Assuming nothing; questioning everything

Posts tagged ‘Books’

I packed my bags and left

I packed my bags and left
“I packed my bags and left.” That is the opening line of Dambudzo Marechera’s book, House of Hunger, a statement that I find symbolic, and perhaps indicative that this is Dambudzo’s way of preparing to share with his readers about his journey in life.

Journeys are interesting because no matter how much you have, quite often you leave all that behind and take just what you need for a particular journey. I’ve gone on journeys with just a pair of pants, two blouses, a few sets of underwear, a tooth brush and toothpaste, because that is all that I needed for the journey, even though I possess a lot more than that.

As a sojourner of life, I find a lot of symbolism in the statement, “I packed my bags and left”; a statement that makes me reflect on the many things that I’ve had to leave behind or unpack from my bag, as a feminist.

As a feminist, on several occasions I’ve been forced to leave behind a number of things that I held as true and dear in my life, because they were either unnecessary baggage, or they were too painful to carry on the journey. I’ve had to leave behind what hurt and wounded me, more than bring joy, pleasure or healing.

First among the things that I had to leave behind were books and magazines that defined femininity for me, often telling me how to be a woman worthy of love and success. These pieces of literature often told me that my main goal in life was to secure the love of a man, and they promised to give me the tools to secure this man. They taught me how to tighten my vagina, how to be a goddess in bed, and how to use my feminine charms to secure the love of a man, and even get ahead in my career.

I left these behind, as feminism taught me to depend on my brains and personality, rather than my face,smile or body, in both my personal and professional life.

The depiction of beauty in these books and magazines, was often of women who looked less like me; they were often white or fair skinned if they were black, skinny, tall and flawless. They taught me that to look like these women, I had to learn how to put on makeup perfectly, put on 6 inch heels that made me contemplate having my feet amputated at the end of the day, and make my hair as straight as possible.

Through feminism, I was unlearning dominant ideas of beauty, shaped by western ideals and embracing a more robust notion of beauty.

The next thing I had to leave behind were the rules that came with being a woman. Some of them had been instilled through these books and magazines, and others though talking to my peers and older women. The rules often applied to dating, and these included a host of mind games. No matter how much I liked a man, I couldn’t ask him out. If he asked me out, I had to pretend that I wasn’t interested, until he became so desperate, almost getting on his knees.

Whereas I was to expected to play these mind games as a teenager, as a woman in her 20’s and even beyond the 20’s, feminism taught me that I needed to put aside immature behaviour, if I expected to get into a relationship with a mature partner.

Once he ‘got’ me (the prized possession that I was), I had to keep him on his toes, so as to remain valuable to him. This meant that I had to be available and unavailable at the same time. To achieve this, sometimes I had to pretend to have other plans when he asked me out, and suggest that we meet on another day. This was my way of keeping the relationship on my terms, and not his. It was my way of having power, but in a subtle way.

The rules also included how long to wait before having sex, because if I gave in to sex, I would be losing power. I had to maintain power, by taking his power by making him almost, if not get down on his knees for ‘my prized goodies’.

Through feminism, I was unlearning the power play that had been a key feature of my relationships, and learning to not only seek honesty, but to be equally honest in my relationships. I learned to ask for what I wanted, and to stop demanding for the moon and stars as a proof of love. I learned to seek relationships where my true self was loved and respected, and I learned to do the same.

Some of the relationships that I had also had to be left behind, as I carried the things that I needed for the journey. It became painful talking to many of my male friends and some of my privileged female friends. It no longer made sense to champion for equality, and maintain friendships that saw nothing wrong, or even justified inequality.

My most painful relational loss, was losing the relationship I had with God and the Church. I had grown up knowing that God was my friend and my father, and Church as the place where I found God. I had learned to run to God whenever I was happy, angry, sad, or going through any experience or emotion.

But it continued to become more and more difficult to reconcile this image of God, with the fact that he had created me inferior to a man. It became difficult to reconcile this image of a loving God, who would tear down a city because he hated gay people so much.

Being cognisant of how religious notions of gender, race and class have contributed to the subjugation of women, homophobia, racism and slavery, I had to go through the painful process of losing this being that I had known as my friend, father and source of refuge.

As a feminist, I was becoming less accommodating of any form of bigotry, and I lost the capacity to be part of a religion that saw me as a lesser being, or thought of others as lesser beings.

