If you personally knew me back in May then you would have probably heard my giggles about being approached for “Too Ugly For Love?” on the basis of my vitiligo essay over at Buzzfeed. I found it pretty funny at the time considering my essay they found me from discussed my resentment of people who assume that my skin makes me inherently ugly. Anyway I’ve finally written up some of my thoughts for Dazed on the ridiculous notions that we have about attraction and what makes someone appealing in the first place. Let it be your first read of the week!
Lesbian relationships in film often carry the burden of limited storytelling which focuses on coming out stories, pregnancy, affairs, and/or death. Peter Strickland’s The Duke of Burgundy has none of these traits. Rather it is a universal story about love and the ways in which we can be undone by it, exploring the emotional violence that can be carried by a relationship. Most importantly, unlike another film that shall not be named, The Duke of Burgundy highlights this as a failure of communication, not as an evil of kink itself.
It’s no secret I have a great soft spot in my heart for The Duke of Burgundy – it’s a amazing film about people that features a queer couple who’s issues are not rooted in their queerness. As part of their Violent Women Week I’ve got a guest piece over at BitchFlicks looking at the emotional violence inflicted in the film. It has spoilers so I recommend you watch the film first, but you can check it out here.
People can sometimes find it weird that I see a lot of the negotiations in the film as cruel – after all no one said they didn’t want to do anything. The truth is that good partners try to look out for signs of upset – people are often socialised to subordinate their own personal feelings for those of others, and there are a whole host of reasons why someone may not be comfortable enough with a partner to articulate them. A simple example would be to think of all the things you’ve done that you would rather not for the benefit of your family; in my case it would be wearing a dress to my graduation. Not all of these are wrong or a sign of abuse, but they might make someone uncomfortable or always feel off, and the more intimate the situation the more we must look out for this. When we play by the rules that everything must be explicitly stated (otherwise it doesn’t count as a no) then we risk straying into territory where we can wilfully ignore what we sense in others in order to ensure we get our own way. Instead of checking for a happy yes, we just look for a clear no.
Yes people should be able to speak up, but in this world that is hard. We have a responsibility to make sure that the level of trust to speak is actually there in the first place.
I have a confession. I only read a book a week these days; six years ago I used to consume a book a day for pleasure, excluding the reading I was assigned by other people.
It’s all changed because of the internet.
I don’t think it’s a bad thing.
Over the past few years I’ve noticed that what I do for fun has changed. I’ve always enjoyed discovering new things from an early age. Information is a valuable commodity and I liked (and still like) wowing people with small, insignificant facts or engaging in lengthy conversations about this or that particular writer. No book was safe – for a short time I had virtually memorised all the flow charts in our battered, home copy of a family medical textbook. I would curl up on my bed inventing fictional ailments to test if I could remember what symptoms I could say yes to without ending at a red box telling me to immediately call the emergency services. I don’t do that any more. Instead I’m on the internet jumping from article to video to forum to obscure Wikipedia page.
There have been so many scare articles over the time in which I’ve shifted away from books. Beware, they all shriek, the internet is destroying the concentration span of your children! Soon all that will be left of modern culture will be a few tweets! Everything else will be too taxing on their underused minds! And we do buy that argument because a lot of us notice how we rarely read all the way to the end of the page, and how we prefer doodles and snappy lines to long reels of text.
I’m not one of those pessimists that say the internet is destroying people. After all, I had a free reign on my internet usage at university but could still sit through hundreds of pages of reading when it came down to it. Realistically those of us in the world that can read and have the opportunity to will be able to cope with a book if we were made to read one. Like riding a bike, the skill never truly drifts away from us. It is our satisfaction that can and has shifted.
Once upon a time I sat entranced for hours with a good paperback. Now I’ll stop every 10/15 minutes or so to write down an interesting train of thought – something to look up later or write down. I used to be ashamed of this trend as I thought it meant I had become flighty and would rapidly become less intelligent. In fact, like most people who age, I’ve learnt more, but not only that – I’ve learnt proportionally more each year. Modern technology means that we’ve become used to the idea of always learning, always striving for ways to put information into practice. If I want to learn about something I no longer need be a passive recipient; when I am presented with a news item I can look up background information if I want to developed a deeper and more nuanced position, or find the definition of every single word I’m even just 1% unsure about. Because accessing information on technology takes very little time and is incredibly easy, the threshold of what is acceptable ignorance is lower. Consequently it becomes harder to calmly sit through something knowing that you’re missing part of the larger picture.
