By Ndey Kumba Demba
In recent times I have struggled with my identity as a writer. Lord knows I admire writers who know who they are in the world of writing and have rightfully and unapologetically taken their place. Good thing is writing is probably the most accommodating field. You want to write, all you have to do is start.
I love creative nonfiction and for the longest time I identify myself as only a writer of that genre. All the writings I have done over the years were mostly my experience, fear, thoughts, and expectations. Granted some were indeed about the experience of other people.
Why am I struggling with my identity? About two years ago when I was reading in America, I wrote a lot for my college newspaper. I wrote opinion pieces for every publication, which was biweekly. I was very honest in my writing. I wrote anything from my fears about turning 24, Islam and terrorism; Africa and the poverty tag, death, virginity, my Americanization, my uncertainties about my future which looked very cloudy, American Television (AKA Reality Shows), to the National Sex Offender Registry (how I think it does more harm than good). This was me, my views and I was very unapologetic about them.
Facing the realities of home (not that I wasn’t aware or had forgotten), I realized it is not as easy, not as simple. After taking a long break from writing (I wrote occasionally, only that I shared with one or two friends), I decided that I wanted to write more. In order to achieve that, I needed something to push me, to keep writing. So I don’t only write ‘because I feel like it, but because I have to. I knew committing to a column on The Standard Newspaper was a great start, just the kind of push I needed to write.
Initially, the idea was to keep writing creative nonfiction, which is my forte. My first piece on the Standard was titled “My Date with Logan.” The story as the title suggests was about my date with a white guy named Logan. It was an almost cute story about how we met, him asking me on a date, days leading to the date and how it ended. When the story got out, I received a lot of calls. While admitting the story was cute and innocent, I was cautioned to be careful about the things I write about. Writing about a date may suggest I’m “loose” and people would see me in that light.
These cautions came from people who care about me, for me and it was coming from a genuine place. They are not the problem, I am not the problem, the story is not the problem, SOCIETY is the problem. To think that writing a story about a date makes me loose and for the unforeseeable years I’ll be branded as “the girl who has dated to a point of dating a white man.” This could not be further from the truth. That I am nothing more than my story, one story.
One of my favourite Gambian writers Amran Gaye wrote a fiction titled: “The Other Wife.” The story chronicles a couple, from courting to marriage. And also features their first night as a couple, what happened and didn’t happen.
Imagine I wrote that. Never mind fiction. “Loose” wouldn’t even come close to what I’ll be branded as.
Now I understand it has to be tasteful, it has to be consumable. All I’m saying is that if I want to write about virginity, infidelity, love, lust, God, death, I should be able to and not fear my honesty will get me a bad rep. I write a story and I imagine my mother reading it, my uncle reading it, my former teacher reading it, my future in-laws reading it.
What this does is tighten my creative space. I can’t escape the shackles and I cannot not feel how tight they are, how suffocating the air around me is and how no matter how hard I try, I can’t seem to find a way out of the box. Breaking out is not as simple. I resolved to writing fiction. I’m usually the omniscient narrator. My characters do things I cannot do, and say things I cannot say.
Even with that, people will tell me:
“But your characters sound so familiar.”
Of course they do. I cannot write about anything you’ve not heard of before. I am not writing about aliens, monsters and demons. I am writing about actual human beings with minds, feelings, agency, and resolve.
We are all products of our education, experience, culture and society, and writers are not any different. Once in a while we experience universal moments that remind us of our common humanity.
All these combined inform our writing. This is why we can feel like a writer in Russia wrote a particular book for us because of how relatable we find it. Same way a Nigerian can write a book and only Nigerians will get some of its content.
While I appreciate the convenience of fiction, the events you can make happen, the world you can create, the power you have, the authority you have, the stories you can tell, it is simply not me. I am working to get to a place I am comfortable having an opinion, writing it and being unapologetic about it.
It will take a while I admit, but when I do finally get there, buckle up society, it will get uncomfortable and that’s a PROMISE.