amsterdam

A poetic reflection on my spring break trip to Amsterdam, Netherlands.

 

i am laughing like cinderella in a storybook town.

there are dirty postcards by the corner

of crepe and coffee shops.

we run away from old men singing songs.

red lights – stop

sing, drink, go.

the bridges wear bracelets and the windows glow

like candles during power

cuts back home.

 

xxx

 

the trams remind us of south africa.

the ghostly mother of afrikaans.

i see a girl in a zara blazer

holding onto the pole,

she looks more beautiful than the

cloudy sky and

has cuts running up her arm

like shoelaces in a row.

 

xxx

 

double meanings are what we discuss

on boys’ faces and literature

as we sit by the street eating hot

fries and mayo.

we’re overlooking love hotels

it’s some dream

a scene, a painting –

we are both the protagonists and the background blobs.

we are the dreamers in nested dolls

we are living.

 

xxx

 

spilling ourselves in the back of a bar.

it’s warmer in pancake shops.

the old days, the old days

couldn’t have more magic.

we’re bright, tipsy,

flushed.

laugh when we want to cry.

laugh again and drink

in everything more.

they didn’t tell us it would be this hard.

they didn’t tell us it would be this beautiful.

 

xxx

 

 

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To: Paris

In my first semester of college, I had to write a poem towards a place, in a similar vein to the way the writer from Martinique, Aime Cesaire, does in Notebook of a Return to the Native Land. I wrote about Paris, a city I’ve been enchanted with for many years but never had the chance to visit until March this year. 

 

Paris: immutable permanent marker dream.

What I feel for you is a sparkle-crack love,

found in picture-book fairytales I outgrew by 13.

You are my desperate idealism;

you are the sepia wallpaper on my laptop screen.

You are the romance I cannot touch, only see

all in glossy magazines –

Paris.

I think I know your contours

better than a man knows the outlines of his lover.

But we have never met.

I know you only in dreams.

 

Yet I have learned your skin – ancient, soft, powdered,

the weak tang of perfume, warm bread, crushed cigarettes,

6pm coffee, 10pm wine –

your name smells of stereotypes.

I’m told your streets are poetry.

You are formed and malformed

through stories smoked from other people’s lips.

Don’t base your love on what they tell you, deception comes in dreams.

 

But I have grown up swallowing fictions.

Someone once whispered to me that the Eiffel Tower

was a needle that God used to sew up the sky.

But where are the seams?

Where are the seams?

 

Paris, you have a residence permit for the red beating city

within me

where no boy has ever kept up his rent.

And they warned me

that you are most beautiful in the rain – how treacherous

in this age of acidity.

 

For

I am Hemingway and you are the moveable feast.

I am Gatsby and you, the green light.

I am the mind, the notebook, the pencil,

you are the magic that runs through these instruments.

I am Zelda, you are the madness.

I am Pablo, you are the desire in my paint.

I am the dreamer and you are the dream.

 

But dreams are inclined to disintegrate.

Turn to fine dust under piles of boulder and glass and

21st century politics.

So they say that you’re crumbling.

Like the pastries in your abandoned patisseries, like the wrinkles on an old woman’s face.
I think that you’re crumbling

beneath the weight of artists trying to imitate

the unwieldy – love, tragedy,

Paris.

 

They say you will disappoint.

You will disturb this fantasy.

We will not always have Paris

the Paris of our dreams.

 

See, my aunt once had a suite at the Ritz, she called me to talk

about the soot-stained post office

on rue-this or rue-that and what does that say about you?

The broken wine bottles that cut

like unfinished romance,

the bread gone stale, the cold lights of train stations, the vacant eyes of vacant streets, the morning’s grey,

the poetry buried beneath white lights

of cellphone screens.

 

Paris –

sometimes dreams are too heavy for me,

even when full

of holes and cracks;

yet I am still

Atlas and you

are the globe I carry.

 

I will always have Paris.

I will always have a dream.

 

Love is when you see through the bullet hole into the heart.

It enters through cracks, its victims’ flaws.

Yours are the smoke snuck on buildings,

and the vines like veins

bleeding honeysuckles onto windowpanes, the brusque sandwich orders in seedy cafes.

 

For you are the postcard that never came in the mail

but I somehow found in an empty drawer one day.

A dream stuck in the bottom of my pocket,

a coin lost on the pavement,

an idea like a thread unspooling from my fingers, misunderstood,

misaligned like the buttons on a cardigan

done up wrong.

Paris, surely

is a song I’ll know the words to

when it finally plays.

 

Until then I sit

writing poems by the radio.

