If You Want to Build a Story, Become an Architect
Mary-Alice Daniel's memoir traces tangled roots and maps myriad coastlines to reach a destination called home
Mary-Alice Daniel has been on a journey, literally, across continents. She documents her experiences in A Coastline Is an Immeasurable Thing, which is a memoir about places, from which she has been uprooted, assimilated into, revisited, and settled, giving the reader a close look into the lives of African diasporas. Daniel has a way of parsing dire childhood experiences into insightful and humorous narratives. My copy of the book is colorful. Passages on every other page are highlighted for profound statements I hope to return to, funny anecdotes, or sentences too beautiful not to acknowledge—I’m not surprised that her next offering is a poetry collection.
In this interview carried out via email, Daniel and I talk about, among other things, the peculiarity of her experiences, the complexity of her relationship to Nigeria, a country that was once simply home, and the varieties of Black experience in the US where she now lives. Her responses here are as interesting as her book, and I am happy for everyone to read both.
Ladi Opaluwa: Your memoir is focused on place, which seems like an interesting choice considering the tenuous connections that you have with the various places that you’ve lived. Was this lack of rootedness earlier in your life a motivation for the book?
Mary-Alice Daniel: In my prologue, I talk about my “rootlessness,” but my perspective has shifted, and I can now see that I actually have many, many tangled roots. After leaving my birthplace in Nigeria as a young child, I spent the first decade of my life in Reading, England, before my family moved to the American South. Since adolescence, I have called these places something like “home”: Nashville, Tennessee; suburban Connecticut; suburban Maryland; Brooklyn; Harlem; Ann Arbor; Detroit; Chicago; Los Angeles. My childhood was shaped by the culture shock coloring extended return trips to Nigeria. And it was shaped by the reverse culture clash of coming back to the West, where my immediate family remained alone—just the 5 of us.
I’ve always been on the outside looking in. A major motivation in writing this book was to reposition myself. Instead of being the misfit, shuttled around from one place to another—the way I long existed in the world—I became an architect. I am drawn to manipulating chaos. In my poetry, which is wildly different in tone and style from this memoir, I’m like a kid with a borderline unhealthy fixation on fire. I like to stoke chaos, watch it proliferate, watch things burn. In this book, however, my instinct was to create order from my personal chaos. The cultural chaos I refer to involves several kinds of incongruity, including the peculiar spiritual ecosystem I come from. My ethnic tribe is 99% Islamic; my native culture cannot be divorced from that religion, and much of my maternal family is Muslim. I was raised in an Evangelical home. But the Christianity I was raised to revere was syncretic and superstitious. It mixed traditions from Islam, from the pre-Abrahamic animism of my region, and from the Catholic and Protestant missionary schools my parents were educated in. I’m now agnostic; I work through religious trauma in writing.
LO: An adjacent question: At what point did you realize that you could/should collect your experiences into a book, or, to be outrightly nosey, when did you start writing this book?
MAD: I didn’t start writing this book until I’d wasted half the time I had before its first deadline. I had a call with my amazing agent, who read some pages I’d just sent her and asked me bluntly, “You do know that people can tell when you’re writing something you don’t really want to—right?” I did not, in fact, know that. She told me to write what I wanted to write. I was nervous and scared to do so; I’d never written anything of this length in this genre. The book I sold was more of an academic/critical project, which I envisioned becoming a collection of essays. I never intended to write a memoir. I wasn’t comfortable breaking the many, many cultural taboos I had to break in order to divulge intimate details about myself and my upbringing.
LO: In your narration, Nigeria is a destitute place, but also a homestead that you return to as you move around the world. Even the plotting of the book mirrors this pattern of returning. Now that you have chosen a home for yourself (I do not want to give away the name), and have not returned to Nigeria in over a decade, what is the country to you now?
MAD: It is “Back Home.” That’s what we call it. It’s full of family, most of whom I haven’t seen in a decade. It’s full of fading and false memories. I still don’t often really think of Nigeria as a country. It’s so wildly different from place to place, and I only know my corner of it. Here, I should give a bit of background about Nigeria as a country and what makes the North different. Nigeria is roughly fifty percent Muslim and fifty percent Christian. It is divided geographically, with an overwhelmingly Islamic north above the inverse of an entirely Christianized south. Most Nigerian immigrants in the West are from the southern/central parts of the country, and so are almost all prominent Nigerian writers. As a writer, I represent a rare perspective from my radicalized, remote region.
I am from the extreme north—the desert region near the border with Niger, which is its own world. People there don’t often emigrate to the West because the way here is through education, and the educational infrastructure is poor. The terrorist group Boko Haram, which was founded in the same city I was born, means “Western education is forbidden,” and they ceaselessly attack secular schools. Literacy rates are low, especially for girls. My mother happened to be the brilliant, lucky exception. Her father converted to Christianity when he was in a missionary hospital recovering from leprosy, and he sent her to Baptist boarding schools; from there, she went on to universities in Nigeria and England.
The country where I’m from—the places I used to return to as a child—feels like it’s gone: beyond my grasp. Violence and terrorism make it impossible to visit, and there’s no end in sight. The country is a long-distance phone call with a breaking connection.
LO: You write glowingly about the Fulani tribe. For instance, “If I say I am Fulani, this is to say I go without fears.” However, in Nigeria, the current perception of the Fulani herdsmen as terrorists (which you acknowledge) is vastly different from that of the innocent nomadic herdsmen that I knew growing up. How does this turn of events make you feel about your relationship to the tribe?
