The first two Ethiopian girls I ever knew—both students at the elementary school I attended from grades 1 to 3—were, on a surface level at least, my cultural doppelgängers. They both had brown complexions and, like me, their curls hung down their backs one day, and tight braids the next day. But that was the extent of our similarities. Their otherness didn’t waft off of them like the scent of exhaust fumes the way it did for me, the only black Muslim Somali girl at school. Their obvious Christian faith like all of the white kids, the multi-colored beads they wore in their hair like all the black female celebrities I idolized, and the fact that their moms dressed way less conservatively than my mom were dead giveaways that they were Western, and thus nothing like me despite our shared geography, and phenotype.
Years later, I still observe this cultural distance between Horn of Africa women, but it’s been replaced with a desire to superficially consolidate our narratives and identities in North America. Fiction like The Parking Lot Attendant by Nafkote Tamirat is often the only respite from this trend. Tamirat’s disorienting debut novel narrated by an unnamed Ethiopian teenager doesn’t mirror my Somali-American experience. Even better, it’s a singular story about a teenage girl’s singular experience: arriving with her father to a remote, utopian, ginger-scented island colony called B, where they live communally among people who are similarly in-between Boston and Africa, after fleeing the states for less than clear reasons. Where I can relate to Tamarit’s narrator is the meta-comment on the isolation of being an immigrant daughter, which is more than isolation from community or country; it’s often an estrangement from the self, causing unforetold rifts in a young woman’s hyphenated experience between two cultures. It’s not far-fetched that the narrator gets attached to a cult leader to deal with the absence of her parents, neither is it improbable that this cult leader would give the narrator a sense of purpose and meaning so lacking in her waking life. Tragically, I relate to all of these things, and to see it in allegory, with the writing often reflecting the same jumbled and befuddling nature of the experience itself, is equal parts clever and transformational.
I understand the impulse Ethiopians and Somalis have to consolidate their identities. We’re two groups that aren’t allowed to inhabit the space of blackness full-time. I don’t think that’s the reason why we cling to each other, though. I think we cling to mooch on each other’s shiny qualities: Somalis have enviable visibility in the diaspora that can’t quit, and Ethiopians have the Judeo-Christian it-factor and vegan cuisine Somalis desperately need a piece of if we ever want to be an assimilated darling of the diaspora like they are. Also, it doesn’t help that, at the beginning of the 2010s, many mainstream rappers, including Drake, were rapping about a generic “East African” girl, so everyone wanted their chance to be that girl. For some, their entire self-concept got subsumed by that rapper fantasy. These are the conditions that led to me publishing a piece on Buzzfeed.com I deeply regret writing with an Ethiopian writer. In the piece, we spoke of a universal experience among our girls and women that simply isn’t real, at least not in the way we over-simplified it. The narrative we created was incoherent, and, until this day, I feel as though I’ve truly dishonored the legacy of my ancestors by the psychic terrorism of ever publishing that piece. But it’s one of those things I’ve had to charge to the game. I was young, dumb, and apparently, “East African.” That impulse to write broadly and speak to experiences and identities outside of my own doesn’t go away, as there’s a dearth of shared raw material within our collective experiences, especially the collective immigrant girl experience, to excavate. This is why writers like Rupi Kaur and Fariha Roisin have branded themselves as emissaries of a certain amorphous immigrant girl/diaspora girl experience. Sometimes it just clicks, and other times, it can come off a bit forced, but I think that’s the awkwardness of consolidating your identity in general. It gets even more awkward the more it’s incentivized with money or visibility. It’s a uniquely millennial enterprise, too, as previous generations of writers hadn’t worked so hard at crafting accompanying visual identities, whether it’s their digital presentation and aesthetic, or their style of dress.
The works by these young immigrant women aren’t meant to be consumed in the same way that, say, Zadie Smith’s White Teeth, is. In White Teeth, specifically, there’s a certain mainstreaming and flattening of the immigrant and first-generation experience where the characters are neither explicitly post-race nor fixated on each other’s differences. They simply exist while cultural events like the rise of pre-9/11 Islamic fundamentalism or the release of Salman Rushdie’s The Satanic Verses are happening in the background. Whereas the young immigrant women writing on/for the internet today have defined themselves against that background noise, zeroing in on their differences with forensic precision. At the core of their work is a belief that their difference has shaped and marked them. If Smith’s White Teeth is “middlebrow” for combining a very high level of critical intelligence with accessible yet literary language, these girls are no-brow. They’re combining critical feeling with a language that’s only accessible to a few girls like them. Smith’s work may mine the same themes of culture, diaspora, etc. (what most so-called ‘diaspora’ literature covers), but it’s not the same. These girls, unlike Smith, will never get to write with an authority that is attained by conforming to a white and male standard that’s stylized after literary canon figures because they rejected it from the beginning, writing instead to an audience of young, working-class girls like them.
I often think about whether I belong to this burgeoning category of online immigrant/diaspora girl writing. I do write broadly to women I am tenuously connected to by the ways colonialism has touched our lives, but I’d be lying if I said they’re the buyer persona or reader I’ve envisioned for this newsletter. They’re simply not. My readership feels much wider than that.
Maybe it’s a little simplistic, and Feminism 101 of me, but all girls, starting from childhood, are conditioned to get used to pain. We’ve grown up with phrases like “you’ll have to kiss a bunch of frogs until you find your prince” and “beauty is pain” that set us up to feel like we must pay a painful toll to get to where and what we want in life. Part of this pain is a limitation: be as pretty as a woman in a magazine or be as smart as a woman in a history book (whose achievements were overlooked during her lifetime). The absence of choice leaves us with few options, as we navigate life, romance, and career, so we perpetually feel like we’re never good, beautiful, or smart enough— but that we’re also too much. Our worth is calculated crudely, so when we do measure up we’re overflowing at the brim, excessive, taking up too much space. I feel like I am writing to that “too much” girl exclusively, regardless of whether she’s Somali, Ethiopian, Pakistani, or Jewish. I’m writing to the thick girls. The girls who wear too much color. The immigrant girl who runs a Depop empire. All of the girls.
Listen to my ‘dj immigrant daughter’ playlist on Spotify, featuring Rina Sawayama, Blood Cultures, Layla Hendryx, Rubi Rose, and Rihanna, among others).