 

oceans

Last fall, I worked on putting together a mini art installation about climate refugees for a class. I collaborated with two of my friends from Nepal; one made a beautiful video, compiling statistics and interviews, while the other displayed some of his photography of the environment, overlaying landscape images of Abu Dhabi and Nepal. I wrote a poem in the perspective of a climate refugee – or at least, attempted to write one. Here it is:

 

the sea was my first friend.

i was

three years old when it taught me

what colours were –

the silver of still waters

at dawn,

the cotton blue of late afternoon,

a copper sheet at sunset, and the

ink of waves at 10pm.

 

the sea was my first teacher.

it taught me how to count – 1….2…3…

the ocean has a music

older than our bones in the sand.

a rhythm more ancient than the pulse in our necks.

[beat]

in the evenings, i would sit

by the hem of its skirt.

my father would bring the fishing line

and we would reach into the ocean’s lap

for gifts,

return home with dinner

spend the days washing salt out of our fingernails.

the sea taught me

the most ordinary of loves there is:

friendship. of trust – give and take, give and take

out and in, rise and fall, tide beneath my toes, tide beneath my feet,

tide and its music.

 

and to feel.

the sea taught me what it is to feel.

peace is that blue womb

where everything is all at once meaningless and meaningful.

happiness is the spiderwebs of sunlight

on morning waves.

sadness is the tide coming out, coming in.

a tune without feeling.

 

and i learnt from the sea

what fury is.

a different kind of fury than my father’s

when i steal an extra piece of fish. this kind of fury

could make the world stop breathing, my mother said

the earth is a clay pot

but we won’t stop baking it. she tells me

nature is sweating from the heat, it weeps with fatigue.

the oceans threaten to tip

like tears from under eyelids. far away, brazil shaves off its beard

and china smokes a cigarette.

i ask her, what am i supposed to do with these fairytales?

she takes my hand and tells me

the ocean is boiling.

don’t you believe it?

one day, this womb will break.

but we won’t be born again.

 

today, it is quiet.

mother always says be afraid of too much silence.

this earth was made for music.

in the air there is a violence. the sea trembles

like the mind of prince hamlet.

the dogs and chickens are perched on higher ground.

eyes wide open, mouths agape, while

my mother stares at the water. for

today, it is quiet.

 

the ocean trembles with stillness.

while something moves within, like a creature turning in

the womb it’s been living in.

the water feels as if it’s entered my head

a thought metastasizing in the brain.

in the great amniotic sac of the sea

there stirs a beginning and an end.

i remember my mother saying

once it ruptures

we will not be born again

 

and suddenly it rushes

like a volcano blooming outwards.

this kind of fury is different.

this is where the world goes blue

with wetness and ruin.

i watch my mother stand alone in the water

like a crab clinging hopelessly onto a rock that isn’t there.

the world is breaking around her and i think

the sea has taught me its final lesson:

what it is to be betrayed.

 

now my home hangs on a picket fence

like a used up tissue discarded in a bin. i went back

saw my childhood

burnt out like a cigarette.

there was nobody left. i lost my parents

to the ocean’s music

it engulfed them, led them astray

like the pied piper and his flute that day.

 

so i moved to the capital

where the sea only exists

on postcard images.

i lived amongst the traffic jams, the square buildings and landfills.

worked on and for nothing.

and every night, i heard the call of my friend, the rush of that last wave –

goodbye, it seemed to say.

it took everything from me

and left.

 

we spent so many days plundering the sea

plunging our fingers, our feet and fishing lines in.

of course it turned back

and fished us out instead. but we do not stop

our thievery. it boils with anger

yet we do not stop hurting it

then turning to ask for its embrace.

what can it do

but rage? this earth was made for music

it cannot stay still.

 

these days i watch national geographic

on my neighbor’s tv screen.

they say the sea will always exist

but will we?

will we?

we are the traitors.

in our blood, in our sweat, in our teardrops and wombs

there is saltwater, little pieces of the ocean

we have stolen for ourselves.

 

my mother used to say friendship

is give and take, give and take.

but all we do is take,

of course the sea will turn

and give us that embrace.

unlike us, it keeps its promises.

one day, it will take everything back

every little piece

and we will not be born again.

we will not be born again.

It Comes in Pieces

An experimental poetry-prose piece inspired by the work of poet Lyn Heijinian.

soil
My mother told me I could never let go of a baby pink comb. An aeroplane skimming over a cloud, soft as the foam of milk. The feeling of his cheek against yours. Truth is nothing but fodder for an argument. A Senegalese accent is a truffle rolling on the tongue. I hated the sound of a violin but I was in love with a violinist. Poetry is glass. He used to play me songs on the guitar and I was taught to believe in magic. Should love feel like an itchy sweater? I’ll forget 16. The sound of a heart breaking is always silent. Sometimes I heard music and wanted to collect its notes in a sealed jar, like storing butterflies. When we met, I started to write. He left. My father made warm omelettes on weekends. I left, and that in itself was a kind of power. Libraries are meant to be quiet but we were not. Poetry speaks where eyes and mouths don’t.

