An incarcerated father, fractured family inspire Ashley C. Ford's 'Somebody's Daughter'

In “Sonny’s Blues,” James Baldwin tells readers there is no way not to suffer; the goal, Baldwin says, is not to drown in suffering. Recently, Hanif Abdurraqib dropped off a collection of essays showing how everyday acts of Black performance such as dancing, joking and singing shape American culture. Adding to this 14K Cuban link chain of coping mechanisms is Ashley C. Ford’s freshman publication, “Somebody’s Daughter: A Memoir” (Flatiron, 224 pp., ★★★ out of four).

Ford’s story takes place inside a humble apartment in Fort Wayne, Indiana. While love and playfulness were integral to her family's structure, behind the levity lived the matron’s wrath. Ford’s mother’s style of parenting could be viewed as child abuse. “My mother kicked me, I did not cry,” Ford writes.

Although Ford never accuses her mother of abuse, there is a degree of emotional abuse present throughout the narrative. For instance, Ford’s first time getting her hair relaxed caused her young body to freeze under the pressure of her mother’s forceful hands. “I choked, spit, and finally cleared an airway enough to yell, ‘Mama.’ She did not comfort me or apologize. She stared back and said, ‘stop being dramatic,’” Ford writes.

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"Somebody's Daughter," by Ashley C. Ford,
"Somebody's Daughter," by Ashley C. Ford,

“Somebody’s Daughter” is smoothly written and marked by moments of alert complexity. Ford borrows from her literary foremother Zora Neale Hurston – especially Hurston’s juxtaposition of happiness to intimacy with the sun. Ford finds happiness in watching the sunrise. “I want a sunrise, and so it shall be was the natural truth in my child mind, and I did not let go,” Ford writes. Reaching for the sun is one of the few performances, and safe spaces, Ford uses to circumvent a fragmented relationship with her mother.

The emotional distance separating Ford from her mother was compounded by her father’s absence. Ford’s father, whom for years she knew only through letters and family stories, served a lengthy prison sentence for rape. Between the crevices of Ford’s fractured family, she sought healing through romantic relationships with men, placing herself in a bigger sea of toxicity, and describes her sexual assault at the hands of an ex-boyfriend.

Despite being incarcerated, Ford’s father was the one person – next to her grandmother – who provided Ford with the sunrise she desperately reached for. In letters, her father wrote to her that she was beautiful and brilliant. “For a long time that was all I needed until of course, I needed more,” Ford writes.

Over the years, Ford perfected the skill of suppressing her feelings. “Feeling any of it felt like the beginning of losing control, and losing control felt like a certain death in my body. If I didn’t process the feeling, I wouldn’t feel it,” Ford writes. Again, it was Ford’s father who encouraged her to unshackle her comfort from the moods of others. “Just tell your truth,” her father said. “Don’t worry about nobody’s feelings, especially not mine.  You gotta be tough to tell your truth, but it’s the only thing worth doing next to loving somebody.”

“Somebody’s Daughter” is a thoughtful debut. Ford writes with a flush and sophisticated pen. But the heartbeat of Ford’s firstborn is her ability to pinpoint critical moments on her self-discovering journey, and, like Baldwin and Abdurraqib, find respectable ways to perform and not drown in her suffering.

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This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: Ashley C. Ford's 'Somebody’s Daughter' a journey of self-discovery