Meri Nana-Ama Danquah, a native Ghanaian, is author of the groundbreaking memoir, Willow Weep for Me: A Black Woman’s Journey Through Depression, and editor of three critically anthologies: Becoming American: Personal Essays by First Generation Immigrant Women, Shaking the Tree: New Fiction and Memoir by Black Women, and most recently, The Black Body. She is also a poet, public speaker, and radio commentator. Danquah divides her time between Los Angeles, California and Accra, Ghana.
The Other Afrik - United States - Panafrica - Culture
Life as an alien
I only now understand why it is that people lie about their paste, why they say they are one thing other than the thing they really are, why they invent a self that bears no resemblance to who they really are, why anyone would want to feel as if he or she belongs to nothing, comes from no one, just fell out of the sky, whole. —Jamaica Kincaid, My Brother
I don’t know where I come from. When people ask me, I have to stop and wonder what it is they really want to know about me. Do they want to know where I was born, where I grew up, where I have lived as an adult, where I live now? It troubles me to be so scattered, so fragmented, so far removed from a center. I am all and I am nothing. At the same time. Once, a long time ago, when I believed that answers were as easy as smiles, someone told me that home is where the heart is. Perhaps this is true. Love has always been a magnet. It is half the sky, the raggedy part that needs to be held up and saved. It is a name as long as history with enough vowels for each of its children to claim. It is the memory of wearing open-toed shoes in December. Of mango juice running a straight river from your hand to your elbow.
Love is a plate of steamed white rice and pig’s-feet stew. As a child, this was my favorite meal. I would sit at the dining table, my legs swinging back and forth, and hum as I scooped the food into my mouth with my hand. I always ate the rice first, saving the meat in a towering heap on the side for last. After I had finished the rice, I would wash it down with some water or Coco-Rico, this coconut-milk soda my mum used to buy. Then I would greedily dig into the pile of pork and choose the largest piece. When my teeth had grazed all the flesh clean off the bone, I would hold it to my lips and suck it dry of its juice. I would bite down hard until it broke in half and I could touch the marrow with the tip of my tongue. Right then, right there, I knew my world was complete.
Several years ago, in what I can only assume was a temporary loss of sanity, I decided to become a vegetarian. Swept into the New Age organic, fat-free health obsessions of Los Angeles, the city in which I live, I vowed to never again eat another piece of meat. Not fish, not chicken, and certainly never pork. In preparation for what I believed would be a permanent change of lifestyle, I spent the morning of my first meatless day in the produce section of the supermarket stocking up on lettuce and carrots, and at the bookstore buying books like Diet for a New America. Throughout the day, whenever I grew hungry, I would pull out a carrot stick or rice cake and nibble, often squeezing my lips into a tight purse of dissatisfaction after swallowing. What I really wanted to be eating was fried chicken. It felt strange to not eat meat anymore; nothing I took in seemed to fill me.
“You’ll get used to the change,” a friend promised. “Pretty soon, the idea of putting that stuff in your body’ll turn your stomach.” We were at an Indian restaurant celebrating my newfound diet. I pondered what she said, scanned the menu, reading only the selections listed under the heading, “Vegetarian,” and ordered the Saag Paneer with Basmati Rice. When my dinner arrived, a gentle nostalgia descended upon me. The food—a creamy stew of chopped spinach—resembled kontomire, a Ghanaian dish I very much enjoy. I was, all at once, swept up by the force of habit—the habit, that is, of moving my head, torso, and legs in rhythm to a series of closed-mouth “Yums.” Except the pot of gold at the end of my culinary rainbow was missing. There was no meat. And that absence left me feeling so cheated out of an integral part of the experience I was having that before returning to my apartment I stopped by an uncle’s house and begged the leftover remains of his curried goat dinner.
My attempt to be an herbivore was but one in a long list of numerous attempts I have made to create or “try out” a new identity. In my twenty-four years of living in America, I have adapted to all sorts of changes. I have housed many identities inside the one person I presently call myself, a person I know well enough to admit that I don’t know at all. Like a chameleon, I am ever-changing, able to blend without detection into the colors and textures of my surroundings, a skill developed out of a need to belong, a longing to be claimed. Once, home was a place, perhaps the only place, where I imagined myself whole. That is not so anymore, at least not in the home that I grew up believing was mine. That word, “home,” and all it represents, has shifted in meaning too many times.
From the age of six, when I left Ghana and arrived in Washington, D.C., to be with my mother, who had been in the States already for three years, it was quite clear that someday we would return. There was always talk of going back. There were always plans being made, sentences being spoken that began with words like, “When I go home…” Even after my father joined us, America was still a place of temporary existence, not home. And in consideration of our imminent departure, assimilation was frowned upon. My parents tried to fan the flames of our culture within me, in hopes that it would grow into a raging fire and burn fully any desire I had to become an American.
English was spoken only in the presence of people who could not communicate in any of our languages (Ga or Twi). It wasn’t as if my parents forbade me to speak English, but if I addressed either of them in English, the response I got was always in Ga. These days my father, now remarried to an American, speaks to me primarily in English, unless I speak to him first in Ga, and even then chances are he will respond in English. My mother still insists upon conversing with me in Ga. When it appeared as though I was losing fluency, she became adamant and uncompromising about this; in her mind, to forget one’s mother tongue was to place the final sever in the umbilical cord. I do believe that she was right, but over the years I have praised and cursed her for this.
Unauthorized republication of this article without the express permission of Afrik-news.com or Afrik.com is prohibited. The views expressed here are those of the authors and do not necessarily represent or reflect the views of Afrik-news.com or Afrik.com.