bloom
I can only remember the laughter when it hurt. They still talk about how we danced. Blame it on the Chinese tea. David Bowie will always and never sound the same. You’re having the most fun when the moment’s too blurry for Instagram. It took six years. Marginalia, paraphernalia. I used to dream of this, just like the lights and the car rides in indie films. Those 250 words were an exercise in bonding. Did you want me to…? There was one month left but facts get lost in the wind when you’re running across the field, air ruddy on your face and coat flying out behind you. Jealousy is a corrosive substance. We got in an accident and felt more afraid of the metaphor than the chipped paint. All it took was a tango. Something aches and we’ve all got our hands on each other’s hurt. This is my fight song. I’ll remember 17. ‘Us’ is a beautiful word.

dew
You collected the shiniest shells on the beach. Nothing is lonelier than reading a textbook at night. Solitude by the sea, solitude in a snow globe. My mother told me to think of those below you. Tears are salt are ocean are wombs. The girls said you were bossy and you learned to twist your mouth like theirs. That seagull was like a scrap of paper. I write about being jagged but do not accept it. The colour blue, is it cold or warm? My mother fed me honey and cinnamon when I was sick, hot and sticky on a steel spoon. I didn’t know friendship was an acidic substance. How many followers do you have? The wine looked like blood and tasted worse. She was Ariel and you understood. You are startled by the sky every summer, it is honey blue. She cut her indigo braids then went to write her SATs. Depression is dyeing your lungs the same shade as the evening and she looked at you and nodded. Landlocked countries make us caged birds that do not sing.

stem
My mother snatched books away from me in the car. Both comfortable and uncomfortable with loneliness. Have you ever tried writing while you’re drunk? Novels are alternate universes.  The word ‘introvert’ is branded like a red hot poker on a cow. Talk to us, please. I have gazed up at the stars and tried to catch them in my palms like beads. Let’s make a necklace. Noose. You got in a conversation with poetry and it never seems to end. We keep asking each other what love even is. Crying on the telephone. Why are friendships like strings and how could she do this to me? I’m a kid. How mean, so mean. You wore your silence like an ugly fashion accessory that one feels obliged to wear because a great-aunt gave it as a parting gift and it was too impolite to say no. God, no.

leaves
My skin was always too tight. The better the chocolate, the more bitter the aftertaste. I am ashamed by inches. He said you were soft and he was not expecting it. No one has been able to touch you. 15 is full of holes and now you will fill them with sugar. Clinics reminded me of the imperfections. I romanticized my own fault lines but at least I was not an earthquake. I imagined him saying that a curved spine is more interesting than a straight one but he did not exist. Can’t breathe when it’s happening. Once you had three slices of cake, you’ve been looking back ever since. He asks me if I need a goddamn sonnet proclaiming my beauty. To be naked is to be free is to be unseen. I scrolled through Facebook pictures and wept. Yes, I need proof, but I do not say it. Fashion is a masquerade. Poetry is a glass. A girl is a price and you are paying it.

thorns
My mother kept buying jeans in different colours, only now you wonder what this meant. Speak. You can and will never finish those letters. What if she had done it? A scarf could be the culprit. It burns to feel like this, it burns, that’s how you know. A family trip to the mall can prevent divorce. The top shelf of her cupboard will always be dark. You couldn’t sleep at night, strained to hear noises, you thought she’d do it and dawn would be an ending. Nobody to ask so you ask all the questions on Google. Your mother laughed the most. We played Monopoly on the bedroom carpet. I don’t want him to hate me. You screamed music, then poems, you screamed your own name. Silence is heavy not loud. Love is Paris and he saw it in you while I saw it on an atlas. I once wondered what a language made from the sounds of rain would be like. Eyes are only taps that need plumbing.

petals
He wrote that hell was brown-eyed. She liked books about solitude. I hugged them both, thinking that what we had was like a precious gem in the desert, like a rose in the middle of Cairo. We dreamed of Paris together. Do you remember eating straight out of the sugar packets in the café with the bad crème brulee and French music? I have kept the Polaroids safe. Tu me manques. You can find triads in jazz; we are a triad too. The unholy trinity. One point in London, one point in Abu Dhabi, one point in Gaborone. Three is my lucky number. Will you let me wring the pain out like zest from a lemon? You know I only function in metaphors. I don’t want to be 19 without you. I’m so sorry that it hurts, take all the music you want. Flushed with wine but more from being together. Can we talk about Sylvia Plath though?

honey
So this is how it feels to be bathed by the stage. Blinded, I can see the light. The poetry comes through the cracks. Applause. Thank God tears can’t be heard. I did it, I did it, I did it. The notes are streaming, painting, streaking across the air and it is all for me. Jazz is a palette of colours. Love me. They have said that music can transport the soul and shake off skin. If you are a musician, you must be an alchemist. I hear paintings, I see songs. Mortal to immortal. What is your aspiration in life? Devenir immortel puis mourir. I pin and find my dreams in Google images. 18 will always be radical. I am afraid to say that one of my goals in life is simply to love and be loved.

