So Devilish a Fire: a Preview
This week, a United States Coast Guard lieutenant was arrested for illegal acquisition of weapons and drug charges. Despite the amassed weaponry, the kill list, an email saved to drafts that read, “I am dreaming of a way to kill every last person on earth,” and an unwavering adoration of Norwegian white nationalist and terrorist Anders Breivik, this lieutenant awaits further charges of terrorist activity and can, potentially and at the discretion of a judge, be released after 14 days through a defense motion. For the 49 year old white man ready to go on an inchoate killing spree on major public figures, a conviction that officially names him what he is—a terrorist—still takes time. For the marginalized body, birth, name, and conviction happen at once. Nadia Owusu’s extraordinary chapbook, So Devilish a Fire offers a searing meditation on the racism, sexism, and nationalism that has remained infecting the Western world for millennia. Through autobiography, we move along Nadia in the disquieting first decades of her life. We see her float to life in Tanzania, “under a yellowed acacia tree in the Serengeti, right before the rain came.” Nadia, it would seem, is always in between states, always leaving and about to enter. Such a position might imply uncertainty or neutrality in a lesser mind; for Nadia, however, this rift has driven her activism. Nadia’s work is lyrical and hellbent, the essay a better way of seeing. Nadia writes, “The most destructive weapon in the world is a story, purified and poisoned. It attacks from the inside out, and from the outside in. We soak in it. We drink it. We are it.” To write this story, Nadia had to soak in and drink the purified and poisoned it, to become it. By reading it, we take part in this immersion. We should walk away from it undone, riveted, prepared to join in a long and devilish fight.
I had the opportunity to talk with Nadia about her chapbook, and her answers are, like her work, patient, clear, and potent. We’re including this featured page from So Devilish a Fire, in the hopes that you’ll consider buying this important piece of literature. Oh yeah—that’s right. We are pleased to announce a second printing of So Devilish a Fire, so if you missed it the first time around, you have one more opportunity!
from So devilish a fire
You were, at first, a wild beast, frothing at the mouth. You were rabid and violent with a voracious lust. We tamed you, domesticated, you. We made of you an overgrown white child with black skin. It was—believe us—the very best we could do. The science of your inferiority is clear. We did the research ourselves.
A phrenological examination of your skull revealed large areas of cautiousness and veneration, meaning you needed a master to tell you come and go and fetch.
Voltaire wrote of our separate origins: “It is a serious question . . . whether the Africans are descended from monkeys or whether the monkeys come from them. Our wise men have said that man was created in the image of God. Now here is a lovely image of the Divine Maker: a flat and black nose with little or hardly any intelligence.”
We have demonstrated, with mathematical reliability, that your life is uninsurable (worthless). It is not your life conditions that cause your excessive mortality, but a fault in your constitution. In other words, you will die because you are inferior and you are inferior because you will die.
You have stronger and more flexible toes than any other race. Apes swing from trees by their toes. Therefore, you are more ape and less human.
Need we go on? We know this must be hard for you to hear, but facts are facts.
Your heart was filled with ignorance and depravity. We emptied it and filled it with as much white light as we could (the white light of our white God). We taught you about (tough) love and loyalty and hard work, as any parent would. Note, from Proverbs: "My son, do not despise the Lord's discipline and do not resent his rebuke, because the Lord disciplines those he loves;” and; "God disciplines us for our good, that we may share in his holiness.” We were your fathers and mothers, your earthly ladies and lords. We disciplined you for your own good, our child. We occupied you, conquered you, chained you, whipped you, raped you, silenced you, kidnapped you, sold you, jailed you, outlawed your body, lynched you, branded you, starved you, castrated you, spayed you, murdered you, for your own good. We did it all for your own good.
We named the land of your birth. We made of that vast bush a continent of near-civilized nations. We brought you onto our own land, into our own homes.
We named your blood and breed: Negroid, Negro. We gave you our names—Smith, Jones, Walker—that you might, eventually, earn those last two-fifths of humanity.
Do you remember how you used to sing and dance for us? Do you remember how we slipped into your bed? Oh, what fun we had. You were playful, then. But, we knew, always, what cruelty, what evil lurked within. We sought only to guide you, to redeem you. We sought to help you, through utility, redeem yourself.
You have forsaken us. How could you? How dare you expel us from the cities we made for you? How dare you name us oppressor? Our houses are unkempt, our gardens overgrown, our land untilled, our cotton unpicked, our oil run dry, our diamond mines pillaged, our society unspun, our empire disintegrated. Who will nurse our babies? Whose backs will carry our load?
You spat in our eye, bit the hand that fed you. But, you are unfit for freedom. You deserted us. Your rebellion was—we admit—brave, but as Thomas Jefferson said, that bravery was due to “a want of fore-thought” which prevented you from assessing danger. You are instinct over intellect. You are carnality over brain. Are you only coquetting? Tell us you are and we will forgive.
