A Map to the Door of No Return: Notes to Belonging- Dionne Brand

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I have not visited the Door of No Return, but by relying on random shards of history and unwritten memoir of descendants of those who passed through it, including me, I am constructing a map of the region, paying attention to faces, to the unknowable, to unintended acts of returning, to impressions of doorways. Any act of recollection is important, even looks of dismay and discomfort. Any wisp of a dream is evidence.- Dionne Brand, A Journey to the Door of No Return

There’s a short list of books that I’d say have recently changed my worldview and how I view things. This is one of them. From my research into the black diaspora through literature, art, and stories, etc, I always marvel at is what was saved and what was lost. This book goes a lot into what was lost and I read it from a personal place, identifying strongly with many of its themes.

The main premise of this book is the Door of No Return in the Black diaspora. The door in the book’s title is defined as “a place, real, imaginary and imagined…The door out of which Africans were captured, loaded onto ships heading for the New World. It was the door of a million exits multiplied. It is a door many of us wish never existed.”  I think I’m fortunate to know where my “door” is; but for others in the diaspora this relationship is much more fraught with confusion. Because The Door is not an imagining for me,  I initially felt that the book was more suited to North American and Caribbean Black people who might not know their origins, but the more I read the more I saw that oppression was universal and the Diaspora has a strong connection:

Having no name to call on was having no past; having no past pointed to the fissure between the past and the present. That fissure is represented in the Door of No Return: that place where our ancestors departed one world for another; the Old World for the New. The place where all names were forgotten and all beginnings recast.

It never occurred to me until a few years ago how the importance of maps goes further than just showing us where a place is situated. In a lot of literature I’ve read, it’s clear that maps are very political. In a lot of black literature in particular, there seems to be a focus on redrawing maps metaphorically, creating maps, changing frontier lines and so on. I thought about this poetry excerpt I wrote down a year or so ago by Jamaican poet Kei Miller:

“We speak to navigate ourselves

away from dark corners and we become,

each one of us, cartographers.”

(from: The Cartographer Tries to Map a Way to Zion)

I enjoyed how Brand used her life experiences to support the theories she came up with. Her life in the Caribbean, moving to Canada, and travelling to Africa, Asia, Europe, South America, and Oceania: all her observations and experiences tie in to discussions of belonging, blackness, identity, and diasporic connections. Colonialism and its violence is evident in a lot of the places that Brand travels to.

Brand is Canadian and as I live in Canada I can relate to her even further on that point. She discusses erasure of blackness, something Black Canadians know well. There was so much in her writing about Canada which I wish was discussed on a more national scale. About Canada she says:

“How do we read these complicated juxtapositions of belonging and not belonging , belonging and intrabelonging. In a place such as this, so full of immigrants, everyone is deeply interested in belonging.”

And:

“National identity is a dance of artificiality, since what it dances must essentially be unchanging. Some would say, well, no, Canadian identity has changed over the last thirty or fifty years. Not at all.  We are drawn constantly to the European shape in its definition. A shape, by the way, which obscures it own multiplicity. And when we read the hyphenated narratives we see the angst produced by this unchanging quality.”

It’s important to say that Brand is a poet because her metaphorical and intuitive language really illuminated a lot for me. This book is rich and extra-sensory, great depictions of history, the land, the people. Reading this was like going on a journey with Brand and learning a little something about myself and my place in society and history at every stop. It was a very enjoyable and thought-provoking process., and she leaves us to think about how true the following is: “To live in the Black Diaspora is I think to live as a fiction–a creation of empires, and also self-creation.”

In Another Place, Not Here- Dionne Brand

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“They thought that the time would come when they would live, they would get a chance to be what they saw, that was part of the hope that kept them. But ghostly, ghostly this hope, sucking their jaws into lemon seed, kiwi heart, skeletons of pawpaw, green banana stalk.”– Dionne Brand, In Another Place, Not Here

If a favourite poet writes a novel, I’m probably going to read it, especially when the poet is Dionne Brand. I’m writing this review very soon after reading  Brand’s non-fiction book, “A Map to the Door of No Return“, and I’m seeing her experiences and thoughts on immigration, identity, the diaspora, colonialism etc in that book, displayed in this book.  Prior to this I’d only read a few volumes of her poems; in prose form, she is just remarkable and this is a beautiful, intricate book. It did take me a while to get used to the language but once I got into the flow of things it was wonderful.