***

Arrivals and Departures

I wrote the following piece about moving to Abu Dhabi – specifically, the  very first day of being here.  It was for a class called Questioning and Writing the Self: Memoir and Anti-Memoir.

I remember a journey I once took.
Well, actually, it was just two weeks ago. Somehow, all ‘intense’ life experiences only seem to happen in the random moments. You’ll come home from school one day and realize that your mother has wrinkles. She has wrinkles and the sun is setting and you are getting older but she is getting old and we are all ageing all the time. The kind of ageing that Olay face cream can’t fix (but what can face cream fix anyway?) Or you’ll be making toast at 4pm on some blind Tuesday, and that’s it – you’re in love. You discover, first-hand, that all the love songs and poems had to have come from somewhere and maybe it’s this feeling of half-soaring, half-falling inside your chest that won’t go away. Even when you’re making goddamn toast on a goddamn Tuesday.

It’s still a Tuesday at home when the plane lands in the blue fog of Abu Dhabi. Half -soaring, half-falling. The lights and buildings are seemingly sparser than in Dubai, which is where everyone lands on their way to somewhere else. People back home always thought and probably still think I am coming to Dubai. It’s all they know of this region – Dubai, the lone, glittery pearl in a swath of sand. Flash. Glitter. Bang.
I don’t bother telling them that they’re wrong. “It’s Abu Dhabi, not Dubai,” I say a dozen times. Like hitting the edge of the bullseye, but not quite. Not quite.

I walk down the aisle of the plane. Cabin trolleys, sticky hands, little children, neck pillows. How ordinary, how mundane. I have made the most radical change in my life and all I can think about is the shade of purple on a neck pillow.

I’m sure I’m going to write about this, maybe not tonight but sometime. It’s my great adventure, my new beginning; I keep murmuring ‘this is it’. Cloying, clichéd words on starting over, on clean slates and finding success. I expect the rest of me to follow suit, to fill out these words with colour and feeling, to intensify this blank newness into vivid novelty. But I feel nothing. Half-soaring, half-falling. It’s as if my heart decided not to come along with me; it closed its eyes and, when I wasn’t looking, crawled into my old bedcovers in Botswana, refusing to uproot itself.

I walk out of the plane, someone’s purple neck pillow in the corner of my eye. I have uprooted myself.

***

The first thing I feel is a wall of heat. It is so oppressive, so forbidding, so totally and completely hot and alien, that for a flash-second, I think of running back into the plane and cowering amongst the economy seats. The air hostess behind me is all red lipstick and white teeth and clean, bright future. My glasses fog up and I cannot see. I have a strange urge to laugh and cry all at once. Opaque vision now. I’m walking into my future, my new life, blind blind blind.

Waiting for me are bedsheets so invitingly white, they put the clinically pretty window-view to shame. I sit down in my new bedroom, my luggage at my feet like a bomb crater, the bookshelves gasping for something, anything, but emptiness. This is it. Yes, I have made it. This is the dream. There is no music, no fanfare, but only the hum of the air-conditioning. ‘This is it’, it says to me.

On the way to campus, my mother had spoken in Hindi to the taxi driver. She had asked him if he’s happy here and I know she did not ask for him but for me. It suddenly strikes me that I will have to learn how to miss my mother. Any day, I would rather take calculus.

Instead, I think about my friends. Their letters are as white as my pillowcase. Hasty farewells, hasty ink.

“I don’t know if we’ll ever see each other again.”

There is a tumbleweed in my throat, gathering hurt by the second. It tumbles and I crumple. I don’t know if we’ll ever see each other again. How lonely this is. I didn’t think it would be this lonely. Final hugs in the departure lounge. Seeing my father cry for only the second time in my life. Carrying luggage that is too heavy because I packed too many novels and too many clothes and now I think I packed too much of my memory too.

Half-soaring, half-falling. This is it.

 

The Bamboo Stalk by Saud Alsanousi

I recently finished reading my first piece of Arabic fiction, which is important to me because a) it was my college reading assignment and b) I’m moving to an Arab country in less than 4 weeks. I wanted to talk about this book not because I particularly liked it but because it made me think. Maybe that sounds oversimplified – don’t all books make us think? I guess so. But most of them just recycle our thoughts, stir up the leaves a little, and leave behind a new mess. Yet some of them are like a gust of wind, carrying new leaves, new thoughts, into our brains. These, I think, are the truly interesting pieces of literature.

