Features: Our Stories, Our Words
Waking a Sleeping Sun
By Agatha Zaza
30 April 2019
Marianna fondled the pages tucked inside her winter coat. Creased and crumpled, they were all that was left. Real paper, from a writing pad. The writer had drawn out each word, stretched and flattened each letter until the text was just barely legible. The handwriting was by now familiar enough to read without a struggle. Her hand, without a glove, was cold; Jyväskylä’s New Year this year was to be grey, perhaps with rain. In the last few days, the snow – at first thick, white and glistening in the few hours of clear blue winter skies – had melted. The mounds of white had deflated and puddled away into the gutters, what was left had turned grey and black with grit and grime, exposing hidden dog faeces and lost mittens.
The Christmas sales were in full swing, but Marianna avoided the shops. Instead, she walked along the main shopping street desperate to avoid the seasonal cheer and insipid music. She stopped without reason. Then she meandered back across the pedestrianised road the same way she came. She walked slowly from one side to the other without purpose. She could hear mothers calling their children to order, getting them off the street in anticipation of the coming rain. It was already dark – the darkness of winter to which she’d become accustomed. Marianna recalled how she’d spent her first winter her, terrified, believing the days would keep drawing shorter and shorter until one day there would be no more day, and she’d never see the sun again.
The damp was seeping in through her neckline. She'd left her scarf behind. She looked up from her feet and the stone pavement, and saw a newly opened cafe – chalkboard signs, and black and grey table settings. Lauri had told her that Emmi worked there, and Marianna wondered if Emmi knew what had happened. Or if she cared.
Seeking warmth and perhaps direction – and not wanting to go home – she opened the door to the café. It had all happened so long ago. And yet, he’d written her letters, telling her how much she meant to him. He had been scheduled to return soon. Would they have got back together? Would they have tried again with the wisdom of a decade between the present and their youth?
Marianna recognised Emmi at the till, bustling behind the counter. Still slight, yet with a fuller face, her hair and makeup urbane, a shimmering nude lipstick and faintly tinted foundation. Emmi was perfectly suited to the relaxed urban atmosphere the café was trying to convey. Clad all in black, in jeans and a loosely clinging jersey top, Emmi showed no sign that she recognised Marianna as her gaze swept across the room.
Marianna found a seat by the large window and alternated her gaze between the inside and outside of the café. She took the pages of Lauri’s letters from her pocket, folded them and placed them in her bag. She lingered over the act, savouring the paper once more. She looked up, just long enough to catch Emmi skim past her, balancing a pizza in each hand. Marianna caught sight of the scar that ran – raised, jagged and ugly – around Emmi’s neck. Marianna looked away for an instant. When she looked back, she realised the scar wasn’t as deep and bloody a red as it had seemed at first sight.
Marianna choked, coughing, not enough to catch anyone’s attention above “The National” singing a song that could have been about salt. Everyone in the restaurant looked above thirty, some accompanied by children, blonde or sandy brown coloured hair. Marianna was long past the time of her life when she felt self-conscious at being the only one with dark brown skin in the room, her hair in straight extensions pinned up into a bun. She crossed her legs beneath the table. She could feel her jeans were tighter with the winter weight gained and lost each year, always peaking at this time – just after Christmas.
Marianna flipped through the a two-page menu pinned on a piece of plywood: the pretence of artisanship giving it an air of authenticity and it seemed as if she really was in a restaurant in a renovated factory in New York. Her nails were broken on the fingers of her right hand, where that morning she’d pried open a cardboard box and she examined them saying to herself that her nails just weren’t important.
A waitress came to attend to Marianna. Her clothes were exactly like Emmi’s, but her expression harassed, grey circles visible around her eyes, her makeup washed out and in need of a touch up.
“So, what will it be?” the waitress said in English. She tugged at her drooping ponytail and stretched her neck, tilting her head from side to side, then lifting her chin.
“Otan ton pitsa…” Marianna replied, used to being spoken to in halting accented English. Nothing excited her. She ordered the third from cheapest pizza, adding one topping and a Coke Zero. She could have replied in English, but by responding in Finnish she allowed herself to feel a slight superiority over a woman who addressed anyone “foreign” in English.
After a second in which she fumbled for words appearing confused, the waitress concluded their interaction in Finnish and left.
Marianna still had an accent, but barely thought about it. She spoke the language so fluently that she’d find herself recalling a memory, an incident from her past, in Finnish, yet if she stopped to think she knew that the event couldn’t have happened in Finnish. Sometimes she’d have a recollection of her grandmother or uncle - a joke or an opinion that had stayed with her in the years since their deaths. It would be hours or even days later when she’d remember that neither of them had spoken a word of Finnish in their lifetimes. Sometimes, she’d ask herself if her grandmother had really told her the story of her mother’s drunken night out, or her father’s pathetic proposal at all.
It occurred to her only now that all of Lauri’s letters to her were in English. He was from life before she spoke Finnish, a time when she first heard a language that made no sense to her. She spent those months ruled by the fear of never being able to speak Finnish and she lived terrified that she would never make sense when she spoke nor make any sense of the world around her.
“Hello, Mari!” said Lucas, startling her. His tone was a strained attempt to sound cheerful. His smile, however, seemed desperately unhappy. He pointed towards the chair beside her.
To Marianna, Lucas in his mournfulness, seemed more English than ever before. After ten years in Finland, he knew nothing of Finnish and was unable to even order a drink in the language. He relied on the rest of the world to speak his native tongue.
“Sit, sit,” she replied gesturing at the seat.
The waitress reappeared with Marianna’s Coke Zero and asked Lucas for his order in Finnish. He asked for a beer in English and the waitress glared at him, briefly, whatever it was she inferred known only to her.
“If it’s not obvious, I’m having the worst day of my life,” he began. He twisted in his seat and glanced around, fidgeting from the outset. “The worst.”
Marianna liked him. Or rather, she didn’t dislike him. A year ago, when he first joined the company she worked at, she’d thought him sexy. His office was only a few thin plywood doors from hers in foreign accounts, no Finnish language skills needed. She thought of him in the manner of Colin Firth’s character in Bridget Jones’ Diary. He’d cut his hair since then; he now wore a curt, mean cut and she’d grown tired of his desperation for the two of them to band together as the only two foreigners in the company. He, after ten years in Finland, clung to his alien status like a badge of honour, and complained unendingly about Finland and Finnish things – like her mother still did.
“I thought when your wife left you on Monday it was your worst day ever?”
His beer arrived, and the waitress again glanced at her.
“She came back to get the cat this morning.” He traced something in the foam that stood in his glass. “Ten fucking years and she can’t even leave me the cat.” With his elbow on the table, he rested his chin against his fist. “Tell me you’re having a wonderful day, tell me that you saw a wonderful film with lots of sex and dirty talk that left you feeling inspired and ready to attack the New Year.”
Marianna glanced out of the front window, the hordes of shoppers still filling the pedestrian street. The temporary respite from the emotions of that day was gone.
“A man I once thought I loved just died of an overdose in prison,” Marianna imagined responding. But didn’t. She knew Lucas well enough to know that he only asked as far as it related to his own unhappiness.
