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Writing While Bilingual: English and Graduate School Writing

I am bilingual.

That sentence was one of the hardest to write. But harder still was coming to the realization that yes, I am indeed bilingual. See, I grew up in Uganda, a former British colony in East Africa. From the time I was three I spoke both English and Luganda. One way colonialism works is it destroys indigenous languages, by forcing the colonizer’s language onto the colonized. In the case of Uganda, the official language is English. And though I can fluently speak Luganda, I struggle with reading Luganda and writing it is even harder. But Luganda is such a huge and very important part of my life, and it affects the way I think and view the world.

But just as Luganda has been a part of me, so has English. My entire academic career has been in English; beginning in kindergarten and now in graduate school. Thus, I have written and spoken English, the Queen’s English, I’ll have you know, for the majority of my learning. But my introductory writing lessons in English were in Uganda. I was taught to write in English, specifically creative writing, but in a Luganda way. This meant much of my writing was telling, what I like to call wandering stories. When I think about the way I write and tell stories, Amos Tutuola’s novel, The Palm Wine Drinkard, comes to mind. Because the way I grew up involved hearing stories told with a lot of details, tangents, and with multiple characters, some of whom had a tendency to just disappear without having advanced the plot of the story much. So, I learned to write stories the way I heard them told, even though I was writing in a foreign language.

Graduate school writing, I believe, is a form of storytelling.

Graduate school writing, I believe, is a form of storytelling. And when I started my graduate school career, I had not written for over five years. I had been working and having a child. I quickly learned that writing is a muscle– one that if you do not exercise, will quickly atrophy. But never having been one that shies away from exercise, and because I am now a graduate student, I began to collect books on writing. And I learned some good tips such as write your introduction last, use simple English, write an outline, know your audience, and edit, edit, edit. The idea of simple English has always worried me. As a child who read Chinua Achebe’s No Longer at Ease, I am forever stuck on a particular scene in that book where Obi Okonkwo’s character returns home from studying English in the United Kingdom– a decision that had already disappointed the community that fundraised to send him to school. Upon his return he gives a speech which further disappoints his community because he uses “is” and “was” English instead of using big words. I have already disappointed my Ugandan family by not being a doctor, (though I am attempting that with a PhD, it is just two letters after all), a lawyer or an accountant. I am not going to disappoint them further by using “is” and “was” English too.

The writing advice was all good. But there was the messy case of the subject matter of my graduate work; sex and reproduction among women and girls from Africa living in America. Women and girls like me. I am well aware for whom the university was built for, and it was definitely not someone like me. I wanted to write for us; for women and girls that had taken that journey from Africa to settle on this “shining city on a hill.” I wanted this story, the story I was attempting to write during my qualifying exams, to be for us. And I found I couldn’t. Because to write it in the way I wanted to, English, I found, was inadequate. I knew the mechanics of putting together a sentence. I knew a first draft would always be terrible and that it would be the fifth maybe even sixth draft that I would finally send to my committee. But the content and the way I wanted to write that content; English wasn’t working out. In my head it was in Luganda, because Luganda allowed me to say what I wanted to say in the way I wanted to say it. But because I never learned to write it, but only to speak and think in it, English was all I had. And when I wrote in English attempting to fit Luganda into English, my paper was incoherent. I was frustrated and confused. How could I still be struggling with this god awful, clunky language, that I had been using for over twenty years?

While I in my own little world struggling with writing in English, Dr. Toni Morrison went home. And my literary world turned a little darker. A world that I had always found solace in when the real world got too much. I wanted to sit quietly in a corner for days and pore over her work. Read every novel and essay she had ever written word by word, sentence by sentence and turn it over and over again in my mind, and just glory in its beauty. I wanted to reach out to my black women friends and just talk to them about what she and her work meant to us as black women and as mothers. I wanted a month to collectively mourn her passing. But I couldn’t because deadlines.

