood, the blue of the water where this is blood in it, what is the word for that?
*It means sparrow
twi.bb (a crowd-sourced Akan dictionary)
or, learning the sounds
abusua matrilineal bloodline
a length of dark blue cotton yarn
Bibini (plural Obibifo)
Blue cloth of dark blue colour
Dark blue cotton cloth
dark blue cotton cloth
dark blue cotton cloth
dressed in dark clothing for mourning
a kind of red and yellow European cotton cloth
a yellow coral
Na bere titiriw bi reba n’awiei.
Nnipa abakɔsɛm mu bere titiriw
“A crucial time was drawing close.”
a fine, beautiful delicate woman
a place to lie on, a place to sleep
a praise, also a person of high stature in society
“A turning point in human history.”
many yellow corals
“Afei nso, wobenyan awfuo ɔpepem pii aba nkwa mu sɛ nnipa wɔ asase so.”
“Sɛ woyɛ eyi nyinaa a, wubenya ahoɔden a wode bedi Nyame nokware.”
“So wogye di sɛ wɔn nkutoo na wobenya nkwa?”
a drum used by European soldiers
a red dye
a species of dove
a strip of cloth
girl born on a Tuesday
boy born on a Tuesday
“Also, millions of dead ones will be resurrected to human life on the earth.”
“By doing all of this, you will gain the strength to be faithful to God.”
“Do they believe they are the only ones who will be saved?”
a weight of gold, a small weight of gold
a kind of perfume made from the roots and skin of a creeper
a single palm nut with the skins
a skin disease
a strong black man
ɔbarima ano were
yam atotow no ho damdam mmaako-maako
his skin is marked here and there by ringworm
“Ommisa Onyankopɔn a ɔma nnipa nyinaa ade kwa na ahohora nnim.”
Let him keep on asking God for he gives generously to all and without reproaching.
“ade atɔ no so ma wawu”
European born on a Sunday (or any European)
white man is dead
he had an apopleptic fit from which he died
persistence in asking
a man who deserves to be sold to the white man’s country
a dense forest
a white stone noun
bɔtɔ fufu fekɔɔ
fine white powder
Abibifo, aborɔfo ne Apuei
west, Western Sahara
Negroes, whites and Orientals
the white man’s country
to dig out white clay
very hard white stone literally queen of stones
colobus polykomus vellerosus efo
western black and white colobus monkey
a bluish earth brought up in digging gold before that which contains gold
If I were to trace the connections between the sounds, I think I would have an image of adada. That is, the field. That is, a representation of how the words, the symbols, the signified and the sounds live around me while I read. That is,
I had wanted to make a film.
I wanted to talk about the African diaspora, or simply - our diaspora. My mother and father and brother and sister and I. All our relations, dispersed in land in sea. I wanted to talk about blood and water. I wanted to talk about the paradoxes of the stories of us.
I did not want to make a film about the middle passage, undocumented immigrants, post-colonialism. I wanted to talk about the lines of connection drawn on a map between Ghana and Trinidad. The ocean between. I wanted to talk about the pride I had in my name, and the seeming irony then, of never going to visit. I did not think that the Middle passage was important. Oh, I knew about resistance and rebellion. But it was done with, over, what had made the rainbow of the country I lived in.
I wanted to make a film about my mother and I, how sad she was and how good a story this was to be told. I wanted to make a film about how difficult it was to tell the story of a bloodline. I wanted to myself understand how that could be. If the story of a family is so great, so fixed, so complete - why does it feel otherwise? Why did every attempt to grasp a whole truth dissolve?
We had watched a film in which a woman is getting dressed at a dressing table. There is a man with a camera there asking her about an experience of sexual assault. She describes it to him.
He asks her for more details. She puts on her lipstick, her hair. We are watching a video and the grain is fuzzy. She says she’s ready to go to the party. He asks her for more details. She answers.
She tries to leave the house. He follows her. She says, please I’m done now. He asks her more questions. It continues.
At the time, I thought that this display of form imitating content was one of the most profound things I had ever seen. If you didn’t understand the violence of the act of assault from the beginning, you certainly understand at the end. And it was the violence of the medium itself there at question, of representing, of being asked to display or stand as example in the investigative field of an artist and maker.
I wanted to make a film in which I was present, in which you could understand the weight and stress of each of the actions of making visible and being seen.
Mirzoeff writes that “The right to look is, then, the claim to a right to the real. It is the boundary of visuality, the place where such codes of separation encounter a grammar of nonviolence—meaning the refusal to segregate—as a collective form.”
I did not first understand that I was inflicting a violence. Or rather, the irony of me doing a violence was part of the story. That the violence of my wanting to know everything was an assault to the ways we had known about how to be.
There were many refusals.
The first was my mother’s refusal to be interrogated. She attacked all of my explanations, making any film I would make about my own desire to make a film about her. I refuse an unquestioned curiosity. I accept that I must first see myself.
The second refusal was my refusal - or failure - to make the film at all. I dropped out of school, distraught but not quite knowing why. I did not know why, but I felt it. I accept that the non-verbal is not non-rational.
The third was my disappearance. I was attempting to escape them, the anthropologists, especially the kind women studying trauma. I learn to read by seeing how other people read. And I learnt to read myself through the gaze I was looked at. That is, of trauma, as traumatized. Much of my first writing about myself is of a self-erasing guilt. I accept this knowledge. I refuse its effects. I accept, somehow, despite logic, that I remain.
Every act of representation is an act of mutual reckoning, it is likely that I will only ever work within structures I am complicit in, and to whom I am visible, even if at first only problematically. In this tension or slippage, of me and my image, there is always another way to see.
Visibility is what I have been struggling with. And visibility has everything to with context - who is watching? who is within the frame of being watched? What counts as different enough to make difference? What remains. That is, that which speaks, instructs and still amplifies the importance of the silences that have been co-produced.
The fourth refusal is the greatest acceptance. It is that I returned - a painter. And whenever I was asked what had happened I would show them wide strokes of blue, evoke a watery swamp, a series of lines crossing into the ocean.
And here in writing this, I find another refusal. The fifth is of the definition of painting as it was given to me. Reading, language, is visual. And painting is writing is reading is seeing to me. I will not fragment these experiences.
So I did not make a film.
Instead, I made three paintings.
Three years, three paintings. The story is all there - in the materials, the marks, my body hitting violently against the canvas. There is the word for blood, for knowing, for connection. There too, are connections I cannot express. There too are the secrets that I fought so hard to know. There are the things I do not know. On the surface is the indigo I carried on my altar. The indigo brought from Kumasi, when my mother went to see her father’s grave. I hold an image of the dye mordanted in sea water, yards of unfurled cloth swirling through the waves. Years later, during a workshop on natural pigments, I learn that the indigo I carry close to my heart is synthetic. That is there too.
It is all there, all together, unsegregated, if you know how to look.
I must first tell you why I refuse to explain.
But then I must teach you how to read.