Horse On West Africa tour

I am a lazy writer, too often waiting for inspiration to come along and nudge me into action. Sadly, my industry today has more to do with vexation than inspiration. Intense vexation in fact, caused by my having come across a stack of just-arrived Findus ‘not beef’ lasagnes in a Gambian supermarket. Vexation multiplied when a friend posted that the same said lasagnes had found their way to Lagos. I mean, exactly how fast do the wheels of market capitalism spin? Looked at in one way, I might be impressed with the logistical efficiency of frozen ready meals withdrawn from UK supermarket shelves one week finding themselves filling shop freezers in West Africa the next. But I am as far from impressed as the Findus lasagne chefs were from beef. What exactly did we do to deserve such dubious cast offs? I don’t think we can reasonably call this food aid. So I broadcasted my outrage as a facebook status update and got a lot of support from friends and family (yaay!) and then some of my friends and family shared the love, and opened me up to the thoughts of some of their friends and family who clearly thought my outrage was an overreaction. So here’s what I think about your objections

It’s better than being hungry – aren’t they just grateful to be eating?
A rather simplistic analysis a bit like claiming that having an asbestos roof is better than having no roof at all or that recipients of decaying second hand refrigerators should stop harping on about the ozone layer and CFCs and be thankful to get their water chilled. In short, the old adage that beggars can’t be choosers. It’s also based on certain assumptions a) that these meals were donated ‘free of charge’ (not true) b) that people in Africa are by definition hungry, and c) that mass produced frozen ready meals (with or without horse meat) are genuinely nutritious. So add to simplistic, offensive and naive then.

It’s only horsemeat. If it’s good enough for the French, why not others?
Leaving aside the fact that it’s been labelled and sold as BEEF, it is apparently not, in fact only horsemeat. I’m sure the French would confirm that it is nothing like the regulated, reared for human consumption product available in France. In contrast, this particular meat product took time to track down, most likely slaughtered in abattoirs in Romania that no one seems to know much about and then bought and sold across a myriad of countries including Cyprus, Luxemborg, France, the Netherlands and Ireland. I doubt that anyone would want to vouch for exactly what added extras may or may not have found their way in but suggestions include phenylbutazone, an anti-inflammatory drug given to horses and commonly known as BUTE. Once upon a time, several decades ago, human beings were prescribed BUTE for gout and arthritis. Then some of them got a serious blood disorder known as aplastic anaemia which, without prompt treatment, was (and still is) considered to be life-threatening. Then BUTE was banned for humans and forbidden from entering the food chain. The End. Oh no it wasn’t the end after all because two weeks ago we discovered that we’d been scoffing down unregulated horses and their nasty drug habits for years. What an epilogue. Anyway, to get to the point, it doesn’t matter how much people try to play it down, if this particular horsemeat isn’t good enough for people in Europe to eat, Africa doesn’t want it either, especially in packaging that still tells us it’s BEEF.

Perhaps it’s been sitting in African freezers since before the scandal broke. Shouldn’t you give them the benefit of the doubt?
We’re talking small-scale minimarkets here, not superstores with huge warehouses and products stacked high and wide. We’re talking about a place where the arrival of new products is (as humiliating and sad as this is to admit) a regular topic of conversation. Besides which anyone who’s spent any time here knows that a prerequisite for importing processed foods into West Africa is that they should either beyond or perilously close to their sell-by dates. So no people, no benefit of the doubt here. The sudden arrival of heaps of frozen ready meals that don’t expire next month should always be viewed with extreme suspicion.

I blame the Africans who are importing these things
If you like. I don’t particularly object. Of course Africa should be more aware, more vigilant, and of course we should put the health of our children above the profits to be made through selling bad food (FYI the lasagne that retailed for £1.60 in the UK is, as I speak being sold for the equivalent of £2.13 here, so the agenda here is definitely profit, rather than charity). However, I think it’s fair to say that everyone involved in this particularly sordid supply chain with its deep cynicism, greed and criminal intent should stop trying to shrug the blame onto other people in other places and take responsibility now.
So perhaps Findus would like to drop by and set up a temporary information desk in sunny Banjul. It’s all well and good telling customers to return withdrawn products for a full refund, but when your customers are 3000 miles away and need a visa to reach you that’s a lot to expect. Akin, I would say to closing the stable door when the horse is already half way through a worldwide tour. That’s what the lazy writer thinks anyway. And her non-new year resolution is to stay out of supermarkets and spend more time at the keyboard. Pray for her y’all.

