We come in peace, go in prayer,without a funeral to prepare,
if here is hell on Earth,
we are heir.
*This poem was written for the countless victims who were massacred in Lekki, Nigeria yesterday on 20th October 2020, dying as a result of the police brutality inflicted upon them #EndSars #EndSarsPoliceBrutality
Michaela Coel is a household name. I know this because she featured in the popular science fiction series ‘Black Mirror’; created and acted in the wildly creative ‘Chewing Gum [Dreams]’ and also starred as protagonist in the Netflix musical ‘Been Too Long’ opposite Arinze Kene. Notwithstanding, her latest creation ‘I May Destroy You’, a comedy-drama series available on both HBO and BBC, feels outstanding from the get-go. Though its trailer promises a story of trauma, the first episode cocoons itself in the blanket of everyday blase in a way that subverts the viewer’s expectations.
Main character Arabella Essiedu, played by Michaela Coel, is a writer who lives as many creative millenials do – balancing an ill-paying job, sometimeish sexual partners and a host of fun friends. The supporting cast include a best gal pal, Terri and gay best friend, Kwame – both black – alongside homebody housemate Ben and an Italian on-and-off fuck buddy Biagio, whom Arabella aspirationally hopes to one day make her boyfriend. The story-line is conceivable, nothing too out of the ordinary if you are a lusty twenty-something woman, looking for love, paying rent to a landlord whilst trying to make a living.
Mainstream conversations surrounding consent are not new. Less than four decades ago, it was decided by UK law that wives could be raped by their husbands and reported cases are by no means an accurate representation for the number of rapes that actually occur in the world. The body is not just a corporeal creation but a political and legal playground. As a result, the offence of sexual assault – though less widely discussed – is also a sight for sore eyes in terms of classifications. Actions that are often undermined, e.g. unwanted groping or kissing all qualify as assault; meanwhile, more complex phrases like coercion and stealthing add to the vocabulary of what it means to own your body as a woman, man, non-binary or child. Michaela Coel responds to this discussion humanely and responsibly.
For a long time, I’ve grappled with bodily autonomy in the digital age. My personal statement that admitted me into university pontificated on the ramifications of criminalising revenge pornography and I’ve always been curious about the different modes women undertake to reclaim their bodies. Where some choose nudity, others select modesty and we see Coel passively tackle this subversion in the choice of how she challenges her status as a victim of violence.
Like 1 in 3 women in the world, I too have experienced sexual assault both as a child and adult. And so to see Coel investigate the offence head-on has proved uncomfortable but necessary viewing. Off-hand humour and emotion often disguise the critical information that Coel weaves into the dialogue of characters Arabella, Terri and Kwame. Though the subject matter is heavy, all three are clueless to the criminality enforced upon their bodies. Sex scenes drape themselves under a haze of arousal and recreational drugs to complicate the concept of consent. Some sexual partners are attractive Europeans, others local London hookups that share the same continental heritage. All are seemingly ordinary to magnify the seamlessness of how rape culture sews our everyday interactions together. What it means to be a villain is not as clear-cut as what it means to be a victim.
How is consent subtracted from sex?
To Law students like myself, this is posed as a problem question in a criminal law exam. To the everyday lay person however, sexual dynamics belong mostly to the bedroom and not the court-room. In ‘I May Destroy You’, Coel negates this boundaries by melding the legal and contemporary worlds. We as watchers become judge and jury.
Since rape and sexual assault span many settings, Coel measures these crimes in question with a plethora of people. The female police officers she is acquainted with prove a reliable source of information in the series, re-educating Arabella and Terri about the autonomy of their bodies (as does Google), in a way that is not dissimilar to the criticism outlined by June Jordan. Kwame however has a stultifying experience that leans into the exceptionalism of the black British gay male experience. Despite both being victims, their methods of recourse and reaction to justice prove different.
From the first episode, we see an excitable Arabella with her shock of pink hair, slowly redefine herself amongst her blackness. Newly engaged with puritanical wellness, she begins aerobics and yoga, goes cold turkey on alcohol and seeks therapy with a group called ‘The Alliance.’ All of this occurs beside a musical soundtrack that includes remixes of Gabrielle’s ‘Sunshine,’ Nottingham duo Young T and Bugsey’s viral tune ‘Strike Me A Pose‘, Lil Simz’s prosaic rapping and the voice of Audrey Akanbi – Ghana’s Finest – from The Receipts podcast making a cameo. Themes of identity suffuse the neoliberal approach many young people take to healing themselves when faced with trauma: hyper-vigilance of the sensory body – sound, feel, touch – all heighten to skyscraper level and we become hyper-aware of our diet, exercise and daily habits in a way that individualises the macro issue of patriarchal male violence to micro-level, one-to-one micro-aggression.
Still, in terms of creativity, to christen Coel as Black British royalty feels fair considering her star-power. Not only did she represent her Ghanaian heritage at the BAFTA award in full-fledged kente, she also feels like a prophetess. For without any hint, she foresaw the implosion of awareness surrounding consent and created a mini-series that travels and gets lost along the binaries of sex and consent in a climate charged by the #MeToo movement. Notwithstanding, a nostalgic flashback to 2004 which she includes in the show illuminates the timelessness of her project. In just over an episode, Coel highlights the mores of secondary school living for the average British student with excellent characterisation: a drab school uniform, Just Do It bags and flip phones are all enlivened by slang-inflected voices, gossip and juvenile confrontations to colour the scenes of Arabella’s childhood. We see the power of language entrench further when she is at home and the use of the Ghanaian language Twi is adopted by her elders.
All of these characterisations contribute to Michaela Coel’s mystique as the visible dark-skinned black British starlet that women like myself have been searching for in the acting industry. By the seventh episode, Arabella has confronted the intersectionality of blackness, poverty and the afterthought of womanhood when confronted with a campaign she is asked to take part in by old school-friend Theo. Here she tackles the spoofing of radical consciousness in tandem with the ethics of the Instagram influencer complex. As per the comedy angle, it is tackled light-heartedly, but in true comedic form, challenges society’s most recent ill using humour.
