How to Be a Terrible No-Good African Daughter
Figuring out how to live and write as the child of Nigerian immigrants, to the dulcet strains of Toto
Make sure to keep the broth. No melons, just broth. It’s Christmas and I am writing the recipe for my favorite food. My mother is cooking the melons, boiling the seeds over the stove to make egusi soup, a red-orange thick stew with a chunky, gritty consistency—or what I, a terrible no-good African daughter with no good cooking skills, mistakenly thought to be “African peanut soup.” What I would like to do is to produce a heartfelt story that will precede my recipe for egusi soup.
My goal here is not to be one of those cooking blogs like “Casey’s Cooking Corner” (a name I make up for a clever take on clunky alliteration). Casey’s Cooking Corner would tell you all about my seven-year-old son and our day making my famous Casey’s Chocolate Cupcakes before I get to the actual recipe. Instead, my goal is to tell you how to be a terrible no-good African daughter before I get to the actual recipe.
1. Allow Toto to kill your dreams of Africa.
Never in my life did I hear the song “Africa” by Toto until I moved to Ohio. After that, I heard it more times than I could count. Once when I was at a small Midwestern dive bar, the song played in the background as a friend of mine (knowing that my parents were Nigerian immigrants) asked me how I felt about it. Since I hadn’t heard the song much until then, I had never paid much attention to the lyrics.
I hear the drums echoing tonight
The wild dogs cry out in the night
I bless the rains down in Africa
Gonna take some time to do the things we never had (ooh, ooh)
At first, I wasn’t sure what she was getting at by asking me what I thought of it. A way to capitalize on the mythical nature of Africa? Perhaps I had bought into the whole thing, joining my white friends in humming the tune. When I hear the song on the radio I can’t help but think of that conversation, one that pretty much sparked my latest identity crisis.
2. Allow your killed dreams to manifest in a need for approval by possible Toto fans.
In one of my literature classes, we read Nnedi Okorafor’s Who Fears Death. Days before, I sit across from a friend who speed reads the first 20 chapters in two hours. Meanwhile, I am only reaching chapter 10 or so. I don’t tell my friend that the reason for this is because I struggle to read the names of the Nigerian characters. I go syllable by syllable, making sure to pronounce them the way my dad would in his thick accent—though it’s waned after 30 years spent in the United States. I often tell people how I wish I, too, had an accent where I call for my “bruddah” to bring up a plate of Insallah from downstairs.
While we discuss the book, I’m conscious of being the only person in the room with a direct connection to an African heritage. My white classmates stumble over Okeke and Binta, Mwinta and Onyesonwu. Mwinta is also always a struggle for me. I trip between the “m” and “w.” After a few attempts, I realize that the “m” makes an “mmm” sound and the “wi” reads as “we.” “Mmm-we-tah,” I say slow and steady.
My name is pronounced “Free-duh Eyy-poom.” For my entire life I have pronounced my last name as “Eee-pum.” It was what I was instructed to do when I was a kid. My dad would answer to “Eyy-poom” in our house, but outside it just felt more natural to me to go by “Eee-pum.” It was easier for non-Africans to say and since they were who I interacted with on a daily basis, that’s how it was. I never questioned it. I never felt any sense of whitewashing. I never felt like I was lying to myself or disrespecting my parents until I heard actress Uzo Aduba speak about her mother and the pronunciation of her name: “I went home and asked my mother if I could be called Zoe. I remember she was cooking, and in her Nigerian accent she said, ‘Why?’ I said, ‘Nobody can pronounce it.’ Without missing a beat, she said, ‘If they can learn to say Tchaikovsky and Michelangelo and Dostoyevsky, they can learn to say Uzoamaka.’” Having read and studied Michelangelo, I knew that I did not want to be a Zoe or an Eee-pum. At an awards ceremony, they called my name (pronouncing it correctly) and all of my friends noted how the announcer called my name out incorrectly. Perhaps that was how much I unconsciously was ashamed of my culture. My curly-haired other half would kiss my hand and call me “Free-duh Eyy-poom,” earnestly knowing how much it meant to me. Still, when I leave messages on the phone, the Eee-pum escapes like a Freudian slip. I bet you know how to pronounce Freud.
3. Add in a few pleasant adolescent memories based on interactions with the children of Toto fans.
I flashback to high school and middle school where boys and girls in English class study the Iliad, play tetherball in gym class, and eat the circle-shaped pizzas. Then I hear it loud and clear: “CLICK.” The Xhosa language of the Bantu people in South Africa is oh-so-very-humorously adapted by sweaty seventh graders as a follow-up greeting after I tell them my parents are from Nigeria. It’s made to represent all Africans in America. If a sweaty seventh grader happened to be a bit more worldly, he’d ask me if I “speak Nigerian.” No, I do not “speak Nigerian,” TJ, because in Nigeria alone there are over a hundred languages given the diversity of each tribe. No, I do not speak the language of my parents, grandparents, or great-grandparents. It is quite possible that my language will die with me, as I am unable to extend it to my children or children’s children. I become an island with no bridge to other generations.