“Maybe it’s better you have as few mementos of her as possible,” she said instead.
“I’ve been here for ten bloody long years,” he ignored her response. “Because I loved her. My friends back home have great careers. They’re the big guys in big corporations or really cool start-ups…And me?” he hesitated, considering her for a moment, “Ok, you guys are pretty decent, but the job’s boring as hell.”
“Hei anteeks.” the waitress returned and immediately swapped to her distinctly Finnish English. “We have a problem in the kitchen. Your food will be late by ten minutes – sorry.” She hurried away without waiting for a response or offering an alternative.
“I was also in love ten years ago,” Marianna almost said. She thought of telling him that when he’d just moved here and was finding his first flat in Kallio, or whatever trendy part of Helsinki he’d begun his decline in, she had just finished school back home. Her mother then moved them here to Jyväskylä. She remembered that she wore her hair chemically straightened and had already begun going brown at the ends. On Saturday evenings, she’d wash it twice with shampoo and rinse thoroughly and steam it with conditioner. Then her mother would roll it up in big green rollers and stab her scalp with the plastic pins that held them down. No matter how hard they tried, her hair was always testimony to her mother’s amateur hairdressing skills. It was never quite like the pictures in the magazines – it never had been, of course, but for a teenage black African girl in a white city, achieving the gloss and glamour of those images seemed further and further away. Her mother cheated: she kept her habit of wearing wigs, her own hair safely cornrowed beneath.
“I have to look smart,” her mother said when Marianna complained. “And girls your age can’t go around wearing wigs or they’ll fall off when you play sport or dance.”
“I’d rather have nice hair.” Marianna had been disappointed, knowing that her mother’s mind would not be changed and they’d keep spending their Saturday evenings doing her hair in front of the television.
Marianna was immediately enrolled in a language class – white walls and an overenthusiastic teacher whose name she’d long forgotten. While Lucas was probably night clubbing and hanging out in bars with live bands, Marianna spent her afternoons in front of their computer watching children’s cartoons in Finnish, replaying and repeating what was said. The other children were refugees or their parents worked in IT, hers was the only one at the university with a PhD. She was the only black girl. She had no friends. She wasn’t lonely she said, she had her besties on Facebook. But the distance between them was already growing. Over the years, many had been purged one by one or in batches, and those that remained were vague, alien – adults that she’d never seen.
“The bloody summer cottage,” Lucas’s litany of complaints intruded. “Can you imagine we bought a summer cottage – we don’t even have a house? It was her grandmother’s and if we didn’t buy it, it was going to fall out of the family. I’m definitely selling the thing or else she’ll have to cough up the money to repay me.”
Her pizza arrived and she began to eat. It was, she thought, too crispy, but the topping was acceptable, though a little bland.
“I say, leave the bloody mosquitoes to torture someone else?” Marianna made an effort to be supportive. Her attempt at humour felt strained and ridiculous. “I can’t stand summer cottages.”
Marianna recalled the first time she sat by a lake, swatting mosquitos, as around her gas barbeques were lit. The days were longer than she’d ever known and the scent of wild flowers and trees filled the air. The gas barbecue was a novelty to her, the lakeside location an irritation. She inhaled the charred smell of barbequing meat stirring her longing for winter afternoons back home by a braai stand, waiting for rows upon rows of chicken legs and steak to cook. The summer cottage epitomised everything she found strange about Finland; roughly hewn buildings and outdoor waterless toilets that both terrified and disgusted her.
Lucas seemed surprised that she spoke. Her response distracted him, and he mumbled about the toilets and said he’d be right back. She knew that all he wanted was for her to listen to him. She too wanted to wallow in her own sorrow. She could have gone for a longer walk or returned to her flat but she also wanted to be with human beings and not to the cold air or the brick walls of her flat.
In his absence, Marianna took her phone from her handbag on the seat beside her and placed it face up on the table, where she could watch app notifications coming through. She quickly scanned Lauri’s Facebook page again, but apart from that one message, there was no other acknowledgement of his death. Perhaps she was wrong? Who was Anita anyway, with what authority did she announce Lauri’s death with such certainty. But she wasn’t wrong. If she was, then Lauri would have sent her a text back by now. They’d be discussing when and where they would meet - for the first time in a decade.
She’d last seen Lauri at his family’s summer cottage. She’d been running – away from him, not knowing where she was going, certain there was a road somewhere nearby. She’d seen him, minutes earlier in the distance; he was calling her, but the shooting pain in her arm told her to stay away. She was eighteen and was certain she was going to be killed. Certain that her body would found bloodied and beaten in the Finnish forest, a calm peaceful world where such things were not meant to happen.
The cottage was his uncle’s, surrounded by smaller one-roomed cottages meant for guests and other family members. Marianna knew, or thought she knew, what she and Lauri were to do there. Looking back, as she often did, there were clues that Lauri would one day hurt her – but as an eighteen-year-old, how was she to know?
Lauri told her she was exciting and exotic. She was his trophy. He sauntered along the street with her on his arm like a king with his new bride. When strangers stared at them in the streets of Jyväskylä, it was because they all were nursing a secret lust for her – he said. He stroked her skin when they kissed and said he’d never seen such a perfect shade of brown. With him, she was suddenly encircled with friends or acquaintances who shortened her name to Mari and talked to her about R&B music and the latest films at the cinema.
Once he seized her wrist. She pulled away, shocked and angry. They’d shouted at each other until one of their friends had intervened.
“Get off me.” He’d shaken his friend hands off him. “She can’t talk to me like that. Black bitch.”
He’d said it Finnish. She hadn’t understood it then, but the words had been preserved in her memory and she came to understand them much later.
That night at the cottage, they’d argued when she said she didn’t consider hockey the greatest sport in the world. After, when they and their four friends sat around a fire, he held her too tightly and touched her too often. But afterwards, in the tiny little cottage, he held her just firmly enough while she’d lay quietly with her legs together pressed together, embarrassed at the tiny tracks of blood on the sheet.
There was a knock on the window. It was one of the others calling them out to more drinks.
The drinks hadn’t been the problem, he hadn’t been drunk enough to excuse his behaviour. Everything she said seemed to rankle him and even the others grew bored of him and escaped to the little guest cottages. She and Lauri were alone again.
He didn’t hit her. Instead, he grabbed her, her wrist burning in his grip. He shook her like a doll – Marianna had never forgotten the sensation. He, Lauri; slight, nineteen, the boy who only hours earlier had been kissing her tenderly, became possessed with the strength of Atlas, and she felt a searing pain through her arm. She landed on the ground and a sharp rock gouged through the flesh of her upper arm.
Marianna screamed in pain.
No one came.
She fell. She picked herself up immediately. To one side was a lake, dark and deep.
Between her and the others was Lauri, and the other side of her was the forest. She fled toward the trees, clutching her arm.
The cottage she found was occupied by a couple, who demanded to know what had happened and called her mother. The woman spoke English fluently with a mild accent: they understood she was scared. They abandoned their drinks and barbecue and took her inside to make sure Lauri didn’t see her. The husband demanded of his wife that they call the police. A black girl, shaking, terrified, her arm maybe broken – was there a murderer on the loose, was it neo-Nazis? Traffickers? Marianna hadn’t understood him then, but in time, the words in her memory had unravelled their code, deciphered and understood the words.
