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On Water

& we say to her
what have you done with our kin that you swallowed?

& she says
that was ages ago, you’ve drunk them by now.

— Danez Smith, ‘dream where every black person is standing by the ocean’

 

The atoms of those people who were thrown overboard are out there in the ocean even today
— Christina Sharpe, In The Wake: On Blackness and Being

 

of / water / rains & / dead
— M. NourbeSe Philip, Zong! #5

 

The beaches of Benin are empty. From Cotonou to Ouidah. I have never seen beaches so empty before. From the windows of our minivan, the coastline is a wide expanse of sand beginning just beyond the road, on and on, and then water. Palm trees here and there, but emptiness, mostly. Nobody, no livestock, just sand. As for us, we are eight women and we have just arrived. Three of us – myself included – flew in from London, with the five others coming in from the States. All of us have flown in from winter. It is January, and on our first full day together, our bare skin re-colouring in the light, we ask the driver to take us to a restaurant for lunch. We are seeking the kind of seafood of which we are all so starved, and when our dishes arrive they don’t disappoint. Each platter careens with fried plantain, grilled fish, yam, rice, and prawns so large they’re not prawns any more but gambas, instead. Gambas or langoustines or crayfish or crawfish, depending on which of us is speaking, or who cares to know the difference. Whatever any of it is called, we resolve that we would like to return to eat it again, here, at this terraced balcony from which we watch the sea. The restaurant sits on a beach that is vacant as far as our sight can reach. There is a mutedness to the expanse of the sand, and though it looks no different now than it would at any other time, the staff tell us that yesterday a boy drowned nearby.

 

The beaches of Benin are empty. At the table, Laurence, who is Beninoise and has family living in the country, says it is because the people remember the history of what happened here. Berlin-drawn nation states aside, and though London is home as best I know it, I call myself Ghanaian. Relative to Benin, that’s westward, two borders away. Aniké, also London-based, is from Nigeria, next door, to the east. It is my first time in Benin, but I’ve been to Nigeria; albeit too briefly, to Lagos. Between the hotel in Ikoyi and the venue of the poetry festival that my friend Belinda and I took part in, we didn’t catch much more than traffic. But on the final day, after events had finished, we took a boat ride to a secluded mainland spot. More on that boat ride, later. The place was somewhat out of the way, but the beach there had people on it, as expected. The coastlines of Ghana are likewise full – of people, and often plastic: the blight and detritus of global commerce. In abundance are bars and tourist spots, tin-roofed shacks, and beaten canoes that stay afloat nonetheless, still bringing a day’s catch ashore, but by His grace – as is painted in cursive on their sides – or something like it. In Jamestown, Accra, the coast is the dwelling place of the fisherfolk I descend from. From here, in any direction, from Cape Coast to Ada, the beaches are populated. From here, too, along the same stretch of land are serial points of other kinds of departures, and the fortifications, dilapidated or preserved, that mark the scale of them.

 

What happened in Ghana happened in Benin also. And in Nigeria, and in Senegal, and in Angola, and in Cameroon, and in Ivory Coast, and so on and so forth across the Atlantic, or if unluckier still, down, down, into the ocean’s bottomless gut. The trade in human lives is old news across the West African coast. So old, perhaps, that if you didn’t know what happened, and if you were not there – which you weren’t – and if history spoke less about it than it already does, then you might walk its trails and marketplaces without knowing what occurred. And if it had nothing to do with the tourist economy from which they are driven by poverty to make a living, even locals might not tell you. The present has problems of its own, even if the root is shared. But in Benin, the past is loud. The land remembers and the sea does, too.

 

*

 

On a trip to Cornwall with T, water is everywhere. We walk and walk, as we like to do, and everywhere we tread are hills and between them, in the furrows of the West Country’s brow, streams and rivers, startling in their clarity. When we first arrive, I state an intention to myself that I would like to see some wells. I’ve only ever seen one before, and on our first day out walking we happen upon my second without looking. A holy one, at the foot of a hill across an open field, in a village called St Neot – for whom the well is named. It is walled away, behind a door that I want to open. I attempt to get closer, but I am wearing the wrong footwear. The grass in front of it is thick with water and my shoes sink up to their laces.

