I am six — maybe seven years old, when my mother barges into my neighbor’s house to find me nestled in front of a plate of hot steaming beans. In the loud and angry admonitions that follow, after she has dragged me by the elbow back to her flat, she would repeat this phrase — over and over – ‘I have seen your nakedness.’ I am too young at the time to understand the meaning of those words, or the reason they made her voice swell with anger. But the phrase would insert itself into our strained mother-daughter relationship years after. I soon learned the feel and sound of it layered in her soft pleading advice and in her stubborn admonitions.
As I begin to read Selves: An Afro Anthology of Creative Nonfiction curated by Basit Jamiu, my mind instinctively travels to my mother. I picture her confronting the opening story; The Miseducation of Gratitude by Sibongile Fisher. I imagine the frown that would form slowly on her face, the way her eyes would squint with disapproval, and the way her lips would purse and quiver as though she was nibbling on a snack.
The anthology itself, a catalogue of brilliant essays from writers across Africa, feels like a form of hallowed witnessing, a participation in the most layered, private struggles of others. The essays are personal and defiant, assured but also urgent, centered as well as vulnerable. It occurs to me that the reason my mind keeps dancing between the texts in the anthology and the image of my mother, is because, after years of my mother teaching me about nakedness and exposure, behavior and propriety, I finally became conditioned to play dress up and pretend.
Fisher begins the anthology with a remarkable coming of age story. The style is terse, lyrical and somewhat dense. She guides the reader through the convoluted emotions of a girl who sees that the world is not what it seems, and struggles through pain and loss in her bid to self-identify and self love. Parts of the essay that touch me deeply are centered on society’s idea of acceptable behavior, and what it means to hide.
“It is hot and sticky and we all smell like rotting heartbreaks; heartbreaks we are told we are too young to feel, so we hide them well.”
I find myself drawing correlations between my childhood of performing goodness, and Fisher’s experience of hiding what is forbidden. In a sense, the person who hides from being exposed in their bare flawed nature, and the person who plays pretend to cover imperfections are both trying to navigate the problem of shame. For me, grappling through 'shame' and self discovery happens in many careless stumbles; for Fisher it appears like a seamless chronology of discovery and becoming. I finish her essay and find myself wondering: What is it about being vulnerable that makes us want to put up walls?
In his essay, The Shapes of Loss, Umar Turaki writes a searing piece about his father’s death. He breaks down in front of his sister and her husband in tears, his emotions as naked and raw as they have ever been. It is an excavation of sorts, chronicling loss, betrayal and the chasm of time that failed to ferry forgiveness. The scene where the sobs rack his chest and he is unable to stop the grief from pouring is best appreciated against the backdrop of the predominant cultural narrative of performing maleness. What does it mean to exist in conflict between self and what is socially expected by society? This is a question that sits uncomfortably in my mind as I grapple with Turaki’s essay. Beyond his grief and pain, I am most enamored by the freedom he permits himself to feel the weight of his emotions. He explains it quite succinctly.
“In the months to come, I would unearth the understanding that an emotion, no matter how ugly, is a thing designed to be felt,” he writes. “An affront is to be embraced, absorbed. You must hold it with two hands, you must wrestle with it, you must run your fingers along its length and know the shape of its contour. If you are hurt….you must feel the full magnitude of your hurt.”
There is an experimental infusion of poetry into prose, first shown in Fisher’s essay, and then in Ama Asantewa’s Missing Wombs and Closed Wounds. A little different in its telling, Asantewa’s essay circles round the pain of a medical diagnosis and the loss of a lover. What stands out for me initially is the sense of detachment of the writer. It is short lived though because the narrative quickly stumbles into a sharp admittance of hurt. How many times have I told myself that strength is performance? I think to myself. At the risk of misrepresentation of context, I would say I understand the recent feminist narrative that dismisses a woman’s sometimes desperate need for the opposite sex. Can I be a strong, independent woman and still fall to pieces when the man I love walks away? In what world and in what language are we allowed to be ourselves; to feel what we feel and fall and break and still be whole? This is the chaos my mind becomes as I proceed with the anthology. Is the page the only place that offers escape from that shame that comes with vulnerability?
There are other essays that detail loss and pain like Hauwa’s lyrical narrative about losing a mother like figure. Yet, the anthology is not all aches and anguish. In Finding Binyavanga, Sada Malumfashi delights with his portrayal of Kaduna and his animated encounter with the Kenyan writer Binyavanga. I love the effort he puts to characterize each person, to make a dialogue bigger than the surface exchange of words, so that the persons and topics are seen and felt, almost like the reader has found for herself, a different Binyavanga too.
There are fifteen essays in all, personal narratives and all brilliant, each mirroring the daily riots of our most private acts of survival. It is daring and necessary at this time and space where the predominant culture of silence and conformity is increasingly questionable. While to my mother, being naked is to stand without the façade of perfectionism; to sit at the judgment seat of society, under its laser scrutiny, revealed in your vilest broken form, and seen for what you truly are, I am seeing that to many others like myself, being naked is to stand free of impositions and inhibitions; to embrace a voice and a life and a space you can call your self. And what if the latter is what the world truly needs? An avenue for people to exist in the full range of their humanity, with all its arcs and bends and edges?
What if the only way we can truly find ourselves is to discredit the correlation between nakedness, imperfection vulnerability and shame?