Soft Jaw


verb rec·on·cile \ˈre-kən-ˌsī(-ə)l\

Reconciled; reconciling

transitive verb

1a:  to restore to friendship or harmony; reconciled the factions

b:  settle, resolve reconcile differences

I met someone early this year and I cared for them quicker than is advisable because… well, I cared for them quicker than is advisable—not all things need profound justifications. When things were still tender between us, they wanted to have my astrology natal chart done as a gift. They needed to know what time I was born.

“I don’t know my birth time, because my mother doesn’t love me.”

It was a joke, of course—there is not the slightest doubt that my mother loves me. History is just complicated, and there’s the small matter of definitions. My definition of love involves trust, and trust requires time. My mother and I haven’t had a lot of time together. I want to know the kind of love my mother seems to believe in; love for her is an immutable fact. She feels it and says it, and thus it is true.

She is incredibly cool, my mother. It feeds my ego to say that because I am her spitting image–the way that my eyebrows dance; my gait; a coquettish way that I sometimes move or make my eyes while on the threshold of making a request (soft manipulations that I dislike in myself wholly because I resent them in my mother). It’s a little frightening because she didn’t raise me, yet our interests are near-identical. A few years ago I started a handmade clothing line using upcycled Ankara wax print, and named it AfroTrash. Soon after, my paternal grandmother told me that in the late eighties, my mother set up a clothing line named Rag Afrique. This is one parallel among many that make me laugh and think “oh, of course.” There are also interests that we probably do not share: I’m interested to know her reasons for leaving. I’m also interested in building enough trust to tell her about the bad things that happened after she left.

My mother is crafted of a different culture than me; I don’t know that we can accommodate each other’s truths. Her truth: she gave birth to me and is therefore entitled to unfettered access to my life. Always. My truth: no. I set boundaries and give permission. This is probably a very Oyimbo way of perceiving the dynamics, but the Oyimbos have some things right.

Speaking of Oyimbo things, how does one tell their Christian, Yoruba mother that they are queer? All ‘coolness’ considered, I cannot see those differences settling without some spark.


2:  to make consistent or congruous; reconcile an ideal with reality

  1. Despite the ongoing debates about what the Bible says about queerness, my home country Nigeria, as well as most Christian communities I’ve come across, consider it sinful. In fact, in Nigeria the government considers queerness so abhorrent that the former president Goodluck Jonathan signed the Same Sex Marriage Prohibition Act into law.
  2. Raised Catholic, I have grown to be the sort of human who intensely desires spiritual balance. Therefore faith has become an integral part of my identity.
  3. I am queer.

And I want to reconcile these things.

However juvenile and filled with hubris this longing to harmonize these parts of my identity, it is also true. And I am often wrestling with myself to surrender the shame that comes with this truth.

Queerness for me has felt like the answer to a question I’ve been afraid to ask. I’ve compartmentalized things for long enough that I can tell you my political understanding of queerness in one long breath: it is the deconstruction of norms socially imposed onto gender and sexuality, respecting the legitimacy of varied and diverse gender expressions. Beyond sex and gender, my queerness bleeds into my fundamental beliefs about how we can better the world. Academically, my view is clear: every(body) deserves protection from persecution, and for their human rights to remain free from threat. LGBTQ rights are human rights. Queerness inherently wants equitable access to resources for people who have been systematically denied access, and whose societal marginalization has been normalized.

When I don’t have to be hyper-intellectual about it—when I’m not required to justify my perspective and beliefs—queerness for me is the hustle for a unique kind of freedom, the idea that I can love and be who I choose, without fear of shame or rejection from my family or faith community.

I don’t know how to reconcile the two; my queerness and my faith. One of the most fundamental aspects of Christianity is that you must “die to your flesh,” “carry your cross,” and follow Christ. I worry (as a good Catholic girl I always worry) that accepting my queerness is surrendering to my flesh, that by bringing to light this part of myself, I am shunning the instructions of the God I claim to worship, dropping the cross on the floor, stepping over it and walking away. That image, for me, is mortifying. Maybe you understand, maybe you don’t.

There is so much of Christianity and my faith practice that has nothing to do with queerness, so much of my identity as well. If all my identities are an outfit, my queerness is merely the color; or the ornate embroidery along the hemline; or the zipper on the back. It may very well be the fabric itself, or just the pattern against which the fabric is cut. Perhaps it is a different aspect of any given outfit. It is not the whole outfit, but it is a deeply significant undeniable characteristic of my personhood.


3:  to cause to submit to or accept; something unpleasant was reconciled to hardship

The person I met early this year ended up being my first lover, but we had an abrupt falling out shortly after we started seeing each other. I think about very specific ways I gave myself to them and I cringe from the sheer rawness of my gestures. I wonder now, perhaps a bit hackneyed, if I will be that soft person again. But the most unfazed, most relentless optimistic part of myself remembers that although I’ve been let down and have let others down many times before, time has always softened the exacting sharpness of each pain. And I’ve carried on, sometimes a more tender and more compassionate person than I was before.

Things between us ended as well as a brief relationship can end when one person breaks up with the other via text message. The unnecessarily ugly falling out, arising a week later, overwhelmed my rookie palate. I say this with plenty of healthy derision, of course; I think the way it went down would be caustic for anyone’s palate. Although one can never be certain, my friend Eduardo says some people relish in these sorts of histrionics.