 

I don’t know what it is that makes a well holy, so I set about discovering. It is likely that there are as many answers to this as there are wells in the world, but here are two most applicable to the West. The typical plot is simple: some holy person called for water to spring forth in a particular place, and so it did. Sometimes the person was holy before it happened, which is why it worked. Other times, it was the birth of the spring that sealed the deal. In other cases, the well is discovered to have healing properties in search of which the beleaguered faithful will travel from near and far.

 

*

 

A Guide to Building a Well.
Freshwater. All need it, but not all have it. For reasons mostly not unpolitical. Let’s say this time it’s you that doesn’t have any, and nobody’s going to run a television commercial somewhere overseas asking for donations to furnish you with some. No sliding violins for you. If you have the tools – and if there are no leaky pipelines, lead leachings, or agricultural contaminants – you dig a well. Maybe you’re at risk already but you dig a well anyway, because needs must and you’ll die soon otherwise. Perhaps you find a forked twig of hazel to dowse with, first. There are people who can do that, even now. Either way, you dig. You dig (and dig, and dig) like your life depends upon it, because it does. It might be hard, but dying may be harder. You continue, you dig and dig (and dig, and dig) as the ground grows damp, then wet, then sodden, and you keep digging, still, until what you’re bailing out is more water than clayed or chalky earth; until there’s so much water that you couldn’t keep digging even if you wanted to. Then you wait for the water to settle clear. You hope that it does.

 

*

 

During a residency on an island off Salvador, Brazil, we are taken to another holy water place. A man had a dream once, goes the story. He was blind, but in a sleep vision he received instructions to be led by the hands of two young virgins into a forest. There, he would come upon a pool of spring water – the location of which the two girls would know – and once there, he was to wash his eyes in it. If he did this, his eyes would see again. He did it, and they did. Now, so moved was he by this that he vowed to live at the site permanently, becoming a healer for any who came to him seeking restoration. He became well-known and sought-after as the hermit of that place, until, in a battle for land – which is always to say, profit – he was forcibly removed. He made a second vow, then: this time, not to eat until he could return. He never did make it back but the site, with its pool of water, became a sanctuary.

 

Our guide, Augusto, tells us this story before we head into the forest. As he speaks, the air is charged with the wing-music of cicadas, a sound I hear now for the first time. We wander in and myriad insects greet us with thirsty enthusiasm. Augusto slaps his calves so impressively hard that the clap of palm against skin echoes far into the trees and disturbs birds. I pause to crouch at intervals and watch a millipede passing; a line of large black ants each diligently carrying a fresh cut of leaf. It moves me no end to observe the graceful collectivity of their work. Augusto calls my name, lest I am left behind. I rise and catch up with the others. It is humid and we are bitten so we are fortunate not to have to walk for long, and we approach the site of the pool without trouble. I ready myself for how the water might feel between my toes or trickling through my scalp. It is good to cool one’s head, one’s orí, regularly.

 

But when we get there, we find nothing. The pool is dry. I stare at the ground where it should have been, pushing my fingers into its sandy bed.

 

The water is gone – has been going, we are told – because of excessive cattle farming uphill. In the gamble between a sacred spring and a growing demand for beef, beef had won.

*

I have a practised habit of asking about the past, a trait probably cultivated since I came into speech. I liked to ask why a lot. Why, perhaps more than what, where, when, and even how, is always a question about the past. Questions of what and where risk fooling us into thinking that our answers can be clean and numerical. What happened? This. Where? It was there. When? Then. How? Like so. Why, though, is where things get muddy. It is where the human voice enters – and for some, that of God – or failing this, for lack of answers, it is where the arms fall helpless at one’s sides. It is at why that the past frays and scatters, and I find myself writing to keep what I have of it close and whole. Things fall apart and, long before they do, they yellow at their edges – a gradual disappearance at play even when events are not wilfully forgotten but instead brought purposefully to light.