Packing and unpacking is a continuous process in the feminist journey, and one that never seems to end. At the moment, I am thinking of leaving behind WhatsApp groups that drain my feminist energy with sexist jokes and discussions.

I don’t know what else I will be leaving behind, but I now know that loss for a feminist is inevitable. Some loss is joyful while some is painful, and that I must be ready to embrace.

A book for every crisis of my life

books animation

Every time I take a new book to read, I hope that it will be one that will engage my senses and emotions, consume my thoughts and heart away, and make it extremely difficult to put it down. Unfortunately, that doesn’t happen to me that often. I have read many good books, but they often fail to grip me or rip me apart the way I expect, want or need them too.

In a desperate attempt to find that book, I have been asking myself, what kind of book will it take to give me this kind experience? I have experienced it, and I want to experience it again and again. So, I began to explore, what the books that had this effect on me, have in common, and I noticed a rather interesting pattern; each one, speaking to an identity crisis.

The first time a book totally consumed me was in my early teens. At that point in time, I was going through that period that changed me, overnight from being a girl to “a woman” who needed to be “careful” because of the “danger” that it presented. I was not supposed to “play” with boys, because “I would get pregnant, get HIV, drop out school, or try to procure an abortion, and probably die in the process or be barren all my life”. That was sex education 101, for me in a nutshell. My “new-found womanhood” was a source of fear, and one that had the potential to ruin my entire life. I had to be very “clever” and “careful” if I wanted to finish unscathed. This message was repeated over and over; at school, at home, and in the “Welcome to Growing Up” books that I was required to read.

In the midst of growing up and being impressionable, my classmate lent me a novel to read; my first Mills and Boon, which I read the entire night, suffering my first hangover, and luckily not an alcohol-induced one. That night I got my sex education 102, a potential eraser of Sex ed. 101, and a new lesson about the “other side of my new-found womanhood”. In six hours I was introduced to a world of fantasy with unrealistic expectations of relationships, romance and sex. What kept me awake that night though, was the fresh and exciting discovery that being a sexual being was not just about danger, pain and shattered dreams but also about desire, romance and pleasure. This potentially erased all my previous sex ed., had it not been for the determination of my sex ed. 101 teachers, who hammered the message as often as possible. The confusion that comes with the conflicting messages, and bias of both narratives is a story for another day.

mills-boon

The second time I was unable to put down a book was in my early 20’s. This time, it was Marilyn French’s book, The Women’s Room. I bumped into this book when I was beginning to seriously question gender norms, what it meant to be a woman, and why women were in many ways given “lesser beings” status. So, when I met these women in Marilyn French’s book, I had an instant connection with them. Fascinated by their determination to break away from the social and economic limitations that society had placed on them, I felt as if we were walking the journey together. The conversational experience I had reading the book, was phenomenal. I cheered them on, asked the same questions they did, laughed and cried with them, and told my story as they told theirs. After reading that book I declared myself a feminist, a decision and journey that has been both interesting and frustrating. Again, that is not a story, but stories for other days.

We can all do it

The third and sadly, the last time a book consumed me in my entirety, was Chimamanda Adichie’s book, Americanah. At that time, in my early 30’s, I was struggling with my identity as a black person, an African, a Kenyan, and wanna-be-citizen-of-the-world. I had been to Europe studying, coming back to Kenya with high expectations, only to be met by a country that seemed to have little regard for what I had to offer, and for its people in general. At the height of my frustration, I toyed with the idea of disengaging from my Kenyan roots. I justified my thinking and tried to erase my guilt by arguing that I had not chosen my country of birth, and therefore accorded myself the right to live and be a citizen of my country of choice.

Like the prodigal son, I packed my bags, and set off on a journey to a far-off land to seek better fortunes. Unfortunately, my country of “choice” was proving to be equally, if not more hostile than my country of birth.
It was at that point, in my small room in London, that I met Ifemelu in Americanah. A young woman who had left her home, in Nigeria, leaving Obinze, her long-term boyfriend and the one thing that mattered most to her in the world, only to find that America wasn’t as rosy as she expected it to be, particularly for a black person. Reading Americanah, I reflected on my experiences, and began to ask myself whether I was leaving the 80 % that my country offered me, to engage in an endless search for the 20 % that I was missing.

Chimamanda quote 1

Americanah, took me on a long ongoing journey. At that point, like the prodigal son, it directed me back home, physically. At the moment, it continues to direct me home in my heart and mind. I have many stories, again for other days, on my experiences and struggles on the journey to be Kenyan in my heart and in my mind.

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