The Bamboo Stalk begins with Josephine, a Filipina who escapes prostitution by becoming a maid in Kuwait. There, she falls in love with Rashid, the coddled, bookish son of Ghanima, the widow Josephine works for. When Josephine becomes pregnant with Rashid’s son (the maid and the man of the house – gasp!), the two are cast out by Rashid’s family.
‘Kuwait is a small place’, we are told repeatedly, as if all the consequences of this phrase can be cupped into one’s palm. As the novel progresses, what it really shows is not a small place, but a large society, united in its wealth, in its expectations, its scrutiny, its shared, hard lump of the smallest of thoughts.

The novel truly begins with José,  Josephine’s son. Until 18, he lives in poverty in the Philippines, waiting to go back to the ‘promised land’ of Kuwait. Meanwhile, he learns Chinese massage, and grapples with religion. Standard coming-of-age stuff. But ‘with a Filipino face, a Kuwaiti passport, an Arab surname and a Christian first name, will his father’s country welcome him?’ Boom. We now have the story.

With this kind of subject matter, that threads through race, religion, identity and patriotism, I expected The Bamboo Stalk to be something like Adichie’s novels –  a literary act of protest. Activist in its very nature. When you think about it, any person of color today, or someone who comes from a country/situation that is experiencing injustice, is expected to make activist art. Like okay, you’re a black woman writing poems about lakes and fields. Now how about some verses on the BlackLivesMatter movement? It’s as if you can’t make art for the sake of making art – it has to say something, shout something. It can’t just be pretty when so much is at stake.

Kuwait-Skyline-Night.jpg

Kuwait’s skyline

Sorry, other tangent. Back to The Bamboo Stalk – which, ironically, is about a current human rights issue: the state of migrant workers in the Gulf region. No one likes to talk about this, except perhaps Amnesty International. And while The Bamboo Stalk may not be as bold and barbed as Americanah, for example, it is still revolutionary in that we finally have an Arab openly talking about the elephant in his room. The mistreatment of the thousands of Filipinos, Indians, Pakistanis etc. who build and wipe and sweep the sleek skyscrapers is a dark lump of shame carefully held beneath our tongues. And here’s why Saud Alsanousi has made us, or at least me, think – in a month’s time, as a Sri Lankan girl, close to my age, serves me at some local Burger King, what will I do? What will I see? What will I say? And how, in the end, will I write about it?
Will I do what everyone else does, toss out a careless ‘thanks’, and forget, in an instant, the bags dragging down her eyes, how tired she looks as she smiles?

The Bamboo Stalk is undoubtedly critical of this situation, but it is first a story before a critique. The narrative is simple and clear, like a gentle stream. And although the writing style didn’t always appeal to me, its mere clarity felt refreshing after all the complex fiction I’d been reading. I’m not sure if that’s the translation or the very nature of Alsanousi’s writing. But it felt decidedly new and soothing.
Another aspect I loved was the metaphors: ‘If only I were like a bamboo tree, which doesn’t belong to anything! We cut a piece from the stalk, plant it without roots in any land. The stalk won’t take long to grow new roots… it grows anew, in a new land. Without a past, without memory.’ Another one was Tarouf, which means ‘net’ in Arabic – José talks about how his family in Kuwait, the Tarouf family, has become enmeshed in the net of societal expectations, while he, a small fish, can often manage to slip through.

I expect this book will inspire more ramblings on here as I go on to discuss it at college AND…surprise, surprise – meet its writer! Yes, apparently we will get a chance to meet Saud Alsanousi himself and satiate all our curiosities. To meet the writer of an interesting novel…dreams do come true, people.

I’m going to finish this off with some words by Nigerian poet Ijeoma Umebinyuo, which I was reminded of by this book. Thank you for reading this far. You are lovely:

“Here’s to the security guards who maybe had a degree in another land. Here’s to the manicurist who had to leave her family to come here, painting the nails, scrubbing the feet of strangers. Here’s to the janitors who don’t even fucking understand English yet work hard despite it all. Here’s to the fast food workers who work hard to see their family smile. Here’s to the laundry man at the Marriott who told me with the sparkle in his eyes how he was an engineer in Peru. Here’s to the bus driver, the Turkish Sufi who almost danced when I quoted Rumi. Here’s to the harvesters who live in fear of being deported for coming here to open the road for their future generation. Here’s to the taxi drivers from Nigeria, Ghana, Egypt and India who gossip amongst themselves. Here is to them waking up at 4am, calling home to hear the voices of their loved ones. Here is to their children, to the children who despite it all become artists, writers, teachers, doctors, lawyers, activists and rebels. Here’s to Western Union and Money Gram. For never forgetting home. Here’s to their children who carry the heartbeats of their motherland and even in sleep, speak with pride about their fathers. Keep on.”

