It’s difficult to review Esther’s debut book without first revealing she made me cry. Not out of some physical interaction or painful introspection but through the beautiful way her words touched, caressed and then moved my spirit. Esther describes herself as an addict, a hungry ambitious soul, desperate for applause and approval. Yet in this powerful journal that somehow manages to be both emotionally uplifting and essential critical race theory reading at the same time, Armah peels off the many layers of institutionalised deceit that mask the reality of life for Africans striving to retain their identity having lived in the Diaspora.
It is a book about Truth, it is a historic record of the stark reality facing African people in Britain as much as it is a story about a brave young woman’s struggles to be respected as well as accepted in a ruthless industry obsessed with figures instead of fact. And yet I do not cry because it is somehow depressing. For whilst her exposure of our internalised fear of those with mental health issues annoy, the road we travel in learning Truth works to heal.
When Esther takes us to Azania (South Africa) and shares details of her interview with Desmond Tutu, her shared thoughts on her planes ‘whites only’ toilet provides a reality check that prepares us for the frustration felt by Africans to the Truth and Reconciliation farce that left justice outside in the rain and allowed xenophobic terror to survive and continue its newly muted Mandela sanctioned reign.
Perhaps it is also apt that the book which starts in Ghana also ends there, that the story that begins with her mother’s courage during the 1966 military Coup ends with her forgiving her father’s emotional abstention and its possible cultivation of an abandonment reflex.
In writing Can I Be Me, Esther has done a WikiLeak on the mask of ‘essential schizophrenia’ that many African people have to hide in order to survive the soul sucking environment of corporate (‘hideously white’) diversity landscapes. She does not dodge her own failings nor play the blame game shifting her (and our) own responsibilities onto some mythical omnipotent sea of liberal impotence. Instead she makes us laugh, and through our experience learn how to love self and reciprocate even if its late coming by rejecting hate.
Her writing is funny and yet refreshingly honest - from her experiences during the Million Man March to her analysis of ‘diversity’ by corporate suits and the heart wrenching interviews conducted in the wake of the tragic passing of Damilola Taylor. It will make you cry just as it will make you laugh. At times you forget you are reading an instructional guide on how to survive ‘soul intact’ in the media industry and feel as though you are sharing the private rituals of an African woman’s rites of passage into adulthood. And yet this can only be chapter one... it must be, for indeed, if there is one criticism of her writing then it’s simply that there is not enough of it.
And we need more…