Teju Cole of Modal Minority tagged me a few days ago with this meme. By the way, what does “meme” mean? I feel like it is some word that I should know. (And all who read this who feel like being tagged, consider yourselves tagged.) Despite my constant blabbing about myself on this blog, here are five things that most readers probably don't know.
1) My first trip outside of the United States was in 1988 when I was eleven years old and my family moved from Kansas to Port Harcourt. We stopped over in London and spent three days exploring the city. We visited an old auntie, a sister of my great grandmother, who had a toilet that you had to pull a chain to flush and who fed us on a rich cream almond covered cake and cucumber sandwiches. She was so proud of the cake. None of us could eat it. The five of us, my parents, my brother, sister and I wandered across London on foot, crossing London Bridge to Madame Toussaud's and watching the beefeaters outside of Buckingham Palace, but also stumbling across neighborhood cricket games, and ending up getting so lost that we had to walk for hours to get back to the guesthouse where we were staying. My brother was so tired that he lay down on the sidewalk and refused to go further. My dad ended up carrying him on his back, and I carried my sister.
My first memory of Nigeria is a tall soldier with a machine gun who escorted us through customs in the Lagos airport. At the guest house, the toilet seat was not attached to the toilet and there was a big black barrel in the bathtub. This did not bother us; it was just all part of the adventure. There were turquoise blue blankets on the two double beds. L., D. and I jumped on them, while we waited for the food to come; it arrived around midnight, a heaping platter of rice and stew and fried plantain. After her first trip to Nigeria before they brought us kids, my mother had raved about fried plantains. But when I tasted them that first night, I did not like them. I did not like them for another five or six years.
2) I was once fired from Oscar de la Renta…. Think Anne Hathaway in The Devil Wears Prada getting fired on her first day of work rather than getting sucked into the system, and that was me. I had moved to New York with my best friend from high school after graduating from college. I was young and naive, and although my style had gotten better after a semester abroad in England, I had never heard of Oscar de la Renta. I was temping while looking for a more permanent job. One morning my temp agent called me all excited that she was going to place me with Oscar de la Renta. I must have seemed unsuitably unimpressed on the phone, so she said, “You don’t know who Oscar de la Renta is? Are you serious? The FAMOUS designer????... So, can you handle phones?” “I’ve never done it before,” I said. “You’ll learn,” she said. “It’s a three week job, you’ll be standing in for the CEO’s receptionist. So, shall we do it?” “I’ll try.” I said. So, I put on my conservative blue outlet mall suit and my Payless dress shoes and took the subway to Oscar de la Renta. Models were roaming about. No one else had on a conservative blue suit. When I walked in and gave them my name, the person at the front desk gave me a good up and down look. They sat me down in an office that was to be mine for the next three weeks. I could not have a lunch break because lunch would be served by a chef. I was excited about the chef but unhappy about not having a lunch break because I was still interviewing for other permanent jobs. I had never transferred calls before. In fact, I have a mortal fear of talking on phones with strangers—probably having something to do with not having grown up with phones. So, here I was blithely answering the phone “Oscar de la ROSA. May I help you?” I answered the phone this way about five times, until someone on the other line said, “you mean ‘Renta’ Oscar de la Renta.” … Then, I ended up hanging up on some famous French designer when I tried to transfer him. The last straw was when I patched through a call to the CEO while he was in a meeting. He came out right before noon and told me I would no longer be needed. About a week later I got the editing job that I had for the next two years, and I wouldn’t have been able to interview for it if I had I still been at Oscar de la Renta…
3) The summer after I graduated from college, before I moved to New York, I worked in a junkyard in Georgia, tearing apart old computers and machines. I enjoyed it until the old man who owned the junkyard started coming up behind me while I was unscrewing things and giving me massages. So, I quit. (I’ve written a longer description of this, but I’m not sure whether or not to post it.)
4) Although I am now in a PhD programme for African literature, I actually did not read any African literature until I was around 16. Just as my dad had made our entire family take a Hausa class during one school break, he made me start reading African novels. I would bring home fantasy and science fiction and historical romance novels, neglect my homework for Jane Austen and Robin McKinley. One day my dad handed me Cyprian Ekwensi’s People in the City and Ngugi’s The River Between and said. “You are living in Africa, so you should read African literature too.” Those were the first two African novels I read. Now, I recommend books for him to read. My dad has been so influential in who I have become, in so many ways.
5) My parents grew up in very conservative families who were a part of the Holiness movement. Although my mother relaxed the rules on us kids enough that we were allowed to go swimming and wear short sleeves and sandals without stockings, we were raised in a very simple way. We did not grow up with television, although we did have a VCR that we hooked up to a computer monitor to watch Chitty Chitty Bang, Bang, and old Shirley Temple, and Laurel and Hardy movies. Later in high school, we were allowed to watch more daring things like Star Wars. We did not wear jewelry or makeup--a habit that lasts me to this day. (My little sister, L., on the other hand, can manage her makeup quite well.) My mom made a lot of our clothes herself. I didn’t trim my hair until I was fourteen. After a trip to the U.S. where I had acquired a very unfortunate set of bangs, my grandmother wrote my parents a letter telling them how disappointed she was that they were allowing Carmen to become “worldly.”
I did not wear jeans until I got to college. One of the things about not being used to wearing what other people wear is that it takes you a while to get the style quite right. On my first date in college, I wore a baggy pair of jeans and a long sleeved t-shirt, and I thought that I was “stylin.”(!) I finally broke down another barrier when I got my ears pierced last year. Now, I realize that there are a lot of things about earring etiquette I don’t know. Is it all right to wear the same dangly ruby-studded gothic earrings three days in a row as I did this week, or is that as bad as wearing the same sweater three days in a row?
See if you can identify me in this photo. I was thirteen. We were living in Port Harcourt, when the international school (where I later went to high school after we moved to Jos) sent down their sports teams to engage in a national competition. The students seemed so glamourous and so American to me. I was in awe of them and wanted to be like them.