I first met Nneka M. Okona at a retreat led by Minal Hajratwala at Hedgebrook. Her lyric, imaginative, and deeply researched nonfiction about the Great Migration resonated with my own family’s history of war and migration from Malaysia.
A freelance journalist, Nneka M. Okona has written about self-care, wellness, and grief for Well+Good, MindBodyGreen, the Washington Post, Headspace, and Yahoo Life, among others. A budding tarot enthusiast, aspiring yin yogi, lover of hours-long cooking projects, and forever wandering spirit, Nneka lives in Atlanta, Georgia. Her new book, Self-Care for Grief, features one hundred hands-on activities specifically designed to help protect one’s mental health while grieving.
It was a joy to talk to Nneka over Zoom about the radical roots of self-care and generational healing.
The Rumpus: First off, what a gift! You’ve provided so many tools for people to ritualize and work through grief. Could you speak to your process of writing the book?
Nneka M. Okona: Honestly, it was hard. I had a strict writing schedule of writing daily in the beginning, but it was really draining. I changed my schedule to write every other day and gave myself time to emotionally recalibrate, incorporating better self-care and boundaries.
A few weeks after I started to really write my book, my aunt died of cancer. She lived in London and there was no promise of a [COVID] vaccine. Things were so uncertain, and I didn’t feel comfortable getting on a transatlantic flight, although at any other time that’s something I would have automatically done, to be of comfort. My two little male cousins lost their mom and it literally happened at home. It was hard.
I had to feel through my own grief, taking breaks and checking in with myself. Sometimes I’d go a couple days without writing and catch up after. I feel like too many writers wax poetic about how romantic writing is. Yes, writing and creating art really is the light of my life, but we need to be honest about how hard it can be. If you give of yourself and your work, then you have to find a way to give back to yourself after you’re done writing.
Rumpus: That makes sense. In “A Lasting Relationship That Will Never Die,” you write about talking to your best friend, Precious, in your dreams, and seeing glimmers of her wisdom day to day. You have a section in the book that addresses planning for anniversaries and creating a joy file to keep memories present. Can you speak more about this?
Okona: Right after my friend died, I had a ton of dreams about her. People told me it was subconscious, but I had no doubt it was a visitation. My friend was one of my biggest cheerleaders. She wanted to reach me and tell me she was okay, so that I could begin to move forward. I don’t think that she would have wanted me to pause my life and not do the things that I loved. Travel helped me move through my grief in those early days. When I moved to Spain almost a decade ago, she was my rock. I’d send these long, emotional emails and she would always respond with the perfect words. When I find myself having a hard day or a moment I go back and read those emails, and they’re always just so fitting for what I need to hear.
We used to G-chat each other throughout the day or at work. In one dream, she G-chatted me to tell me about the way she died. She’d died in August, a busy time for admissions where she worked (we met in graduate school). It had been a long day, raining, and she’d been stressed and tired. She died in an awful car accident; there were news articles written about it. Shortly after she told me this, I woke up, because I was not prepared to hear details.
That was hard, but I didn’t feel comfortable sharing the experience with most people, because they might think I was crazy. I started researching dream visitations, and realized it was legit.
My aunt who died visited me in a dream. She was an incredible cook and a very warm person. She told me, “I’m okay where I am. Please tell my sons I’m okay where I am.” When I told them, they were just so touched, like, “Oh my God, thank you for telling me.”
My relationship with my friend has not ended. It has changed, and that’s difficult to adjust to, because we want to touch and hug and hear the person we love. So, there are not those things anymore, but I feel her love and guidance.
In terms of ritualized remembrance, I take a “griefcation” on the anniversary of her death. I try to bring her along. In years past, I went to Paris, had a picnic at the Eiffel Tower because she wanted to go but never made it there while she was alive. This year, I went to a cabin in the woods. I’m glad I traveled, because sitting at home was sad and suffocating at a certain point.
Rumpus: You wrote a beautiful article for Vox about traveling to a place with a deep history: the waters where Black people committed suicide to escape slavery. “Not knowing is a violence. The absence of knowing robs you of the chance to mourn, to grieve.” Living in a racist nation that will barely acknowledge its history, do you see your work speaking to healing generations?