À chacun son goût, to each their own.

I held the misconception that a queer relationship—one that, in theory, eschews gendered, heteronormative power dynamics—would be inherently radical. I thought that it would have more compassionate roots, that racial dynamics would be more thoughtfully negotiated, because, again in theory, we have a shared struggle. We understand internalized shame and erasure. What I’ve found is that people are just people. Even queer, trans, non-binary, pansexual, polyamorous, well-read, uniquely gifted, allegedly radical politic’d people can be real shits. Queerness is not necessarily synonymous with radical non-oppressive ethics that translate to generosity and care for the people in one’s community. Perhaps, those qualities have more to do with being a decent person and less with identity politics.

If there is a queer utopia, I haven’t found it, and I don’t think it’s here yet.

The idea of coming out has only held real significance to me personally since I told my brother about how things ended poorly with a queer person whom I’d been dating—which meant that I, too, am queer. I didn’t realise how profoundly I’d needed his acceptance until I got it. Since coming out, however, I’ve started to seek belonging in the queer community, and I’ve found a heavy preoccupation with aesthetics. I find it to be a very narrow way of flagging oneself as queer, that is embedded in classist white masculinity. I understand the importance of presentation and aesthetics in doing gender. I also understand that we are creating new binaries that mirror the inhibiting heteronormative ones that we claim to move away from. By attributing more validity to a kind of aesthetic that is already privileged in cultural capital, we render the rest of us invisible. I don’t know how to belong here with these unspoken yet implicit hierarchies; I have a hard enough time unlearning a host of internalised misogyny, racism, and homophobia and have no interest in brokering my femme-ness as currency for acceptance.

This person that I cared for, at the ugliest point of our interactions, reduced me to the stereotype of an angry Black woman by insisting that my expressions of hurt and confusion were expressions of rage. Rage would have been a justified response to their condescending tone. I should have been livid at the femme-phobia that showed itself in their disdain for the softness of my voice and my feminine mannerisms, which they dubbed as childish. If anything, I was merely unnerved. The anger came later. I was blindsided because I thought at the very least, as queer people with similar values, we would be “operating in solidarity with each other”, as Mia McKenzie writes; but the tone they took with me, the things they said, revealed their hypocrisy acutely. It revealed their complacency with the power that their whiteness and masculinity affords them. The wise thing to do was ask them not to contact me again, so I did. It’s not an easy thing to set a boundary; for all my big talk, I struggle to set boundaries with my mother. And with regards to this former lover, I still have to remind myself that I did the right thing, because walking away from someone I’ve come to care about did not—still does not—fall in line with my values.

The shameful contrite Catholic woman in me wants to make peace with this person that hurt me. My inner child—the girl with what my first-ever therapist called ‘abandonment fears’—wants so urgently to reach out and request a reconciliation. But the most open-eyed, sober-minded Nigerian woman, sitting cross-legged and haughty in the corner of my mind, says, “Look here this girl, you better run.”

This last woman, she knows what she’s talking about. She’s like my friend Seyi, who—after patiently listening to me explain the fall out in excruciating detail—sighed and said,

“All this ‘let’s be friends’ is long story. Leave wicked people alone.”


4a:  to check (a financial account) against another for accuracy                                                                  

b:  to account for

I don’t make enough dollars per hour to fill all the hungers that need feeding: my rent, wifi, power, phone, and my own literal hunger. I certainly don’t make enough to feed my savings account in any consistent way. A social life that involves paying other people to cook or mix drinks at trendy bars in North End Halifax is a laughable notion. There’s no reconciling that without earning more; until then, I continue to decide which bill won’t get paid on any given month so that I can shell out cash for mezcal cocktails on the occasional Friday night.

But about my mother, how can I possibly tell her any of this? I don’t know if language can stretch so far to make words mean more than they already do when they fall on such different ears. She visited occasionally when I was a small child, and would always leave with a promise of returning on a specific date. I used to wait. She always came back, never when she promised, often when I’d forgotten that there was ever a promise. Her surprise visits always stoked a new hope in me. I thought I would outgrow this longing, that I’d be invulnerable to the unhinging disappointment that enveloped me whenever she failed to show up. A few years ago, when I was twenty-three and living with my grandmother in Lagos, my mother said that she’d come visit and teach me how to Batik some silk I’d bought. I set everything up—stretched the soft white silk over a wooden frame, prepared the wax to be melted, laid out the wooden batik stamps —and waited. It didn’t occur to me that she wouldn’t show up until the sky began to dim. I cried like a child; I felt ashamed that I’d forgotten not to expect her.

Only a year later my first-ever therapist would tell me that I might be prone to pursue affection that is elusive, that I might have a thing for attention that is hard-won and fleeting. A thing that claims it needs to be earned. So maybe it’s not terribly shocking that, when I was ready, I chose an emotionally unavailable person as a lover. The sort of person that stinks like an unfulfilled promise.

With all the parallels in our lives, I wonder what secrets my mother holds. I wonder if—had she been born in a different time, within a different cultural context—she too would have the language to recognize herself as queer, if she would find this sort of naming relevant at all, or at least be understanding of the idea. It’s probably a wild fantasy; I suppose I’ll never know.

Or I could ask.