So, I did the next best thing, I searched for audio and videos of her speaking. And I took a few minutes throughout my day to sit quietly and listen to her voice. And that is how I came across Dr. Morrison’s 1993 Nobel Prize in Literature lecture. That speech was exactly what I needed, and it made me furious. Because it spoke to everything I was struggling with and at the same time I felt there was no answer to my writing dilemma. I saw the whole of academia as those young people who set out to question what I was writing. But I was also the young men, holding language in my hand. A language that had been forced onto me before I was even born. But even though this language was forced onto me I still had all the responsibilities of that came with holding that bird, language in my hands. I wanted to ask Dr. Morrison what to do but she had gone home. But she had graciously left us a whole library of answers and so I went looking for an answer in her words. I picked up another of her books. I picked The Source of Self-Regard, though I prefer the visual painted by the European title, Mouth Full of Blood. And again, because every time I worry about writing, I return to Obi Okonkwo, I went straight to the essay on Chinua Achebe. And there, Dr. Morrison answered my question.

I am bilingual. I write in two languages but mostly I write for myself and those like me.


J. Nalubega Ross is a Ugandan American living in the dry dry desert of Arizona. She is currently pursuing a graduate degree at Arizona State University. Their graduate work is concerned with how people from Africa living in the United States look for information about sex and reproduction. And once they find that information how do they use it make decisions about having or not having sex and whether or not to reproduce. When not reading books for graduate work and avoiding writing, Nalubega spends time watching and commenting on cartoons with her toddler and ranting to her partner about sex and reproduction in the United States.

A (Future) Black Professor’s Prayer | Toussaint Recap

Responsibility

This week’s episode of Black Enough, like the other two episodes, begins with a quotation from Ta-Nehisi that comes across like a prayer. One of the words that my mind clung to in the opening was responsibility. The words implore the viewer to think about the responsibility that Black boys (and Black girls) carry despite the impulse to be carefree. However, I was still mulling over responsibility when we cut to a classroom, where Professor Rekia is giving a rather compelling introductory lecture to a group of moderately engaged students, including Amaya. Jaheem’s late entrance only briefly interrupts the flow Rekia has going.

“We breathe in struggle, and exhale innovation.”

When Rekia has dismissed the class for the day, Amaya and Jaheem strike up casual conversation, that leads to them going on an adventure to find the bookstore together. They chat about the reading, the white girls from Amaya’s dance class, Chicago and the remnants of suburbia in Amaya’s hair. At the bookstore, both Amaya and Jaheem pick up copies of Ta-Nehisi Coates’ Between the World and Me, which Rekia quoted from in class.

“For the first time my eyes swayed across the page as the same pace as my hips…”

It feels only right that this episode ends with words from Dr. Stephanie Crumpton on her discussion of community based Black Girl Magic. The innovation of the professor, the teacher, reminds viewers how formative these figures are in our lives. Crumpton is spot on when she says that we do not make magic on our own; in my opinion, teachers have a very integral part in helping foster (or sometimes destroy) our magic.

Black women scholars are an integral part of this episode, and it had me wondering what it means to be a Black Professor. I often think about the legacies I am a part of, those which I uphold and those I work to change.

So from one (future) Black Professor to her someday students, here is my prayer:

I pray that I am able to care for myself. I will never be able to give you, my student, the breath out of my body. My breath is for me and God, so I pray I will be able to keep myself healthy and holy, so that I can share all that I can with you.

Know that I do this for you. I’m riding for you. I’m rooting for you. All of my struggle is for nothing if I can’t pass it on, if I can’t help to lift you up and encourage you to fly.

Which means that I jump through the hoops to put myself in the best possible position to help you.

And I write. Don’t forget that I write, but that’s for you, too. For my little sister with her nose in a book and dreams bigger than her Afro. For my brother searching for a way to make sense of the world. For my homie that needs to be heard.

I see you.

It is my dream to write about all the ways you will design to teach yourself to fly. I’m here to cultivate innovation, nourish creativity and to push you to think critically, carefully and closely.

But to be the best version of myself to carry out this purpose I read widely, reflect constantly and write fiercely because someone has to imagine a future for us, so why not me?

And everyday that you come to class, I hope you’ll realize why I have you learn the past. There is no future without looking back. We call it Sankofa, we call it Building on the Legacy.

This is the way God works through me.

And it’s worth it when I am able to open up my office door to the Black girl in my 11 AM lecture and assure her that her Black Girl Magic will level up to Black Woman Sorcery, knowing all the while God was preparing me to be a testimony.

This is the way God works through me.