Okona: I’m honored. I don’t know if my work is really healing generations. As a kid I wanted to be a doctor so I could nurse people back to health. Then I realized you can be a healer in different ways. Writing is part of my purpose, though I’d do something easier if I could. Trust me, I have tried to stop writing, but it never works.
It’s really important to amplify lesser-known histories. I heard from quite a few Black people from St. Simons Island who thanked me for this story because they felt like no one ever talked about it. The state of the bridge is depressing—full of trash, construction signs, rocks, mud. It’s honestly disrespectful.
There’s not a commemorative marker. What does it hurt, to have this marker for the truth, unless it’s too threatening to your racism? I traveled there and cried the whole weekend. What do we do, knowing others don’t care about our pain and grief?
Rumpus: I’m glad that the people of St. Simons felt seen by your essay, and I know it resonated on Twitter. I’m surprised to hear that you tried to quit. You’re a talented journalist with hundreds of bylines to your name. Though erased in mainstream culture, you remind us that Black activists and feminists created the roots of self-care. Do you think your work is in conversation with theirs?
Okona: Publishing is a very white industry. When you look at the statistics of how few Black and Brown authors publish, it’s depressing. I don’t think it’s a small thing that I will have two books out in one year knowing how hard it is to get there.
I didn’t want to take a vapid approach. Self-care is deeper than that. Writing about Audre Lorde and the Black Panther Party in Self-Care for Grief, for instance, just made sense. As a Black person who’s writing about very Black subjects and stories, you get whitewashing edits. It was important for me to name the truth, that self-care is deeply attached to Black survival.
My work being in conversation with theirs—that’s really an honor. I’m always talking about self-care because I wasn’t taught to take care of myself. I was raised in the Southern US by a Black woman and an African man, so most of my lived experience required abandoning myself for the sake of others. I had to learn how to center my own care as an adult. There’s generational trauma on both sides of my family, and mental health issues because of trauma. Every family probably has a family member that everyone calls crazy, and it’s usually undiagnosed mental health stuff. If you’re struggling too, it’s like, “Well, damn. I don’t want them to talk about me.” The stigma is much deeper than we realize.
The work I do seeks to empower people, especially Black women, to know it is okay to take care of yourself. Our society does not want Black women to be well. They want to take and take and take and take what they can from us. Black women are literally the backbone of so much in this country. Exploiting and commodifying us is essential to American capitalism.
I care deeply about my family and my community—it’s everything to me. Community has always been how Black and Brown people survive in this racist country. For people who resist taking care of themselves or if centering themselves feels selfish, you can think about it this way: If I take care of myself, I can help Mom on the weekends. Or go see my son who’s really sick, spend quality time with him. These things are not opposite. The more deeply you care for yourself, the more capacity you have to give to others.
Rumpus: Self-care is subversive. Like Audre Lorde said, it’s radical and “an act of spiritual warfare.”
Okona: I think people don’t understand, they don’t see it, especially white people today. You can’t see how it’s radical because you just went to the spa, you had money to spend all day. That’s not radical; that’s about privilege. But for Black and Brown and marginalized women, it’s deeper. It’s radical to center ourselves in our own lives.
Rumpus: Yes. Like you said, self-care has been co-opted by capitalism and privilege and whiteness, when the roots come from Black communities’ survival.
After two friends committed suicide and I attended their standing-room memorials, I wondered if love could overcome that kind of suffering. They were outer circle friends and, as someone who contemplated suicide as a queer teenager, it made me question: What does self-care really, really look like? What does it mean for us to stay alive and thrive and sustain ourselves and each other?
Okona: My condolences. It’s incredibly painful to lose a friend. I think most people don’t realize because of these hierarchies in grieving. Marginalized folks and queer folks talk a lot about chosen family, our loved ones.
White people talk about grief, but a lot of grief spaces are white. Black pain isn’t acknowledged. Even in the literal sense, going to the doctor and giving a twelve-out-of-ten pain scale, and they’re still debating whether to give us pain medication.
On Twitter last month, a woman training to be a midwife worked with this white lady. The white lady was all, “Black skin is beautiful, but you know the veins of Black people are thicker so you have to do certain things to get blood.” The woman told her that’s not factually accurate, but she was still traumatized from it. Medical racism is terrifying.
I’m still thinking of your question: is love enough to cope with that suffering?
