The Lonely Planet Guide to Diaspora: Part Two


New York City to Georgetown, 20th of November                                                                                                                                                                                      

What began it all was the bright bone of a dream I could hardly hold onto.

—Michael Ondaatje

When we visit Guyana for the first time in twenty-five years, I offer my flesh to the mosquitos I sense before I see. I’m flattered my blood is to their liking. Sometimes my blood is too heavy. Like I am carrying the blood of a dream or a lineage I cannot locate, like air that gets trapped in a ziplock bag. Forgive me, I’ve told you this already.

My lineage is like a whale skeleton: each gap between the bones is another name lost, another generation. No one wrote the names down and if someone did they transcribed them incorrectly—is there an app to fix this?

In Istanbul, my surname teases me from street carts selling roasted corn. It pops up on the stone wall of the entrance to Mısır Çarşısı. At Istanbul Atatürk Airport workers smirk when they look at my passport. Misir? How many bags are you checking in, Miss Corn? I wanted to ask someone this: In Turkish, is the word for Egypt and corn the same?

Family lore dictates that my surname isn’t actually my surname. The story goes that it was misheard, misspelled. At night I dream of each letter playing musical chairs with an alphabet I am not fluent in. This is how it starts.

When your last name calls out to you in Istanbul. Credit: Nadia Misir

Georgetown, 22nd of November

Water is something you cannot hold.

—Anne Carson

I think diaspora is a mosquito that bites at your skin until it swells red, until you can’t help but scratch it raw. If clarity is a mosquito bite, then let the chemicals each mosquito plants in my blood be mixed with the names of the ancestors I seek. Let my skin swell red with their names, their love stories, their joys. Let me summon the spirits of the mosquito ancestors that bit at the flesh of my ancestors.

My mother recognizes the bursts and shocks of green, the fruits and flowers, the greedy rain clouds that eat up the entire landscape of the country I saw when I was barely one year old, but cannot remember. She recognizes the Demerara River, the way it changes color with the rains, the louvre style windows she grew up peering through to the neighbor’s bottomhouse. But that is all. Everything else she hasn’t returned to in twenty-five years—a length the shape of my lifetime—is like the unfamiliar voice of a lover from a past life.

I think diaspora is my mother mapping all the ways where she came from is now unfamiliar. It is looking out at the Demerara River that looks too wide to be a river, but what do I know about the width of rivers?

Plastic bags stuffed tight with brown cane sugar first taught me the name Demerara when I was a child growing up in Queens. I didn’t care about what the name meant then, only knew that the only sugar I knew as sugar was brown sugar. The first time I tasted white sugar I screwed my face up into a dried fig. Now brown sugar is on trend. Can I really trust Wikipedia when it tells me the name Demerara is derived from the Arawak word for river of the letter wood?

My mother takes in the view of the Demerara River and Georgetown from our hotel room. Credit: Nadia Misir

Should I teach you the vernacular of water while I have you? When a country is covered in water, language tries to hold it. Here are the names of different bodies of water in Guyana: ocean, river, lake, creek, trench, canal, waterfall. 

Diaspora is my father teaching me the definition of a stelling when we drive to Parika and stand at the edge of a wooden dock. There are parked trucks and crates stacked high, passengers waiting for speedboats and ferries to take them across the water.

A man fishes for patwa somewhere between Georgetown and Berbice. Credit: Nadia Misir

When we spot a man fishing for patwa at the edge of a road we stop. My father tells me there are two kinds of fish in Guyana: trench fish and river fish. Trench fish are also called sweet water fish. They are found in rice and cane fields, in ditches, trenches, canals and lakes. I try to sound out sweet water with my yankee tongue. I imagine casting a net back in time to my father’s father as he plants rice. I imagine him dropping the r off of the word water and crooning in a voice that is all sandpaper, all Marlboro reds: sweet watah fish. I imagine fishing his ghost, his pronunciation back to shore. Sweet watah.

Georgetown to Parika Stelling, 23rd of November                                                                                                                                                   

verily   everything that is lost will be

given a name   & will not come back

but will live forever

—Safia Elhillo    

Our taxi driver speeds down the highway. Eh eh. Like more car den people exist now, mom says out loud. We wheel around Stabroek Market and the constellation of stalls and hawkers outside of its entrance. Mom points out where the car park used to be, where she used to stand up waiting for a taxi after work. When I was a kid I thought there was a hidden r my grandmother buried under her tongue when she pronounced Stabroek.

I imagined a market covered in starfish of various colors and textures. Stabroek was born on November 1, 1881. It is named after a Dutch man, Nicholas Gleevinck, Lord of Stabroek and president of the Dutch West India Company. It was designed by an American man, Nathaniel McKay. The names of these white men have survived generations, but still I do not know the name of my great-great-grandmother who sold her goods here, still I do not know where her stall might have been.

Walking into Stabroek is like being swallowed by a whale.

Guyana is not an island, but always, there is a view of the water: a river, a trench, a canal, a creek, gutter water rushing down the side of the pavement, the Atlantic. I never knew rivers had tides, never thought about the Parika, Essequibo River Tide Chart, about when the sun and moon rise and how this guides migration, how this guides the speedboats, tugboats, and ferries gliding across the water and back again.

The view from Parika stelling. Credit: Nadia Misir

Nandy Park, 24th of November                                                                                                                                                                                     

Suppose I were to begin by saying that I had fallen in love with a color.

