I did not grow up on Alice in Wonderland. In the summer of Black Lives Matter, I looked at this award opportunity. I booted up an episode from Youtube and passively watched. My cousin, Samuel, came into my room and his face lit up when he saw the show. He told me a story about how at night, growing up in Nigeria, him and his friends would crowd around the box tv in the living room and watch Alice. Then, as if on schedule, the electricity would cut out. They would all scream, “NEPA, NEPA, NEPA” – the electricity company in Nigeria who is to blame for the frequent electricity outages. But then they would all sit silently looking at the occasional fuzz on the tv – as the tv tried to blip back to life. Each person in their own dreamland completing the story in their mind how they liked. He told me they would look at the tv for what felt like hours until the electricity turned back on – and life returned to normal. His friends would go back home and he would get ready for bed.
How easy it was to make something out of nothing as a kid.
Samuel’s memory unlodged a memory of my own. It made me think of my first and third Sunday afternoons spent in the church. These afternoons were sacred – unchanging.
Some context: I grew up in suburb. My dad helped build a pretty sizable Nigerian-Igbo catholic community. There, I got a taste of Nigerian village life. Every adult there, was an “aunty” or “uncle”. Every adult there cared for my wellbeing. It’s a community I am still connected with today.
The Sunday after Trayvon died – the same aunty after the same church service served the same puff- puff, a Nigerian sweet bread, leftover from a party the day before with the same smile.
I contemplate and think how we were all in our own little dreamland.
I developed a liking to Alice in Wonderland animated content. It felt like a safe space amidst the madness of the real world. The absurdity made sense. I started to study and get into Carroll’s work – specifically his poems.
I started to emulate rhyming schemes and thought patterns. It felt freeing to write something in a “Carrollian” style.
Here’s one I wrote one Sunday inspired by The Hunting of the Snark:
Adventuring to the capital
Just looking for something divine Maybe it was subliminal Something I knew all this time
I still packed my bag for emergencies
You never know when that tooth could ache
My polaroid’s sat next to my courtesies
“Good day, Good Afternoon, My Mistake!”
The dented shopping cart hardly mattered
Our mission was almost complete
Kale, yoga mat, desert devoured
My best friend’s name is conceit
Razzmatazz, Razzmatazz Oh so sweet
Packaged and delivered straight to your heart
The recipe must be a hard secret to keep
This poem may need a restart
I started writing more and more poems over time – and they all came back to the same idea. My experience growing up Nigerian-American in the suburbs. I was really trying to interrogate what the suburbs meant to me now and before as a child.
Here’s another poem:
One, I was scrubbing
I was scrubbing earthen floor
Then my pet bird Anunu came home
And the floor was no more
Two, I was dancing
I was dancing to tell time
Then the weatherman went to sleep
And time missed its appointment with time!
Three, I was smoking
I was smoking palm wine
Then the turtles shell broke
And the palm wine became fire
Four, I was racing
I was racing the red queen
But the red queen didn’t move
So the country turned on itself
“Wonderland in Suburbia” is a collection of silent films based on poems written in Carrollian matter about my life growing up Black in the suburbs. I thought to myself what it would be like to approach filmmaking the same way Carroll approaches his poetry.
In designing the world, I knew I had to make something that simply did not make sense at first glance. I remember hearing on the news about a huge forest fire near my home – and I knew I found my location. Images started popping up in my head of innocent images that did not seem quite right – that were slightly off and maybe even disturbing to some. I wanted the pristineness of what the suburbs presented, but with props and small visual choices that screamed, “NOTICE ME”. That’s how it felt reading Carroll’s work – as soon as you feel like you had an understanding of the rules, the rules morph.
To compliment that idea, “play” was an important part of my creative process. I walked on set with the world designed – but the actual scenes up to the volition of me and the actors. The actors were on board with making something absurd – and coming up with their own stories about why things were happening. I wanted to make sure my actors felt free to express themselves in any and every way, and parts of that shows up in the film. Carroll made a point of not explaining a lot of his work, so going into making this – I knew I had to make the film silent to make sure that same kind of audience discovery could happen.
The backdrop to this project is violence against Black bodies, and while that seems very far from what Lewis Carroll does in his art – I disagree. When I look at and experience his work, I recognize deep meaning and smart choices in the development of his dreamlands. My dreamland is the suburbs. My dreamland is the Nigerian church. My dreamland is my Blackness.