Not feeling too clear-headed this week as I'm recovering from a cold but one thought, which I feel more intensely probably than I think it (can you feel a thought? I don't know - moving on...) is that working a 9-5 + writing is very difficult and at times it feels impossible, and so some days, I feel that I am at an impasse whereby what I want and what's possible is very different, and even what is possible continues to rely on sacrifice, which I guess, is the same for everybody, but some days it would be nice to just sit alone in a room and just write.
Last night, I went to see Everything is Great Again, the current sketch-comedy show running at The Second City in Toronto. In my favourite sketch, a (white) yoga instructor (Lindsay Mullan) is spewing her Namastes and gushing to the three yogis (all non-white) that she doesn’t see colour. She leaves the room, and as they continue stretching, the three yogis talk about how they hate it when people say that.
“Is she blind?” one of them asks.
Then, as good comedians might, they go on to explain the particular shade of their skin using food similes. The woman in the centre (played by Paloma Nuñez) admits, “I’m a custard yellow right now, but give me 24 HOURS in the sun!,” and the audience laughs, and I think, yes, and I think, this sketch gets it: how we're often asked to prove, even perform our race, our colour, for others.
Dealing with racism and homophobia in other sketches, the show opts for a different approach in this one by addressing internal conflicts felt by people of colour, conflicts that often manifest themselves as guilt. As the sketch develops, each character accuses the other of not being a proper person of colour, as not being rightly of their culture.
A West Indian man (played by Brandon Hackett) is asked how he can claim to be a black man when his favourite show is Downtown Abbey. Fine then. He dares Nuñez's character to speak Spanish. The only Spanish she knows is “Dos cervezas por favor.” She manages to say it, with difficulty, and the crowd laughs. She is embarrassed, guilt-ridden. The third character (played by Ann Pornel), admits that she too, doesn’t speak the language of her ancestors. “When I order dim sum,” she shouts at the front of the stage, her face contorted under the bright lights, “I have to point to what I want!” She hides her eyes for shame! We laugh.
These admissions set off a chain reaction. Each character continues to admit all the ways in which they betray their culture. Hackett’s character admits that he has more white friends than black friends, that when a past boyfriend sexualized his black penis, he only replied, “then ride that anaconda, ride it.”
Nuñez, who is also part Jewish, has her character admit with exaggerated shame, that the only time she’s ever embraced her Jewish heritage was to go on a Birth Right trip.
Finally, Pornel’s character points to an Asian woman in the crowd, and screams, “My ancestor!” The fourth-wall broken, we laugh. She goes on to talk about the embarrassment she felt, growing up, whenever her parents spoke English, how she hated their accent, imitating it so that we laugh, too, and yet it's a strange, nervous laughter - what are we complicit in when we laugh with her (at her?) ?
At one point, the three of them are standing close together on centre stage. Hackett’s character says: “We may have forgotten our histories but history won’t forgot us.” The audience laughs at the grammatical mistake (I could unpack this, too, but I'll go on). I try to wrap my head around the idea (could it be true? Could this be the idea that absolves me of my guilt?), but the sketch moves faster than me, and of course, like everyone else around me, in this small, dark intimate space, I am laughing.
And inside of my head, while I’m laughing, the entire time, I’m thinking, yes, yes, yes. This is how I feel most of the time. Like a traitor to myself. But “you have to do you,” one character tells another, the white spotlight shining on them in the middle of the stage.
The sketch ends when all three realize that all of these admissions have been said under a white light. “What the fuck?” one of them says. We laugh. They dismiss their admissions. The stage goes black.
This sketch was brilliant. To, in the end, acknowledge that this was a white space after all, makes it so that we have to recognize our laughter as participating within this historical and political framework of colonialism, racist bullshit, assimilation, etc.
By laughing, we forgive the characters, who by this point are guilty, shamed, and embarrassed.
But by pointing out the white light on the stage, they tell us they haven't forgiven us, and who are we to forgive them? They're well aware of the white-gaze, of the performance of race.
As a writer of colour, grappling with my understanding of what it means even to be that, the sketch felt liberating. By laughing, I got to forgive myself, too, for all the small, important ways I've been a "bad" Persian. And, maybe, if history won’t "forgot" us, as Bartlett's character says, it’s because we are increasingly moving into white spaces, changing them, and in this way, making history. You will see my colour, and I will not be forgotten.
The show runs until mid-July. Highly recommend!
Being a mixed-raced baby like me means you've spent your whole life trying to prove that two different or even opposing things can be true at the same time.
How can your family be composed of racists and still love you? How you can hate racism but still love them? How have they been able to set you and your sister and your brown father apart from the group they judge? Can I accept them without forgiving them?
