I have a memory of being 13 or 14, in my bedroom after school, swearing to myself that I would learn to speak less, be more pleasing, not have so much to say. I have a distinct recollection of the shame I felt at the ways in which I couldn’t conform to what was expected of girls and women, and my frustration with myself that I couldn’t seem to keep the resolution to silence myself.
It wasn’t that I wanted to speak, it’s that no matter what I did I couldn’t stop myself. In undergrad, in class, I would monitor myself in class discussions, aware of how women students who made comments were met with snorts of annoyance. When I started writing, I would wish that I could say things that weren’t political, because in those years what I said didn’t get me invited places, it lost me relationships and jobs. In grad school, I would shake before question period at talks, but still I felt compelled if I had a question to ask it, just like now as an adult I shake before ministers and police and corrections officials and media but I go ahead and speak anyway.
Speaking as a Black woman has never been easy. I spent years when I was younger fighting the thing in me that seemed compelled to say things that people didn’t want to hear, and that made people hate me. For years I couldn’t understand why I was who I was.
I was raised in a strict immigrant household. We didn’t have a TV as children; instead my mother took us to the library every week. Books like the Babysitters Club were not allowed (a waste of time in my mother’s view) and I used to smuggle those in and hide them.
My mother put us in piano and violin lessons and dragged us around museums on the premise that when we were medical doctors we would have something to do with our down time to relax. At least, that’s what she said. Looking back now I think there were other reasons. Some of it was giving us the experiences she couldn’t have as a poor Black girl growing up in a colonized country, and some of it I think was her trying to give us the tools to survive in the white world. I realize now that she, who left home at 15 and attended school in England, must have felt herself inadequate and excluded when she didn’t share the same references and experiences as her classmates. I wonder how much lesser she felt for how long. We would know opera and ballet and be able to walk into rooms and not feel inferior or less cultured or educated than anyone around us as we easily conversed about our day in surgery.
Ironically, of course, all of this reading and arts didn’t create doctors, it created writers. When I was little, I would become frustrated when, in the middle of a conversation or argument, my mother would reach for whatever volume of the Encyclopedia Brittanica, page through it and read whatever entry she found relevant out, pausing tediously on the statistics. I would impatiently stand there, getting angry, as she read out data, trying to return to my point. I saw this as deeply annoying. Now, again, as an adult, I can see my mother’s motives. She was teaching us to come with facts, do the research, and to back everything we said up. Some of that was probably her own love of statistics, but it was also her knowledge that when a Black woman speaks she better be ready to defend everything she says and know how to show the receipts.
Black children don’t “have” childhoods so much as we are trained through them. Our parents are always acutely aware of their need to prepare us for a hostile world, a world in which an unruly child will at best be met with whispers about how “those people” can’t control their children properly, and at worst can end with the child being shot for playing outside with the wrong toy.
My mother’s strategy was to arm us intellectually, believing that titles and accomplishments were the best weapon (when you’re stopped by the police, pull out your faculty card with your licence). When we were bullied and taunted with racial slurs, she would respond by pointing out that it didn’t matter because we were ahead in the spelling or math book. She was the classic immigrant mother asking what happened to the other one per cent on tests. “You have be twice as good to get half as much” was drummed into our heads. White kids could go to the mall, drink and party, afford to mess around. We couldn’t. We had to be the best to be considered even human enough.
I was trained to be a good daughter: high achieving, obedient, polite, perfectionist. But then there were the words, the books, the political discussions at the dinner table where being the youngest didn’t mean you were coddled or given any quarter. It doesn’t surprise me now that I ended up as I am — a political Black writer — given all that early training in thinking and arguing.
What has always been harder has been not being obedient, but I couldn’t make myself be that either. Becoming who I am now was something I had to win back out of colonialism, out of racist histories, out of suppressing ourselves, out of shame, out of centuries of conditioning to keep your head down, out of the dreams of my mother for a better future where her children wouldn’t face the same struggles. How can I take any of that lightly?
It has never been easy, even now, to say things that make people hate me. What I felt at 13 I still feel now. I don’t wish now to be other than what I am, but the conditioning to be pleasing never goes away. Someone once asked me, “how do you just get up on stage and relentlessly say things that make people uncomfortable?” And I thought about it, and responded that when people need you to say those things, when they give you permission and ask you to say things, then you aren’t standing there alone. I stand there on the backs of my grandmother who longed to be an opera singer and had a Grade 3 education, on my great great grandmother who was born in slavery, on the back of my mother who gritted her teeth and kept her head down — because I am the first generation of women who can speak and write where the consequence is unlikely to be death or arrest or having my house burned down in the night.
But that doesn’t make the consequences easy. The other day I was searching for a story I had written a couple of years ago about the effects of the heat on elderly and chronically ill prisoners. There was an article on CBC about the current heat wave and people were arguing about it, so I went to find what I had written about prisoners dying in hot cells. What I found when I searched instead were websites full of people complaining about me. And I felt that jolt, that horrible feeling of not being pleasing, of not being a good girl, of not being liked.
When I write the stories that people tell me about prison, I don’t do it carelessly. I have to weigh the importance of recording what happens there with the consequences that people in prison face for speaking out. The person who can be dragged off to segregation or involuntarily transferred to another province, or labelled a troublemaker in their sentencing or parole report isn’t me. Sometimes people tell me they were questioned about what I wrote, asked if they were the person who told me, and I always feel sick about it, terrified that they will suffer for it. For every story that I write about what people tell me, there are dozens more I don’t write, because the person is too scared, or it’s too easy to identify them, or it’s too traumatic for them. A lot of the time, people tell me things just to be able to tell someone, trusting that they can speak to me about it and I won’t betray them. So much of what I hear is so sad and so awful and so painful that I can barely sleep afterwards. Carrying these stories is a responsibility I take seriously, when you quite literally hold someone’s life in your hands.
