Welcome, beautiful friends and readers, to Open Mic Friday!
I am overjoyed to welcome back Kuukua Dzigbordi Yomekpe, whose work was featured here previously as the inaugural guest post back in August. Her piece today speaks deeply to the challenge of art-making amid the all-consuming business of life.
Reflections from an Artist Who Is Doing It All, Kuukua Dzigbordi Yomekpe
I am in Ohio with my family. I’m sitting at the dining room table in an empty house (unless you count the dog) sipping on coffee which although my doctors have banned, I sneak when I’m home because it’s tradition.
Ohio was the first stop on the migration trail. My sisters and I would later move away to chase dreams of our own, but somehow we always found ourselves here whenever things went awry. Sometimes too it was to celebrate major events in our lives, but often it was to re-group, get pep talks, reminisce, and sneak copious amounts of coffee.
I am home this time because I was just stopping through on my way to yet another conference panel to publicize the Anthology. At least that’s what it was when I originally bought my ticket, which thanks to the conference funding at CIIS, I was able to afford. But as the months have flown by it has been something I have come to look forward to. And even more so in the last two weeks.
My aunt and uncle, who practically raised my sister and me when my mother was away, have both been diagnosed with late stages of stomach cancer. In my adult lifetime (25-now) I have lost close to 10 family members to Cancer. They have all been difficult losses, but I think these two are more so because they were parents to us. They kept us sane when our grandmother was being her rigid principal self at home and forbidding simple things like riding bikes. My cousin, an only child, was happy to have siblings. We roamed her neighborhood with no particular purpose, something that was absolutely forbidden when we were with Grandmother.
So this particular struggle with Cancer is more personal. I feel angry every day and yell and scream at a higher power I don’t know if I believe in any longer. It is even more devastating as it becomes apparent each day that I might have seen them for the last time when I was in Ghana in August. I am beginning to wonder if I was loving when I saw them last. What was their impression of me in August? Were they proud of my collection of degrees? Were they proud of my recent publications? Were they wishing I would grow up by marrying some guy? (Any man at this point, because now it was about having children before it was too late.) Were they wishing I’d move back home?
This brings me back to home and the need of the immigrant family to re-group. We pooled money and gave my mom a ticket to Ghana because as the professional Hospice nurse, it made more sense for her to go. But it was with great difficulty that we let her leave on Tuesday. She was going to get what we here are longing for each day—a chance to cry and laugh and reminisce about the good and bad ole’ days. I’m jealous even as I sit here writing, chasing my dreams.
The struggle of the immigrant is sometimes way deeper than even the most succinct theories attest to. It’s not just about assimilating and chasing dreams with more gusto than we could in our own countries; it’s about giving up that which makes us who we are—the food, the distant relatives we couldn’t bring with us, the elaborate clothing that often looks out of place in the Western world. It’s about the struggle between the old world and new glitzy Western world. It’s about feeling schizophrenic (for me at least) all the time because I can’t be in both places at once. It’s about not being able to eat waakye (my favorite street food) whenever I have a yearning for it because I can’t just go to the corner of Hearst and Spruce and buy $2 worth of it. It’s about suddenly stalling on your native tongue, a language that used to roll off your tongue all day long, while speaking with a family member. All this on one side of the scale while chasing your dreams sometimes becomes weightless on the other side of the scale. Is chasing my dream worth the loss of all this? It all seems unbalanced when life is so short. Is this what I should be doing with my life? And what is IT that I am really doing with this life that is supposedly mine?
I have been chasing my dream of becoming a full-time writer for the last year since being accepted into CIIS. I have been workshopping 10-20 page pieces, reading craft books, mimicking my favorite authors, finding the lineage for my work, getting addicted to audio books, applying to artist residencies, speaking on panels, and just plain looking for money so I can sit home and write. I know it’s not impossible but it seems so most days. It’s not easy to juggle all this while trying to find time for that initial impetus for all these side effects: the writing itself. I may make it look glamorous or sound so irresistible, this life I’m leading, but underneath it all is the struggle to remain sane (less schizophrenic or bipolar), and true to my daily urge to write. Some days I think there’s no way I’ll find a job I like, a place to stay, and finish critiquing my fellow cohort members’ work, but on those days I remind myself what is most important at that particular point in my life. I’ve by no means perfected this, but I’m working on living a daily version of it.
My advice to other artists is this: don’t think for one minute that any other artist is doing more than you, or going places you will never go. If I’ve learned anything in the last year, it’s this—you must walk the path that is yours to walk. People will forever be around for you to compare yourself to, people will forever have ideas about how else you could be hustling, but in all of it you must remain true to yourself and where you are at any particular moment. You alone can determine if that imbalance in the scale is worth it, and even so, for how long it is.
I can tell you this: there are days like today when nothing I’m doing seems worth missing out on being back in Ghana with my family and eating waakye every morning. But then again, there are days when my writing is all that matters. I am learning to love myself through all of these days and to cherish the very gift of writing itself because it gets me through both of these extremes and for now, that is enough.
Kuukua Dzigbordi Yomekpe was born in Ghana and immigrated to the U.S. at 19. She presently resides in Berkeley, CA, and is completing her MFA at the California Institute for Integral Studies (CIIS). Some of her essays have been anthologized in African Women Writing Resistance, Becoming Bi: Bisexual Voices from Around the World, and Inside Your Ear. She is a dancer and culinary artist, proud to be an African woman and a politically queer woman of color. Find her online at ewurabasempe.wordpress.com.