This past summer I came home shell-shocked, unable to write. One of the most exciting moments in my career – being recognized at a fancy event in Europe focused on Nigeria – had also been one of the worst. I took courage when I heard about the Ake Review‘s call for stories connected to the F-Word Conference and decided to write about it. I thought about all the other words we don’t dare say, which reminded that as a woman, I’d been dealing with incidents like this all my life. A few months after my essay was accepted, the #metoo movement broke here in the USA. Since then, I’ve been waiting for a movement in Nigeria, where sexual harassment is rampant in every industry. I wanted to create a compilation of the African female experience, based on what I observed, experienced, and heard from my sisters and aunties.
THE N WORD
I take my place on stage with the other Nigerian writers, laughing to mask my nerves. A quarter century since becoming Nigerian & I still quake beneath my kaba, albeit bolstered by shiny metres of regally-stiff cloth. Even after all these years & publications & speaking engagements, I worry. My starched, brilliantly-coloured body doesn’t “read” Nigerian. Do I then have the right to use my voice?
THE T WORD
But we the writers on stage have been laughing together all week, acting like colleagues—no, something closer—compatriots. Or ethnic group members. Or any word to avoid using tribesmen, tribeswomen. Tribes. Tribalism.
THE A WORD
I take my place on stage with the other Nigerian writers, laughing. More of me are coming-o, I warn. More ABA, American-born Africans, who don’t “speak”. More Africans raised in white suburbs outside Africa. More Afropolitans with multiple allegiances. More Halfricans. More children left behind by fathers without a map. More girls raised by white mothers, who know how to be Feminist & Revolutionary but not Nigerian.
THE T WORD
Back at Uni, when I was trying to figure it out, I sought out my Tribe (as we say in the Academy with impunity), my partners in struggle. But the white Feminist students said: Blackness isn’t part of the struggle. But the Black radical students said: Femaleness isn’t part of the struggle.
Your arm or your leg—they crowed in unison—please leave one at home. Your head or your heart.
THE N WORD
My place on stage with the other Nigerian writers, laughing, & this time I’ve been endorsed by a star, invited by organisers with deep pockets. This time perhaps I can avoid—
Every Nigerian who says: Africa. West Africa. Nigeria. Which state? Ah, you know Nigeria? Did you marry a Nigerian to get that name?
Every Nigerian who says: Yes, but have you ever been to Nigeria?
Every Nigerian who says: Yes, fine, but do you speak Igbo? Eh hehn!
I’m on stage with the other Nigerian writers, laughing, and this moment mends my heart. Mends years of being the bastard on the playground. Years of being the only African in my town. My school. My house. Mends being the mixed-up mixed girl at uni. Mends years of being dismissed as “Just a black American” by Africans, the same Africans who fall over themselves rushing to seat the white former Peace Corps volunteers in their faded dashikis. Years of being the other N-word.
THE N WORD
Now we the writers are off stage, at dinner, laughing at the foreign cuisine & foreign rules (What? Our hosts brought us to this restaurant, no choice in the matter, and yet expect us to pay? Ha, white people-o!). The Nigerian writers, nearly all of us living in Europe or the USA (with all the compromises & conveniences this entails), congratulate each other on breaking silence, telling hard truths about our country & families: Ooh sister, the tears were just hanging! Ooh brother, that was really something-o!
For a moment, in the dining room of some European capital, we create the harmonious inter-ethnic Nation our leaders can’t quite manage. And I am part of it, heart pulsing with life. Big, red.
THE C WORD
We’re at dinner, laughing & toasting & sharing plates of food & it tickles. A famous writer’s hand moving beneath the table, crawling up my skirt, up my leg. Headed somewhere unmentionable. A Cockroach.
The same hand that writes so convincingly about how we manage to negotiate life in America.
A hand that pretends to know suffering.
A hand I slap away, speechless.
But the tickling doesn’t stop, never stops. My leg burns. My brain struggles. My heart.
Is this a joke? We were just laughing, after all—
Laughing at the clumsy attempts of the men in the audience after we got off stage—ordinary working men (not educated like us). Struggling immigrant men (not Westernised expats like us). Men who knew just enough to try (but not enough not to try) lines like Ah sistah, have you ever been to Nigeria?
Right before the hand, we were laughing about these men & their sad, predictable question. The subtext hung above their heads like movie subtitles, the suggestive transaction, the suggestion that the way home for the ABA girl hung between their legs.
THE F WORD
Learning how to be Nigerian isn’t easy for the ABA girl. I suckled on white Feminist milk until I left for uni & was forced to become black in America. And eventually the world. Yet I continued to be Female. Fucked.
Age 15, when a stranger pinned me in a crowded subway, thrusting until he climaxed, me forced to wear the cold, wet violation on my pants all day. Age 17, when a father drove me not home after babysitting gig but to a motel room, me forced to lose my virginity. Age 19, when a college athlete cornered me in the laundry room, me forced to beat back the meaty hands latched to my breasts. At age 26, when a Nigerian uni official bit my neck. Age—
THE T WORD
All week before the hand, we were laughing & complimenting each other’s publications & taking taxis around town in the heat & respecting each other, everyone here on their merits, not for anyone’s private pleasure, all the Nigerian writers leaning into each other like compatriots—no, cousins or siblings—before going on stage. All the Nigerian writers inviting each other to come speak at our respective unis & doing the work of being writers & truthtellers & artists, bumping shoulders for a job well done &
Not whispering like a snake, Come to my room tonight to discuss the visiting writer position—hot, sloppy words that rattle my teeth like a husband’s dirty slap. Like a doctor telling a girl to dry her tears & kneel down to earn the medicine auntie needs. Like a professor dangling a grade, a businessman a contract. Like a miracle pastor promising sons to a desperate, barren wife.
Not sneering, Since when did you become a Tease? The famous writer’s voice turned ugly, hard, to match his face. The sound of transaction. Of colonial masters. As if I were to blame for any of this.
No, all week before the hand, we were just laughing & seeing each other as human beings, equals, not laying claim to The African Body like centuries of Europeans before this moment—those entitled, fleshy fingers grabbing, grabbing like a soulless creature beneath the table undoing everything.
This essay first appeared in print in Ake Review‘s 2017 issue.
Post image by Prentsa Aldundia via Flickr.
About the Author:
Faith Adiele is the author of The Nigerian-Nordic Girl’s Guide to Lady Problems (Shebooks/SheWrites), a mini e/audio-book about black women and fibroids, and Meeting Faith (W.W. Norton), which won the PEN Open Book Award for Memoir. The PBS film My Journey Home documents her trip to Nigeria to find her father and siblings. She is also co-editor of Coming of Age Around the World: A Multicultural Anthology(The New Press). Her writings appear in O: The Oprah Magazine, Essence, and Transition, among others, and have received a UNESCO International Artists Bursary. A graduate of Harvard University, Iowa Writers’ Workshop, and Iowa Nonfiction Writing Program, she is an Associate Professor at California College of the Arts and has taught in Bali, Ghana, South Africa, Switzerland, and at the Farafina Trust Creative Writing Workshop in Nigeria. She founded both African Book Club in Oakland, California and VONA/Voices Travel, the first workshop for travel writers of color in the USA. Find her online at adiele.com and @meetingfaith.