Archive for April 2013

Stephen Lawrence and the chase

Stephen Lawrence died 20 years ago today, and as I remember that period my chest is again hollow with fear. You see, the thing is with Stephen Lawrence was that it actually happened, that thing you were always afraid of as a kid. You were always worried that, no matter how pleasant and patient and courteous you were, someone whom you filled with fury just by being black would come after you. And it actually happened to him. I cannot imagine the terror when he first realised that they were giving chase.

I grew up in the town of West Drayton, which is a place many if not most people have never heard of. It is the last station in Zone 6 on your way out of Paddington, near Hayes and Hounslow. Back then, in the early to late Nineties, racism was a problem both visible and tangible. I’m not one for taking photos, but the one snap I regret never taking was that of the wall of the local car park, next to the Tesco supermarket. There, overnight, a team of graffiti artists had sprayed a racist tapestry ten metres high by forty metres across. The scale and detail of their work takes my breath away, even now. There were stencils of red stars, within which were emblazoned the letters “KKK”. There were long thin black paint trails, proclaiming NF. On the way down to the train station, you could find stickers on the traffic lights next to Barclays Bank, with the warning “Pakis Beware – West London C18 in the area”. One time, a BNP flyer, printed over in Welling, came through our front door.

How big was the presence of racists in West Drayton? Sometimes I felt like I imagined it. After all, that BNP flyer was for a by-election in which the BNP and NF combined only narrowly got more votes than the Monster Raving Loony Party – 410 votes to 396, if I remember rightly. On the other hand, it’s striking how well I recall the fear. The fear was not about the raw statistics of racial prejudice. The fear was that one day, like Stephen Lawrence, you would be subjected to the chase.

Perhaps I was an unusually paranoid teenager. At one point, I would walk the long way home, looping back on myself so it would not be readily apparent where I lived. One time I noticed that a pub on one side of the railway bridge had what appeared to be a swastika chalked on its walls. A few years later, having left West Drayton, I found that the far-right band Skrewdriver had played there. Maybe the threat was more transient than I thought it was – you never quite knew. But all I can say for sure is what I thought at the time if I was ever approached by those who hated foreigners. “You’re black. Be strong, or be quick.” I was never strong, so I tried to make sure that, if needed, I would be quick.

I was never that quick of stride, but I was thoroughly watchful. I will never forget one particular afternoon. I was walking with my sister to the opticians one summer afternoon – it was T-shirt weather, it must have been about 2pm – and we walked past an otherwise nondescript man who was wearing a heavy jacket, which must have been unusually uncomfortable in that heat. We made brief eye contact and something about him gave me an inner shiver. We walked past him under the bridge, and I told my sister that when we came out of the opticians we should cross straight over the road and walk back on the other side of the street, so as not to brush past him again.

I think she might have been bemused by my insistence, but we did so.
We came out of the appointment about twenty minutes later, crossed over the road, and went back under the bridge and towards the train station. No sign of the man. We then got on the double-decker bus to Uxbridge, since we wanted to do a bit of afternoon shopping, and as we came out of the station, back to towards the bridge, we saw the man. He had been looking for us. He looked up to the top floor of the bus, saw us, and smiled wryly, widely at us. He had been waiting in almost exactly the same spot where we had passed him on the way to the opticians, tucked behind one side of the railway bridge just across from Heff’s Bike Shop. And then he opened his jacket.

From armpit to armpit, the lining of his coat was a patchwork of swastikas. All different sizes and colours, carefully stitched into its fabric. There was one that was purple, black and yellow, that’s the one I recall most clearly. I even numbly wondered if I could see one in the traditional red, black and white, and I eventually found it, tucked away low in one of the corners. I had never seen racism with such care, such craft. The man, grinning now at the discomfort he had caused us, turned and walked away back under the bridge.

In the end, of course, the chase never came for me, but it came for Stephen Lawrence; just another black kid who was just going about his business. Still, twenty years later, my eyes water with the horror of it all. I’m not going to say anything as pithy as “never again”, because even as I write this there are young black boys just like Stephen somewhere in the world who are alert to the threat of the chase. I suppose I am just writing this because I heard this morning that it had been twenty years since Stephen Lawrence died, and I thought I would give my most immediate and honest response to that news.

“Zooming In, Zooming Out”: a conversation with Shannon Hardwick, poet

humming

Shannon Hardwick is a fantastic poet whose acquaintance I was lucky to make several years ago. Hailing from Texas, drawing her influences from science, music and a keen study of the world around her, her work exudes a rare grace and optimism. On the eve of the publication by Mouthfeel Press of Hummingbird Mind, her second chapbook, I caught up with her for a conversation about poetry, the prairie, Tchaikovsky and more.

