I’m currently reading Swing Time and resenting my (possibly incorrect but who really knows) inkling that great books written by ‘black’ authors could have their own entire genre. Almost all of these books are about identity, and take small black things other people would blow up as hugely alien and raw and obtrusive as the small black things they are.
Like with Monica Ali’s Brick Lane and the little girl’s father telling her he was going to beat the shit out of her. Bengali parents are all bark, no bite. (Most of the time).
Like reading half of Half a Yellow Sun at the same time as reading Small Island. Two very different experiences, same genre.
Perhaps it’s the feeling that black writing is always political, always obviously political. White writers have the privilege (hah, another one) of political nuance, everything a person of colour writes goes Against the System.
I watched NW- a short BBC film production of Zadie Smith’s NW.
It’s freakin’ good, that’s a first. It was the first time I saw a guy die from being stabbed despite hearing about the numerous times guys have been stabbed in and around my neighbourhood: there was a PSHE scheme in school (necessary considering my school was probably the setting for many of those knife incidents).
What I learnt from watching NW was that where you come from, especially if it’s sordid and where you currently are isn’t, has this great big suffocating leash on you. The harder you fight against it, the harder you start to pretend that the leash isn’t digging into your skin.
I’ve made adjustments myself: I refuse to speak with a learned tone. I persist with my whack (and possibly just lazy) fashion sense no matter how high my abaya rides above my heels. I try to see the good in what I have, or better yet not apply any sort of moral landscape to where I come from.
It’s difficult, but it’s also difficult seeing the similarities between where you’re from and where you’re now. One of the main character in NW, Natalie, was a black lawyer who was seen by her colleagues as Black first, lawyer never. She was successful (all lawyers are, right?) but she took to making a hooking up account with her ‘black’ name Keisha, in order to regularly get her fix through engaging with where she came from: she wore big hoop earrings, a leather jacket, and listened to some grime as she drove to go and fuck some other PoC couples she found online.
I mean, hyperbole and a half, but also I feel like NW solidifies one strand amongst millions in what it’s like being a poor ethnic minority in an up and coming society, what it’s like to be truly socially mobile, and fuck, it’s true. In the sense that sometimes it feels as though being so ambitious and going on that journey makes it so very easy to lose sight of yourself. That’s a universal truth, but NW prophesied what could happen if someone from a similar economic background was to lose that part of themselves. And while I don’t live in NW (north west London) I live in the east which isn’t at all that different.
There’s one part where Natalie’s mentor tells her she has to tone it down, that as a black woman she will never be neutral, that she was already too much.
One of the reasons I have a love-hate relationship with protest writing is that they make nuances obvious. And god, I didn’t realise how irritating that was – to fear every single one of the millions of books written about people of colour as the single story it is. I feel all of those things, and some of those things I don’t feel at all. How do white people cope with stories written about themselves?
How do you cope with seeing your life on the telly, and knowing that it is accurate?
The biggest realisation I made through watching the pretty accurate (if exaggerated) portrayal of the struggles of living in NW was that film knew what it was doing. If it was portraying my life so accurately, then surely all televised luxurious lives that aren’t mine, that I had dismissed as simply good story telling, surely those lives were true too? Surely they could be pursued?
Sometimes it’s as though I get as far as opening the door and then I end up collapsing back, head shaking no, hands flat against a future so obsolete and filled with questions and knowledge I could have done without. Ignorance is bliss.