NEA Literature Fellowships

Kimberly Foote

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(2014 - Prose)

Excerpt from Salt Water Sister

A few days later, Adwoa had been reduced to a prisoner, filthy and half-starved in one of the kasteel’s dungeons. She’d lost count of how many times she’d vomited since entering that place. When her stomach eventually settled, she started to express relief but stopped herself; it meant she’d gotten accustomed to the lifestyle of a pig. The urine, menstrual blood, and other fluids on the floor no longer pierced her nose like daggers. She felt so shamed she refused to speak to the other women crowded into the cell, even her sister Tawia.

She wasn’t the only silent one. The others sat slumped over or lay prone against the filthy floor. Those who weren’t completely nude wore the same scrap of indigo they had arrived to the kasteel wearing. Adwoa didn’t want to look at anyone but the women were everywhere. If she focused her gaze through the bars, she could spot more sad faces in the cells around the perimeter of the small yard.

Adwoa understood most of the languages of the few women who spoke, even though they used unfamiliar words. And then there was Tawia, with her lisp. Her blabbering that night two months ago—telling Adwoa and Owusu to quickly finish whatever they were doing in the hills outside Kwakrom—had alerted the roaming Asante soldiers to their presence.

“My sister here will help us all escape,” Tawia announced to anyone who cared to listen. “When she’s feeling better. You shall see.”

“She should save her strength,” one of the women responded.

“Don’t let her small size mislead you. Where we come from, she hunted with the men. She almost killed the fat Fantse man who brought us here.”

Adwoa had been resting her head on Tawia’s thigh so her face wouldn’t touch the floor. She met the girl’s eyes and gave her a warning look as the women tsked in disbelief. It had been boys who she hunted with, and in secrecy, trailing far behind.

“Save your tales for children,” said a woman who rested her head against the bars.

“I do not lie. I’m telling the truth.”

“Wherever it is you come from,” said another, “the men must have breasts and wear waist beads.”

The insult almost made Adwoa lift her head from Tawia’s thigh to spit out curses, but she was too tired. Tawia jerked her head in search of the women’s laughter.

“Only if they are brothers of yours,” she retorted.

In spite of herself, Adwoa smiled. She had always thought of Tawia as being meek because she was so obedient. Her mother sometimes complained about Tawia’s sharp tongue, but Adwoa had never spent enough time around her to notice. Looking up at the girl, Adwoa saw that her eyeteeth were narrowed to points. Adwoa’s four front teeth had been shaved similarly, at their father’s request. She’d thought she was the only daughter he’d done it to. It was as though he’d decided to mold the younger Tawia after her. She’d never paid enough attention to realize it.

One of the women called out, “Our small huntress there is from Akyem Abuakwa.”

“Akyem, eh?” asked a woman with a big gap between her front teeth. Her accent was unmistakably Asante. “It’s no wonder they let their women hunt. Why do you think Asante so easily defeated them?”

“If Adwoa had been fighting in the war,” Tawia muttered, “there would be another dead Asante soldier, which to me is a good thing.”

The gap-toothed woman’s foot would have landed on Adwoa’s face if Tawia hadn’t shielded her. Adwoa pulled her knees to her chest to avoid being trampled by the women who crowded in on Tawia. She felt her sister’s arms flinging out and heard smacks and screams around them. They didn’t settle down until the Burofo soldiers in the courtyard threw cold water through the bars of the cell. Adwoa noticed Tawia’s nose was bleeding. Several of the women had cuts on their faces and chests.

Adwoa wanted the shush the woman who suddenly sucked her teeth and muttered, “If this Akyem girl frees us, I shall not go. It was Akyem soldiers who raided my community and sold everyone they didn’t kill.”

Adwoa refused to believe that. The majority of the people she’d seen on the coffles passing through Kwakrom had been men. From the glowers on their faces, everyone understood most of them to be enemy soldiers captured in retaliation attacks. She and other children would throw stones at them and sing the song they’d invented during the great war between Akyem Abuakwa and Asante: “See the Asante porcupine! He has lost his quills-o. Even a child’s rocks can hurt him. He has become a rat-o!” If the people of Kwakrom had seen those kasteel cells, maybe they would have stopped their singing.

“Does it matter what any of us have done?” a Fantse woman cried. “Is there anyone here who thinks she deserved this?” All was silent. “I thought I knew hatred before, but I would not wish this life on my enemies. And who were my enemies but Asantes and now Akyem? We women didn’t create these wars. These Burofo who have bought us, they know nothing of who we are. When it comes to trading, a Fantse is the same as an Asante to them. They don’t care.”

Kim Coleman Foote spent a year in Ghana, West Africa, as a Fulbright Fellow conducting research on the trans-Atlantic slave trade for her novel, Salt Water Sister. She inadvertently wrote a memoir and screenplay as well. Her essays, fiction, and experimental prose have appeared in Black Renaissance Noire, The Literary Review, Crab Orchard Review, Potomac Review, Obsidian, Homelands (Seal Press), and elsewhere. Writing honors include a Rona Jaffe Foundation/Vermont Studio Center Fellowship, Pan African Literary Forum Africana Creative Nonfiction Award, Illinois Arts Council Fellowship for creative nonfiction, Fine Arts Work Center Walker Foundation Scholarship, and residencies at Hedgebrook and VCCA. She earned an MFA in  creative writing from Chicago State University and is the fiction/nonfiction editor for Tidal Basin Review. She grew up in New Jersey and now lives in Brooklyn.

See our Art Talk with Kim Coleman on the Art Works blog.

Photo by Rachel Eliza Griffiths

Author's Statement

Thirteen being my lucky number, I thought 2013 would be my year for writing. But with barely a month left, the stats were dismal. For three years, I’d faced a river of writing rejections and my resume had a gap as a result. For three years, I couldn’t snag a residency, to use my precious vacation days to work in a supportive artists’ community. For three years, I’d been unsuccessful at finding a home for my novel Salt Water Sister. After spending ten years on the manuscript, intent on sharing rarely heard African women’s voices and the complexities of the slave trade with a larger audience, I was gearing up to give up.

And then the call came from the NEA.

This honor gave me the push I needed to continue trying to publish my novel. It’s made me question less where I fall in the equation of commitment v. obsession v. self-deception. It’s made me look forward to possibilities of travel to inspire my current novel-in-progress, and residencies I can create on my own if need be, now that I can afford it. It’s made me grateful that my country supports and recognizes artistic labor by allocating funds for it. And despite the official award year of 2014, I’ve maintained my trust in thirteen.