Shannon, how have your experiences influenced you as a writer?

I grew up in an interesting household. My parents were not happily married. I grew up with four siblings…but I was the second oldest, so even though I grew up in a big family I always felt like kind of a loner. I rode horses, and so I spent most of my time away from the home and at the barn.
I remember this one memory when my parents had just separated and my mom was busy, she couldn’t take me to the barn. And I felt trapped in my home, so I called my father, which was kind of a desperate measure because I didn’t usually call him; and I asked him if he could take me to the barn. And he couldn’t do that, and he said, ‘why can’t your mom take you? Why do you have to go at this hour?’ I think it was probably eight o’clock in the evening. And I just said, ‘I want to see my best friend.’ ”
So horses were a really big deal to me – I spent a long time with her, not around other people – and so writing was a way of communicating my thoughts and feelings at a time that was very confusing. Every major event of my life I remember always running to pen and paper, to figure out how I was feeling. A lot of times I wrote to God. Maybe I felt like that was my friend in the sky as a child.

You still write to the sky, don’t you, if that makes sense?

Yeah, I know, to the bigger picture, the bigger thing out there, the Universe…yes, I still very much write to that.

I’ve been reading your work for a few years now, and each time you manage to marry imagery and narrative better and better . What I really liked about Manaquest [Shannon’s first chapbook] is that you sank completely into a different world. It reminded me of the old Coyote stories, the Tricksters and so on. I’ve always seen a bit of the prairie or the wilderness in your work, if that’s fair.

That makes sense. As I’ve gotten older, people point that out to me a lot. I grew up in West Texas in the middle of nowhere, where we were five hours from the biggest town. So it’s just plains and prairies and tumbleweeds and cows. Flatland. So yes, I think that influences my work a lot.

It’s funny reading work influenced by the geography; you read work by, say, Cormac McCarthy, and the prose feels very windswept. And reading your stuff as well, you can sense the geography which it has inspired. That’s a great strength of yours. There’s a lot of space in your work; there’s a lot of air, even in the way you use the punctuation. The words definitely breathe. Without that the imagery would be quite dense and, I think, overwhelming…But despite that space, there’s also a sense of optimism. Do you think that’s a fair comment?

Yes, I think that’s fair…I think that might come from some sort of spirituality in my work. Maybe, I don’t know. [Laughs]

The Hummingbird Mind – why the title?

I wrote most of [those poems] when I was a student at Sarah Lawrence College [a liberal arts college in New York]. Some of those I wrote when I visited home in Texas, but I think I was a little overwhelmed in New York and it was definitely a new landscape.

Maybe it was the disconnect of living in New York, I’m not sure, but one day I was at the library at Sarah Lawrence and I was researching schizophrenia, thought disorders, and I came across this woman’s blog. And she mentioned this disconnection of thought, and she called it ‘Hummingbird Mind’. And I loved that. So that’s how I came up with the title: of thoughts jumping from here to there.

It’s a beautiful image. And it’s funny because although it seems a particularly singular condition, I think it’s actually one that we’re living in now. In this era of urbanisation, a lot of us have ‘hummingbird minds’. Even looking out the window, we’re all dashing about. And there’s a sense of speed for the sake of speed sometimes, and not thinking where it’s taking us.

Oh, definitely. And just today’s culture of being connected to the Internet. If you go out anywhere and look at young people, they’re not even connecting with their surroundings, they’re just looking at their phones, which in itself is a whole other world. We’re just looking at the Internet and living these weird double lives, or triple lives.

It’s very weird having to define yourself with reference to the Internet. Now, for many people, being online is almost the default option.

Right.

But your work is a real departure from the world of the Internet, which is why I like it. It’s very contemplative and reflective. There was one poem of yours I was reading, where I loved this line: “There are nights when I discover universes packed in a suitcase”. What inspired that particular image?

I do a lot of work with memory learning. With the image of a suitcase, you’re travelling physically, but also back in your mind.

I had the vision there of Men In Black, where they have universes inside marbles.

Right! [Laughs]

There was also your Tchaikovsky poem earlier, which seemed to be about having to proceed despite what was overwhelming. What did that piece mean to you?

Well, right before I moved to New York I started getting into classical music and studying composers’ lives. And what really moved me was that Tchaikovsky didn’t even start writing or composing music until he was, I think, forty? His mother had died, and he was probably unhealthily connected to his mother. And she died, and he became an alcoholic. And at one point he even threw himself down the stairs, in a suicidal attempt, and that moment [in reading about that] I felt this overwhelming sadness, that everything in your whole world was out of control. And yet out of that, as a way to maybe contain or control that emotion, he created beautiful music. And not until he was 40. And I just thought that was fascinating, and that’s where that poem came from.

