Is it true that in HS they teased you for how much you sweat?
Yes, especially the football team, who were supposed to be my friends, my protection from social ridicule.
So they caused more harm than good?
Absolutely. Had racist coaches. One of ‘em was named ______. Believed in Football, but not God — that’s so weird to me. One time he saw a bible on the table and laughed out loud. He shouted, “God has no place in Football!” The hubris of atheists has always unnerved me. He was a stonemason (the trade, not the cult). He walked with a limp, used to play linebacker back in the day. That meant he was violent on the field. Made me wonder how that kind of violence didn’t follow a person off the field. Maybe it did. Maybe it was turned inwards. Violence towards one’s own soul, manifested as a lack of belief in God.
What kind of violence did football do to you?
Violence to my soul. Ended up choosing between 2-a-day practices and fasting Ramadan.
That’s tough, bro. Don’t blame yourself, you were only a kid.
Hey, thanks, Voice. I appreciate that.
You’re good. I could feel you tensing up, not wanting to write.
Yeah, I don’t like talking about HS Football. That stuff really messed me up. But I still watch the NFL on Sundays like it’ll save me or sum’n. And Sundays ain’t even my holy day, I’m Muslim.
Like how you thought those HS Football players would save you from social ridicule?
You damn skippy, Voice.
I’m not so sure I like that name.
Tough, I think it’s already stuck.
Well, you’re the writer, you can change it, can’t you?
That’d be cheating, like fiction. That’s not fair.
Not fair to whom? And didn’t 7 of 9 not have any moral qualms about cheating?
She said cheating was irrelevant in the face of reaching a goal. All that mattered was efficiency.
All she ever wanted was perfection.
7 of 9, tertiary adjunct of unimatrix zero-one.
Easily one of your favorite characters in the history of television, right?
So much so. She’s got a special place. She meant a lot of things to me at a conflicted time in my life.
Tell me more about that.
I’d rather not. It hurts.
Ok, don’t write about the hurt. Write around it.
That’s fair, and useful. Ok. I felt like I could relate to her.
A white woman playing half android, half human, separated from a collective to become an individual among a crew of individuals and who possessed no discernible feelings?
She could feel, she just didn’t see its value.
So maybe envy is a better word, in place of relate?
Yes, I envied her ability to not feel. I felt too much. Still do.
I feel you bro.
I knew you would.
Right. Tell me about Commander Tuvok.
That was my guy for real. All logic, all smarts, no emotions. Vulcans have highly volatile emotions which, if they go unchecked, consume them whole. So they undergo years of meditation and mental training to help them suppress those emotions. They worship logic. It’s really weird. But it works for them, those Vulcans, those imaginary beings.
Seems to be a trend. Another unfeeling character that spoke to you.
I guess when your world is a rush of uncontrollable emotions, you start to see emotionless but functional characters as heroes. You conflate their functionality with a lack of emotionality. You think that if only you were without emotion, maybe you could function. Be whole.
Where most people saw deficiency, you saw perfection.
Like 7 of 9.
Like Commander Tuvok.
The Doctor on Voyager was a hologram, but he was more believable than some of the ancillary characters. He sang opera and watched theatre and pronounced it thee-ay-ter. He was bougie.
A three-dimensional projection, a computer simulation, had more emotions than real humans?
Or at least, fictional characters imagined up by real human beings.
What if you could go back in time and be a guest writer for an episode of Star Trek: Discovery?
I’d love that, but, you said Discovery instead of Voyager.
It’s all Star Trek, isn’t it?
No, it’s different story-lines in the same character universe.
Bro, you’re such a nerd. No wonder they gave you a hard time in the hood.
No hood passes for allegedly white-talking black boys in the hood.
True. Wasn’t there a time when you lived in the hood and a friend of yours read your essay?
Yeah, _____, who was Eritrean. Gave me a ride to school every day. I found allies where I could.
What was his reaction when he read that essay of yours?
He said, “You write how a white man talks,” or something to that effect.
What did that do to you?
Tore me up something terrible. Like post-binge stomach pain.
What do you say now about people giving you critique and feedback on your writing?
I tell ‘em I’m not interested, don’t trust their intentions.
Or their care with your words?
Their lack of care.
What did ____’s response to your essay really do to you?
Man it broke me in a way that I can’t explain. He was supposed to be my friend. I didn’t have any Somali friends cuz I grew up so isolated, and the few Somali kids at school were more Somali than American, and I didn’t fit in with them, so ____ became a close-enough stand-in. Another son of East African immigrants raised in America, going to school in the ghetto proper, just like me. He was Christian where I was Muslim, but he was not quite Black American, so we could relate on a lot of things. You gotta find reflections of yourself however you can to survive this country.
You write a lot about surviving this country, surviving HS, surviving, full stop. What does it mean for you to survive?
To write, to pray, to avoid my family sometimes.
Ouch, that’s hard to hear bro.
Even harder to feel.
Makes you wish you were 7 of 9.
You don’t mean that.
I don’t, lol, I’d never want to be white, but it rhymed.