I've been thinking about this lately, about how my hybrid identity might impact my writing and my characters. My identity, it isn't the same as living on the edge, or between two places. I'm not allowed, or afforded extremes. This has been freeing, in a way, and in other ways, it's a lonely way to navigate life where only my sister understands me, and understands what it's like to be this particular mix of French and Persian, working class and intellectual class, the byproduct of both the Quiet and the Islamic Revolution.
I don't think this feeling of hybridity is limited only to those of mixed backgrounds. Every one of us walks through life wanting things that we can't all possibly have at the same time. We want freedom, but we also want security. We want love and comfort, but we also want adventure. We want cheap clothes and cheap shoes but we also hate child labour. We want to be intelligent or beautiful in the ways that others will recognize, but we also want to be different and unique.
What I find myself gravitating towards in lots of my stories then is these opposing wants within my characters. Characters who struggle against parts of themselves in favour of other wants, or who are eventually simply paralyzed by this internal conflict. Recently I wrote a story about a young woman struggling with accepting her own happiness in love, feeling so strongly as she does the particular weight of the land underneath her feet, land she knows was stolen from First Nations communities. So then how does one build a life there and still be a good person? How does one forgive themselves for building a happy life upon stolen land?
At times, my characters, like myself, become more or less aware of these conflicting wants and desires. Nevertheless, whether in the background or in the forefront, the conflict is always present, always begging for some sort of conclusion, solace from this confusion and violence. How do you resolve something like that? How does a story? And how can a story not try to resolve something like that?
To be a writer, you have to pay attention – to the particular way new couples hold hands, to how cake breaks apart in your plate, to how impatience materializes, slowly, on a lone commuter's face. It means keeping up with the world: its refugee crisis, the growing waves of xenophobia, the Internet's obsession with cats, etc. That political and social awareness, of the big and small, serious and silly, informs the work and makes it meaningful.
We can’t make art if we’re not paying attention, and we can’t make art if we’re not being honest with ourselves about what we believe about the way things are.
And though I’ve had a shy, quiet personality that’s lent itself well to this sort of detached observance of the world, it was also taught to me by my mother. She taught me to pay attention.
If you don’t already remember from being a child, when someone tells you something you’re still too young to understand, your mind often stores it for later. Eventually, if you're lucky, this little index card will fly out of its resting place all on its own, because the time’s come for you to understand that incomprehensible thing that was said to you so many years ago.
As a teenager, this happened to me often with the things my mother had said to me as a little girl.
One memory I remember vividly takes place in the grocery store. I was in grade three or four, and with my little sister, we stood in line at the cash register. My mother stopped, bent down, and half-pointed to a disheveled woman picking out a chocolate bar in the aisle over. My mother said, “See, her, that’s an alcoholic. Do you see how she walks, what her eyes look like, very glazed. That’s an alcoholic.”
I suppose parents are tasked with the responsibility of showing to their children the world. My mother did that, the good and the bad.
Another memory I have: of having written the very first edition to my newspaper. I was maybe seven or eight years old. Excitedly, I showed it to her, who read it from beginning to end, and said, “It’s very nice, Sofia. You did a good job. But nothing bad happens in your paper. It’s all good news. In a real newspaper, bad things happen.”
I was crushed. But dutifully, I rewrote it to include murders and thievery and, if I remember correctly, a vampire attack.
One last memory – of being seven, lying on the carpeted floor of our basement living room, listening to The Backstreet Boys with my eyes shut and mouthing the words to, “I’ll never break your heart.” My mother interrupts to inform me that I have to be careful, that boys always tell you that but then they go and break your heart anyway.
I was crushed, and also secretly convinced that my mother didn’t know what she was talking about.
But with age, I've come to appreciate my mother's honesty, her brutal allegiance to the truth (she once casually mentioned in a car ride that she thought I was perfect in every way except that she wished I'd grown to be an inch or two taller; I'm 5'2). It's made me harder where it counts, and in other ways, softer & more sensitive towards others.
I do wonder sometimes, if it weren't for these early lessons in the art of observation and truth-saying, if I'd be writing at all, or in any case, any good at it.
Read a few articles lately on how this age of loneliness in which we live is killing us. Probably. The science seems to back it up (see here, here, and here, for instance).About that: I feel like my generation has this paradoxical simultaneous desire to find human connection and to be with people (duh) and also, we have an equally strong desire to not be inconvenienced by each other. Like. Ever. (I am definitely guilty of this).
If you have siblings or parents then you know that people are truly inconvenient, almost always. But the reward is so good. Nothing in this world beats true human connection (whatever that means to you - for me, it's often as simple as as good conversation).
One of the top five regrets of dying patients, as reported by palliative nurses, is that "I wish I had stayed in touch with my friends." That to me, when I first read it, was really sad and shocking - but I get how friendships dissolve. Life gets in the way. Families. Babies. Long distances.
