Over the period of a few months, the two writers talk about writing, the concept of self, love, their friendship and of course, Vagabonds!, Eloghosa’s electric debut novel.
Joshua: “Your words used your way will generate your meanings. Your obsessions lead you to your vocabulary. Your way of writing locates, even creates, your inner life. The relation of you to your language gains power.”
I’ve been thinking about this excerpt from an essay, The Triggering Town, by the American poet, Richard Hugo. The context in which he writes it signifies a much broader idea but it makes me consider how rarely I think of myself as my own teacher. The idea that I can teach myself how to get to the things I feel most drawn to, and I can teach myself how to say those things that feel most true and urgent to me. I find it quite provocative. And I guess it also makes me think about how difficult it is for most of us to find ‘your way’ because oftentimes by the time we get old enough to exercise some kind of freedom over our lives, so much of what should feel instinctive is buried under so much stuff. I think that’s where I am now, in my life and in my writing, trying to get closer to what feels natural to me, trying to make out the shape of my vocabulary. How far along would you say you are?
Related to this, I’m also very interested in moments when hidden, perhaps truer & better selves, rise to the surface unbidden. Moments when I make a decision I haven’t thought myself capable of making or when I speak with what may be uncharacteristic wisdom or candour. I act against my slovenliness, fear, and greed in moments I wouldn’t have trusted myself to. I think this happens in writing as well. Some deeper instinct overrides my conscious mind, opening up possibility for sharper, more fluid, more aware language. So many sentences and paragraphs have come about that way. I know I wrote them but they feel borrowed in some way from a much better writer who also happens to be me.
Eloghosa: Ok so first of all, J, I’m so excited to be having this conversation with you! I love how you’ve opened it—this quote is brilliant—and what you’re helping me to think about.
How far along would I say I am in this process? I don’t know, you know. There’s a Miles Davis quote I find very comforting, where he says, “man, sometimes it takes you a long time to sound like yourself.” The thing about learning anything, even from yourself, is that you have to feed the lesson your minutes, your hours, your days. The world gets so noisy, so sometimes we try styles on and learn that we have to take them off, because they’re not us/ours. We’ve both been writing for as long as we can remember, and I feel blessed to have witnessed parts of your process, because you have a voice in some of your work that feels ageless and/or ancient to me; and other times, a voice that is quiet and chilling. For me, there are times when I work on something, or write something that sounds entirely like me to me and that feeling is so blissful when it comes, there’s barely anything I know that can match it. But there have also been times when I felt like an imitation of myself, because my voice had shifted again, or gone to sleep, or bisected itself. It happens less and less now, but it still can. So I don’t know that there’s a far along to get to because to me, the process of discovering (or remembering or hearing oneself clearly) is not a distance really. It’s a series of waves. Sometimes you’re at the peak and you think you have a hang of it, other times, it’s hard to hear anything or know what is real because there’s just so much fog and chatter inside the tides. At least for me that’s how it feels. I get suddenly exhausted at times, trying to figure out which one is My Actual Voice, so I give up, which is part of the work as I know it. Giving up is part of the wrestle. I’m learning that I have many voices for my many seasons and that all of them are real. Every piece of work we make calls out to a different texture and tone of voice. That’s how it’s possible for a story you wrote years ago to be wiser than you today, because yes, the writing made you a more fully realized version of yourself, but only for the duration of writing it. I still feel taken aback in part when I reread Vagabonds!, because of that feeling like someone other than me wrote it. I don’t recall how I became the person who could write that. That person is also me, like you said, but wilder than me, madder than me, wiser than me, more bold than me, and still alive somewhere in my body. I am stunned too, by “…moments when I make a decision I haven’t thought myself capable of making or when I speak with what may be uncharacteristic wisdom or candor. I act against my slovenliness, fear, and greed in moments I wouldn’t have trusted myself to… Some deeper instinct overrides my conscious mind, opening up possibility for sharper, more fluid, more aware language.”
Sometimes I avoid writing completely because I’m scared of what I might find. I have a question for you related to this, actually. What delights you about writing? What makes you keep going back to the page, even as real as the fear gets? Also, is there anything you’ve read recently—a story, a book, some lyrics, a recipe—that has brought you to better alignment with yourself?
J: It’s so wonderful to have you here, Eloghosa! This feels so good!
