All these thoughts kept me in the box I thought I deserved to be in, for almost all my adult life. The box of suppressed dreams: KEEP YOUR HEAD DOWN AND BE QUIET. The box of mediocrity: NOT BAD BUT NOT GOOD ENOUGH. The box of fear: EVEN IF YOU TRY NO ONE WILL CARE AND PLUS, WHAT IF YOU FAIL.
I am enough started off as Fresh potatoes and river water. It was just my way of making sense of my childhood and to remember my childhood home. It was never intended to be shared with anyone other than my husband.
In 2015, I entered the story into a short story competition, where the theme was “The Gift”. It was then that Phumzile, the star in my story, began to grow. I asked myself what would have been the best thing that could have ever happened to me as a child. Immediately, I knew. The Gift that I gave Phumzile had to be The Gift of being liked for who she was. The gift of being seen. I needed to show the incredible impact that adults make on the lives of little children. I remember, when I was about 11, I decided, in addition to being a writer, I also wanted to be a famous Hollywood movie star and so I started by being first in line for auditions in church and school plays. Once, while I stood nearby, the elders at church were deciding on the cast for that year’s Christmas play. One elder suggested that I be cast in a certain part. The elder next to him glanced over at me, rolled her eyes, scrunched up her face and said “NO, she can’t act”.
Now for a child who wanted to be a famous Hollywood movie star, there couldn’t have been a worse thing to overhear. As adults, we don’t realise how much power our words wield. Whether it is something said in jest, in passing or when we think children are too young to understand, sometimes our words remain for a long time after we’ve said them. Sometimes, while we easily forget our careless words, the child never, ever can forget. Another time, someone said of me that I tried too hard to be pretty. I didn’t wear make up for years after that because I didn’t want to be the girl who tried too hard to be pretty.
So, Fresh potatoes and river waterbecame Do you like me, maybe? for the short story competition. I didn’t win but my writing was recognised for having great potential. This year – 2018- my publisher thought it was (good) enough (!) to publish. We talked at length about the title and decided that the story needed a title that held adults accountable for their words, when used to label, belittle and hurt. So we decided that the title needed to be the lie that Phumzile believed for so many years until someone came into her life and broke that lie. The lie was that she was THAT STUPID STINKING BLACK GIRL WHO CAN’T SPEAK ENGLISH. And so, Phumzile’s story got itself yet another name. Everything was set for publication – cover design, editing, and then! A key decision maker involved in the publishing process raised the issue of racial sensitivity within the scope of freedom of expression.
How far was too far? Did we go too far with THAT STUPID STINKING BLACK GIRL WHO CAN’T SPEAK ENGLISH? We dropped the “Black” but that felt like we were trying to hide Phumzile’s “truth” because that is what she was called in the story and why were we hiding Phumzile’s ethnicity from the title anyway? An executive decision was taken. We would revert to the true essence of the story: THE power of VALIDATION and the power of being LIKED for who you are. The power of believing that you are simply ENOUGH. Enough for you and enough for everyone else. We needed to focus on what brought the real Phumzile to life, what had awakened the greatness that lay still in her little heart. Not focus on the lie that she believed. We needed the title to be a declaration of THE TRUTH and not THE LIE. We needed for the one reading, that it must be a PROCLAMATION that builds up!
The choice was obvious. I am enough was the simple truth that Phumzile needed to believe and
when she did, with an adult rooting for her from the side lines, she was amazing. It’s a funny thing. When we know that we are enough, we are able to do and be more than we ever thought possible. It’s as if we become more than enough. And that is what we needed to show in the title. I just want to stop here for a minute and talk about the amazing staff at Ant Colony Press. The collaborative approach to these important discussions really just blew my mind.
Phumzile represents the innocence of children. The incredible power of validation. The incredible power of words to destroy and to mend. She represents the withered little plant that needs only one drop of life, to grow strong and beautiful. She shows that beauty is not what can be seen or praised but that beauty is the human who is truly everything she was born to be, outside of her ethnicity, her outward appearance or her past. I am enough glimpses into the heart of the woman that little girl became at the most validating moment in her life. I am enough is the truest representation of a forgotten little girl who learned to dream. From the title to the last full stop.
It is my wish that those who read Phumzile’s story will know that it takes so little to bring a child to life. That every child has, in them, greatness and it is from this standpoint that we must root for them and build them up. Not tear them down from the seat of judgement over the colour of their skin, their economic shortcomings or perceived lack of intelligence. And that every person reading would know this one thing: You, just the way you are, are ENOUGH! And when you believe that, you will be ALL that you were meant to be.
As the African continent and the African Diaspora celebrate their unique heritage, culture and great strides made over the last 55 year and also engage in important discussions about challenges facing the continent, I hope to see the African Child – the African Girl Child, to be exact, among the conversation topics in 2018.