Books are now refocused as a nice past-time, a way of slowing everything down with a level of focus akin to meditation. They are not the main source of knowledge. We can learn faster along with learning more perspectives on the internet.
Elon Musk, who will likely be remember as the visionary of our time, said in a discussion with Khan Academy “the more you can gamify the process of learning, the better”. The classical methods of learning are now just old.
The internet is affecting us all and we should be fascinated with the possibilities this means for the future.
I hope Ahmed does not understand the meaning of “FUCK”.
We are threading through the city on three wheels, crammed into a vehicle which – like all Khartoum back-seats I have been in – has too low a ceiling to fit my height and so I am hunched over trying not to be flung out the doorless side. Somehow my de-pigmented knuckles, white from vitiligo, are even whiter gripping the thin black bar that separates me from Ahmed the Rickshaw Driver. After a week back in the country I am finally confident enough to practice my atrocious Arabic with someone and now I risked his lasting impression to be one of a foul-mouth foreigner.
Ahmed either does not hear my yell or chooses to politely ignore it, instead wanting to know which of the local football teams I supported; Hilal or Merrikh? Fumbling for words I tell him that I don’t know which one is the right one. His furious head shaking tells me this is definitely the wrong answer.
I stare out at the empty side. Khartoum still feels so unfamiliar even as the sights match those of my childhood – a city covered in dust and streets blooming with multi-coloured plastic bags.
He shakes his head again.
“I don’t understand how you can come back to Khartoum and not pick a football team”
When I say ‘rickshaw’ to someone back in London they think of the pushcarts, pedalled by disinterested young men who cluster in the city centre, cigarettes hanging from lips as they yell to drunken tourists. And then I have to explain that yes, those definitely fall under the dictionary definition of rickshaw, but in Sudan rickshaws (or rasksha as my Arabic practice has taught me) are not glorified bikes, but rather small motorised tin cans. Usually black, and sometimes pasted with Disney cartoon characters and random English words – items signifying a certain coolness motivated by the belief that this will win more fares – they buzz through Khartoum, piercing across traffic. For just a few pounds you too can risk safety for a quick journey.
Although it is not as cheap as when I stopped living here five years ago. Sanctions in the country have led to inflation; a journey previously costing a single US dollar now costs about seven. When I last visited there was the inevitable rush of development that affects a city after a peace agreement, then the global recession and US/EU sanctions hit. Now the rush still goes on, but it is slower and hidden, no longer reflected in new, shiny soaring buildings. Price increases mean the first instance I am required to travel down the road I take the mature approach of not wanting to “waste my money” and 10 minutes later all exposed areas of my skin are the same shade as Jessica Rabbit’s lips.
It better perhaps to frame the transport as not so much a very expensive bike ride but rather a very cheap Arabic lesson.
“IgoStreetSixtyNowNearMosque?” I ask.
The rickshaw has spluttered up alongside me. Inside is a man about my age, a slight red tinge under his black skin suggesting that he too was suffering from the last of the summer heat. His eyebrows raise themselves at my accent – regularly described as sounding Japanese for reasons I still have yet to figure out – and, after glancing down at my colourful Western clothes, he opts for gesturing with his head that I should hop in.
I foolishly undermine the authority I want my garbled Arabic to carry by asking how much it will cost.
It is a universal rule in a barter economy that you do not ask for the price if you have light skin and are obviously a foreigner. The second rule is if the rickshaw driver quotes you an acceptable price and you have light skin and are obviously a foreigner it is definitely not anywhere near an acceptable price.
“Ten” he says, gesturing again.
He laughs. No sale.
He is a generous man and anything less would basically be paying me to travel.
Unfortunately I know the third rule. The third rule is that when you are dealing with a rickshaw driver in Sudan and you are a bit Sudanese you may get some success by telling them this.
“NoSevenOnly – SudaneseFather!”
He laughs again, though this time he nods his head and we are off, dashing through crossing lights. We pass by the ladies who sit on the edges of empty spaces selling tea and packed restaurants selling too-expensive meat, him eloquently discussing his education and football and the idyllic vision of London he’s seen in films, I replying in my faltering grammar-less speech to the questions I understand.