I am very glad you’ve touched on the difficulty of holding on to a fixed, uniform voice or self. That’s the story we tell ourselves, isn’t it? About our lives. We impose a kind of narrative consistency on our lives. Our actions, thoughts, ideas appear to us to follow a clear, discernible logic. But it’s never been that neat, has it? We don’t have as much control as we think we do. And I understand that’s a terrifying realization. The person I think I am now may slip away from me in the next hour. Can I afford to admit this to myself? The world outside our heads can be such a chaotic place, even with the social structures we’ve established to make it less so. Being able to say “this is who I am” when everything else feels uncertain, flimsy, prone to dissolution, may be the greatest comfort we have. Is anything more seductive, more empowering?
And that’s the wonder and danger of love, isn’t it? We find ourselves overcome by other selves. New, strange urges. That’s why we often measure passion by the distance from which it takes us from our accepted self-concepts. Love reminds us of how little we know of our limits and how afraid we are of losing them. We are such porous creatures. We are every second of our lives being imprinted with ideas, images, memories, sensations on so micro a level we have no name for them. We are porous to the world and to each other. To be alive is to subject oneself to the reality of being permeable. And that is the other great wonder and danger of love, isn’t it? To let a lover in is to risk never being rid of them. So, while I welcome the pleasure of those moments when I feel like myself, I don’t think I want to be beholden to any one version or season of myself. I want to know what to do with the peaks, as you say, when I feel crystallized and definite. That fully-realized clarity of a complete circle. But I also want to be okay with knowing that it won’t last. I can’t make it last. Any attempt will only result in a poor imitation. The circle will break, yes, and the life I live in that break is also my life.
I’m reminded of the closing lines of a poem I adore, Ars Poetica, by the great Polish poet Czeslaw Milosz:
“The purpose of poetry is to remind us / how difficult it is to remain just one person / for our house is open, there are no keys in the doors, and invisible guests come in and out at will.’’
This also calls my mind back to a conversation we had some years ago. I believe I shared with you my struggle with maintaining confidence in myself amidst great confusion and constant reminders of my inadequacy, and you gave me some advice I’ve never forgotten: “sieve the voices.” It rang a bell in me that’s still ringing. I don’t think I knew I could do that until you gave me those words. Now, in the process of this conversation, my understanding of it has deepened. Sieving the voices may not mean finding the voice or voices which we recognize as our own and discarding the rest but learning to welcome/inhabit whichever allows us to meet the moment. If we believe Milosz that it is difficult to remain just one person and our house is open to invisible guests, where does that leave us? I think it leaves us with the chance to be a little strange to ourselves and to do something with that strangeness. Write a stellar debut, for example.
I like your question. Delight isn’t a word we use as often as we should and rarely, I think, in connection with a writer’s work. I think I remain delighted and surprised by the act of naming, you know? When you’re trying to describe a particularly strong feeling or affecting experience. It could be an experience of harm or pleasure. It feels terribly real to us but not yet graspable. And because we can’t grasp it we can’t share it. We feel isolated by it. But somehow the words come and suddenly that thing starts to have an edge, a shape, and then a body. It becomes visible. That loose, abstract thing now has density. We can describe it to ourselves and to others. Do you know what I mean? I don’t take that for granted at all. It is deeply humbling. I also enjoy watching other people name things, especially people who don’t consider themselves good with words. You could ask someone what being with a partner feels like and you could almost see the effort, their minds reaching for language that might account for what seems beyond language. We’re still finding a million different ways to talk about the experience of love, or betrayal, or enduring tragedy. It’s a miraculous thing. I like how very young children deal with this challenge. Their minds are still supple enough to use language that feels true rather than language that feels correct.
And to your other question. I keep returning to these words from Anne Carson, “If you are not the free person you want to be you must find a place to tell the truth about that.’’ It’s helping me simplify what I consider fulfilling in regards to work, relationships, and life in general. I know writing is this kind of place for you. Dancing as well. Have you discovered any new ones recently?
E: Your whole answer was so perfect that I had to sit with some of the things you said, and just let them run in the back of my head for some time. I love what you’ve said about change and love, how when we commit to partnership or relationship, we are also—whether we realise it or not, whether we accept it or not—surrendering to changes in ourselves and the other. We cannot fight them, we cannot prevent them; not even by trying to control everything. As someone who has struggled at points with simply allowing change, that struck a very specific chord.
