Saturday, 8 March 2014

A dinner party with five incredible women

If I could pick five incredible women to have dinner with on any given night, I can say with certainty that I would be spoilt for choice. I consider myself fortunate enough to be able to call some amazing women, mum, aunts, cousins and friends. If asked however to pick five famous women with whom I would sit around a huge dinner table drinking wine and home-made ginger beer or bissap and eating good food - I can easily think of five such women whose company I would love to share. The idea of being in one place with them and sharing ideas, experiences with hopefully lots and lots of laughter - I hope we'd be reluctant to part company because there would be so much to say.

My "famous five" - are women who based on what they say and do, I find myself thinking I would love to get to know them them, not the fame and fortune but because of what they stand for and the fact that the values they hold seem so familiar to me. These women leave me with a sense of affinity - despite the fact that I do not know them - they appear to embody the values that I see in my girlfriends and the female members of my family. They give me a sense that were we ever to find ourselves at the same dinner table, we would never run out of things to say to each other.

A few weeks ago I attended an talk at Long Island University with Edwidge Danticat - Haitian-American writer of both fiction and non-fiction. I have admired Edwidge ever since I read her novel "Breath, Eyes, Memory". My admiration comes not only from the fact that I believe her to be one of the few truly talented storytellers in modern times - whenever I read her work, from Krik Krak to the Dew Breaker, to Brother I'm dying, I get the sense that the words just flow from a natural gift; but also because she is more than just a writer, she is an activist, an advocate for human rights - a principled truth-teller.
There is something effortless about the way she tells her stories - often times when you read the works of accomplished writers, you get the sense that a great deal of research went into it - it can almost seem like a scientific exercise - where words are carefully chosen and imagery is meticulously juxtaposed with events to create a final product that is worthy of literary awards. With Edwidge, she writes as though she is your Haitian friend taking you on a journey to her beautiful country. She wants to introduce you to her people in all their glory. She wants to tell you of their resilience in spite of all the odds, in spite of natural disasters and foreign interference and corrupt governments. She is also your activist friend, refusing to turn a blind eye simply because it's politically safe to do so. In her latest novel, Claire of the Sea Light, Edwidge invites us to a small fishing town in Haiti - she introduces us to the lives of the people who live there - rich and poor, young and old; she invites us to see their lives, their experiences, their trials and tribulations and witness the choices they make - from their perspective. When I met Edwidge, I could not pass up on the chance to ask her a question - I wanted to know what the future held for Haitian literature - were new writers coming up who would continue the work she and many others like Dany Leferriere had begun. She responded enthusiastically, listing some of the incredible writers that have emerged both from Haiti and the Haitian diaspora. Afterwards as she signed my book...a book she wrote ....called "Creating dangerously", we talked about the similarities between oral traditions of storytelling in Haiti and Sierra Leone. I told her that where in Haiti, they use the call and answer "Krik" followed by "Krak" for storytelling, we use "Il" followed by "Ow" in Sierra Leone. I left the event feeling proud to have gotten to know Edwidge a little better....the mother, the writer, the activist became that little bit more familiar to me and a lot more affable.

I started listening to my second famous dinner guest, Ms. Emeli Sande in the summer of 2012 - I was travelling alone and often found myself wondering alone discovering a city in Germany. Emeli's album "Our version of the events" was my playlist on repeat. I can't put my fingers on what it is about Emeli that makes me think of her differently to many other talented artists. It goes without saying that her lyrics move me. I can listen to 'Suitcase' a thousand times, but I'm always left with the same sense of nostalgia - I can't put my finger on why she makes me think of lost moments and lost loves and perhaps a simpler era - which may or may not be in my mind only. I saw her perform suitcase in Central Park last summer and remember feeling overcome by a sense of sadness- as I listened to her sing, it feels like she is telling a story that I am familiar with or as though she's put into words all the heartache that accompanied discovering love and loss and learning to love again and again. There's also a simplicity about Emeli, the person that I love - she is all about her music - and in this fickle world that we live in today, that is a rare thing. I love that she is smart - intelligent- objectively speaking - not simply because she studied medicine (in the hopes of one day becoming a neurologist - admitting that she wanted to find out why we act the way we do) - but also because when she talks and sings and performs, you can tell that she's both engaged and engaging. She is no product of a record label's PR machinery. If you follow her on twitter (@emelisande), you'll see less of what she's wearing or how sexy she looks and more of what she's thinking or doing. Her understatedness means that what you think most about, is her music - her ability to write incredible music and play the piano beautifully . I was so moved when I saw her perform that I promised myself that I would one day pay more just to see her - the concert in the park was only $30  - part of the Summer Stage series. I found her music so inspiring that I wanted to make sure I could one day pay a fair price for benefitting from her incredible talent. Emeli is so grounded - she often talks in interviews about her English mum and Zambian father who is a school teacher - and she seems to credit them with the woman she has become today. During her performance, when she introduced "My kind of love", she mentioned that the song was inspired by cancer patients that she saw while she was studying and the strength of the love she witnessed from their families who continued to visit and show their unwavering love and support in spite of their individual situations. In relation to that particular song, Emeli's been quoted as saying that she wanted to speak of a love, other than the romantic type of love adding "It would be sad if we lost our instinct and our courage to love and protect."

