PROCEEDINGS OF YELF BOOK CLUB. January 2021 Edition
Introduction: In this edition of the book club meeting, we will be discussing Akwaeke Emezi’s The Texture of Joy (A Stowaway Story). This is a story about Justine Sankofa Ankai-Macaidoo, a Ghanaian who has travelled around the world and finally settles in Salvador de Bahia. The story engages themes of belonging, displacement, place, cosmopolitanism and multiculturalism in human relationship. It explores how the African diaspora makes sense of its identity and culture.
Moderator: On a surface glance, I was expecting a grounded stowaway story like the Conrad kind of stories. While this might be seen in the perils that Justine encounters in the belly of different ships until he finds himself in Bahia, Emezi however brings us into a bigger story about how people are willing to lose themselves, their bodies and identity, just to make sense of their lives in a place that promises more.
What do you think of this story?
T. J Benson: For me it was like a movie. An adventurous movie where I could see life carrying Justine to all those places described in the story.
Ifeanyichukwu Peter Eze: It is an interesting story. The language is fluid, unravelling pockets of endless search for Self through cities, countries and continents. The Self is home, a place of belonging, where movement is no longer a necessity or where discovery shifts from moving to being at home with oneself. It is fulfilling. But there is an underlying drive, the refusal to settle until you get what you want. You always know it when you find it. The last sentence in the story is compelling: ‘You have to suffer’ he had said, ‘to feel the texture of joy.’
Abubakar Muhammad: The story came to me like a movie also. But I think one doesn’t have to go through all that Justine went through to feel the texture of joy. According to the story he was already doing well as a barber and hairstylist in Nigeria, even though one has to explore life and places as Justine did in order to learn and see the world from a different angle. While taking this sort of risk turned out well for Justine, it most times doesn’t for other people. No place like home, I still believe.
Ifeanyichukwu Peter Eze: Yes! The story is an affirmation of life: get lost so you can find yourself.
Najib Kazaure: For me, The Texture of Joy is an interesting story about a man’s resilience despite life’s struggles, adapting to hurdles and discovering himself in the process. Despite the despondency in the story, I find inspiration in Sankofa’s story.
Ifeanyichukwu Peter Eze: We are not laden with a feeling of pity for Justine in the story. The resilience he displays is powerful. Yet, it reveals what life is, what travelling can be or is. This is something beyond what we get from the screen.
T.J Benson: I agree with Mohammed. I don’t want to suffer like that to finally find happiness.
Moderator: And it is interesting, right? How Justine has been to Portugal, Brazil, Nigeria (Imo, Lagos and Abuja), Togo, Ghana, Durban in South Africa, and he also speaks Yoruba, Igbo, Fante, Spanish and Portuguese fluently. I mean, Justine is a salad of dialects and places as well as identity, yet, even after finding home in Bahia, the first thing he does is to baptise himself as Sankofa trying to reconnect with his Ghanaian past.
Namse Udosen: That is the interesting part of the story for me. I find his many stowaway travels unbelievable. I mean, do you have to go that far in losing yourself just to find happiness?
Najib: My main take from this story is not so much about the migration but Justine’s indefatigable spirit of refusal to settle for the normal. I was moved by his ability to push boundaries and thrive in many situations. For Justine, survival symbolises freedom. But throughout his journey, Sankofa doesn’t find himself limited by his skills or his disadvantaged background. Not even by borders. This is the secret to his success. For Sankofa, home is not where he tethers to his Ghanaian heritage or settle his roots. Home is wherever he can continue thriving despite difficult circumstances. I wouldn’t be surprised if he is on another adventure away from Salvador, finding new walls and spaces to conquer.
Moderator: But isn’t home a feeling? A longing? Sankofa is even more African than some Africans even when he is in a different continent, eating Banku (a Ghanaian dish), playing Afro music, dressing African and hanging around Africans in Bahia. Don’t you think his identity and home are still rooted in Africa?
Najib: I think his Africanism is like the common saying: “You can take the girl out of the village but you can’t take the village out of the girl”. His identity is uniquely Sankofa, and for me that is the striking thing in his story.
Moderator: I researched that Sankofa in the Akan Twi and Fante languages of Ghana translates to “go back and get it”. That one cannot access the potential of one’s future without revisiting the knowledge of one’s past. Even though displaced and far away from his people, Justine found home in the African community in Salvador de Bahia. In the story, he hasn’t really lost touch with his roots, doing everything to stitch himself back to home. This in some way reminds me of Taiye Selasie’s essay “Bye-Bye Babar”, where she argues that while Afropolitans can make themselves at home in many specific places and the world, they are aware that their African origin always have a meaning. There’s at least one place on the African continent that Africans in the Diaspora tie their sense of self even when they are citizens of the world. Justine’s identity fits into what Selasie calls “Afropolitan”. “Belonging to no single space, feeling at home in many” and yet never forgets where he comes from. This spirit of Afropolitanism is a threat to our view of the African identity. How then can we conceptualise what it means to be African while being mindful of the fact that there will always be people like Justine (Sankofa) who will continue to navigate spaces and cultures?
Najib: The African identity is now being eclipsed by globalization. But somehow Africans still find connection with each other. Perhaps it’s the struggle, the corruption, or the bad governance. Or maybe it’s the flair, food, or musical interest. As much as the African identity is eroding, new ones connecting Africans together will continue to emerge.
Ifeanyichukwu Peter Eze: Well, I feel identity tends to be fickle. If you remove the colonial experience or underdevelopment, then Africanness fizzles into something almost non-existent. Migration to Europe shows the inadequacy of our continent, that home is not enough. Because home lacks the ingredients for survival, somewhere else tends to be a dream. Yet, there is a paradox. The dream can just be a utopia.
Moderator: But does Justine have to go through all the perils, the darkness, the uncertainty? In the story we learn most times stowaways don’t even know where they are being taken to, they just hop in under the belly of the ship and hope to arrive at somewhere better. Is home really that bad? Justine wasn’t doing bad back home. Who knows he might have done better back home than in Salvador. Now, what is that thing that always prompts Africans to find respite in foreign climes despite the uncertainty and alienation? Why can’t our government just fix our problem so all the human capital and talents stay back home? Or is it just the fantasy that’s chasing us out of our homes to seek other places?
Namse: I feel it is unnecessary especially with the grave conditions that stowaways pass through. I feel put off that someone would want to go through that repeatedly.
Ifeanyichukwu Peter Eze: Most times you leave home because home is not enough. Though there is the other side of it, an expression of power or means. You leave home because you can, because you want to explore, taste something new. It is leisure. And life isn’t always leisure for most travellers—especially Africans. And leaving for Europe is synonymous with hustle here in Africa.
Najib Kazaure: I feel like Justine’s background as an underprivileged street child plays a vital role in his life. The common reason why people always want to migrate is poverty. And in the story, poverty is what connects Justine and his friends who later passed away in the water. Being African is hard enough. Poverty is mostly the reason why only the poor and no rich man’s son or daughter is ever a stowaway. And as for middle and upper class people who prefer to migrate, I agree with Eze that it is the lack of opportunity to succeed back home.
Moderator: All very true and poignant. I am here thinking about what it feels like to be caught up in a ship that is going nowhere. But “life isn’t always leisure for Africans” as Eze said. This reminds me of Warsan Shire’s “no one leaves home unless home is the mouth of a shark”. With this, we have come to the end of our January book meeting. It was awesome talking to you all. Thank you for participating and looking forward to seeing you in February.