“Being able to say ‘this is who I am’ when everything else feels uncertain, flimsy, prone to dissolution, may be the greatest comfort we have. Is anything more seductive, more empowering?/ To be alive is to subject oneself to the reality of being permeable/ so, while I welcome the pleasure of those moments when I feel like myself, I don’t think I want to be beholden to any one version or season of myself / the circle will break, yes, and the life I live in that break is also my life/we’re still finding a million different ways to talk about the experience of love/ or betrayal, or enduring tragedy/ It’s a miraculous thing / language that feels true, rather than language that feels correct.” These quotes struck me individually, but I love the poem they make when they huddle together.
Also, can I just say a massive thank you to you for sharing this Carson quote? I’d never heard/read it before, but I needed it, and it is working on a part of me I hadn’t been able to reach before. You know those anchoring quotes and lines that move with you through life? The ones we master so that we can repeat them to ourselves in quiet moments? Yeah, this has become one for me.
My other things, beyond writing and dancing right now, are: driving (I do this every night), painting, self-portraiture, sitting still in the dark, careful listening, boxing, mindfulness, curation of any kind; these days mostly with music. Music has done so much for me—hearing it, writing it, making it. Over the last few months, I have seen myself become more curious daily how Life (not the world) moves, what it is (as opposed to what I thought it would be) and what it wants from me. I lean toward practices that lead me to patience, repetition, the strengthening of my spiritual discipline, the completeness of my devotion to Making as an act of worship, agency and creativity in various ways. I enjoy routine, is what I’m learning, once it’s not work-fixated. Routine feeds my spirit. In my head, there is a version of me that loves me very much. They swim every evening, not even just for exercise, but for the quiet between the ears that I get when my head is underwater. They’re real, but I’m not yet them, not actively, and I’m okay with that. For a long time, I stopped going out during the day, and I didn’t realize for that it was because of how easily I can get overstimulated. I go out again in daytime now, in small doses. I’m really enjoying that. I don’t think I forgot that I like light, but because of where I was, I just could not find it comforting. I still don’t, actually, but I respect light and I surrender to my need of it. We all need light. That said, I prefer mine in fractions (strategically placed lamps, candlelight, stars and streetlights against the night sky); in layered, subtle degrees, and evenings are just better at offering that kind.
Do you have a favourite hour right now? What happens in that hour for you that brings rightness or feels true? I think mine is still somewhere between 2am and 4am. My body accepts and welcomes the beauty of everything around then, without needing convincing. I become receptive to the possibility of the softest outcome occurring instead of the anxious one I dwelled on during the day when everything was too loud, I am unplugged from noise so I can hear my core, I can hear the thing about me that was true before my body, I’m awake and I remember clearly all the miracles I’ve seen/been, all the thanks I am yet to give. I like myself a lot in that window. Hope feels so possible at that time.
J: I love what you say about routine! Routine is such a great refuge for me. It always has been. I find that I have a relatively high tolerance for a kind of regimented living that makes room for the necessities and not much else. It has helped me a lot. I’ve always associated the ability to do much with little with the ability to maintain one’s wellness through changing and usually adverse circumstances. I admire succulents for this reason. I think all sustained, meaningful attempts at survival are necessarily communal but I’m interested in a self-reliance that allows me to respect the things I can do for myself without being afraid of the things I can’t. I was ill for a couple days recently and I couldn’t ignore that fear. More than the pain and discomfort, my greatest struggle whenever I’m ill is always against dependence, against the facts of how much I need and how limited my capacity to meet those needs has suddenly become.
Dependence works itself through Vagabonds! in interesting ways, doesn’t it? I’m thinking about the relationship between Toju and Agbon and the different ways they react to their growing dependence on each other for care, comfort, pleasure. Toju has trouble accepting it without wanting to pin it down, without wanting to attach it to other certainties. There’s a heartbreaking line, “Toju didn’t know what to do with these easy mornings, with this safety.” Agbon, on the other hand, seems wary of every certainty but herself and what she feels. And it’s this lightness that both allows her to pursue Toju without hesitation and to also leave when she finds it necessary. Maybe there’s a bit of each lover in us? The one for whom what’s real in the present is real enough to be worth trusting, and the one for whom the present is only real if it can be used as an assurance of something else. Does this feel true to your experience?