 

But that isn’t all of it. I know I do not always need to keep the past because I know, too, that it is present in spite of me. It is here whether we like it or not. In bad times, the past is a party. In good times, it’s the present that is, and the past is a stranger, gate-crashing.

 

Your hair is like my grandmother’s hair, my mother would say when I was young. Standing in her room while she folded linen, I would ask about this woman whom she often mentioned. What was it like? Long, but kept covered. When was she born? I don’t know. When did she die? The Seventies. What did she look like? She was fair-skinned, a mix of something.

 

And what was her name?

 

Robesa. Robesa Nelson. Nelson.

 

*

 

When I was fourteen, I came across Brazilian music. Journalling, late at night, I would listen to a radio show on Smooth called The Late Lounge, hosted by Rosie Kendrick. Rosie’s voice was honey-glazed – husky, you might say. One evening, Rosie played a song that stayed with me and continues to do so. For no real reason. Just the progression of the melody and the calm in the voice that carries it, half in Portuguese, half in English. Just like this rainstorm / this August day song / I dream of places far beyond. I scoured the internet for the show’s setlist, then set about illegally downloading the song from Limewire. That was what you had to do back then. When I found it, it was called ‘August Day Song’, and sung by Bebel Gilberto, a daughter of the famed Brazilian Popular Music dynasty. It was the King Britt remix, and I played it on repeat for days, as if to bring Bebel’s voice with me through whatever it was that troubled me at the time. Ouvindo a chuva cair / No cinza um brilho aqui / Fico sózinha, distraída. I didn’t know what the words meant, but a part of me did, and that part was right. Listening to the rain fall / in the grey, a brilliance here / I am alone, distracted. Bebel sings each phrase like it’s thick with feeling, like she is wanting somebody to know she is waiting for them. The waiting is long and painful, but it will be worth it. Não vou chorar / Quando lembrar / Do seu eterno olhar. It will be worth it, yes. There are types of pain that are sweet. This is usually called longing. The Brazilians and Portuguese call it saudade. They also say that this word can never be translated, which means to me that it is longing, the realest type, the kind where you’ve got it bad: longing, and then some. And then, next in the song, a gift in the bridge out of the chorus, gentle as a nudge from the universe. Mesmo tom / Memo som / Como é bom, tão bom. The tão bom is the point of catharsis in the song: its final two words; its two last notes. Tão bom. I sing it to myself the way she does, the way she holds the end note until her voice fades out of the room and she’s gone, completely.

 

‘How it’s good,’ she sings, ‘so good.’

 

*

 

Since the arrival of European colonists, the indigenous peoples of what is now Brazil have faced decimations akin to those met by the Native and First Nations peoples of North and Central America. Like them, they continue to battle for the right to the richness of their languages, their lands and their lives. Like them, too, their genocide is a saga yet to end, let alone to be acknowledged as such. This is the context in which, in 1998, the then-federal deputy for the Christian Democratic Party, Jair Bolsonaro, told the Correio Braziliense newspaper that ‘it’s a shame that the Brazil cavalry hasn’t been as efficient as the Americans, who exterminated the Indians.’ Two decades later, in 2017, and on film, Bolsonaro was applauded at a members’ club when he boasted that, should he become president, ‘there [would be] not a centimetre demarcated for indigenous reservations, or quilombolas’.[1] In 2018, speaking to Globo News, he adjusted his words, clarifying that he meant ‘not one millimetre’. These sentiments manifest through the actions of the oil, mining and agribusiness industries; research published this year by Brazilian non-governmental organisation SOS Mata Atlântica found a twenty-seven per cent increase in tropical deforestation dating from the start of the new presidency.

 

In the wake of the machinery of the Portuguese settler colonial project – the last to abolish slavery, in 1888 – and the post-independence Brazilian state that followed, something additional is evident: Brazil feels like a black country. This is to say that in spite of the structural whiteness of the state, the culture that Brazil most parades and conceals – through music, dance and cuisine, for example – is black. Even beyond this, even the cadence of the spoken Portuguese sounds black, to me, as a listener. And how else could it be, when forty per cent of the enslaved taken from the African continent came to Brazil, leaving Brazil with the largest population of black people outside of Africa. Interestingly, to this day, the percentage of people self-identifying as black in Brazil is also around forty per cent. Less than half the population – and depending upon where you are in the vastness of the country, that’s not impossible. That is, if people are telling the truth.

