The Fellowship of the 10%


Five nights ago, while I was out for dinner with some educated, employed, responsible folks whom I have the honour of being related to, we got to asking one another: if money was not a consideration and you could do anything with your life, what would you do?

For my own answer, I had to say that I would do pretty much the same thing I am doing now (except I’d throw in more travel, as in year round, as in everywhere on the planet eventually, constantly writing stuff), not because it comes easily or is pleasant all the time or even a majority of the time but because, well, the heart wants what it wants!

And what is this same thing I am doing now? Well, at the exact current moment, occupying solo for fourteen days a cute Airbnb apartment in a residential block of U-street in Washington D.C. roughly in the centre of the triangle created by Adams Morgan, Dupont Circle, and Columbia Heights, because I am on a fellowship to research my mother tongue.

Yep. Even as I write this from inside that very same apartment, sitting at the owner’s stylishly slanted (graphic?) designer’s workstation by the ground-level window, glancing at passerby (or, as I prefer to call them, “hot chocolate”), sipping herbal tea from her mug, the whole concept sounds farfetched. And the reality easy and pleasant enough.

And how did this current moment come about? Somehow I convinced the jurors-that-be of the Chalmers Arts Fellowship, administered by the Ontario Arts Council (OAC, an arms-length body of the Canadian government that likes to support its artists), that I deserved the funds to spend six months exploring the grammatical wonders of written Amharic and, outside Ethiopia, where better to do this than in D.C, the capital of the Ethiopian diaspora? As I was writing the grant application back in June 2015, my proposal had sounded farfetched even to me. But that was okay at the time, for after all what are grant proposals but dreams on paper? The more grandiose-sounding the better, so long as you can append a budget sheet that isn’t totally removed from reality. The basic gist of the written portion of the proposal had been here’s this thing I’ve always been curious to explore, and this is the maximum it will cost, but just be warned that at the end of six months I might have discovered and/or accomplished nothing at all. And the jurors said, Sure, go for it.

Still doesn’t sound too shabby, right? So here I am, over a year later, Researcher Lady, all serious and writerly, ogling the brown sugar flowing past my window (they don’t call D.C. “Chocolate City” for nutten) while thinking shitshitshit, what am I “exploring” again? And why in God’s name did I say I would do that? How did this happen, how did I end up here? 

I ended up here because I got dealt a certain set of lucky life cards that have allowed me to spend the last twelve years or so roaming hither-thither, building up a creative writing resume which in turn made me eligible to apply for this Fellowship (never thinking that I risked acceptance) that has landed me in this desk by this window in this apartment, having recently claimed, to people I am not in the habit of needing to lie to, that there isn’t anything else I would rather do.

Earlier in the same conversation with the above-mentioned folks, another question had been asked all around: are you happy doing what you are doing? Or, rephrased: what percentage of you is happy doing what you are doing and what percentage is not? To that, my answer had been: 10%.

As in, you are 90% happy to be doing this thing? they asked.

No, I said, I mean 10% happy.

Pause, back up, because happy/unhappy are not the right set of words to use for this. Doubtful/assured, these are closer to what goes on 90/10 percent of the time. As in, I am not always enjoying myself, sure of the quality/value/outcome of what I’m up to, not caught up in the “rapture of love” of the work all the time, to steal Ms. Baker’s lyrics, or even a majority of the time. Why?

There is the ever-present demon of DOUBT that takes up 90% of my brain juice, the constant self-reminder of what a gamble it is to dedicate one’s life to writing, especially as writer of colour, a female writer of colour raised in a culture that makes very limited allowances for self-expression. Add to that the chorus of what if I have nothing to show for it at the end, and pretty much all the happy gets gobbled up right quick, leaving me with just 10%, during the actual re/writing moment, when all is bliss.

I realize that this fear is common too all creative types. Correction: to all human types. It looms darkly over every moment of the years spent creating something precious to you but which might not get so much as an indifferent shrug from the big bad world when you’re ready to share it. And if your life plan is to continue to create one precious thing after another, well then welcome to decades of overcast skies!

What do you mean “have nothing to show for it?” Show TO WHO?’ Ive been asked, and I could only respond, oh-so-evasively, That’s a very good question. 

