Category Archives: writing

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.

Spirituality, Dance and Magic | #BlackGirlMagicPotion Recap

This week’s episode of Black Enough, “#BlackGirlMagicPotion,” explored the relationship between dance, religion and/or spirituality, and magic. The magic of Black girlhood, we see in this episode, lies in your daydreams, in your deepest desires, in what your core essence is made of. And for Amaya, the expression of her very essence is dance.

This is made clear from the beginning of the episode, when a blaring alarm abruptly interrupts Amaya’s otherwise peaceful dream in which she dances alone in a studio. The interiority we see with Amaya is matched by a few shots of 16 mm film featuring a figure playing in substances that we might understand as physical manifestations of Black Girl Magic. The 16 mm scene provides an autobiographical, personal touch that is complemented by the vulnerability of the interview that overlays it.

The Amaya’s narrative then moves forward to her dorm room, where a conversation with Lena is put on pause by a knock on the door. Vaughn, the president of the BSU, and, Amaya’s BSU “Big Sis,” is there, encouraging Amaya to join the BSU. The scene cuts to a hilarious and cringe-worthy sequence of Amaya’s attempts at engaging in the representations of Blackness that she has seen throughout her life. She wriggles around her room, trying to milly rock, and trying out backwards baseball caps, before stumbling over saying “my nigga.” We feel her discomfort and our heart goes out to Amaya when she goes into evasive maneuvers to avoid the invitation.

But she does, in fact, have somewhere to be: church.

Although Amaya seems to understand, at least to some extent, that dancing constitutes the basis for her personal brand of magic, there is still some fracturing of identity that occurs. The religious part of her, the exterior, the diegetic narrative (or the narrative we follow in the storyworld of Black Enough), is depicted through the digital film. It is clear and bright, but we also know that there’s something deeper. This is when Amaya’s “spiritual practice,” her dancing, her rich inner life, begins to infiltrate the image of self that she puts forth to the world while she’s attending church.

She does what one is supposed to do to feel close to God: she goes to church, she prays, she reads her Bible. She’s religious in those moments, following a set of practices that inform her worship. However, when she’s dancing, she is more spiritual–it is the purest form of religiosity in some ways, more freeing. Her particular spirituality is an expression of her religious nature. This, dancing, is how she shows God she loves Him and how God is working through her. Dancing thus becomes a spiritual practice in that it is less about rules and guidelines and more about connectedness, more about feeling.

Circling back to Black Girl Magic and the potion Amaya is concocting on her mirror, I believe it is safe to say, though she likely does not include it on her list, that dancing is one of the ingredients in her potion. Part of the magic for some Black girls is this feeling of infiniteness when you know God loves you. As Elder Ntozake Shange once said, “I found God in myself and I loved her fiercely.”

There’s a spirituality surrounding Black Girl Magic, which I love to think about because it further points to its uniqueness. Everyone’s brand of Black Girl Magic Potion is tailor made to their specifications and unified only by the fact that we all have a bottle, no matter how different the contents. Religion sometimes implies that rules and order regulates worship–spirituality can be the freedom of expression of what you believe, the freedom to dictate and design your own love, in the same way that you brew your own personal brand of Black Girl Magic Potion. So for Amaya, dancing is the purest expression of her spirituality, and by extension, her magic.


Further Reading:

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

Sassafrass, Cypress and Indigo, Ntozake Shange

Jezebel Unhinged: Loosing the Black Female Body in Religion and Culture, Tamura Lomax

 

Creative Note-taking

If you follow me on Twitter, or on my creative instagram account (@RavynnCreates), you know that I love creating aesthetically pleasing notes. People often have questions about them, so I thought I’d create a FAQ post about my notes.

  1. Why do you make your notes like that?

Well, first, it’s super fun! I love making things. It also helps me focus, and it makes my notes easier to read and study when I have to go back to them.

2. What do you mean it helps you focus?

Making creative notes is almost like making a mind map. I think about the relationship of sections and words. For example, if we’re talking about the features of the “Classical Hollywood Narration,” it helps to make that heading large, and make the features smaller underneath, or close to the heading. Sometimes it helps to box things in so I know everything in that section goes together. It can also help to color code. If my heading is gold, I might use a different gold pen to number or bullet point everything that falls under that category. Sometimes I use a combination of all of these methods.

3. Do you make them during class? Like while the professor is lecturing?

Yep. Again, it helps me focus.

4. So you don’t just take quick notes and then rewrite them?

No. I do not.

5. What do you use to take notes? Pens? Notebooks?

My semester notebook is a burgundy Leuchtturm A4+ Master Slim with 121 dotted pages that I got from Jenni Bick in Dupont Circle in DC. Yes, it is personalized.

I use a variety of different pens. For headings and small brush lettering, I use Pentel Sign pens. For shadows and highlights, I use Mildliner Brush Pens. For detailing, I use Metallic Gelly Roll pens. For regular writing, my main text, I most often use a Lamy Safari fountain pen. If I’m not feeling the Lamy (or if I have run out of ink), I use Zebra Sarasa 0.7 ballpoint pens.

6. Wow, that’s really specific. Why do you use those brands?

Leuchtturm journals have thick pages that don’t ghost (show ink on the other side) and they are pre-numbered. Pentel pens are super reliable, and they come in really great, bold colors. Mildliners, I don’t use as much, but I still like them for background and contrast. Gelly Roll pens have really strong color, and they’re also reliable and relatively easy to find. I’m using a Lamy pen because I wanted a good fountain pen and I thought it might be cool to invest in a utensil that I would love to use. It’s beautiful and yellow and I do in fact love it! When my students from Keio offer me stationery gifts, they’re often Sarasa/Zebra pens and Japanese stationery is the best, so usually I’m just using the pens they gift me.

7. So do you just, like, travel with all those notebooks and pens?

Yep.

8. How many pens and notebooks do you carry with you daily?

Between 2-3 journals. I always have my semester bullet journal with me and I often have my dissertation journal. Sometimes I’ll bring my leather bound diary if I haven’t written in a while.

I honestly don’t know how many pens I have at any given time. I have at least 3 of each type of pen in different colors (except the Lamy) in my purse. I mean…probably at least two dozen.

9. Do you let people borrow your pens?

No.

10. Really?

Really. I keep a couple of regular Bic ballpoint pens in my purse to give to my students if they need a writing utensil in a pinch.

11. But how do you make such pretty pages?

Honestly, I don’t know. It’s the equivalent of doodling. My hands just kind of do their own thing. I don’t lay out my spreads prior to class, they just sort of happen. I more or less start on the top left of the page and just build from there.

12. Do you have any suggestions for folks that want to try creative notetaking?

I do! First, try not to take it so seriously; let it happen naturally. The more you try to make it pretty, the more pressure you put on yourself and then you likely won’t be satisfied with the way your notes look. Second, experiment with fonts and colors in relation to others on the page. If you have a keyword in gold script on the right in a square with writing around it, maybe try bold blue uppercase letters for your next piece. Third, practice! I’ve been making notes like this for years and it took me a while to get to a point where I could make these pages. Lastly, comparison is the thief of joy. Your notes will not look like mine. My notes will not look like yours. Embrace the uniqueness of this little way of expressing yourself!