I probably don’t have to tell anyone that if we live in the age of loneliness, we also live in the age of distraction. Our attention is limited yet at any given moment, it is being pulled in millions of small or large ways by our phones and other technologies. (Even at home, the infuriatingly loud TTC speakers blare in the back bedrooms of the apartment screaming: FIVE-HUNDRED SIX MAIN STREET STATION).
And then there’s that other thing: People can get a hold of us at any time.
I think it’s a normal reaction to feel annoyed at being inconvenienced, because this is our constant, accumulated experience of daily life.
So then I almost kind of get it, too. We reach out to people when we need them, and ignore them, when we don’t. It's almost a matter of survival, of finding our peace.
If we’re particularly tired, we flake. If we’re not, we text around until we find someone who’s up for something.
We pretend we were asleep. (Oh my God, I’m so sorry).
But if we are going to be less lonely, and if we can’t fix the bigger context in which loneliness has been able to thrive (single-family households, smaller families in general, American ideals about self-reliance, the urban sprawl, disconnectedness between generations, and our intent and singular focus on productivity, among others), we at least have to be able to envision a future in which we allow space for us to “bothered” by others.
It's in that sweet, painful place that friendship and love and family and connection exist. And it requires generosity of spirit, for sure. Face to face contact. An acknowledgement that there's more than one of us sitting at the table.
Google defines inconvenient as “trouble or difficulty caused to one’s personal requirements or comfort.”
Being less lonely also means that we will be more uncomfortable. This is not necessarily a bad thing - we know already, instinctively, in art, in fiction, that discomfort can be transformative and transcendent.
So then if the age of loneliness is killing us, I think, in part, we have our very selfish, very human desire to remain comfortable to blame.
Let’s talk about how if there’s a room full of people, and only one of them is black, and that’s the guy I’ve got to point out to you, that I’m supposed to feel weird about saying that: “the black guy.” Granted, the problem there becomes when you assume the norm to be white, and only use that lens through which to talk about non-white people, so then of course, there are solutions to this problem: say, “the white guy,” when the time comes, or, ask yourself, of course, in the first place, “WHY THE HELL is there only one black guy in this room? what the hell is going on here? What kind of room is this? Let's get some diversity up in this b—”
Okay, but I digress from my first and fundamental point that, we are made to feel weird and uncomfortable when pointing out color.
Let me state an example.
Already, me, here, I struggled with that above paragraph, with pointing out race in an imaginary scenario!!
But here’s the thing: who gets to profit from us not talking about race? Who’s discomfort is actually feeding this all white space that push out people of color, regardless of “intent”?
The discomfort helps only the oppressor because if we keep not talking about it then we can’t acknowledge that holy fuck, why is there only one black guy in the room? And if we don’t acknowledge it then how can we even begin to start to change it?
So let’s talk about race, because to let that discomfort rule and silence us, is to side with the oppressors. We've got to go through the discomfort if we want meaningful change. There’s no way around it.
In my stories, and from lots of what I’ve observed and noticed in the stories I’ve read – corporate names, brand names are used very little. This feels strange to me considering how they make up a large part of what we see and experience every day.
Yet it's true that certain experiences in our lived past, we cannot divorce from the brand name itself. For instance, if my teenage characters sit in the Tim Horton’s parking lot drinking their coffees, it’s because this is tied to a real experience of what I did as a teen, and no other coffee shop parking lot could capture it in just the right way.
Or perhaps the use will be satirical & cutting; something about its use is meant to undermine it, or us, as a society.
It’s funny, though isn’t it?
From where I sit now, I see Sony, S’well, Logitech, Samsung, and Studio. I am drinking McDonald’s coffee. My boyfriend left a bag of Lay’s chips on the ground. On my browser is open SquareSpace, Facebook, Gmail, and Wikipedia. It’s true that knowing these details, it isn’t integral to this post, to my story. I could have said that near me is my laptop, my water bottle, my mouse, my phone, my stationary.
But I have to wonder if as writers, we’re leaving out some important, integral part of how we experience the world in the 21st century? And then if we are, could it be some unacknowledged resistance of capitalism that many of us have uniformly, coincidentally, silently, agreed upon?
I wonder: Does the use of brand names cheapen our writing? Turn lines into ad space? Or are we scared? In the same way that at the turn of the twentieth century, Modernist writers resisted and grappled with including the telephone into their stories?
Or could it be that the inclusion of these names, perfectly crafted, come packed with meanings already manufactured by wealthy ad agencies that we, as writers, cannot control?
The world of storytelling, of art, I know, it isn’t meant to be “safe.” Literature that is uncomfortable is often what most challenges us into helping us to grow, as people. But I can’t help thinking, that what if, in a way, the world of literature (as opposed to film and TV) gives us a safe space in which stories can be told without those corporate names that seek to shape our lives and bombard our e-mail inboxes with deals and flash bright lights above us on the highway and who want us only to buy, buy, buy.
