Novelists Aminatta Forna and Taiye Selasi were recently in an email conversation about the art and politics of walking in public as women of colour. Their conversation, published by Literary Hub and titled “Whose Streets?,” is a revealing, empowering response to an essay by Forna which appeared in Freeman’s magazine. Titled “Power Walking,” Forna’s essay meditates on movement in public as a practical art form that she had to learn as a woman of colour dealing with the gaze of men.
Here’s an excerpt from their chat.
Taiye Selasi: Your entire essay is—like everything you write—beautiful, honest, insightful. Of the many, many things that strike me as deeply familiar and heartbreakingly true, there is this line just at the end: “I wonder about all those guys, of every class and color, who have interrupted my thoughts in order to remind me of my place.” Those words made me gasp. Somehow, I’d never organized my thoughts around those two sets words: “interrupting my thoughts” and “reminding me of my place.” And yet they are the crucial words. They contain all the violation, the violence.
First: the interruption of thought. What I most cherish about walking is its relationship to thinking. From the earliest age I’ve been admonished to “look where I’m going” and yet I can never quite manage it. I look up, at cloud formations; around, at passing strangers; down, at my own moving feet. That steady stream of visual information has a hypnotic effect; invariably I find myself lost in thought: about the clouds, the strangers, some lover, some plot. I’ve never walked for more than ten minutes without starting to write in my head. Those who interrupt me while I’m walking, just as you say, interrupt my thinking—and they do so because they cannot imagine that my thoughts have any value. They cannot imagine that I am attempting to perfect a paragraph in my head. They cannot imagine—they most certainly do not imagine—that I am a writer. A thinker.
Of course, I am aware that I live in a body. I am aware that this body is received by the world as brown and female. But to write, to be a writer, I think, is to depart from the body. To drift away from it. To move within so many bodies that one can so easily forget one’s own. To be harassed while walking—accosted while thinking—is a violent reminder of male disregard for the thoughts of women, the contemplative lives of brown people, interiority.
These last days I’ve tried walking as if I were you. I’ve had the chance to exercise this new stride—these new eyes—in Lisbon and Algiers. Palpable the difference.
And then: my place. To be reminded of my place. First to be interrupted while thinking, then to be reminded of my place. Violence to greater violence. What is my place? I have spent most of my life walking through spaces in which, on the face of things, I have no place. A black girl moving, un-placed, through lily white Brookline, Massachusetts; a West African immigrant moving, un-placed, through African-American Harlem; a brown writer moving, un-placed, through Rome, Berlin, Lisbon; a soi-disant Afropolitan moving, un-placed, through Lagos, Accra. I have come to terms with not having a place. Perhaps that is why I feel so exceptionally galled at being reminded that others have a place for me.
The white woman in Berlin who does not think that I belong in her building (where I own a flat) has a place for me. That place is: NOT FROM HERE. The aunties in Accra who click their tongues at my unprocessed hair: NOT FROM HERE. My black high school friends who thought it absurd that I didn’t know what Kool-Aid was: NOT FROM HERE. I can accept NOT FROM HERE. Everywhere I walk I am NOT FROM HERE. What I cannot accept is: NOT HERE at all. The men who push past me on the sidewalk, just as you say; the white women who do the same. For them I am not here at all. Nothing in my upbringing prepares me to accept that place, and yet nothing in my nature equips me to resist it, as you do. It is horribly difficult for me to shout out, to shout back—and why is that?
Did I make my peace with “NOT FROM HERE” by making the locals like me? Isn’t so much of the African immigrant upbringing about being polite, being accepted, being acceptable? How appalling, really, my hesitation to object to my own erasure.
Aminatta Forna: I think they do imagine you are a writer, a thinker, that is to say a woman with more on her mind than knowing her place with regard to men, a brown person with places to go, people to see and things to do. That is precisely what antagonizes them so. I have had discussions with my friends male and/or white about the extent to which people are cognizant of their responses and reactions. I’m talking about the men who call out, your neighbor in Berlin, the aunties in Accra. Many would have us believe their behavior is reactive, unthinking and, in the case of men, biologically driven. I don’t buy it, I believe their actions are calculated and deliberate. How else to explain the differences in the places you and I have traveled? In some street harassment is endemic, in others rare.
In the era of South African apartheid white citizens knew it was their job to keep black and brown citizens in their place, for without their active cooperation and if left entirely in the hands of, say, the police, apartheid would have failed. It required the white citizens of South Africa to engage in the daily enforcement of the minutiae of the system, the restrooms and drinking fountains. Same goes for the United States, where we still see the legacy of citizen enforcement in the white women who call the police when they spot a black woman asleep in the university common room. Some actions may be less or more harmful, consequences less or more grave, but the impetus is the same. It is the desire to assert their power through control, which in turn is effected through humiliation. For otherwise and without the self-appointed guardians of the status quo, Taiye, women like our younger selves, might begin to believe we could own the world.
I like to walk and dream. I like to take a knotty problem of plot or character out and unravel it on a stroll. For many years I walked alone around a ruined, Gothic cemetery in South East London. Some women, when I told them I walked there, were concerned. But the danger posed by the remote possibility of attack when weighed against the impossibility of uninterrupted thought, became a risk worth taking. I had a dog, which helped, I have found dogs to be a great deterrent to would be harassers. To a writer a lost thought is a violation. Sometimes I know I will never get that thought back, it’s gone, like a book stolen from a library. Tens of thousands of lost thoughts over a lifetime.
I shout back and in so doing I have doubtless lost even more thoughts. Still more disappear into the smoke of outrage that persists long after the encounter. Partly my response is a matter of temperament, I’m not quick to anger but when anger comes it is instantaneous and huge. Also I was raised to believe injustice must always be confronted. For the most part young women are taught submissiveness—silence, at the very least—is the price of walking. And who among us can insist that the woman alone faced by the one, two, three men should antagonize them with her anger. Yet I have always had a feeling that women, especially in the West, missed a moment. What if, in one unpremeditated voice we had all shouted back from the start? What then?
You say “isn’t so much of the African immigrant upbringing about being polite?” Do you think that perhaps therein lies a difference. I have never been an immigrant. Here in the US, according to my tax status, I am a resident nonimmigrant, a visitor. In America I am “not from here,” but I couldn’t care less. I was born of two nations, the Britain of my mother and my father’s country of Sierra Leone. I have never felt that I did not belong, despite the assumption that I should feel that way and the efforts of those who might like it to be so. I begin from a different footing to you: these are my streets, this is my country. How dare they?!
Read the full conversation on Literary Hub.