I wandered lonely as a cloud
That floats on high o’er vales and hills,
When all at once I saw a crowd,
A host, of golden daffodils;
Beside the lake, beneath the trees,
Fluttering and dancing in the breeze.
Continuous as the stars that shine
And twinkle on the milky way,
They stretched in never-ending line
Along the margin of a bay:
Ten thousand saw I at a glance,
Tossing their heads in sprightly dance.
The waves beside them danced; but they
Out-did the sparkling waves in glee:
A poet could not but be gay,
In such a jocund company:
I gazed — and gazed — but little thought
What wealth the show to me had brought:
For oft, when on my couch I lie
In vacant or in pensive mood,
They flash upon that inward eye
Which is the bliss of solitude;
And then my heart with pleasure fills,
And dances with the daffodils.
William Wordsworth, “I Wandered Lonely As A Cloud”
As odd as it may seem to front a post about a story of two Nigerian immigrants with one of the most British of poems, I had to do it. You see, one of the characters in the story is an artist, and she refers to the painting she is currently working on as her sea of daffodils. Her attachment to it makes Wordsworth’s words pale in comparison. It’s more than the alleviation of loneliness for her: it’s about purpose, about doing what she’s meant to do in spite of everyone telling her to do something else.
And that’s the story, really, of both of these characters. Their inner drive is thwarted by expectations of others. Soma has already cast her lot with her art, but Emeka is burying his dreams of music to follow the path his father has set for him.
Emeka and I built our kingdom in a slanted row house on a patch of green grass in Highland Park, Pittsburgh, PA. Our floors creaked, our toilet growled, our heater hiccupped and often went out for the night, but it was our kingdom. Ours. Our little hideaway where time stopped for us, stretching into forever at our whim. It was where I could paint pomegranates and daffodils and portraits of an eager-eyed girl without feeling like I was wasting my life away. It was where Emeka could beat his igba to the Afrobeats of Fela Kuti and dream.
It infuriated me the way he hunched over his desk into the early morning hours, squeezing his head with sweaty palms. Huffing through the names of pathogenic organisms and their virulence factors for med school, chasing a fantasy that wasn’t even his: shadows of a dead throne in a dusty village in a land far, far away that his father, its long-lost king, wanted to bring back to life. Lurking in these shadows were tales my mother used to whisper in my ear…. I would pull Emeka away from his desk and into bed when the taste of bitter became too much for me to bear. Our arms and legs would entwine like thirsty vines, and heat from the blood rushing through our veins thrilled us. After making love, we cupped our hands to each other’s lips and whispered our deepest fears into them. With a flourish of our fingers, we released them into the universe.
This is one of those lushly written atmospheric pieces detailing the emotional struggle between two lovers, but more importantly, the struggle each of them fights between their own goals and desires, and the pressures of their families and cultures.
Soma paints flowers and fruits. She hasn’t had a big break (yet), she hasn’t been to art school. She just paints because she can’t not paint. She’s working on a sea of daffodils now. And here’s where she shows Wordsworth a thing or two:
I shook my head and pointed like a madwoman to different spots on the canvas. “Look. Look at how the light isn’t hitting the flowers quite right here. That petal. There. It’s awkward. You don’t see that? The lines are too crooked. The daffodils, they need more magic. They need more pop.”
“They are popping. They are popping.”
He placed it on the easel. My sea of daffodils. It wasn’t a Njideka Akunyili multimedia piece or Chinwe Uwatse’s Impossible Dreams. I did not paint pictures of Nigerian landscapes. I did not delve into cultural or social themes. The first time Emeka saw my work, he squinched his face and asked in a scholarly tone what it meant. What kind of commentary was I making as an African woman drawing fruits and flowers? I had a teacher once, in a continuing ed studio workshop, who asked me the same thing. He told me that I would have a hard time competing with African artists who were making bold statements as a result of living in a state of existential urgency. He did not realize that my flowers were also coming from existential urgency. I asked him why my paintings had to mean something. Why they couldn’t just make me feel something. Something indescribable. Why couldn’t they just open a door for anyone to walk through and experience an existence that’s greater than they will ever be but also in this strange and relieving way, a part of them. An alternate reality that is ours. Isn’t this what we all want? To find that magical place in the midst of our tiny, broken-up lives? The teacher gave me a B.
I love this section. I’ve seen this several times in, of all things, cooking competition shows. A chef has trained in French technique at the CIA (the cooking school, not the spy shop) or with a high-end chef in a nouveau-cuisine restaurant, but because she is Asian, or Latina, she’s expected to specialize in her cultural cuisine. This seems to me just as perverse as refusing to allow non-European cuisines into the culinary citadels. Soma relates so clearly how daffodils and fruits inspire her; why not let her take her path, perhaps it will lead her somewhere else when she’s perfected it, much as the most famous artists sometimes work in various schools. Yes, I’m thinking Van Gogh’s wonderful realism, which doesn’t erase his sunflowers or stars, but shows another side. And by the way, I went back and forth for a long time trying to decide on an image for this post: Uwatse’s “Impossible Dreams,” or a sea of daffodils. I feel like I betrayed Soma in choosing Dreams, but in the end I went with a recognized Nigerian artist rather than an anonymous stock photo.
Soma is our point of view character, so we see Emeka through her eyes. Though he lives with her and they act like they’re in love, his family has arranged a marriage to a more suitable woman, a woman getting a formal education, a woman who can help him when as a doctor and then as leader he rescues his father’s village in Nigeria.
Although most of the text is internal, there are several scenes that illustrate the conflict they both face. Emeka tells her to apply for grants, get some kind of official acknowledgement of her talent, so he can present her as worthy to his family. She tries to make Nigerian food – fritters made from black-eyed peas – though she’s more of a spaghetti-and-meatballs kind of girl, and it ends up in the trash. Then there’s a brief but eloquent moment in the bagel shop where she works:
At Bruegger’s that day, I was training a new employee at the counter to strive for “Best in Class”: smile at your customer, ask politely how they can be helped, cut their bagels down the middle as clean as possible, pick only the freshest-looking ingredients for their sandwiches. Be proud of how you’ve brightened their day so that your great work continues. Somewhere in the middle of smearing mayo on a bagel, I had to turn away and shut my eyes tight to keep myself from losing it.
Yeah. Who hasn’t been there. For me it was writing articles about the need for long term care for the office newsletter.
I’ve often indicated my impatience with what I call the “sensitively crafted domestic realism story,” and this might seem like exactly what I’m talking about. But several things lift it from that category. First is the fascinating symmetry between the two characters: he is miserable while he’s trying to please his family and tradition and squelch his dreams, and she is miserable while she’s resisting pressure to abandon her dreams and toe the line. Second is that the conflict is far more specific than the vague marital unease that is the basis of routine domestic realism, conflict that’s beautifully illustrated by the scenes I outlined, among others. And third is the beautiful prose. No, that isn’t fair, I often complain about beautiful prose as distracting, and to be honest, here it is as well. But… it’s really beautiful. Fourth, I see a natural future in this story, where Soma grows as an artist, and we learn what the daffodils mean to her and why she must paint them – and how she grows them into her own fusion of style.
Since each of them is currently resolving their personal struggle in opposite ways, the ending is inevitable.
And, frankly, cheering; I don’t think I could have handled it if she’d put away her paints and enrolled in a computer science program.
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- Story is available online at Narrative (with registration, free and painless)