Alongside the racialisation of activism and feminism, the audience infers the magnification of Arabella’s first generation and world woes. At her birthday party, a debate on colonialism and capitalism begins. Buttressed by the musical backdrop of Burna Boy’s ‘Ye’ and incantations of various African accents, a comradery of millennial diasporic differences unfold.
Michaela Coel’s focus on the wellness of sexual assault survivors – women and men provokes a sense of purpose in the show. Questions of consent include informative statistics and diatribes on race and male entitlement with pregnant police officers and medical professionals; much of which is shared on Arabella’s social media accounts where she assumes spokeswoman status for survivors. Outlandish with her coping mechanisms, she dons colourful club costumes and paints up a storm to rationalise her trauma.
Conversely, the audience sees Arabella’s low moments in parallels to other people also. In appearance, she shows up in dark dungarees and a roll neck floral patterned top to ‘The Alliance’ therapy group on a regular basis. Surrounded by mostly white and Asian women, she shares their story of abuse along the common thread of womanhood. Meanwhile, in the periphery, her best friends test the spectrum of sexuality with experimentation – whilst Kwame has sex with a white woman, Terri dates a black trans-man – Arabella remains celibate after being stealthed by another character Zain. The set up of Arabella’s struggles against those around her prove uncomfortable in a way that exceptionalises but also grounds her experience in everyday life. As she writhes through her coloured trauma, stopping and starting, life continues to go on. And we as viewers, go along with her.
The medley of smaller narratives meld to buttress ‘I May Destroy You’ without overtaking the major plot. Theo’s false rape accusation of a black boy, Biagio’s non-commitment and estrangement of Arabella in Italy, Arabella’s dad’s adultery and her past abortion only seek to gather the crumbs of what is an intentional story of transgression. Arabella, like most victims, is not perfect and she does not have to be. When she is screaming, banging on the door of her part-time lover in a foreign country, sleeping and waking up on a beach like a scene from Inception, we see the turmoil that trauma has inflicted on her life. Her incongruence to her new victim status as a black woman is magnified by a single statement by Terri’s: ‘black girls don’t do class A or get raped‘. Despite the plain facts of her circumstance proving otherwise, Arabella is still somehow excluded from the mainstream healing and mercy that requires. For that reason alone, she reaches little resolve.
The season finale exposes the genesis of Michaela Coel’s stage experience in a way that is full circle but also directly aligned with the purpose of the project. As opposed to the traditional screenwriting approach, Coel takes an artisan route to concluding her show by never coming to one. Instead she designs a stream of consciousness which includes three absurd ‘what if’ scenarios – two at either end of obscenity and one role reversal that saddles somewhere in the middle. The audience decide which outcome they prefer. We see the passion of Coel’s own experience unfold as she beats her abuser, forgives him and has consensual sex with him all in the trappings of an hour. In negotiating the outcome of what a confrontation between her and abuser could be, Arabella eliminates the metaphorical monster under her bed that taunts her healing.
Meanwhile, each scenario ends and begins circling back to Arabella and her housemate Ben who proves to be the neutralising, quiet force she needs to ground herself. Green-fingered, he fiddles with soil in their small garden as birds chirp in a scene that can only be described as escapist. Quick-fire shots of plants growing in number and size to reflect an untimely evolution. In an ode to plant parenthood, Arabella returns – as many millennials have – back to nature in order to restore peace. Such an ending shrieks the lack of conclusiveness in one’s journey to coming to terms with oneself. Removed from the shields of our homes, families and friends, we are exposed to the elements, still forced to grow, rain or shine.
Current, topical, fiercely political and at times deliberately open-ended, I May Destroy You leads with uncertainty and fallibility. The interspersion of Coel’s personal experiences seek to sanctify the humanity of its characters to the fault of familiarity. The main character shares her co-star Paapa Essiedu’s real surname; meanwhile her mum makes a cameo appearance on the bus during one of her ‘what if’ streams of consciousness. In numerous journalistic pieces, Coel has mentioned that Arabella’s experiences with rape and sexual assault are not entirely based on her own; still, she bestows upon Arabella enough likeness, that makes her intractably familial. At times, in Coel’s many interviews and speeches, I feel like I’m hearing from a friend or family member instead of this far-removed woman on the TV screen.
Arguably, the best feature of I May Destroy You is the fact that it reflects little right because it is produced in a world that is mostly wrong. Still it perseveres with humanity, honesty and humour, three misnomers which seem unlikely, but in the end, create the story. So much so, the final scene starts where a new story begins: independent, free from the politics of the performative publishing world, Arabella reads the first page from her new story. A story that is, in short, an allegory of a new life.
Even though the show has been marketed as a “consent drama,” the label feels insufficient, maybe a touch misleading, because she is less concerned with political correctness or the failures of the criminal-justice system than with the psychology of the self: How do you become whole again after trauma breaks you open?
It’s not often a fictional book can be described as canon in itself. After all, investigating and condensing multiple breadths of time into a few hundred pages is no easy feat. With non-fiction, linearity can be employed to soothe this difficulty; dates, headers and chronology allow for a build-up that culminates to the [almost] present-day of publication. With fiction, this structure can thwart; the beginning for the reader being the end of the character’s story, chapters hop-scotching back and forward in time to illustrate a timeless picture. However which way the author decides to lead, the reader is at their mercy. For the last two weeks, I followed Amma, Yazz, Dominique, Carole, Bummi, LaTisha, Shirley, Winsome, Penelope, Megan/Morgan, Hattie and Grace on their respective journeys.
‘Girl, Woman, Other’, written by Anglo-Nigerian author Bernardine Evaristo, begins in the present day, scrolling back in time and across the United Kingdom to draw on shared demography. In irregular novel form, Girl, Woman, Other weaves the story of 12 womxn, undefined but very much moulded by themes of blackness, Britishness, womanhood, the mundane and much more. Disciples to Evaristo’s imagination, each character is crafted to present an element of the ever-plural Black British womxn that we know today. Amma, our opening character is a playwright, betrothed to Sapphism in art and life (as such they imitate); whilst Winsome, one of the womxn introduced in the middle is conflicted between two unlikely love interests in her just-gone middle age. At the other end of the story and spectrum is the beguiling non-binary Morgan (previously Megan) who seeks to shed and interrogate what it means to be gender-free in a world that meditates mathematically around binaries. Ultimately, it is Morgan’s divestment from this altogether – Evaristo employs the gender-neutral pronoun ‘they’ in reference to Morgan – to prove the objective assessment of what it means to be a womxn in our present world.
