This fall Freeman’s published Aminatta Forna’s essay “Power Walking,” a meditation on what it means to occupy and move through public space as a woman of color. It is a practical art form, Forna describes, that she had to learn. “Nobody tells young girls that men own the power of the gaze,” she writes. “My mother never told me that men may look at me but I may not look back.” This fall, Ms. Forna exchanged emails with another walker and writer, Taiye Selasi, a novelist who, like her, has had a home on three continents and notices the ways that power dynamics shift in each place, depending on whom she encounters. Who regards her and whether she can look back. Here is their conversation.
Taiye Selasi: Your entire essay is—like everything you write—beautiful, honest, insightful. Of the many, many things that strike me as deeply familiar and heartbreakingly true, there is this line just at the end: “I wonder about all those guys, of every class and color, who have interrupted my thoughts in order to remind me of my place.” Those words made me gasp. Somehow, I’d never organized my thoughts around those two sets words: “interrupting my thoughts” and “reminding me of my place.” And yet they are the crucial words. They contain all the violation, the violence.
First: the interruption of thought. What I most cherish about walking is its relationship to thinking. From the earliest age I’ve been admonished to “look where I’m going” and yet I can never quite manage it. I look up, at cloud formations; around, at passing strangers; down, at my own moving feet. That steady stream of visual information has a hypnotic effect; invariably I find myself lost in thought: about the clouds, the strangers, some lover, some plot. I’ve never walked for more than ten minutes without starting to write in my head. Those who interrupt me while I’m walking, just as you say, interrupt my thinking—and they do so because they cannot imagine that my thoughts have any value. They cannot imagine that I am attempting to perfect a paragraph in my head. They cannot imagine—they most certainly do not imagine—that I am a writer. A thinker.
Of course, I am aware that I live in a body. I am aware that this body is received by the world as brown and female. But to write, to be a writer, I think, is to depart from the body. To drift away from it. To move within so many bodies that one can so easily forget one’s own. To be harassed while walking—accosted while thinking—is a violent reminder of male disregard for the thoughts of women, the contemplative lives of brown people, interiority.
And then: my place. To be reminded of my place. First to be interrupted while thinking, then to be reminded of my place. Violence to greater violence. What is my place? I have spent most of my life walking through spaces in which, on the face of things, I have no place. A black girl moving, un-placed, through lily white Brookline, Massachusetts; a West African immigrant moving, un-placed, through African-American Harlem; a brown writer moving, un-placed, through Rome, Berlin, Lisbon; a soi-disant Afropolitan moving, un-placed, through Lagos, Accra. I have come to terms with not having a place. Perhaps that is why I feel so exceptionally galled at being reminded that others have a place for me.
The white woman in Berlin who does not think that I belong in her building (where I own a flat) has a place for me. That place is: NOT FROM HERE. The aunties in Accra who click their tongues at my unprocessed hair: NOT FROM HERE. My black high school friends who thought it absurd that I didn’t know what Kool-Aid was: NOT FROM HERE. I can accept NOT FROM HERE. Everywhere I walk I am NOT FROM HERE. What I cannot accept is: NOT HERE at all. The men who push past me on the sidewalk, just as you say; the white women who do the same. For them I am not here at all. Nothing in my upbringing prepares me to accept that place, and yet nothing in my nature equips me to resist it, as you do. It is horribly difficult for me to shout out, to shout back—and why is that?
Did I make my peace with “NOT FROM HERE” by making the locals like me? Isn’t so much of the African immigrant upbringing about being polite, being accepted, being acceptable? How appalling, really, my hesitation to object to my own erasure.
Aminatta Forna: I think they do imagine you are a writer, a thinker, that is to say a woman with more on her mind than knowing her place with regard to men, a brown person with places to go, people to see and things to do. That is precisely what antagonizes them so. I have had discussions with my friends male and/or white about the extent to which people are cognizant of their responses and reactions. I’m talking about the men who call out, your neighbor in Berlin, the aunties in Accra. Many would have us believe their behavior is reactive, unthinking and, in the case of men, biologically driven. I don’t buy it, I believe their actions are calculated and deliberate. How else to explain the differences in the places you and I have traveled? In some street harassment is endemic, in others rare.