On music, I haven’t seen many people be absorbed by music as completely as you. You fall into it easily and always with a contagious mix of bewilderment and gratitude. Watching you in those moments teaches me a lot about accepting & inhabiting feeling. And about praise! I love how excited you are about songs and artistes you like. There are phrases you say and gestures you make that I’ve come to understand as markers of quality. An entire vocabulary of delight. Like when you say “GUYYYYYYYY! Do you get?!” I know it’s an absolute banger.
I’m not a big fan of daytime myself and have always looked forward to evenings. But these days, evenings seem suspiciously brief, like a gift taken back abruptly. So I haven’t been able to enjoy them as much I used to. Instead, it is in the hours of midnight till dawn that I feel my muscles lose their tension. It feels like our seconds, minutes, hours, the very time of our lives, is being quietly and systematically eroded, right from under us. Seems like we have less and less time to spare for ourselves and the things and people we love, less time to understand what we’re doing, thinking, saying to each other, to savor what we eat. And that’s why I like that you make it a point to photograph yourself. Time to look at ourselves is time worth fighting for, as is time for rest, for commiseration, for healing, for idleness, for making, for remembering, for growing old.
E: Dependence. I love that that’s the thread you saw, because yes, that is maybe the heaviest awareness they have to negotiate/navigate. Grief is The Gift is one of the stories that people have reacted to most strongly to; and I don’t think that surprises me—the dance between those two figures finds a way to stay with the reader—but I find the range of responses very interesting. Some readers find that relationship funny, some find it terrifying. Some find it harrowing and others found the ending a relief, thinking that Toju deserved to be paid back for who and how she was. Recently, someone’s main concern was: But they’re dead! I adore all the responses because I’ve found myself being introduced to new angles and new fears I hadn’t considered before. It was an uncomfortable story to write, but also a joy to execute. And this thread we’re unraveling is one of my favorites now. “The one for whom what’s real in the present is real enough to be worth trusting, and the one for whom the present is only real if it can be used as an assurance of something else. Maybe there’s a bit of each lover in us?” I think so.
Arundhati Roy wrote: “Need was a warehouse that could accommodate a considerable amount of cruelty.” It is sometimes hard to trust our own need of something because we have seen (or heard of) many instances where that led to feeling at the mercy of someone else. I think they both feel this fear (of need, of dependence) acutely, even if for different reasons. I wrote the story but there are parts of it that do make me panic, still. Maybe the thing that drives us mad with indecision—how much should I invest, how much should I care, how much should I allow myself to be transformed or swept away by love; what do I believe about what is too much—is this knowing we all have that trust isn’t hinged on anything tangible, that we can’t see inside a person; we must wait for their actions to unfold. This takes time and patience; and many of us are afraid of time as well. Of losing it, of wasting it, of feeling like we can’t get some useful slice back. Love takes courage, love calls for leaps, and that is frightening. So we might still find the questions: is this worth the risk? Or: how do I know I—whatever it is that makes me me—won’t disappear as a result of this choice? Does the fact that I love them mean I should choose them?
And yes, I do grapple with that in my own life, even now. Dealing with an anxious brain sometimes means that the same question comes back over and over again, because the brain feels varying degrees of safety, depending on the circumstance. I am braver in love now than I ever have been. I don’t fight the questions when they come, because when I let them play without panicking, I find that the answer to if love is worth the risk is an easy quiet yes. I get there through a rough road sometimes, where my heart thrashes at me and my thoughts spiral. My favorite thing about those two is that they allow the fear in eventually, they allow the silence that follows, and they quite literally hack time and the rules of their form to find each other again. A memory has been replaying in my mind quite a bit recently; of me talking to friends some years ago and saying, “if anything will kill me in this life, I’m not going to let it be love.” What I meant, in retrospect is, I would rather die by any other means than by the cruelty of a lover who said they love me and who I learned to trust with everything, who didn’t honor that. And because I know what trust costs me, that would be too dark a death, that would be unfair. I see the validity in that, but I also see how much space that fear took up and how it made it impossible for me to give grace to the present. I was always looking for a sign to leave, just so I wouldn’t be broken open.
