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.

Keeping Up Appearances

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.

Really?

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.

Writer’s Gap