sharing imperfections

I was once reading Alexis Teyie’s work, which I love and hunt down every now and then because she makes really beautiful poetry in really silent corners. In her piece, she talked about how an artist’s reluctance to share work is actually pride (and she of course put it more glamorously). And I thought that was a bold statement but I saw all the ways that it was true for a lot of us, not just artists. The need to present your paintings, your Powerpoint slides, your Math homework to people only when it is perfect, can be proud, because it is shying away (to put it mildly), from sharing our imperfections, which is why the anti-social media crusaders are always coming for us. Think about it. Social media has us, quite literally, showing only our pretty sides, and always making the standards of this pretty more and more absurd.

I grew up on a lot of awful quotes attributed unfairly to either Einstein or Maya Angelou or Thomas Jefferson or one of the writers of the Old Testament. And I do not remember all of them but a major theme was how you should never think of yourself as having achieved perfection, that you should always push yourself to be better, that you should always be finding new goals. Our Math teachers would call on these wahenga quotes before beating you for scoring 98%, or scoring a 100% but not showing your working. And they would say that they did not want you to think that “you had arrived”.

One of the main reasons I could not sustain my Catholicism, or my religion, was that ironically I felt such pressure always to be perfect. I curled up in fear of breaking one commandment or the other, which would paralyse my efforts to just live and breathe and appreciate the sun’s yellow. And while the crazy high standards were not the reason I stayed irreligious, I felt a little sad that I did not find a space to cut myself slack in the place that should most cut you slack.

And I understand why there is a need for such a school of thought, of course, that you as a human being should always be aiming to do better. However, the older I get the more I fear that we preach striving for perfection without preaching acknowledging how far we have come. I feel like stopping to say “Wow, Ivy, you actually achieved this” is not only an underappreciated means of staying calm before confronting new storms, but it is actually seen as a form of being conceited. And that is an awful attitude for individuals but also for society in general. If we do not think the things we have done worthy of sharing with society, then can you imagine how many creative policies have been trashed that would have helped us solve the education debacle, for instance, or how many entrepreneurial ideas had the light shut out of them when the person who conceived them went to bed at night thinking they were not good enough, that they could be more perfect as we were taught to assume, and can you imagine how many songs will never reach our ears because of the same attempts at perfection. Just look at the things that come up around the time #CreativeKE is trending and imagine a world where everybody hides those parts of themselves.

put your art out

So it is pride, not sharing our work, it is prideful to think that I am capable of perfection and thus should only produce perfect work. But it is also a pride that sometimes I have little control over, that I cannot battle because I learned it so well.

I guess then we cannot talk about this without talking about the need to be kind, to offer criticism only honestly and only courteously, to colleagues, to classmates, to strangers on the Internet. Personally, I feel a little death inside when I read some of my earlier work. It was not the best, but it took up space confidently, aware of its imperfection but elbowing out all other literature to claim its space, and sometimes I fear that all of my training has improved the architecture of my pieces. I know what to do, but that same training threatens everyday to take away the soul of these pieces, like if the god I believed in had forgotten to breathe air into the man he made out of soil.

I once watched a TED talk about (forgive the massive paraphrase about to happen here) how people in the past believed that a demon possessed artists– that is why they could paint or write, or make music. It really calmed me down, because it then suggested that the days I could not create were not my fault, but my demon’s, like if he is feeling lazy is that my fault? It reminded me of how in high school after exams the teachers would feel lazy to come to class, and we would know in our hearts that we were the ones negatively affected and that we would not finish the syllabus on time to master it and be tested on it eventually. But in this aleluyia moment of the teachers’ truancy, we would go to the field and frolick in the sun and have conversations and make memories that I still keep in a crystal ball in my chest which warms my heart on days when the rainbow is enuf. This is one of the ways I show perfection the middle finger.

And I am always anxious about how so scared we are that we do not talk about imperfection and normalise it. Like what would it be like if Chimamanda had genius moments like Americanah and still shared work that she did not think was beautiful (if you dare imagine that she creates any unbeautiful work)? Our silence on the greyer sides of otherwise glossy matters is remarkable, like how nobody talks about how women experience pain during sex yet 30% of women report it, or how 49% of women experience incontinence after childbirth.  But there is something about that silence, about not talking about all of the scary scary scary things we know we must face when we get out of bed in the morning.

