FIVE TIMES WHEN I CATCH MYSELF ALIVE
by MERIT ONYEKWERE (United States)
Issue 1.3 December 2019
There are five times when who I am coincides with who I want to be, and when I catch myself unapologetically alive:
1. When Uchechi’s voice crackles with laughter and her almond brown eyes crease at the corners, delicately.
Uchechi has an innocence about her that smooths the edges of Papa’s rough voice. She has ruddy cheeks that beam in dark times, and ears that can’t discern the kp from the gb when Mama speaks Igbo. She gets scolded for it sometimes, and I can’t help but pity her because both are said with the same gurgle of the throat, purse of the lips, and vibration of teeth and tongue that I'm sometimes clueless as to which is being uttered.
Nevertheless, Mama continues to melt her syllables together into a big Igbo soup that only the most perceptive listeners can manage to swallow. We smack gleefully on her thick consonants and full vowels, and Uchechi uses her spoon to separate the words she knows from the ones her American ears weren’t trained to catch.
She chews them but doesn’t swallow.
2. When highlife music floats through warm air, hearts beating along to the rhythm of the drums.
It's summer, in some year, on some planet in my mind, and I'm sitting in the back row of a cramped minivan, thighs sticky with sweat and body heat. The fan is on at the front of the car, and a few gentle waves of air brush against my molten legs. I shiver delightfully at the contact, tensed muscles simultaneously unwinding.
We are passing by trees, farms, and hillsides, and the plethora of colors escape my vision just as quickly as they enter. There is a soft hum of something—guitar—emanating from the speaker next to me. My sister requests, sleepily, for Mama to turn up the volume. Mama acquiesces, but not without a reprimanding, “Biko.”
Soon, the melody of the music envelopes the warm air and I feel strangely at peace—as if the sun’s harsh rays aren’t sizzling against my dark brown skin and I’m not inhaling the remainders of hand-me-down air.
Papa melodically taps his fingers against the steering wheel, and Mama looks out of her window like movie women do during dramatic scenes. Uchechi is asleep, drooling, and Nneoma’s hair is fluttering as she zones in and out of consciousness. She can’t decide whether to continue daydreaming or succumb to the instruments blending into one warm, honey feeling.
The music fades in and out, all sugar and fire with hints of ground cinnamon, and we keep floating down the road, seemingly into eternity.
I smile, consumed by the nothingness of it all.
3. When I see Mama smile in her beautiful, memorable way.
When I was little, Mama was in school, struggling to get a degree to create a better future for us. She learned to read and write in English—that stiff, proper English—and mastered her American accent.
She sounds American, but a bit too American. Like she shoved herself into the thin confines of the English language, and cut off tiny pieces of her culture to seem more acclimated.
Still, there are times when her Igbo-ness juts out of the mold ever so slightly, with subtle cadences and foreign vowels. It moves through the air like a song, and her spirit seems full and at home.
It is the essence of beauty.
So I giggle and smile at Mama as she sits beside me. She notices and beams at me, her spirit alive and whole.
Completely her beautiful, Igbo self.
4. When I forget how to use my own sharp voice and translate my thoughts into words.
There’s an odd finality in words.
They're like beings; completely individual from each other and from the meanings we give them. I use them to speak for me when my words fail, because they often do.
I discovered this at a young age, when I didn’t know how to express the feelings bubbling inside me. I didn’t cry, yell, or talk at all. I just wrote and wrote and wrote until my fingers ached and ink stained the page and there were no words left to write.
It was the beginning of my poetic prowess, and the end of my struggle to find words to say.
Because—through quotidian writing catharses and adrenalined, silky pen strokes on milk white sheets—I realized that, sometimes, there weren’t any.
And that was okay.
Words are an extension of my being. They grow, like plants, blooming in fertilized times and blossoming into sunflowers at my fingertips.
It’s beautiful when I create gardens without uttering a single word.
5. When I’m on Nigerian soil—black and vibrant and achingly familiar.
We visit Nigeria every other year, in the winter, when the sun shines and the air is thick with humidity.
I remember how I used to hate it—the warmth clinging to my body like a second skin—because it itched and burned and made me feel heavy. Over time, I grew accustomed to it, and felt comfortable with waking up in pools of my own sweat during long stretches of afternoon.
Now I crave it because it means home.
It means: udara juice dribbling down my lips and the poppoppop of fireworks. Cousins dancing in the dark, when the only light is the organic joy that emanates from within our bodies, moving sporadically and freely. Hearing more Igbo than I’m used to translating, and getting lost in conversations laced with gossip and firm consonants.
To the untrained ear, it sounds harsh when Igbo erupts from the confines of their sticky mouths, but I’ve learned to mush the edges together to make the words round and spongy. Now, they're rhythmic, finding solace in my mind.
Some day in the future, when I’ve visited home enough to belong there, the syllables of my native tongue will roll out of my throat effortlessly. And I will be able to call myself Igbo—hold the “American.”
I can’t wait until that day.
Merit Onyekwere, 14, is a Nigerian American teenager from the Bay Area who enjoys writing poetry and essays in her free time. When she is not writing, Merit can be found reading nonfiction novels or volunteering at various concert venues.