 

During my residency in Brazil, for which I am researching some family history, I spend time in both Rio de Janeiro and Salvador de Bahia. In Rio, I have the great fortune of having Rui, who is my guide. We are age-mates and we have the same sense of humour, which gives our itinerary the feel of us just hanging out. He has tanned skin, dark eyes, lips not to be squinted at, and hair that curls. So I ask him if he is, and he says yes, I am, I’m white.

 

I tell him how crazy that sounds to me, picturing him on a street in England, and we both laugh. Here begins a new game, a simple one, which goes like this. I discreetly pick someone – anyone – then turn to him:

 

What about them?

 

Who? Which one?

 

That one. There, I nod. In the grey dress. What might they be?

 

And Rui tells me. End of game. Simple.

 

Or not. Skin tone is one thing, he explains, but to arrive at a more definitive conclusion you must couple that with the texture of the hair, the shape of the nose, the mouth. There are those who look white – like white white – but the hair gives it away. Or would, if it could – if it wasn’t straightened. Or it doesn’t because regardless of what their great-grandmother may have looked like, it is indeed straight; a curl-less gene in the helical swirl of their deoxyribonucleic acid. A phenotypical roulette.

 

On one of our trips to visit people who could be helpful to my research, Rui takes me to meet Liv Sovik, a professor at the Federal University of Rio de Janeiro. Liv is an American. Blonde-haired, blue-eyed, white white. We have a lively discussion about the construction of race in Brazil. It is a central focus in her work, and likewise her book, the title of which is Aqui Ninguem é Branco. In English: Here Nobody Is White.

 

*

 

Tracing one’s lineage across the Atlantic from the Americas to Africa depends on a few things that read distressingly trivially on paper but make all the difference to where we can say we come from. I say we, here, to mean anybody black with the legacy of the trade in their blood. Ultimately, that’s all of us. But this particular we refers to those who descend from the people who survived those crossings. I want to say, clearly now, something that is often forgotten: this we exists on the African continent, too – not just in the Americas and Caribbean. But more on that later. My point is, the story of lineage is long and contingent. As much depends upon who tricked whom, who was encouraged to war with whom (and who lost), who struck deals for guns, rum and cloth, who was exchanged for said items, who was geographically at an advantage – sometimes in the interior, other times at the coast – as it does upon where the boat stopped off at the other edge of the sea.

 

*

 

On a street in Jamestown, Accra, is a yellow building. You’ll know it when you see it because unlike a lot of the colonial-era buildings, it looks good today. You’ll also know it because, of course, it is bright yellow. The name of the building is Brazil House. The street it is on is called Brazil Lane. It was built by refugees from Brazil who had first stopped off at the coast of Nigeria but for some reason had chosen to continue on to Accra, where they were warmly accepted by the local Ga community. When they arrived from across the sea, they spoke neither Ga nor Ewe, nor Fante, nor any other language that was remotely local. They spoke Portuguese. When they were greeted, they would reply, ‘ta bom, which in today’s language is the same as saying it’s all good. It stuck. They became known as the Tabom.

 

*

 

What little Portuguese I do know, I know because of music. It was through drums that I understood first. The type you hear when you think of Brazilian carnaval. The kind of rich, layered, wall-of-sound percussion you might think of when you hear the word samba or, if you are more familiar with the music, maracatú. The first time I heard this kind of drumming – the origins of which, through the enslaved, were imported from Africa – something in me said yes, deeply. I haven’t had many deep yes moments in my life. I have resigned myself to the possibility that I am just not one of those lucky people who always knows what they want, whether to decline or accept, stay or go. Deep yeses don’t come easily to me, but when they do, I know the past is present.