Khartoum has been described as the world’s largest waiting room – there is a languid atmosphere and meetings start and end late, much to the frustration of foreign workers. But it is homey too, full of people who will fold you gently into their lives and rickshaw drivers who praise every piece of your broken Arabic as if it were great poetry.
The mosque looms near and eventually we reach the point where I can handle over the crumpled note and stumble into the air-conditioned coolness of the living room.
“Remember” he says gravely as I slide out of the rickshaw, “you support Hilal now.”
The last time I smelt rain following a storm of dust was five years ago when a whirlwind of sand passed through Khartoum. There is something sweet and comforting in the smell, a small section of yourself you never realised was there beats faster. It is the same kind of remembrance that greets me whenever I carve open pink grapefruit, hurled back to childhood breakfast with my grandmother at her Northampton table.
I’m going back now, running to a country I left in 2010 to learn a language I failed to grasp fully when there.
Three weeks ago I turned 23. I feel exceptionally young in some ways, like I’m on the cusp of proper adulthood and soon everything will start to get very serious and so I’m trying to stave off what I envision to be a boring normality. Of course this is ridiculous, normality is by its nature completely fine, but I seem to conceive of it as something a little bit gauche. Adventure, a lot of the time, is only what people think they want.
Anyway I’m 23 and asking a whole lot of questions about where I am in my life, where I want to be in my life and – most importantly – who I am and who I want to say I am. And these are questions I have come to the conclusion that I can’t answer without going back, no matter how briefly, to a place that I will forever find etched into myself. So this is why I find myself, 23 and (just under) three weeks old in Khartoum, Sudan.
Even if I haven’t quite grappled through my complex thoughts about considering myself Sudanese I want to feel closer to it. And everyone here thinks I’m utterly mad; perhaps because I am, perhaps because it is a little strange and offensive to be a white girl trying to find herself and her future path in Africa, but so far it feels right.
For example; things I have remembered this week include aleela means today, bariid means cold, and that bey is with. Things that I have learnt this week include that haguul laek is I’m going to tell you something and agguul laek haiga is a more informal way of saying the same thing, and that masoora which means tap or, alternatively, a person that always says they are going to do something then they don’t do it, must come from the Arabic maa meaning water. I had never twigged because in Sudan water is moya.
I have also learnt that I am masoora*
So far my productive holiday has been spent reconnecting with old friends and family, frustrating them with my incessant new curiosity for the language that I never displayed before. The air feels more attuned to my nature – people like to talk about the quirks of Sudanese Arabic and everyone wants to educate the foreigner (up to a point). Still I have yet to test out willingness to grapple with more ridiculous parts of my discussion tendencies, and whereas before I would have certainly said that Khartoum was home, now I can see just how much I have been altered by the past five years in London.
Home it seems, isn’t just a bout of nostalgia, but where you can feel comfortable in your skin. It’s not fixed to a particular language or a set group of people, but the sense of disease abandoning your body. I haven’t quite got there yet, not with London nor Khartoum.
For now though, the desert is enough.
*A friend told me this because I turned up at their house at the later end of a time frame I gave. I live in hope that it was a circumstantial description rather than an accurate portrait of my character.
BoJack Horseman just launched the second series on the 17th July and my intention was to clean whilst I watched but, like last the last series, I ended up on a viewing marathon, gripped.
Last series I had been hesitant to delve into it; the comedy starts off slow, and it was only the rave reviews from friends that invested me in it. However once I got to the second half it was compulsive. I kept watching all through the night, pushing myself deeper and deeper down into an addictive hollowness as it pummelled me emotionally. I recognise too much of myself in BoJack – the occasional arrogance, the desire to prove talents that he is not quite sure he has, wanting to numb himself emotionally from everything, self-sabotaging – and here was a show that didn’t end with roses and sunshine. The protagonist always making the wrong choice, over and over, in the idea that the choice will bring happiness and instead it brings nothingness.
Here’s a brief guide on how to be a good person:
- Lie to yourself
- Rationalise every action you’ve ever made based on “being true to yourself” and therefore good
- Justify that the consequences were the best possible outcome
- Say “I’m a good person inside”
- Do things every now and again for others and cling to them as indisputable proof of your goodness
The first series is the process of BoJack slowly coming to see himself properly. The marketing as an adult comedy does a great disservice to the beauty of an end product; the show is not hesitant to get into the darker parts of what it is to be human/horse. BoJack comes to realise he’s terrible, he realises that there are things people won’t ever forgive him for, that you don’t get to pick how people view your past. That it might actually be your actions and not your intentions that shape who you are.