And, perhaps Okasungora readers will identify with some of these anxieties when pursuing your own passions, but sometimes it takes my everything to let anyone but myself into the haunted house that is my art, to not overthink it, to hit “Share”.

because i miss home

My mother does not know this, but the first time I went to the city center alone I was not more than 12. I needed a new pair of school shoes and my father just told me to meet him at the Hilton. I said I did not know where it was, and he said, “where we bought them last time”. I did not tell him that did not make things any clearer. So I got on a matatu headed for the city centre, and when the buildings became taller and the sound of the pedestrians’ feet more fast-paced as we left the residential neighborhoods behind, I gathered enough courage to tap the matatu tout to tell him to please show me where the Hilton was. But I saw it, a cylindrical building with the word “HILTON”. And instead of “Show me the Hilton,” I asked to be let off and I walked out of the matatu and kept my eyes on the skyline, on the word “HILTON” as I walked towards the building. Even after I grew a little older, I would go to the city centre and if I did not know where I was, I would look up and see the Hilton, and walk towards it. I did not for a long time know the relationship between Hilton the hotel and Hilton the celebrity.

Getting off the Number 34 matatu nowadays that brings me from home in Embakasi to the city center is always a difficult process. I have to alight fast and dodge the city council workers who may fine me for alighting at an undesignated area, or something else that they feel like. But getting off a matatu is also difficult because somehow the best Riddim song always comes on at that moment when you make the right turn from Tom Mboya street into the matatu curb at Commercial.

Elite Nairobi, the cool kids who had Twitter before the rest of us had any use for it, listen to Riddims as if they can smell it, because, they purse their mouths and crease their noses as if there is an odour coming from it. But in my side of the city, Riddims are the cool thing, and there are people in my neighborhood who open their mouths and a Jamaican accent comes out of them. They say “Wagwan” to me as I walk past them and introduce themselves as “Claire-deh”. I think it would have been less creepy for me if they were not so casual about it.

Sometimes I feel like Nairobi is a quilt made by different countries. Tom Mboya Street and Moi Avenue are the two main streets in Nairobi’s city centre. They are flanked roughly on one side by the Railways Bus Station, a group of British-architecture style buildings, and on the other by the University of Nairobi campus. When I get off at Commercial, I hold my handbag under my armpit while fiddling with the zip and hurry to cross Tom Mboya street and join Moi Avenue. Commercial is crowded, and I fiddle with my zip so that nobody else does. Sometimes, when I come from New Haven, I look on the wrong side of the road for oncoming cars. I never forget though, that traffic lights are nothing but red, orange and green décor in Nairobi. No motorists or pedestrians use them.

A statue of Tom Mboya stands in the middle of the square that separates Moi Avenue and Tom Mboya street. Tom Mboya  was assassinated in the 1960’s on Moi Avenue. When I was in high school, we would stop around Jeevanjee gardens to buy fries when we went outside the school for funkiez, yes, with a z, and I remember thinking how tame a place it looked with its fast food places for someone to have been assassinated there. Americans don’t know it but they are indebted to Tom Mboya. He worked with JFK to start the airlifts that had Obama senior come to study in the U.S. In short, Mboya gave us Obama. At the foot of the statue is Mr Price, a South African boutique. They sell clothes at prices that I cannot afford yet. But in the evenings, hawkers spread their clothes on the floor before them and sell second-hand clothes for prices that are sometimes a tenth of what the South African store sells the same things at. The clothes the hawkers sell are from Europe and the U.S. When the government allowed their importation, the local textile industry died. Now there are huge cotton factories in Athi River, a little outside of Nairobi, that remind me of empty shells.

Opposite the statue is a chain of restaurants including Galito’s owned by Hoggers Industry, a South African franchise. A lot of people plan to meet outside these restaurants before heading to their actual food places. There is a running joke about how if you are not clear when telling someone to meet you outside and not inside, you will end up with a bill you cannot afford because all the food at Galitos is so expensive.  Before Al Shabaab got comfortable in Nairobi, before guards checked the insides of your bags for weapons, we would buy sodas from the Tuskys supermarket at Commercial and sneak them into Galito’s to drink together with our pizzas on Terrific Tuesdays when pizza was buy one get one free.

The last time I went home, the restaurant called Caprice next to Galito’s that I loved had been rebranded to “Manhattan fries”, and as I walked away I wondered if the new owner was from Manhattan or if the name just attracted more customers.