It’s a beautiful piece; and there are lessons there for all of us more broadly, I think, that it is never too late to create. So much of life, as that shows, is just hanging in there; because Tchaikovsky now, even for a casual listener to classical music like me, is such a frame of reference. There’s a powerful sense of resilience.

Right.

Let’s go into other themes in your poetry, beyond that surface level of optimism. What are the key things that you think characterise, that drive your work?

Zooming in, and zooming out. Quantum mechanics; the very large, and the very small. The self, but also getting out of the self, and connecting with the Universe. How to explain this?…Well, one time I was kind of a troublemaker as a teen and I got sent away to this programme – I think in the UK they had a show about it, it’s called ‘Brat Camp’? [laughs]

Yes, hahaha!

I went to that same Brat Camp – I think, the one in Utah – and I was out there and every night before we went to bed I would lay down on my sleeping bag, and basically you would see shooting stars, you would see thousands of them before you went to sleep. And I got this feeling of feeling so connected to something so large, yet at the same time feeling so small. So at once feeling insignificant, and at the same time feeling connected to all that is significant. And I like to explore our feeling of disconnect – of feeling small and insignificant and yet feeling connected to everything and everyone, of that largeness and that smallness.

You can pre-order a copy of Hummingbird Mind for $8.00 here. You can read more of Shannon’s poetry and thoughts on her blog, which you can find by clicking on this link.

East African women on FGM: “Sometimes they just call you lazy.”

“Sometimes they just call you lazy.”

On the last day of my Easter holidays, Dr. Phoebe Abe (or, as I know her, my mother) sat down in her living room with me and several women from Somalia, Egypt and Sudan.  My mother, a GP, had for some time been looking at the issue of female genital mutilation, or FGM, with Dr Comfort Momoh MBE.  However, this was the first time that I had ever met people with whom she worked.  Each of these women had undergone FGM early in their lives, and now, encouraged by her, they were talking frankly about how they felt.   One of them spoke of the agony that the procedure still caused her three decades later.  Frequently, when bent over with pain, she would receive little understanding from those in her community who did not know what she had experienced.  “Sometimes they just call you lazy”, she explained. “Most Somali women are very big,” she said, swiftly outlining the curves of her hips with her outstretched arms.  “‘You need to exercise, you need to lose weight’, they tell you.”

When going to see doctors, she had met with an attitude that was no less frustrating.  “Sometimes you feel like maybe they don’t care”, she said.  On several occasions when she went for an appointment, complaining of severe backache, she was prescribed painkillers without further examination, which merely led to complications elsewhere: most notably, the ibuprofen that she was given led to stomach pains, only compounding her discomfort.    The true problem lay deeper, and was only diagnosed after she fainted on one of her weekly visits to her GP.  As a result of the removal of her clitoris as a child, she now had incessant trouble with her back, and found it very difficult to hold her urine, which she found “very embarrassing”, as a result of which “we have isolated ourselves”, she said, looking round at each of her friends in the room.  They nodded in agreement.

Part of the problem, she continued, was that Somalis were a people whose daily lives went mostly unnoticed in the UK.  “The British call us the ‘invisible community’; we are there, but we are nowhere to be seen’”, she said.  Not only were there lingusitic and cultural problems to contend with – the thought of her talking this openly with English people was unthinkable – it was also “very, very rare” for women like her to speak out about these issues, and so I said that I would maintain their anonymity in any article that I wrote.

This, she said, is how it typically happens.  When you’re six years old, girls in the year above at the local school, or madrassa, go and have the procedure done; after that, they return to school and they tell you that you’re dirty for not having gone through it.   “We look up to them like they’re big girls”, she said. At that point, the young girls will go to their mothers and ask when they can have it done too.  Then they go and have and it done; and, she says with a wry laugh, “then you get disabled”.

Having gone through this, their male agemates will look at them with renewed respect, telling each of them that “you’re a good girl, you’re clean now eh?”  By the age of 14, most if not all of the girls will each have been paired off with a man, “and you’re expected to have your first baby at 16”.  One of the women got married at 16 to a 36-year old man, and one of the others recalled that, when she got married, “I was 18, he was 43”.

“Back home, men can have wives in another country”, one of them noted, revealing that “when my father died, we [found that] we had Indian sisters, [and] sisters in Norway”.  Having said that, due to the extreme discomfort that is the legacy of FGM, they took a very pragmatic approach to these affairs.  They would rather that they fulfilled their needs elsewhere.  “Why don’t you just have another wife?  “Go and get yourself a minyire [a second wife, pronounced min-year-ray]”, one of them told her husband.  “Sex for me is like a chore…We were not meant to enjoy sex.  We were supposed to be machines to have babies.”

