A Map You Cannot Refold

To like yourself, you must know yourself. I didn’t even know who I was. I was a poseable doll waiting for directions: “What do you need from me? Who do you need me to be in this moment?”

I have experienced a lifetime of societal messaging telling me that I am nothing.

And then, I am shamed or questioned for believing I am nothing.

Excerpt from “Critical Personal Narrative,” A Map You Cannot Refold

Standing on the TEDx stage, Danielle Shontae Smith shared, for the first time, her story of self-erasure. In 19 minutes, she told of the shame and internalized oppression behind her poignant question: Why do I feel guilty for existing?

By 10 years old, Danielle Shontae Smith had already started her first diet, defined her worth by her proximity to perfection, and was collapsing under the weight of the label “gifted.” Almost three decades later, ever the good student, she undertakes the assignment of seeking evidence of a time before—that is, before the world happened to her. In A Map You Cannot Refold, Smith unearths some of the defining experiences and messaging that led to her erasure.

Here, you will find stories about silencing who we are because we feel we must—for belonging, love, and acceptance—and the impact such a sacrifice has on the mind, body, and our very personhood. Solidly at home with a life of the mind, Smith must now make room to engage with her life from a place of vulnerability. Both detached from and at war with her body, she must instead learn to commune with it. And, once sustained by the validation of achievement and praise, she must honor and validate herself. She turns inward to seek the wisdom within, but first she must reunite with her past: the 9-year-old girl on the spelling bee stage, the 19-year-old young woman collapsed on a bathroom floor, the 25-year-old asthmatic in a race, and many other selves beyond and in between.

A mixed-genre memoir of stories told through vignettes, letters, poetry, and even academic records, A Map You Cannot Refold is a celebration of liberating stories that had once been contained in silence—regardless of how we need to unleash them.

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