About the black community’s seemingly non-existent reading culture destined to kill us. (Seriously though, it’s a problem!)
I often wonder if the mountains dream of being hills and if raindrops fear the boorish sea. If I were to live the narrative of that which is said to represent me, I could not operate without reference. My hair on its own could not abide an angry breeze and my skin would be a little lighter and a little darker all at once. My speech would be interrupted by foreign concept- language and pronunciation I would dread play subject to test. I would hurt for reasons unbeknownst to me, and weep over trials that wrongfully add to the credit of my soul; ignoring the true toxicity in which my ambition for so long has been submerged. I would fall in love with a man in a village- our village. I would fall in love with a recalcitrant political refugee escaping detention. I would write privilege with love and the characters that bury themselves in my heart would force a ballad of appreciation to remind me of my blessings and limited acceptance. I would have to beg an application of inanimate objects to present a body employed by standard. I would need to know of a hardship of the mind that would make me heroic in thought beyond my education, and still humble and happy. I would belong to a classified people. They would hear themselves in me because I would avoid all intolerable displays of my individuality petitioning silence. I would buy my happiness from heroes of a different race or class; cheap spoils for the lesser being. My woes would be chosen for me and mental illness would only ever make me seem crazy, not wise and knowledgeable of the sins of our world. I would be someone I have never known enough to write. I would be someone I have never been able to resonate with.
This week I got my first full manuscript submission response. I stared at the alert on my computer, panicking in excitement and wishing there was another version of me that could deliver the news. I picked at my fingernails, busying myself with light work to steady my breaths. Eight weeks I have waited for what I can now confirm is a kind rejection from what I can only assume is a lovely individual entitled to her own tastes and values. This is surely the pain of writing; that one is prohibited from human emotion because there is simply no one to blame. I cannot hate myself for not fitting the mold and simultaneously, I cannot hate her for not seeing beauty in the cracks. We are two individuals; different worlds and different loves. We are women of different worth in this world and on this occasion our differences did not make us better, just different.
While many aspiring and established writers have known/will know the inexorable pain of a form rejection, a critique or a blatant dismissal of acknowledgment, the hope is that a waiting crowd will call foul and force a conversation that has not already been started. A conversation only that underrepresented voice can start. You see, it is not a rejection of my words that threatens my spirit; it is the scale that weighs its relevance, the absence of a strong enough African/Black reading culture to provoke the necessity for my presence in literature.
I hated reading when I was growing up. I couldn’t resonate with the characters in the books, furthermore, my primary and high school teachers took the fun out of it by insisting an author’s words only had one meaning, and to interpret against the grain was to disrespect the purpose of language. So I grew up believing that one only read novels to pay homage to language, and not appreciate the value of a human being’s organized account of chaos. I numbed my senses to scripted records of society because these writers who took time to lecture me, did not want me to resonate with them, only offer my respect for their toil.
“I wrote my first novel because I wanted to read it.” -Toni Morrison
As much as I hated reading, however, I loved to write. Poetry drenched in spelling errors on primed recycled paper, prose about suicide and dying and speeches addressed to no one. One day as I transcribed my genius onto my mother’s Power Macintosh in my father’s study, I leaned over and picked up a book off his desk. Pages of Nelson Mandela’s Long Walk to Freedom brought my heart to life and the euphoria of Madiba’s soul speaking to mine unapologetically pilfered my attention. To this day, this feeling has only ever been replicated once by Barack Obama’s Dreams from my Father. So beautifully as these men wrote their stories, so magnificently did they share their worth. I fell in love with their anger, their frustration, their identity crises and their durability. Then came James Baldwin and Langston Hughes, Virginia Woolf and Octavia Butler, Oscar Wilde and George Orwell. I fell in love with reading because finally I could hear the voices of the writers and we spoke with such careless feeling; they were entitled to their version of reality and I was entitled to my interpretation of their chronicles. But in all their stories, for all the struggle that had birthed their greatness they did not represent me. They did not package my voice for the masses.
“But you do discover that you are a writer and then you haven’t got any choice.” -James Baldwin
So I write because the bridge between this world and me is so insecure that only the sound of weeping rail dare attempt prevention of my fall, if only my steps should continue beyond shallow warning. I pray constantly and I query desperately, that I may not waste my mind and my passion. Stories where he yells and she cries and they break each other because he is just a man and she is only his accidental daughter. Stories where she is middle class, educated and still scaling the lowest rung of the ladder because this world has presented no allies to ensure her happy ending. Metaphoric shackles and her hair a metaphor still. Stories of reckless ambition challenged by a world where citizenship is the caped villain that hinders the protagonist’s progression. She has dreadlocks, dark skin and rotates her collection of skinny jeans. She doesn’t have Sarah Baartman’s large breasts, a West African Accent, or a loincloth, though she is born of Africa and so bound by its incumbent iniquities. What a tragedy it is that she and many others may never be acknowledged, because our community has neglected to add weight to our worth and support true representations of our demographics and our diverse obstacles. Why must we hurt ourselves by refusing a variety of narratives in favour of one that will constantly fail to represent all?
Alas, it would appear those of us who are different, who don’t fit the mold are writing our records for an empty room. Perhaps this is why I often wonder if the mountains dream of being hills and if raindrops fear the boorish sea.