This book is set in Ontario, Canada and an unnamed Caribbean island (possibly Grenada?). The main stories are those of  Elizete and Verlia. Verlia immigrates to Canada as a teenager, becomes a member of the black power movement in 1970s Toronto, then goes back to her island to try to ignite a revolution there with the exploited sugarcane workers. She meets and becomes lovers with Elizete, who eventually moves to Canada herself. The women’s lives as  immigrants in Canada were very difficult and transformative. When Verlia moves to Sudbury, Ontario to live with her relatives, her observations of whiteness as a black immigrant to Canada were quite interesting. She witnesses and questions the assimilation approach of her aunt and uncle and how this is toxic and seems to result in their emotional death. As immigrants are we supposed to embrace whiteness? Verlia decided she didn’t want to:

“They are imaginary. They have come as far north as they could imagine. And they have imagined themselves into the white town’s imagining. They have come here to get away from Black people, to show white people that they are harmless, just like them. This lie will kill them. Swell her uncle’s heart. Wrought the iron in Aunt Idrisse’s voice.”

This book made me think, and at times it touched on personal thoughts or the many stories I’ve heard about from fellow-immigrants:  immigration isn’t easy. The tough life of a single, black female immigrant in 1970s Canada must have been even tougher. Brand is honest with her portrayal of Canada, and how others often perceive it in a way that sugarcoats very real issues:

“Except that everyone is from someplace else but this city does not give them a chance to say this; it pushes their confusion underground, it wraps them in the same skin and slides them to the side like so much meat wrapped in brown paper.” 

In this Brexit era  when so many immigrants hear the phrase, “Go back home”, it’s a good time to understand why certain immigration patterns even happened. Often people rarely take into account history and how damaging and pervasive the ills of the Empire have been. There’s a realization by so many of us that there is no place where we can be truly free because of history and neocolonialism.

I appreciated this book for  highlighting the  traumatic experiences of immigration. There were several passages that were heartbreaking because they spoke to loneliness, depression, confusion, waiting…:

“She was working edges. If she could straighten out the seam she’d curled herself into, iron it out like a wrinkle, sprinkle some water on it and then iron it out, careful, careful not to burn…”

 “She has too much to tell. That’s the answer, too much she holds and no place to put it down that would be safe.”

“She was trying to collect herself again, bring her mind back from wherever the pieces had gone skittering. She had deserted herself she knew, given up a continent of voices she knew then for fragmented ones.”

This is definitely a book I think will appeal to many. It’s beautifully-written, very thoughtful, and gives a voice to Caribbean immigrant women in the big city in Canada.

 

 

 

 

lost in language & sound- essays by Ntozake Shange

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“Like most people of color, Black people in the New World, I came by my passion for literature in a circuitous way, a night journey marked by music, movement, improvisation, and smells of perfume, sweat, and humid star-flickering nights.”- Ntozake Shange (In: from analphabetic to script obsessed.”

My first book by Ntozake Shange and I’m not sure why it took me this long to finally read her. Her writing is very real and true to her feelings and experiences. I love essays on black art and culture, and the more I read about the arts, the more I realized just how important, life-giving, they are for all, but particularly for marginalized people: for us art is truly about survival. And it’s clearly been survival against the odds.

What I appreciated, apart from her lyrical and insightful prose and poetry, was also her diasporic reach and content, from Latin America, the Caribbean, to Africa. For me it’s always been important to read about black art in the context of the black diaspora because there are so many connections between cultures, so many ways we have been influenced by people in other places on the globe.

A lot of the essays dealt with language and as a result Shange is very much involved in deconstructing the English language. I’m learning more about what language means to people whose culture, language, and traditions have been suppressed, and more and more I’m in awe by how those people have managed to contort their language to fit their purposes. Linguistic creativity is brilliant to me and when I read the following passage, it made me realize even more what was at stake here:

“i cant count the number of times i have viscerally wanted to attack deform n maim the language that i waz taught to hate myself in/ the language that perpetuates the notions that cause pain to every black child as s/he learns to speak of the world and the “self.””

And also:

“in order to think n communicate the thoughts n feelings I want to think n communicate/ i haveta fix my tool to my needs/ i have to take it apart to the bone/ so that the malignancies/ fall away/ leaving us space to literally create our own image.” (In: my pen is a machete).