Further Reading:

Between the World and Me, Ta-Nehisi Coates

For Colored Girls Who Have Considered Suicide When the Rainbow Is Enuf, Ntozake Shange

Becoming Full Professor While Black,” Marlene L. Daut

Creating and Maintaining My Wellness Routine

At the beginning of the semester I wrote a post about rediscovering my wellness, detailing my not so great habits that led to a sedentary lifestyle, my descent into poor eating decisions, and what I intended to do about it. Six weeks after committing to some of the changes I laid out in the same post, it’s time to do a wellness check in.

When I added yoga classes to my semester timetable, I was unsure how this would all play out. I had no idea that after just a few classes I would have the Yoga Bug. Six weeks and nearly twenty classes later, it feels weird not to do a few poses even if I don’t have a class scheduled for that day. One of my new favorite things is showing off my new poses to my parents, who are increasingly shocked at how difficult some of them look. As a result of my 3-4 times a week practice schedule, I look and feel stronger, my mood is stable, and I’m proud of my diligent work ethic.

If I could recommend yoga to everyone, I would. My current practice includes Yin yoga one hour per week and two Vinyasa classes. I also took a four week “Intro to Yoga” mini series, where I got to practice foundations and learn modifications to poses that help me feel more confident practicing in class settings. However, there are lots of things that don’t necessarily make yoga classes accessible or comfortable for everyone. Classes are free for me as a student on a campus, but not everyone has that luxury. Stereotypes about yoga are stereotypes for a reason: classes typically are filled with thin white girls, which often makes me feel hyper visible and acutely aware that I cannot wrap my arm around my big thigh to come into Bird of Paradise like everyone else can. And, truthfully, who really has the time to go to classes?

Of course, there’s always the option to do YouTube yoga classes or find studios that cater towards folks of color, if you’re in an environment where that sort of thing might be possible, but there are so many limitations. In terms of finding time for wellness practices, I do have actual suggestions. Sitting down at the beginning of the semester to block out my regular obligations on paper helped me see how much time I truly had to do my own thing. I started with blocking out time I knew I had to devote to TA’ing: I blocked out lectures, discussion sections, meeting times, and office hours. From there I added regular meetings and appointments. Then I was left with a lot of space. I saw where I could insert an hour practice here and another there. Once I was satisfied, then I added regular dissertation work time. I think for the average PhD student, we tend to work around our writing, but I realized that if I was going to commit to my wellness, my priorities had to shift. Writing would fit into my predetermined schedule, rather than be a monster that took up all of my time like an inescapable dark void.

To be sure, I have made other changes as well. Really, it’s making decisions every day that lead up to a lifestyle change. I have been working on developing boundaries between my work life and my home life, which means that if I can help it, grading stays in my office. Do I always honor that? Absolutely not, but I try. I limit my consumption of fast food and do small, weekly grocery hauls so that I always have fresh and good things to eat at the house, even if I don’t feel like cooking. I also rejoined the Mindfulness Meditation group that I was a part of last year to encourage regular meditation practice.

It’s worth remembering that even though I was shaken into a recognition that I was failing myself and my own health, these are the things I needed to do for myself anyway. Yes, I am an overworked graduate student and that by itself comes with a load of stressors that wellness practices can help, but I also live with Bipolar II disorder. Managing moods has always been…a task. I often walk through the world as if a fog has settled right over my face and I can’t see beyond the joy or sadness, whichever, or whatever, is present in that moment. It’s super cliché, but when doctors tell you moving and exercise will help your mood, it actually will. I’ll be perfectly honest, I never wanted to do that. I hate exercise. But between yoga, being properly medicated, and eating better foods, I’ve never felt more clear-headed.

While I’ve spent most of this post being a walking advertisement for yoga, I do want to acknowledge the fact that it’s really difficult for some people to enjoy for a whole host of very valid reasons. And beyond that, finding a good yoga studio, teacher, and specific practice can be very much like finding a good therapist. Some teachers’ methods of practicing will really resonate with you, and others will turn you off. You have to be willing to try a few varieties to know what you enjoy doing: you may love the fast movement Vinyasa but find Restorative Yoga entirely too slow. And you might like a teacher and their class, but the studio might not feel welcoming. All of that is okay.

What’s most important is developing your wellness toolkit. Right now, mine includes yoga, good eating, meditation, journaling, art and warm comfort drinks, but do know that you should regularly attend to your wellness toolkit. Think of them as seasonal. Things that work for you right now, may not work for you in six months. Update as needed. Do things that help you keep in tune with what your body needs from you. It’s hard, but let me tell you, it’s well worth the effort.