Memoir – Reasons to Dig In Your Pockets

We sit on wooden benches in a South London café with a view of Brockley station. On the other side of the glass trains slide by, their noise squeezed out by the aroma of coffee and baked bread. We equip ourselves with lattes and sandwiches and ‘kids’ hot chocolate. My friend chooses spiced roasted pumpkin, while I tuck into blue cheese and rocket. He also lends his iphone to my daughter. She is scowling because she is ten years old and her sandwich contains artichokes. She is not old enough for artichoke to be food. Fortunately the iphone works. She finds vegetable-free entertainment on YouTube and leaves us to talk.
That’s when he asks the question I don’t want to answer
“So what’s happening with the writing?”

What’s happening is this; I write stuff. Then I don’t write stuff. Then I write some more stuff. Then I don’t. I haven’t blogged or added to the collected pieces of memoir for more than six months. Instead I’ve wasted time seesawing over a single persistent question: Who cares?
Who cares about my life, about how I felt about being in care, or being adopted, or discovering that a brown skin made me different? Who cares about my prolonged and various family searches and my African sojourns? Given that I’m not famous (or infamous) or fabulously rich or successful, or a high-flyer in world politics or a warlord or an architect of genocide, what possible interest could my (ordinary) life hold for others? Why would anyone want to read it, and if no one wants to read it, why would I write it?

My friend, lover of iphones, off-the-beaten-track cafes and relational psychotherapy is preparing for a seminar on memoir. He is going to interview Jackie Kay and Gillian Slovo on the writing of their own memoirs. He practices on me.
“Why write memoir?”
My first answer – ‘it’s therapeutic’ is perfunctory, automatic, ultimately neither edifying nor satisfying. He graces it with a nod and continues – Why do I write? What need does it serve? How do I feel when I’m writing? How do I feel when I’m not? Do I hope my children will read it? What do I imagine their responses will be? He enquires in the manner of someone uncovering precious things. Gently he scrapes away at the impacted earth within which are buried my less conscious motives. From here on in we shall call him the archaeologist.

The archaeologist helps me to see that memoir can of course, be thought of as therapeutic in as much as it involves remembering events and the joys, desires, pains and losses that go with them. Memoir must be in some way therapeutic if you accept the idea that the hidden, and the repressed and the un-fully remembered sit like stones in your pockets as you wade unsuspecting through life’s many rivers. There are those who will scoff at this – who believe in soldiering on whatever the cost and who view things ‘therapeutic’ – memoir or otherwise as self-indulgent wastes of time and money and ultimately pointless activities. Sometimes I wish I could think this myself. I wish that I could ignore the clank of rocks and just keep on trucking, the problem being that you mostly don’t feel just quite how heavy they are until the water gets deep. Sometimes in life the water level rises without warning. In my case it happened a long time before I discovered artichokes.
Perhaps memoir also has a value as legacy – as the process of collecting and packaging memories for the enlightenment and edification of others – in particular the children who are born heirs to our histories whether or not we wish it for them, or they for themselves. The way I see it, as I watch my daughter watching X-factor auditions on Youtube, dreaming, no doubt, of her own future contributions to this particular phenomenon, since the baggage she’s destined to carry will include lines, scenes and possibly even whole acts of the life I lived before she was even born, the least I can do for her is to provide her with some of the detail. It might not be enough to win her a sympathetic audience on a TV talent show but it could just save her some investigative time in future therapy. Which begs the question of whether it wouldn’t be simpler to just tell her – to sit her and her siblings down and run through the whole shebang from the beginning? If nothing else it would save considerable time and effort spent sweating over a keyboard.
Sadly I am not sufficiently evolved for that, and even if my children had the patience to listen there has been much in my life that I have been reluctant, if not totally unwilling to talk about. To be fair to myself it’s less of an unwillingness to talk than a failure to find a way to do so without a) falling apart b) having other people fall apart or c) being suspected of insanity. I wish I could talk it all out. I love people who can talk. My best friends are some of the greatest storytellers, my husband among them. When he and my in-laws get together, their childhood tales can roll on through the night and into morning. As well as giving us all some good belly laughs these oral family histories furnish my children with a rich picture of their father’s childhood – with all its dramas and heartbreaks, characters, its unfathomable relics (telephones with dials? Paraffin heaters?) And of course its shocking mischief (Yes your Dad really did set fire to his bedroom). I on the other hand, am not in touch with the characters of my childhood. There is nobody around off of whom I can bounce my remembering and nobody to help me flesh out memories, correct inaccuracies, or piece the threads of memory together. My stories are disjointed and infuriatingly inconclusive. They meander. They are independent travellers, walking their own paths without a mind to whether I had them planned as tragedy or triumph, as stories of love or redemption. I don’t know where they will lead. They embarrass me when I am seeking affirmation and make me cry when I have my heart set on celebration. They don’t behave themselves in public and leave me unravelling on stage. Hence it’s probably not surprising that my childhood tales don’t always work as material for light humoured discussion. Even if I manage to steer the telling in the right direction, the humour I can find in my various crises of identity and failed attempts at suicide appears to be personal. It isn’t always shared, and especially not on social occasions. Frank Carson had a point when he said ‘it’s the way you tell ‘em’. That’s why he was a stand-up comedian and I am not.