After hearing a few surprise segments of Girl, Woman, Other on BBC Sounds, I had no inclination of what to expect of this book except some semblance of familiarity to the characters. The inflections of the actress narrating the audio-book (Pippa Bennett-Warner on BBC Sounds and later, Anna-Maria Nabirye on Audiobooks.com) were Black British, the first character being introduced had a Ghanaian name like myself (Amma), and the centrality of the story danced around gender, a construct that is widely scrutinised on and offline in our debates on feminism. If the identity politic presented in the introduction lassoed me in then the quality of Evaristo’s writing is what kept me tied up. Flushes of poetry, lush language and efficient exploration ensured a prose that floated like songs on an album. After delicious sentences, I often, found myself pausing to savour the richness of Evaristo’s words, then resuming reading for another taste. Her collection of stories was more than a book, instead it was an anthology, each page a flavour under-girded by artful anthropological study.
One of my favourite features about the book was its devotion to intertextuality. Where many writers, in their effort to be original, divorce themselves from contemporary or historical writers in order to *stand-alone*, Evaristo does the opposite and sustains herself on the groundwork of Black British talent that came before. References to Buchi Emecheta’s ‘The Joys of Motherhood’ and Sam Selvon’s ‘The Lonely Londoners’ suffuse then leap-frog across time and space to mention the late, great Ghanaian Kofi Annan alongside the darling Antiguan-raised Joan Armatrading. In her concerted effort to marry elements of blackness together – literature, politics and music alike – Evaristo encourages a cross-section of what it means to be a descendant of African and Caribbean immigrants.
This is reflected further in Evaristo’s footnoting of characters in other people’s stories; beyond the maternal cord that binds Amma and Yazz and Bummi and Carole; the reader observes the webbing of other characters that are not connected by friendship (LaTisha and Bummi). Within the avenue of employment, Evaristo crosses the unlikeliest of lives; Bummi briefly being employed as Penelope’s cleaner, Shirley being Carole and LaTisha’s secondary school teacher student and Morgan’s graze with Yazz and her friendship group at a university conference where she is a speaker. All connections speak to the commonality of what it means to be black, womxn and corporeal at its basis; the six degrees of separation need not apply in our case. Still, Evaristo does not evacuate the sense of establishment and elitism that percolates our careers; clear complexes are portrayed between Carole the traditional corporate banker versus Morgan’s novel career of influencing. Amongst the similarity, there remains echelon, tiers, boundaries and circumvention that seek to categorise these women beyond race and gender.
Responsibly, Evaristo manages the expectations of the characters by drawing on multiple sources to illustrate a tapestry of how they came to be. Less full circle, more do-decagon, she sharpens the differences in each character by distancing and dimpling their interactions. Some characters estrange and never reconcile (a pair of friends), others making amends years later when the connection has petered out (won’t spoil it for those who haven’t read it yet). Not only is the research clinical in Girl, Woman, Other, Evaristo’s portrayal is also honest in reflecting the come-and-go humanity in modern-day relationships.
It’s difficult to create complex characters without convolution. Still, in Evaristo’s rejection of respectability, she furnishes each character by drawing on ethnic backgrounds, family structure, educational attainment, sexuality and setting in a way that makes them comprehensible to the unfamiliar reader who may not understand the flavours and undertones of what it means to live or have lived as a black girl, womxn, or other in Britain. Tongue-in-cheek narrative devices like Evaristo’s characterisation of character Nzinga (formerly known as Cindy), girlfriend of Dominique, exemplify this. The couple as singular and duo, operate as a construct to polarise Black Britishness and African Americanness. With hearty abandon, Evaristo disbands with the homogeneity of blackness and womanhood that is often caricatured in white, mainstream and middle class portrayals, instead discerning the dual identities without disparaging either. Lesbians fight, mums and daughters estrange, beautiful girls don’t necessarily grow up to be cis-women. Such is life. Much like Ntozake Shange’s book ‘For Colored Girls Who’ve Considered Suicide when the Rainbow is Enuf,’ Evaristo shuffles through many points of view to personify pedagogy. Like respondents of a social experiment, the didacticism of dialogue and demography do more for the story than actual plot.
In her rejection of respectability, Evaristo wins my vote with ‘Girl, Woman, Other’. Her unapologetic occupation of what it means to be ‘inter-‘ (inter-generational, inter-communal, interracial and arguably, inter-gender), has led me to the liminal space, and for once, I am comfortable being on the court as opposed to discerning from the sidelines.
On the intra scale, I look within to admire the internal work this book has impressed upon me. Much like a plot, identity thickens when you infuse the personal with the political. As a Black British woman, I’ve flip-flopped between isolationism and interconnection in a bid to define myself. Evaristo’s coalescing characters, corrective pace and lack of conclusion as to what it means to be girl, woman, other have brought me one step closer to myself. For that I am artful, political and grateful to have been girl, lived as woman and exist as other.
Talking to yourself is the first sign of madness is a phrase I heard often in my teenage years. External dialogue was about communicating with others instead of oneself. So as I scribble to-do lists, whisper notes to my many selves and pattern my journal pages with entries, I assume myself half-mad.
Language is an intriguing concept. At career workshops, we are told that interviews are not just about how you speak but also how you present. The fit of your clothes, position of your body, style of your hair all conspire to tell a story that may or may not reflect your suitability for the role. Words are fodder for the rich soil of visual cues.
I cannibalise myself often. When nervous, I slip into selective mutism and disappear my voice. Digesting words before they even reach the tip of my tongue is a daily diet of mine; harmful comments only ever tackling their way from my tongue when my inhibitions are low. Charged with emotion, my boundaries crackle and I have to gather the brokenness of my body. Affirmations cycle in my mind as I redevelop mobility and try to move forward in time.
To be critical of oneself is to hear one’s internal voice. If we’re being pedantic then the lilt of our voices, roll of our eyes and timing of our responses add to the rhythm of such communication. We are always speaking, even when we are not. How often do we suppress the urge to establish eye contact? The bass that threatens our composure? Our quivering fingers in uncomfortable settings? For some the default is to freeze. It must be understood that even in moments of stillness, we are communicating; that the aviation in the flight response can be resisted to the point of frozen fright.
