Being Ayize Jama-Everett at FOGCon

Last year, at the Bay Area Book Festival, I listened to (and wrote about) a fabulous panel of speculative fiction writers, including Ayize Jama-Everett. I ended up coming home from that panel, and finding to my surprise (and horror, frankly) that there was no English Wikipedia article on him.

One of the niche areas that is impressively covered by enWP editors is that of science fiction and science fantasy, especially for writers from the United States. I could only think of Ayize’s absence from that coverage for one reason: that even when you’re a well-meaning Wikipedian who loves science fiction, it’s likely that you’re white and male, and reading primarily white writers. So in my ongoing quest to write Wikipedia articles on marginalised communities and themes, I created a stub on Ayize over the next few days.

Through asking Ayize for a triangulation of facts and a photograph (a task that took some persuasion), we ended up getting to know each other, and I learnt a great deal about Afrofuturism.

Then Ayize was invited to be an Honoured Guest at this year’s FOGcon (Friends of the Genre Convention) – an intimate, deep geek gathering of science fiction and fantasy writers and readers in the Bay Area, that took place over this past weekend. One of the conversations he had was with Lonny Brooks, on what it means to be an Afrofuturist and an African-American SF writer who dreads writing about the future, when the present is already so disturbing.

To my surprise, and delight, I was invited to write a reflection about Ayize for their conference booklet, as is their practice. Quite truly a privilege, given folks like Sherryl Vint and Steven Barnes have written about past Honoured Guests like Donna Haraway and Honoured Ghosts like Octavia Butler. Tell me what you think of mine.

Ayize slips between human and plant, between reality and fantasy, between philosophy and fiction, and offers up a liminality which is where we all live, if we are honest enough to recognise it. He pushes us beyond binaries with deft dark humour and the confidence of living in multiple spaces himself. Despite being a theologian, a psychologist, and a teacher, Ayize never gives in to either the righteousness of philosophy and psychology, or the self-consciousness of pedagogy. He leaves it to us to wander amazed in the worlds he constructs for us, or – as is far more likely – hurtling between them in gasping breaths of questions, about ourselves, about each other, about the ways in which our marginal, liminal selves can get centered in a writer’s imagination.

And that, perhaps, is the greatest gift Ayize gives us. He once said, “There’s a big wound in not being seen, in having your reality not being represented in any way.”[3] Yet that lack of representation is not solely of race, or gender, or sexuality, or age, or… it’s a wound of invisibility that comes from not being easily categorised, even as those around you try strenuously to fit you into a box of their shaping.

A blue(s) nation has to learn from a blues people

Folks have been surprised that I have seemed shocked but stoic through this past week. And a friend just asked about practices and resources of self-care – and I think that’s deeply important as everyone gears up for the long haul (I will post my list, and would love to hear friends share theirs). But it might be helpful to remember that some of us _have been in the long haul all our lives – in the US and around the world – and the histories and stories and music of our peoples have always given us courage, and singing, and sometimes joy, in the dark times.
 
This interview between Toni Morrison and Cornel West in 2004 exemplifies that, and feels poignant and insightful right now.
 

ToniI feel two things at the same time: terrified and melancholy, and I think in both domestic and foreign affairs it’s frightening–the altercations, the agenda. There have been other frightening moments, but the melancholy that I feel now is about a country like this with the best shot in the world, that a country like this with a certain kind of plenitude and intelligence and ambition and generosity and some history from which to learn, could, indeed, throw it all away and become the worst parts of its own self.

Cornel, I see you sitting here nodding and frowning, but what is curious to me is that whenever I read you, as well as talk to you, and as clearsighted as you are and as aware as you are of these difficulties, you always seem to be something I used to be but no longer am, optimistic. And since I’m rapidly losing that quality, maybe just because of age, I wanted to ask you why.

