How to inherit storytelling by A.J. Akoto

*All italics in parentheses are excerpts from Unmothered, A.J. Akoto’s debut poetry collection, published by Arachne Press in July 2023.

My mother dreamed me before she even knew she was pregnant. The message of me came from her grandmother. Her dead grandmother. Woman to woman, across realms, whether real or in the imagination-soaked field of my mother’s subconscious, they communicated. I sometimes wonder if my mother and I would talk more if one of us were dead (Dreams are a gathering place,/ after all. Is she meeting me/ where she can?). Then again, the silence between us is so populated – by memories, stories, aunts trying to push me into contact – that it makes me question what it really means to no longer talk to someone. Especially when that someone is your mother.

I’m Ghanaian. We inherit along the matrilineal line. I’ve always understood ‘inherit’ to mean not just physical – property, land, cloth, jewellery – but spiritual, emotional, historical. To cut yourself off from your mother is therefore to cut yourself off from a huge swathe of what, honestly, feels like a central part of who you are. It’s exiling yourself from an ancestral plane – one that overlays your daily life, despite not being able to see it – tended by the women who loved fiercely enough to make you what you are. It is an inheritance that is within me, but without my mother to speak it into aliveness, it feels buried – sometimes dead.

And yet…exiling yourself can be liberating. Lineage can be heavy. To step back from it and say, ‘this connection is crushing me’, means putting yourself first. I’m not sure the women of my family know how to do this (I have kept quiet/ to keep the peace. Not my peace). But what I have learned from them, especially my mother, is that telling stories, saying what is true – whether metaphorically or literally – is a necessity. Stories allow you to make and remake yourself and the world. Meaning stories can save you.

The problem with being my mother’s companion and confidant as a child is that it made me a repository for her hopes and dreams, her stories. Now, as an adult, I struggle to separate out the parts of me that are my voice and the parts that are her voice. In my mother’s stories, family history is always mythic. Dreams are prophetic. But because I was so young when she started telling me these stories, my sense of that history is fragmented. It mirrors how fragmented my relationship with my mother is.

How I saved myself in the face of this, especially as a child, was to read a huge – near obsessive – amount, and to write fragments of stories in notebooks and journals. I became interested in words as a form of escape, a mode of survival. I think my mother talked her way through stories in order to do the same. This method of storytelling makes utter sense to me.

The story of grandmother-as-seer-in-dream was told to me by my mother just once. The way she tells stories sears them into the mind. Myth-omen-proverb. My mother’s language revolves around these. I sense it’s a gift from her grandmother rather than her own mother, with whom, I grasp, her relationship was rocky. I gather the irony. But the love in my mother’s voice when she goes into memories of her grandmother: something has been inherited there. After all, her grandmother was the woman who, one night, dressed in all her finery and lay down to sleep die, despite there being no external indication that it was her time. She knew, in a way that even hearing second-hand, made the hairs on my arms and neck stand up.

Or maybe that’s just how good a storyteller my mother is. The truth is, my mother is a brilliant woman. Intelligent, creative, funny. An artist, in many ways. I often wonder what she would have been if she hadn’t had children. She taught me how to be a storyteller, but she also taught me how not to live and be. A nurse who was smart enough to have been a doctor, what she wanted was for me to be a doctor. You wouldn’t think such a lofty aim would break what is generally seen as the strongest of bonds, yet it did. We were on sliver-thin ice anyway, but my refusal to accommodate her ambition – which I knew would be the death of me – became the nexus point around which her frustrations, manipulations, and capacity for lashing out exploded (Our bodies belong not to us/ but to the women who/ grew us/ fed us/ know us).

Just as I could have been a doctor because of her, I may be a writer because of her. I realise now that storytelling has been my mother’s way of connecting with me. That those times were, and remain, gifts. Momentary steady ground. Otherwise, the ground was glass between us. What I don’t think my mother recognises, and what I did not recognise myself until very recently, was that in my creativity, I’ve emulated her. I’m the daughter of an artist, and that’s an inheritance I am linked to, by threads of steel.

The myths in my debut poetry collection Unmothered are not just there for their own sake; myths rarely are. They act as conduits for the familial mythologising that was an active and continual part of my childhood. Myths are not old stories, but new histories. New structures for understanding the how and why of familial success, failures and relationships. Writing performs the same function for me. But more than that, it is a reaching in to the central, buried part of me, and turning it into a light by which others can examine their own stories, their own relationships (things noticed,/ turned in hands and examined,/ can be redeemed).

These days, I see a lot of my mother in myself, both externally and internally, which scares me slightly. Every self-portrait I’ve ever tried to draw, has turned into my mother. A girl at school who’d never met my mother, came to me and said ‘there’s a woman outside who looks just like you, looking for you.’ When I was seventeen, my mother and I went to visit my grandmother in Ghana. A photo taken of the three of us tells me more accurately than AI how I’m going to look as I age. And yet, and yet… perhaps what will save me, more than stories even, is not allowing my dreams and desires to be frustrated, by many things, but most of all by myself. To put my ambitions in myself, and not in another that I see as an extension of myself. To be different to my mother, despite looking like a younger version of her. Perhaps my grandmother – now dead – will come to me in a dream one day and it will become a story.

That same trip to Ghana, my grandmother gave me earrings. Gold and Krobo beads, that she claimed to have had made for me. I hold them as precious, as a matrilineal inheritance in the physical form. I have never worn them.

(There is breaking./ There is healing.) What happens when you no longer need to escape? When you can live, rather than survive? Are you more or less likely to turn to words, reading, writing? For a long time, I spent too much energy and focus on trying not to be a writer. I felt like I couldn’t reach for that part of myself, which was my mother, which was myself. Until I realised that storytelling is as much a part of my matrilineal inheritance as earrings. If I cherish those earrings, how much more should I cherish my capacity for storytelling; that part that is spiritual, emotional, historical? What I have done, only just started to do, is allow myself to inherit storytelling. Actually, to grasp my inheritance with both hands.

Unmothered by A.J. Akoto is published by Arachne Press (£9.99 pb; £4.00 eBook) and is available here.

The book will be launched online on Thursday 13 July 2023 from 7.00pm – tickets can be found here (free to attend).

“Motherhood never looked like this before” — Afrori Books

About A.J. Akoto

A.J. Akoto is a writer living and working in London. Unmothered is her first collection of poetry. She has a degree in English Literature from the University of Cambridge, with particular focuses in Latin literature, and Visual Culture.

Instagram: @aja.poet

About Unmothered

A Debut collection from Black British poet A.J. Akoto. When is a mother a myth, and when is she a monster? In an intimate and unflinching collection, A.J. Akoto tracks the complex bind of mother-daughter relationships. Through separation and attempts to mend, longing, and the fluidity of myth/story-telling in defining histories and identities, she collapses the elision between womanhood and motherhood/daughterhood, bringing to the forefront that which usually remains unspoken.