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 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.