4. Allow your killed dreams to manifest in an Identity Crisis ™. Leave with an idea for a new band name— Identity Crisis ™.
Months ago, I travelled to Boston after I was awarded a scholarship to attend a conference on getting your book published. I spent much of the three-day conference alone, too shy to ask many questions after embarrassing myself in front of an intimidating type-A agent from a large agency.
“I’m a nobody MFA student trying to get published. Where do I start?” I had asked.
“Your first mistake is describing yourself as a nobody.”
As she made this remark, adding that putting oneself down first was the type of thing that only women do, her biting confidence stung. Just a little. She was beautiful. A self-assured Black women who I wanted to stand closer to so I could better smell what must have been some expensive brand of perfume that I hoped I could purchase at the nearest #blackgirlmagic store in hopes that a little bit of the magic would rub off on me. I would soon find that this trip would reveal a lot more than my lack of publishing knowledge. It revealed a different sense of lack that I had in myself. A lack of blackness. A lack of Africanness. A lack of proximity to community.
A few days ago I was reading about the late Kenyan author Binyavanga Wainaina. I had only heard of him after his death upon reading his piece “How to Write about Africa,” a satirical critical examination of the way the continent is often shrunken down to a country filled with tropes of “taboo subjects: ordinary domestic scenes, love between Africans (unless a death is involved), references to African writers or intellectuals, mentions of school-going children who are suffering from yaws or Ebola fever or female genital mutilation.” A critique that could only be written by a real African, I thought to myself.
My entire life I have been plagued by the question of what makes A Real African™ and how can I become one. I found myself often relating to other first-generation immigrants like myself, often not of African descent. There weren’t many families that spoke with the recognizable Igbo accent of my parents while I was growing up in Arizona. By the time I reached 25 years old, I had no friends with whom I could share my life experiences without having to explain nearly every aspect of myself. I felt different from my friends who were Korean American, Japanese American, Taiwanese American, Mexican American, and Palestinian American, all of whom had deep ties to their places of origin through language, food, living relatives, or community. I had none of these things. I could not speak Igbo, I could not cook Nigerian food—not fufu, jollof rice, egusi, insallah, puff-puff. I had no living grandparents to connect me to another generation, I did not grow up around other Nigerians or other Africans, I had never walked the same land my parents walked for the first 22 years of their lives. When I meet others, I often say that “my parents are from Nigeria.” It took the insistence of a stranger for me to actually say: “I am Nigerian.” Maybe because when I hear these three words that declare my Naija pride, I also hear another set of three words: I could not, I had none, I am not.
After all, wasn’t I just like the people that Wainaina was critiquing? “Always use the word ‘Africa’ or ‘Darkness’ or ‘Safari’ in your title.” How could I ever possibly write about Africa when I couldn’t possibly be a real African? Was I still the same little girl that would play in her dad’s wicker hat pretending to be on a safari because that’s all she knew of Africa?
5. Thank Toto for allowing you to wax lyrical about your relationship inspired by Mark Zuckerberg.
I thought of how different my racial upbringing has been from that of my parents. I thought of my dad who told me that the first white man he ever saw was a Christian missionary in church when he was about six years old. Yet here I am fucking what Black Panther’s Shuri would call a colonizer. And yeah, love is love and all of that crap (good crap, but crap nonetheless) they tell you in the West, but I still couldn’t stop wondering what it would be like if I brought my avid jort-wearing, Pokemon Go enthusiast, Mark Zuckerberg-look-alike boyfriend to the motherland.
A possible future mini Zuckerberg-Epum’s 4th grade family tree project would have to begin with Tinder. And though a mini version of the two of us was not yet a blip in the radar, now two years into our relationship, we were making plans to deepen our commitment to one another by moving in. I’m a bit of an obsessive media consumer, and it just so happened that our planning coincided with my recent binge-watching of the new Netflix show Tuca and Bertie, about two anthropomorphic animal BFFs in their thirties going through life together. Bertie, a bird (unsurprisingly), had just moved in with her boyfriend and was having a bit of a crisis as she was forced to come to terms with the notion that she was settling down. And so as I watched this talking songbird struggle with the idea of marrying Steven Yeun, I was forced to come to terms with the realities of my own interracial relationship.