In the era of South African apartheid white citizens knew it was their job to keep black and brown citizens in their place, for without their active cooperation and if left entirely in the hands of, say, the police, apartheid would have failed. It required the white citizens of South Africa to engage in the daily enforcement of the minutiae of the system, the restrooms and drinking fountains. Same goes for the United States, where we still see the legacy of citizen enforcement in the white women who call the police when they spot a black woman asleep in the university common room. Some actions may be less or more harmful, consequences less or more grave, but the impetus is the same. It is the desire to assert their power through control, which in turn is effected through humiliation. For otherwise and without the self-appointed guardians of the status quo, Taiye, women like our younger selves, might begin to believe we could own the world.
I like to walk and dream. I like to take a knotty problem of plot or character out and unravel it on a stroll. For many years I walked alone around a ruined, Gothic cemetery in South East London. Some women, when I told them I walked there, were concerned. But the danger posed by the remote possibility of attack when weighed against the impossibility of uninterrupted thought, became a risk worth taking. I had a dog, which helped, I have found dogs to be a great deterrent to would be harassers. To a writer a lost thought is a violation. Sometimes I know I will never get that thought back, it’s gone, like a book stolen from a library. Tens of thousands of lost thoughts over a lifetime.
I shout back and in so doing I have doubtless lost even more thoughts. Still more disappear into the smoke of outrage that persists long after the encounter. Partly my response is a matter of temperament, I’m not quick to anger but when anger comes it is instantaneous and huge. Also I was raised to believe injustice must always be confronted. For the most part young women are taught submissiveness—silence, at the very least—is the price of walking. And who among us can insist that the woman alone faced by the one, two, three men should antagonize them with her anger. Yet I have always had a feeling that women, especially in the West, missed a moment. What if, in one unpremeditated voice we had all shouted back from the start? What then?
You say “isn’t so much of the African immigrant upbringing about being polite?” Do you think that perhaps therein lies a difference. I have never been an immigrant. Here in the US, according to my tax status, I am a resident nonimmigrant, a visitor. In America I am “not from here,” but I couldn’t care less. I was born of two nations, the Britain of my mother and my father’s country of Sierra Leone. I have never felt that I did not belong, despite the assumption that I should feel that way and the efforts of those who might like it to be so. I begin from a different footing to you: these are my streets, this is my country. How dare they?!
TS: What you say is so interesting—and so true. So painfully true. “These are my streets, this is my country” is something I’ve never felt while walking. Anywhere. Your essay articulates an (admirable) intolerance of harassment on the streets of “the Britain of your mother” and your father’s Sierra Leone. I love the continuity of it: those countries belonged first to each parent and now belong, both, to you. A question that comes to mind is whether you feel the same anger, instantaneous and huge, on streets that feel less your own? Cape Cod? Cape Town? Or is it perhaps the case, as I’ve long since suspected, that a fully formed sense of belonging in just one context makes possible a deep, unshakeable sense of belonging in any context?
An image emerges: of you walking with your head held high, confident of your right to be wherever your foot falls. And of myself, walking, watching my feet fall, careful not to provoke the locals. It occurs to me that what I’d most wish to transmit to a daughter, if ever I have one, is your certainty. Not merely of where you belong, but of your right to confront injustice wherever you are. Reading your words I became aware (and again I must say painfully so) that I’d internalized the lesson you reference: submissiveness is the price of walking. Avoiding confrontation—rather than courageously rising to it—the trick to belonging.
In this, I must thank you for your essay and for these reflections, Aminatta. These last days I’ve tried walking as if I were you. I’ve had the chance to exercise this new stride—these new eyes—in Lisbon and Algiers. Palpable the difference. To maintain the manners with which I was raised without defaulting to submissiveness. Not to give way on the sidewalk perforce. Not to avert my objecting gaze from a man’s objectifying one. Not to receive the where-did-she-come-from stare by smiling, demurring, but rather to return it with something like a wink. I became aware, conducting this experiment, of the body’s ability to perceive actual threat. As you say, we do not insist that the lone woman agitate the pack of three men. But it’s become clearer to me that the performance of threat is what I most often encounter: the adolescent boy playing at menace, the airport official playing at power. Real power lies elsewhere, I’ve always known. What I’ve learned from “walking like Aminatta” is how, moment to moment, to summon it.
Perhaps it is easier to believe that those who attempt to exert power over us do so clumsily, blindly. That they are, essentially, ignorant. It is more difficult—and more enraging—to understand that however narrow-minded they may be, my neighbors in Berlin and my aunts in Accra are not fools. They intend that I feel discomfort. Their goal—with their gazes, their sighs, their asides—is my reaction: that I feel out of place. My weakness has always been that I agree: I am out of place, yes, they’re right. Your reflections have encouraged me to rethink the matter. If their goal is my disempowerment, what is mine? And by what means do I intend to reach this goal? Then, I understand why you may have chosen the title you did. “Power Walking.” A woman who has ceased to consent in any way whatsoever to her own disempowerment, is precisely that. She is power. See her on the streets of Freetown, Georgetown, Glasgow, Gost—and you’re seeing power walking.