They drove her home. Her mother had panicked when she received the call and said she was coming, she’d get a taxi to the cottage. The couple said that would take time and money. The drive had been long, interminably long, her arm bandaged and burning. She found out later that it couldn’t have been more than thirty minutes. The woman, driving, shaking her head but saying she understand why girls don’t tell anyone, while the man insisted once again that they call the police.
“We could make an anonymous call?” The man scratched his brow, tense. His fingers went to his mouth.
“But what if she and her mother get in trouble? We don’t know anything about them.” the woman replied.
He insisted. “Jos hän tekee sen taas?”
Marianna had understood that. “What if he does it again?”
Marianna had lain in the back seat. With her arm throbbing, she answered the question for herself; I’m safe now. It’s over.
But it wasn’t. While her scar was a gulley of blacked skin etched in her upper arm, easily hidden, Emmi’s scar, encircling her neck like traces of a hangman’s noose, testified to the world how wrong Marianna had been.
Lauri mentioned Emmi in his second letter.
Marianna had found his first letter incredible, impossible. A khaki envelope had arrived in the post, inconspicuous except that it was addressed by hand. It wasn’t a bill or an invitation to vote. The handwriting had been unfamiliar. She’d lingered before opening it, imagining long lost family or a previously unknown benefactor sending her hundreds of thousands of Euros. She’d opened it and had turned straight to the end salutation.
She’d known it was him though his name was common in Finland.
“It’s not a girl’s name,” he’d said when she’d tried to tease him. He didn’t see the joke. He didn’t see how an enormous cultural chasm in a young girl’s life could be encapsulated in something as simple as a name. How could he not see that his name was beautifully feminine? Rather like he could not imagine that summer holidays could be spent in places other than wooden cottages, or that shoes could be worn indoors.
His first letter had started simply, asking her how she was and telling her that he was thinking of her and asking her for her forgiveness. He told her he was in jail awaiting trial for assault, he said, almost as a by-the-way, for a stupid accident in which someone had been killed. He then said it might be construed as murder.
Marianna willed herself not to reply, but foolishly she gave herself a challenge. After two nights spent staring at the ceiling unable to sleep, she decided she’d write to him to prove that she could communicate with him without reliving the pain of that summer. She sat at her desk in her studio, a piece of paper and pen waiting. She closed her eyes and plunged into the dark, suffocating abyss that she had not visited in years.
“But still, like dust, I'll rise,” Marianna declared aloud in her studio kitchen, quoting Maya Angelou, the rest of the poem forgotten, but the feeling that someone understood her, that the sun had finally peeped over the horizon after a seemingly endless winter remained. At times like that morning, she’d chime the words in an empty room, or on a deserted pavement, to wake the sleeping sun.
Usually, her mantra worked. She’d feel instantly elated and positivity would gush through soul. She’d remind herself that she lived in one the safest countries in the world and that what happened to her was an anomaly.
The waitress returned, this time her order was wine. Marianna caught a glimpse of Emmi laughing with a customer. She seemed so free, so unburdened by what had happened to her.
“Are you going back to England?” Marianna asked. “There’s nothing to keep you here, is there?”
“Nothing but the time and effort I’ve spent trying to make a life here,” Lucas shrugged, paused and then shook his head. “What would I do there? I’m a thirty-eight-year-old man, how do I start all over again?”
In his second letter, Lauri told her about Emmi. He used the first two pages as an attempt to purge himself of his past. He spoke of his crimes against women. He confessed that these crimes had not ended with Marianna, as if he’d assumed she hadn’t heard about Emmi. He told her he was writing to her because maybe it was time he finally paid for his crimes. He also said the prison served excellent pizza and he was eating better than he had in years. Drugs, he said, they wreck your body – you forget what it’s like to eat. Lauri continued, ranting against what he called “the spinelessness of the European justice system” and declared he was afraid his punishment wouldn’t be severe enough considering the things he’d done to women.
He needed to atone and Marianna, he said, had been his first love and the first woman he’d hurt. He’d, over the decade, often thought of her and realised the beginning was where he went wrong.
Then there had been Emmi, he explained. Here, his handwriting had changed. His letters became rounder, fatter, each separated from the next. She’d been a cool girl, he said, unlike Marianna. She had been pretty, his. After he’d attacked Marianna, his parents whisked him to a nearby town until they realised Marianna would not be pressing charges. It hadn’t been that far from Jyväskylä, but it had been far enough for him to be lonely. It was an awful place. An industrial town in decline filled with half closed businesses and kids wandering around with nothing to do but to bully anyone who crossed their paths. He’s lived with his uncle and aunt who were wonderful people without children of their own. They cossetted him telling him he’d just made a childish mistake and that his parents were exaggerating.
When Emmi decided to leave him for an older boy, one who was at university, he hadn’t been able to contain his rage. He’d climbed up to her room on the second floor and forced the window open. He’d tried to talk to her, but she told him he had no prospects since he wasn’t interested in school. Kari – he was sure that was the guy’s name – had a future as an engineer. Kari would take her out of that awful place to Helsinki or even abroad. Lauri said he couldn’t remember the exact sequence of events, all he remembered was trying to slice open her throat. He must have brought the knife with him. It was a hunting knife designed to slice and pare skin and flesh. Luckily, her sister had heard the noise from the room below and Emmi survived. She still bore the scar, Lauri explained this all to Marianna in far more detail than she’d known. Emmi had lied to keep him from prison. He’d escaped unpunished. And that was the last time he hurt a woman - until he did it again.
Gripping her pen, she scratched her reply on a piece of plain white printer paper. Trembling, Marianna wrote back to Lauri telling him that she had forgiven him. She justified it to herself saying she didn’t want him to think she still lived in the shadow of what he’d done to her.
He was so grateful, he’d scribbled in his response. His next letter had been positive, telling her he’d known she was a strong special woman. Marianna started to ask herself if it was possible that he wasn’t the monster he described. She tried to shake loose the doubt she’d started to feel about what he’d done to her. She told herself that maybe it had been a matter of rage, or losing control, that at his core he was that wonderful boy that made her, an immigrant, a black girl in a white city with the fuller bust and more rounded bum than the other girls in her school, feel like she belonged here.
When Lauri said he’d phone her, she agreed. It was the first time she’d heard his voice since he’d attacked her. She allowed herself to think that perhaps she would see him again. In the gravelly voice of an older, wiser man, he explained he was on remand but couldn’t leave the country he was in, but at least he had a phone – all that letter writing by hand had been exhausting, he joked. For the next two weeks, pictures and texts flew back and forth between them.
Then he died.
When Lucas returned, Marianna was relieved, wondering what took him so long. His eyes were red. Not like someone who’d already cried, but like someone would soon would, probably when alone and with his door closed. He’d cry for so long and so hard that he’d feel as if he’d never be able to stop.