That doesn’t just go away. But I’m looking at it now. I know it was there because I had seen so many people allow themselves to be tame because they thought they were at home, only to be shocked by the presence of a knife, in the softest part of their person, a little too late. It makes sense, given all that. But it recently occurred to me that my fears around love were also there because I didn’t trust that if I loved with my all and it turned out different than I imagined, I would still want my life. I didn’t trust myself to take care of myself or choose myself or wrap it up if things went left, because I had seen many people growing up who just went left with the relationship, as well. So, the fear of being robbed of myself. The fear of feeling any shame or pain beyond recovery. It was in intimate relationships I’d seen people be wounded that way before, so I decided I would delete my desire for that type of intimacy—the kind that demands these leaps. To say, I think these two characters wrestle with different histories and contexts from mine, but still have those questions: if I go in with everything, what will I have? If I give up the nonchalance that has protected me this whole time, will I still be safe? No one can answer that on our behalfs, I don’t think. In love, no one tells you what cards to put on the table and when, and I think that’s what drives the Toju in us to discomfort. In love, you will see many little opportunities to get softer, and that’s what drives the Agbon in us to flee.
Whew, I didn’t realize this would be this long. But now I’m curious, because your love has always felt so large to me, so generous, so true, consistent, not just to me but to all the people you’ve chosen to love, I’m wondering: have you ever fallen into the odd trap of thinking of love as not worth your time, not worth the risk, not worth the commitment? And if you have been there before, or go there sometimes still in your mind, how do you shift that so as to let in the trust that love asks for?
J: “Maybe the thing that drives us mad with indecision – how much should I invest, how much should I care, how much should I allow myself to be transformed or swept away by love; what do I believe about what is too much—is this knowing we all have that trust isn’t hinged on anything tangible, that we can’t see inside a person; we must wait for their actions to unfold.’’
You’ve put it so well!
In A Lover’s Discourse, Roland Barthes contemplates the strange and often painful experience of the lover: “The lover’s fatal identity is precisely this: I am the one who waits.” We wait for the next text message, a phone call, a kiss, for proof that our desire has been seen, believed, taken seriously, for whatever signs we have come to associate with equal affection. As lovers we must, as you say, confront our fear of time, fear that we won’t get enough chances to say all we need to say, fear that our best efforts will fall flat and eventually fade, fear that the longer we wait for love the greater the failure of not receiving it. It is a strange penance, this waiting, because we are led to it by our own feelings, we enter into it willingly and place in the hands of the beloved the power to relieve or condemn us.
The reason why this process is often so contentious and transformative, for me certainly, is because it is necessarily revealing. To declare one’s need for love is often to declare other, more particular things about oneself. That’s why children are so often and so easily exploited by adults. When a child expects attention and affection from an adult, it’s also pretty clear that they seek that adult’s approval, guidance, and trust as well. What often happens is that adults give children an ultimatum. We tell them you want my attention? Well, you have to get my approval first. And to get my approval, you have to do this and this. So they learn, as we learned, that their needs will betray them and to express a need to someone is to submit part of yourself to their power. I think this is why a lot of us grow up feeling both very distrustful of our desires and powerless against them. If our earliest lessons in love involve so many acts of self-sabotage then it’s no wonder that so few of us are prepared for loves that make us feel empowered by rather than reduced or bound by vulnerability.
I think it’s also why I’ve come to understand love as a catalyzing agent but not necessarily a purifying one. Varying amounts and depths of loving feelings can exist alongside not very loving ones. All those feelings do is open up the propensity for care, compassion, generosity, etc. but we have to actively and continuously reach for the actions that fulfill those feelings. And the process of reaching for them is conscious, sometimes strenuous work, embattled on all sides by often stronger, more enticing impulses like greed, shame and pride. What this means is that I fear the probability of going further in my relationship with someone than the feelings alone can take us and realizing that we can do much less good for each other than we believed, becoming two people bound together in some way, unable to look the other in the eye. So, I have been there before.
The demands of love can be so easily sidestepped by the need to have the last word or the fear of being humiliated or the desire to not reveal how much we care because these are often so deeply entwined with our need to self-preserve. And those choices coalesce quickly. But it is also because love and care and desire are so endangered that I am drawn to & compelled by them. The fact that they survive in and through us, that we still find reasons to let people into our lives and they find reasons to let us into theirs, and good, sometimes great things happen. Dionne Brand has this wonderful line in A Map to the Door of No Return: “Desire, too, is the discovery of beauty as miraculous. Desire in the face of ruin”. Desire as an invitation to reenchant the world and each other. That’s an invitation I always want to honor. I want to remain susceptible to bewilderment, to transcendence, to the idea that people are worthy and capable of the miraculous.