 

this is how you lose her – a slam poem

I recently performed my first slam poem at an annual arts show called Verbal Emancipation. It was magnificent. Here is the poem:

this is how you lose her.
as you make love to yourself
through a cellphone screen.
your red-lipped smile is as hard as your hairspray
oh, what a shame
that filters erase pores, but not unhappiness.

this is how you lose her.

as the facebook likes rise
you feel the meter go up on your self-love scale.
you don’t mind the numbers this time
because they’re not telling you
that you take too much space
like that godforsaken bathroom scale.
‘fat’ – a curse word hurled by girls
who try to love what the mirror shows them
but fail. chase after self-esteem
inside a no-cream
skinny latte.

this is how you lose her

when the pop of orange bubbles in the corner of your screen
tells you how you confident you’ll feel today.

flawless. like. stunner. like. slayyy. like like like.

follow.

but let me ask you one thing
as you angle yourself thin
which do you love more?
the girl on the screen
or the girl in your skin?

and this is how you lose her
when your answer to that
becomes your hesitation.

and you lose
when society points its fingers
and you turn them all to point to
yourself.
because you’re female.
you were built up that way.
raised on a plate for catcalling men,
your body a meal for the
wolves in your head.
but take it with a pinch of salt,
the world says. life is a contest,
you’ll always be second best.
this is how you
lose her.

when you listen to that.

today, you noticed your face cream’s called ‘fair and lovely’
but darling, you’re unfair
more caramel than vanilla, you wish
your skin told a different tale than of how it was once oppressed.
see, black girls have lupita, brown girls have mindy kaling
but white girlfriend jane over there has the rest of hollywood
to spare.
isn’t that what’s unfair?
that if you’re dark, you’ve already got a burden to bear.

and you lose her
when you notice the symptoms
of this snow white syndrome
flare. and as you place that filter on your face
do you notice how it makes
your skin get
lighter lighter lighter
and the world gets brighter brighter brighter
as the comments roll in,
a sea of ‘yass girl SLAY’s
never mind that I don’t know your last name
but I’d still double-tap that.’

this is how you lose her
when those words become gospel
leading you to the light
but instead of god, you find Perfection.
and you’re forced to realize
that Perfection is the kind of lover that never stays.
this is how you lose her,
in his too-tight embrace.

and you lose when you pick the guy that only
desires you
because desire is a wolf that rams its
tongue down your throat, brands its touch on your skin
but forgets what your favourite colour is.
yes, he will learn the outlines of your legs
faster than his math assignment. desire
is when he thinks girls become less pure
after they’ve been touched by a man,
well maybe he should take a look
at his hands
this is where and how you lose her.

when you think love is when he looks at you
from between his legs
and desire starts to equal respect, an equation that can never make
sense.
do you raise your skirt’s hem
for him or yourself?

see, a soul can’t be dressed
a soul can’t follow a trend
but if this world was a cup of coffee, then soul
would be the sugar grain
forgotten on the saucer’s edge.
these are the thoughts that pour from your brain –
your tongue calls them ‘feminist’
but the world always thought that
your mouth should be drained.
so angry
so angry it has to be this way.
but anger doesn’t look good
on a woman, they say.

‘a soul can’t be dressed.’
‘a soul can’t follow a trend’
and you cry.
because nothing’s about the soul anymore,
it’s all about the skin.
isn’t it?

and you lost her
when you forgot to ask the girl in the mirror
if she’s happy.
when the lipstick’s gone, the concealer erased,
are you happy with yourself?
when your phone is down, the camera turned away
are you happy with yourself?
‘cause you could drip in gold
or just wear your skin,
you’ve always heard but never
known that what matters is within
‘cause a soul can’t be dressed
and it shouldn’t be a
revolution
to love yourself
but it is.
you always thought being a girl
came with that string attached.

but this is your call to arms
to try to love what you have, what you own,
what you are.
you’re a girl. you’re a woman.
you’ve got your beauty in knots
all you need is to untangle it in your thoughts
because

this

is how

you find her.

***

 

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Geared up for the show – me & my beautiful friend Tsaone. He sings.

 

On Jazz & Sweaty Beats

I watch him play. He begins with a C major chord. It’s pleasant, sweet, comfortable. Next is G major, then F, then D. They all sound happy. Maybe that’s why there’s a kind of falseness to them, as if they’re made out of plastic. He leans forward, tells me Mozart is boring. He replays the C major chord, then lets his fingers loose a little, freeing them to tiptoe to pariah notes. Suddenly, there is both dark and light, blue and red, ecstasy and pain. He tells me, it’s all about the colours. My eyes widen. I’ll remember this.

Jazz. A single syllable – voluptuous, soft and as biting as a cymbal crash. It’s the caviar of music. Only a few enjoy it, the kind of people who take time cultivating themselves, as if they’re fermenting grapes into fine wine. I wanted to be one of them, fed up with both Top 40 and force-fed Bach. But you don’t just fill your plate with caviar and instantly love it. After all, heaven knows that liking fish eggs has to be an acquired taste.

