Radical Vulnerability with Author Grace Ibrahima

Right before my interview with local author Grace Ibrahima, she folded her hands in contemplation and sighed. “As I was sitting here waiting for you,’’ she said, “a lot of things went through my mind.” She glanced outside the cafe we sat in, light illuminating her face. “Not all bad things, but it did bring tears to my eyes.”

Though small in stature, there is an abundance and vibrancy to her presence. Born in Trinidad, she shared that she was not brought up reading. Her parents took her out of school without her permission when she was “yea high” so they could set her to work in the rice paddy fields, a crop that is a legacy of the trans-Atlantic slave trade.

She recalled carrying lunches for older workers and being “seen but not heard.” She threw her hands up. “Whatever parents said, you did.”

Still, she was a headstrong child. When she was 21 she sailed across the pond to England. She married Issah Ibrahima, who she calls the love of her life, at 26. They had two children and she began a profession as a nurse, a career she would continue after immigrating to Canada in 1988.

It was only after years of therapy and counselling that Ibrahima was willing and able to write about her struggles: the abuse at the hands of her father, being sexually assaulted during her time in England, and her subsequent battle with substance use.

She describes her first book, Mercy: One Life, Many Stories as her accounts of “trial and tribulation”, and her most recent novel, All Will Be Well, as her attempt to order and address the issues brought up in her first novel. 

I have watched local news outlets’ support and coverage for her story with both excitement and trepidation. The nagging reality is that society expects, and has become numb to, Black people’s pain and abuse.

Though the most direct way to support her is to buy her books, I am concerned that Ibrahima’s lived experiences represent a commodity to some—that her trauma is something they should be able to dwell on and consume, without consideration for the historical context of her pain. My experience of unease led me to engage my colleagues in conversation with how stories of Blackness are taken outside of our communities.

The paradox of receiving support from white people is that the alienation and isolation she experiences stems directly from the impacts of anti-Blackness and white supremacy. The violence that she speaks of didn’t stem from her family alone. They came from larger systems.

The truth interwoven in her books offers an amazing ethnographic account that contributes to the canon of Black women and femmes recordings and analysis of their embodied experiences. The violence and intergenerational trauma she writes of is connected to legacies of capitalism and African colonization. The challenges she bravely depicts are deeply personal, yet also common to gendered experiences of anti-Blackness, and offer us tools to reflect on and resist ongoing harm within the diaspora.

Ibrahima’s honest sharing of her experiences and personal journey allows us to consider how we heal from lifetimes of harm. Black women have developed entire worldviews based on their lived experiences, exposing inequality through theorizing from their bodies for the last 500 years.

Though a wider context matters, her story is uniquely hers. Ibrahima’s novels elucidate relationships and therapeutic processes that have given her back her life. She characterizes her experiences with the healthcare system as overwhelmingly positive, which has not been the reality for many other ACB-identified people in Canada.

She spoke about the impact her novels have had in the community thus far. “You know that #MeToo movement?” she asked. “There are a lot of people,” as she points up and down the street behind us, “who have a #MeToo experience. You know how I know that? They tell me. They read my book and want to talk about it.” This tracks with how the whole #MeToo movement started — with Tarana Burke, a Black civil rights activist from the Bronx.

There is a well of wisdom in both Ibrahima’s individual experiences and in the praxis of Black women. Black women experience trauma and healing individually and collectively, in ways that are embodied and political.

Ultimately, Grace Ibrahima’s radical vulnerability is something we aspire to emulate through calling in African, Caribbean and Black communities. Her narrative provides a path forward to healing, one that we can consider to foster attachment and support each other communally. 

A talk with the author about her new book is happening February 22 at 2:00pm at Waterloo Region Museum.