BoJack doesn’t get the Hollywood (Hollywoo?) pay off. He doesn’t get the satisfaction of forgiveness, or of being told that he is a good person. He just gets brief moments of self-realisation before he runs from his reflection once more. Seeing yourself in him you realise that you don’t get that cartoon magic of resolutions either.
It’s hard to come to that conclusion. Extremes are easy to identify: this person is evil, that one is saintly. It’s the blurry areas in the middle that are complicated enough to allow us to fashion a false narrative about ourselves. We want to believe that the world works according to how we feel, and that therefore overall we’re pretty neat. We don’t fit the extreme so we must be good.
After getting through the second series and watching BoJack break me emotionally once more – realising his problems and still failing to act adequately enough – I was stuck reflecting on how I am always caught in the same mistakes too. At the core I want to feel like I have a goodness that is threaded through every action, and really the truth is that we are both good and bad in each moment and that one does not cancel out the other. Repetition means that it is not simply naivety but a willing ignorance to maintain the fiction that I make kind decisions. The people I have made feel terrible will still feel terrible. Whether they forgive me or not it doesn’t erase how I have treated them.
It is intriguing how so many of the “best” and “loving” actions align with what we want in our heads. This ego of good people syndrome extends to everyone, ruining revenge fantasies we build up. As much as we crave it people often don’t feel bad about the things they’ve done, or have everything turn to shit on them. The person that cheated on you? They probably are happier and feel comfortable that it was all for the best. Most people aren’t devastated, but walk away with a shrug – at the most you may get an “I’ll do better next time”. I am highly unlikely to think of myself as cruel in the moment.
In some ways intent doesn’t really matter, because of how often we lie to even ourselves about the true reasons, coating them in a more acceptable veneer. Goodness is frequently self-serving, sometimes we help not just for altruism but for showmanship. Even a genuine act can be tarred later on, allowing us to we cling onto them as proof of who we want people to see us as. I can tell the story of helping a homeless man who had suffered heat-stroke where I co-ordinated a group of the public and arranged an ambulance, leaving me an hour late to drinks with a friend. I don’t tell it because part of changing myself for the better means starting with me looking at the slumped over man, bright red and sweating, and walking on. It means telling people that I got to the end of the road and then felt like shit, so to soothe myself I went back. It means acknowledging that I still walk straight past people in need without a glance every week. And that means making myself look unforgivably human.
That’s not to say I’m a pessimist, or that self-serving altruism is bad. It’s just I’m coming to realise that being good is a combination both how you feel and what you do, but ultimately the more important thing is that consequences of your actions. Working on being an inch better is painful, and slow and you slip back. It’s what makes BoJack Horseman such compelling viewing. Knowing your faults is not the same as changing. I’m going to fuck up more than I get it right.
That doesn’t make me “good” but it’s a little bit closer.
I like writing. I’m lucky enough that I can devote a fair amount of time to it. Mainly I write essays, scripts, and work on longer journalistic pieces, but I also write poetry. I joke this makes me pretentious, but then I also worry that it does actually make me pretentious because WHO DOES POETRY ANYMORE? Poetry is always too linked to years spent in school trying to make Keats mean something to me, but the fact that beauty is eternal and nature is beauty was the only thing that stood out, and I vastly prefer the chaos and harshness of cities.
Poetry is both quicker and slower than I thought it would be when I started. In terms of producing work it often flows out rapidly, in butchered and confusing first drafts that are trimmed and reshaped over weeks. The process to official publication though is quite slow – often it is specified that there will be months before a reply is given and you sit there doubting everything you’ve ever done.
He carried himself like a concealed knife, ready to cut. He said it in such a casual way; an “I know” like “let’s get pizza”. #micropoem15
— Rushaa Louise Hamid (@thesecondrussia) June 29, 2015
So it is more than just nice to see a poem you’ve written in a independent print publication (Glitterwolf Issue 8: Identity) and it is more than just nice to see one in a fantastic online publication that specialises in producing a poem a day. And I sit and win May 2015 ‘Pick of the Month’ over at Ink, Sweat and Tears – the first they have done – and as part of that I now get to go to a Lunar Poetry workshop and I’ll worry a bit about feeling fraudulent whilst at the same time feeling incredibly acknowledged.