While he was gone, she’d discovered the table tops were vinyl and not wood as they initially appeared to be. She’d been examining the table trying to distract herself, and when she’d looked at the edges, she’d noticed a top layer that imitated wood was stuck on something cheap, plywood most likely. Places like this with their veneer of authenticity appealed to her until that veneer began to crack. This lack of attention to detail disappointed her. It was a pity that a restaurant’s style that imitated a trend so well couldn’t go as far as to complete the picture with real wood tables.
“Plastic,” Lucas said.
“Told you I was having a crappy day,” he replied. “Couldn’t I have found you at a place with real wood tables?”
He crossed his arms and leaned back into the chair, “They’ll start to peel one day then we’ll see what they’re made of. Yes, a pathetic analogy of my life but - it doesn’t matter. Sorry. I didn’t mean to imply that... You know what, maybe I shouldn’t piss off the only person in the world I have to talk to. I know that makes me sound awfully desperate. But she even took the friends.”
“You’ll make new ones,” Marianna was still determined to be supportive. It was easier than dissolving in a pool of tears.
“Oh,” said Lucas, immediately looking dejected, “I thought you’d say, ‘at least you still have me’.”
“But that would make me seem desperate,” replied Marianna.
“You have other friends, it’s not the same. You have…,” he shrugged, “a life. You’re sailing through life, happy and free.”
That was how well he knew her, Marianna thought.
His pizza arrived, thin and crisp, a thin layer of cured ham laid in strips across it and topped with a not overgenerous stratum of cheese. He bit into it and was silent again, chewing with his eyelids lowered, and sipping his beer at intervals.
“Not bad, this pizza,” was all he said until he was almost three quarters of the way through. When he looked out into the square that was lit only by streetlamps, he appeared calm.
At work, he often sought her out during her breaks; they’d chat in English beside the coffee machine, only occasionally joined by their colleagues. It was one of those work places in which detachment reigned; everyone was pleasant to each other, but it wasn’t a place where secrets were shared and lifelong friendships made. Staff came and went too quickly, except for a core who either had nowhere to go, were oblivious to the lack of personal relationships in their workplace, or, like Marianna, were well paid and considered too valuable to let go.
He claimed he had no one else to talk to. Helsinki had been hard enough he said, but Jyväskylä was as far from the centre of the world as he could imagine being. His wife’s job offer had been much too good to resist. She had a generous salary and stature, things that he was now certain he’d never attain for himself.
Marianna knew where his flat was and what was in it; he’d described it in the minutest detail, but she had never been invited to what he referred to as ‘interminable dinners with people who believed that they were hip and worshipped at the feet of Nordic décor’. His wife, like her friends, furnished their flat in grey and white, heaped sheepskin rugs on the backs of their spindle-legged sofas and splurged their tax rebates on local art and design. He almost never chose any furnishings though almost all the books were his - she said when it came to literature she deferred to English superiority. A phrase he’d realised meant she didn’t like to read.
Lucas had told Marianna the previous Monday that his wife had walked out abruptly. She’d given the briefest of explanations, saying she’d found someone else and that she had to be with this new man. She had an overnight case with her and she’d informed him that she’d return with movers.
He said he’d been clutching too tightly to what was left of his pride to ask any questions. He mentioned that she coughed as she closed the door behind herself; she’d been recovering from a cold. He’d let her leave. The previous day, a Thursday, he said he’d wished he had begged her to stay.
He’d slammed his mug down beside the kettle. “What I don’t get is, I didn’t do anything. I didn’t cheat, I didn’t hit her and our sex life was marvellous. Why the hell did she leave me?”
Marianna, giddy from the anticipation of seeing Lauri again, found it easy to imitate sympathy. She nodded when needed and made reassuring noises and what she thought were clever suggestions.
“Try acting like a woman would, dress up and go to trendy places and make sure she hears you’re doing fine without her.”
“That’s a ridiculous idea,” Lucas replied looking incredulous. “This is serious, not Sex in the City.”
“I’m sorry I didn’t mean to be flippant,” To apologise was easier than to try to justify her idea.
“I know you didn’t maybe I’m…” he stopped.
The door opened and two of their colleagues entered, one from IT and the other from marketing. The four of them made insipid conversation while the coffee machine bubbled. They talked about the promise of skiing in the new year and avanto – swimming in wholes cut through the frozen over lakes. The men were surprised as everyone always were that Marianna enjoyed it and that Lucas thought it was madness. The two intruders took their coffee, one adding sugar and left. The accountant took a packet of cigarettes out of his back pocket as they left.
“She realised how pathetic I’ve become,” he looked into the depths of his coffee swirling it around clockwise and then anticlockwise.
“What the hell!” Lucas shouted. Somehow, even in his rage, he had the wherewithal to swallow his food before shouting. He stood abruptly, his glass of beer tipping over in the process. “Look there she is. Look at her!” He gestured through the window. He lowered himself into the seat once more, reeling in his emotion and supressing his voice into a loud whisper.
Marianna pushed herself away from the table to escape the slowly-spreading lager and was mopping the spilled beer with serviettes. When she looked up to where he was pointing, through the restaurant window, she saw nothing except scores of early evening shoppers, a large breasted woman getting off her shift, an unlit cigarette in one hand, a mobile in another, still hoisting her coat on over a Hesburger tee shirt, despite the New Years’ cold. That wasn’t her – his ex. His wife was tall, blonde and lithe, with a job in a successful tech company that had survived the wake of Nokia’s collapse and now was being talked about in the media as the new Rovio. Marianna had seen her in a Canadian Goose coat being interviewed on the national broadcaster YLE TV’s main evening news. She had a slight lisp and a noticeable hump on her nose that made her fall short of being beautiful.
Lucas sat down. “I’m sorry. I think I’m overdoing things here. Aren’t I?”
“Yes, you are,” Marianna almost said, but didn’t. She never had the experience of being in love as an adult. She never made a commitment to anyone and she’d never felt strongly enough for someone to believe it would last for the rest of her life.
“It’s ok, Lucas, you’re upset.” She tried to sound soothing. Lucas was intruding in her misery, oblivious to her emotions. She didn’t need a mirror to see how unhappy she must look. She could hear the flatness in her own voice, feel the weight of the skin and muscle around her mouth and the set of her jaw, unable to smile.
The waitress rushed to them with a cloth and mopped their table. Marianna guessed she was going home soon. Her face seemed much more relaxed, and she smiled pleasantly, and, in Finnish, told them not to worry. Was she going home to a partner? Marianna wondered. Was there someone waiting for her to arrive who’d envelope her in an embrace and kiss her?
The waitress looked in her early twenties. Just when, Marianna thought, she’d finished university – a year later than her mother had hoped. She’d had her first job, a good one. Looking back, it seemed as if she partied every night. She’d looked at her arm every morning, and perhaps noon and night, not imagining that the scar would still mark it ten years later. At the time, her greatest fear was having a tiny shard of stone left in her that would work its way into her blood stream. She imagined that’s how she’d die - piece of rock stabbing her heart from the inside. From the outside, her body unmarked. From the inside, he would still have been responsible for her death.
Time had worked its magic. She’d forced herself to travel in Finland and elsewhere – London, China, Morocco. She’d sat for dinner with friends she’d made when in school, both before and after Lauri. She’d been able to have older, cleverer conversations in Finnish without drinking too much too quickly and wobbling home with inebriation and resentment.