I know less about dance and drama than I do about literature but Shange shared her knowledge and personal experiences. I was grateful to her for allowing me to see the importance and the power of these other art forms.

“We must sing and dance or we shall die an inert, motionless, “sin ritmo” death. “Negros muertos,” killed by a culture afraid of who we are and what we have to say with our bodies, our music, and our brains.” (In: a celebration of black survival).

Read this if you want to perspective on a black female artist’s journey. There is so much honesty and warmth in this book; it gave me a desire to learn more, especially about the world of theatre.

30 Diverse Poetry Books You Should Read

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Following my previous post about reading diversely, as well as the recent #diversebookbloggers hashtag that was started by Naz at Read Diverse Books, I decided to compile a diverse poetry list. I don’t do many  poetry book reviews but I do love poetry. Here is a list of 30 diverse poetry collections that I love. In lieu of book reviews, which I rarely do for poetry collections, I’ve attached excerpts to each title. Enjoy!


1. Selected Poems- Po Chu’ I (China)

I wish we could be trees deep in the mountains,
touching, twining limb around limb.


2. Unattainable Earth- Czeslaw Milosz (Poland)

Do not die out, fire.
Enter my dreams, love.
Be young forever,
seasons of the earth. –Winter


3. The Essential Gwendolyn Brooks (USA)

Life must be aromatic.
There must be scent,
somehow there must be some.


4. In the Presence of Absence- Mahmoud Darwish (Palestine)

My memory is like a pomegranate.
Shall I open it over you and let it scatter,
seed by seed:
red pearls befitting a farewell
that asks nothing of me except forgetfulness?


5. Horses Make a Landscape More Beautiful- Alice Walker (America)

We who have stood over
so many graves
know that no matter what they do
all of us must live
or none. –Each One, Pull One


6. The Cartographer Tries to Map a Way to Zion- Kei Miller (Jamaica)

We speak to navigate ourselves
away from dark corners and we become,
each one of us, cartographers.


7. She Says- Venus Khoury-Ghata (Lebanon/France)

I stuff the French language with loukoum, I teach it to do the belly dance.


8. Ossuaries- Dionne Brand (Canada/Trinidad)

I lived and loved,
some might say,
in momentous times,
looking back,
my dreams were full of prisons.- Ossuary I


9. Mercurochrome- Wanda Coleman (USA)

i wanted empathy & tea leaves,
answers & directions
toward a healing path. –Soft Boy


10. The Ink Dark Moon- Ono No Komachi (Japan)

No different, really—
a summer moth’s visible burning
and this body,
transformed by love.


11. Forbidden Words- Eugenio de Andrade (Portugal)

Books. Warmth,
their tender skin, serene. Loving
company. Willing always
to share the sun
of their waters. So docile,
silent, loyal.
So luminous in their
white and vegetal closed
melancholy. Loved
like no other companions
of the spirit. So musical
in the fluvial overflowing
ardour of the day.- On a Copy of the Georgics


12. Fugitive Suns- Andree Chedid (Algeria)

With spadefuls of petty life
We bury what outmeasures us
Eluding the fabulous intimacy
For the instant’s wage.


13. Redemption Rain- Jennifer Rahim (Canada/ Trinidad)

Honestly, I have no regrets.
Our talk is so full of recognition,
the light we generate makes night, day.


14. Fuel- Naomi Shihab Nye (USA/Palestine)

A boy told me
if he roller-skated fast enough
his loneliness couldn’t catch up to him,
the best reason I ever heard
for trying to be a champion.
What I wonder tonight
pedaling hard down King William Street
is if it translates to bicycles.
A victory! To leave your loneliness
panting behind you on some street corner
while you float free into a cloud of sudden azaleas,
pink petals that have never felt loneliness,
no matter how slowly they fell.- The Rider

 


15. Spring Essence- Ho Xuan Huong (Vietnam)

How many thousands of years have you been there?
Why sometimes slender, why sometimes full?
Why do you circle the purple loneliness of night
and seldom blush before the sun?
Weary, past midnight, who are you searching for?
Are you in love with these rivers and hills?- Questions for the Moon


16. Bridge to the Soul- Rumi (Iran)

Rise. Do not keep stirring
the heavy sediment. Let
the murkiness settle.- A Northern Wind


17. Selected Prose and Poems- Gabriela Mistral (Chile)

At times your heart will be ready for harvest, like the fruits from which honey or oil is pressed.-The Dream


18. Language is not the Only Thing That Breaks- Proma Tagore (Canada/India)

for you to feel the warmth of your grandmother’s touch.
for sorrows
that this land keeps to unfold,
like the moon, into dreams,
to know that even in loss there is living transformation.
for us to live, reconnected, and your stories, this poem to have many beginnings.


