Tuesday, June 8, 2021

Katrina Otuonye, You Just Had to Be There

This is an essay in a series of b-sides to The Texas Review All-Essay Issue. (More info at the end of this post.)

You Just Had to Be There

Katrina Otuonye


In grad school, I tried to explain to a friend that growing up in a small town is like having a best friend all your life and you have very intricate inside jokes. Where one day, one of you says, “the salamander!” and you both crack up laughing. You can’t really explain the inside joke to anyone else, there are too many levels. “You just had to be there,” you say.
     You have a history with your best friend, all the good and all the bad. You saw each other through playground slights in first grade, first periods and the unwieldly limbs and hormones of middle school, the horrors and cliques of high school. And sometimes friends grow apart. And that’s just how life is, people grow, things change.
     A group of my essays center around “otherness;” my brothers and I were some of the few Black kids I know of that grew up in the UP, the Upper Peninsula of Michigan. Our hometown has 4,000 people. Writing my essays only reinforced what I know to be sure: I deserve to live my life out loud. That includes holding up a light to my brilliant, happy, lonely, beautiful, harrowing upbringing. I write plenty about the good stuff. I think people get tired of the fun stories I have with my brothers. It took years before I realized there are people who barely speak to their siblings, let alone send them memes and tweets every day.
     When I was putting my thesis together in grad school, I looked over all the essays I’d been working on, the moments that weren’t hitting the page right, thinking about the moments I hadn’t bothered to write at all. The day after I sent in the whole kit and caboodle to my thesis committee, I sat down and wrote an entirely new essay I’d been avoiding completely.
     When The Texas Review published it, I told everyone when it arrived, all bright and shiny in my mailbox. Many people told me they ordered a copy, and then a tiny sense of dread crept in. What would think of the story? My brother sent me a picture when his copy arrived and then I sat and waited. Would he read the essay now? Later? He was in it; I wasn’t sure if I had mentioned that to him. Everyone I meet is fair game for any essay; my brothers are in most of them. About an hour later, he texted me about it and we talked until he had to go to bed.
     “We had a nice little life,” I said.
     “Life was complicated, but simple, and you had to be there to get it.”
     “Thanks for reading,” I told him.
     “Reading is easy—sharing is hard,” he said.
     I think these stories I’ve been sharing, those intricate moments, are the reasons I’m so fascinated by small towns. The things that happen to you, that you remember, that you embed in your bones, aren’t going to this show or checking out this place or going to that party. It’s scratching a finger along the sliver of ice that forms on the inside corners of the windows at the end of February, when the last snow of the “season” is probably still several weeks away. It’s sitting in someone’s backyard around a makeshift bonfire pit, whittling down a stick for your marshmallows. Where the fireflies have lost a bit of the wonder they held when you were a kid because they are everywhere. Where you stay out as late as you can, soaking up as much sunlight as possible because the summer days are so blissfully long.
     The pieces I’m not entirely sure anyone will actually want to read are finding their ways out of me. In grad school, we talked about balance and happiness and love and how to get all the work done. I wish we talked more about fear and shame. After some of our workshops, I’d look around the room and think, “Do all writers just need a good therapist?” When I write nonfiction essays, sometimes I plop myself in the story like a character, or I write about a topic trying to completely remove myself from it. There was more of the authors’ real lives in some of my friends’ fictional works than in my own writing.
     And I thought about that—about finding a way to remove myself from some stories by writing it as fiction. As if it’d be easier for people to read if they could reasonably believe that the story was about somewhere else, as if it weren’t their hometown on display. But it’s important for people to have access to the truth as I see it. In a world where we constantly have to contend with people debating facts and asking, “Did it really happen the way you said it did?” It would do me a favor to tell my stories and send them out into the world to find someone also searching through a tumultuous world that often seems to actively work to want you dead. I wouldn’t trade being Black for anything. I live with the dichotomy of my love of self. Because in this world, in this moment in particular, I feel like a conspiracy theorist. I’ve got a board with red lines connecting one thought to another and still people are saying, “Yes, but racism? Are you sure?”
     When I hesitate, I think of Nikki Giovanni saying, “If now isn’t a good time for the truth, I don’t see when we’ll get to it.”
     So, I’m working on another essay and another and another and another. Every once in a while, I get an email from someone who really connected to something I wrote, a turn of phrase made them feel less alone in the world. And…do you feel that? That’s me connecting to you, and you connecting to me. We just formed a bond right here, right over the written word, over what started as a completely blank page. I think you might even be my new best friend.


Katrina Otuonye (she/her/hers) is a writer, editor, and editor from Michigan’s Upper Peninsula. She received a BA from the University of Tennessee and an MFA from Chatham University. She often writes about personal experiences alongside her interests in pedagogy, art history, mental health, and superheroes. Katrina was a Made at Hugo House Fellow and her work has appeared in publications such as The Texas Review, The Seventh Wave, Crab Orchard Review, and The Toast, among others. She is working on a collection of nonfiction about grief and silence. You’ll find more of her work on her portfolio at katrinaotuonye.com.


I have always loved the B-side of records or cassettes, being let in on the secret/unreleased or more unexpected strangeness that awaited from artists. The B-side, in its essence, offers a singular delight in a promise that you, the audience, will not (or may not) be able to recreate the experience the B-side offers anywhere else. It says welcome, stay here a while, and put it on repeat. 

In the spirit of the B-side, The Texas Review asked contributors of the All-Essay Issue (Vol. 40, #3/#4, 2020) to contribute essays to a B-side compilation. We want to offer, here, a moment of singular delight as accompanied unexpected strangeness or echo location or dancing and braided conversation in conjunction to the contributors’ essays featured in the All-Essay Issue. 

Please enjoy the following B-sides by: Mary-Kim Arnold; Piper J. Daniels and Nicole McCarthy; Lily Hoang; Vincent James; Michael Martone; Ander Monson; Katrina Otuonye; Danielle Pafunda; Monica Prince; Addie Tsai; Julie Marie Wade; and Nicole Walker. 

Thank you (and genuflection) to all of the contributors featured in our pages: Danielle Pafunda; Sejal Shah; Addie Tsai; Thirii Myo Kyaw Myint; Temim Fruchter; Raquel Gutiérrez, Muriel Leung; Monica Prince; Ander Monson; Janice Lee; Piper J. Daniels; Camellia-Berry Grass; Wendy C. Ortiz; SJ Sindu; Dinty W. Moore; Michael Martone; Lily Hoang; Nicole Walker; Mary-Kim Arnold; Katrina Otuonye; Vincent James; Julie Marie Wade; Caroline Crew; Diana Khoi Nguyen.

Thank you to Ander Monson for giving us the space of Essay Daily, and as ever thank you to Nick Lantz, Editor of The Texas Review. 

Welcome, stay here a while, and put it on repeat. 

Katie Jean Shinkle, Guest Editor, The Texas Review

If you would like to order a copy of the All-Essay Issue: http://www.thetexasreview.org/issues/

No comments:

Post a Comment