Maybe it’s Icare’s blue hair. But the first scene of this film resembles Neil Gaiman’s on-screen adaptation ‘Coraline.’ From the beginning, the red-nosed, lipped and eared young boy Icare, better known as ‘Courgette‘ is easy to love. Soft-spoken, he sits isolated in his greyed out bedroom among childish items: toys, rope and a kite. Not much is made of his upbringing except for his mother’s alcoholism and later death. When asked of his dad, he hands a policeman a kite with a hand-drawn picture of his father.
Upon admission to an orphanage, Courgette is introduced to the archetype of kids that populate every child’s milieu; the bully, the disabled, the overweight, the bed-wetter, the anxious and the intellectually curious. Having been a big fan of the Tracy Beaker series and Annie, I’m intrigued by the back-stories of children left in the guardianship of the care system. This film, in its one hour depiction, responsibly psychoanalyses the background of each child with its clever narration from the children themselves.
At first Courgette is ostracized, his name, like Coraline, arousing humour from his counterparts. Then a build up of conflict involving his dad’s kite provokes an anger in him that is unseen. Such anger is resolved by the antithetical character – Camille – who brings with her the healing power of a do-gooder. One year older yet miles smarter than the rest, she magically cures the deficiencies in her fellow orphans with her presence alone. In one scene, she balances reading Kafka whilst assuaging the autistic tendencies of one of the orphans intent on beating the record for most skips.
From the outside, the movie is about neglected children in the foster care system. But what separates this film from many others is the deviation from trauma. Lack of desirability and parental mishaps do not take up unnecessary space; each child is instead unique, their story driven by their own whimsical view of the world. At one point, an innuendo is made to sex and one child innocently explains how orgasms are actually explosions. If not for the PG-13 age-rating, I would have been befuddled as to the suitability of this film for children. Soon though, I understand that the animated format is a refractive cover for the adult themes of alcoholism, abuse, death and neglect; not in terms of exploration but rather interpretation for the undeveloped preteen brain.
Its savoury ending advances the kid-gloves approach Sciamma takes in her direction. Camille and Courgette end up fostered together, as siblings, after winning the affection of the policeman that found Courgette. Like their story, there is little illumination as to why and how the policeman feels the urge to foster them (except for an estranged son). And in the end when kids at the orphanage coo around the newborn baby of one of the workers, Courgette’s kite is flown above their heads. Pasted to the kite is a new picture of all the orphans together, a neologism to the definition of what it means to be a family.
i hate to write this blog post to announce the breach of another young black girl’s body; instead i want to doll her identity up with the supernatural and say she was a queen, a force, a forever, that in her pictures she looked like a magical pixie in a pale pink peter pan suit.
brown pixie girl with pink, ginger and black for hair. her eyes were swan, swimming with despair
acne freckled, she had a husk of ivory and skin so brown-black;
she said she would die by her skin and did, by the roadside. her only sin being a Nigerian-American girl, woman, other. with eyes so wan. lidded with shimmer, she would close them for a final time.
men betrayed her, black and white. these men of monochrome. saw her strife, listened to her plight, decided to suckle her life. 19, future bright.
not homeless but in God’s house with little to her name besides, her name, ‘Oluwatoyin‘, because God is worthy to be praised.
In Frank Ocean’s song ‘We All Try’, he repeats a line I hold dear to my heart: “She didn’t believe me when I said I lost my faith, she said you must believe in something, something, somethiiiiing.“
Everyday I am believing and disbelieving somethings. Furnishing my mind with misunderstandings and uprooting mistruths. On modern censuses, I am asked what Abrahamic religion I belong to and so forth, which God I believe in. During hypothetical conversations, I am asked, whose story do I believe? Family, friends, foes. Online I am asked of my political ideology and which leader I align with. Every question brings me back to myself and my [lack of] centre. I don’t know, I don’t know, I don’t know.
I know I am betrothed to the imaginary; stories untold, people unseen, concepts not yet created. I ride energy potential more than execution. It is a high in itself to register propensity. The trepidation in preparing to do something long awaited. There is tension here. A state of defibrillation before the heart restarts its rhythm.
Studying Biology taught me to be a clinician. So much so, holy books and spirituality became fable to me. I snickered at the idea men could walk on water. Shook when I read that as per Adangbe theology, I inherit blood from my mum and a spirit from my dad. Science said I was made up of matter that was not buoyant and DNA came from both of my parents. Suspending these beliefs has proved important. To imagine a world where a new correctness makes sense sets in motion a whole new understanding of what it means to be.
Beliefs rule the world. Even facts are just fiction with a ‘non’ prefix. They can be rebutted with alternatives figures; often are. First there were seven planets, now there are eight. Seven was not a lie, neither is eight if there are nine. Facts are based on the knowledge we are open to now and such knowledge is privy to change. So fact and fiction are not binary. They are a matter of manifestation of proof.
Imagination is key to prosperity. A key life skill. Yet it’s flattened every time we tell kids not to have imaginary friends, not to daydream, wean them from cartoons and fictional books. But there is revolution in imagining a world different from your own. Especially when the present world is tumultuous. To imagine a world without violence is to be rescued from it. Hope qualifies this imaginary. It is how technology was conspired and systems were installed; imagine this structure and put it in place.
I am a cynical 23-year old woman who unapologetically loves animated films. The Lion King, Spirited Away and Coco are my favourites. Giving myself permission to accept these 2D talking cartoons are real, if only for an hour and a half, is radical. If I can accept that on-screen, why not accept a spiritual African text that says animals can talk, there are other worlds beyond Earth and people return from the dead? I’m allowed to believe it. That is the rite of the imaginary.
To bring forth concepts that we cannot yet materialise is theory – to do the work in producing them to touch is innovative practice. It is radical and revolutionary. I look forward to indulging more in this imaginary for the long-term.
I will not pretend I am familiar with the academic lexicon of the ‘inner child’. Though it is a phrase I hear often, in mostly pseudo-psychological terms, I can only defibrillate its abstraction. I am woman, once girl, so as outer adult, I must have an inner child.