Well, to the OAC, for one. But they have already said, essentially, don’t worry if you have nothing to show for it, go ahead anyway. Or I am kidding myself. More likely, their message was: kindly have something to show for it please, we deliberated long and hard before deciding to award you this. Beyond that, to show to myself I guess?

But you already have it to show to yourself, every day it is with you, a part of your life. Isn’t that enough? I’ve been told.

Well, yes and no. At the end of the day one wants to be part of a feedback loop, have someone/s at the other end to receive, to take over ownership of the piece and pass it along with their own interpretation added. That is how it lives, similar to how human babies survive and thrive, except what a creation of ink and paper needs is not the nourishment of food and shelter and love, but the nourishment of careful attention, then a reaction, something, anything, not necessarily fuelled by love. Babies are to be envied, really. They will continue or cease to exist with the same ease, taking nothing personally, oblivious to the catalogue of emotions we project onto them.

And so, from my perspective, even though I really don’t wish to be doing anything other than what I am doing now, I still don’t find that there is much to desire in my path, rife as it is with doubt, fear, instability, necessary solitude, total randomness of outcome (read: 99% failure rate). Yet, I wouldn’t have it any other way. I can’t shake off this need to keep trying, to write another draft, to submit to another publication, to plan another project, any more than I can shake off my DNA. I can’t ever be convinced that to do anything else instead, or to add something on top of it, isn’t a way of burying a large part of myself without having the decency to kill it first. It’s a swirl, a push-pull of desires that are as twisty-turny and incomprehensible as that life-giving molecule itself. (DNA is a molecule, yes? Or is it a bunch of molecules? No, a cell? Does it even give life? Oh dear.)

It is early days yet, but this research into Amharic has so far felt like groping in the dark, which is to be expected when one ventures on an exploration of a long-neglected territory. And I’m really bad at talking to people. That’s my problem/fatal flaw/Achilles’ heel. I seek answers in texts and in my silent but constant observations of human interaction. I can’t remember the last time I looked this closely at Amharic. No wait, I can. It was in November 2014, when something about the baking heat of Jamaica compelled me to write some chapters for my novel-in-progress (since discarded, those specific chapters, that is ) in an experimental English that “sounded”- in terms of syntax, grammar, whathaveyou – as Amharic as possible, even though I don’t consciously know the first thing about said aspects of Amharic. I’ve included an excerpt below, and happy to add more if there is interest.

Before that, it was when as part of my M.A thesis back in 2005 I translated selected chapters of Fikr Iske Meqabir into English. I remember that I presented two versions. The first version was in flowing, literary English. Proper English. But for that to happen it had to be more an interpretation of the original text, and so ended up being far removed from it. But the second version was in mind-bending, barely comprehensible English – yet totally faithful to the original. Go figure.

(the experiment)

That girl Dessie. If I had spoken of Shaleka like that, I would have been the dead. Him she calls ‘mad’? In front all gathered? With how she left, I would have been one to say she will never return. The way of some people. She is like our grandfather. A hard person. Angry when he is, what he picks up and where he puts it down he does not know. She too, when with that ferenj tree she left, her travel bag to take with her does she remember? So who, like coolie, to the gate carries it for her? You know who. This Gela.

In back of car she sits, in body only. Even to look at me in the eyes she does not, but me this does not surprise. Sad this does not make me feel. That she is a hard person I know, from before her coming. As my mother told me many ways in the letters.

I lost my letters. But about that what can you do, or anyone. Nothing.

Our grandfather Shaleka, after Dessie left, to the living room he returns, seeming proud and glad. To force her as if his plan was. As evening comes, to their homes the visitors return, questions having asked none, comments having made none, about the manner of this long-unseen granddaughter. At this time, into the room I go, because clean it Shaleka has said to me. I tell you, listen – as if the room itself, all the things in it together at once, had sneezed it looked.

I never think to expect to meet this girl Dessie, who uses for a name the name of the place of my growing up. In this way is my mother telling me, always of me she thinks of, me she loves. And if I meet Dessie, I think, I would keep myself a distance from her. But when she came, without nobody knowing that she is coming, and I open the gate, if you could have seen her how broken she looked. I cry. I cry. I cry. I cry. I cry. I cry. I cry. I cry. She? She doesn’t cry. Doesn’t fall to the ground.

3 thoughts on “The Fellowship of the 10%

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