19. She- Saul Williams (USA)

For all the ghosts and corpses that shall never know the breath of our children
so long
for the sacrifice and endurance of our mothers and the sustained breath of our fathers
we live


20. Behind My Eyes- Li-Young Lee (China/ USA)

I’m told I’m a fourfold mystery
like the planet, but I think more.
I mean, there are tears inside me I’ll never weep.


21. Sea Grapes- Derek Walcott (St. Lucia)

The time will come
when, with elation,
you will greet yourself arriving
at your own door, in your own mirror,
and each will smile at each other’s welcome,

and say sit here. Eat.
You will love again the stranger who was your self,
Give wine. Give bread. Give back your heart
to itself, to the stranger who has loved you

all your life, whom you ignored
for another, who knows you by heart.
Take down the love-letters from the bookshelf

the photographs, the desperate notes,
peel your own image from the mirror.
Sit. Feast on your life.—  Love After Love


22. Solar Throat Slashed- Aime Cesaire (Martinique)

I am a memory that does not reach the threshold
and wanders in the limbo where the glint of absinthe
when the heart of night breathes through its blowholes
moves the fallen star in which we contemplate ourselves.- The Griffin


23. The August Sleepwalker- Bei Dao (China)

A Perpetual stranger
am I to the world
I don’t understand its language
my silence it can’t comprehend
all we have to exchange
is a touch of contempt
as if we meet in a mirror

a perpetual stranger
am I to myself
I fear the dark
but block with my body
the only lamp
my shadow is my beloved
heart the enemy.- A Perpetual Stranger


24. A Little Larger than the Entire Universe- Fernando Pessoa (Portugal)

Whether we write or speak or are but seen
We are ever unapparent. What we are
Cannot be transfused into word or mien.
Our soul from us is infinitely far.
However much we give our thoughts the will
To make our soul with arts of self-show stored,
Our hearts are incommunicable still.
In what we show ourselves we are ignored.
The abyss from soul to soul cannot be bridged
By any skill or thought or trick for seeing.
Unto our very selves we are abridged
When we would utter to our thought our being.
We are our dreams of ourselves, souls by gleams,
And each to each other dreams of others’ dreams.


25. The Collected Poetry of Leopold Sedar Senghor (Senegal)

I am thirsty, so thirsty for space and new waters,
And to drink from the urn of a new face in the sun
Without hotel rooms or the crushing
Solitude of big cities driving me away.—  It is Time for Me to Go

26. The Selected Poems of Federico Garcia Lorca (Spain)

I sat down
in a space of time.
It was a backwater
of silence,
a white silence,
a formidable ring
wherein the stars
collided with the twelve floating
black numerals.— Pause of the Clock

 27. The Essential Neruda- Pablo Neruda (Chile)

And it was at that age … Poetry arrived
in search of me. I don’t know, I don’t know where
it came from, from winter or a river.
I don’t know how or when,
no they were not voices, they were not
words, nor silence,
but from a street I was summoned,
from the branches of night,
abruptly from the others,
among violent fires
or returning alone,
there I was without a face
and it touched me.


28. Collected Poems of Chinua Achebe (Nigeria)

Absentminded
our thoughtful days
sat at dire controls
and played indolently.- 1966


29. Shake Loose my Skin- Sonia Sanchez (USA)

And I cried. For myself. For this woman talkin’ about love. For all the women who have ever stretched their bodies out anticipating civilizations and finding ruins.