Trauma, lack of fulfilment, the imaginary and the intangible spirit are all themes that crop up often in relation to the inner child. How the child’s mind, not fully developed but giddy with potential, bridges synapses with other parts of the brain to activate a symposium of sense. Sense relating to sociological identity and philosophical understanding. How much of who I am is impressed by those who raised me? How I raised myself? Pictures and anecdotes narrate a story that I can neither confirm or deny for I, as I am today, wasn’t there. Memory is porous, fact and fiction melding to tone the membrane of my youth into a insecure bind. If not for my diaries, I would not know who I am as the protagonist of my own story. But fortunately, I have my own childish words.
I’ve only ever noticed references to inner children when reflecting on our past selves. Having zoomed through therapy and Twitter threads as to who I’m supposed to be at 23, I’ve put myself up for debate. Who am I? And what do I know for certain? Who am I not? How much is in doubt? The first and third question are matters of perspective whereas the second and forth remain sentiments on which I regularly pontificate. Tearing myself apart, I stare at the innards of my existence before weaving and stitching myself back together with new and improved knowledge. It is difficult: establishing new consciousness beyond the foundation of what you’ve been taught as a child. Often I switch between the first and second person in writing when I can’t remember if my audience is me. On occasion, I travel to the third person and refute the binary of you and I altogether. Sometimes I feel like we.
Perhaps I am torn in between the two (shout-out Letoya Luckett) – my pre and post pubescent self. In school, I remember being told kids under 12 had a fast-track to heaven and deciding I never wanted to attend the upper class in Sunday School or bleed. That was it. I was going to die before I turned teenage. Of course, that did not happen as I am writing this ten plus years later but you get the point. Point is, I was fractured, forced into confronting myself in two parts; the pure little girl versus the semi young lady. I grew uncomfortable, more familiar with waves of dysphoria saturating my body than sensual (or later sexual) satisfaction. Undiagnosed and almost-autistic, I developed tricks to control my body; chewing my tongue (morsicatio linguarum), grinding my teeth, tapping my thumbs, silencing my sound, staring or splitting from people’s gaze. Sometimes being still brought clarity. But motion meant I had to move. Often I’d forget who I was and where; just trusted that my subconscious would get me there and somehow it did. Still, it wasn’t pleasant. Articulation proved difficult and no vocabulary sufficed.
Something I know for sure? Childhood is mostly untrue. For we watch animations of characters that do not exist in real life – talking animals, unnatural, exaggerated features and moral themes that are not upheld by adults or ourselves – plague our TV screens. We tell kids that this version of reality is child-friendly and then shove them into another; other humans, school, leisure, maybe a pet, with no forewarning.
You won’t always get what you want.
Life is not a TV show.
Somehow we are told to tell the differencebetween the fact and fictive. Imagination is destroyed and then deployed again in our innovative years.
I think this juncture never quite happened correctly within me. Maybe because I did not watch TV and spent most of my upbringing with my family, but I didn’t get the opportunity to fully flesh my imaginary. To some extent, I found it in books. But books were about people, almost-real. And so characters were as tangible at the letters on my fingertips. I took them in, mimicked their ways and said to myself it was okay. Nobody knew I was experiencing delays in emotional efficacy and struggling with socialisation. There are terms for this now – anxiety, autism, ADHD and other ‘A’ words. Despite it all, I would go onto achieve many A grades and think about that letter a lot. As an article and a diagnosis of intelligence.
Once I hit my 20s, experienced firsts, lasts and a few one more time, I swear’s, the inner child in me prevailed. Rehashing the ache of primal need, I felt my body splinter and recede. Somebody was crying out and it was me, inside of me; saying something in a language I could not understand. Baby talk but not goo-goo gaga, rather, it was non-verbal language. Instead, I became clingy, conscious to aversion in a way that many fearful avoidant attachment types are. But at the same time, I was also indifferent, unable to process my emotions, in a way that is akin to children experiencing tantrums. I wouldn’t lash out – but my poor rationality would not let me move through my environment in a manner that was conducive to my growth. Meltdowns and breakdowns became common. No longer solid, I soaked into my surroundings, leaking on whatever I touched instead of cleaning up the mess that was myself.
I am still not in touch with my inner child. Despite the extensive technology in the world, I cannot contact or call on her her – if she cares for pronouns – and ask what she wants in clear terms. I’m on do not disturb to her. But still, she manages to speak to me. In my desires and aversions. At times I have been at – what I presume to be – peace and my body will murmur to disrupt the stillness. It is her. When I forget myself, speak seamlessly, she rears her head, reminds me she is me. Discomfort is her natural habitat. So I know I am most in tune with her when I am in this state. And she loves it. For fear is the bedrock and I am her building. I give her the construction in which she operates (kinda like Plankton in that machine – *SpongeBob SquarePants reference*) and she is an analyst, determining my every manoeuvre, summoning shudders and shakes when she pleases. And not the good kind. I guess, in some way, I am her shelter. The fireplace that keeps her warm. But I do wonder, when she sleeps, where she goes. If I could throw her throw from her body and make her cold. How would she like it if she were to freeze?
I don’t know if she knows or needs me. Whether we are conjoined by a bond that kills us both should we sever it. Besides healing, I wonder who I am without her.
Can you subtract an inner child from an outer woman?
Jericho Brown talks about the use of the metaphor. He said it’s desperate and I agree. (A metaphor is a sign of desperation when we need another world to describe what we are feeling. Metaphors are about desperation and safety. We call out to metaphor because a metaphor makes us feel safe.) You have to decide not to be desperate and call a spade a spade sometimes. Imagination comes next.
Ian McEwan’s book ‘Nutshell’ is from the perspective of a newborn in the womb. In one of the paragraphs, the newborn says “When I hear ‘blue’, which I’ve never seen, I imagine some kind of mental event that’s fairly close to ‘green’ which I’ve never seen.” This is a challenge against metaphors.
It’s common knowledge that watching movie adaptations before reading the books they were based on is felonious. Some facets of storytelling are reserved purely for the page apparently, not the screen. Perhaps this is a purist view. After all art is manifold, expressed in multiple ways depending on the creator’s chosen form. Reading in the Age of Constant Distraction is an article that has followed me since I first read it last year. Since then I have complicated what the idea of leisure means to me – pleasure or study? Complete consumption or guarded detachment? The method by which I absorb information has hip hopped between my senses and settled on two being the most keen: audio and visual. So seeing this story of Normal People on the small screen of my laptop has esteemed me with a new interpretation of the award-winning story.
