Beyond the Essay with Ọláolúwa Òní
Ọláolúwa is a PhD candidate researching the intersections between law and popular culture. Her debut novel, The yNBA, is sold in bookstores across Nigeria. Her essay “*Insert Immigrant’s Name Here* is dead” appeared on the last edition of Ellipsis.
Thank you for agreeing to be here. Diving straight into the conversation. I must say that I was pleasantly amazed at the many intersections that you drove your essay through. I want to ask about a concept in the essay that I can only refer to as social deaths. For instance, you discuss various forms of deaths that confront immigrants and for someone whose work stays at the intersection of identity and the diaspora, I found the idea quite fascinating. I wonder if you can share more about the varying characteristics of the many deaths that an immigrant must die.
Hi Tolu. I am thankful for the essay, too. It helped me work through some uneasy thoughts that were floating in my head after I learned about my co-worker’s passing. Watching Tawiah M’carthy as Sizwe that evening was something of a glue that gave solid form to these thoughts, and thus the essay was born.
Yes, Social death. Sizwe Bansi is about death; death shadows the lives of the play’s Black characters as they navigate apartheid South Africa. With Sizwe, the high point of this dying seemed to be when he was finally convinced to trade in his legal identity for the (better) life of a dead stranger.
But there are many deaths that happen prior to that moment, and one of such deaths is what I called the social death. This idea that all the things one knows to be true and one has held with principled steadfastness no longer hold weight or, sometimes, are now unacceptable. It is in the compromises immigrants make when confronted with how vulnerable we are within new borders.
I am now thinking of the popular quip Africans from predominantly and politically Black countries offer when they move to, say, America: “I didn’t know I was Black until I moved,” or some variation of that. It may be that this “discovery” of Blackness is an attempt to understand the social death dealt by the new country: a forced, painful adjustment of our place in the world.
I like that idea. But let’s dig even deeper. Your journey has taken you through various phases and locations. How has your identity as an immigrant evolved over time, and how has it contributed to your current academic pursuit?
Sure! Before I left Nigeria for America, I prepared myself for Blackness. Or at least I thought I did. I read a lot of Baldwin, a lot about the civil rights movement, and closely followed the racial tensions around Obama’s presidency. Special shout-out to Adichie for Americannah! But, honestly Blackness is not something one can fully understand from studying texts. You have to live it to get it, and get it I eventually did!
I mean I knew to return a nod but was not prepared for how heavy micro-aggressions could feel; heavy and confusing. In the essay, I talk about making the journey from being outspoken in Nigeria to learning timidity and then learning a new version of courage. This new version, which I am currently living, evidences my growth–which you can call an evolution–from the immigrant experience. This new version also feels more secure, like it is not merely driven by juvenile indignance but is informed by an experiential knowledge about the way the world works. In this new phase of my life, I am aware of my immigrant status but I feel in much better control of how the world around me moves. I know how to carve a pocket of home from the chaos of wherever I find myself.
If this was a church, I would be snapping my fingers and yelling Amen to that. There are so many memorable points in that response. I love the idea of learning a new version of courage. It reminds me of an idea that someone once pointed to me, about the courage some of us found in terms of contributing to the discussions at home about poor governance and such. It brings me to another topic. This time, about active resistance, especially as a person navigating a diaspora that insists on sweeping you and your experiences to the margins. I know your last response touches on this briefly, but I wonder if the intersection of the desire of the locals in your new home ever really affects the dexterity of your resolve?
So, that’s an interesting question. And my reflection that will follow is, I think, heavily informed by my current research around settler colonialism and the ways the settler colonial project perpetuates itself. One of these ways is through immigration, in the sense that an immigrant is allowed into Indigenous land by license from a settler state and so, as an immigrant, I perpetuate the settler colonial project by my very presence.
And because I understand this, I am willing to shelve my experiences and interests, even going as far as placing them at the margins, in deference to the Indigenous experience. Of course, often, Black and Indigenous experiences in America have a connected path, but because I come to my Blackness in America by virtue of immigration, sometimes the path diverges, and when it does, my inclination is to defer to the Indigenous community.
Going back to your earlier question, I guess this is another way in which my immigrant identity has evolved over the years–a more acute awareness of the nuances in an intersectional identity.
I appreciate that way of seeing, it deepens my own resolve to continue this project that allows me a sneak peek into how many of us migrants and immigrants alike approach the nuances of intersectionality. To wrap this up, I will frame my next question thus, your return to school and focus on researching the impact of colonialism in Nigeria demonstrates a thirst to unearth certain notions of our heritage as Nigerians that we may not be aware of. How do you think the result of this endeavor will shape your identity and future goals as an individual living in the diaspora?
That’s a hard one, and the honest answer is I don’t know. It’s hard to predict how a research project will shape one, and honestly I am not much exercised to do that predicting. I am happy to lean into the journey and see where it takes me.
Thank you so much for joining us on this edition of Beyond the Essay. And more importantly, thank you for being so generous with your answers and contributing to Ellipsis. We can't wait to read more of your work.
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