 

Another Brazilian song that I came across in my mid-teens is a version of ‘Aguas de Março’, sung live by Elis Regina in a black-and-white video you can find on YouTube. The song, its cyclical lyrics and the footage are hypnotic. If someone were to play me the song on loop, I am certain that I would still not go mad. The lyrics circle over themselves and, like the Bebel Gilberto song, are dense with meaning even in their simplicity. ‘A stick / a stone / it’s the end of the road / it’s the rest of a stump / it’s a little alone’ are the opening words, penned by Antônio Carlos Jobim. Long before I travelled to Brazil, before I realised its history had anything significant to do with me, ‘Aguas de Março’ – which translates as ‘The Waters of March’ – was my entry point into the Portuguese language. If ever you want to learn some basic vocabulary, this song is a good place to start.

 

*

 

Some of the enslaved Africans in Brazil were taken from parts of West Africa where Islam was the presiding religion. Arabic influence has a long colonial history across the African continent, one that exponentially pre-dates the arrival of Europeans. In both cases, enslavement ensued, but beyond that, things played out differently. Within the Islamic African context, eventual manumission was possible through conversion from ‘heathenism’ into the faith. This, and also that you could not be born a slave. Even if your mother was one, you might simply be born into the ruling culture and taken as its own – albeit at low regard. By and large, in the trade instigated by Europeans, no such thing was possible.

 

In Brazil, the enslaved who were from Islamic cultures were referred to as malês. It is believed that this comes from the Yoruba term imalé for Muslim. Perhaps they were Yoruba Muslims. Either way, they were put to work in different ways compared to those who were not Muslims. This was for one simple reason: they could read and write in Arabic, which made them useful for tasks that necessitated accounting, and so while they were not free, they had freedoms of a kind, moving about as servants for the white Brazilians who worked them. It doesn’t sound nearly as bad as the enslavement that other Africans were enduring, yet I suspect that if this were true, the situation might have continued to run smoothly for the remaining half-century until slavery was abolished in 1888. But again, things turned out differently.

 

In Bahia in January of 1835, shit kicked off. A revolt took place, quietly planned by the leaders of the community of enslaved black Muslims. It lasted three days, and was suppressed by the Brazilian authorities, but sent reverberations through the country. Fearing the bloodlust of another black Muslim uprising, the Brazilian government drew up a solution: get rid of them. Following the execution of the leaders of the revolt, who are said to have known of the success of the Haitian Revolution, it was decided that the community as a whole was not to be trusted. Anybody suspected of involvement was deported to West Africa, which is to say that it didn’t matter whether they were involved or not.

 

From its birth in 1804 as a country independent of France, Haiti (from the Taíno-Arawak Ay-ti, land of mountains) was the first nation to permanently abolish slavery. This is true despite how often it is paraded that Britain led the way in outlawing the trade in African peoples in 1807, and later their ownership, in 1834. By 1835, the British were offering ships to carry formerly enslaved blacks to Africa. After compensating their own share of slave-owners to the tune of £20 million – £17 billion being the contemporary total finally paid by UK taxes in 2015 – perhaps a complimentary voyage was the least that could be offered.

 

Oral history has it that one such voyage from Bahia to Nigeria and then Ghana was made by the S. S. Salisbury. Stories differ as to the date of the trip in question but it is thought that the first arrival of returnees (refugees, essentially) occurred in 1829. Crucially, this is prior to the Malé Revolt of 1835, but nonetheless foreshadows it: given the brutality of black life in Brazil, it is evidence that those who had an opportunity to leave did so. In the aftermath of the uprising were two more arrivals with passengers numbering in the hundreds, but on the first – that of 1829 – were seven families under the leadership of one figure. His name was Kangidi Asuman. Kangidi is a place name in Nigeria. Asuman relates not-so-distantly to the Arabic name, Osman.

 

But, at some point I am yet to know of, he dropped Kangidi. I can only speculate as to why. We must remember that when he was taken from wherever it was he originated – say, Kangidi – things could have happened there that changed it permanently. Slave raids and bounty huntings were bloody occurrences. Who is to say what was left of home, or that Kangidi-the-place even existed still. Perhaps he knew the answer to this because he saw it as he was taken: nothing. Towns do burn, after all.