Having never read a Sally Rooney book, I cannot comment on the language or structure of her writing. What I can say is that this show follows a simple story: girl meets boy, they fall in love, poor relationship patterns emerge to scatter the trajectory they travel. Within this all, there is much reconciliation and breakdown, breakups and reuniting. How they are illustrated on-screen is delicate: close-ups of skin, recurrence of familiar characters, male and female nudity and haunting music all accompany the intimacy of the story at hand. Often I find myself looking for traits in the characters that mirror my own.
Admittedly, I for one am a sucker for Irish entertainment and count Hozier, Dermot Kennedy and Damien Rice as some of my favourite singers. In my opinion, there is a comedy in the way the Irish perform lyricism – unapologetically candid about the secular with deliberate theological imagery. Even without deep knowledge of Irish culture, it’s easy to suss how heavy the overtone of secularism weighs on the average person. Whilst reading Anna Burns’ ‘Milkman’, I felt strangely comforted by its [unapologetic[ incorporation of Irish themes despite having no experience of Ireland or the Irish.
The first scene of Normal People supports this characterisation with its introduction in the first scene. Marianne Sheridan, a wide-eyed pale girl with an unbecoming fringe is shown at the show’s inception. Wearing a knee-length skirt and buttoned shirt she looks normal, plain and almost religious. However, sarky and measured, she leads the story in a statement of quiet white feminism, undercutting authority figures such as her teacher and her mother in the first few scenes before demonstrating her sexuality in later episodes. Her first few interactions with the man who later becomes her main love interest – Connell – are matter-of-fact and stoic. At first, it’s difficult to piece the nature of their connection but it soon becomes clear when Marianne tells Connell in the first episode “I like you” and their relationship cascades from there.
Dialogue and isolation are what make this story. Despite the fondle of subplots and secondary characters, the most important protagonists – Marianne and Connell – remains at the forefront of the miniseries. Behind closed doors in isolation from one another is where they confess truths using space (or lack thereof) and sound. Truth be told, there is no deficiency of sex and frontal nudity is commonplace in the show – dicks and nipples. Still, the very natural process of copulation does not take away from the fervour of the relationship. And whilst tension belies most scenes, the two characters do not yet admitted to the people around them that they are in a relationship (though they do to themselves pretty early on). It feels irresponsible to label them as casual lovers, friends with benefits or fuck buddies because the bond between the two, though extremely physical and premature, seems to be silently emotive.
As young lovers do, the two draw apart often over minor spats where they misunderstand the other’s love language. Where one wants defence, the other chooses silence, and when the other chooses defiance, the other opts for distance. People of colour service the story as tools to support their self-actualisation when the two break up for *good* at a latter point: on her Erasmus, Marianne dates an accented (possibly French) black man ‘Lukas’ whilst Connell dates a woman of Asian descent ‘Helen’ who studied medicine at Trinity also. The woman Connell later goes to for therapy after his friend dies is black and it becomes clear the storyline is keen to pontificate that similarity is what draws Connell and Marianne together.
Whilst the men Marianne date are extreme opposites of Connell – an olive-skinned man first, right-wing white guy (who just so happened to be one of her closest friends at some point) second, it becomes clear that Connell and Marianne’s co-ordination mostly stems from the fact they are from the same town and school. This is demonstrated further in the sex she indulges in with men who are not Connell (as I said, there’s a lot of sex on this show so it seems the interactions are illustrative of the characters’ mental states). Where there is sexual reciprocity between Marianne and Connell, Marianne’s interactions with other men are oppressive – she often being dominated, hovered and bent over, or at its most extreme, a subject of male masochism where she is hit and tied up to inflict pain.
For most of the series, intimacies in character development are caught in the soft music that weaves above and beyond the setting. What is usually lost in loopholes in many cinematic, hi-tech American shows is captured in scenes of singularity where Marianne and Connell are often seen alone, alone together, and in spaces that reflect their mental state in their home of Ireland. During one of the later episodes, Connell is seen to fall asleep whilst on webcam with Marianne and the viewer sees how distance,in the technological age, has indeed made the heart grow fonder as the two soften for one another.
It’s hard to deny that the culture of the binge has perhaps quickened what would otherwise be a slow-build series with a slip ending. At times I found myself wishing I had the self-control not to select the next episode and instead develop the discipline necessary to anticipate what happened next. Instead, I saturated my hunger by clicking the bait – which technically is a credit to the insatiability of the show (or perhaps my rampant boredom as per the p and q of procrastination and quarantine) – and kept clicking the 30 second clip that follows the ending of the sub-30 minute episodes until all 12 were up.
All in all, one of my favourite features is the show’s truth to its title. Themes covered are admittedly normal though often unchartered: high academic expectations for young people, domestic violence, class divisions, cheating, changing politics, mental health, male suicide and vulnerability, women’s sexual boundaries and many more ordinary reflections of day-to-day life seek to disrupt the love the two characters have for one another. Having been desensitised to the rhetoric of many of the themes addressed, I imagine these themes are much more jaw-dropping to those who are unfamiliar with this terrain of truthful storytelling. However, I am confident in the knowing that what emboldens this show is its reliance on discomfort. By betraying the viewer’s expectation of these otherwise normal-looking adolescent adults, it proves right the theory that normality is subject to cultural norms and is not immune to interpretation.
I had a dream I got everything I wanted Not what you think And if am being honest It might have been a nightmare To anyone who might care Thought I could fly So I stepped off the golden Nobody cried, nobody even noticed I saw them standing right there I kinda thought they might care
I had a dream I got everything I wanted But when I wake up, I see You with me
And you say, as long as I’m here, no one can hurt you Don’t wanna lie here, but you can learn to If I could change the way that you see yourself You wouldn’t wonder why you hear They don’t deserve you
I tried to scream But my head was underwater They called me weak Like I’m not somebody’s daughter
What do you get when you cross a kooky couple with a lovable lodger? A threesome or a love triangle? Neither, according to the mini series ‘Trigonometry’ which aired on BBC iPlayer last month. For this is a show about polyamory. And as per its name, this show is dedicated to the study of romantic relationships and how they prevail beyond the heternormative binary.