Blended families, like all families, are beautiful, though I struggled with the idea that maybe my children would face their own inner turmoil over their “lack.” I struggled with the idea that I would somehow feel as though I was the one who erased Nigerian culture from my own lineage. Little Zuckerberg would be gaining a life filled with goetta breakfasts and Midwestern manners, but would they too feel “I am not?” If my siblings and I all grew to have white partners (not yet a reality, but a possibility), what would that say about us? Is there any real point in trying to place blame on the situation? Shouldn’t I just be with the individual that makes me the happiest? But then again, even Bertie only dates other birds.
I had a friend who also indulged in colonizer-fucking (though I would not say this out loud myself, sometimes humor helps). She was about to marry her white fiancé, an adorable nerd like my Mr. Zuckerberg. Interracial dating had always been a strange occurrence for me. Somehow I ended up dating white people from the least diverse states in the U.S. While on a trip to Philadelphia, walking hand in hand with a white boy from Iowa, I walked past a group of Black men who broke into applause. Were they clapping for him? A very masculine congratulations on getting with a “pretty Black girl.” Was it for me? For assimilating to whiteness (in bed, I joke in my head)? Was it for both of us given the hypothetical situation of producing a mixed-race child? It wasn’t the first time that I had heard the narrative that mixed-race women were better—“good hair,” “light-bright,” “redbone.” All of the rappers sang of their conquests with mixed-raced women. I think back to my friend and her relationship. She, too, was on the street holding hands with a white boy when a man walked up to her to say: “You will ruin your family.” As I am getting older, I suddenly am thinking about babies. There are fucking babies everywhere now. My uterus is about ready to jump out of my skin and pop out a slimy little freeloader while walking down the street. Is it true that my friend and I would be ruining our families? Lightening our deep roots to the homeland of our parents? To the ephemeral home of myself?
Mr. Zuckerberg and I were starting to get pretty serious. It had been months since we said the big “I love you,” after deciding to get an apartment together in Cincinnati. Him, one night apparently when I was sleeping. Me, during an argument about the prospect of me moving away after finishing my graduate degree. I was used to difference in my relationships. Him, a German, Scott-Irish, American (read: white). A nerdy small town boy from Kentucky with dreams of becoming a rich and famous writer. Me, a Nigerian American from Arizona who had already left home by seventeen.
During one late night drunk with nose kisses, uninhibited burp contests, and flirty smiles, I once asked him if he would come with me to Nigeria for a year. It had become a part of my five-year plan, to spend a year in Nigeria hopefully on a Fulbright scholarship to work on my next book project about a girl’s trip home for the first time. To my surprise, he said yes, with a sharp nod that pushed his full head of curls forward. Our love was some pretty good crap.
When I talked to my mom on the phone about my plans of going to Lagos and possibly to the villages where she and my dad grew up, she sounded concerned. Her tone of voice was of perpetual concern. Whether I had graduated from college or gotten my first job, always a hint of concern. “Why would you go back if you don’t know anyone there?” That stung, more than a little. I felt resentment towards my parents, grateful for their sacrifice but resentful for what I felt deprived of: a sense of self. I asked her: “How would you feel if you knew nothing of the place your parents were from? If you always felt disconnected wherever you went?” She was quiet for a beat. “I don’t know.” Though it felt fruitless to try to explain what I knew she would never understand, her concern-tinged voice still comforted me as I laid in my bed 2,000 miles away from the only home I had known and 6,000 miles away from the home I had never known.
6. Cook your recipe for delicious egusi soup with the intensity of 1000 Arizona summers. Somehow email Toto the recipe so they too can be terrible no-good African daughters.
But what was I even hoping to find there? Was I like every other Black American that claimed a desire to go to “the motherland,” the ever-expansive land that was taken from them? I joke with Mr. Zuckerberg that it’s his job to grab the umbrella during our trip to the beach while I’m too lazy to do so because it’s my reparations. The joke lands and we both laugh at the taboo whilst glossing over the fact that my family would be unlikely to receive reparations due to the fact that we haven’t endured generational racism. A Black American friend’s teasing over my lack of real Blackness (the kind attached to the Transatlantic Slave Trade) rings in my ear. Again I hear the “I am not.” I remember Wainaina’s words: “Readers will be put off if you don’t mention the light in Africa. And sunsets, the African sunset is a must. It is always big and red. There is always a big sky. Wide empty spaces and games are critical—Africa is the Land of Wide Empty Spaces.” Oh, how I wished to see an African sunset just like the Arizona sunsets I watched growing up. Blending maroon with red hot orange with pale pinks. Maybe that would be the only place I felt real, with the sun.
Ingredients: Egusi (melon seeds) from the African market; bell peppers; chicken broth; diced can tomatoes; onions; habanero peppers; beef (cut into small portions); chicken thigh; salsa; spinach
Directions: Cook and add the sweat of one terrible no-good African daughter while listening to the musical sensations of Toto.