 

Whatever the truth, Kangidi was no more. He dropped the name, kept Asuman, and added Nelson. Today, the male descendants of Asuman Nelson – the founding leader of the community known as the Tabom – still carry this name. Time doing what it does, however, the spelling has since changed.

 

*

 

One of my co-fellows at the residency in Bahia is Amira, an African American dancer and Lucumí priestess from Oakland, California, with a face that looks a lot like my mother’s. She has been visiting and working in Brazil for years, since a long-ago relationship with someone from here. Like me, she has looked into her lineage, and it happens that she believes she is of Ghanaian heritage. On more than one of our trips by ferry into mainland Salvador, as we browse stores and markets, strangers assume we are related. She is your daughter? they ask in Portuguese and, only half jokingly, Amira says yes.

 

*

 

The song ‘The Waters of March’ refers in part to a season in Brazil when it begins to rain. Brazil is on the southern hemisphere, which means that the seasons are the other way around to how they are here, on the northern side. As we enter winter, they enter summer. As they leave autumn, we leave spring. As I write this, in London, it is March; just days from my birthday. Trees are in bloom, and we are indoors – because it is the time of coronavirus. But it is spring, nonetheless, even without us.

 

In Brazil, March is the onset of autumn. At this time, it rains heavily. Sometimes for days on end. For us, at the residency in Bahia, this manifests as three days of thunder and downpour, before a sudden stop. Finally able to step out again, Amira, myself and some others decide to go back to the holy water place to see if it has been restored by the wet weather. When we get there, there is a small pool. Amira crouches down, unties her hair, and scoops handfuls of water over her head. She sits back a moment, stares out and sobs, quietly. I watch, not knowing quite what to do, but saddened also. I touch her shoulder without knowing if I should. When this is over, she touches the water again and this time, sings. I don’t understand, but I know she is singing in Yoruba and saying, at times, iya mi, which I know means my mother. I know that one of her divinities in Lucumí is Oshun, a feminine divinity of fresh waters. Amira takes a bottle of honey out of her backpack, and pours it tenderly into the small clear pool, cooing lullaby-like as one would to something beloved, repeating at times the words I know, iya mi, iya mi

 

*

 

Every now and then for years after I learn of the Tabom and my descent, through my mother, from one of their founding figures, I will enter the name Nelson into Facebook or Instagram search boxes, and scan for black faces. The last time I will do this, I will reach out to someone who, like me, lives in London. An Azumah Nelson. He will reply and confirm that he does indeed share this heritage, but that what he knows of it is limited.

 

Perhaps a year or so later, before I leave for Brazil to research this history, he will message to wish me well. When I am back, I will cross paths with him at a magazine launch for which I am reading poems. This is the first time we will meet. When he greets me, I won’t know who he is, and it will take me more than a moment to understand. He will be tall. In another moment, Kareem, a mutual friend of ours, will grab us both and marvel that we know each other. And I will think, but not say: I don’t know him. We don’t know each other, not really. The three of us will laugh about the sea of whiteness in the room and the subtext of how glad we are to have found each other here. Someone else I know will then pull my attention, and the rest of the moment will be lost.

 

Nearly two years later, we will meet again. This time, at the surprise birthday party of Belinda, the friend with whom I will have travelled back from a literary festival in Lagos, days earlier. On that trip, Belinda and I had feared that the boat ride to the beach would kill us. The boat had stopped numerous times, mid-water, overloaded, its rudder tangled with weeds. We had both pondered our drownings; the absence of our deaths’ reportage on the news. Before Belinda will arrive to singing and loud joy, Caleb and I will talk. He will be a writer, like myself, and quiet. Surprise party duties at hand, we will exchange details and agree to catch up another time. He will message days later, to ask when I am free, and I will be free on a Thursday. We will meet in Bethnal Green for tea, from which point we will become friends, and swap books, and keep in touch.

