It’s not as if I was born placeless.
I was my father’s first daughter, after all, with a title waiting for me—the Ada, the mother of the house when the mother of the house was not there. My father gave me no English names, raised me an hour outside our village and made sure we went home every December so I knew where I was from. Placelessness crept up later, like a patient mould. The foreign spores started from my mother, who’d moved to a country that wasn’t hers and had its children. Placelessness arranged itself on our faces when our people looked at us and wondered—how can you be one of us when you were born from a stranger? Belonging, you see, is a tricky thing to define. Is it blood and, if so, how much blood? Is it a birthplace, a passport, a childhood? Can you claim a people with enough force that they claim you back?
When I was six months old, my mother took me to Kuala Lumpur. My hair was slick and straight, bands of fat bulged at my wrists and ankles, and she put a round black dot on my forehead. In a house in Petaling Jaya, my Malaccan grandmother held me on her knee, her hands strong in my soft armpits, and we laughed at each other. She called me Miss Gums and fed me rice porridge. After we returned to Nigeria, my mother continued to put the round black dot on my forehead ever so often, as if to remind everyone in my father’s country that I was still her daughter.
For my birthdays, she made me elaborate cakes that were a little girl’s everything; ball gowns of icing piped over the severed torsos of old Barbie dolls. I was a pandi who licked the cake batter and stole sugar cubes, but sometimes I helped her make chapattis and we’d watch the floury black patches of the bread rising on the cast iron tawa. My mother taught us to eat with our fingers, scooping up rice and dhal, pushing it into our mouths with our thumbs. “Make sure you vali your plates,” she’d say, or when my sister and I started squabbling, “Don’t chundu your sister.”
I thought the words were English because that was the only full language in our house. There was none of her Malay, no Tamil, no Igbo, none of the Russian my father picked up while studying in the Soviet Union. We were taught Igbo in school, but I ended up crying over my exams, ashamed that the words meant nothing to me, while classmates who came in fluent from home watched uncomfortably. Back then, several of my primary school teachers were women who spoilt me because I was mixed. “Half-caste,” they’d say, petting my long plaits. “Dash us your hair.” I was eight years old and the language I was supposed to know didn’t even recognize my mouth, so the teachers sent my classmates to write the exams for me. “Go and help her,” they said. “I ma na nne ya bu onye ocha.” You know that her mother is a white person.
They did know; everyone knew. My father’s family didn’t speak Igbo to my siblings and me because they knew. Roadside hawkers would see us in the back of a car with our mother and shout “Half-caste, half-caste!” because they knew; the child of a foreigner is a foreigner. My mother would wind up the windows and hiss at us, “You’re not half-caste!” I imagine now the history behind her reaction, the stories my grandmother told me about what they once did to the lower castes in Sri Lanka. In taxis and buses on my way home from school, other passengers called me half-caste anyway and chattered in Igbo while I pretended not to understand. I had been born an hour away from the town we lived in and I had never lived anywhere else. I didn’t understand where I was supposed to belong if it wasn’t here, if this wasn’t my place.
So, as a child, I daydreamed about going back to Malaysia. I thought I would belong there; that everything would click into place like I had been lost and then found. But when we visited Kuala Lumpur, people stopped on the street and stared at us like we were exhibits, my mother and her Nigerian children. It made me want to go home. On another trip, a Malaysian immigration officer asked my brother the purpose of his visit.
“We’re visiting our family,” my brother said. “Staying with my uncle.” The officer called another over to look at his passport and they laughed together in Malay. My brother stood there patiently—tall and broad-shouldered, dreadlocks spilling down the small of his back. He had moved to Kuala Lumpur when he was seventeen and lived there for years. He pretended not to understand them. After they let us all through, I asked him what they said and he smiled. He was used to this.
“They said, ‘Look at this one. As if we’ll really believe he has a Malaysian uncle.’”
In New York, at a Malaysian jerky shop in Chinatown, one of my friends laughed and told the proprietors, “You know, she’s actually half Malaysian.” The men looked at my face and my skin and my hair, curled up into a cloud. They put polite smiles on their faces but the word liar stayed flat in their eyes.
