Categories
Personal Writing Travel

Back to the Desert

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.

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*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.

Categories
Media Analysis Personal Writing

Watching BoJack Horseman / How to be a Good Person

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:

  1. Lie to yourself
  2. Rationalise every action you’ve ever made based on “being true to yourself” and therefore good
  3. Justify that the consequences were the best possible outcome
  4. Say “I’m a good person inside”
  5. 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.

Categories
Personal Writing Writing Hosted Elsewhere

All the Poems I’ve Done

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.

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.

Categories
Personal Writing Writing Hosted Elsewhere

Vitiligo! Buzzfeed! Photodermatology!

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:

http://www.buzzfeed.com/rulo/vitiligo-and-me-how-i-found-peace-after-my-skin-betrayed-me#.oonlPMxQ1

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.

Categories
Personal Writing

The Haircut

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.

Categories
Media Analysis Personal Writing

Your Childhood is a Demon that You Hide from Yourself

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.

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Media Analysis Personal Writing Writing Hosted Elsewhere

Lesbians! Kink! Sidse Babett Knudsen!

So recently I got the chance to chat with my friend Fikri (@metafiktion) about the great film ‘The Duke of Burgundy’ and our review (with an extra special spoilery second page) can be found here:

“The Duke Of Burgundy” Is The Lesbian BDSM Film You’ve Been Waiting For

Check it out, and also check out the film because it is amazing.

Categories
Personal Writing

Cutting the Throat Without a Knife

When it comes down to poetry, I never know what to say. When I focus on writing, even when I pick a random topic, I find I put a lot of myself into everything I do. I suppose everyone does. Poetry is an issue though, as there’s a certain rawness that seems pretentious when it’s down in verse form, and I as a person tend towards writing in a sprawling fashion because I’m poor at articulating things briefly (woe to anyone trying to listen to me tell a simple anecdote, always getting distracted fashioning all the minor details that I believe help set the scene – they never do). My stories and essays I write and keep locked up close to me, but I have far more faith in the tone and lyricism of those pieces; poetry is something I can share, but also something I share reluctantly because it never quite feels as genuine as I was hoping it to be.

Letting go of that feeling is something I’m working on. I’m at a stage in my life where leaps into the unknown seem necessary. At this moment I don’t want to exist in a realm of vagueness, where my “potential” is more tantalising than finding out the true limits of what I can accomplish. So I’m writing again, all sorts of things, and trying not to let what I think perfection is define what I try to do. I’m sending out work and finishing off tiny things that I thought I couldn’t write, but most importantly I am sharing that work, even when I hate it.

*

I’ve been thinking a lot about things I haven’t said yet – I guess the poetry connection is there in that it seems to be a strong theme that I’m playing off at the moment, in my urge to make more emotive creations. And, I guess, that the poetry itself is in a way unsaid since it isn’t out there in the ether (all in good time I suppose I will have to say).

When you’re young you develop this rough idea of what kind of person you need to be. There’s a keen awareness that for most of your life you will be expected to both create and maintain a veneer of normality in order to properly function. There is a narrow corridor of what is acceptable to operate within – this linear narrative of human development that pushes everyone towards monthly salaries and marriage and all the other signs of successful adulthood. All the things that seem just too safe and boring on some level, but are filled with less fear than the alternative. It’s hard to decide to do something when you are aware it will look so alien to everyone else, and you have pressures of rent and food conjuring up images of disaster should you choose to veer off-course.

For me a lot of the structures I grew up around encouraged a denial of the self in favour of illusion. It was immodest to boast so I don’t like to say what I am good at. I certainly worry about disappointing or inadvertently asking too much of people and to avoid coming across as wanting I learnt to simply not ask for what I wanted. When it came to thoughts and identity issues, the best thing to do was say nothing. This way of raising children means that even now I hurt people by not fully opening up with them, and it’s something I recognise and am working to change.

In many ways we are a generation that are restricted socially in similar ways to previous ones – we like to think because we can say “sex” and be a bit wilder than those repressed BBC dramas that we are liberated. That’s not quite true. If anything the form has just shifted – sex is cool but emotions are weakness. And we all still worry so much about what the parents or the bosses will say that we often don’t express ourselves truly, we don’t dye our hair, or get tattoos, or piercings, or tell colleagues about our multiple partners, or our same-gender partners, because that will affect our chances of this ideal life that has been carved out and labelled our own. Even our thoughts and political views are fair game to be hidden away, locked up for our own good.

