The anchor of identity

As a black woman, my body is politicised regardless of whether I want it to be or not. Although I am acutely aware of this in certain spaces I move through, the ability to frame it for myself, seeking ways to rebel against expectations and perceived limitations is a kind of quiet power. I am often asked “Do you see yourself as Nigerian or British?” The truth is that both coexist simultaneously despite the very human tendency to be tribal. In Nigeria, I am fondly referred to by some family members as “British lady” because of my accent and glaringly foreign ways. They say it as a compliment, but “British lady” also means being seen as a successful cash cow. My younger cousins think the streets of England are paved with gold and the trees filled with pound sterling. Further illustrated by waking up on the second day after arriving in Lagos on a trip to find my girl cousins had rummaged through my suitcase comically setting aside outfits as their gifts.

Born… and then
I was born in Nigeria into a middle-class family. My father at the time was a young, ambitious politician with entrepreneurial interests who prior to that had travelled to Europe with my mother (a journalism student) to study and roam before returning to Nigeria. Nigeria is where I got my love of pidgin English, spicy food, African music, griot style folk tales and adventurous spirit. I occasionally disappeared from family parties, trips to theme parks or concerts, already propelled by some curiosity to wander, unwittingly causing chaos. Forcing my mother to say to my father often: “Is this your child?” As if I had arrived by immaculate conception.

It was in London that I had an epiphany about blackness not being a monolith

London calling
England gave me my love of books, the quirkiness of my personality, the joy and enrichment of the arts which I am always buoyed by. It has saved my life many times. England is where I discovered funk and rock singer Betty Davis, The Ronettes, Kate Bush and played Alanis Morissette’s Jagged Little Pill album on a loop as a teenager, fell into and out of different versions of myself. It is where I thought I could fake being able to swim as an eight-year-old during swimming class at boarding school in Holt, Norfolk, then had to be rescued by the tutor who jumped in fully clothed to rescue me. After that spectacular embarrassment, I promptly learned how to swim then later embraced the wonder of the sea. It was in London that I had an epiphany about blackness not being a monolith, in some ways an extension of the quiet confidence my parents had instilled in us in Lagos and Benin.

London gave me permission to embrace my outsiderness and otherness. I once lost my voice screaming with joy and terror on a rollercoaster at Chessington World of Adventures, but I was pleased to have survived it considering I am scared of heights. I am fascinated by identity and the ways in which it shapes us, its complexities, how the parameters subtly shift, the fact it can be an anchor if you find yourself in a period of freefalling, that you can encounter new dimensions whilst coming back to the familiar self you cultivated over time.

Living ain’t easy
This will run on but the cost-of-living issue is something my friends and I are still discussing passionately, annoyed by the callousness of the government to keep raising prices. Recently sparked by the fact that my favourite vegetable, broccoli, has gone up along with other items. Last month, I could not get eggs for at least a week at my local supermarket (those have gone up too). It created a small panic at the time. If there were no eggs, what on earth was coming next? What would a world without eggs be like? There were philosophical and metaphorical implications. That week, I occasionally lamented the ways I had neglected one of my staple food items. I vowed to rectify this by researching and plotting all the brilliant recipes you can make with eggs.

Small seeds that bloom
Thankfully, the local egg crisis was eventually resolved. Last month, I met up with a friend who has young children. As a single mother, she struggles to cope with the pressure of providing for her children. There will be no holidays abroad for them this year and she cuts back on things for herself. Those who are really impacted by this are having to be increasingly economical with their spending. But we are still finding ways to embrace the small joys despite this. My friend is plotting taking her kids to a discoveries centre in east London for an afternoon of fun. I plan to take my mother out to Kew Gardens, which feels apt. May is almost the middle of the year. It is a time when seeds planted start to bloom. We end the conversation talking about our book projects. We are reminded that art and creativity is something to reach for when the world outside keeps spinning.

British Nigerian novelist and short story writer Irenosen Okojie MBE is a judge of the Women’s Prize for Fiction 2023. The winner will be announced on 14 June

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Columns, Journal, May 2023

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