Another woman described how she felt when her husband returned from work in the mood for sex.  “You are scared when your husband is coming to you,” she said.  “I hate sex…When I come home, I find myself a lot of things to do. I make a lot of jobs for myself.” The terrible pain caused by vaginal intercourse was little surprise, my mother pointed out to me, given that the clitoris was exceptionally sensitive, with eight thousand nerve endings.  Following the removal of the clitoris, the vagina would then be sewn back up so tight that it would be difficult to urinate, let alone have penetrative sex.

Often the women would just pretend to enjoy it, so as to get it over with.  “You don’t want to disappoint him, so you lie”, one of them said.  “You say, yes, yes, yes,” she panted, rolling her eyes theatrically as the others laughed.  It was after sex that the complications always arrived.  “I have been married for 10 years and have only had sex seven times,” said another woman.  “[After sex], I cry for two hours and then have paracetamol.  You can use hot water, to soothe yourself [between the legs] with a shower.  The first time is the worst, because the skin [which has been sewn back up] gets ripped.”

Every now and then, there would be women for whom these sensations came as a particularly unpleasant shock.  “Sometimes women don’t know if they’ve had FGM because they’ve been cut so long ago – [as long ago as] four years old – and they have to ask their parents”, my mother explained.  “‘Have you been circumcised?’ I ask them, and they say, ‘Oh, what’s that?  I don’t know…let me call me call my mum.  And they’re told, ‘oh yes, you were done when you were four years old.’…‘One woman’, my mother continued, ‘saw her daughter’s clitoris, and she was shocked.  She’d never seen one before.’”

The dearth of resources in this area had dangerous consequences, said my mother, who saw one or two cases of FGM in her local surgery each week.  GPs throughout the UK needed training so that they were aware of this problem.  “These women might die from renal failure without anyone knowing that they are suffering”, she said.  Moreover the numbers were sobering.  In the UK, there are 20,000 girls at risk of this procedure every year; in Africa alone, that figure is 3million.  An estimated 66,000 young girls and women in the UK have gone through it; in Africa, the number is thought to be more than 90million.

My mother recommended that several centres, or “pain clinics”, should be set up across the UK, whose staff should include a gynaecologist and urologist who each specialised in FGM. That way, she said, “we can make their lives a little bit better, and see if there is any way they can have a more enjoyable and comfortable sex life.”  She said that local MPs and Mayors should be made aware of this problem; and, noting the Government’s recent announcement of £35million to address FGM in ten countries, she also proposed arranging FGM conferences in Africa, where women who had undergone this procedure could talk openly about their experiences.

What was it, I wondered, that had emboldened these women to speak out about this now, of all times?  “Mostly people are [now] on our side,” said one of them.  “And there are a lot of women who are now coming from Africa, who are talking about it because they don’t want it to happen to their children.”  How public, I asked, did she want to go with her story?  “I’m not going on Somali TV!” she laughed.  “‘Why, they will ask, ‘is she on there talking about her vagina?’”

The women noted the social stigma that was now emerging around FGM.  “Men in this generation don’t want to marry women who are cut,” said one of them.  “The men are angry, they don’t want their daughters to be done.”  As the conversation drew to a close, one of their husbands arrived to pick them up, and I took that opportunity to ask him what influence Somali men could have in this area.  With regards to FGM on a day-to-day basis, he said, “men are on the sideline.  This is not their thing.  They wouldn’t interfere – they wouldn’t even talk about it.”  Instead, he said, it was something presided over by the female elders in the village.  However, he said that “male politicians – Parliament, and the Minister of Health – can change the law,” and that this was vital.  “[FGM] affects the whole family”, he said.  “If the mother is not happy, then the whole family is not happy.”

For their part, each of these women saw no basis in Islam for FGM, which originated in Egypt from the times of the Pharaohs.  “It’s haram – it is prohibited – in our religion to do anything to your daughter”, one of them said.  “It’s completely unnecessary.  There’s no medical evidence that it helps.  [After FGM] you’re physically disabled, in a way, but you’re also mentally traumatised, hating yourself.  Every time you go to the toilet and you look down there, you know that there is another woman out there who is normal.”

However, though they had endured this, the women were clear that this was not an exercise in recrimination.  “I would not blame my parents for this”, said one of them. “They didn’t do this because they wanted to torture us.  It’s time to educate our people.   [And] what we want is not sympathy.  What we want is to be heard.  As we are sitting here talking, this minute there is a child who is being taken to the mountains to be done…It is a crime against humanity.  We have daughters: are we going to do exactly the same to our daughters?”