At the end of a long day at the Goethe/SSDA Flow Workshops, I feel like I’m back in secondary school. My hands– all of our hands– have been running across paper all day, responding to prompts that our facilitator, Muthoni Garland reads out from the front of the room. We read texts and respond to them. We break off for tea and lunch around our table and have the chance to speak with one another.
But for most of the day we engage with our pens, periodically selecting sentences from our free written paragraphs to copy onto slips of paper, which we place in envelopes which we will carry with us after the event. A memento of sorts, of the hours that we have spent in this room. We read Warsan Shire’s poem Home, and a hush falls over the room right after, a deep feeling casts its shadow over us all. There is a heaviness in those phrases, in the image of people running away from the mouth of a shark, only to meet xenophobia on the other side: “Go home, dirty immigrants.”
“If you were to leave home, what photographs would you carry with you?”
I carry a photograph of my family, the first time we ever went to Mombasa. My mom and my sisters and I stand in a straight line in front of the Indian Ocean. A plastic bag is a few meters in front of my mother’s legs. I have no idea why it ended up in the final photograph. This was right after things had changed drastically in our family. You know how you scratch a card when you buy credit for your phone? now imagine that there’s layers and layers to be scratched. And imagine that it’s somewhere on your body, on your skin. And what you’re scratching is not the thin silver, but literally pieces of yourself that you’ve used to cover up something you don’t want to remember. That’s what happens towards the end of the day.
Muthoni asks us to look at the photo, to describe the surface. Then she asks us to return to it, to uncover another layer: to describe the smells, the tastes, the sounds that we associate with the moment of that photograph. Then to think about the person in the photograph. I start to feel uncomfortable, exposed, almost like I am picking at a scab that’s not fully healed. Picking and picking and picking continuously. I am digging in and towards a truth that I do not want to remember. I keep writing. With every stroke of pen against paper I am scratching deeper at the scab. I fear that if I scratch too deep, I will lose some grounding. I will fall and never come back up. I struggle for something to hold on to. Every time I felt as though I had gone as far as I can, Muthoni reads out another instruction, prompting us all to dig deeper, forcing me to scratch further into a memory that wasn’t very comfortable to begin with. At the beginning of this exercise, Muthoni had read out a quote: “To survive we must forget. But to write, you must remember.” And with each layer I scratched off my survival became more and more important and the voice screaming “Run! Stop writing! Stop engaging. Stop remembering.” grew louder and louder.
My hand was dull and tired before, and now it feels like it is positively on fire. I want to stop writing, but this is a writing workshop. If I stop I will be the only one not writing in the room. The momentum of the group keeps me going. Scratch. Scratch. Scratch some more.
“How much of what we remember was truth?”
When I see this photo of us at the ocean, I think of orange juice. Of drinking Quencher orange juice out of plastic 500ml bottles at the bus stop at Mtito Andei, on our way to Mombasa. On the photo album, this photo– of us at Mtito Andei– is on the page next to the one at the ocean. How much of the orange juice is what I actually remember, and how much of it is what I remember from looking at these photos over and over again? How much of what we remember is truth, and how much of it is created myth from years of telling the same story over and over again? How much is the myth that we tell ourselves because it is more comforting than the truth?
“Bleed onto the page.”
It’s what Muthoni Garland says to us when I share my experience of scratching, when I ask her how to access those places of pain, of deep intimacy and vulnerability, without losing one’s self. She says, that the best writing, the best stories come from those places. That sometimes you can tell that a writer was not fully committed to their story, sometimes the page is dry; there is no blood on it, and you, the reader, can tell when you read. Bleed onto the page, she says.
Of course, that’s easier said than done.
I’ll be honest. This is something that terrifies me. I’m not sure I can do it and maintain my sanity. But I imagine that it’s the kind of thing that writers such as Yvonne Vera and Dambudzo Marechera had mastered, the ability to lay bare and open on the page, then to take a pen to their chest and to cut open and to bleed beautiful words.
To any fellow workshop participants reading this, thank you so much for bringing yourself into that room and laying yourself bare. I feel like I talked way too much, especially thinking back to how some of you spoke sparingly but said things that I have no doubt I will remember (I’m looking at you and your incredible random fact, Julie). I’m grateful for our conversations and the bonding we experienced over chicken and hand cramps. And also, we need MFA programs for Africans because the experience of sitting in a writing workshop with 10 other Kenyan writers? Priceless.