Arisa White’s “Who’s Your Daddy” Explores the Quest for Family and Healing in a Queer, African-Diasporic Context

“I feel for the father, for a feeling of father, / I send out a cry.” These lines begin the second piece in acclaimed poet, Arisa White’s extraordinary new memoir Who’s Your Daddy. They capture the speaker’s longing for a father bringing readers emotionally into the rich interior landscape reflected in the memoir. White continues this section with the arrival of the uncle, a father figure, “through the door of the family house” where he “walks up the stairs, then down the stairs, / and I’m the rock-a-bye baby in his arms.” In the book, a dynamic assemblage of poetry and prose, White examines her journey to meeting her estranged birth father. It is a transcendent memoir.

Who’s Your Daddy resonates as a spiritual quest exploring family, in its many constellations, and African diasporic heritages. Who’s Your Daddy travels from the United States to Guyana to explore fatherhood and the role of masculinity, care, and caregiving in our lives. While the search for and eventual dinner with the father is a primary narrative of Who’s Your Daddy, the love story between the narrator and Mondayway, the narrator’s beloved, will delight Autostraddle readers as well.

Provoked by her mother’s announcement that she had a mailing address for Gerald, White’s birth father in Guyana, Arisa White began writing epistolary poems. These poems allowed her, as she described it, to “develop language, to build confidence, and really to figure out how I feel and how I’m making sense of this absence in my life.” An artist’s grant from the Center for Cultural Innovation allowed White to self-publish these epistolary poems as a chapbook and distribute them through a community project called the Dear Gerald Project. White gave her chapbook to people who wrote their own letters to “absent fathers, estranged fathers, distant fathers, as well as patriarchal figures.” White collected these letters from others, developing an archive and continuing to think about fatherhood and families. The grant also funded a trip to Guyana where White met her birth father Gerald. For the memoir, White assembled materials from her epistolary poems, the letters from the Dear Gerald project, and the travel diary she kept during the trip to Guyana. Who’s Your Daddy emerges as both a personal documentary of White journey and as a communal document of patrilineal explorations.

White’s narrative in Who’s Your Daddy begins with childhood. The first line confides “My mother is nineteen when she meets Gerald;” then ends with the speaker’s birth, “an easy” one, and the mother’s negotiation with “Gerald, a married man, about his role in my care.” White pieces together childhood and adolescent stories in a careful pastiche of poetry and prose; she explores navigating her father’s absence by wishing her mother not to marry a boyfriend and the careful dance of not asking friends about fathers because “to ask is to sometimes signal a personal failure.”

White recognizes the political implications of her work; in her conversation with Autostraddle, she named “how the narratives around the black matriarch and the deadbeat black father” shape reasons for “the downfall of the black family.” White takes care not to replicate or reinforce these narratives. She reflected that while she was writing Who’s Your Daddy, during the election of Trump and throughout his administration, a communal struggle emerged around her to “grapple with these questions of the absent father while a present one was controlling our lives in this political moment.” Many people awakened anew and again to interrogate the role of “fatherhood and paternalism and governance and government” in our lives. As White penned Who’s Your Daddy, she saw “people questioning patriarchy and the invisible governance” of gender and family—and challenging it.

Politically aware creative projects are a hallmark for White. A professor in creative writing at Colby College, White’s earlier poetry collection, A Penny Saved, imagined the life of Polly Mitchell, “who was held captive in her home by an abusive husband.” Through “this extreme situation”—Mitchell did not leave her home for ten years—White “emotionally and spiritually” entered Mitchell’s life in order to explore the “larger question of why does a woman stay?” For White, it was a journey both into dynamics that create “a ripple of harm” and an exploration of humanity.

Recently, White co-authored with Laura Atkins a middle grade biography of Biddy Mason, a midwife and philanthropist who began her life as an enslaved person in Mississippi. Mason was “a person who was essentially erased from the historical record until she became famous for her philanthropy.” White puzzled about how to enter Mason’s life, chafing at the assumption that “as a black writer … I could access the inner life of someone who was enslaved.” Then, researching her own family history, she learned that her great-grandmother was a midwife. That fact released her from tokenism and helped her to “embrace the technology of survival that was in many ways passed down culturally” among Black Americans. Biddy Mason Speaks Up has received warm review and a number of awards. Another of White’s recent projects is the anthology Home Is Where You Queer Your Heart. White co-edited it with Miah Jeffra and Monique Mero; Foglifter Press published it in January 2021.