 

*

 

In the living room of the flat I share with T is a bookcase built into the alcove of the wall. It is sectioned off into parts, most of which are filled by the books I brought here when I left my parents’ house. The central section of the bookcase is empty of books, though. Here, instead, are a number of things: a bracelet of cowrie shells; a selection of semi-precious stones; a handful of sand grabbed in haste the day I left the island of Itaparica in Bahia; a candle, usually; a miniature wooden sculpture of an elephant, from Accra; Florida Water of the kind that was sprinkled at my grandmother’s grave, a year on from her death; a bell; and an image, cut from his obituary, of my grandfather and my grandmother on what looks like their wedding day. Last of all, there is a shot glass, not mine but taken from the room at my parents’ house that I shared with my older sister. I won’t say I stole it because it never seemed needed, and it was left behind when she moved out.

 

I keep this shot glass filled with fresh water as best I can. Sometimes, which means less often than I wish to, I stand in front of this display on a morning and light the candle, and ring the bell. And then I talk. I make a greeting in Ga, my parents’ language, my language – even though I cannot speak it. I say thank you for some things, and say please help for others, and then I say thank you again. I talk, clumsily, a little unsure, but earnestly for a short while, and then I finish, snuffing the candle out between two fingers. Sometimes when I stand there, I worry that I am only speaking to myself, but I keep going anyway. Sometimes, I know that I am not.

 

This is what faith looks like to me.

 

*

 

I have been trying to write about water but I keep getting caught up; keep finding the pool empty, the spring out of reach or dry. In my mind, to write is a verb formation similar to that of to grasp, so therefore, yes, it’s true: I would like to write about something that can barely be held in two hands. Imagine a thing such as that. But we’re here now, so suppose the superior verb is grapple. It has grit in it. Torque, if you will. So now: let’s go. When grappling, the tendency is to grapple with, which is suggestive of a residual division between two entities, each one retaining its selfhood. A sacred space between that which captures and that which is caught. Predator and prey. This feels apt. There is something in it. Grapple. Slight consonance with rubble. Which makes me now think of ruin. Ruinous. Assonance with apple. Ruinous, again; that first illicit fruit. You know how the rest of it goes. One small bite for man that wasn’t so small at all. Knowledge of good and evil thereafter and – wait a minute – as a word, what use could good ever have been against evil when it has such holes in it. Two eyes wide in shock, as though they died that way, or watch on, astounded, still. This also feels apt. And so, I grapple. I am trying to do this with water, but even this word will neither contain nor cut it. I test the image in my head and resurface with the conviction that a floor cloth will be needed at some point after a mess has been made. Ruinous, these fragments, yes. Where is the floor cloth for history? Where is the shore of its ruin?

 

Writing about water is possibly only minimally less hard than writing about air. What does it smell like? How does it taste? Is it safe to take in? And while I’m circling around the sense of how alike water is to language – as characterised by its slippage as it is by its force – why don’t I also say that insofar as it is not easily contained, writing about it sounds equally impossible. I am less able to encompass water than it is capable of encompassing me. And I can’t swim. If I wade in beyond my nose, I may not survive. I should learn, it’s true – and soon, at that – but maybe swimming is not something I must do here, now. It is possible that I need only to be calm. Un-tense my limbs, and breathe in, diaphragm-deep and babylike, easy. How it’s good, so good. I might be buoyed and carried somewhere I haven’t been before. Another archipelago of being. A place as yet unnamed. Don’t despair.

 

 


 

[1] Historic Afro-Brazilian communities originally founded by fugitive Africans escaping enslavement.


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ABOUT THE CONTRIBUTOR

VICTORIA ADUKWEI BULLEY is a poet, writer and filmmaker. She is the recipient of an Eric Gregory Award, and has held artistic residencies internationally in the US, Brazil and at the V&A Museum in London. A Complete Works and Instituto Sacatar fellow, her pamphlet Girl B (Akashic) forms part of the 2017 New-Generation African Poets series. She is a doctoral student at Royal Holloway, University of London, where she is the recipient of a Technē studentship for doctoral research in Creative Writing.

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