She’d always returned to Jyväskylä. It had become her home. Her mother had long given up trying to find out what had happened to Marianna that night. Her mother bought a flat and started seeing a Finnish man who made her happy and taught her to make Finnish coffee.
Marianna had been renting the same studio flat for years. She could have found something larger in the suburbs but she hated to be far from the noise of the centre – though Jyväskylä wasn’t the largest or busiest city she’d lived in. She painted the walls a pale grey and spent a little money updating the kitchen and making the flat reflect her personality. Even after all these years, the flat was still sparsely decorated mostly with finds from her travels, a Turkish rug, a poster by an unknown English artist, and of course furniture from Ikea. In its middle was a large plush black sofa from which she watched television swathed in one of her many large thick blankets. She dated occasionally. She had intercourse infrequently and was, she replied when her mother asked, happy.
Lucas leapt to his feet again. He squinted through the window, searching for a detail, an image. “There,” he said to Marianna “You can see them now, can’t you?” he pointed “It’s that bastard from IT support. I thought he knew too much about me.”
He backed away, pushing his chair over as he spoke. “That idiot. I’m going to kill him.”
In his effort to run, he collided with their waitress, her apron half off – mid conversation, laughing. She fell backwards, landing on the floor with the palm of her hand breaking the impact.
Disregarding her, he shot for the exit.
The image of Lauri’s handwriting, the sheets of explanations, the regrets sprung to her mind. Marianna seized his arm, stopping him. Determined to continue, he kept pulling away, trying to shake her off.
“Hey, you!” Lucas shouted at the door. He kept on his trajectory as she tried to pull him back.
Marianna felt the blow, not quite a punch, but not quite a slap. Lucas hit her chin, the left side of her face, and she felt her tongue burn. Warm blood filled her mouth and the pain of a tooth broken from its socket jolted through her face.
As the world spun and her vision blurred, Marianna swooned and fell backwards.
She heard Lucas say. “God, Marianna, I’m so sorry,” and the room gasped in shock, anger and concern. She saw a large man, tattooed, seize Lucas, and heard an older woman demand above the dim that someone call the police.
She didn’t lose consciousness. She could hear the bustle around her as she lay on the floor: the scraping of chairs and boots on the laminate flooring.
Someone helped her into a room at the back and she lay on a battered settee, covering her eyes trying to steady her vision.
There was waiting. Voices, someone knocked, but was called away from the door.
Emmi marched in with an icepack. Emmi turned briefly, saying to someone, “No, we have to wait for the police.” She left the door slightly ajar. She shook her head, the anger visible in her eyes and pursed lips. “Men.” She spoke to Marianna in Finnish. “Are you ok? The police are on their way.”
As she spoke, Emmi’s face was reddening. Marianna could sense her composure waning. “Bastards, Arseholes,” Emmi repeated, she cursed men as a plural; her anger wasn’t aimed at Lucas, but to many men, maybe all.
Two police officers arrived – a man and a woman. Marianna saw them through the gap, being slowed down by having to listen to an elderly woman furiously explaining what had happened.
“I saw everything,” she declared. “Don’t let that man get away. Such a beautiful woman too – black, you see.”
Emmi barged out the room as if to hurry the police up, slamming the door as she left.
Marianna thought of escaping. Perhaps through a side door. If there was one. She could say it was a mistake, he was a little excited. She could refuse to press charges. It was just Lucas, the English guy from accounts.
But then there was Lauri, dead somewhere as was whoever it was he had killed. And there was Emmi, bent on helping her and not knowing her scar was a result of Marianna’s silence.
She slid off the settee and opened the door a crack to watch the cacophony and the histrionics and thought of the glass of wine she could have had. She couldn’t leave and she couldn’t lie.
Tomorrow she’d paint foundation over the bruise and see a dentist. She’d hide for a few days, but everyone at the office would find out, and they’d all wonder what happened between Lucas and her.
She steeled herself for the questions, inhaling deeply. She remembered that her coat was where she’d been sitting and that Lauri’s letters were in its pockets.
My writing is a departure from my career - I’m a fundraising and editorial consultant for non-governmental organisations. I participated in Crossing Borders, a British Council writing programme in the early 2000s. Upon moving to Ireland, I was published in Whispers and Shouts (a now defunct literary magazine) and in a PEN International's special edition on African writers. Over the years I posted a few items online and have partaken in public readings, but overall, fell out of writing. However, while in Singapore my love of writing was rejuvenated and I recently published three novellas on Amazon.
Echoes from Within
By Ayo Beckley Adesanya
23rd April 2019
For me, poetry is a storytelling avenue. An opportunity to tell stories from everyday life in a different form. In response to the recent acts of terror and natural disaster, a series of poems arose, reflecting the hearts of victims. These series were written from the POV of African mums, wifes, dads, sisters, and other nameless people who are/were victims.
For Laila: A food seller
I feel the heaviness.
It presses across my head,
my vision, totally impaired.
Rubble, earth, darkness.
Distant, yet clear.
Shrieking noises, whistling
The strain journeying down my guts
If you can hear me, help!
Gravel chokes my throat as I regurgitate its dust.
Mud, dust, metal.
I feel the trickle down my nostril
Can you hear me?
It slowly swims across my body.
Raw, metallic, blood.
Pain burrows deep into my nape.
Someone, anyone, help!
The sting slowly travels down my spine.
Tingly, sharp, painful.
Please, save me,
I can’t move my hands.
Weak, heavy, lifeless.
As I listen, as I struggle
Fear consumes my heart,
for all I could hear, were echoes from within.
Tolly: A child at the time of incident
His smile bloomed as he looked at me,
his voice glided, silk across my ears as he quietly
tucked me in.
He read my favorite story.
“The prince found her, and they lived happily ever after.”
A giggle rippled down his guts as he whispered,
you are daddy’s little Cinderella”
I remember the agitation in his voice,
in his actions
as he scooped me off my bed.
“Wake up Jade, wake up!”
He never calls my name; I was always ‘his cupcake’.
Then I heard the bang, then a tremor.
as dad threw himself over me.
I couldn’t see , but I felt safe.
Encapsulated in his embrace, shielded.
I woke with a struggle, a fight from within.
It was dark, dusty, moist
A torrential pain.
A continuous bang played
Unpleasant music to my ears.
The earth moved.
“Dad?”I screamed as I felt the cold weight.
Wrapped safely in my daddy’s arms,
his body, rigid, lifeless.
Free tears flowed down my face
the ruins of what I once called home.
Rubble and rubbish, fear and tears.
Darkness and pains, regrets and losses,
bonds, forever lost.
My little world, shattered, my perfect life, snatched.
My dreams torn, my innocence, stripped.
Maturity, shoved down my throat.
War? Attack? Terror?
The right words still elude.
Now a shadow of what once was,
a lady filled with bitterness, pains and regrets.
A woman living in the ruins of the past
A life confined to the wheels.
Ramot: A teenager
Beeps, footsteps, movements, murmurs.
Voices unknown, touches unfamiliar
Or were they... familiar?
I heard it.