Who’s Your Daddy is White’s newest book in this period of extraordinary creative productivity. The narrative of White’s book is gripping and propels readers. It reads as both conventional memoir and a collection of poems, defying genre classifications. Within the narrative structure, White includes poems that highlight particular emotive moments, imagistic qualities of the story, and narrative snippets of dialogue. Like all of White’s work, Who’s Your Daddy is artful at the level of language and form; reading it slowly to savor the language is advised. While White curated a poetry reading series at the Museum of the African Diaspora in San Francisco, she spent time with art by African artists and was “struck by the way in which blue and all variations of blue would show up and the artists would talk about water and the African diaspora and displacement.” That provided a kernel for her development of a motif around water and the color blue interwoven throughout Who’s Your Daddy. From the “opulent blue” of the Atlantic in Guyana to the turquoise tiles of the garden where White meets her beloved, the hues of blue spark reflection and meditation in this well-wrought memoir.

Braided through the narrative focused on White’s father quest is the story of falling in love and discovering how love and lovers are tied to the relationship, real and imagined with fathers. White refers delightfully to intimate partners as RIOs: “Romantic Intimate Others” (50). Just before meeting the RIO, with whom she journeys to Guyana, she confides to a poet friend that she is ready to be “a grown-ass woman not subdued by shame.” Then in the park where they are walking,

Several double-crested cormorants surface from a deep
dive in the lake’s brackish waters. Their wings spread to dry
and geese fly in arrowhead formation.

As though the birds point the speaker in a new direction, she attends a party, with another RIO, and pulling a “sprig of mint” from the garden, she sees a woman: “athletic build, strong teeth, her smile.” The woman “extends her hand and introduces herself as ‘Mondayway—Mondayway Flores.’” She asks the speaker if she wants “to try some of her latest honey.” It begins; one of the greatest first encounters of lovers.

The love story unfolds; Mondayway sends a gift basket with “a pair of flamboyant artichoke blossoms” and “two large organic yams,” “chamomile and mint,” honey, lavender, and a necklace with a card that reads, “Queen, the only thing not from my garden is the gold and you.” Courtship continues until a chasm of conflict; the speaker realizes to resolve the conflict, to sustain the intimacy with the RIO, she must write at long last to her estranged father.

Who’s Your Daddy is in many ways a love letter, not so much to the father but to a world in which White can find happiness and care and compassion. As White examined her upbringing, she saw how “my uncles and my cousins [were] a part of creating father, for me, as caring.” Within her own family, even absent her biological father, she learned “a different narrative around masculinity, a masculinity that is present and caring and loving.” This conjunction of multiple expressions defining the characteristics of both fatherhood and masculinity becomes a fulcrum for White’s resolution. The conjunction ‘and’ creates a life-affirming embrace. White writes that ‘and’ “makes you larger, more. Expands into distances beyond my eyes” (124). In the writer’s hand, ‘and’ becomes not only a conjunction but also a feeling and an experience both in Guyana and one that she carries home. The expansive ‘and’ creates love and generosity for White to understand her family narrative and to share it with readers.

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Julie R. Enszer, PhD, is a scholar and a poet. She is the author of four poetry collections, Avowed (Sibling Rivalry Press, 2016), Lilith's Demons (A Midsummer Night's Press, 2015), Sisterhood (Sibling Rivalry Press, 2013) and Handmade Love (A Midsummer Night’s Press, 2010). She is editor of The Complete Works of Pat Parker (Sinister Wisdom/A Midsummer Night's Press, 2016), which won the 2017 Lambda Literary Award for Lesbian Poetry and Milk & Honey: A Celebration of Jewish Lesbian Poetry (A Midsummer Night’s Press, 2011), which was a finalist for the 2012 Lambda Literary Award in Lesbian Poetry. She has her MFA and PhD from the University of Maryland. Enszer edits and publishes Sinister Wisdom, a multicultural lesbian literary and art journal. Read more of her work at www.JulieREnszer.com. Follow her on Twitter.

Julie has written 3 articles for us.

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