Without us, you will revert from white child to black beast. Without us, you will fail your spawn (this is both a threat and a curse). The males of your species will turn their backs on the females. We can make it so.
Without us, given enough rope, you will hang yourself. Don’t say we didn’t warn you. Don’t expect us to save you.
We are writing to give you one last chance to reconsider and return your body to us.
AN INTERVIEW WITH NADIA OWUSU
Natalie Eilbert: “So Devilish a Fire” is an essay, in my mind, that intersects race with origins, acculturation, and assault. It does so in this part-dreamy, part-rhetorical narrative, yet regardless of what register you hit, the essay maintains a clear testament. What brought you to this essay, and what kept you writing it?
Nadia Owusu: Yes, in writing the essay, I sought to illuminate for myself the ways in which all of those forces are entwined, both inside my body and around my body, around my neck. I sought both to examine the knots and to undo them. For example, I was assaulted because my body is black and femme. My assaulter made that crystal clear. He, as a white man, believed my thirteen-year-old body was his for the taking. That has everything to do with race and gender and colonialism. It has everything to do with the relationship between Europe and Africa, between whiteness and maleness as the conqueror and definer, and blackness and femaleness as the conquered and defined. I am at a place in my life where I can see all of those deadly entanglements. I am at a place where I reject the definitions. I believe myself. But, rejecting the definitions is not enough. What brought me to the essay was the rejecting. What kept me writing it, and what keeps me writing in this mode, is the possibility of contributing to a new vocabulary, new relationships, new ways of understanding. I’m engaged in a process of terraforming. The stories that whiteness and patriarchy have written about my body and the people and places I come from are, for me, uninhabitable. I’m writing myself home.
NE: In your essay, you quote such luminaries as Amiri Baraka, James Baldwin, Cherrie Moraga, W. E. B. Du Bois, Audre Lorde, June Jordan, and Kiluanji Kia Henda throughout this essay, many of whom have been heralded as much as vilified for their roles as activists and radicals. It creates a powerful dialectic when their words are thrown into relief against more problematic voices. I’m thinking of your mention of Anglo-nationalist artist Sigismund Goetze, your cousin’s white male boss who called her “pet,” the white woman in Ohio who sued a sperm bank for “wrongful birth” when she gave birth to a black daughter, and your own personal bullying. How did you come to select this choir of voices? Were any of these voices particularly clarifying in the writing process of this essay?
NO: As a writer and activist, I read, write, and organize towards my own liberation and the liberation of all people. The chorus of voices I included in So Devilish a Fire are voices I turn to time and again for wisdom, encouragement, solace, hope. Daily, I am confronted with stories steeped in anti-blackness, misogyny, homophobia, xenophobia, etc. Those stories are everywhere: on billboards, in the news, in books, in my relationships. I wanted to show how hard so many of us have to work to drown those voices out, how vigilant we have to be not to believe them and not to allow those stories into our own throats. In order to show what this is like, I alternated the voices in the essay, drawing from those I view as my ancestors and kinfolk, and those who have sought to do us harm.
Writing about the work of Sigismund Goetze and Kiluanji Kia Henda stood out for me because, being a writer, I sometimes forget to pay attention to non-verbal messages. As a visual artist, Kia Henda pokes fun at the likes of Goetze who famously depicted the whole continent of Africa as a small, naked black boy carrying a basket of fruit on his head. That boy, Goetze wrote, represented the British Empire’s “obligations and possibilities in the dark continent." His work is still proudly displayed on the Grand Staircase of the British Foreign Office. Heads of state, ambassadors, dictators, and dignitaries from around the world walk up and down those stairs when they are in London to do diplomacy. Kia Henda enters colonial narratives like Goetze’s and messes them up. For example, his project Redefining the Power utilized empty pedestals in Luanda, Angola, from which Portuguese monuments had been removed. On the pedestals, Kia Henda worked with other artists and activists to create representations of the realities, passions, and hopes of Angolans today. That’s what I was trying to do with my essay: knock whiteness and misogyny off their pedestals, mess them up.
NE: In startling terms, you provide a porthole into your own experience with being objectified as a girl and young woman. This is no small task and it takes a tremendous amount of courage to address. Did undertaking this writing heal or only further emphasize what you have endured?
NO: A bit of both, I think. I avoided the topic for so long, even in my own mind. I tried to ignore and forget. Of course, I failed. The body feels, absorbs, and remembers. I had frequent panic attacks, exhaustion, depression, chronic hives, autoimmune issues. Writing isn’t therapy. Therapy is therapy. But, writing did help me heal in that I’m not hiding anymore and there is an enormous amount of relief, of freedom, in that. Silence is a jailor and a killer. So is shame.
