I am thrilled to introduce this partnership between The Rumpus and VONA/Voices of Our Nations Arts, the only multi-genre summer workshop for writers of color in the US. Founded by Elmaz Abinader, Junot Díaz, Victor Díaz, and Diem Jones in 1999, VONA/Voices is committed—like The Rumpus—to creating spaces where people come to be themselves through their writing, to tell their stories or speak their minds in the most artful and authentic way they know how. And like The Rumpus, we nurture writing that’s challenging, brave, passionate, and true (and yes, sometimes very funny).
In our seventeen years, VONA/Voices has helped integrate the literary landscape by mentoring 2,000 writers from around the globe, birthing more than 200 books, and launching the careers of countless writers, some of whom, like Olivia Olivia and Soo Na Pak, were published for the first time at The Rumpus. Their commitment to creating outlets for diverse voices is critical to our work. In March, The Rumpus published an important Roundtable on Writing, Editing, and Race, whose members spoke about the role VONA/Voices played in their careers. We are eternally grateful and extend special thanks to Mary-Kim Arnold, Marisa Siegel, and everyone involved in this joint venture.
In your new married life, You & O are invited to couples’ dinner parties where at some point the hostess turns to you and crows: “Tell the story of your marriage!” At fifty-something, this is your first marriage, so you wonder, is this what married people do? Or are you objects of speculation because you’re fifty-something first-time newlyweds? Or has someone told her that either the story or its telling is dinner-party-worthy? Still somewhat enamored of your own story, you’re happy to oblige, after the inevitable glance at each other (who’s got this?), the inevitable writerly pondering of what to include, where to begin.
1. Begin at a pivotal moment.
…such as the first time You & O met (springtime in Massachusetts) and you remember thinking that this gentle man with the hooded eyes, who goes from sad to radiant the instant he parts his romance-novel lips and stretches his broad cheeks into a smile, and you might in fact end up together simply because it was what Rom-Coms dubbed a Meet-Cute.
But then the stranger bearing gifts you’d welcomed into your birthday brunch solely on the basis that he looked Nigerian and therefore was hopefully connected to you somehow said, “I can see you’ve forgotten me.” He explained that, while it was his friend (who’d moved away) you invited, this was in fact your third meeting.
But stories are all about decisions, so you decide to forget that inconvenient detail. (As well as the fact that he asked you to set him up with two of your friends from brunch.)
2. Begin by making your readers wonder.
…how, for example, his marriage proposal twenty-four years later could be so horrible it’s gone down in dinner party infamy as The Curse Proposal. And how over the course of seven days in Costa Rica (a setting readers will wonder how you did not love—everyone is supposed to love Costa Rica, a country with its own slogan: Pura Vida!) he quasi-proposed daily until you shouted, “Is this really the story you want me to tell?” at which point he ran out.
He later returned with a Pura Vida notebook from the hotel gift shop and a Pura Vida pen, and touching one to the other, asked for the seventh time, “So what are de elements of a marriage proposal?” (Whereupon the writers at dinner all fall to the floor, screaming, “OMG, you workshopped his proposal!”).
At this point, if you’re successful, your readers might also wonder A) what is a Curse Proposal, B) what are the elements of a marriage proposal, and C) how is such marriage proposal ineptitude possible for seven days straight?
A. “Alright, alright. Let’s drive to Reno when we get back and get dis shit taken care of!” (Cue gasp from sensitive readers.)
B. Gun to head (or pen to pad), you would guess that a proposal includes 1) A grand declaration of the significance of marriage and of said relationship; 2) Romantic staging, say a beach at sunset, that establishes the couple’s relationship metaphor; 3) And of course The Question itself. (But with you, as with Aristotle, it’s always about the metaphor.)
C. The seven-day ineptitude is a mystery, especially as this is the same man who four years prior flew cross-country to convince you to try dating for the third time, de-plane-ing with a bank statement, souvenirs from your previous two rounds of dating, a new sexual move, and the pronouncement, “We’ll enjoy de weekend, den I shall make my closing arguments Monday morning.”
3. Begin with an interesting picture or unusual situation.
All the manuals stress that stories should start in media res, so back-burner the back-story (your first and second dating rounds; his multimedia wooing attempt, which you’ve dubbed The PowerPoint Presentation). Instead, begin with the declaration that You & O have dated off and on every decade, in your twenties and thirties and forties, segueing into four years of co-habitation, and ending with your elopement, three weeks after your fiftieth birthday.