True, we might get to say some of that stuff some of the time, but we can’t be truly open in a casual way with everyone. We have to weigh up these concerns knowing that there is a risk of acquiring the label “deviant” and dealing with the subtle discriminations that may occur as a result. So we often make omissions, which are not lies but sting just the same. We monitor ourselves, and blame those who fail to do so for their shunning, rather than the society that cannot accept.

I mean, in this country judges ask asylum seekers why they can’t just pretend to not be gay, and on some level many people agree with that sentiment, even if just a little bit. It’s messed up that we can see the point in that.

I often wonder what would happen if we just let people grow with the idea that they can figure out the boundaries of normal without this framework we make. Would society in general be different – would we be freer in whom and how we love? Would I feel so fearful at leaving the security of a monthly salary to try and get involved in a field I truly love?

Upon reading ‘The Bell Jar’ when I was 15 I plunged into a melancholic phase. I could properly identify with the feeling not fitting in the culturally defined role of womanhood and that made me reflect sadly on all the possible futures I might have which were marred by this fact. I realise that I’m drifting back there again at the moment – mainly because I can’t articulate all those little things that make me different to everyone. I’m not saying that anyone in my social circles would have hostile reactions, but it’s a strong fear and the idea of risking your livelihood or support networks just to say something private is terrifying and has been reinforced as unwise through years and years of upbringing.

I’ve spent the past month writing out letters to different people, each asking for different things. Essentially though they really all just spoke of me wanting to be heard and seen as who I actually feel I am. I’m going to persevere with them, even if I’m not the best at opening up, and it helps that I am trying this fresh start with a new career. It becomes a clear beginning where people can actually know me as I am from the moment we meet. The truth is you can hold your tongue till it bleeds out but eventually something should break, and I am now breaking in the best possible way.

Categories
Personal Writing Resolutions

Yearning and Failing in 2015

Originally I said ‘kiss a stranger at midnight’ and ‘don’t have an orgy’, and we managed to only mess up the first part, so overall it was a reasonably successful New Years Eve. I was pretending to be comfortable in a short red dress that clung to my fat, and was thinking about all the ways I could be better.

I hate this about New Years. You spend each day leading up to it berating yourself and then, afterwards, you once again make grandiose plans you will not achieve. It didn’t help that this year I need to reorient my career trajectory lest I “waste” my degree –  something that is rather hard to do when you have no real idea of what would make you feel truly great and pays bills.

When I was younger I had a lot of plans for life that I was completely confident I would achieve (knowing it would be with hard work on my part). Now I’m an adult I end up thinking about health and roofs and the ability to get outside the house at least once a week.

So I get stuck on 1) be fitter, 2) have money to do fun things, 3) do something incredibly wonderful with my life. These are are not helpful goals in any way. These are goals I want to achieve merely to inspire fantastic amounts of jealousy because on some level I gage my success on how much other people go ‘ooooo’.

Which brings me to writing essays (because journalism in my lazed mind requires too much research), and making podcasts (about what I do not know) which I have toyed with for a very long while. Yet New Years resolutions are not truly about the small things I can do to help myself, but are centred about the inevitable success I think I will find from them. When I say essays and podcasts what I really mean are adoring fans and money and talks and prizes.

Yes, I will write essays, I say, and people will fix quotes on black and white portraits of me and share them on social media to show how wise they are. And then I don’t write because I feel I have nothing to really say, and I don’t write because I write in a terrible rolling style which needs actual practice to improve. You tend to reach a point where you want to be the focus of a painful event just so you can create something that plunges the depths of human experience. That’s what essays are – a powerful way to write humanity. I can’t claim that. My life has been far too good that even the bad things sound like the whining of Veruca Salt.

I want to be legitimate and fully-formed from the first moment. The fear of work, of proving that expectations of others are inflated, is so deep in me. Like most people with impossible desires, I decide instead to remember a single moment of genius from my high school days and hold it up as the sole example of potential – a great proof of possibility. New Years becomes worrying about how any move I make might transform my future historical record of serious, intellectual, literary work into something less than perfect. It’s what I do, I yearn for greatness. I want to make something that will last longer in your mind than the time it takes to read.

I could pretend I am having a great epiphany but I’m not. The difference between 2014 and 2015 is not really there. I’m still me. I’ll still think I can do better than I can. I’ll try a little more though. That should count for something.