NE: Who is your ideal reader of “So Devilish a Fire”? What do you want them to learn from this essay? This is perhaps the same question, or it is entirely different: who needs to read an essay like this?
NO: I wrote the essay for black women first and foremost. Recently an auntie told me that it made her feel less crazy. Daily, the world gaslights her and makes her feel crazy. I wanted to cry when she said that. That’s what I write for. I hope that anyone who experiences this kind of gaslighting and diminishment can find something of their own experience in this essay: women of all races, LGBTQ+ people, immigrants. Anyone whose identity and right to define it for themselves is frequently called into question. I also wrote the essay for other hyphenated people who don’t have a simple answer when people ask us where we are from. I am Ghanaian-Armenian-American. I grew up in Rome, Addis Ababa, Kampala, Dar-es-Salaam, Kumasi, and London. When the media talks about people like me, it’s usually in worried, hysterical terms: Economic disaster! Cultural confusion! Seismic demographic shift! Border wall! The browning of America! Cute biracial babies will either save us or destroy us! It’s absurd.There is a lot of beauty here on the borders and fault lines where I live.
NE: Talk about your memoir! Are there components of this essay within the larger book? When does it come out? When can we get our greedy hands on it? Brag brag brag!
NO: Aftershocks will be published by Simon and Schuster in 2020. I can’t wait to share it and discuss it! It is a genre-bending work of intertwined literary memoir and cultural history that grapples with the fault lines of identity, the meaning of home and ‘mother’, black womanhood, and the ripple effects, both personal and generational, of emotional trauma. Through the lens of my own experience, the book touches on everything from the history of Uganda’s national fight against AIDS, to a close reading of Pilate Dead’s missing belly button in Toni Morrison’s “Song of Solomon,” to the origin of the use of the words ‘hakuna matata’ as related to Tanzanian culture, to Ghana’s fraught history with colonialism, and more, all in service to piecing together my fractured sense of identity.
When I finished the draft of “Aftershocks” that I ultimately sent out into the world, I was scared that if I waited too long to write something else, I wouldn’t be able to. For most of my life, I have been a writer, but it is only in the last few years that I have had the courage to give my writing any ambition. Previously, it was all in notebooks and computer files I kept mostly to myself. While “So Devilish a Fire” is a separate work from “Aftershocks,” I do think that they are siblings of sorts. They look different and sound different, but they share a lot of the same DNA, similar obsessions.
NE: You dedicate “So Devilish a Fire” to your sisters. This makes me curious: Who are your literary foremothers? Who are your literary sisters?
NO: I love this question! So many. Too many to list. But, here are some. Foremothers: June Jordan, Cherríe Moraga, Audre Lorde, Ntozake Shange, Maya Angelou, Toni Morrison, Gayl Jones, bell hooks, Gwendolyn Brooks, Tsitsi Dangarembga, Buchi Emecheta, Toni Cade Bambara, Susan Sontag, Zora Neale Hurston, Sandra Cisneros, Louise Erdrich, Gwendolyn Brooks. Sisters: Jesmyn Ward, R.O. Kwon, Morgan Parker, Nafissa Thompson-Spires, Zadie Smith, Eve Ewing, Valeria Luiselli, Safiya Sinclair, Kaitlyn Greenidge, Terese Marie Mailhot, Leni Zumas, Nicole Chung, Tiana Clark, Roxane Gay, Amy Irvine, Akwaeke Emezi, Chinelo Okparanta. I could go on forever.
Nadia Owusu is a Brooklyn-based writer and urban planner. Her first book, Aftershocks, will be published by Simon and Schuster in 2020. Aftershocks is a work of literary creative non-fiction about the fault lines of identity, incorporating strands of memoir, cultural and political history, and literary criticism. Her lyric essay chapbook, So Devilish a Fire, was a winner of the TAR chapbook contest and was published in January 2019. Nadia grew up in Rome, Addis Ababa, Kampala, Dar es Salaam, Kumasi, and London. By day, she leads research and racial equity at Living Cities, an economic racial justice organization. By night and weekend, she reads and writes and consumes lots of wine and cheese. Her writing has appeared or is forthcoming in The New York Times, LUMINA, Catapult, The Literary Review, Electric Literature, Bennington Review, Columbia Journal, and The Rumpus, among other publications. She won second place in the 2017 LUMINA non-fiction contest and received an honorable mention for the 2017 Gulf Coast Prize. She is a graduate of Pace University (BA), Hunter College (MS), and the Mountainview MFA program where she won the Robert J. Begeibing Prize for exceptional work and where she now teaches. Her writing is represented by Meredith Kaffel Simonoff of DeFiore & Company.