The following is taken from the upcoming work ‘Letters I Never Sent To You’ by Paula Varjack to be released this autumn by Burning Eye Books. ‘Letters I Never Sent To You’ is a collection of impressions and encounters; of people briefly met and of places passed through and lived in. It explores the sometimes slippery nature of the word “home”, and how love and heartbreak can be felt just as strongly for a place as for a person. It explores connection and disconnection with places, people and the spaces in which we encounter them, from Washington D.C. to London, from Accra to Paris and onward to Berlin.
This excerpt explores Paula’s journeys in Accra, Ghana.
Me and the other two thirds of my family
collapse against our luggage trolleys
our tired eyes scanning a baggage carousel
as I notice that all the signs here are hand painted
and fight for my attention making up visual traffic.
All faces on the billboards
have dark skin, slogans that make me laugh like
‘join the network that actually works!’
We step through humid air peal off our winter coats.
‘No’, my father says repeatedly, we don't need help.
We don't need help.
I follow his lead
shrug off multiple hands
that go for my suitcase, my bag,
waiting taxi doors that open for us.
In the back of the cab
my mum is buzzing.
She's a different person
chatting excitedly about how the roads
are so much better.
Do I remember?
Have I noticed, can I see
how much is changed?
It is familiar here, in a way.
But the bits I don't remember
could be change or they could just be
the bits I don't remember.
Mum keeps saying ‘But it’s changed, aren't you impressed?
My face registers nothing more
than bewilderment and she says,
‘you don't remember’
‘you don't remember’
‘you don't remember, do you?”
I told mum I wanted to go to Oxford Street.
They renamed it after the one in London because people say whatever you can find on that Oxford Street you can find here in Accra. So hours later we go.
The first words I hear walking down the street?
‘Sister, sister, sister come here, come!
‘Come look at my paintings/carvings/handbags/watches/shoes. Maybe you want to buy my, paintbrushes.’
My mum is proud of me getting all this attention and I am suspended in this constant state of introduction.
‘This is my daughter. This is my daughter. This is my daughter, yes my daughter.’
‘Ahhh your daughter. Maybe she won't go back. Sister! ’
‘Maybe you won't go back. Maybe you'll meet someone here, stay, you should stay here. Sister, I'm an artist, Come, come look at my paintings/sandles/luxury watches. Let me show you- Let me get you- Do you like? Do you want to buy? Do you want one to take back? Don't you like it? Madam! Madam!’
I think to myself my best friend from Paris, she once said she gets really offended if she's called Madam rather than Madamoiselle, it makes her feel old, miserable.
I tell mum that I want to walk back to the car and she's disappointed. I feel pathetic but I just don't want to be sold to anymore.
Please just let me find my way. Please just leave me at the hotel to sunbathe. Please let me get darker and maybe I'll stand out a little bit less.
At lunch my father invited George, our driver, to eat with us. I could tell he did not want to. He would have rather waited for us by the car. By waiting he was taking a break. Coming with us, making conversation, just sitting with us meant he was still working. I did not know how to explain this to my father.
When we sat at the table to eat, I noticed George struggled with the cutlery, not knowing how to hold the knife and fork in his hands, hands used to dipping dough-y balls of kenke into spicy stews of fish and goat.
When the bill came, 100 cedis for the four of us (45.50 Euros), George was shocked. I'm sure he thought it was not just excessive but wasteful to spend such money on food. Even my father was embarrassed by the figure. He paid quickly and said, it was expensive for him as well.
I met a poet in Accra who said, ‘there are people in this country who live on five cedis (2.40 Euros) a week. There are people who sell on the street all day, carrying their wares on their head.’
A great weight that they balance on their head, standing in the heat, rushing through traffic to make a sale.
They do this all day to make a total of maybe two cedis to bring home to their families. And this is what others will spend by lunchtime without so much of a thought.
None of my family ever ride in the tro-tro's, the lorries that cross town crammed with as many passengers as will cram in. My family have cars and drivers, or book taxis.
The fare to cross town in a tro-tro is 40 Pessoas.
In a cab its 8 cedis.
