2008-09 Gathering of Voices

I Write

Rachel Elizabeth Brown

Outsider. Left out. Not welcome. Like black people, Hispanic people, poor people. Lepers.  That girl from Greece that annoys me in sixth grade by saying things like “in my country…”

Not me, I am white. Middle class, fair skinned, blue eyed. Educated. I’m well traveled, well read and curious. I have a history, and a family, and friends. An ipod.

None of this is any help in the fluorescent-lit isle at Haggen when I can’t find Tipex. Cutex. Cellotape. Disprin. Guava. Rocket. None of this helps when I am no longer a tourist, just visiting; when suddenly I have a distinct identity that does not belong here.

It doesn’t help when I ask the man, again, a hundred times, if he’d like pepper on his pasta. Pepperrr. When people give me vague eyes and pretend they understand what I’m saying.  Or worse, when they nod their heads and smile, but their eyes say horrible things. It makes me think of Antwone Fisher and his monsters with masks. 

I’m the party trick. I’m the observer again. The most common and recurring theme. My spelling is different, my accent is different, and the meaning I attach to words and ideas is different. I can’t touch the difference. It’s like having tick bite fever. You don’t notice at first; you just feel cold when everyone else feels hot and hot when everyone else feels cold. Slowly you slip into delirium.

I meet a man at work one day and his voice feels like cream on a blister. I can hear him speaking from across the room and it sounds like home. Home. What a funny concept.  I’ve never had a home.  Afterwards I’m disorientated and dizzy. Another person speaks and I am confused. I don’t know how I suddenly drifted miles from home to be standing here. In this country. I’m defensive all the time and catch myself saying things. In my country.

Not that I mind either, I’ve never thought of my voice as appealing. Attractive. It makes me talk more. I’m braver sometimes.  This is the first time in my life that I am able to speak, to solidify and materialize the things inside me. Talk. I suddenly understand my ex-boyfriend’s mother. Thirty three years in a foreign country and she never lost her thick French accent. Which always got thicker when she was in trouble. I use it to my advantage.

I am surprised at my attachment to home, something I’ve never had. And now it seems I’ve left the only home I ever had.  A whole country. So I go back. But again. I don’t belong; I have a disease. I’ve been saying pepperrr and parmes(h)an too often, my vowels are slightly raised and push into my friends ears like squishy marshmallow down your esophagus. Soft and cute and funny, and annoying after too much sweetness. They leave an uncomfortable feeling in your stomach.

Comfort is an important thing where I come from. (In my country). Or more specifically, fitting in. Scrambling for enough, because you know it’s not yours.

Like Lebanese men that get rich off of other peoples poverty. Like big black rich Zulu men that parade around with government money.  Like old Afrikaans men, hard and drunk and bitter. Like stuffy English men stuck in the vapors of a regime that’s long gone, but unable to move forward.

Makwerekwere’s are not welcome here. Amongst the millions left out of this battle.

I never thought I could be a white makwerekwere, among white people that speak English. A derogatory word used by black people for foreign black people. Specifically foreign black people that are a nuisance and a threat. Refugees. Starving.

 I am used to being lost.  Six towns, ten houses, and six schools. Make new friends, start over. Sweep under. Forget. Move on.

I travel back after being gone for two years and my eyes hurt when I see the land. It takes a long time to work out why. Something feels strange, even though I recognize (recognise) the land and feel its heartbeat, I can’t adjust, focus. There are horizons everywhere. Horizons and walls. Vertical and horizontal lines opposing each other.

Where I have come from now the trees are so tall and the mountains obstruct everything. The ocean obstructed by islands. My eyes hurt form not being able to see far.

 And then they hurt form seeing too far.

A stranger in my own country, a tourist, a feeling I worked hard to resist, I stare at the barrenness of the land. My feet are dirty all the time. I forgot how this red earth, mixed with so much blood, clings to your feet. Mixed with the sweat of the men and the tears of the women in my family. These barren, hollow, echoing spaces shaped me. They are inside me. They have been inside me since before I can remember.

I’m surprised by the language I speak and how much it tells about me. Not just the language, but the way I speak it too. It’s like the rings on a tree that show change and indicate growth. If anyone listened closely they would hear my mother, and the way she laughed. Would hear my grandparents and their narrow-mindedness or their despair at a life they could not bring to fruition, or their strength. Their bigotry. They would hear their NG-Kerk conservative-ness and their pain. They would hear my father. They would hear the empty silence of our house, the emotional restraint and the fear. They would hear awkwardness and shyness,

My language, and the way I use it contains my culture. It contains me.  Its shortness and brevity, it’s echoing. I don’t know how it got there but it reveals my vulnerability. A mind that works faster than my language has ever allowed.