My whispered name,
Softly spoken within a whimper.
Soft, yet firm, voices cracking.
I heard it.
I heard a voice,
stronger, louder, forced.
It came as an echo
Hollow, shallow, sad.
Dark, sad, raw,
Or was it... regret?
It came again.
I feel your touch,
I hear the tension,
the familiar voices with no laughter.
Or was it ... defeat?
I struggle as I quietly lie
I fight as I sadly weep
Each moment, a step into eternity
Each breath, an effort
voices, farther and farther
tugs, lighter and lighter
the beeps I hear no more
as I slip into a permanent
Born in Nigeria, migrated to New Zealand 11 years ago. Nigeria is my blood, New Zealand is my heart, storytelling is my core. I am deeply connected to all three.
It’s Just Hair?
Celebrating Zulaikha Patel: Speaking to Power
By Adele N. Norris (Published on BCA with kind permission from African Perspectives)
15th April 2019
On September 28, 2016, a young South African, Zulaikha Patel, led her peers in a silent protest against racist school policies that condemned Black natural hairstyles. Only thirteen-years-old at the time, Zulaikha’s wore a chic Afro. In the United States, during the same time, Colin Kaepernick, a professional football player, gained global attention when he took a knee during the U.S. national anthem to protest racial injustice, specifically police brutality against Black and Brown peoples. Immediately following his protest, he was attacked with his choice of hair style, an Afro.
Some of his peers—other Black men—implored him to trade in his Afro for a more ‘respectable’ look. Similarly, Zulaikha’s Afro was deemed “untidy” by school officials, thus in violation of Pretoria Girls High dress code. Both Kaepernick, a NFL player, and Zulaikha, a South African high school student, were reprimanded because of their natural Black hair.
Zulaikha’s experience is situated within a broader history of the politicization of cultural aesthetics particularly as it pertains to Black hair. This essay argues that efforts employed to manage Black hair extends beyond the arbitrary boundaries of so-called professionalism. Rather such politics are a form of institutionalized racism, implemented under the guise of race-neutral or color-blind policies. Moreover, aesthetics politics are strategically used for social exclusion and race/class management. This issue is of extreme importance given the growing emphasis on multicultural education approaches, which often undermines the importance of addressing racial oppression. While aesthetics policies are primarily created and enforced by a White dominant culture, many marginalized groups have internalized these arbitrary standards and strive to attain and even enforce them instead of challenging mainstream politics.
Because we live in age where adoption of a color-blind stance has become widespread, dismissing race and racism have become default reactions to relieve individuals of the possible stress and backlash that often accompany charges of racism. Yet, color-blindness does little to alleviate the emotional and mental anguish Black children endure when they are punished for their hair, having braids for example. Thus, the perceptions of Black hair/hairstyles and what they represent to mainstream White culture is a necessary starting point. This essay contends that Black hair is perceived by the dominant culture as an expression of defiance or an act of resistance. Meaning, Blacks who chose to sport their natural hair are deemed as possible threats, uncontrollable. Laws and institutional mandates are then used as instruments designed to manage Blacks (hair) and to ensure that the comfort level of uncomfortable Whites, remains intact. Black individuals with hairstyles that are more mainstream may appear to satisfy or appease the demand for assimilation, which may be translated into a willingness to acquiesce in ways that extend beyond hairstyles, even if that is not the case. However, transgressors, are met with backlash in the form of economic and social penalties, (e.g., threat of job loss or school suspension).
The politics of Black hair is far from a new discussion, and it is as widespread as it is long standing. As Paulette Caldwell (1991) puts it, Black women’s hair is one of those issues for which they “slip through the cracks of legal protection, and the gender components of racism and the race component of sexism remain hidden” (374). Thus, regulating Black hair is as relevant now as it was nearly 40 years ago when the first U.S. court ruling granted corporations the right to ban braided hairstyles in the workplace. The 1981 ruling of Rogers v. American Airline legally upheld employers’ right to prohibit categorically the wearing of braided hairstyles in the workplace (Caldwell 1991). The plaintiff, a Black woman, charged American Airlines with discrimination for which she lost because hairstyles were considered independent of race and gender discrimination. In 1987, Black political leaders in Washington D.C. threatened to boycott the Hyatt Hotel over a similar case. The company prohibited Black women from wearing braids, which fell under the company’s policy that prohibited “extreme and unusual hairstyles” (Caldwell 1991: 367).
These policies, according to Caldwell (1991), were a continuation from the perceived threat of Afro hairstyles that emerged during the1960s as a celebration of self-esteem or a claim to cultural identity. Even then, those who chose Afros faced opposition and were associated with the growing unrest coming out of the U.S. national media coverage of activist and scholar, Angela Davis. As a result, many White people associated Afro hairstyles with resistance, unpopular political views, and uncontrolled and dangerous sexuality.
Caldwell (1991) uses this as one example to illustrate how Black women withstood the worst of racist intimidation resulting from western standards of physical beauty. Moreover, this type of racist intimidation begins early in the lives of Black females and is used as a crucial instrument designed to limit the economic and social position of Black womanhood. Joyce A. Ladner, in 1971, argued that this type of racism is aimed at something more than an attack on Black identity. In her work on Black womanhood in the U.S., Ladner draws on the works of Kardiner and Ovesey (1951: 78-79) to emphasize that Black submission is the overall objective of racism and racist stereotypes:
Being a Negro in America is less of a racial identity than a necessity to adopt a subordinate social role. The effects of playing the “Negro” role are profound and lasting. Evaluating himself by the way others react to him, the negro may grow into the servile role in time, the person and the role become indistinguishable.
Twenty-first century Black women and girls are still facing the same issues. On September 15, 2016 the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 11th Circuit covering Alabama, Florida, and Georgia upheld the 2014 ruling that maintained that it is permissible for employers to ban dreadlocks based on a claim that discrimination had to be based on immutable characteristics. Since hair and hairstyles are changeable, the ruling is considered a “race-neutral policy” that is not covered under the 1964 Civil Rights Act, which outlaws discrimination based on race, sex, color, religion, and national origin.
Within the past five years, several cases emerged regarding Black girls being punished because their hair violated school dress codes. As young as a seven-year-old girl from Tulsa, Oklahoma who was sent home on the first day of school for her dreadlocks, instances of Black girls being suspended, arrested, and banned from prom and extracurricular activities are found across the U.S., Canada, and South Africa. In 2015, Black Lives Matter Toronto rallied in front of the Toronto District School Board headquarters for a thirteen-year-old girl who was disciplined by the school’s principal over her hair (Da Silva 2015). Early 2017, two sisters of Boston, Massachusetts were given several infractions for sporting braids that also violated the school dress code. The school’s policy bans hair extensions deeming them distracting (Lattimore 2017). Many have argued that such school codes are independent of race. Why is it, then, that only Black children, specifically girls are affected by these “race-neutral” policies? Why is it that styles that Blacks have worn for centuries are the same hairstyles that transgress the arbitrary boundaries of professionalism and respectability?