30. The Great Black North: Contemporary African Canadian Poetry (Eds. Valerie Mason-John & Kevan Anthony Cameron)

When a hunger for our own vernacular
mingled with the passion of romanticism
a new language was born, on the page
on the stages of smoky coffee houses
deep in the heart of Harlem

In this Renaissance, we began to reclaim ourselves
Began to own our newly found freedom
to simply read and write, en masse
in public, to make love and meaning
from our suffering, to live our loud
word by word, on our own terms.- Andrea Thompson, A Brief History of Soul Speak

Diversity? My Thoughts

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I haven’t written a post on race or anything along those lines for a long time and to be honest, they probably won’t be nearly as frequently as they used to, but this has been a post long in the making and one I was hesitant to discuss for so many reasons, but it keeps coming up. As always, when I discuss such issues, I feel the importance of stating by way of a disclosure that these are my personal thoughts and experiences, and I acknowledge the people who are doing good diversity and intercultural work in the field, and in no way am I demeaning their efforts.

It goes without saying that I no longer see the world through rose-tinted glasses. Being black, a woman, an immigrant twice-over, I cannot afford to do so. My very presence affects how people around me react. It’s difficult to guess whether I’ll be feared, coddled, condescended to, or ignored and discredited.  Rarely am I seen as an equal.  As a result, it’s been a very interesting position for me to be involved in the diversity and intercultural field,   and I’ve made so many observations that have made me consider my stance, and about whether I actually see any good in me continuing to work in the field. From my first semester of grad school, to subsequent diversity events I’ve not only co-facilitated but also attended, my questions have often been :”Why am I doing this? Who is this diversity work for? What IS diversity?”

I do feel somewhat disillusioned by the diversity and interculturalist field. In my field of interculturalism, a field with a large number of  well-travelled and educated people, perhaps I let my guard down a bit and began to believe that my presence in this field would be valued and that I  might possibly be able to influence change. In Vancouver we often lament about the invisibility of black people, and just before Black History Month, organizations are often scrambling for black speakers, performers etc. But it turns out a lot of this interest is very cosmetic.

I feel we are still tiptoeing around issues. And what does that make people like me feel? Tired and completely fed up. Yet we are told to be patient. Nina Simone’s lyrics from “Mississippi Goddam” come to mind:

Don’t tell me
I tell you
Me and my people just about due
I’ve been there so I know
They keep on saying “Go slow!”

My original thoughts that my experiences, and the experiences and thoughts of people like me, would be better-received by open-minded voices who profess to value and honour diversity, was unfortunately not a reality. What I soon realized is that the diversity we often deal with here are sugarcoated and very disingenuous.

At diversity events, microaggressions are rife. An example is at an event on leadership I attended in March, My partner during one of the exercises was a Middle Eastern woman. As the only women of colour at the event, we inevitably discussed the reality of race, and the fact that nobody had brought up this in the whole event. During the sharing time I felt the need to bring up this point, saying it was important to acknowledge this reality. A white Canadian lady spoke up, clearly taking umbrage at the comment that race is an issue. She objected to my usage of the word “marginalized” and proceeded to “remind” me that I have a great cultural heritage to draw on, and that the reason people want to talk to me is that I’m elegant and eloquent, something she didn’t stop commenting on the entire morning. To top it off, she said she’d experienced racism in Japan.

At these events, what usually happens, as did happen in the woman’s response to my comment is silencing (“racism isn’t so bad here”), tone policing (“don’t use that term, it’s not becoming”), equating oppressions (“I’ve experienced racism too”), and operating according to stereotypes (“you’re so eloquent.”).

Luckily I’m now able to anticipate these things and I’ve had to grow tougher due to my experiences. I have an M.O. for these situations: when I realize I’m not going to get through to people the best thing for me to do is to shut up and preserve my valuable energy. No further interactions with these folks are necessary because you already know you’re talking to a brick wall.

The reality is when a person of colour at one of these events attempts to challenge the narrative and the accepted knowledge, these reactions are very common. They’ve happened to me, as I’ve illustrated, and I’ve seen them happen to others. What people often hope for is for a good photo opportunity to showcase the diversity and market it, and a nice personal story that will make them feel sad or good about themselves. It’s rarely about challenging oneself it seems.

So I’ve come to realize the face of diversity is often not diverse at all (if you look at the board members of diversity organizations, this will become very obvious). I’ve realized that things are taken differently depending on who is saying it. I note the difference in how the black and Asian women I meet at these events feel after them. I often talk to them afterwards and the general consensus is often “tokenism”, “sugar-coating”, “the discussion could have gone deeper”, or “this isn’t new; I’ve known this since birth.”