The specific numbers add narrative authority, while referencing The Big Birthday continues the birthday motif and adds a sense of urgency. Which indeed you felt. Which is odd, since marriage-focused women mystify you. You were born in a Home for Unwed Mothers, after all, your mother eschewing both marriage and Barbie dolls.
But Nigerians marry. That’s what they do. So the fact that he, a born-and-bred Nigerian, wouldn’t marry you, a-raised-outside-half Nigerian, after what was starting to feel like a twenty-four-year audition, was becoming a problem.
4. Begin with an intriguing character.
…like Nigeria’s Oldest Bachelor (probably not literally, but at age fifty-seven pretty mind-boggling to the other 169,999,999 Nigerians, including his late mother who once gestured towards his crotch and said, “So. Does your stuff work?” and even your Costa Rican lawyer who, as soon as O excused himself, leaned over the dinner table and blurted that O had listed himself as Single on the marriage application—“not Divorced, not Widowed, but Never Married, nunca!”).
O the Husband has turned out to be Facebook like-able, with a new convert’s zeal for marriage that you’ve turned into micro-dialogues, using his brilliant pet name for you (a happy marriage of your childhood nickname and the Nigerian obsession with titles):
O: Honorable Punkin! Dis is the best time in my life. My eldest sister took me aside in Nigeria and said, “I’ve never seen you so contented. Is it being married?” So I pondered it. It doesn’t really make sense—my career isn’t where I want it; I have money problems; and yet I’ve never been happier. I can only conclude dat I’m really in love with my wife.
You: You have a wife in Nigeria?
O: Not dat I know of! I’m talking about de wife I’m looking at right now!
You: Oh, so you’ve decided you love the woman you married after twenty-four years of deliberation.
O: Dere’s no way you’re not going to tease me about dis?
You: Have you met me?
He’s lactose and social-media intolerant, so when friends rave about your latest domestic dialogue, you must distract. Luckily, it’s fairly easy, thanks to his (diagnosed by you) ADD and OCD, which at boarding school in Nigeria they simply called “OP” (his nickname, short for what instructors scrawled in red atop his papers and exams: Off! Point!). His distracted meanderings drive you nuts but are useful when it comes to throwing him off the scent: “That person knew about ‘Honorable Punkin’ and PowerPoint? Lucky guess, I imagine!”
5. Begin with a compelling narrative voice.
At times in the years you weren’t in touch, when you were negotiating what it was to be Nigerian-Nordic-American, Halfrican, you’d declare that if you ever had to marry a Nigerian, O would do. Yes, there were warning flags he was color-struck, a little too intrigued by the tribe of Lost Biracial Nigerians that overseas education has wrought, but as the result of an interethnic marriage, both parents from minor tribes, he was refreshingly open, with a distinctly un-Nigerian acceptance of things like gay rights. And salad.
“Yup, if I had to Marry Nigerian, it would’ve been O,” you said in what you imagined was a compelling narrative voice but apparently not compelling enough to stop American friends from demanding, “But why would you have to?”
Because Nigerians marry! And those of us lost out here in the unwelcome wilds of America want to get home. So, in between the birthday brunch where you thought you met O and the African students party at MIT the year before where you’d actually met him, you traveled to Nigeria to meet your father for the first time.
At this point some back-story is warranted: Your parents split and your Nigerian father left the country before your American mother realized she was pregnant and fled her furious Swedish father to the Home for Unwed Mothers. Your father wrote to you until you were twelve, and when you turned up in Nigeria fourteen years later didn’t welcome you, but the acceptance of Nigerians like O (and the friend you’d actually invited to brunch) gave you the strength hang on. Yada yada yada.
So when O flew across country from California (his move there just months after you’d starting dating the first time the cause of your first break-up) to do The PowerPoint Presentation on why you should get together a third (“and final!” he promised) time, the story had almost too many ironies for you to bear. Here was a Nigerian who was proposing to start a business back home, which meant that you, who’d lost your father to Nigeria, would be dating a man who disappeared routinely for unspecified times to Nigeria. If you believed in trigger warnings (and you’ve warned your students that you’re a writer who doesn’t), this certainly would’ve been the place to insert one into your own story.