America was different. There, the people who looked like me had branched and blurred blood, invaded by unwelcome tributaries. Once I started college, I was just Nigerian, without the qualifiers detailing my mother. No one had time to be calculating my fractions. When I ran into other Nigerians, they would wipe their eyes over me. “You’re Ethiopian, right?”
“Ehn? You’re Nigerian??” Their disbelief was common. I knew the question under the question so I answered it.
“My mother’s Malaysian.”
They would smile like they’d won. “Eh henh! I knew there was something!”
America didn’t pay attention to any of that. America said I was Black, stamped me with the country of my passport, and threw me into her belly. At college, I met my first Trinidadian friends—scholarship football players who grew up eating curry like I did, who introduced me to soca and chutney music. When a friend from Cameroon cut up sweet dough and fried it into chin-chin, the Trinidadians called it kurma, like my mother did back in Aba. I didn’t understand how they could have the same words, even for things like the Chinese haw flakes my mother brought over from Malaysia; thin circles of pressed red fruit that we all called Holy Communion. I wanted to know how they could look like me but have a place, a real place, where no one called them foreigners or liars.
My mother phoned me once from her desert condo while watching a Trinidadian film. “It’s so strange!” she said. “They look Indian but they sound like West Indians!” She sent me a picture of her TV screen, women in saris walking in greenery. “Weird lah.”
She’d moved to America after living in Saudi Arabia for almost a decade, relocating from one desert to another and settling in the Southwest. She taught me how to tie a sari in the bedroom of her first apartment there, standing on beige carpeting as the sun bounced off plastic blinds. We let the silk run through our hands, all six yards of it, draping it over the ironed cotton of the petticoat she’d tightened at my waist, folding and pleating and tucking carefully until there was only the loose mundani left to be thrown over my shoulder. When I got engaged a few years later, we went to Southall with one of my aunts to look for a wedding sari. I wanted embroidered silk, but shopkeeper after shopkeeper told us it was impossible.
“That’s old-fashioned,” they said. “Chiffon is in style now.” They held out armfuls of billowy thinness, tacked all over with sequins, georgette brushing against the shelves. It was evening before we found a shopkeeper who had a stack of silk saris in the back of his store. I chose one in gentle cream, green leaves and stitched petals with gold thread. It sits in a suitcase in my mother’s wardrobe now, smothered in plastic, never worn.
There are always two wedding saris. The first is white or ivory, worn during the ceremony, purchased by the bride’s family. The second is the kurai, a gift from the groom, embroidered in gold and worn at the reception. When my grandparents married in 1943, my grandmother was seventeen and Malaysia was occupied by the Japanese. It was impossible, given the occupation, to find saris, but somehow my grandfather did. He gifted her a kurai in deep coral, intricate gold borders lying on forest green. My grandmother wore it every year on their anniversary, sixty-five times, and when he died, she folded up the kurai and laid it in the coffin with him.
My mother bought her own kurai, blood-red silk, heavy with the patterned gold. It sits in the wardrobe as well, next to my wedding sari, tucked under a pink beaded blouse and skirt that I wore during a performance in college. I had taken the music my Trini friends gave me, the rhythm and percussion and the Hindi lyrics, and danced to it on the stage of our school auditorium. I was eighteen and songs by Destra and Shurwayne Winchester and Dil-E-Nadan felt like they were knitting me together, making a place out of my chest. I loved Trinidad a little then already and, nine years later, I stepped off a plane in Port of Spain to air that smelled like Lagos.
It was in the early weeks of carnival season, so I went feting, dancing for hours to a soca pulse that didn’t end, the music short-circuiting my small hipbones. I ate doubles on the Avenue with slight pepper and channa falling off the edge of my hand; it was easy to love Trinidad. There was even Nigerian music on the radio, playing in bars and taxis, all my worlds folding over each other beautifully, like sweet batter. The country was starting to smell like another home, and I was hungry for the rightness of being placed. At a compound in Woodbrook one afternoon, I was sitting with a rapso musician when he waved over another man walking by.
“He’s a dougla, like you,” the musician said.
“A what?” I asked, shaking hands and saying hello.
“A dougla. He’s African and Indian.”
“Wait.” I laughed. “Y’all have a word for that?”