It would be wonderful to be colourblind but it’s too late for me. Sharing my perspectives to show that there are several frames of reference, is important to me. What I’d like for more people in the field to acknowledge is that how they operate isn’t equitable, it isn’t real diversity work. If we are to call ourselves liberal and such, surely it would make sense to allow those who are marginalized the most to speak out and not to attempt to appease them with platitudes? If we’re not willing to hear the point of views of POC, to hire them in our intercultural organizations, then our diversity push is a mere façade.  If we’re not willing to be honest with the nitty-gritty of how race matters etc, I’m definitely not for it. Being involved in anything half-baked was never my plan.

Dreams of Trespass: Tales of a Harem Girlhood- Fatima Mernissi

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“When you happen to be trapped powerless behind walls, stuck in a dead-end harem, you dream of escape. And magic flourishes when you spell out that dream and make the frontiers vanish. Dreams can change your life, and eventually the world. Liberation starts with images dancing in your little head, and you translate those images in words. And words cost nothing!”- Fatima Mernissi, Dreams of Trespass: Tales of a Harem Girlhood

I just recently came across Moroccan feminist and sociologist Fatima Mernissi and was sorry to learn that she passed away late last year. I’m so grateful to her for this text, for  hearing her story. Someone once told me we are always born into the right place at the right time and Mernissi definitely was. Born in Morocco in 1940  during the transition between tradition and modernity, she was a witness to the war and colonialism by the French. As a sociologist, most importantly a feminist, she is able to present her story in a coming of age story situated in history. I believe she was meant to write this story and she writes it well and so beautifully, even inserting funny yet profound childhood observations:

“We knew that the French were greedy and had come a long way to conquer our land, even though Allah had already given them a beautiful one, with bustling cities, thick forests, luscious green fields, and cows much bigger than ours that gave four times as much milk. But somehow the French needed to get home.”

The concept of freedom, especially when it deals with women,  is interesting to me because it means different things to different people. Is freedom about physical barriers? Do we have to construct our own freedom and how do we do so? Do we see freedom in the other?  And even more interesting is to  learn about feminists from non-Western countries and how other women practice feminism in cultures that might not even have that word in their vocabulary. I was quite struck by how feminism was done within the harem walls,  in what people would say is a very unlikely place to practice feminism.

The harem was defined as the place where a man kept his family and sheltered them. It was both the place and the members. We are introduced to proxemics and boundaries within the harem, and we also learn more about the harem of  Mernissi’s grandmother, Yasmina, in the countryside. The harem is a boundary for women and the boundary symbolizes something to overcome somehow in search of freedom. Some boundaries are invisible, others are concrete (or metallic) like the harem’s walls (or gate).

One of the ways feminism was practiced was through storytelling, often intergenerationally. In particular, Scheherezade seemed to be a very important literary figure in this world:

“However, words would save the person who knew how to string them artfully together. That is what happened to Scheherezade, the author of the thousand and one tales. The King was about to chop off her head, but she was able to stop him at the last minute, just by using words. I was eager to find out how she had done it.”

It was timely that I  read this book  just before reading Steinem’s “My Life on the Road.” In a sense, their lives are opposites, one grew up on the road, one behind a wall. Mernissi talked about the importance for women to not be restricted in their movements and I think Steinem would agree:

“I knew that if you moved around, your mind worked faster, because you were constantly seeing new things that you had to respond to.”

All in all, this account reiterates how powerful words are, how women do have that power to transform their own lives.

“You are going to transform this world, aren’t you? You are going to create a planet without walls and without frontiers where the gatekeepers have off every day of the year.”

A special thank you to Julie Feng at https://mintandink.wordpress.com/ for introducing me to this amazing writer!

Also, a book was mentioned that I might read: The Memoirs of an Egyptian Feminist by Huda Sharaoui

Decolonising the Mind- Ngũgĩ wa Thiong’o

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“Education, far from giving people the confidence in their ability and capacities to overcome obstacles or to become masters of the laws governing external nature as human beings, tends to make them feel their inadequacies, their weaknesses and their incapacities in the face of reality; and their inability to do anything about the conditions governing their lives.”- Ngugi wa Thiong’o, Decolonising the Mind

I’ve never seen colonialism described as succinctly as in the following passage:

“The real aim of colonialism was to control the people’s wealth: what they produced, how they produced it, and how it was distributed; to control, in other words, the entire realm of the language of real life. Colonialism imposed its control of the social production of wealth through military conquest and subsequent political dictatorship. But its most important area of domination was the mental universe of the colonised, the control through culture, of how people perceived themselves and their relationship to the world.”