The Middle of the Story:
So now that you’ve hopefully hooked your reader, how to tell the story of your actual marriage, the two years of legal status (an ironic distinction for someone who is technically illegitimate, a biracial bastard born when miscegenation wasn’t even legal in America) that began after the twenty-four-year trial?
6. Remember the importance of details.
O (i.e., Off Point of The PowerPoint) loves detail. As you do, when it’s the moment you awake to that radiant smile and he says, “My wife!” and you say, “Tell me a story!” But it’s annoying when a lover of details tries to claim you were “the same as married” during those four years of cohabitation that ended on a beach in Costa Rica and began eight months after The PowerPoint Presentation, when out of the blue, a college in California called to offer you a visiting gig in the same city where O lived. You & O took it as a sign (“Tird time’s a charm!” he crowed), as an unsolicited phone call twenty-five years ago offered up a fellowship to Nigeria, which is how in the year between when you thought you’d met and you actually met, you were able to travel to Nigeria and force your father to acknowledge you.
Like O, you’re a stickler for details; unlike O, you’re a stickler for legal status (as are apparently the dinner guests who ask if you now plan to get pregnant, as if a marriage certificate will suddenly enable you to travel back in time to your childbearing years). So after The PowerPoint, you paid a lawyer to draft a Cohabitation Agreement covering finances and articulating marriage as an eventual goal (“I’m forty-something and this is the third draft of our story,” you explained. As your Swedish grandfather used to say: “Either shit or get off the pot!”)
The college visiting gig came with housing, a plus, as A) O had given up his sad Nigeria’s-Oldest-Bachelor pad in order to start the abandonment-triggering trips to Nigeria, and B) the Mediterranean-style stucco bungalow with red tile roof in a grove of Eucalyptus trees called Faculty Village reminded O of his childhood home. He waxed nostalgic about driving upcountry with his father, a District Officer for the British, pre-Independence; endured Anansi and Amalinze (your cats named for West African literary characters), who left turds of disgruntlement on his chair; and offered the neighbors rides to the airport like a model (faculty) villager.
At the end of your four years, when you needed a new job and a new place to live and a decision, you hosted a successful tribal meeting. Being Nigerian is a highly bureaucratic endeavor, filled with meetings and tithes, which neither of you enjoys, but he’d taken interest in his mother’s ethnic group, a mixed-origin first-contact people who’d swum out to welcome the Portuguese, the first Europeans, in the 15th century. He was beaming after the encounter (during which you cajoled elders into liking your gumbo and jambalaya and homemade cake by pointing out the historical connection to okro soup and Jollof rice and, well, cake), and as you drifted off, he rubbed your sore-from-cooking shoulders and thanked you.
Since the second, uglier break-up, he’s become incredibly affectionate, so much so that other Nigerians frown and fumble for their wives’ hands. So much so that at a wedding he made sure to stand between you and a lone trans acquaintance, hugging you both, “because no one should feel alone at a wedding.”
“Uh, Honorable Punkin,” he ventured shyly. “It was so wonderful hosting everyone, my best friend’s wife and kids, I must ask you someting.”
7. Don’t be a hero or a victim.
You bolted upright. This was it! Confirmation that the third time was indeed a charm; confirmation that these were all signs—the unsolicited job offer in California, how you never bored each other, his optimism to your pessimism, the improbability of two Nigerian introverts. Payoff for supporting you both on your tiny visiting professor salary after he lost his job and his entrepreneurial endeavors failed. Payoff for doing the emotional heavy lifting when he shut down and all you could do, once triggered by his distracted inability to remember to check in or come home before 8 or 9 or 10 p.m., was shout and shout, terrified he was one car ride away from hopping a plane to Nigeria for twenty-six years.
“Yes?” you ventured, equally shy. “What do you want to ask me?”
He flashed a goofy smile and admitted, sounding delightfully boyish, that “Dis is embarrassing. It’s been four years, and I’m just now asking.”