Poetry has slowly become for me a convoluted way of communicating my feelings. Whereas before I used to smash canvases with paint, now I train my fingers to stumble over computer keys (or if I feel like living up to my pretentious style then I drag out my typewriter). I fell into it in December, with the help of what we now jokingly term the ‘Really Small Poetry Society’ when I gated-crashed my friends Marie (@MarieaRoemer) and Adham (@AdhamSmart92) critiquing each others poems on Skype. Hesitantly I began exploring an area of literature I’d never done before and felt deeply lacking confidence in, and with their constant pushing began to see real improvements and sent off submissions.
Right now I’m sitting here trying to figure out an ending to a longer piece I have been working on for the week. In a few days I may find myself reading out loud some of the words I have put to paper. I still feel like I am joking around with this, that eventually it will all come down and I will be thinking Why did I even get myself into this in the first place? Why did I believe I was capable? But then I suppose that you have to try, because I’ve already spent a lot of time not trying and that didn’t do much.
Maybe this will all be a phase. I don’t think it will be, the way that I feel the muscles in my shoulders unclench as I try to put what I see into verbal form. There’s something in the process of learning how to write that seems to clarify parts of me to myself. Yet even if my desire to continue slips away I know that I am learning how to be more at ease of being proud of my creative work; I am glad that I have something to share, and that others see it as valuable to share too. That is the important thing – turning and saying I am a poet without offering caveats.
So today a piece I’d been working on for a while finally showed its face online. I have had vitiligo, which is an auto-immune disease that results in large white patches developing on your skin. I have the kind where it keeps things fairly symmetrical and it is all over (yes, ALL OVER) my body. When you have such an obvious change to your skin you become a curiosity to people, even when you have the benefit of not being particularly dark in the first place like me. It’s rather personal, but I also think it’s rather good:
As a side note, for some reason everyone’s first response to “I have a piece about vitiligo on Buzzfeed” is them turning to me and saying “like, with cat gifs?”. Sorry, unfortunately I must disappoint you – there are no cat gifs (or any other kind of gifs) in the piece, and I have no idea why you would think they would be there. If however you like looking at pretty things there are some fantastic illustrations accompanying the piece so you could just consider them as an alternative.
I got my hair cut today for the first time in almost two years. Before that I hadn’t cut my hair in three years. It’s become an accidental tradition that my hair gets cut during transitions – university, graduation, and now a new set of work possibilities.
The man who cut my hair was patient, and happy that I had opted to shear off about 5-7 inches that had been growing ever since my last trip to the academy. “I just want it to be big and light”, I said “more curls, and not so flat on the top”. He obliged, running through a square cut with circular layers, and slowly drying it. In the end it bounced up, just below shoulder length. I was pleased.
My hair through years has become reflective of where I am. In the harsh heat of Sudan I cut it short, “like a boy” as my neighbour would say. People would look at me a little funny, make assertions about what it could possibly mean, but it was worth it to not deal with the sweat that used to stick to the back of the neck. When I arrived in London for university, various happenings meant that it would not be cut until just before my graduation ceremony and even then just a trim. The long length became its default state in a cold nation, a home-grown veil to guard against winter chills. And like I had become attached to the short crop at 16, I now clung to every inch, wanting it to trail down and cover my breasts like Eve. I had never been attached to the feminine but something about the hair made me feel protected.
Before heading off today I debated what to do. Up until I gestured to just above my chest I had been convinced I would only ask for a trim, but in that moment I changed my mind. I stopped myself from instinctively correcting that initial urge. You are doing this, I thought, it needs to change.
I held my breath as I watched Dave make the initial cut.
Once it was done it didn’t feel that different. I expected a grand sense of loss, but it was just my hair as always, albeit shorter. I had spent so much time putting off the trim thinking that it would alter me in some way that I hadn’t considered I was old enough to not care.
I am glad that I went with my gut. It was a fear that wasn’t really there, like so many other fears in my mind. I have irons that I need to strike, and the haircut reminded me that in the end you should always try something a little different in order to remember that change doesn’t have to be harsh or full of regret – it can also be an adjustment to maximise your life, like taking off the hair to fight the heat, or growing it to beat a chill.
