Alexandria

When I was younger I read a series called The American Girl Diaries

They were books about girls with red hair and freckles

Girls with wealthy grandparents they had to dress up to visit

Girls who daydreamed

About becoming artists

Their lives were recommended reading

On display, front and center, in my county library

Those books taught me how to speak.

I learned to narrate my life like it was a movie

A black and white film, ink and paper

I kept a script of everything the leading lady did

But when I signed my name at the end, I wrote “Alexandria”

Because girls who kept diaries didn’t have African names

From grade four to grade ten, I recorded every speck of humdrum with posterity

in mind

My eldest daughter, my sister’s son

Some kid digging in his backyard for time capsules

I was writing for all of them

But one day I stopped, because I thought

I wouldn’t read my own story if I had the choice

My plot had no action

The setting? No majesty

And I only ever traveled on the magic carpets of dog-eared pages

I figured magic was playing hide-and-seek with me in the stalls of school

bathrooms

Or the muddy craters of backyards

Places I would never think to look—that’s why I never found it

One day there would be barbeques, tennis practice after school, family vacations

I would finally have everything my friends thought was ordinary

See, I wasn’t praying for a plot twist, just waiting for normal

For the life I saw printed

And reprinted

In every story I read

See, my kitchen smelled like palm oil frying in a pot of stew on Sunday afternoons

On autumn evenings my dad would tell us to go outside and kick a ball around

And declare that with six more kids he’d have a whole soccer team

And the only “locale” we ever “summered” in was the library

I’m only an “American girl” until you get to know me

In middle school, I could discuss lunchroom gossip as blissfully as the best of ’em

While at home, we built our lives from scratch

Scraping at the soil of this country to find our footing

My dad tucked his PhD into his back pocket

It was thrown back in his face too many times by people who didn’t believe in

Nigerian universities

He had nowhere to hide his accent, though

No place to go when policemen wanted to peer into his car

My mom, who named my baby sister “Nwakaego”—

A child is greater than money—

Had to choose between leaving her to be raised in day care

And keeping food in the fridge

And I

I claim my birth in a country as foreign as a world news headline

My parents speak a language that sprang from its dust

I don’t understand a sentence

But every time I speak I remember that it could have been my mother tongue

I read the stories of American girls and learned

That I couldn’t even be myself in my own diary

I would always be stuck in imitation

Stuck taming my hair

Stuck buying jeans that never fit right

Left to assume they weren’t made for this body type

Stuck reading a hundred issues of Girlslife magazine before realizing

When the makeup section said “fair complexions”

It would never mean me

My sisters, my brother and I barely know how to pronounce our own names

We have swallowed them after every homeroom roll call

Melted them down like used gold

Remolded them to fit this country’s palate

To taste sweeter on American tongues

Now, these deformed syllable songs are all we know

These days, people call me a writer

My pen and I have forgiven each other

I am writing what I know exactly as I know it

I am learning to sing my name like gospel

Like it was my first word

Like even if I have no mother language, I know this name

Therefore, I can never be an orphan

I have stopped writing “Alexandria” in my diary

Stopped holding in my darker-skinned life like underwater breath

I will sigh my story every time my hand touches a page

I am the only one who can tell it

And I will write it so LOUD—

The world

Will have no choice but to listen

—Ifeanyi Awachie