They did. I put it under my tongue and bounced it against my teeth. Dougla. It had been a Bhojpuri slur before assimilating into Caribbean vernacular, much like ‘half-caste’ in Nigeria. Dougla was particular, though, specific. To be half-caste was to be Nigerian and anything else, the mix didn’t matter, but dougla was restricted. Dougla proved that somewhere in the world, on this island, there was a place, a named space for us. Later, a Bahamian friend of mine mentioned a conversation she’d had with her mother about me.
“I met a dougla today,” she’d said. “But she’s from Nigeria.”
“Wha yuh mean?” her mother asked. “How she ah dougla?”
“Her mother Indian and her father Nigerian.”
“Ohhh!” said her mother. “She ah pure dougla!”
She meant I was an unmixed mix, that my father could trace his family back to Osisi Udugudu, my great-great-grandfather, and that the thread would begin and end on the same land in Umuahia where our village house now stands. My mother’s thread would go all the way back to the 1800s, to a village in northern Sri Lanka called Mathagal and a man called Anthony Pillai, great-grandfather to both my grandparents. It was a strange thought that, for the first time, I was considered a pure anything.
Still, I was hungry to be seen as whole, as Igbo and Tamil, Nigerian and Malaysian, Black and Brown, African and Indian. Dougla was the stretch of space where I could be a Black girl in a sari without challenge. Dougla didn’t ask for one part to be sacrificed for assimilation into the other, it didn’t fetishize a fraction; it simply said I was both. A musician’s casual comment in Woodbrook had seen and placed me as if it was nothing. The permission was dizzying.
I’d had Nigerian friends who pushed back whenever I wore a sari or a pottu, who thought I was doing it for the attention, to be different. “They’re being possessive,” a friend suggested.
“You can’t be possessive and then tell me I’m not a real Nigerian at the same time,” I replied. “It doesn’t work that way.”
There were brief flashes when people would see my mother in me and I would feel flattered and guilty—pleased because I was being seen, but guilty because I wasn’t supposed to enjoy being other, because this pleasure sometimes felt like I was complicit in my own fetishization. I still have a Nigerian friend who tells me how exotic I am and calls me yellow. I asked him to stop but he thinks it’s a compliment and wonders why I spend my summers trying to get darker. I showed him the pictures of when I lived in Aba and explained how the winters in America ruined my skin. There’s a whisper-thin line between wanting to be seen and wanting to be special, and so, to be safe, I folded up my saris and let the black dot on my forehead fade back into my childhood photographs.
I found an article on Preyansi Mani, a woman in Delhi who decided to start wearing saris everyday. She spoke about how self-conscious she felt, how people weren’t receptive to it, and as I read, an old want unpeeled itself in me. I’ve wanted to wear a sari casually too, in the summers when my skin is happy and the air is wet, but the want has been pressed down by fear, because I’m a Black girl, because my mother is invisible in me. If this Indian woman got so many reactions, then what would it look like for me, a visibly tattooed African, to wrap myself in lengths of cotton and move through the world? Even in New York, I only saw older Desi women in them, women who looked like my mother and wore heavy coats and sturdy shoes, bright floating fabric trapped against their bodies. I tweeted about my fear and someone replied, perfectly, “You gotta move to Trinidad and Tobago.”
We all need safe places to be seen.
I’ve claimed Nigeria with such force that it cannot be rid of me, yet I wonder if Trinidad was easy to love because it would be easier to breathe there. Is it better to be a foreigner in a foreign place? I daydream about unfolding a sari in a pink bungalow with mint green shutters, sea breeze billowing out my curtains as I drape yards of thin silk over myself and walk outside like it’s nothing, the sun breaking through my guava trees. (“Dey go dat dougla Nigerian gyul, yuh know.”) It’s pretty, but it won’t fix my placelessness. That solution is somewhere inside my skin, waiting for me to understand that I don’t need permission wrapped in the borders of a country, that I am my own place, that I am, already, everything.
Akwaeke Emezi is a writer and filmmaker based in liminal spaces. She is the recent recipient of a 2015 Morland Writing Scholarship and was shortlisted for the 2015 Wasafiri New Writing Prize. Her fiction has been published in literary magazines and a Caine Prize anthology.
More of her work is available at www.akwaeke.com