AF: “Walking like Aminatta!” That tickles me. “You’re right, I do feel if not that I belong everywhere, then perfectly at ease in most places. I’m not uncomfortable with difference, including my own. And so I am probably all the more outraged by the need on the part of so many to continually remind me that a difference exists.
Let’s talk about female anger. In my view Western women have been taught to swallow their anger and to turn it inward in a way that is unparalleled in Sierra Leone say or Nigeria. I’m reminded of Nigerian neighbors I had in London, a couple with two kids who lived above a really obnoxious fellow, an Australian as it happened, who was frequently drunk. One day the Australian swore at the man and his children. Words were exchanged. The Nigerian told the Australian he was rude and then added: “I’m going to tell my wife on you.” The Australian scoffed at that, as you can imagine. I said to my husband, because we could hear the whole altercation though our wall: “Oh my, he has no idea.” Half an hour or so later madam drove up. We heard her go upstairs and then we counted, one, two, three, four. Bam! A door slammed. She stormed downstairs, hauled that Australian out of his apartment and yelled at him with such fury that he ran back inside and hid. She won us all months of peace, I was sad to see them move. When I told an English couple, they were confused. Why had the man left it to his wife to deal with the neighbor? They thought the Nigerian man was lacking in manliness. But I know that in Sierra Leone this would be an entirely probable scenario. Female anger carries great weight, particularly coming from a mother. The home is her domain and her authority within it counts. But not just the home, I have become visibly angry three times in public in Sierra Leone that I can recall and each time it has changed the situation for the better, for me anyhow.
Yet in the West from the youngest age girls are taught otherwise, to turn it in upon themselves, to weep and not to rage, to seek sympathy, rather than demand respect. Somebody asked me recently why female anger in Sierra Leone is more evident and seemingly more effective, and I think back to the words of a psychiatrist I know there, who described Western culture as one that “internalizes” and West African culture as an “externalizing” culture. This is a very general observation, of course. The impact on anger, on female anger, is that a woman from Nigeria or Sierra Leone is far more likely to take it out on the object of her displeasure than on herself.
In the West women have swallowed their rage for so long one wonders what would happen if it were put on display. And I mean full bodied, red blooded rage with no evidence of tears. Here’s a story might amuse you:
Once I was out with my dog when a man on the other side of the road yelled a crass remark at me. I shouted at him to “fuck off!” He was astonished. His jaw simply dropped open. He told me to watch my mouth and I retorted he was the one who should watch his. I told him he could come cross the road and repeat what he just said to me if he dared. This wasn’t how he expected the exchange to go and he was confused, he hesitated and then decided he wasn’t going to let me get away with this. So he began to cross the road, but after a few paces faltered. My dog had recently defecated and I was holding a steaming bag of dog shit. Suddenly the power was not his, but mine. I can feel it now like a warm wash, the sensation of justified rage let rip. How many women and how many bags of dog shit would it take, I wonder, for men like him to finally stop.
I wish I could say I walked through the world with quite the authority that you ascribe to me, but battles must be picked and I’ll just as often walk into a shop to avoid a man or pretend I haven’t heard what he has said. And the vigilance required of simply walking is so tiring. Yet unbelievable as it seems, if we want the right to walk and dream while doing so, women are going to have to fight for it.
Next time I see you, Taiye, we must take a stroll.
Aminatta Forna is the author of a memoir, The Devil That Danced on the Water, and four novels. Her newest novel, Happiness, is out now from Grove Atlantic.
Taiye Selasi, a graduate of Oxford and Yale, is the bestselling author of Ghana Must Go, a family saga that takes readers from Accra to Lagos to London to New York. Named one of Granta’s “20 Best Young British Writers,” Selasi is also a photographer.
The preceding is from the Freeman’s channel at Literary Hub, which features excerpts from the print editions of Freeman’s, along with supplementary writing from contributors past, present and future. The latest issue of Freeman’s, a special edition gathered around the theme of power, featuring work by Margaret Atwood, Elif Shafak, Eula Biss, Aleksandar Hemon and Aminatta Forna, among others, is available now.