When I was younger
I read a series called
The American Girl Diaries
They were books about girls with red hair and freckles
Girls with wealthy grandparents they had to dress up to visit
Girls who daydreamed about becoming artists
Their lives were recommended reading
On display, front and center, in my county library
Those books taught me to speak
I learned to narrate my life like it was a movie
A black and white film, ink and paper
I kept a script of everything the leading lady did
But when I signed my name at the end, I wrote “Alexandria”
Because girls who kept diaries didn’t have African names

From grade four to grade ten, I recorded every speck of humdrum with posterity in mind
My eldest daughter, my sister’s son
Some kid digging in his backyard for time capsules
I was writing for all of them
But one day I stopped
I wouldn’t read my own story if I had the choice
My plot had no action
The setting, no majesty
And I only ever traveled on the magic carpets of dog-eared pages
I figured magic was playing hide-and-seek with me in the stalls of school bathrooms
Or the muddy craters of backyards
Places I would never think to look–that’s why I never found it
One day, there would be barbeques, tennis practice after school, family vacations
I would finally have everything my friends thought was ordinary
See, I wasn’t praying for a plot twist, just waiting for normal
For the life I saw printed and reprinted in every story I read
See, my kitchen smelled like palm oil frying in a pot of stew on Sunday afternoons
On autumn evenings, my dad would tell us to go outside and kick a ball around
And declare that with six more kids, he’d have a whole soccer team
And the only locale we ever
summered in was the library
I’m only an “American girl” until you get to know me
In middle school, I could discuss lunchroom gossip as blissfully as the best of ’em
While at home, we built our lives from scratch
Scraping at the soil of this country to find our footing
My dad tucked his PhD into his back pocket
It was thrown back in his face too many times by people who didn’t believe in Nigerian universities
He had nowhere to hide his accent, though
No place to go when policemen wanted to peer into his car
My mom, who named my baby sister Nwakaego–
“A child is greater than money”–

Had to choose between leaving her to be raised in daycare
And keeping food in the fridge
And I

I claim my birth in a country as foreign as a world news headline
My parents speak a language that sprang from its dust
I don’t understand a sentence
But every time I speak, I remember that it could have been my mother tongue
I read the stories of American girls and learned
That I couldn’t even be myself in my own diary
I would always be stuck in imitation
Stuck taming my hair
Stuck buying jeans that never fit right
Left to assume they weren’t made for this body type
Stuck reading a hundred issues of Girlslife magazine before realizing
When the makeup section said “fair complexions”
It would never mean me
My sisters, my brother, and I barely know how to pronounce our own names
We have swallowed them after every homeroom roll call

Melted them down like used gold and remolded them to fit this country’s palate
To taste sweeter on American tongues
Now, these deformed syllable songs are all we know

These days, people call me a writer
My pen and I have forgiven each other
I am writing what I know exactly as I know it
I am learning to sing my name like gospel
Like it was my first word
Like even if I have no mother language, I know this name
Therefore I can never be an orphan
I have stopped writing “Alexandria” in my diary
Stopped holding in my darker-skinned life like underwater breath
I will sigh my story every time my hand touches a page
I am the only one who can tell it
And I will write it so loud
The world

Will have no choice but to listen