Also, I want us to talk briefly about the reverse of losing oneself in or to love. In Vagabonds!, the relationship between Rain and Wura is one I enjoy very much because it showcases the beauty and power of a love that reminds us of what we owe ourselves rather than another, and gives us the strength to reclaim parts of us we have too carelessly given away. There’s this bit I like to return to:
“Try it,” Rain said. “Try to say the word.”
‘’You know the one I mean.”
‘’No,” Wura said. The word sounded like a plant withering. “Good,” Rain said, smiling honestly,
‘’That’s a start. We’ll strengthen it together.”
We often associate the experience of love with giving and receiving. We are often told we become better lovers by learning to give and receive in equal measure. Do you sometimes think about how love may also thrive not on what is given or received but on what is allowed to remain unshared, unextended, on the ability to allow & nurture refusal, withholding, distance?
E: Damn, thank you so much for this answer. What you said about love as a catalyzing agent as opposed to a purifying one seeped into somewhere essential for me. I held my breath for most of it as I read and it rocked me sideways, in the most gentle way. You know—there have been moments when I reflected on my conduct in the past, in scenarios where I was sure I loved someone, but my behaviour did not always reflect this. I thought that tension meant I didn’t love said person, because if the love was a fact, wouldn’t it have overridden all else? But actually, sometimes, we have love and a great deal of shame; we have love and we have devastating histories that have coded dark things into us. Or we have love, and we lack the imagination of what to do with it, or we lack courage, or even just the basic resources we need (for our nervous systems) to feel safe. So yes, I will be thinking about that for a long time. I also really enjoyed this bit: “Desire as an invitation to reenchant the world and each other. That’s an invitation I always want to honor. I want to remain susceptible to bewilderment, to transcendence, to the idea that people are worthy and capable of the miraculous.” I have watched you—for what, twelve years?—not just maintain but also protect—in tender and fierce ways—your right to transcendence and bewilderment, and awe. That’s not an easy thing to do in the world, but you do it. You do it when you photograph plants and your face, when you share music (I don’t think I’ll ever get over Baiana because what on earth was that?), when you turn to face your friends with these expanses of faith. You remind me not to forget the seriousness of wonder, of joy; and the playfulness that can exist even inside weight, inside shadows.
Rain teaches me a lot, constantly, about making borders around the self, not for the sake of shutting people out or keeping them on the outside, but so that we can remain recognizable to ourselves, so that we can continue to belong inside our own bodies. I think, to me, a balanced love is one that nurtures a willingness to let the other be themself, as you are yourself. It reminds me a little of that Gibran line we talked about years ago: “let there be spaces in your togetherness.” When I free myself from the fear of loss, from the fear of a small distance growing into something major (as in something with the willingness and ability to swallow the dynamic itself), I realize that the type of love my best self practices is a love that honors choice; a love that honors limits; a love that is serious about the wellbeing of each individual in the dynamic, even when that means there must be a gap where one didn’t exist before. Our friendship does this, too. We’ve been weaving a habitat that accommodates us both through letters, through voice, through art, and we find newer, more beautiful ways to continue to give of ourselves. We also have always had the space here, to choose what we would like to share and not share. I have found that beautiful. It is love to me, and I am thankful to experience it with you.
Speaking of: something I’ve been enjoying lately is the word: And. When it makes sense, I try to use the word And where I would have used But. I think this is happening because I am practicing letting multiple things be true inside the same context and I find that rewiring for me has the most impact when I look closely at my language and why I use words the way I use them. It’s a wonder how much of a difference it has made in my speech, and also just in the spaces I make for other realities. I have found this practice liberating. I’ve been filming sunsets and butterflies again too. Which brings me to: what are you finding freeing these days? And what restraints are you finding useful; if any? With the latter, I’m finding boundaries around my social media use as well as foods that make me feel bad, so useful. I feel lighter when I listen to my body that way.