As I left I promised Dave that I wouldn’t wait so long for my next cut. I won’t.
Content Note: This contains discussion and a video of discussion of potential sexual assault
Does anyone remember ‘Chums’? It’s a very British institution, a parody of Friends that was broadcast on ITV as part of the Saturday morning kids programme SMTV:Live. I used to watch that show with my brother religiously because everyone knew ITV was where all the good cartoons were. We especially loved Chums though, because it was ridiculous and the live nature of the filming meant that we felt like we were watching friends (haha, but that was genuinely unintended). It was part of what Saturday mornings and the weekend meant to me as a child and so I had fond memories.
Childhood is like that – if you’re middle-class and live in relative privilege it becomes the time you keep turning to for good feelings. You have hope and possibility and no worries and genuine enthusiasm for silly things. Some people have smells that draw them back to this time, a lot have shows such as Pokémon, or old Playstation games (remember Rayman? It was the one game I was fairly competent at).
I suppose that this is why in the first year of university, homesick and lost in a different country I decided to go and find something from my childhood to watch. A nice comforting memory to stand in for the friends and family I had left behind. I picked Chums, since I figured that I would get the humour now as well. And I sort-of did, though the laughs were more because I was in a silly mood and feeling like I was transported back to sitting cross-legged on the white shag carpet. That sentiment was interrupted when I clicked on yet another episode only to bear witness to Ant encouraging Dec to attempt to strip a passed out Cat so they could see her breasts. Maybe more, I don’t know where they were going with it exactly.
As a joke.
As a joke in a show for kids.
Of course Cat wakes up before anything happens (it is still aimed at children after all so we can show them boundaries laughed away, but never nipples) yet that doesn’t actually matter. It’s incredibly messed up that anyone thought that was acceptable as a gag regardless of the target audience (as a heads up, if you have ever been confused about what rape culture is, well – this is what rape culture is. It’s where we go “haha, they were going to violate that woman, isn’t it hilarious because she wouldn’t know”). And now I can’t think back to Saturday mornings without dwelling on what other damaging messages I may have obliviously absorbed.
Since then I’ve told many different people, and they all seem horrified, mainly because no-one can remember registering the actual implications behind this kind of humour. A few have vehemently denied that a children’s programme would do such a thing. Nobody wants to admit that part of their childhood was laughing at the idea of sexual assault.
Anyway, after years of avoiding trawling the internet for it, I finally I found it again. So here is my proof that this did happen:
As much as I would like it to be is not an isolated incident. I do not think these childhood betrayals are unique. Speaking to my mother she clearly remembers how her favourite book when she was young was ‘Little Black Sambo’ and a family favourite to watch was ‘The Black and White Minstrel Show’. I was aghast that she could have thought this was okay but “everyone watched it” and childhood is a time when you don’t think further than yourself. It’s the responsibility of the society around you to protect you from this, but what do we do when the society around you doesn’t care?
Even in my youth I remember watching a show featuring a Gollywog in it – a grotesque racial caricature – and not thinking too much of it other than being a little scared. It took me until I was an adult to have a sudden realisation of what it actually represented. I think that’s the worst part – when you have privilege you just don’t even pick up on it because you’re not forced to. It’s only when you make yourself learn that you see all the terrible things that have been in plain sight. It’s why remembering your position and always striving to learn and listen is so key. It’s also why romanticising childhood is so bad – childhood is where all these murky ideas started to grow, and saying something was “of it’s time” is not an excuse. We have to know better.
It’s tough to watch your childhood destroy itself but you must. When you start seeing the flaws in everything is when you can start improving. Sure it tears holes in your nostalgia, but you need to honestly appreciate what the culture of the time wanted to teach you, and how wrong it was. And then you remember a time last year when people thought it was funny to try and get a girl to take her top off and you kept saying, over and over, that she didn’t have too. You see all the little links. They grew up on the same stuff but never got to the point where they questioned it.
I’m not saying you should have no fond memories, just that we should cast that adult eye – the one that calls their favourite show “problematic” because it is – and actually look hard at what we treasured, and still treasure now. Nostalgia is not and never will be worth the price of that girl’s dignity.