So naturally I don’t like it when people react by saying “ugh, here we go again. Another story about prison.” Or, even more commonly, “another story about race.” There she is, banging on about racism again. It’s not the criticism that gets me — you don’t go through graduate school in English without learning to take magnitudes more criticism than that — it’s the sense that what people are responding to is a particular image they have of the “angry Black woman.” That they truly believe that I write about prison or racism or injustice out of some perverse desire to be annoying, or to be an “SJW” or to “pull the race card” or “wallow in victimhood” or whatever narrative it is people are working from that allows you to make sense to them. And those are the mild criticisms, not the ones telling you to suck their dick and shut the fuck up you fucking cunt or calling you nigger or wishing lynching would come back.
It’s weird, because Halifax is such a small place, really, that you wonder how many people who hate you see you walking around, or taking the bus, or buying toilet paper. And I wonder if they see me as a person then — a person who reflects, and thinks, and worries, and tries to do the right thing, and who feels nervous afterwards, and who second guesses myself, and doubts, and cares for people (a human, like them).
When you start thinking like this, of course, then you start worrying about the look you have on your face when people see you, like they’re going to think “see, I knew she was a bitch” if I’m not smiling or something. You’d also think just one of those people might approach you and try to talk to you, but that never happens.
That’s what gets me really, not that people might not like what I write (why should they?), but the idea that to so many people you’re not yourself, you’re this idea of whatever it is they don’t like about Black people, or about women, or about activists, or about whoever you are to them. And I always feel, but that’s not who I am. I bet lots of people reading this didn’t know I like ballet, or that I like to think out my stories when I run, or that I consider popsicles their own food group. An elder in the community asked me if I see myself as a role model, and I told them, I don’t want to be a role model, I just want to be allowed to be human.
I was talking to Masuma Khan about this, about what it feels like to become that hateable image for people. What she said echoes everything I have felt, and struggled with, and born the consequences from.
It just affects every relationship. When you meet new people and they refer to you as the “girl that everyone hates.” It feels like people are being fed this alternative version of me that is not true to who I am fundamentally. I’m human at the end of the day, and dealing with so much hate constantly everywhere I turn hurts. The hate has a way of manifesting into racist, sexist, body shaming, Islamophobia where people question my morals.
It’s hard because I want to ensure that people like my mother never lose sight of the type of person she raised. It’s like a battle of constantly trying to show who I am only to have media portray me as an angry aggressive Afghan hijabi. It’s hard to remind yourself of who you are and remain true to yourself when people are constantly trying to tell you who you are.
How I deal with it? I just listen to my heart. Sometimes it’s hard to go into public spaces because I don’t want people to recognize me. I surround myself with people who do not doubt who I am and have seen my soul in its most Masuma (innocent) self. I just remain hopeful that maybe people will actually see me for the soft-hearted person I am. My heart is the only reason I do this work and is the only reason I continue to.
The things I care about, I don’t care about because I think I’m better than other people, in that way that I think that people who are annoyed hearing about social justice issues think that it’s about “virtue signalling.” It’s because I know what it is to fight to be human.
I don’t care about justice because I think I have it figured out, it’s because I know it’s hard and messy. And I don’t write these things because I like pissing people off, but because once people give you those stories, you have a duty to carry them and do them justice. I don’t write and talk about race because there’s boards of white people out there who can’t stand it, I think about it because I have to be able to live in this world too.
Because for long years I couldn’t make sense of the things that happened to me, and why my mother acted the way she did, and why I was the one sent into the hallway when we all were talking, and why I had to work twice as hard and know about opera and philosophy and play the piano and violin and win the science fair and run and write and still worry about being taken seriously, and why people wanted to rape me or kill me or shut me up, and because there are other Black girls out there who need to know the why of it too.
There is nothing wrong with anger — how can we not be angry when we see our people shot dead in the streets?— but it isn’t anger that drives me, that builds me.
Because when people tell you their stories and trust you with it, your heart touches their heart with no space in between. Bryan Stevenson said he doesn’t do justice work because he wants to save people, but because he’s broken too. Because we’re all broken in some way, and thinking and writing and working for better has always been how humans try to put ourselves together.
People often say two things about me: that I’m fearless and I don’t give a fuck. El’s not here for bullshit they’ll say. But it’s not true. I’m afraid all the time, and I take way more bullshit than I should. It’s not that I’m fearless, it’s just that I’m more scared of what will happen if I don’t speak.
I wasn’t supposed to be doing any of this. If my mother had her way, I’d be a brain surgeon on a space shuttle somewhere, playing with a symphony orchestra on the side. And if my 13-year-old self had got her way, I’d be sitting quietly somewhere. But something in me could never accept that. What I am now, I wasn’t supposed to be. Not a writer, not an activist, not even alive, because in a fundamental way we aren’t supposed to be here. We are the living descendants of our ancestors who didn’t jump into the sea. And we are told from birth that we have a responsibility to them, and to every one of us who doesn’t make it, that we have a duty beyond ourselves that we must take seriously.
Audre Lorde said, “And when we speak we are afraid our words will not be heard nor welcomed, but when we are silent we are still afraid. So it is better to speak remembering we were never meant to survive.” She wrote that so someone like me could take comfort, a long line of Black women told we cannot speak, finding a way to do it anyway.