MAD: I am interested in your description of my depiction of the Fulani as “glowing.” I very much intended to be critical of the cultures I came from, as well as the cultures I’ve been carried into. I don’t think that I view any part of my tribal history through rose-colored glasses. My relationship to an ethnic group whose identity is inextricably linked with Islam is complicated, as I am not Muslim. It was the Fulani, specifically, that brought Islam to much of West Africa, in a saga featuring both violence and poetry beginning over a thousand years ago. What you perceive as a glow might just be the intensity of my connection to this tribe in particular—to me, it reflects an identity stronger than “Nigerian.” Nigeria is so nebulous. I am fascinated by the long and unknown (in the West) history of the Fulani. But extremists from this tribe are, in fact, committing acts of atrocity. My Christian relatives in Fulani-land are a persecuted religious minority and the targets of our own tribespeople.
I still haven’t figured out exactly how to talk about the Fulani mostly because my words will naturally carry more weight due to the scarcity of voices from the Fulani sphere. When I told one of my Black American friends about writing this book, one of the first things she said was that she’s not interested in hearing any more negative narratives about Africa. I agreed with her . . . then proceeded to write some negative things about Nigeria. I had to balance my resistance to adding to awful stereotypes with the equally awful realities about the specific area I’m from. I cannot get away, and should not turn away, from atrocities taking place. While writing, I tried to make it very clear that everything I write applies to this region only—by making it distinctive.
LO: You detail the initial difficulty you had with assimilating in the US, even within the African American community. Something that I struggle with as a Nigerian in the US is being Black and not African American. I find that some people frown at my attempt to define myself strictly as Nigerian (I’m not American). Possibly, they see it as an attempt to avoid the struggles of African Americans. Right now, my cultural identity is Immigrant; as you write, “culture trumped color.” Anyway, all of this is a preface to asking what being American African, as you describe yourself, means to you. Is it about genealogy or about the degree of assimilation into the African American culture?
MAD: I have one foot planted in two worlds—African and American. These two worlds host a Black diaspora that is often in conflict after centuries of estrangement and rupture. I call myself American African because Africans and Americans alike have said that I am not “really” either. If I am not “really” American because I wasn’t born here, and I am not “really” African because I didn’t grow up there—am I just nothing, then? The answer is that I am both. I am “really” both. And I have conflicting feelings about both places and identities. I think my audience is made of others who are told they are not “really” enough because of immigration status or something else. I feel a strong sense of kinship with these people.
LO: When you write, “Mary is my original mystery,” I instinctively read mystery as misery. My middle name is Mary. It seems that every Mary that I know, especially non-Catholic Marys, have a hang-up about the name. I call this the Mary-trauma. I have gone from promoting it from a middle name to a first name and then reverting, to silence it. You have found peace with the name, but do you ever consider what you would name yourself if you wanted to?
MAD: I still don’t like my name and have no preference whether people call me Mary or Mary-Alice. Most people shorten it. But it’s actually another thing I find sort of humorous, just because it’s so incongruous. I don’t think I’m a Mary or will ever be a Mary. And “Alice” is semi-ludicrous to me. Still, the idea of changing my name is unappealing because as a serial immigrant, I long ago reached my limit in terms of dealing with bureaucracy and paperwork. The idea of further complicating the boxes of records I already have—some of which already contain troublesome naming errors—doesn’t seem prudent.
The most likely name I would take would be Amina, which was the name I was supposed to have been called. The name is a parallel to Mary, mother of Jesus—Amina is the mother of the Prophet Muhammad. There was also a Queen Amina who ruled part of the Nigerian North in the 16th century (I was raised with the fanciful idea that I’m her direct descendent). She’s famous for allegedly offing the lovers she took in each new territory she conquered, spending a single night with each one and beheading them all the next morning to keep their love affair secret. My mother decided to name me something “aggressively” Christian when her siblings began marrying Muslim spouses and giving their children Arabic names in that tradition. “Mary” was her way of outwardly professing faith through me.
LO: I had a most uncanny moment while reading the book. One evening, I was sitting beside my mum on a couch, I glanced at her and saw that she was wearing the same wax print that is on the cover of the book. This realization led to a lengthy conversation about the book and the ubiquity of wax print in our culture and the connotations of their design. Has the cover of the book sparked any similar conversation with your mum or any older African woman?
MAD: It took me a long time to find this cover, which centers a painting by Nigerian artist Adekunle Adeleke. I love the cover, but it hasn’t come up—it’s definitely the book’s content that is of primary concern to relatives. I was raised conservatively—socially, not politically. Raised to be modest, private. Our regional literary tradition features fables, poetry, and novels, but memoir is not really a thing, culturally. The fewer people in my extended family that read this, the better.
LO: I can’t get enough of your pristine prose and your stories. What is an anecdote that did not make it into the book that you would be willing to share, however briefly?
MAD: I can share two things.
1. Adjusting to the different American pronunciation of “Adidas” when we first moved to the U.S. was a Big Moment for me and my siblings. (Ask a British friend how they say it if you don’t know—it’s hilarious.)
2. When my family first moved to Nashville, there was one “fancy” Chinese buffet we reserved for special occasions (if we kids were well behaved in church for a long streak, or if we had out-of-town guests). I was mesmerized by the iridescent blue-green mussels they steamed, and I would always take the prettiest one, clean it, and add it to a growing stockpile. I’d never seen anything like them before and thought they were rare or expensive, that they might increase in value over time. One day, my mom found my gross little collection and threw everything away. I think about that oddball kid who was so impressed with shiny shells. In the book, I describe her as “clueless, shabby.” And now I think I envy her. One of my favorite words is “lucipetal”—seeking or being attracted to bright things like light. She embodied that. I’m circling around it.