my world was weightless

“I moved slowly, one strained step at a time, and as I did so I thought of my mother and father and all my younger siblings, who were growing into strangers. After countless nights of deliberately trying not to think of them, I now felt a distant and detached affection that I knew I could carry harmlessly. They were gone, and whether I would ever see them again no longer troubled me. My world was weightless, more so than I had ever thought it could be. I owned practically nothing and was obligated to no one; I felt more alive than I ever had before.”

– p. 103 of Dinaw Mengestu’s latest book, All Our Names

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I might have no one in the world, but at least I’m free

I do have someone, some people in the world, for whom my gratitude knows no bounds. But the sheer freedom described below appeals to me in a way I can’t quite articulate. Insert old adage about longing for the things we don’t have.

 

You see those people? He pointed toward the bar. All those people have families, you can tell by their faces, they have families that depend on them and that they depend on, and for some of them this is good, and for some of them this is bad. But it all amounts to the same shit because there isn’t one of them who is free. They can’t do what they want to do or be who they should be. I might have no one in the world, but at least I’m free.

– the Gangster, The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao

what does it mean to be a family historian?

It’s more than collecting photographs, writings, objects, and heirlooms, though those physical manifestations of memory and legacy are very important to the preservation of a people. But it extends beyond to how you use those objects and things to tell the stories of your family.

What will you say, who will you include, what will you leave out, what will you blur and downplay, what will you place as the centerpiece?

How you frame those photos and extract from them matters just as much, if not more than, the fact that you have those objects in the first place. In Through a Lens Darkly (watch it, it’s on Netflix), the filmmaker was intentional about including the stories of two family members who were essentially sidelined because their identities didn’t match the overall values of the family. While the family didn’t completely try to erase them, they marginalized them enough to where they became almost invisible. You had to dig and inquire to find out anything about them. They were a shame and a stain to the otherwise proud and just legacy of their family.

This is one way in which families as an entity can be extremely oppressive – there is a power dynamic at play in which certain members, acting as individuals or as a group, can make decisions about who is worthy of being included and remembered. They have the power to determine who will be seen and known by future generations. That’s the thing about death – life moves on without you and your capacity to shape the future is swiftly extinguished. So the still living must decide for you and those decisions won’t always be in your favor. You could be entirely written out – that is a very real possibility, based on the value and legacy you contributed to your relatives while you still lived.

So when I think about this process of familial erasure, I often think of my auntie Etaba. She died over a decade ago; since then, I’ve lost two other loved ones, my other auntie and my uncle. And the differences in how these three people are remembered, how they were mourned when they first died, how they continue to be memorialized in people’s minds and imaginations are so stark. The differences are stark.

growing up in the diaspora: podcast interview

in the spirit of not being afraid of my voice [both literally and figuratively], I participated in a podcast conversation about my identity as a diaspora Ethiopian. I discussed what it was like to grow up in the Ethiopian/African/immigrant concentrated D.C. area and my current relationships to my country of origin + my current home [the U.S.]. my talk with the two lovely hosts from Black Women Be Like was framed by a piece I wrote in November, monday morning blues. enjoy below or on SoundCloud.

monday morning blues.

there’s a level of dissonance that comes from sitting in a new york city office desk, glancing over at a framed photograph of the poor, unlucky women I come from. in the usually creepy way of pictures, the gaze of my mother, two aunties, grandmother and cousin are fixed upon me. they’re watching me, from their distant vantage point. in this particular moment, which envelopes the past and the present all in one, we occupy worlds that could be no more different. them, sitting in front their humble home in debre sina. or maybe it’s on the grounds of the local abiye high school. I wouldn’t know for sure, I haven’t set foot in my mother’s birthtown since I was five or so.

meanwhile, I sit in a swivel chair staring out at a cold and rainy city gripped by blinding fog and myself overcome by monday morning blues. they look anchored, welcoming the camera into their world for this rare occasion of sitting for a photograph. it was probably my uncle behind that lens. and if not him then a camera person or service he arranged for his family, the exemplary one who made it out but still looked back to tend to the needs of his mother and sisters. he’s not in the frame and my grandfather had probably died by then. or maybe this was the period where he and my grandmother were no longer husband and wife, though he came back to her later toward the end of his life as he transitioned into his deathbed. she and her daughters nurtured the husband and father that left them long ago, without grudge or resentment.

from where they’re sitting, close and huddled like that, they seem to be saying to me ‘we look to you, the girl who came from us and has gone farther than any one of us could ever imagine. we’re waiting for you to become. make us proud, although you’ve already surpassed all of our wildest visions for you. this is where we belong, we are destined to this land, this house, these circumstances.

but you. you’ve already gone far, so far away from this small place. it’s almost as if you exist on a different plane. so, we’re waiting for your big news. for the names and legacies you will create for yourself, and thus for us. we were born and raised unlucky. God hasn’t blessed us with long age, wealth, or even a large many of us to keep one another company. we are a small people, in size and magnitude.

but we place in you our desires, hopes, and dreams. we labored for you, cared for you. now we are waiting. our lot in this short, predictable life has already been settled. but you, my dear, your lot is only just beginning. we can’t wait to smile down on you from heaven, and make our pride known.’

fam