Gemma is a kooky cafe runner attempting to run a non-gentrified sandwich shop in her neighbourhood slash workplace. Cheeky and inviting, her excitable character betrays her rustic voice. She is energetic with a husky tenor, infusing every scene with showy gestures and bold movements. Meanwhile, Kieran is her paramedic boyfriend, measured and discrete he is the antidote to her eccentricity. His experience in the army means he is collected and calm, the perfect balance to Gemma’s infectious energy. Even without challenge to the relationship, I as a watcher found myself rooting for this BBC black couple.
Where Ramona, colloquially known as Ray, intersects their relationship, is the question, for trouble does not begin as typical love triangles suppose. Much of the show is silent, stares and body gestures colonising the on-screen interactions between the three. Ray is foreign, a tangle of French accent and English words, which ostracises her from the couple’s lovable Londonness even further. Meanwhile Gemma is crass, her first dialogue being an exclamation of ‘Bollocks!’ to break the ice. From the outset, the two women juxtapose one another not only in language but character.
Without hesitation, the relationship between the three is immediately intimate, less so physically than psychically. Ray’s brown hair and sheepish eyes remain guarded in the first few episodes, cursively peeping the sexcapades of her landlords in their shared spaces. Kitchen and bathroom become communes for her to spy on the unmarried, soon-to-be-married couple. Soon enough, Ray’s status as a lodger is scuppered as she further infiltrates the couple’s internal lives – socially and financially. Besides a close friend Moira, there are no ties connecting her to anyone in London and so she is free to be a bird. Instead however, despite her ex-swimmer status, she proves to be a fish out of water.
The three unconsciously merge into each other’s lives, chipping into each other’s pockets and eventually become emotional footholds to one another. Soon Ray is a waitress serving meals in Gemma’s cafe below the flat, the lines between all three blurring until they disappear.. The focus then swerves to Kieran whose intention to propose to Gemma is scuppered by Ray’s presence. A dramatic turn of events means he is stabbed and with his collapse, the relationship between him and Gemma is punctured. Suddenly there is a hole – and the hole is Ray.
As shy as Ray is, she is the first to confront her feelings for her two landlords. Yet still, despite feeling the same, Gemma and Kieran do not reciprocate her emotions until their wedding night. It’s easy to see that the three are in genuine love. Though the triangle is often unequal, with questions of sex and harmony becoming topics of contention, the three exist more like isosceles than equilateral – Ray being the base that keeps Kieran and Gemma together as family drama topples them off balance.
Mental and physical health are common themes in the 8 episode series. Though only touched upon briefly, the audience soon comes to know that Gemma is likely infertile, Kieran has panic attacks and Ray is likely experiencing some form of PTSD as a result of an accident in the pool. The latter two confront their mental misgivings with hypnotherapy whereas Gemma remains preoccupied with work, unimpressed with marriage and enjoying her status as the ‘queer brown girl’ who found love with a black man.
The friends and families of each character intertwine gently in the series for a clearer profile of each person. Thus sister, brother, mum and dad prove to be the extensions watchers require to better understand the nature of the characters we are dealing with. In many ways, the assessments of their loved ones legitimize the status of this polyamorous union. This is not a fun fling of three frauds pretending to be in love. Though lust is a certain driver of the threeway, there are elements of friendship and family too.
To call Toni Morrison a legend is quite the understatement. Not only has she won prestigious prizes (both Pulitzer Prize and the Nobel Prize for literature), she also unapologetically championed an art form that for years was regarded as monolithic and not worth intellectual investigation. Toni was an African-American woman – known for her halo of grey-white dreads and butterscotch skin. But for most of my life, I did not know who she was. Being the Black Brit I am, my first points of reference – as a black woman – in literature, were the likes of Malorie Blackman and Dorothy Koomson. Later on, I would come to know Zadie Smith and eventually cross the Atlantic to African and American counterparts.
My first brush with Toni was The Bluest Eye in sixth form. Though my memory is vague, I recall the book being strange and spectacular. A coal-black girl, grappling with self-loathing in a way that was superior to my own. I was pubescent, in a predominantly white school, trying to confirm my racialisation. I was black and African and British and not a lover of myself. Neither was Pecola. And through her experience of life, I began predicting my own encounters, as though she was a future version of myself.
The documentary, to my surprise, included the faces of literature heroes I’d never seen before. Hilton Als, a man whose names I’ve seen pepper numerous articles on The New Yorker appeared, conscious and measured in his description of Toni. Sonia Sanchez would then appear, poetic in her oration, as though she was performing spoken word. Eyes closed, I watched her imagine Toni and towards the end of the documentary, break into tears of sorrow at the late legend. The belly of the documentary nonetheless remained nourishing; and I found myself eating the words of her own interview and others.
As per the title, pieces of Toni were established in the usual chronological order. As a kid, she and her sister drew words on the pavement in chalk. Born as Chloe in the South, she would later change and shorten her middle name from Anthony to Tony after years of mispronunciation. She would later work at a library before studying at the historically black Howard University. It took an interview with her advisor regarding the topic of her final project (a study about the black characters in Shakespearean stories) for her to recognise the importance of centralising the black female voice. She noted how peripheral black women were positioned in the media – not only to the white male gaze but to that of the black man. And such recognition led her to challenge the tentative tone of Frederick Douglass and Ralph Ellison’s book title ‘The Invisible Man’ with a comeback of “invisible to whom?”
Toni Morrison’s unapologetic prioritisation of black womanhood culminated in a sequence of narratives that sought to investigate the unique dynamics that black, notably African-American, women faced throughout history. My favourite title (so far), Sula, placed the friendship of two black women centre stage. The storyline is aggressively common – a woman sleeps with her best friend’s husband – but executed in a less than likely form. The language, as is the stickler in Morrison’s style, is fluent, poetic, daring and non-judgemental. Her blend of Southern imagery and flirtatious characterisation makes for a sexy, seductive read that I struggled to put down or rather, pause (for I am an audiobook guru).