You’d suggested a break-up, as the period covered by the Cohabitation Agreement came to a close and he resisted marriage, citing first a heretofore-undemonstrated desire to have children, and then his lack of income, which was indeed problematic, your internalization of Nigerian gender roles surprising you. With a Nordic or American man, you wouldn’t have minded common-law cohabitation or a house-(non)husband. You certainly appreciate how O is the one who cleans the house (primarily because he is OCD and hates cat hair), scrubs the dishes after your elaborate dinner parties, hand-washes your underwear (even if he does ruin the rest of the laundry). But he wouldn’t move forward nor backward, neither marry nor break-up, though he spoke of buying a house, as it was the bottom of the market and you both needed new jobs and a new place to live and (for you) a decision.
You don’t love the Nigerian love of monthly tribal meetings. Your ethnic group spends the time criticizing you for not speaking your father’s language. (As if you could’ve picked it up from the occasional childhood letter or during the year your father was telling you, in English, to board a plane and return to America.) O’s group, on the other hand, can’t seem to remember that you’re Nigerian, eying you curiously when you assure them they don’t have to explain (in loud, slow voices) how to swallow fufu. But you do love his best friend’s family—the sweet, jolly teacher wife, the well-mannered kids who greet you like a proper Nigerian auntie but also follow you around, asking things like a cool American auntie. It’s too late for children, but had you gone that route and married back during the first or second or third times you were dating and he suggested it impulsively way too soon, then this family seems to have struck the perfect balance of African and American, Halfrican. And surely, spending the afternoon next to them showed that you, though not Nigerian enough to keep your disappeared-to-Nigeria father’s attention, fit.
O’s rough fingers worked in dreamy swirls on your widow’s peak. “So,” he sing-songed, “what I want to ask you is dis…”
You snuggled into his hot-as-a-heater chest. “Yes?”
“What is de name of our cats?”
At the look on your face, he nodded. “Right? De kids were also shocked I didn’t know! Dey said, ‘Uncle, you don’t know de names of your cats! How do you call dem?’ and I said, you know, ‘I just say De Sick One and De Udder One’.”
Facebook loves this story, friends screaming with laughter. “De Sick One and De Udder One! Classic O!”
8. Do your research.
Any Nigerian will tell you that a woman without a husband is nothing. Your over-achieving tribe is worst. Women must earn their MD or PhD, get big careers, marry, produce sons, oversee households, raise children, and start some side entrepreneurial concern. Men must do the education, career and marriage parts, and pay school fees for their wives’ siblings and poor relations. The cooking, cleaning, and childrearing parts may be substituted with the having of girlfriends, mistresses and (in the case of no sons) minor wives. The important thing being, again, that Nigerians Marry.
The basic Nigerian unit, The Group, was hardest during the four year of cohabitation he claims were the same as marriage. He was: O the Brother, O the Uncle, O the Nephew. As the Girlfriend, You were not invited to family meetings.
American women hopeful of snagging husbands are advised by tribal elders, that is, Cosmo, Essence, Ladies Home Journal (Can this marriage be saved?), and RealiTV, to Research how a man treats his mother and waiters; that will determine how he treats YOU! Advised to strategize to overcome the inevitable change marriage will bring—less attention, less effort, thicker waistlines! Three instances of short-term, long-distance dating in your twenties and thirties and forties, segueing into four years of co-habitation, followed by two years of marriage in your fifties hardly makes you an expert. You can say this, however: marriage drastically changed O.
O the Brother / Uncle / Nephew is now first and foremost O the Husband. For you, suddenly half the most important unit in the Nigerian pantheon, this means getting to come to the table. For him, after fifty-seven years of meetings and tithes, this means invoking his new identity like a super power: “You want me to pay your son’s school fees? You need a ride to de airport at de crack of dawn? You want me to invest in your Ponzi scheme? Let me ask my wife.” My wife!
In “The End,” the late Judith Kitchen explains five things writers can employ at the end of a story/essay to share thought and intimacy, which is what we talk about when we talk about marriage.
9. Introspection: a self-examination and discovery.
On Thanksgiving O’s sister receives two turkeys from clients, while her husband receives a third. When O comes home with a fourth, you (the only American and ironically the only disliker of turkey) cry, “What’re you three going to do with four turkeys?”
O: What’re you talking about? Put dem in the fridge and gnaw on dem slowly!
You: Until your Social Security benefits kick in?
O: Heyyy, dat’s a good one! You know, in my thirty-three years in De States, I’ve never had a wife.
You: Wow. I thought that sentence was going to end with something like “stuffing” but okay..?
