It is hard, as I am sure most writers know, to efface the person, render it impotent in the face of the writing life. Who I am always haunts my writing; and this is why and how I argue that I have earned the right to speak about anything – and you might want to consider this word ‘right’ as encompassing as it is in the legal regime. To make this process easier (this essay is a process, every word builds into revelation), I have charted two layers: Identity and Ethnicity. You might have to be dishonest with me – you might have to forgive how I render myself so bare; all writers eventually do this, pushing themselves, in fiction, in poetry, to the place where there’s no telling what is reality and what is not, because everything is reality, everything written is real. Helene Cixous says this of Clarice Lispector, for instance.
I should give a background. I was born to an itinerant preacher – when I was born my Daddy was an employee of the Scripture Union, an interdenominational organization with offices around the world. His job description was ‘Travelling Secretary’; clearly, he ‘traveled.’ So, I begin my questioning from this point – I was born fluid; I was not to stay too long in one place, my Present was always in motion.
Of identity, I ask myself: Am I or aren’t I? How do I begin to define myself? What is the crack in the surface in which Me leaps into visibility? You should know that I do not feel Ibo enough, because I can’t speak the language well, because I respond in English when my Daddy speaks to me in Ibo. So, I am not keen to identify myself as This or That. In my case, there is no This, and no That. Perhaps it’s a This-That.
Which is why, in December 2009, when we were moving again, I wrote: ‘Who am I, after this transition?’ I cannot think this irrelevant – I am a borderline person. I have transited too much to be just one person. It is simply a question of identifying myself. What I want is to be able to say, This is Me, when a million others stand beside me, with me, in a crowd. So far, I should tell you, it has been difficult.
The antonym of ‘easy’, Anne Berger says, is not ‘difficult’. It is ‘impossible.’ If then it is not easy to define myself, is it perhaps impossible? Will I, as I remain on the border of who I am and who I can be and who I am meant to be, never identify myself in the crowd? I cannot tell if this is a shared feeling – but when I am in Ile-Ife I am not Yoruba, and when I am in Umuahia, I am not Ibo. I am simply, perhaps, Emmanuel, a person, but not the kind of person who feels ‘Emmanuel’ enough. Not inferiority, of course. It has never been a question of being less; perhaps it is that I am not ‘more’ enough, that I have ascribed too much to Being, and I am yet to meet up with that definition.
Speaking of Ethnicity might make this clearer. You see, I am an English-only onye Ibo who can comprehend Ibo spoken at any speed but is reluctant to utter any word of it, for fear of sounding incorrect. In fact I can comprehend Ehugbo, the language of Afikpo, which Ibos from other parts cannot comprehend. My Daddy wanted us to speak English first, in Akure, because he feared that we might become mischievous urchins, too ‘local’ in an urban space. So, we lapsed into an Anglo-consciousness. I do not blame him; I should not blame him. You want to blame him? English is a ‘lingua franca’, isn’t it? He remembers being mocked when he was a little boy of his inability to speak English – he remembers desiring to speak English like his brother.
But I realize that no matter how loaded, conflicted and difficult the word may seem to me, I am Ibo. By heritage. Perhaps there is some new meaning I can confer to it. I am, like, Carmen Wong, “A mishmash and hodgepodge of conundrums and contradictions.” I am ready to stay hyphenated, to add a dash to my personality, something like ‘English-only-onye-Ibo.’
Let’s imagine that there are others like me. Let’s further imagine that these others are – because this is the occupation dearest to my heart – writers. What will happen to their writing? Will it embody the same mishmash of their borderline personalities? How will they speak true to their sense of ethnicity? What home could they define for themselves, what sense of place?
Yes, I speak about myself, asking questions that bother my art. And there’s a sense of urgency, too. There is, for instance, a Facebook identity, a Twitter narrative, the acculturation that comes from being an Internet user. Should we only consider the Internet as utility, not as lifestyle? Isn’t the Internet a border, a separate identity, part of the dashes I’ve acquired?
I’ve decided to be a writer, which in itself is an acceptance of the Borderline, an acceptance of staying a hybrid, remaining fluid, accepting that one word cannot define your process, your heritage. How do I come to the point where I am not simply termed as an ‘African writer’? I do not fear this label because I am not from Africa, or not black, or because Africa has been derogatorily called blah blah blah. I fear it because it is, somewhat, a closed parenthesis. I want to work within an open parenthesis. I want my definition to start from ‘an English-only-learning to speak Ibo-onye Ibo-Internet-using writer’ with a […] around the term, leaving space for more dashes. Because I am always more; and my writing will always be bothered with this More-ness.
Hence, it is this fact that gives me the right to plunge into uncharted courses, to use unused language, to speak about anything, because there is nothing like This or That in my head. There is the possibility of everything and anything.
But this is not, cannot be, the subject of a single post. I’ll publish a Kindle e-book with the same title in January 2012. I hope my ranting is heard.
Follow Emmanuel on Twitter @emmaiduma
This piece originally appeared in Black Looks
Ethnicity, Identity, Travel