Cornel: I’ve always viewed myself as a person with a deeply sad soul but a cheerful disposition. So that when you say you feel terrified and melancholic, that describes my situation too, but it’s just that I always believe that struggle and the unleashing of moral energy in the form of moral outrage can make a difference no matter what the situation is. And it may have something to do with just having a blues sensibility, a tragic orientation, a sense that no matter how mendacious elites may be, they can never extinguish the forces for good in the world. And if that’s true, then they’re mighty but not almighty.
 
And in some ways that’s a characterization of just being black in America, it seems to me. Since 9/11 all Americans feel unsafe, unprotected, subject to random violence and hatred, and that’s been the situation of black folks for 400 years. In that fundamental sense, to be a nigger is to be unsafe, unprotected, subject to random violence and hatred. And now the whole nation is niggerized, and everybody’s got to deal with it. And I think we’re at a moment now in which a blues nation has to learn from a blues people.

Gems from the Ocean

20160128_192701I’m ashamed to say I’ve only just discovered August Wilson, the Pulitzer Prize winning playwright known as the American Shakespeare. But what a way to discover him and his searing explorations of what it means to be black in America: through the stunning, gut-wrenching interpretation of his play Gem of the Ocean, currently playing at the Marin Theatre Company. Go see it, Bay Area peeps; you must.

Wilson is best known for his ten play cycle on the lives of African Americans in the 20th century, one for every decade. Gem of the Ocean is the first of the cycle, written second to last in 2003 (Wilson died in 2005). And for us, there were multiple performances on theatre night: the play itself, and then the responses of the predominantly white audience (AFAICT, we were one of two families of colour attending) that stayed for a Q&A session with cast and crew after.

Amongst the conversations with no clue: ‘I don’t understand where the spirituality of the original went…’ So Wilson uses seemingly Christian symbolism underwritten by Yoruba spirituality, which hybridised form dramaturg Omi Osun Joni L. Jones pops up so powerfully in her interpretation. In other words, it’s nothing but political and spiritual, just perhaps not your politics and your spirituality, Mr. White Theatre-goer.

The interpretation also breaks with the familiar idiom of ‘naturalistic’ theatre, which is how August Wilson is often played. Instead, it offers rhythm, beat, syncopation: jazz of word and gesture. Be prepared for its power, and for its getting under your skin. I found myself squirming in my seat, hardly able to sit still (such a no-no for a polite theatre-goer!).

But the best of the evening was the well-meaning road to hell: ‘I wish young black children could watch this play’… Yes, they should. I hope they do, and the theatre is doing its best to make it happen, with multiple matinee shows. But even more so, elite white people should watch this play. And not deflect the responsibility of thinking about it. Understand, as August Wilson says in the play, what black folks, people of colour, need for full citizenship in this country: “You gonna have to fight to get that. And time you get it, you be surprised how heavy it is.” (And yes, it echoes all that my Dalit and Adivasi friends are feeling right now too).

So t20160128_192717hank you, Daniel Alexander Jones, Omi Osun Joni L. Jones, and the incredible cast and crew of the Gem of the Ocean. I can’t imagine Wilson being interpreted in any other way.

 

Beyond the magic

Eight years ago, if you can remember that far back, there was another World Cup in football (soccer to y’all North Americans). Another World Coup for advertising gimmicks and general all-out consumerism. I was cheering for Brazil – which self-respecting Indian was not? However, I was living in England at the time, and a friend – who happened to be Irish and studying French literature (a combination that was nearly as fascinating as his accent) – asked me to reconsider. It would transform politics in France, he said, to have a winning team whose core players were immigrant, Muslim and non-white. I cheered for France in those finals, and I did so this time too (once Brazil had been knocked out, of course). Though politics in France seems to have suffered far beyond French football in the last few years.

Zizou does weave magic. No doubt about it. He also head-butts with ferocity. No doubt about it; no excuse for it either. There might be explanations beyond the lack of excuses, though: the doubts are in the whys and the wherefores. Was it sledging – a continued stream of racist abuse? Till he breaks the silence, we won’t know for sure. But I hope he does tell us what happened. Icons can be human, but they have to speak up for their own human-ness and for the human-ness of others. It might make sports – and the rest of the world around it – a little more humane. And a little less racist.