O: Tanksgiving is different this year. My status has changed to family man; we own a house. Dere’s a lot to be tankful for! I wanted to buy and cook my own turkey. Where’s de Uncle Ben’s?
You: You’re making Jollof rice for Thanksgiving?
O: What do Americans eat with turkey?
You: Sweet potatoes. Goopy things called casseroles. Stuffing.
O: Ohhh. Okay, in my thirty-three years in De States, I’ve never had stuffing.
10. Retrospection: an assessment.
You awake to O bellowing on the phone downstairs. “Dat foolish guy is just wasting time dating around!” shouts Nigeria’s (formerly) Oldest Bachelor. “Dere’s nothing like marriage-o! I’m telling you, it can’t be beat!”
You step onto the creaky first stair.
“Uh oh, my wife’s awake.” His flip-flops scurry across the dining room floor. “Make I call you back before she starts teasing me!”
11. Imagination: which allows for alternatives, projections, juxtapositions.
Soon after your arrival to Costa Rica—a trip you’d planned and paid for yourself, to celebrate your Big Birthday and his return from six months in Nigeria—he made The Curse Proposal and you stopped speaking. While surfing the net in the hotel lobby, you discovered on Facebook that an ex-boyfriend was actually in the country on a research trip, mere miles away. What are the odds?
12. Meditation: a thinking through and around.
In Arenal Volcano National Park, O fell sick and lay shivering in your wooden chalet beneath the volcano. In your high school Spanish, you got yourself onto the workers’ bus, to la farmacia in town, and back. When you tossed Vicks para la gripe onto the bed, he bolted upright, stunned that while not speaking to him, you’d done all this.
13. Intrusion: a commentary, a stepping in.
Later he rallied to take a boat across misty Lake Arenal, but the altitude of the Monteverde Cloud Forest precipitated a setback, and you were on your own again, trooping across suspension bridges (and other stupid jungle-lite adventures) in this country filled with American families and retirees (and food bland enough for both).
Finally you reached the west coast (the wrong direction for black travelers, you later discovered), which was tropical and relatively free of zip-lining teens. On your seventh day in Costa Rica, a Sunday, O suggested you cross the street to Tamarindo Beach, where beneath a brilliant blue sky, he flourished his Pura Vida notebook of banana fibers or coconut pulp and proposed with a declaration, a question, proper staging, and a metaphor:
“I chose de beach,” he explained, “because our first kiss was at de beach in Cape Ann twenty-four years ago. We drove up from Boston, ate lobster, and discovered we were bot Pisces.” It’s true; his birthday is four days before yours and one day after that of your late mummi, who spent years twisting your curls, devising art projects and whispering family secrets (in short, teaching you to become a writer), and one morning while he is rubbing your forehead and telling you a story, you realize that you have married your Finnish grandmother in male Nigerian form.
He then gifted you the Pura Vida notebook with its workshopped marriage proposal and said, “I was tinking we should have gotten married here in Costa Rica! It’s kind of different and would’ve made a great story.” You didn’t mention the creamy gauze dress you’d brought in the event of such an event, just told him to make the arrangements. But it was Sunday in a Catholic country and not just any Sunday but Easter Sunday, so no one was going to marry anyone. You were leaving Tuesday, so on Monday morning O called the lawyer the concierge suggested and requested a same-day wedding on your beach (“It’s our metaphor!”).
The lawyer nixed the idea of a public beach. He was officiating a private beach club wedding and would pick you up at 4:00. During the ceremony, you could drink at the bar, and once the wedding party went inside, step in to their spot! Such resourcefulness appealed to the Nigerian in both of you, and he Faxed over three options for vows, the one you chose so perfect that as You & O recited it, barefoot at sunset, you could actually feel yourselves changing, despite the lack of Nigerian ritual or ululating family members or advance planning (other than the twenty-four-year audition).
Before picking up his son and the four of you grabbing dinner together, the Costa Rican lawyer offered to snap some photos with your phone, which you posted to Facebook, and which hundreds of friends liked but no one really believed, because:
A. O was Nigerian’s oldest bachelor and U had abandonment issues;
B. Who gets married in their fifties after dating three times, every decade?
C. That year, the day after Easter Sunday happened to be April Fool’s Day, which is now your anniversary;
D. All of the above.
Images provided by author.