The excavation in the café progresses. The archaeologist says that he is going to send some of my work to Jackie Kay, who I admire greatly and who is speaking at the memoir event. My reaction is to snap at him and then to take it back. I am afraid of his belief in me and of this dig, of what it will reveal. We order a second round of lattes and cake to see us through. My daughter cheers up and joins the conversation for a few minutes. Cake, no matter from what it is constituted, will always be food.

One of the things I love about the archaeologist is that he hears what I don’t say alongside what I do. I am a better (or possibly just more practiced) listener than I am a teller. When other people tell stories I am absorbed. I find great reward, as well as comfort and safety in the silence required of the listener. In listener role I am appreciated for my focused attention and seen by others as someone who is ‘together’. The archaeologist sees this and more. He sees the stones in my pockets and the unravelling that is hidden in the dark of silence. Listening lets me know the stones of others and feel less alone. Memoir helps me to know the stones that are mine and to feel more connected. As I write I lift them out and into the light. After a while I put them back. It’s rare that I get to drop one into the water, but it does happen. Memoir is the freedom to unravel.

For now, the dig is over. We finish our coffee and pay the bill. We miss a train accidently on purpose because rushing doesn’t fit the mood and because there’s enjoyment to be had on the station platform, huddled against the November cold. We get a small groove on, watching Azalia Banks on the iphone, the depth of her profanity expunged by the breadth of her creativity. The archaeologist and I are separated, too often, by oceans. We may not see each other for some time after this.
“So send me the next instalment soon,” he says as we part.
The best I can manage is
“It’s possible”
In making writing public, there are only two possibilities. Possibility 1 – people will be interested in what I have to say. Possibility 2 – they won’t. There are however, many more reasons to write.
I have large pockets and stones and I live on a seesaw. I will write and then I won’t and then I will again.

Keeping Up Appearances

Like good writing, I love feedback because it has the power to move me. Much of the best feedback moves me in directions I don’t want to go. Recently I’ve been told that I’m (a) not very friendly, (b) take things too seriously and (c) resemble Hyacinth Bucket – a character in a British TV sitcom (Keeping Up Appearances) who’s such a ridiculous snob that she pronounces her name ‘Bouquet’. Aside from the indignity of feeling like I’d had a bucket (or Bouquet) of cold water thrown in my face, what it did do was wake me up to some new realities and with them, new possibilities.

It’s exactly this wake-up-and-smell-what-isn’t-coffee effect that I appreciate most about getting feedback from others. In telling me what they see, hear or feel they touch parts of me I’m not aware of and wake up other parts once lived but have fallen asleep through lack of blood supply. I find it’s helpful to be awake, even if it hurts. Feedback is the no-nonsense nurse that rips the tourniquet off of your gangrenous leg. It’s served its purpose, she tells you, stopped you bleeding to death so that you could carry on (going to work, feeding the children, paying the bills etc). You probably won’t thank her while you’re squealing in pain but what is pain except another messenger asking for your attention?

This week I’ve been grappling with feedback on this blog. The most difficult thing for me to hear was that people had read what I had to say and cried. My first reaction – what’s to cry about? My second, I didn’t do it on purpose! In other words, denial swiftly followed by defence. So much for loving feedback!

A good friend of mine once said that the best thing to do with feedback is to look for the grain of truth in it. I find the first grain of truth when reading an interview with David Eggers, whose autobiographical work ‘A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius’ was nominated for a Pulitzer prize. He says he has no interest in writing another memoir, which he describes as cathartic but also as the proverbial opening up of a can of worms. I’m shocked to read that in Eggers opinion

‘There’s no such thing as closure. You open it up and you just get messy again.’

