By Ayoola Akinlana
Stories don’t have to be written; I am currently still living out mine. But here is a part of it.
I stared into space, discreetly scrawling letters in the air.
A Y O O L A… I-YO-LUH. I-YO-LAH.
This time, it was my name. I marveled over each letter as I wrote in loose, sloppy cursive in the air.
I repeated my name over and over in my head, switching between the pronunciation my parents insisted on and the way I usually introduced myself to all my peers. I was too young to process the linguistic differences between Yorùbá and English. The subtle difference in pronunciation doesn’t really matter, right? I asked myself. It’s just a difference in accents… I’m American, and my peers are American. We can’t be expected to capture the linguistic nuances of Yorùbá.
Never mind—it was of little importance. I grew bored of writing my name and moved on to writing the words I had just seen on the sign across the street: “Pedestrian Xing”… What the hell did “xing” mean?
From a young age, I was always fascinated with language. During car rides, I spent hours reading every sign I saw and writing the letters in the air. I was amazed by words and how they were formed. They could make so little sense when I thought about them, yet, somehow, I understood them so well listening to my family’s nonstop chatter.
I recall having a similar fascination with the idea that people could think in more than one language. One of my earliest memories is the confusion I felt listening to my mother talk to her siblings. As she rapidly spoke Krio with my aunt and uncle, she completely code switched, seamlessly changing from English to Krio, complete with a stronger accent than any I’d ever heard from her. Suddenly, my mother, whose voice I was more familiar with than anyone else’s in the world, was impossible for me to understand. It was especially confusing because, since Krio is a creole language, I could still understand a word here and there in the otherwise indecipherable conversation.
As I struggled to process that my mother knew a language I myself had no understanding of, I also dealt with my father’s expectation for me and my siblings to learn Yorùbá because of its importance in the Afro-centric education my parents always instilled in us. Daily, my father would ask, “Bawo ni nkan?” or “How’s it going?” He expected the response “daradara” (well), but more often than not, I instead enthusiastically responded “beeni” (yes), eliciting a glare that discouraged me from wanting to try again.
Although it was difficult to comprehend other languages at home, I was very proud of my reading and writing abilities in English. In first grade, I took a reading proficiency test and scored at a third-grade reading level at the age of five! When my peers were still reading children’s books with more pictures than words, I was one of three students in the class reading chapter books. I remember the pride I felt reading my first Magic Treehouse book; while I was being transported to this magical fantasy world all by myself, other students were having the teacher read to them.
I loved reading and spent countless hours reading at home. I read anything I could get my hands on, and finding something to read was never an issue since we had huge bookshelves at home filled and stacked with books. I remember laying on the floor of my bedroom reading our copy of A Chair for My Mother over and over again. It had the English version on one side and the Spanish version on the other, and I would flip back and forth between the two sides of the book, trying to match the English words to the Spanish words. “Chair…sillón,” I would whisper to myself. “Mother…mamá.” I truly believed I could master Spanish reading this one book.
As I got older, I started pushing myself to read longer and longer books. I measured my achievement by how many days it took me to read a 500-page book, then a 700-page book, and so on. I spent all day reading in bed, taking breaks only to eat, use the bathroom, or move to the couch instead of my bedroom floor. By fifth grade, I was testing at a college reading level, but I still preferred to read all the popular young adult books at the time. I read the complete Percy Jackson and the Olympians series, flying through every new release as soon as I could get my hands on a copy (and every spinoff of the series that came out until I was in seventh grade). I read The Hunger Games, Divergent, Matched, and Harry Potter, lost in their dystopian and fantasy worlds. I imagined myself in these worlds: I was Hermione, Rue, and Tris, facing so much danger…and falling in love.
I was enamored with the concept of falling in love.
I read many young adult romance books which inspired me to want to write one of my own. I sat in my room with a notebook and pencil writing what I was sure would be the next big young adult novel. In my sloppy fifth grade handwriting, I wrote about a nice, nerdy but pretty girl named Sarah, or some other name I could think of that was distinctly normal. The girls I wrote about always had a few close friends and a crush on the most popular guy at school who would eventually notice them for the first time and fall madly in love with them.
I was strongly influenced by those cheesy young adult romance novels, and although I loved those tropes at the time, I grew bored of writing the same stories. I never finished anything I started writing even though I always began fully intending to create a masterpiece. Eventually, I stopped writing altogether because I realized I had no experience in what I was writing about, and I never would. I wrote about what I wanted to be—one of the popular white girls I not only read about in books but also saw on television—rather than the nerdy black girl who I actually was. I never found my life interesting enough to write about when I was younger, so I wrote stories I could hardly relate to. Because of this, my desire to write started to diminish.