These are the questions thirteen-year-old Zulaikha Petel and her peers asked their educators at Pretoria Girls High School in South Africa. Zulaikha rejected the claim that such policies were race neutral or colorblind. After filing a complaint against the school over racist policies that required Black girls to straighten their “untidy” natural hair and to speak English only, her assumptions were confirmed the moment she stood up to power. Instead of being met with compassion and attentive ears, Zalaikha was met with hostility and threats of arrest. One of the young protesters stated, “We were told we’re too loud; have no manners; we weren’t allowed to speak our own language, it’s rude” (Nemakonde 2016). This remark further illustrates the way negative and profound stereotypes continue to work to oppress by imbuing Black children with a sense of inferiority. The danger of this process, today, lies in the fact that race is not explicitly mentioned, therefore policies regulating hairstyles are harder to charge as racist.
Patricia Hill Collins, a U.S. Black feminist scholar, points out that the significance attached to skin color is changing, especially for women. This is in response to a growing visible biracial, multiracial and racially ambiguous groups in the U.S. Some Black scholars have made claims that hair texture has long been more important than skin color in racial politics. Differences between White and Blacks have been much sharper in hair quality than in color and have persisted much longer with miscegenation. The politics of Black hair is part of a chronic problem regarding the surveillance of Black bodies and the indignities Black people globably continue to experience in every aspect of life (Hattery and Smith 2018).
The stigmatization of blackness is designed to diminish, to disempower and to ultimately bring under submission (Ladner 1971). Penalties linked to Black hair speak to a social ill rooted in racism. Because beauty and professional standards preclude Black women, Blacks mothers have had to fortify their daughters to embrace themselves because the messages their children receive by society does not celebrate their children. This point is evidenced by the growing number of children’s books written specifically to teach Black girls to love their hair, only to learn that society will punish them for doing so. There is nothing post-racial about Black girls’ realities. This reality is illustrated by one of educators of Pretoria Girls High statements, “No wonder you black girls don’t excel academically, you’re always focused on the so-called racial issues of the school.” The young girls of Pretoria Girls High, recognized the voice of racism and responded accordingly, “Our hair doesn’t contribute to our academic capabilities” (Namakonde 2016).
Worthy of her comparison to Winnie Mandela, Zulaikha Patel is part of the long standing fight against racism in her country. Her words at the young age of thirteen, “[a]sking me to change my hair is like asking me to erase my blackness,” (Namakonde 2016) echoes the sentiments of Steve Biko, who espoused that Blacks must be proud. And like Biko, Zulaikha knew to be Black and proud is to be perceived as a threat by the dominant White group. Her protest demonstrates an acute awareness that her experiences were not post-colonial or post-racial, but rather the expression of colonialism and racism. And she recognized it as a tool of intimidation by refusing to yield to its demands. “I was fighting for every black child in this country,” Zulaikha proclaimed (Flanagan 2016). Her fight was greater than the right to wear a certain hairstyle; it was a fight for the right to be Black without punishment. Let us all be inspired by Zulaikah Patel’s bravery. Like her we must not acquiesce to the power of white-supremacy and yield to its threats, but rather expose it as the tool designed to dehumanize, subjugate and oppress.
The absolute cancel culture - what’s buried in the rubble.
By Nuel Nonso
9th April 2019
“It’s called money” was Queen Latifah’s response when asked why there was still a lot of silence around sexism and misogyny in reference to the Surviving R. Kelly documentary. “I haven’t listened to his music since I saw that tape,” she continued. “Coz it was clear to me. And I’m like damn, you just messed up my whole catalogue.” That “messed up my catalogue” part sums up the absolute cancel culture.
In recent times, some massive names in entertainment have been held to account for heinous acts they were accused of long ago.
A quick list of some of the black ones and their victims: R. Kelly - vulnerable young black girls with little agency; Michael Jackson - pre-pubescent white boys; Bill Cosby - white women who were meant to be his colleagues; Kanye West - woke Kanye West.What these artists have been accused of doing are downright despicable - no gainsaying that. The people who have come forward and accused them may never get back what was taken from them. No length of prison sentence for the perpetrator can restore stolen dignity to their victims. In the wake of the spark Tarana Burke’s #metoo movement started, people are keeping alive that flicker of hope that rich and powerful men might start being held to account too. What this better-late-than-never day of reckoning really entails, however, is a conversation that we are perhaps still too fired up to have in detail and in-depth.
In fact, the real effect of this absolute cancel culture often reaches much further than the perpetrator of the act and affects many othersl who happen to be in community with them. Besides fine art, most other art forms are a community effort. You work with a team one way or another. When Roseanne Barr got cancelled for showing her racist islamophobe side, it meant that everyone working on the Roseanne project was automatically out of a job. And that is just one small example of how others can get charred in the crater of an explosive cancel culture.
The more long-term effects of the cancel culture is an erosion of community capital which is even more dire when you really think about it. Ụba wu njije - that is Igbo for ‘wealth is imitation’. One person gets to win a grammy or Oscar or any other laurels, but an entire community gain a voice, a launchpad from them having done so.
That is what I mean by community capital. Tsotsi won an Oscar in 2005 and even in faraway Nigeria, a light of possibility was lit. Never mind the layers of black gazing you might have to peel away to get to that hope, i.e. the fact that all African Oscar contending films to that point had been made by white filmmakers - topic for a different conversation. The truth is, seeing someone like you do laudable things could unlock the potential to envision yourself doing them too - and that in itself is essential to success.
The power of representation, therefore, is much more than a nod of affirmation, especially for the historically disenfranchised. It becomes a portal to possibilities - because there was James Brown, an eventual Michael Jackson was made possible; because there was an Aretha Franklin, a Whitney Houston became possible; because there was a Miriam Makeba, a Brenda Fassie was made possible; because there was a Fela Kuti, an eventual Wizkid became possible. And the list goes on. The significance of that sort of opportunity is what Oprah Winfrey recognised in Jamie Foxx’s Oscar nomination for Ray when she took him to Quincy Jones and they tried to offer him guidance to ensure he didn’t “blow it”. (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=T0CMkgQslqY)
When those portals are in short supply, due in no small part to institutional racism and all other glass ceilings of the patriarchal world we operate in, it becomes particularly remarkable when yet another pillar of community capital is felled - even if by their own villainy.
If an individual’s success can be measured by its potential to sire future successes in their wider community, then how much are historically disenfranchised people losing with each completely cancelled artist? A question to follow that, perhaps, is when an artiste is dropped like a too-full bowl of hot Nigerian jollof rice, is there a chance that the community can decide to scoop the top off the floor or at least save the goat meat it was garnished with? If the US anthem can be fixed by them simply not singing its most blood curdling racist stanza, then maybe the baby does not always have to be thrown away with the bath water.
Granted the argument of separating the artist from the art is a polarising one that survivors cannot reasonably be expected to have to deal with. In the case of R. Kelly, for example, whose art is largely inextricable from the crime he is associated with, it is nearly impossible not to imagine the demographic he is really speaking to when you listen to his more explicit lyrics. But should not listening to his music at all be a minimum bar for decency expected of everyone including, for instance, singers who might struggle to let go of I Believe I Can Fly? Or can they possibly confiscate proprietorship of some of his art and see him, as suggested by Eat, Pray, Love author, Elizabeth Gilbert, in a TED talk, as a mere human counterpart in a complex relationship between the creative genius of an art form and the mind of the artist it is birthed in?