Just over three pounds
I can’t get over the exchange rate.
You asked me “Why is it heavy?”
I said “It's complicated “
Because how could I explain of the boys who surround at the gates of Elmina Castle, welcoming me with one breath, pestering me for money with another.
How could I tell of the slave dungeons I walked into. The cells where the women were kept, there was a trap door in the ceiling. When a woman was chosen from the cell she could be brought up through the trap door in the middle of the night, kept in the room above, in the bed above until ‘the act’.
My mum kept saying, ‘But the children, the children the slave-owners had with them, they were given an education, given Portuguese names, raised as one of their own.’
Their mothers also would not be sent back to that cell, perhaps they weren't treated as wives but they were treated better than slaves, they were of a different class. And I thought to myself, ‘Yes, but it was rape that got them there.’
How can I explain of the canons pointing skyward to a Dutch fort looming above? African tribes never had any interest in gun powder, didn't fight with guns until the Europeans came to trade. The Europeans were clever; once one tribe had guns all the other tribes needed them. Suddenly a useless material became valued commodity.
How can I describe my grandparent's house aged with beautiful decay where two uncles and two cousins were born and where my grandmother died? Where an uncle as chief mediates village disputes?
How can I describe my cousin's leafy gated community? The 24hour security guards, high walls topped with broken glass or barbed wire. Maids and cooks and gardeners who rise early and are in bed by dark.
And all the women I pass by in the car when we leave the gates. All those women on the roadside, walking all day in the dead hot heat, babies strapped to their back as they step through all that stand still traffic, trying to sell whatever they have to sell; soap, toothbrushes, sunglasses.
How do I explain the strange pain I feel at hearing dialects brush past my ears without the slightest sense of comprehension? This ever present sense of not being even the slightest bit Ghanaian?
The women in some stores who stare at me. The women in other stores who jump to attention as soon as I walk through the door. The woman who changed the CD to Samba when I walked in her shop, asked me if I understood the lyrics. The blank way she looked at me when I said I was not Brazilian but half Ghanaian. How do I talk about this constant admission of being Ghanaian, and the way those words often hovered in the air, foreign even to myself as if I was making them up?
What could I say about these young gorgeous Ghanaian women with older, much older unattractive foreign men. How I felt when my cousin said the most beautiful girls you'd see in those couples were often at the university, ‘they had to pay their fees somehow’.
What would I say about the men who push by me, grab my arm to come back and talk to them, the eyes I can't meet if I don't' want advances? And what about the women whose eyes I wouldn't dare meet, scared that if I let them linger too long what they (my eyes) might say?
This profound sense of wanting to fit, marred by the sense I never can, I never will.
No I don't speak any of my Mother's dialects.No I can't remember what tribe my grandparents originate from.
No I don't have any Ghanaian friends. No I don't like bargaining, not at the market, on the street, anywhere.
Yes, I may have issues around personal space. Yes, they may not make sense here.No I never quite feel relaxed here.
No I don't want to take any pictures of... I don't want to take any pictures of... I do not belong here. I do not belong here.
And what am I left with, what am I at times suffocated by?
My hopes and impossible cultural aspirations, the desire to integrate to intersect, and mostly, the failing and failing and failing.
Paula Varjack is a writer, filmmaker and theatre maker. Her work explores identity, the unsaid, and making the invisible visible. She makes work across disciplines; performance, theatre, documentary and spoken word. Her most recent show “ Show Me The Money” - explores the reality of making a living in the artist in the U.K. based on interviews with artists across the country. She has performed at numerous arts festivals and cultural spaces including: Glastonbury Festival, Berlin International Literature Festival, Tate Modern, Chelsea Theatre, The Victoria & Albert Museum, The ICA, Richmix, Wiltons Music Hall, Battersea Arts Centre, The Southbank Centre, Círculo de Bellas Artes, Musicbox Lisbon, Es Balluard Museum of Contemporary Art, and The Photographer’s Gallery.
Born in Washington D.C. to a Ghanaian mother and a British father, out of the many places she has lived she considers east London to be home.
For all things Paula Varjack, please visit her website www.paulavarjack.com