Or maybe I’m not shocked. Maybe I know this already. Maybe this is why, as far as autobiographical pieces go, I rarely read back over what I write. I do a little catharsis and quickly turn away. I let out a little blood and then tie that tourniquet back as quickly as I can. Which leads me to the next grain-of-truth. I hate being messy. I don’t like leakage.

Consequently, I should probably stop now, stop looking, stop writing and stop sharing in order that I can stop leaking. I should definitely stop blogging, which is, since it’s available for anyone to read, the worst possible kind of leakage. But I won’t. Can’t.

Ultimately what I see is that leakage is life and this is the way I do it best. In person I can come across as a Hyacinth Bucket, all neat and tidy and concerned with keeping up appearances. When I write, I’m raw and messy and concerned with the changing nature of truth. So from now on I’m issuing this blog with a health warning (Thanks D for that feedback) Caution. This blogger leaks. You may too.

ps If you’re wondering about the relevance of the photo in this post, there is none except that I enjoyed these two old men at a festival last year. Aside from that, It’s pure messy disguise.

Really?

Really? (A response to mypenmypaper…)

This morning I read a blog post about me. I was surprised because I didn’t know it was there. It was posted in 2007. The piece is simple and kind. The writer Molara Wood recounts my growing up in London not knowing my Nigerian father. She writes of my having been embraced by a Nigerian babalawo and given a Yoruba name. Molara’s acknowledgment of my journey was a welcome surprise, one that I could have enjoyed if it hadn’t been for the first comment:

 “A Babalawo in London?” 
You mean a Nigerian Babalawo plying his trade in London, or an Oyinbo Babalawo who was trained in Nigeria and practicing in London…..a babalawo in London just sounds….”                                                  mypenmypaper

Dear Mypenmypaper, You ask, do I mean? You are concerned that the my name has been given by an Oyinbo (white man?) What I mean is…

I have the answers ready for you but I resist (for the moment) the urge to respond. Response, right now will be stiff defence, nothing more. I will defend my experience, claim validity, assert my authenticity and it will bore you because it bores me this familiar positioning, practiced movement and predictable rebuttal. In my life, fielding questions has become an art

‘Where do you really come from?’

‘What colour are you then?’

‘Why don’t you go back to your own country?’

‘Is that your real name?’

I am used to questions, used to being a ‘not really’. Not really English, not really Black, not really white, not really African, not really Nigerian and now, though I have been blessed with citizenship and a passport, not really Gambian.

I am a not really and I can answer your questions because I am used to them and have the arguments ready, slung across my chest like a strap of bullets, ready to pepper you down. My finger quivers over the trigger of my Uzi (are you really an Uzi?) ready to blow you away

I-am-rea-lly-I-am-rea-lly-pam-pam-Pam!

I want, you see, to make you feel small and wrong and ashamed. Unforgiveable perhaps. I want you to feel like me.

The shame of having being left by a parent (or two) is peculiar poison. Its’ efforts to kill are unpredictable, sporadic and half-hearted. Shame isn’t always troublesome. It doesn’t eat me up everyday. I think it needs a lot of sleep. I suspect it makes a bed deep in my vital organs and hides, like malaria, waiting for the next time, saying

‘Another day, another chance.’

On waking (why did you wake it up?) it whispers my name

‘Not Really? Did you hear what she said?’

I’ve learned to defend myself with words. I am a word warrior, living in a fortress. I live in a state of relentless fortitude. I am strong and armed and after a while the fortress of identity is not hard to defend, just terribly dull. Damp walls and cold floors, a rusty drawbridge reluctant to rise for visitors who don’t come anyway. They’re afraid of falling into the moat. The moat knows exactly who she is because she is unflowing and unchanging and stagnat and dead. That’s what she wishes for me too, to be really, unquestioning and unquestioned, to know who I am, forever and ever Amen. And the fortress too; my safe prison, my protective oppressor, my bitter alcoholic champion.

So, to prove that I am really, I survive. I learn to love and be loved. I have children of my own. I love them. They love me back. Their father loves them and loves me and we all love each other, hard, in the manner of people who have walked distance to reach the top of this particular Mountain. Up here, on Mount Love, in the absence of language and skin, I know I am enough. Until a blogger poses a question,

‘Do you mean?’ She says,

And to me it sounds like

‘Are you really?