I would love to share a glass with Emeli - even if that glass is full of her favourite raw juice because in my mind she embodies my kind of values - her down-to-earthedness, her strength, her principles and her inner beauty which shines through her character and her music time and time again.

My third dinner guest would be Ava Duvernay, the director of "Middle of Nowhere" . As well as loving Ava's beautiful smile and gloriously enviable locs, I love the fact that she makes films that I want to go and see. Ava defied the odds and went from being a publicist to becoming a director. Her first feature film was I will follow. She is intelligent and humble and seems to feel a sense of responsibility for making films that people like me want to watch. She runs a distribution company called African-American Film Festival Releasing Movement, that is dedicated to discovering and promoting films by black directors. The company has released five films in the past four years. When I saw the Middle of Nowhere which won her best director at the Sundance Film festival in 2012 (the first black woman to win this coveted prize), I remember thinking what a simple yet beautifully shot film. Having read a number of her interviews, my respect for her has grown even more since I sat in the Magic Johnson cinema in Harlem alone watching and being in awe of Ava. When asked about how she describes herself, she doesn't shy away from the label of a black film maker, instead she describes herself as a black woman film maker and says unapologetically that she has no qualms about this label because that is the lens through which she creates her art. The middle of nowhere explores the point at which we start to lose ourselves in a relationship, Ava describes this as common with women in romantic relationships where we seem to 'give up so much of ourselves'. I love that Ava is telling stories that I can relate to and that she is not afraid to defend her art and to speak candidly about what motivates her to tell one story or another. I loved that she was honoured by Essence recently at the Black Women in Hollywood event where she gave a beautiful speech saying that the story of black people "deserve to be told. Not as sociology, not as spectacle, not as a singular event that happens every so often, but regularly and purposefully as truth and as art on an ongoing basis, as do the stories of all the women [we] love.”  For me in those simple words - she captures the challenge we face as black people - in having our stories told, in all their diverse glory  and in a human relatable way. I'm often struck by how the humanitarian world, the media and countless others treat the stories of black people - we become specimens, being observed - there's an eagerness to conclude that one pattern or the other exists - to make deductions without delving very deeply. I love that Ava's words seem to reflect her actions and I love that she recognises the importance of a strong female support network- at the end of her speech at the Essence event, she noted "where there is a woman there is magic, and she can share or not share her powers." I can't wait to see her next film which is a biopic on Martin Luther King or share that moment at my dinner table with her - a girl can dream right?

In speaking about our stories, I was recently fortunate enough to be able to meet a writer who has spoken extensively about the danger of the single story. A writer whose work I love and whom I admire. A friend, who knows that Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, happens to be my ultimate girl crush, wrote to me to say that she had met her in Amsterdam. I was green with envy but over the moon that she and I were now a degree of separation closer. Perhaps I subconsciously asked God to allow me to meet her too because less than a day after I learnt she had given a talk in Amsterdam, another friend told me about a similar event, a talk, here in New York that was being organised by the Aspen Institute. The format would be someone from the Aspen Institute putting questions to her and Chimamanda the cuff ofcourse . I not only rsvp'd as soon as I heard about the event, I arrived 30 minutes early - no mean feat for a'er like me; I was so excited to see her and already knew the question I would ask her when given the chance. The 'conversation' lasted for just over an hour - the moderator, a dancer and director, white and male was surprisingly able to balance his questions - touching on her writing, politics, and ofcourse her stunning hair (at that time it was in cornrows gathered in a front chignon). Chimamanda was candid, yet charismatic, gracious and hilarious. As she spoke I kept thinking of how much she sounded like my girlfriends - she would do an exaggerated American accent when mocking the fact that there was a time when she chose to speak that way or would over-emphasise the Naija (Nigerian) accent in order to make a point, usually a funny one. She talked about her piece on the anti-homosexuality law in Nigeria and why she disagreed with those who opposed the law simply because they claimed, it was a distraction from larger more important matters - she argued instead that  for her it was a call to action because the it denied the fundamental human rights of a entire group of citizens simply because of who they loved. I asked her whether this law and the pattern that seemed to be emerging in many African countries of persecuting vulnerable groups - be they homosexual or women (I mentioned Uganda's anti-pornography law which allowed men to harass women for dressing in a so-called provocative manner) made her feel ambivalent in any way about living ' back home' in Nigeria. I loved her answer which was that while she could relate to this sense of ambivalence which she knew many Africans in the Diaspora felt, leaving Nigeria simply was not an option for her - she added that as nationals of a country we need to engage - collectively. At the same time she joked about owning a house in Nigeria that she had paid for and that therefore she refused to leave - she joked "Do you know how much I paid for that house?". Again the Naija accent was over-emphasised and her words far from being a way of bragging were instead a candid way of admitting that this was a "No turning back situation". Chimamanda comes across as humble and honest - she confessed to wasting hours on the internet following Lupita Nyong'o's every fashion move. The audience - mostly black women, African, Caribbean and African-American laughed knowing full well that we too shared her guilty pleasure. Chimamanda, should you ever read this piece, I'm extending an invitation to you as my fourth guest for what promises to be a very engaging dinner party.

