“Embodiment refers to the fundamental synthesising agency that brings the world into existence. The body becomes a gathering of the past in the present that enables the emergence of different possibilities, to create new beginnings and new futures.”
– Bibi Bakare-Yusuf, In the Sea of Memory: Embodiment and Agency in the Black Diaspora
It is one of the last hot days of summer and I am finally trying to get some words down on the page about this Autumn’s Metaphors for a Black Future. I am somewhat distracted by an abundance of tortoiseshell butterflies and bumblebees that are swarming a buddleia in front of me. I am sitting in a deck chair on the rough ground in front of a house that is tucked up at the end of a valley in Cumbria, where I have spent a week or two every summer for the whole of my life.
It’s here that I learned to swim in cold water, to stretch my legs a little past their limit on a indistinct path snaking up a sheep-grazed fellside, to forget everything else while I track my binoculars over a crag, hoping to magnify a rare pair of golden eagles nesting. It is here I first felt the fear and calm of silence on a lonesome teenage walk, before I realised that this silence is a symphony of birdsong and the river rushing over smoothed boulders. These holidays are a gift from my great-grandparents who I never met but decades ago bought a small cottage in a village they loved so that their future generations could find a home there too. I can find the traces of these weeks in the way I have learned to hold myself, the way I am in my body.
My yearly visits here are a ritual in memory and timelessness or perhaps, more accurately, ‘timefullness’. As I go about the valley I remember the stories that are patched into the landscape, the ones I was there for and the ones that I wasn’t. My ancestors feel as present as the children I hope to bring here one day. This year, for the first time in a while, the paths through the orchard to the rope swing and the stream are well worn by feet again rather than cut out by a strimmer. I walk familiar routes only intuitively knowing where they end up and how much effort they take and sometimes getting it wrong because the last time I walked it I was 8. The physicality of the time I spend here roots me in my body and in this place. I feel the most grounded, the least observed. I notice through the patterning of my presence here, my annual pilgrimage, that I continually renew and reconstitute the hopes of my great-grandparents, layering new memories on old places year on year, adding my own intentions. I carry a sense of time folding and unfolding within me.
Like a full-stop in my year, these visits punctuate the displacement and uprootedness I often feel elsewhere as a racialised person. I have time to look at the syntax of my life and consider how I might rewrite alienation and estrangement as stability and coherence, as “deeply felt habitual connection to the world” I feel here.
I think it is common to a Black African disaporic experience to receive a persistent unsettling that the place you are in is not a place and the body you are in is not a body, that you are out of time and off key, that you are in two places at once, hopping between various languages and not finding solace in any, being continually jostled by feelings of alienation from the body – being estranged by race, gender, generation, language, and geography. “This conflict,” Nigerian scholar and publisher Bibi Bakare-Yusuf writes, “can be so devastating that it renders itself incapable of expression … Diasporic agents can remain forever lost in translation, cut adrift in the interstitial.”
It is here that Metaphors for a Black Future: To the body, to the earth takes its lead. Through October, November and December we will consider together what it means, and how to, write with and through the body and in relationship with the earth, seeking expression and working to witness and translate one another’s words, rooting ourselves, past and future, in the here and now.
The programme is initiated with a workshop I am facilitating – My body takes possession of time – in which we will look broadly at the themes of the programme and consider different ways of conceptualising origin and tradition by looking at Celtic and Norse mythology through a Black diasporic lens. With Dream Bodies Pt2, Clementine E. Burnley invites us to sharpen our awareness of our own bodies and discover what they have to say to us. Lateisha Lovelace-Hanson calls us to connect with the power of water to create a ‘writing well’ in their workshop when de memory came <3 // a writing, water and memory well. Additional workshop offerings are expected to follow.
Alongside these opportunities to meet and write online, you are invited to receive a series of writing prompts by email from multi-disciplinary artist and researcher Ashanti Harris and visual artist and writer Amanda Thomson.
These offerings intend to encourage us to observe the natural world and ground ourselves within it, connecting these multilayered experiences with our writing.
I wonder, tangentially, to what extent this may contribute to an idea of a decolonising diasporic creative writing practice in Scotland, one that is embodied and starts from the place where we feel least alienated, least observed, least bound by double-consciousness. I am curious what traces of ancestral memory and tradition we find in our work that sit outside of the Western literary ideal, and how we can take note of these and value them. There is an interview with Jamaica Kincaid where she talks about how she is continually told to stop starting sentences with ‘And’ but she carries on regardless. What traces of oral tradition, or gesture, or other embodied practices, can we find in our work, or place there?
It is my hope and intention that we can spend time writing into and of this elemental entanglement, with no pressure to produce “finished” or “good” work but to simply take joy in the process.
Some reading etc.
Black Nature: Four Centuries of African American Nature Poetry, edited Camille Dungy
My Garden (book):, Jamaica Kincaid
Out Of Bounds: British Black & Asian Poets, edited Jackie Kay, James Procter & Gemma Robinson
Rethinking diasporicity: embodiment, emotion and the displaced origin, Bibi Bakare-Yusuf
In the Sea of Memory: Embodiment and Agency in the Black Diaspora, Bibi Bakare-Yusuf
Poetics of Relation, Édouard Glissant
The Plot of Her Undoing, Saidiya Hartman
Trophic Cascade, Camille Dungy
Gifts of Gravity and Light, An Almanac for the 21st Century, edited Pippa Marland and Anita Roy
Antlers of Water, Writing on the Nature and Environment of Scotland, edited by Kathleen Jamie
The Window Seat, Aminatta Forna
Before Emergence / A means of breakage, Martha Adonai Williams
Introduction to the cold, Camara Taylor
Restorative Disembodiment, Saoirse Amira Anis
Martha Adonai Williams is a writer, facilitator, producer, community organiser, black feminist and friend. Her practice departs to and returns from black feminist world-making, always, with regular layovers in front of trash tv or at the allotment. Her work considers the wilderness and margins as sites of resistance, refusal and homecoming. She works with writing and storytelling as therapeutic tools and as methods for community building. Her recent work has been shown as part of Fringe of Colour films and published in MAP magazine. She runs call&response black feminist writing community, programmes for Glasgow Zine Library and curates SBWN’s annual Metaphors for a Black Future programme.