My family also planted a silent language inside me. It is silent now. I used to shift between the two with ease. Now I have to stop and think. But its dormancy is dangerous. It sits like a predator and waits. For me. With its vicious and beautiful spirit.

My language, shaped and carved by things that are so old and come from so long before me. It is not about me. It is not for me. That I write.

Language is the container for everything. Like a quick-sand-serpent-river that meanders through time and space. It ebbs and flows, and builds levees, and floods. It gorges, takes and gives. But I’ve never been able to access it. So I’m left with a monsoon inside me. Pressure building. Sometimes I get lost along the edge of an internal desert and an ocean so deep - where the two meet - and things spit out of me in blunt, forced, uninvited ways.

Why do I write? I don’t write. I’ve never written. But I read. I read Huckleberry Fin when I was five. And then I read about Mark Twain and Hailey’s Comet. I read all the books in the little school library when I was six. I read Mills and Boons romance novels a teacher snuck me in boarding school so I wouldn’t have to think. About my mom, my Ouma, my Oupa, my grandfather, all dead. I read anything: the back of toilet stall doors, Bukowski, Gordimer, Krog, Brink. I read in two languages. I read Nancy Drew and Enid Blyton, and Sweet Valley High. I read my dad’s sci-fi novels. I read so that my mind would be quiet. So I could breathe one more time. In. And out. I read Estes and Allende and Marquez, nonfiction, esotericism, Thomas Merton, People Magazine and Kafka.  I read Sula, and The Power of One, and The Anthropolgy of Turquoise, and The Scarlett Letter. Hemmingway. It doesn’t matter.

I feel like I’ve just woken up from a dream that lasted twenty one years.  There wasn’t a specific moment in my twenty first year that felt like waking up either. It could have been my twenty second year too. Maybe it was my twenty third, after my aunt killed herself. It feels more like a slow rise to breath. Drifting up from the bottom of the ocean through hazy, murky water. Dappled light on my skin.  Half dreaming. Yearning. But the ocean is full of creatures.

 Twenty one years in a dream that I have to unravel. Like Louise Bourgeois or Carl Jung. I construct things, external spaces, building, rebuilding, my inner self externally. So that I might take the rough edges off, so that I might understand. Like a river bottom pebble. Worn smooth until I disintegrate into sand. Nothing.

My dad holds my hand and walks me down the passage turning on the lights. I tried to go to the bathroom but I couldn’t reach the light switch, even on tippy toes. Everyone is in the kitchen, washing up. Laugh-talking. I reach for the light I with my eyes squeezed shut and I can’t breathe.  I don’t want whatever is at the end of the hall, in the darkness, to rush at me. I don’t want to see it. Finally the fear consumes me. I go get him. Holding his index finger I ask him why he’s not afraid.

He says you grow out of it.

Just like he tells me the devil is a cartoon character.

I am four.  I hope I grow out of it soon.

I hope I grow out of it at twelve when I sit in the bath and a little girl with red eyes sits and watches me.

I hope I grow out of it when I’m 18 and I wake in the middle of the night paralyzed by fear. Spiders and dead people around my bed.

I hope I grow out of it when I’m twenty one and I’ve fallen in love for the first time. When I’m with a boy for four years and peace on a level I could never have imagined seems possible, but my mind won’t let me keep it. It is destructive.

I hope I grow out of it when I’m sleeping in this boy’s bed because he’s in the other room studying and the beat-up woman sitting in the corner of the room slides over on all fours and sniffs at me.

I hope I’ll grow out of it when I dream my mother is bitten by a long gelatinous white snake the year she got sick. I am six. Nobody told us.

I hope I grow out of it when I crash into myself. When I can’t breathe anymore at twenty and beg my father to let me go see someone, anyone, that can hear me.

I think I write because I want to paint. Because since the beginning painting belonged to my mother. I’m better at it than she was. Now I write like an artist paints. Compulsively, with a need inside, pushed to understand myself or go crazy. It is the only reason I write, and it frustrates me. My early literary experiences are not verbal, and distinct, they are emotional, overpowering, internal, irrational and scary. They shape and define me.

I feel as if I’ve woken from a dream.

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