I have to admit, listening to Toni’s voice as she narrates her own story has made for a delightful experience, perhaps even more so than reading the words on a page. Her cautious drawl topping the words, supplying emphasis as intended and affirming the voices of her characters as extensions of herself – black, African-American – always makes for an enticing experience. So, as hooked as I am by those 9 – 12 hour recordings, I am even more excited to witness the face that belongs to it onscreen as she explains the source material for much of her work. Beloved, one of her most famous works, documented the story of a woman who slit the throat of her own baby. Meanwhile Song of Solomon talks of those who were enslaved returning to the sky after having fulfilled their purpose on Earth. Few of her works are short of supernatural magic yet they manage to meander the human condition in the most convincing way. When she speaks of spirits and other entities that the human eye cannot infer, I think less of the archetypal magical negro and more of the majestic ability of humankind.
Toni’s inspiration stems from a variety of seeds: her own childhood experiences, family dramas, newspaper clippings and fables untold all prove to be soils on which she grows her works of fiction. Fortunately for me, no subject matter is off-limits, so I discover a truth in her writing that is unpalatable and thus, unequivocally truthful. So daring in her oration, individuals and organisations have endeavoured to ban her book in schools and prisons. Phrases like ‘vulgar’ are not amiss in former descriptions of her works. Not only is her subject matter derided but so is her emphasis; it is noted in earlier reviews that she should expand beyond the black slave narrative to draw in a more contemporary view of Americans as a whole. A note which she emphatically denies; her friend Sonia echoes the importance of this when she stresses the importance of the reader and author’s reimagination of the proposed narrative, as opposed to reinvention. Such reimagination saturates the works of Toni through the employment of metaphysical language.
That being said, Toni, like many black women, faced challenges in her personal life. Bearing 2 sons and being separated from her partner meant she had to fall back on her family to support her child-rearing. Such an experience of single black womanhood is not an uncommon one – with individuals such as Rihanna stressing that they will go about motherhood alone if push comes to shove – it is no secret that the concept of the black family is under scrutiny. Toni challenged this theme through her characters’ disruption of this unit – the choice to create black women who were unpopular and criminal shook the status quo of the docile ‘mammy’ archetype that was mainstream in those ways. Whether intended or not, black women raising children without men is a political act; for it sticks up a middle finger towards the white, hetero-normative, nuclear structure that the capitalist, western ideal has imposed.
Teacher, editor and writer were the three occupations which Toni boasted. And her championing of all 3 led to the platforming of voices like Angela Davis’ and Muhammad Ali’s in written form. Notwithstanding, Oprah’s eventual adaptation of Beloved onscreen meant she infiltrated a new form of art. At Princeton, she taught her students not to write what they know and write about people different to them to open their horizons. And such was perhaps her greatest strength – remaining open, so much so that she kept the door open as she worked in the morning so her sons never felt shut out from her writing process.
Later on in life, Toni would receive the accolades she deserved (as mentioned in the first paragraph) and still people would remark it as a mistake of some sort. An example of political correctness as opposed to a deserved reward for an exceptional talent who will likely not be witnessed for a long while. Her books were a gift to the planet – somehow marrying commercial viability with unadulterated honesty and drawing in an audience of black and white, Asian and African, in many different languages and cultures across the world. A friend of Toni’s, Fran Lebowitz was adorable in her description of Toni throughout the documentary, remarking on an encounter where she heard her friend’s name on the radio after emerging from the shower and stood sopping wet for the next 22 minutes to hear it again to confirm the authenticity as to what she’d heard (that she’d won the Nobel Prize).
To say this documentary was necessary for me is quite the understatement. It stuck with me. Like paste. Even with all our differences, I felt reflected in Toni Morrison’s experiences growing up and the vitality of what she had to say proved energising. My hope is that to some extent, I can reflect the Black British experience as she did in my own writing and her legacy will prevail.
Yesterday, I had the liberty of attending William Morris Gallery to see Nigerian-American artist Kehinde Wiley’s exhibition ‘The Yellow Wallpaper’ (named after the short story by Charlotte Perkins Gilman). Fortunately for me, William Morris Gallery is a 20 minute walk from my home so I was able to drop by without an Oyster card or the fear of getting lost. Instead I arrived around 3pm, just in time to be offered a free sample of chicken katsu on a toothpick by one of the stallholders at the weekly Lloyds market, then ventured beyond the big black doors into the gallery that was once the eponym’s home.
On immediate entrance, I was welcomed with the sight of black women on greeting cards on a small cabinet before me. Usually the gallery is adorned with Morris & Co stylised stationery. Like Cath Kidston’s signature use of flowers and colours, William Morris has popularised his own bucolic style of leaves and birds in soft but adventurous shades for wallpaper and other tapestry.
When I first read the Guardian article that Nigerian-American artist Kehinde Wiley had an exhibition open at William Morris Gallery entitled ‘The Yellow Wallpaper’ (named after the short story by Charlotte Perkins Gilman), I wasn’t sure what to expect. Not being familiar with the artist (by name, though I’d seen Obama’s famous official portrait floating around) meant I was in for a surprise when entering the room that beheld his art-works.
Entrance into the main gallery immediately drew me in. Lights dark, paintings effervescent, the provenance of these beautiful oil paintings told their own story. Kehinde had decided document real-life black women who he just so happened to meet on a day out in Dalston and decided to draw. An unlikely step for an artist who just years before had painted the leader of the free world. In the centre of the room, I marvelled at these heroic unfamiliar women staring away from me – some stood alone, others had children. All looked fierce but not the typical archetype of overly *strong* that we so often see perpetuated in mainstream art. And they all had their eyes trained elsewhere from my gaze, staring somewhere I could not see but wished to. In their zones they were, and I was just visiting, like an uninvited guest.
A film was also aired at the gallery which documented the women’s backgrounds and Wiley’s aim in depicting them as autonomous beings. The backdrop of leaves he drew them against was signature of William Morris’ bucolic style (as seen in Morris & Co’’s designs). As delightful as these images were, the pictures I have inserted below do not do them justice. Lo and behold, they are even more breathtaking in person. For this ethos of Gilman’s feminism combined with Wiley’s execution and Morris’ art activism make for an intriguing experience in-person. Lovely overall, will likely frequent again since it’s so local to me (big up Walthamstow!)