And inside me the beast stirs again

‘Girl you’d better run!’

Run back to the fort before you drop to your death on the rocks of Shame valley or slip into the crevice called Fake or be swallowed up in swamp Pretence.

I don’t want to run and I don’t want to hide. I don’t want to lie or pretend. I don’t want to argue, debate or defend. I don’t want the shame (of being left behind) to send me around the world collecting authenticity as if it were postcards (I’ve been there, met her, shaken hands with him, I know this and I’ve tasted that, I’ve been there and done it and so I must be real). I don’t want to be nameless. And I don’t want to shoot you. Really I don’t.

Molara responds to your question with the grace that I remember her for;

A Babalawo. Bonafide. Yoruba. Ifa Priest. 

Upholder of the culture, keeper of its knowledge, philosophy and traditions.
I hope that clears any confusion.

My response, as you can see, is messier, more rambling and less contained. By calling myself a writer I consent to be seen. I want to control what it is that you see and I can’t. I want you to understand and maybe you will not. I love my name. It brought me home (another story). Since that blog was posted in 2007 I have met my family in Lagos, family that I didn’t know existed, family who made me love my name even more.

Mypenmypaper, what I mean is…

That telling you more about my guide, the babalawo, his African-ness or Oyinbo-ness or Nigerian-ness or his anything-ness is not the point. He can be who you want or need him to be. As can I. I am a writer. I answer questions with stories. You have my permission to take my story and make it yours. I hope it’s helpful. Really. I am Foluke. Really I am.

Writer’s Gap

Writer’s Gap

It was supposed to happen like this. I was thirty-three, still sexy (I thought) and the grey hair colonialists had not yet ventured inland. There was no need for henna control. I was a mum and I was writing, enjoying the feel of my words on the page, thinking they tasted fresh, not perhaps as fresh the writers I admired most, but somehow comfortably crunchy. I thought I was okay with being the lemon puff to Zadie Smith’s tarte au citron. I planned to write (thought-provoking) stories, that would organically stretch into a novel, which would be poignant and well received. At the time this did not strike me as grandiose. I knew I was occasionally depressed but never (in my opinion) delusional. I would have described myself a realist. I exercised restraint in matters of ambition. Maybe I wouldn’t make Oprah’s book club but one day I thought it reasonable to assume that someone would come across me on a library shelf (ebooks had yet to be invented) and decide to take me home. If it worked out well, they’d read to the end and email me to say something nice and encouraging, possibly ask for more. If it worked out really well, I might get paid.

Ten years have passed. I’m greyer, saggier, a little less sexy perhaps. I see grandiosity where I didn’t it before. It was always there I think, though disguised as expectation. An expectation that the words would line up more easily and be better dressed. An expectation that they would visit more frequently and enjoy the bright lights of public exposure. In reality they were agoraphobic and struggled to make it out of the front door. I began to doubt that they would succeed in reaching the end of the street, much less the library. What to do with words that won’t leave the house? Pamper them with TV and crosswords. Cram them in a diary. Make shopping lists. After all, what’s wrong with being a bit shy? I agreed with them that the world was a dangerous place where people would look aghast and point fingers, at their shabbiness, at the holes in their shoes, at their tired clichés and surplus adjectives. The solution? Stay home and avoid embarrassment.

A yawning gap stretched itself between what was good enough and what was possible, between the words I could be proud of and the ones I could actually produce. A gap wide enough for a writer to commit suicide before she’s born. A writer’s gap in which the only question is choice.

Choice. Is it time to put the pen (or keyboard or notebook) away and admit defeat (I can’t be a writer because what I write isn’t good enough)? Or is it time to write what isn’t good enough and be unapologetically inadequate? Should I wait for the words to grow up and old so that when I’m senile or dead my children can read what’s left of them through layers of dust and wonder why? Or should I pick them up by their quivering spines, wish them luck and send them out to play? What will I do, watching the playground as the words of my heart run the gauntlet of kicks, taunts and bullies?  Say, ‘at least you’re being read?’

I send them, weeping, through the front door, fighting the urge to claw them back, wipe their faces over again, retie their shoelaces in perfect loops. I want them to look their best and I want the best for them. Nothing less than the world conquering best. And just in case that’s not how it goes, I tuck a benediction in their empty pockets; May you see the sun, find a friend, get invited at least once to spend the night.