What I write:
I am writing a collection of essays that center on the theme of language, and what happens when language breaks, proving insufficient to contain the experience it is trying to name. I grew up across several cultures and languages—my family is from Malawi, but I was born in the United States, spent my childhood and adolescence between Canada and Malawi, and finished high school in Wales before returning to the US for college—and as a result I grew up with an internalized understanding of a language paradigm’s limits. In addition to English, I have French, Spanish, German and Chichewa in my arsenal, and have the ability to fill in a missing concept in one language with a better word in another language. As a result I’m constantly running into the black holes each language has at its edges, and subsequently wondering about all the things that cannot be said—or can only be said with incredible labor—because the paradigm to express these things is present in one language but missing from the next. My work with this project will thus primarily focus on finishing the pieces of which I intend for this collection to be comprised.
What I am working on:
The essay that I hope to anchor the collection is an essay I wrote several years ago about the AIDS epidemic in Malawi, that I am now at work expanding into a longer piece. AIDS has decimated the working-age population in my country; more importantly, however, it has irrevocably impacted the structure of the family, because the normal lines of responsibility have been destroyed. In the self-contained version of this essay, I make the case that AIDS has continued to wreak its havoc on our society and our families because there is simply no language, in Chichewa, to talk as accurately about it as we would need to in order to corral its insistent spread; in the expanded part of this work, I go in further depth into the twists and turns of Chichewa versus English that mean we are right now locked into this dance with the disease that we can’t seem to find our ways out of or even find the will to think about the way out. People like me who endeavor to name too closely what it happening often find ourselves distinctly exiled from the conversation about this, and this is part of the reason that this essay has not yet been published. While I am less valuable as an exile than I am as an active agent who is an acceptable part of the endeavor to fix what has been broken, in my silence I have been afraid that perhaps I am just as complicit in the destruction that continues to unfold, and so have determined to finish the piece’s expansions, and then work on the secondary issues of honoring my family and culture once it is done.
What I'm reading and why:
I believe that nonfiction work can and should have the power and pull of fiction’s feeling of a continuous dream, and so to that end my reading focuses nearly exclusively on fiction, and specifically on narratives where the characters are trying to learn the words to name unspeakable traumas, and are often attempting to brook complicated language boundaries in order to do it. I am working toward perfecting my own voice, but trying hard to learn from people who I think do it brilliantly. This means I read a lot of World War II narratives—Anne Michaels’s Fugitive Pieces, Anthony Doerr’s All The Light We Cannot See, Rachel Seiffert’s The Dark Room are books I regularly return to—and slavery narratives, where precise language at precisely the right time is critical to both codifying the horror of the experience and creating the ability to exit from it. Most recently this has been Yaa Gyasi’s Homegoing, Octavia Butler’s Kindred, Colson Whitehead’s The Underground Railroad, and Caryl Phillips’s Cambridge. I also try to read books in which the trustworthiness of language comes into question, whether it is implied between the book’s lines—most of Jeanette Winterson’s work comes to mind, but especially Written On the Body and G.U.T. Symmetries—or is the central conceit of the novel outright, such as Ann Patchett’s Bel Canto. All writers are concerned with language, but these writers have a particular focus that speaks to the work I am doing; I am endeavoring with my essay craft to navigate the languages lines and break points as well as those authors have done.