Wednesday, September 6, was a special evening for those of us who were fortunate to get tickets (or media accreditation) to attend a reading and talk given by author Taiye Selasi. One could guess that this was going to be a *happening* based on the sign at the entrance that read “Sold Out”. Some tickets were luckily put on sale again, a few minutes before the beginning, turning the anxiety of those on the waiting list into cheerful smiles.
Bla*Sh, a Black women’s network in German-speaking Switzerland, organized the meeting. The event was therefore an occasion for several active and thriving Black-Swiss women – like bookstagrammer So Lit, businesswoman Ownbrown, film producer Angélique Pitteloud-Gakoko and anti-racism artivist Apiyo Amolo – to link-up with activists who paved the way decades ago – West-African radical author Ken Bugul and Carmel Fröhlicher-Stines, co-founder of the late Women of Black Heritage (WBH).
After a short welcome address by a representative of Literaturhaus, Rahel El-Maawi presented Bla*Sh by situating the network, and the evening’s event, in a herstory of transnational Black women’s networking and collective organizing in Europe (and, more specifically, in Switzerland). In fact, in the late 80s and early 90s, Zurich was the city in which the WBH and the Treffpunkts Schwarzer Frauen flourished. These initiatives followed Audre Lorde’s earlier call to women of color to organize locally and internationally; were inspired by the trans-European travels of Zeedah Meierhofer-Mangeli; and grounded in a Swiss context of exclusion, racism and sexism. Twenty years later, though one would expect that things have evolved, one issue at least remains the same, as Rahel reminded us: the constant exhortation for black people to answer to the question “ where are you from? ” and its attendant “ oh, from [insert African country here] ” response, because the real question you are answering is “why is your Black ‘African’ body here?”. It thus made sense for Selasi and moderator Sarah Owens to pick up the issue from there, and extend the conversation to one of belonging, family and parenthood.
How many homes do you have and what makes you feel local?
After the question was thrown out to the event’s attendees, many people from the predominantly white audience raised their hands to say that they had spent more than six months in at least two different countries; others said that they felt they had more than one place they could call home. This brief survey proved that “multilocality”, a term coined by Selasi a few years ago, is a lived reality for many people, regardless of skin color:
“What home is to you depends on your relationships, the rituals you share with people, as well as the restrictions.”
According to Selasi, those aspects are not necessarily restricted to one space, and home can range from your garden to a long list of cities in the world. Thus, asking the question “where are you a local?” empowers the person in front of you to tell you her/his story, who her/his people are, and what eventual pain and fulfillment they’ve experienced. And, if I may stretch this powerful idea even further: such an interaction would therefore require that you consider your interlocutor to be a carrier of human experience that she or he could share with you, if wanted, and if you make time for it.
Questioning where we feel at home also pushes us to consider the meaning(s) of belonging. This, Selasi reminded her audience, “is a continuous project” for those who have scattered families and homes, but also for those who are seen and treated as unwelcome. Taking as an example the migration of people of color to the West, Selasi emphasized that this could lead to a situation “ in which pressure of failure is strong”, a reality she feels is true especially for the first generations of migrants. The right to belong is often linked to one’s achievements, that supposedly make you valuable or not in the eyes of the dominant members of society. This pressure to achieve is also very likely to be transmitted, by the parents who migrated, to the younger generations “as a strategy for coping.” But Selasi powerfully emphasizes that
“You don’t need to earn the right to be there. Start by knowing yourself as belonging. ”
Gendered aspects of parenthood in a migrant context
Another topic that came up during the conversation concerned the gendered and migrant dynamics of parenthood. The three passages Selasi read from her novel Ghana Must Go featured the characters Kweku, head of the family who’s fired and abandons his family out of shame, leaves for Ghana and remarries; Taiwo, Kweku’s and Fola’s daughter who, when their single mother can no longer make ends meet, is sent to Lagos during adolescence with her twin brother, and is sexually abused; and Fola, a “ dreamer ” who made sacrifices for her husband to succeed and feels estranged from all contexts, as a woman, a wife and a mother.
As Selasi rightfully reminded us, there aren’t many works that consider “what happens to daughters who feel betrayed and abandoned by their mothers.” The relationship between Fola and Taiwo is in that sense an interesting proposition to encourage reflection about the negotiations, pain and choices made by mothers who decide to entrust their children to extended family living in different cities and/or continents, when financial burdens require them to. At stake are what we understand/value as motherhood, but also “what family means in a multilocal reality.”
Regarding fatherhood, for many Black Swiss women and men who attended Afrolitt’s third meeting in December 2016, Kweku’s journey very much typified the kind of migrant fathers we had experienced or still could experience within our families. Having Selasi read about that character gave me the opportunity to ask her why, in her opinion, Ghanaian/Nigerian or other African migrant dads tend to stick to the sole role of the successful material provider. Does coming from postcolonial societies play any role in their perception of what “good fatherhood ” means? Selasi’s response as an author, was that she could observe how in some cases, coming from those same postcolonial societies left them wounded and fed the conviction that their value was necessarily linked to their professional accomplishments:
“… And some of our fathers do suffer from the lack of giving and being given emotional care. That’s the reason why communication is important. Be the one to initiate it.”
On top of providing insightful perspectives about the world around her, Selasi is a giver and a person who takes the time to acknowledge each of her interlocutors. She has shown that literary art is indispensable for thinking and creating futures, whilst Bla*Sh has proven to be, once again, a powerful and needed actor in sexist, and racialized, transnational Switzerland. Many of us left the evening with tools to move forward and to foster change. We are looking forward to the next event, and thank you women* for your dedication.
Many thanks to Rahel El-Maawi and Jovita dos Santos Pinto for providing me with media accreditation, liaising with Selasi, and giving me your feedback on the first draft of this post. Vanessa, Girl, you are making this blogging thing such an enriching and learning experience! Thank you very much for your precious revisions. #BlackSwissGirlsRock
 BERLOWITZ, Shelley, MEIERHOFER-MAGELI, Zeedah, “ HerStory. Die Geschichte des Treffpunkts Schwarzer Frauen ”, in JORIS, Elisabeth, MEIERHOFER-MAGELI, Zeedah (eds.), Terra incognita ? Der Treffpunkt Schwarzer Frauen in Zürich, Zurich, Limmat Verlag, 2013, pp. 42-49.
 White Switzerland has a tendency to link all Black bodies to sub-Saharan Africa, ignoring the different realities and identifications of people whose ancestors have been traded and enslaved outside of the continent.