“Am I really Nigerian if I don’t speak my native language? I speak English but I’m definitely not British! My cousins think I’m not Ibo enough because I grew up in Lagos. I’m too western. But I’m an outsider in my US classroom because I’m simply not Western enough. Our pidgin is ‘ghetto’ yet I’m to stop speaking it since I’m no good at it.” Growing up ‘othered’ cost me the confidence to speak my native language. Amongst other things…
Though I lost myself to books as respite, no one seemed to be writing about my peculiar experience. At 8, the world was too big to know where to begin to search. At 28, I had been indoctrinated to accept the West was the center, and that mine wasn’t even a valid experience. I was supposed to be embarrassed by my status of neither here nor there. And I was. So how could I even expect someone to bother to write about the peculiar identity struggles I faced?
I was looking for movies to watch on Netflix once, when it crystallized why I was subconsciously avoiding the African films. Growing up, western media films with mostly African casts were cautionary tales of teenage pregnancy and HIV, force fed to me by an overprotective mother. Other such African movies were hard-to-watch imagery of slavery, famine and poverty (with the usual ‘3rd world country’ filter). They made me uncomfortable because I felt embarrassed by the Africa they portrayed. Sure it was a piece of Africa. It just wasn’t my piece of Africa.
When I speak French with Francophone Africans, I recognize how their accents make French so much easier for me. But the triumph of language confidence is short-lived. I painfully also recognize how something so simple could easily have been the difference between an A and the B average I maintained during my Western French studies. I wonder what else I’ve doubted myself on simply because I’d never seen myself in it? And at what cost? That’s the scary bit. We completely take for granted how a world that disregards our diversity and uniqueness fails us, while acting as though it’s our fault. Such is the intent of a racist agenda that continues to keep only one group at the center.
Finding my voice – cliche as it sounds – was simply letting that scared inner girl speak and listening to what she had to say. Believing me, and believing my experience was valid. No one else had to believe. But the world had robbed me of that for 30 years. Tossing me about, so I never settled into myself, into my own voice. So I could never find my footing. The world likes me like that. So it can sneer at my off-balancedness and ridicule me for its’ self amusement and placation.
At the time, I wasn’t aware of any trauma in my life. Those uncomfortable things that might have made for good writing…were just that…too uncomfortable. Chimamanda’s Purple Hibiscus was one of the first books where I really and finally saw myself. Kambele is me. In ways I wish were not true, but I’m grateful to recognize. I’m forever indebted to authors like Chimamanda Adichie and Sefi Attah. Women who somehow grab fistfuls of my reality and shove it in my face. They write like our words and worlds are simply what is. And that’s that.
Anyways, I’ve been upset and relieved for 8 year old me. Upset that she spent so many years feeling what she did. Relieved that she was no longer waiting for someone to write her truth. Black Noise might have been me finally realizing that, and it’s a journey I’m still on. This time though, I can choose to speak whatever language that moves me in the moment. I’m holding my microphone and honoring my experience. Because it is valid, just as it is. And it needs no qualifiers. Unless of course I choose to put them there.