Meanwhile, recently I saw a tweet by Shira Erlichman that read: “What’s a question that has changed/shaped your life? Take that as you will!” I’m still thinking about it.
J: Twelve years. Haha. Imagine that!
Thank you so much for these words.
I am also deeply thankful for the care and honesty that led us to that conversation. It has remained so vividly with me. It allowed me to express doubts about some of the ideas I was raised to accept wholesale and, I think this is critical, allowed me to be less fearful of those doubts, less fearful of believing other things. When you find language for those deep-seated discomforts, they start to feel less like personal defects and more like directions.
Finding the question(s) in what feels like failure is a lesson you taught me then and keep teaching me. That movement from “there’s something wrong with me” or “I can’t do or be this” to “What if there are other ways?” or “What if other people feel this way?” is not a movement made easily as many of your stories demonstrate powerfully. This is one of the great gifts of Vagabonds!.
I’ve been thinking about your comments about consciously choosing And over But. For me, it’s a way to re-imagine the relationships between things. There’s often the tendency to think that a thing either supports the reality of another thing or invalidates it, that the relationship between them is either positive or negative. By choosing And over But, I’m looking beyond that binary and acknowledging that so many relationships, in the human and more-than-human world, are neither fixed nor stable but resemble more closely a tense, delicate balance of forces. And allows me to imagine that friction, that charged space between things in a way that But does not.
What I’m finding freeing: recently, I’ve come to understand my life as a series of detours, narrow escapes and cliffhangers. What this means is that I’ve become less invested in the realization of desired outcomes and more interested in, as Toni Morrison puts it in a great interview, the attempt.
Restraints I’m finding useful: saving things for later. I tend to have moments of prolonged productivity that seem able to contain everything I need to do. This turns out to be both false and very unsustainable.
I like Shira Elrichman’s question a lot. The one question that feels always present in my mind was part of a keynote speech given by June Jordan at Barnard College in 2001. She asked, “And what shall we do, we who did not die?” It is a question that suggests, to my mind, an awareness of moral debt and responsibility and the work of memory. But also it is a question that directs toward action. It demands alertness. It reminds me that my actions or inactions are choices either in support of something or against it. It reminds me that nothing is guaranteed. It reminds me to look around, to notice the presence of others.
If I might ask you a related question: what’s an answer to a question you’ve enjoyed, found resonant or want to keep thinking about?
E: You are in a fruitful place. I’m proud of you. And I love that question so much. June Jordan is powerful, and this quote in particular held me around me when I first encountered it. I can see why it has stayed with you. It has stayed with me too.
An answer to a question I’ve found resonant: Chinwendu, a reader I really cherish, shared a post about what reading Vagabonds! did for them, and what a particular question Adura asked in the book made possible, internally; and the end of that reflection, threw the question forward: whose Amen are you? Another reader responded with this: “Mine. I am the answer to my prayers; present and future. I give thanks to myself.” Someone else, building on this, said: “I’m sure I’ve been the amen to people’s prayers, but the most important is mine. I am an Amen to myself. I have some of the things I craved for years ago. I’m building the life I want for myself. I give thanks to myself.”
The entire conversation will stay with me for a long time, but there was something so powerful about the echo in those last sentences. I give thanks to myself. I give thanks to myself. I give thanks to myself. What a holy practice. I pray to continue to find reasons to weave garlands of praise for my head.
This has been a pleasure, J. Thank you for speaking with me. I love you, wide as a world. What a gift you are.
J: I am so glad that Vagabonds! has found so many people who’ve been so deeply marked by it. On that note, I’d like us to end with a well-loved excerpt from the book:
“Behind them, the last billboard came on and fireworks exploded across the city. The musician played a song called: Don’t You Know You Love You?
By the end, all three of them were crying.
“That was everything,” Mr Jones said. “Everything.”
Adura still hadn’t found her voice. All she could do was nod and smile feebly. “I’ve never showed anyone this but look,” he said, nudging Wura.
“What does that say?” Adura asked. He put his wrist in her hand, Rain leaned closer. On the inside sleeve of his boubou, Wura had embroidered a message by hand:
If anybody deserves to live, the message read in the coming light, it is us. It is us, after all this dying we have done.”
It has been my honor to be in conversation with you, Eloghosa. Thank you for giving us, and we are many, so many of the words we’ve needed. You remain, of course, unsinkable.