Speaking of confiscation, we have seen streaming sites yank off their platforms from underneath problematic artists. While it appears the intent is to dissociate their brands from that artist’s misconduct, we must not forget that they are companies wanting to make a profit. In addition to gradually replacing airplay royalties, they are providing a time capsule, future value of which we may not be able to immediately or accurately ascertain. Can what these companies that run streaming services are doing in endorsing the absolute cancel culture be seen as corporate social responsibility? Or could they potentially be upholding the long tradition of both plugging the flow of economic capital into black communities and obscuring black history by deliberately erasing bits of it, leaving much to conjecturing in the future?
One other question to ponder is how consistent this absolute cancel culture is across the board and whether it should be reserved for performing artists alone. Society seems to agree that all the people who have ever worked alongside an executive like Harvey Weinstein and who still benefit from the bodies of work he is associated with should not be fair collateral damage, but somehow all the producers, engineers, instrumentalists, backing vocalists, songwriters and publishers who had a thing or two to do with the successes of the black perfomers that have been cancelled so far, plus the communities to which their work have high capital value should? For perspective, The Jungle Book published in the nineteenth century is still being profited from to this day in spite of the racist beliefs of its author, Rudyard Kipling; racist views which some say are metaphorically expressed even in tha
Before you dismiss this by comparing it to arguments for keeping statues erected in honour of white supremacists, pause to consider how synonymous an artist’s entire catalogue is to a statue. The simple answer is not. So, no, taking down John Wayne’s name and statue from the Orange County airport in the US for his offensive comments would not be the same as taking down all the films he has ever been in. The former would be like taking down Michael Jackson’s statue in the UK. The latter would be more like radio stations taking Michael Jackson songs off their playlists.
In that Queen Latifah interview referenced earlier, she goes on to say, “I know especially in our community, where we have seen our people railroaded so much, you know, that anytime one of us does not have to be railroaded, it’s a win for everybody in a certain way. But, you know, what’s real is what’s real. What’s the truth is what’s the truth.” In pursuit of the truth, I hope we get to a point where true justice is accessible to all and that the disempowered do not remain variable pieces in a capitalist power game that is as old as race and racism.
Nuel Nonso (Emma Chinonso Nwachukwu) hails from Umuotirikpo, Okpofe in Ezinihitte, Imo state of Nigeria home for as long as humans have lived there. He moved to Auckland from Lagos three years ago with his partner and when his 10 month old son grows up, he will call New Zealand and Nigeria home. Nuel is a singer. specialising in AfroSoul, amongst many others and is currently the front man for Ijebu Pleasure Club, a cover band that adapt pop/soul classics to Afrobeat. You can also catch him with the band, New Telepathics, throwing fusionist vibes on a good day.
A Letter to Me, You and Us: Woman of Citrus
By Grace Bently
2nd April 2019
Not a colour went by
That couldn’t match her sense of
Clean cut bodies
Shapes they have never seen
Many lives lived in one body
A body of movement to slip away
As we enter the sea
She sits and only takes long sips of tea
She didn’t swim in waves
But she did crash over sands at sea.
When I start writing I don’t always know what I am writing about, especially when it comes to poetry. I let the ideas or feelings I have spread onto the page, let my subconscious take over - and trust that I speak some truths to you all.
That doesn’t always happen.
So I defiantly go back and re-wire and tweak because I realise that my mind is not necessarily linear and that my grammar is shocking. But it’s a good exercise. When I began writing for Woman of Citrus I realised I was very soft, tiptoeing around the things I wanted to say...unsure if my experiences as a Ghanaian-Kiwi growing up in a predominantly white family and small town in the far north where valid.
After the attack on the Muslim community in Christchurch, I shook off my passive, polite state-of-being. Fifty lives of light spanning across so many families, friends and everybody in-between were extinguished. A story of a minority is important. A place to express that is important. To be scared to tell a story of experience in fear of not being understood or liked is irrelevant. I am not a Muslim and I can not tell their story, but I can speak from my experiences and hold a space for all directly affected in an attempt to be bolder and bigger in my life -
for all of us.
It's not about teaching and it’s not about feeling wronged, it is about acknowledging another’s breath, another’s life here on earth and in New Zealand. Woman of Citrus is an acknowledgement that black girls exist in this world - not that you didn’t know that already - but it doesn't hurt saying it again, and again, and again.
Kept in a box on a burning stove
In the bay of Citrus a small town at the
End of a road
Round the back of a dairy where nobody goes.
IThat was the start of Woman of Citrus 1.0 a quick speedy 7-minute monologue I did with some awesome creatives in Wanaka. This really pushed me into creating my own work again. So over some time the Monologue was born and delivered to an audience and I had one of those moments when you think “Why don’t you make a full-length SOLO show?!” Well, I did and we are here.
Inspiration from my upbringing in the far north of New Zealand as a mixed race Ghanaian-Pakeha lady. Coco Fusco, Reni Eddo-Lodge my sister and Ghana. With a desire to connect down to my roots but also acknowledge that I will never be full of one thing (and yes I know no one is) but it is specifically so for mixed-race kids. Seen as different from both sides of their family regardless. So how do we (maybe others have sussed that) work that out and exist as we are? In this show, I will be working on whittlind down a layer of myself to try and get to the truths of my experience of growth in rural New Zealand. Woman of Citrus is the story of a young woman who returns to her rural hometown: The Bay of Citrus, as the key suspect to a certain mishap. However, that’s not all. She’s also caught up in a deep existential crisis looking for answers.
In the complex world of this seemingly quiet town, we meet the five women and a couple of men. We travel with them through the Bay of Citrus and other places in the world to find out more about race, how its navigated, what's missing, who commits the crimes.
I love making theatre in which I use movement as a base for me. I did ballet and contemporary dance until I went to University so it is ingrained into my being. Another vehicle for me is poetry or descriptive language to help me get the images in my brain onto paper and out to my audience. Drama is always present but I feel comedy is bomb. I love it the timing of it and also what it allows you to do and say as a performer.
As for the process of making a solo show well. It has been fruitful but tough. I have been working in a lot of isolation and then in bursts with either one or quite a few people at a time. I am really grateful for Jo and Dione who have helped me so much to get this show up off the ground in its final stages of development. I have moved from my swirling mind cave into the light. But this is what solo work is like - hence the word solo. So parts of it are to be made in solo. I'm lucky though. I have really great friends that are always around and they all make theatres which means I can use them for their skills. Part of this process that is often unseen is the role of the producer and I’m grateful to Ankita Singh - she has strong values of supporting people of colour wherever she can in her work. I really appreciate that as I’ve now been put int contact with Dione my dramaturg and Diana my photographer (who did all the images for Woman of Citrus) and who are both really amazing. So come see this show and feel free to contact or chat with me after or anytime! And shot to everyone out there holding space for Africans to make their art!
Black Theatre || Women || New Zealand's Stories
What: Grace Bentley’s Woman of Citrus
When: 9 April-20 April 6.30pm
Where: Basement Theatre
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