Who else did you find parts of yourself in?
Commander Chakotay, with the face tattoos. Belana Torres: half-human, half-Klingon, all conflicted.
You really know these characters inside and out.
They were my home away from home, every day when I came home. My escape button.
What channel did it used to come on?
Q13 Fox, every night. 11PM. Even on school nights.
Did it start at 11 or end at 11?
Not sure, but I know 11 was involved. And I know this was before the time of streaming WiFi, so if a show came on TV, you had to know exactly what time and day it aired. And you waited in anticipation. Boy, I had whole entire channel lineups memorized.
And you say you have a hard time memorizing.
It’s selective memory. I remember the things which carry emotional meaning for me.
You’re an emotional guy.
It’s how I see the world. Some people see it through images. Others in words. Still others in story.
Tell me about the power of story?
I’m not sure if I’m best equipped to do that.
Didn’t you just teach an undergraduate class three weeks of fiction?
I sure tried.
And before that three weeks of poetry?
Tell me what poetry means to you?
More than it does to people who call themselves poets.
Wear a tight shirt and call yourself a poet, then.
It would steal the light of poetry from me, if I did that.
You have an interesting way of staging sentences.
That’s an interestingly staged sentence, Voice.
Makes you wonder if we’re not the same person.
Ain’t tryna think about that, fam.
It’s probably for the best that you don’t.
Talk to me about Atlanta.
The questioned becomes the questioner.
Just vibe with me for a second.
Alright. I remember Country Time Lemonade mix in the plastic tub with the giant twist-off cap.
An 80s station wagon with the wood paneling on the outside.
Who owned it?
An old white lady that was devoutly Christian but helped new immigrants of different faiths.
Think she was tryna convert y’all?
Maybe. Maybe she did it for the sake of God. Maybe she was Borg.
How did mom feel about her?
I remember Hooyo saying, “She’s such a good person, if only she were Muslim.”
What did she mean by that?
That you can only go to heaven if you’re Muslim, and as Muslims, we believe…
Why’d you stop?
I feel like I’m explaining something I don’t need to.
We can switch gears if you like, no worries.
Appreciate you bro.
We all we got.
I know that’s right.
First night we landed from Africa, it was a drive-by on our block in Decatur, GA.
It is kinda funny, isn’t it?
Yeah, like, “We left Africa for THIS?”
Boy, they didn’t tell us in Africa about the cost of being blessed with Black skin in America.
Would you have still come if they did?
Well, I was only 7 when we got here. I didn’t have a choice.
Kids are so precious.
World ain’t robbed em of it yet.
Sometimes I wonder.
What it is you wonder, bro?
If we’d (I’d) grown up in ATL instead of SEA.
Think we’d have a country accent?
Definitely wouldn’t sound white.
That’s a hurtful and ignorant thing to say, bro.
I think what _____ meant when he said it was: “You are incapable of producing vocal and dialectical patterns congruent with the African American Orthodox Language.”
What does that even mean?
Basically, he was accusing me of being white- washed, because I didn’t seem Black, as in: not culturally competent in the African American experience. That’s a wild concept because I didn’t grow up in an African American household, I grew up in an African Immigrant household. I never considered that my skin color made me different until I got here because, for the first 7 years of my life, everyone in the world looked just like me. My world was Black, so I didn’t know what it meant to be Black outside of that. Or what it meant to be or sound Black in America. And I didn’t know that sounding Black was a codified language which protected Black lives in a hostile white country. I didn’t have access to any of that information in high school, and I barely can make sense of it now in graduate school. I didn’t know I was supposed to sound anything.
How does one even sound black?
AAVE. Ebonics. The way that some Black people speak, and by Black I mean African American, my cousins who were stolen from our continent, who survived generational genocide & paid for our (African immigrants’) right to be here with their bodies, with loss of agency to those bodies, who held onto their native cultures and rebirthed those cultures in a way that let them survive in this hellhole of a country; whose spirits wouldn’t let them break, and let them become what they are today, which is something more beautiful than I have words to say.
I think it was Kemba (rapper, not baller) who said: this came from love // we made a civilization from mud // we made a culture to break out the hood.
I have so much love and respect for my brothers, sisters, cousins in this American struggle.
Wish all our people saw it that way, huh?
Wish they didn’t believe what the white man say.
Wish they didn’t read your writing and say: you sound like a white man, Said.
Some things just don’t leave you.
We call that Trauma, bro.
Believe me, I know. Hey.
Let’s switch back, I’m hurting talking about this. I’m not as strong as you.
My bad lil bro. I’ll take over now. Or should we take a break?
I think I’d like that.
Alright. I’ll get up with you on the other side.
Said Shaiye is a Somali writer who calls Minneapolis home. He is an MFA Candidate at the University of Minnesota. He has had work published in Diagram, Night Heron Barks, Rigorous, DREGINALD, and elsewhere. This essay is an excerpt from his debut book, Are You Borg Now?, which is forthcoming from Really Serious Literature. Read more of his work at www.SaidShaiye.com.