I was still a voracious reader, however. Continuing through my middle school years, I always borrowed books from the small school libraries, and the reading period we had every day was my favorite time of the day. Wanting to read more sophisticated books, I picked up The Lovely Bones by Alice Sebold. I claimed I was ready for more sophisticated stories, but I did not realize what that truly meant. Spoiler alert! The character death at the end of the first chapter shocked and upset me, but I couldn’t put the book down. I felt more emotions reading that book than I had with any book I had read before it. Following The Lovely Bones, I also read Alice Sebold’s Lucky where she describes her own sexual assault. Reading these two books marked a new stage in my literary journey. I was no longer interested in children’s fantasy or dystopian stories. I wanted to read books that made me feel real emotion. I wanted to read about real characters going through real human struggle. This desire led me to read I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings, one of the most defining texts of my life so far. Reading about the struggles author Maya Angelou faced growing up as a young black girl in the South, I truly felt myself in the pages. I still remember the quote, “If growing up is painful for the Southern Black girl, being aware of her displacement is the rust on the razor that threatens the throat. It is an unnecessary insult.” I hadn’t faced all the struggles Angelou had, yet she had captured the experience of being a black girl in America better than anyone I had read before.
In high school, my English classes helped me grow as a reader and writer, but at the same time, they constantly made me question my abilities. In my freshman year, it became clear that, as well-read as I thought I was, I was behind my peers who had gone to the more challenging middle schools—or at least, I hadn’t read as many books in the literary canon. While my classmates discussed 1984 and Animal Farm in seventh and eighth grade, I remained silent, not wanting anyone to know that it was my first time ever hearing of these books. I picked To Kill a Mockingbird off the bookshelf once when I was eight, but I got bored after one page and never returned to it. I felt extremely inadequate, and rather than these feelings of inadequacy motivating me to catch up on the books I missed out on, they turned me away from them even more. If I had spent countless hours in my childhood reading and that wasn’t enough, what was the point of reading now? Besides, who said these books were classics anyway? White people? The kids in my class never read I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings or The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian or any other works by prolific writers of color, yet I was made to feel inadequate? I refused to read these “classics” as my own form of silent protest.
Rather than reading these so-called classics, I found myself wanting to read more books from writers of color. Luckily, in my last two years of high school, my teachers wanted us to read more multicultural narratives, so even though my drive to read outside of school was dwindling, I was exposed to more narratives through my classes that I really enjoyed reading. In eleventh grade, I further explored blackness reading Invisible Man by Ralph Ellison and was exposed to Afro-Caribbean culture in The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao by Junot Díaz. In twelfth grade, I learned more about the Vietnam War through The Sympathizer by Viet Thanh Nguyen and saw myself again in the protagonist of Jesmyn Ward’s Salvage the Bones, a young black girl in rural Mississippi in the days leading up to Hurricane Katrina. I was exposed to diverse perspectives through all of these works, and even as I struggled with reading beyond my classroom assignments, I never missed a chapter of these books.
Now, at Soka, I struggle with reading the same way I did in high school. I’m assigned more academically challenging readings than ever in my classes, and most of them are in areas I have chosen to study. No matter how interesting or important I find the subject matter, the task of completing so many is draining. I want to return to reading with passion again, especially since I’m still struggling to find myself so much. Sometimes I wish I was that girl in middle school again, discovering herself through literature. My life includes the black experience, the woman experience, and the queer experience. Each of these aspects of my identity is underrepresented in Soka’s courses [We need African/Ethnic Studies!], so reading on my own, outside of classes, is my only hope to find other stories like mine. Until I see more material in Soka classes written by people like me and about people me like, I will never feel fully represented. By “people like me,” I mean those that share some or all of my identities. Obviously, to discuss the intersectional queer black woman experience would be delving into something quite specific, but that is just one example of necessarily complicating identity. It is important to discuss the intersections of being black, being queer, and being a woman (again, as an example), which are not usually expressed in courses focused on a single marginalized identity.
This is not to say that I’ve never seen parts of myself in class readings at Soka. For my Writing 101 class, I read “Graduation” by Maya Angelou. I nearly cried seeing myself and the people I grew up with represented in a way I had never been able to put into words before. I felt visible. I felt seen. That is, until I read the rest of the class’s posts about how sad it was that it “used to” be this way for black people, with black students in “training schools” as part of segregated education. How these black schools “used to” receive less funding than ever-improving white schools. How black graduates “used to” be valued less than white graduates, who were expected to become scientists and engineers while black students were expected to find success in professional sports as star athletes. How sad it was that black scholars “used to” have so little hope for the future because they were amounted to no more than their physical capabilities. While my classmates expressed notions of happiness and relief that schools in America aren’t anything like that anymore, I was reflecting on how I could still relate to the experience having graduated from a low-income middle school in the South just five years earlier. The divisiveness in reflecting on “Graduation” was a reminder that so few people on this campus can relate to my lived experiences, and it fostered a desire in me to seek out more stories that I can relate to. In the struggle to find these stories, I continue to live and write my own.