I read this book with my experiences in Africa, conversations with my relatives and friends, and my education at the back of my mind. Trying to make sense of history and my place in it made this book invaluable to me, and helped clarify and reiterate a lot of things. The more I  read books on Africa, be they about art, language, history, or politics, the more I’m amazed how the continent is seen, in many people’s minds, as a homogeneous  country. This passive thinking really masks the  complexity of issues in the continent. Even without colonialism Africa would have been quite intricate but  colonialism has truly caused mayhem in the entire continent. And in many ways, language is one of the biggest weapons the colonialists used to do so.

I like wa Thiong’o a lot. Not only is he a great writer, but it’s also clear he is a very passionate person with a lot of  love for his country, his continent and his language, and a great advocate for the traditional arts. He is very blunt and I admire that a lot. Nobody is safe from his criticism,  even a few of my personal favourites such as Achebe, Soyinka, Cesaire. In a sense he thinks they were brainwashed for putting the language of the colonizers on a pedestal. I think it’s an interesting argument to be had but it’s hard for me to pick a side because I’m admittedly colonized myself and English-dominant, although it’s not my first language. I found it useful to read wa Thiong’o’s perspective regardless.

And wa Thiongo’s perspective is important. He grew up during colonialism after all, so he, unlike me, had the opportunity to study in his native language and unfortunately had to endure being forced to assimilate into the English language.He details how the British tried to suppress local languages in Kenya, how they arrested those who tried to encourage cultural proliferation, and controlled the gathering of people in places.  He sees the differences in himself and his society before and after English language education was forced on him, and his explanations and insights are very precise and often personal.

wa Thiong’o is very thorough in how he discusses the role of language as a carrier and transmitter of culture, and what happens when that language is taken away from people. This is such a common story, not just in Africa but even here in Canada, and I think we’re beginning to understand just how damaging it is to suppress and devalue language. In what planet does it make sense that a Kenyan student in colonial Kenya would be punished for speaking Gikuyu or Swahili instead of English? Personally I remember how I was often treated better than my cousins just because I could speak English and they couldn’t; I learned early on how language can be elitist:

“I believe that my writing in Gikuyu language, a Kenyan language, an African language, is part and parcel of the anti-imperialist struggles of Kenyan and African peoples. In schools and universities our Kenyan languages– that is the languages of the many nationalities which make up Kenya– were associated with negative qualities of backwardness, underdevelopment, humiliation and punishment.”

Another great thing about wa Thing’o is how he respects the peasantry (his choice of word). The other day I was reading about the Third Estate in France during the 19th Century revolution and this reminded me of how in Africa the peasantry are the majority, and that’s where the culture comes from. Who makes the oral stories, who upholds the culture? It’s nice to see the peasantry being accredited with maintaining culture and tradition:

“These languages, these national heritages of Africa, were kept alive by the peasantry. The peasantry saw no contradiction between speaking their own mother tongues and belonging to a larger national or continental geography. They saw no necessary antagonistic contradiction between belonging to their immediate nationality, to their multinational state along the Berlin-drawn boundaries, and to Africa on the whole.”

I was struck  by the violence caused by colonialism. Colonialism was celebrated, and that’s the world I grew up in: gratitude to the colonialists for “rescuing” us. But what we know now is that it was very very violent and the wounds are still there. If, like wa Thiong’o said, in 1984 the president of the West German Federal Council visited Togo in order to celebrate the centennial of Germany establishing Togo as a German colony,”to commemorate not the resistance to colonisation but the glory of colonisation,” then clearly we haven’t learned much and dialogue still needs to be had.

The constant unlearning, the decolonizing, that needs to be done because we were lied to, is something that I thought of throughout this book. And it’s only now that I’m realizing in more detail just how horrific colonialism was, just how much we’ve lost. What I aim to do myself, how I aim to decolonize my own mind, is by reading more of my history. I’ve also been thinking about how I’ve been influenced by other cultures so I wonder how far I can be decolonized. This got me thinking about globalization and how that has affected us, I would be interested to hear Thiong’o’s thoughts on this. This is definitely a must-read for everyone, there is so much we don’t know or realize about the impact of the actions of those who came before us, and this is a great start.