Last but my no means least, I am proudly joining the Lupita Nyong'o bandwagon. When I found out some weeks ago that she lives in Brooklyn, I started daydreaming of one day bumping into her at Madiba's in Fort Greene or at BAM in downtown Brooklyn or Buttermilk Channel in Carroll Gardens. I have perhaps spent longer than is socially acceptable wondering where in Brooklyn,
Ms. Nyong'o could possibly reside. I never thought of myself as the stalky type but having created a Pinterest board with no less than 110 photos of Lupita, I think I may have to reassess my thinking. In my defence though although Lupita is the flavour of the moment for many people - from those residing in superficial Hollywood, to members of the fickle media, or opportunistic Politicians who are ready to capitalise on her success, some of us are wowed by her not only because of her Oscar winning performance and not only because of the fact that she is a joy to behold in the various couture gowns designers seem to be throwing at her. It's not even simply because every time she gives an interview or delivers a speech, her intelligence and humility shine through so much that you cannot help but root for her. For me it's the fact that even before Hollywood, this beautiful woman made choices that set her apart. She directed an incredible film giving a voice to a group that has for too long been invisible in many countries in Africa. Her documentary
"In my Genes" follows eight albino Kenyans and examines the way society views them - how they are marginalized and treated as non-citizens. But beyond depicting them as victims, Lupita documents how they overcome their challenges and her film celebrates the triumphs they experience each day, however small. It is a powerful documentary and as young as she is, (she was even younger - 26 - when the documentary was released), she seems to have a wisdom that is uncommon even in those older than her, and very rare among people in the entertainment industry.
I was also fortunate enough to watch Lupita in Shuga, an MTV produced HIV-Aids awareness web series aired in Kenya in 2009 which was hugely popular. Lupita played an ambitious and confident student in the series who lost sight of what was truly important to her in her pursuit of a career. She was as impressive in the season one of the series and although she only appeared briefly in season two, the series (still available on YouTube) was so popular that it gave rise to a Nigerian spin off. Every time I see or hear Lupita, I want to clap or pump my fists in the air - she is a serious breath of fresh air.....just what we needed in an entertainment world that seems to prostitute itself for fame and fortune on daily basis. In Lupita's speech at the Essence Black Women in Hollywood event in which she too was honoured alongside my girl, Ava (*chuckle*), she talked about her mother's message to her that "You can't eat doesn't sustain you". It reminds me of a similar message from my mum and aunt who tried to remind me and my cousins each day that what mattered was education, hard work and perseverance. Girls who relied on their beauty did so because they had nothing else to offer - but smart girls like us would put our abilities above everything else. If anything we were encouraged to play down that beauty - at least in the school context - the pretty girl antics could come out for the odd party or social event - but then it would be tucked away again when the week started and our futures were at stake. I admire so much about Lupita - I am fully aware that she comes from a privileged family but there are so many like her who have not demonstrated her level of understanding, humility and compassion. She is a joy to behold in every sense of the word and if I am fortunate enough to one day bump into her somewhere in Brooklyn, I hope she'll accept my invitation to share a bottle of wine or two with me and four other equally inspirational phenomenal women.


Salone Baby said...

Nice. Is there room for one more? I'm with you on Danticat and Adichie. And now, I have to go find out more about Sande and Duvernay.

The Hibiscus Notes said...

Thank you for your comment- there's always room for fabulous women (cheeky of me to assume you're a it my sixth sense ;-) Please do get to know Emeli and Ava, you wont be disappointed.