Even in my grief, I was very alone. Usually when someone dies you rally and get through it together. I knew that people loved and cared about me, but it didn’t make a difference in my grief. When someone deeply loved dies and you find out how much they were suffering, it’s shocking and painful. It’s like, I wish I’d helped more. How did I abandon them? It creates existential questions and survivor’s guilt.
Rumpus: I’m reminded of the idea of the mammy, taking care of white people, not allowed to care for herself. Your book shows us self-care’s Black feminist roots, too.
Okona: A lot of times, when people are talking about grief, they aren’t talking about grief and loss at an ancestral level. I was reading on Instagram: “Do you really think that you as one person can heal an entire generation? That’s not possible” That hit me in the chest. Generations beyond us will work through trauma to create peace for the past years and decades.
Rumpus: Making that shift is powerful. Even though I never had to hide and starve in the woods during war, I’ve inherited fragments of family stories. You talked about being born into loss. How do we heal?
Okona: So many Black and Brown people don’t know our family histories. It’s heavy. How can you know who you are if you don’t know who you came from? I can trace my dad’s side of the family to Nigeria. But my mom’s family, I don’t know past a couple generations. I’m working to figure out the family history.
It’s unfortunate that we only think of grief in a binary way. Grief encompasses not knowing where you came from or not knowing your ancestors, not being able to call them by name. Sometimes, you just won’t know. What does it mean to not know? How can I live with not knowing?
Rumpus: In the Affirmations section of Self-Care for Grief, you suggested we cull through books, songs, and sayings to create a dialogue of support through art and language. Who or what do you turn to for support?
Okona: I listen to a lot of lo-fi because it calms me. Before my friend died, she texted me a song about a woman blazing her own path. It epitomizes how well she knew me because I’m a wild child. You’re the essence of who you are as a child, then life and indoctrination beats it out of you and you spend adulthood trying to get back. Whenever that song comes onto shuffle, my heart skips a beat a little, like it’s a reminder from her to keep going.
There’s a red cardinal that visits me. So, every now and then when I’m having a bad day, or things are just heavy, I look out the window and there’s a red cardinal. It’s the most beautiful sign of, “I’m here with you. I never left. I will never leave. You can do this, and you are okay.” There are so many signs and echoes that we are loved from other realms, but we have to be open enough to notice them.
Rumpus: Is there anything you wish I would ask that I haven’t?
Okona: Lately I’ve been thinking about how trauma lives in the body. I talked to a doctor at Columbia University about prolonged grief, where you’re stuck in the hamster wheel. It requires intervention like grief counseling or medication. It did for me: I was stuck in my grief at one point.
Our bodies in distress are sending us smoke signals. When I first started grieving, my body knew: I lost my appetite. When you’re dealing with loss, it can be hard to be present in your body because you just want to escape what you’re processing.
Yoga helped me when my friend died. One thing about grief is you get so tired of performing “being okay” for other people while you’re still dealing with loss two, three, four, or five years after. When I interviewed Ajita M. Robinson, she told me that grief is a full-body experience. So, being present in your body is a huge sign of healing.
Rumpus: What can we expect in your next book? I think about how we’re living through mass death and months and months of negligent government response. We need the self-healing tools you’re writing about.
Okona: We are all that we have. The government is not coming to save us. We’ve got limited stimulus payments, our unemployment cut-off, evictions. We have to take care of ourselves and each other.
Grief is part of what it means to live and love and be connected to others. The Western performance of grief is to be sad for a day and then back at work the next. After my friend’s death, it took me three years to get to a place of rebuilding my life after loss. I hoped my book could give people a soft place to land.
My next book is called The Little Book of Self-Healing. Readers can expect another choose-your-own-adventure type of book, a book of activities. There’s a lot about cultivating friendship and community, handling conflict, practical body stuff, [as well as] other resources for alternative medicine, because Western medicine has limits.
Healing is a lifetime endeavor. It’s not one and done. It’s about finding new ways to heal. There’s so much in life that encourages us to do the opposite. Healing is not about perfection. Often it’s messy, non-linear, cyclical, sometimes you take steps back. Healing is for whoever chooses it, if you’re brave enough to do it.
Photograph of Nneka M. Okona by Melissa Alexander.