When jazz first began in America, the kids loved it and the parents hated it. It was alcohol and sex and everything forbidden, wrapped up in sounds. For the first time, chords had edges and melodies swayed like erotic dancers. Teenagers were thrilled. The spikes and dips of their hormones could match the leaps of a saxophone solo. Jazz morphed their awkward experiences into something profound. A Buddy Rich track became their frenzied ambition; an Ella Fitzgerald song was the slow-burning glance of a school crush. Jazz was their rebellion. Through it, they could run away, escape, forget, throw a middle finger up to all of their problems.

When you become a teenager, you start to feel like you’re full of holes. There are so many gaps you’re always trying to fill, maybe with music or sport or drugs or books. You’re searching for doors to escape from yourself. At the same time, you’re peering inwards to find what’s within. It’s awful – because you have to find a way to deal with it, the boldness, the beauty and the hurt of being so young.

For me, it was through a song – ‘In a Sentimental Mood’ by John Coltrane. It was strange. It ran like warm water trickling over rocks. It was wrong, and then right, and then both wrong and right – how could that be? I listened more and understood less. But I became more certain with each passing note – I was in love. The more I pressed replay, I felt something radical, like shy little me had found a secret passage to the stars. I wanted to think I had written the first page of my life’s bildungsroman. How else could it be possible to feel like I’d changed in the space of a quaver?

Yet sometimes I hated the music. Sometimes I thought it was just bizarre. But most of it grew on me, slowly, like a vine creeping up a wall. So whilst my friends ‘got down’ to the sweaty beat of some rapper, I delved into more Coltrane, then Billie Holiday, Armstrong…I felt new things, saw new colours. That’s the thing – jazz is all about the colours. One blue note in a major chord can give a light its shadow.

I soon came to believe that your average pop song or classical piece, full of conventional sounds, is nothing more than a controlled fantasy. Jazz, I think, is more like life – messy, odd, wonderful. And slightly dangerous. I can put some Coltrane on the turntable and take flight, be fearless.  Because even in my most terrible mood, jazz makes me feel otherworldly and  powerful. It’s like tasting caviar for the first time.

You Look Disgusting

I got acne when I was 9 years old. I’m 13 now and still have it. I don’t think people understand how much it affects me. I get bullied for it. People tell me “it’s not Halloween yet.” And “What’s wrong with you?”

The comment above has 164 likes on YouTube. A ribbon of replies follow – ‘I can relate’, ‘I feel your pain’, ‘people can be so cruel’.New sob-stories swell by the hour, each commenter relishing the comfort of being faceless in this conversation about faces. ‘I can barely look at myself in the mirror,’ one 11-year-old writes. A horde of well-wishers reassure her that she’s beautiful, she’s worth it, never listen to the haters. Love yourself. It sounds so easy. As sweet and neat as a wrapped candy.
I wonder if she swallows it.

Last year, a British beauty blogger named Em Ford released a short film titled ‘You Look Disgusting’. Ford suffers from acute adult acne and often posts images of herself without makeup – the perennial ‘before’ picture – freely showing her blemishes and scars. The response has been shocking.

Seriously, has she ever washed her face? Revolting. Imagine waking up next to her in the morning. Gross. Ugly. You look disgusting.
In the film, Ford sits bare-faced in front of the camera, as these comments (all of which she has received in real life) materialize around her. She is motionless, unsmiling, distraught. As she begins to apply her makeup, the words around her change. She smiles. You look beautiful.
But this is so misleading.   

A still from ‘You Look Disgusting’

Society never lets you win with makeup. If you don’t wear it, people stare and comment, especially if you have acne. If you do wear it, compliments quickly slide into digs such as ‘you’re fake’ ‘clown’ and ‘this is false advertising’. But a woman is not a product. And since when is she trying to sell herself to you? Yet society behaves as if a woman’s face exists solely for its viewing pleasure. Therefore, it must adhere to its ‘perfect’ standards -which are really double standards.

Most people think that a woman only wears makeup if she’s insecure or she’s trying to please a man. And yes, while it is true that some individuals, especially young girls, use makeup as an emotional crutch or a ladder to higher self-esteem, this is only because they’re trying to please the very society that judges and shames them.

However, many find makeup empowering, and a means for self-expression. Others see it as an art form, using their faces as a canvas on which they can play with colour and texture. They feel equally comfortable with makeup and without. Swiping on some lipstick is simply a choice they feel they have a right to. But we all know that society has a tendency to deny women their choices. Wearing makeup today has become more of an obligation; it stems from an unspoken expectation of women to always look flawless. After all, isn’t this is what all the magazines and adverts and films whisper to us daily? Be perfect, be perfect, be perfect.
And then we wonder why some women can’t leave the house with a ‘natural’ face.