—Maggie Nelson

Green turns out to be the color of our grief, the first color I see when we step off of Caribbean Airlines Flight BW507. Green is the color of my mom’s tears that hit the tarmac, it is the color of the ship lodged in my throat, the color of my grandparent’s ghosts. The greens here are so vibrant, so alive, it is as if they derive their color from the small and large deaths that come to define a life and a lineage.

My grandmother's yard in Guyana is stocked with fruit trees I cannot identify. Credit: Nadia Misir

Mom’s old bedroom window is covered by white grillwork and frames the breadfruit tree outside. Its leaves hang heavy with raindrops. The wooden floor of my grandparents’ wooden house on stilts swells after it rains. The walls do not connect to the ceiling, so snippets of conversations going on behind closed doors  travel to other parts of the house on a gust of breeze that feels never ending. It’s that endless loop kind of breeze, that stuck on repeat kind of breeze.

 

My mother's old bedroom window faces a breadfruit tree outside. Credit: Nadia Misir

There are so many parts of my grandparents’ house I wish I could slide into the lining of my suitcase. A list: turquoise walls, the mirror tiles, the gaps between the mirror tiles, the breeze that sneaks a dance with the white lace curtains, the small holes in the wooden floors, the round cat that gets stuck in the window grill near the bookshelf between out there and in here.

Light reflects off the mirror tiles in a nook of the house. Credit: Nadia Misir

Every view here is a study in color and texture and the neighbors’ goings-on. The curtains catch bits of gossip and backchat and watch story deh. It all rides in on that immortal breeze that feels like the embrace of a thousand strangers.

The turquoise walls are my favorite part of my grandparents' home in Guyana. Credit: Nadia Misir

I almost forget about the medicine woman with gold and house full of other strangers occupying this house. They want it because it is a lucky house and the ghost of a Dutch soldier lives at the base of the coconut tree in the yard. Grandma told me he gets angry when the yard isn’t clean.

Everyone in Guyana has a side hustle. Our taxi driver, Q, is in the honey business. He minds his honeybees on a piece of land up Soesdyke. It is a dusty, hilly part of the country. Sister K (the medicine woman who runs a holistic clinic underneath my grandparents’ house) tells my mother we should sell her the house and buy a plot of land in Soesdyke because Georgetown will be underwater in twenty years. Then let us sink with it, I want to tell her. I smile instead.

The house is all we have left.

An insomnia doodle of a house on stilts. Credit: Nadia Misir

 

A line of gold runs a river between her teeth and when she hugs me I do not feel any malice. In fact, I am intrigued by her. I grew up around women who would declare to each other after meeting someone new (and after they were well outside of earshot) meh spirit nah tek she or, if they they liked them, meh spirit tek she. It’s an intuitive way of self-protection and organizing people in the world.

We are told before we land that people have journeyed to Suriname to visit a Djuka man to steal the house from our family, that they have bathed the bottom house in turtle’s blood, that we won’t be able to go inside the house when we get there. It makes me smile.

An insomnia doodle inspired by my mother's old bedroom window. Credit: Nadia Misir

When we arrive at the house after the rain, my mother picks a red hibiscus from my grandparents’ yard. I stick it between my right ear and hair, and together we go up the stairs and in the house. I settle down on a sofa  and browse letters are from decades before I was born: correspondence between my mother and my grandparents when she migrated before they followed.

Georgetown to Berbice, 25th of November                                                                                                                                                                  

Sometimes I ask for too much just to feel my mouth overflow.

—Ocean Vuong

On the three-hour drive from Georgetown to Berbice, the sky gives way to impossible shades of blue. For every cloud, for every house on stilts, for every part of the landscape that sang paradise, there was a dilapidated billboard about suicide prevention, about the importance of mental health, about getting tested for HIV, about the story of a place that's harder to hear amid such sunshine and bright colors.

Is it too much to ask for what my mouth cannot hold: language to articulate trauma?

One of many old houses we saw on the drive between Georgetown and Berbice. Credit: Nadia Misir

New York, 1st of December                                                                                                                                                                                             

We invent the beasts that we breed.

—Shivanee Ramlochan

I still struggle with insomnia when we return. At four am, years before I am a thought, my four year old father is chasing birds out of a West Coast Demerara rice field in 1965. At four am this morning I am looking at photographs of cane fields that look like the shiny backs of bright green frogs and writing to you. Somewhere in a rice field under a too blue sky between my father's past and my present I am breathing, I am happy, I am running laps the shape of my lifetime, I am arriving at a place close to home.

One thought on “The Lonely Planet Guide to Diaspora: Part Two

  1. The soil of ur heritage, the lineage, the diaspora of ur ancestry, is enriched with these words that you spew like a poetic rice mill machine… however we catch ah sense of u grazing through each aspect of history with ur bare hands. Readers are placed in the wetlands, we can smell the air, our eyes are shaded with the greens of Guyana, of ur grief, we hear the surnames of ur family whispered on leafs, carried thru the breeze of pride skimming off pumped chest, conjured up in the stretching of ur smile as you write… love and home lay with these words and if every other reader didn’t swat at his or her neck because we are bitten by the ghost of the mosquito as u bring ah lonely planet to life. I have always been ah fan of ur work, but when u speak of the culture engraved on the strands of ur DNA, u become ah mystical creature wielding pens as strong as the tools of Guinevere and Hermione; it’s seriously breathtaking to read ur work. Congrats and please continue writing, journeying, creating, and establishing the roots within ur blood here in ah place that seems to have clearly forgotten it’s origin story. Bless

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