But then of course, literature's two-faces are revealed: the one that says buy me, and the one that says, don't, that isn't what matters.
“Listen – people watch you, they always count on there being someone to show them how to live. If you are happy, everyone can be happy, and if you know how to suffer, the others will know too. Every day you must get up and say to your heart: ‘I’ve suffered enough, and now I have to live, for the light of the sun must not be frittered away and lost without any to enjoy it.’ And if you don’t do that, you won’t have the right to say ‘It’s not my fault’ when someone seeks out a cliff and throws himself in the sea.” - The Bridge of Beyond, Simone Schwarz-Bart
Two beautiful books read nearly back to back is a treat. The first one was John Keene’s “Counternarratives.” The novellas and short stories, set in the early, foundational days of the Americas, are re-told from various, black perspectives with precision and grainy, gritty magic. This precision of the language, without its being overwrought, its insoluble quality, this is what gets me about Keene's writing. Two stories especially shook me. The first, “Gloss, or the Strange History of Our Lady of the Sorrows,” is about a girl, an artist born as a slave. A footnote in history (literally, her story is one long footnote), she sneaks moments to draw and to paint, on walls if there is no paper, and the act of art-making is as an exorcism for her, and she is good at what she does, and the world will never know it. The second, “The Aeronauts,” still confuses me - its hope and its energy, with an intelligent protagonist who’s also young and makes mistakes and finishes up by rising up into the air. I’ll have to go back to it.
The second book was also a collection of novellas and short stories entitled “Love in a Fallen City,” by Eileen Chang. One of the foremost writers of Japan-occupied China, I had never heard of her until, tired of white, male writers, I picked her book up at BMV on Bloor Street West. I started reading it with very low expectations (as happens when you've just finished such a good book) but then what a treat, to want to sit and read more, to want to know the end, and all the way through to recognize yourself within it. That language and culture and religion is no barrier to the depth of emotion we feel and the reasoning behind the decisions we make - we need more of this thinking right now more than ever. We need reading books that pull us out of our comfort zones, and our languages, and genders, and time periods.
Chang’s words are like sucking on small, hard candies sucking until the stripes of red have faded to translucent white and then that as you bite into them, the shards flutter inside your mouth. When you’re finished, you’re both satisfied and sad, what once felt vibrant and energetic, now feels calm and wise.
Most poignant to me were her stories about men. In “Jasmine Tea,” we see how hope turns to despair when our expectations aren’t met, and how, in those times, hatred is cast out onto those who have shown us the most kindness.
And in “Red Rose, White Rose,” a man holds back, gives up on love, not once but twice, to become the idea of the man he thinks that he should be, which of course, brings him no happiness, only resentment, frustration, and irritation as he starts to grow old. I identify with the last story, especially now, in my late 20’s. I’m doing the hard work of looking back on my past decisions and I see every looming fork in the road, can see where each possibility might have been different. If I had gone here, instead of there. If I’d said yes to this, instead of that, or no, or been more this and less of that. Did I make those decisions soundly? Or were they born out of fear? Were they based on an image of who I wanted to become, an illusion, in a way? Or (as I hope) did I have some inkling of an idea as to what was best for me, even as I stumbled in the dark, strobe-lit room of my early 20s?
These are just musings, of course.
Very cool to be published in With/out Pretend’s You Care Too Much put together by the wonderful Erin Klassen. The book is a collection of short stories, essays, and photography by a group of amazingly talented women that all centre on the idea of self-care. My story in it, Fall in Love if You’re So Unhappy, is about a young woman trying to make sense of her life after the sudden death of her father. One consequence of her grief is her paralysis. Her apartment has mice yet she can’t bring herself to set the traps that will kill them.
This is not a biographical story though some elements I did draw on from my life: my mixed raced background, my unhealthy obsession with grotesque and brutal news stories one summer, and the generations of mice that did, in fact, pass through my apartment a few winters ago. I remember the guilt I had at having to kill them. But there was no other away. I remember wondering, how different is this really, from how wars are started, and the little guy is defeated? I know. Leave it to me to root for the mouse eating through my bags of lentils in the cupboard.
My character in Fall in Love feels the same yet even more vividly. The prospective death of a mouse becomes tangled up with the death of her father becomes tangled up with the death of innocent people all over the world becomes tangled up with the idea of needing to fall in love to feel better.
The book launches tomorrow (Nov 23) at The Steady Café and Bar at 7PM. I think especially now, in this climate of social unrest, the book, which grapples with ideas about how we take care of ourselves in a world that can be so unkind, finds even greater resonance.