Saïkou Yaya Baldé’s essay appears as a part of a special series featuring New York Foundation for the Arts Immigrant Artist Mentoring Program fellows discussing their relationship with language. You can read two of Saïkou’s poems here.
I was born and raised in Paris, France. My parents, both West African immigrants—or expatriates, depending on your level of (un)conscious bias—wanted me to be a doctor. A cliché full of security I rejected with immature contempt. I wanted to make my own rules, be an entrepeneur. I pursued international business instead. Later on, I decided to throw away most of the benefits that come with being born on the “right” hemisphere to pursue the less secure path of writing in an attempt to find peace within the fragmented pieces of my identity.
I write primarily in French, which is both my first language and the official language of my home country, Guinea, colonized by France, as was most of West and Sub-Saharan Africa. However, I feel strangely disconnected from the language—in no way do I consider it to be my mother tongue; it is merely a remnant of the colonial past that my ancestors have carried with them for decades and that was passed down, in the way that most generational trauma is.
French is the tool that provides the most efficiency in the sense that it allows me to lay out and break down concepts known to the West. Nevertheless, it fails to translate feelings and philosophies known to West Africans. French only reflects a part of my identity, the European brain, while my mother tongue, Fulani, gives the most accurate picture of my deeply African heart. How ironic that I use the language of the colonizer for the sole purpose of the liberation of my community.
I have a longing for home that every child of immigrants carries in their hearts. Home is a complex idea when one is born and raised in the country of the colonizer. It has led me to consider myself a citizen of the world, with no land I can call home, forever stuck between belonging and not belonging, not entirely French in France, not entirely African in Africa. The undeniable truth is that I am as much a victim of colonial expansion and neocolonial hypocritical policies as my parents and my grandparents before them, the only difference being that I am part of the first generation born on French soil, which both makes assimilating into the culture easier and annihilates my African soul. My ancestors were not Gauls. I am not a Gaul. History is written by the victors. The oppressors. Writing is therapy and it helps mend the broken pieces of my identity. Writing is the cathartic process I share with the immigrant diaspora and whoever is curious enough to hear the other side of the story, beyond the dreams and delusions the West has about how immigrants feel deep inside.
Home is a complex idea when one is born and raised in the country of the colonizer.
Having lived in English-speaking countries for the last five years, I have also been sparingly writing in English, which came naturally as I have been proficient in the language since I was young. Writing in English allows me to get past a block when words in French will not come out, and it allows me to express thoughts in a more concise manner than French while maintaining a relatively similar intensity and sharpness. Oftentimes I start writing poetry in either French or English and then switch to the other if there is a need to expand or retract the train of thoughts.
The fact that I speak five languages makes moving between different parts of the world, and between different words and concepts, an integral part of my intellectual gymnastics. My writing has evolved in accordance with the countries I have lived in, but the cultural environment I have delved into while in those countries is what has impacted my work in the most profound way. Prior to living in New York, I was in the United Kingdom for three years. At the time, I was studying cosmology and comparative religion, and my poetry dealt with themes that were spiritual, related to the cosmos and everything the eyes can’t see. In retrospect, I had to understand the big picture before attempting to dissect my complexities as an individual. Once comfortable with my ideas within that realm, and following my intuition, I decided to leave London, and fate made the United States my next destination.
Since arriving in the US, my writing has taken a clear political turn. Witnessing and experiencing firsthand the way minorities are seen and treated in the “land of the free” has ignited the spark of activism in me. This spark has grown into a wildfire and given me the vision, clarity, and direction to realize my artistic mission. New York in particular has been a magnifying glass on so many of the themes I hold dear, and witnessing the intense resolve of minorities to make their voices heard has made me realize it is my duty to contribute in my small way to the battle for justice and equality.