You can’t talk about beauty without mentioning the media, society’s obnoxious loudspeaker. If you switch on the TV or flip open a magazine, every single female is wearing makeup. The high-school girls all look runway-ready in homeroom, their eyeliner winged to the heavens. Some of them even sleep with it on. We see no images of confident, bare-faced women. So we begin to believe that prettiness and confidence can only be found in an eyeshadow palette. Meanwhile, young girls see Kylie Jenner’s stardom spike after she gets plastic surgery and extensively uses cosmetics. So they too begin raiding the MAC counter in hopes of becoming more likeable, more popular, more beautiful. Just like the girls who are #goals on their screens.

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We tell girls that beauty comes from within but we show them that it’s only skin deep. The comments in Ford’s video itself are a testament to the idea that beauty is dependent on makeup, and even then it is never enough. The spectrum of ‘being beautiful’ has become as narrow as an eyeliner pencil. No wonder people find it normal to viciously judge others’ appearances – so casually cruel in the name of ‘stating their opinion’.
Do they ever realize how much it can hurt?

Should such comments be banned?  I don’t believe this will solve the issue. Despite the venomous nature of the words, it would limit one’s right to freedom of speech. And we would only be skimming the surface. What we really need is to change the mindset that somebody’s appearance must conform to your own, or the media’s, set standard of beauty. We need to make people feel the knives in their words before they post a nasty comment on somebody’s face. We need to stretch out our rigid perceptions of beauty.

Because beauty is not a template you can contour yourself into; it is the love and compassion within you. It is your humanity. And you cannot conjure that from a mascara tube.

 

It’s Lit

I often wonder about the fate of the library. I imagine its wrinkles are setting in, its cheeks hollowing out. A few more decades, and it will recede like an old man’s hairline, back into the past. Here lies an archaeological ruin of intellect, a pioneer in the pursuit of knowledge.
“Books smell like old people,” a New Haven student says. I picture a huddle of desolate novels, aged and beige, crumbling slowly from the lack of touch, the lack of love.
An old-age home for literature. Is that what a library has become?

In an article for The New Yorker, titled ‘Do Teens Read Seriously Anymore?’, David Denby highlights the significant decline in reading amongst today’s youth. It has become a “chore”, a “weak, petulant claimant on [our] time,” he states. A part of me, the ardent bibliophile, finds this inconceivable. Yet it is the truth.

Two weeks ago, I saw a group of students engaging in some kind of modern ritual. They sat in a circle, backs bent in worship, their eyes fixated on the screens in their palms. Nobody spoke. Nobody looked up. Not a single book was in sight. Their fingers moved swiftly, as if they could tap and swipe their way into an alternate universe. Such was the power of their devotion. They were somewhere else, a fantastical bubble that could not be reached. A place where human expression was replaced with emojis.
And this was supposed to be a literature class.

Screens have become our lifeboats and we cannot stop clinging. Denby mentions that because of this, today’s youth is engulfed with more words than ever, so technically they are reading more. But they amass only broken shells of knowledge – texts, tweets, blogs, articles – the debris of fuller ideas. Reading something longer and more complex makes them shudder. The trendy likes of Harry Potter and The Hunger Games are manageable. But suggest some Hemingway and they just blink at you.

It seems that in the tsunami of technological progress, books and literature have become the flotsam. Not only is this limiting the development of critical thinking skills, but also the ability to form more voluptuous opinions. But what can be expected from the generation that’s more fluent in iSpeak than their mother tongues? We are continuously pruning our words into whatever’s easier to digest – ‘cool’ is ‘kwl’. ‘It’s lit’ could mean the party’s going down, but not literature or anything. There’s nothing inherently wrong with doing this. But it’s come to a point where our bite-size reading and bitten-down words are encroaching upon well-articulate writing. Today’s adolescents balk at Balzac but will gladly polish off 500 + meaningless tweets. It doesn’t require much thinking or effort or learning, you see.

My English teacher used to say that “literature is life”– trite but perfect. Deepening our reading nourishes our capacity for empathy and our understanding of human actions and emotions. We learn to recognize the various shades of villainy and virtue in the ‘characters’ around us. In his article, Denby asks: “Could a country that had widely read ‘Huckleberry Finn’ have taken Donald J. Trump seriously for a second? Twain’s readers… [would] know what a bullying con artist sounds like.”

Literature and reading are as intrinsic to me as gravity. So I find it difficult to ‘sell’ the notion of reading more books to other people; I feel like I’m endorsing what should just be common sense. To me, reading is the act of turning a page of the mind. That’s why I relish books that shake up my views, like marbles in a jar.

But I worry that in the future, literature will acquire the gilded elitism of classical music – a niche for nostalgic fanatics. Or old people. I worry that libraries and bookshops will one day dismantle their shelves. But I still carry hope in the margins of my thoughts. Perhaps the Kindle or the rise of e-books will resurrect our reading culture. Or perhaps we will realize how ridiculous it is to disregard something we’re so similar to. For someone once told me that humans are just like books; we all have spines and stories to tell.