“The master had said, ‘You are ugly people’.”
[I was seeing beautiful dark-skinned women all around me. I was seeing pride, dignity, self-love and self-respect. I was realising within more and more the effects, but most importantly the falseness of a social construct. I was seeing more and more the extent of the lies, seeing just how blatantly they were lies — a realisation that made me nauseous. “How could I have believed this for so long?” And why are they still saying these things? I was going to the right spaces—more to the point, finally I was in a city where these spaces could be found. I was watching and reading the right media, online and in print. I was purposely seeking them out. A necessary separation and immersion was beginning. As Manal Younus explains in her TEDx talk, “Because maybe today, I might not feel like explaining myself and justifying myself and negotiating who I am.” Maybe not today. Maybe not ever.]
Representations are stigmatising. The effects of characters, and indeed other aspects of narrative, can be quite real. The representation of marginalised peoples, and especially of colonised or oppressed peoples by those who have inherited the benefits of colonisation or oppression, remains a fraught area. Much harm is caused by negative stereotypes. Students of writing and by extension, writers, need to understand that they are in essence inventing a discourse when they create characters. ‘Bad’ representation being accepted as the norm leads to more harmful representation, more stereotypes, more offensive caricatures, leaving a negative psychological effect on the people represented. Additionally it affects how “gatekeepers” judge a piece of media — that is, what gets allowed, what gets produced and filtered through the social ideological apparatuses, to be seen and recieved by society.
[I was seeing empowerment, reclamation and women thriving—spaces where women and indeed men were taking ownership of their identity. Deciding they weren’t the “other”. These spaces containing, holding, filled, with so many people of African descent. From different countries. Who looked different, who had different interests, who were of different religions… In other words, individuals. Not one shadow of bodies lumped together as one type of people. Writers, engineers, artists, entrepreneurs… "All these things we never were, because it seemed we only ever existed in the imaginations of other people, if at all. It was in these spaces we were able to thrive, able to see different versions of ourselves… able to see what was possible."]
This is where the creative writing space and theory can do some of its greatest work. Literary practice and the arts offer a space to interrogate the racialised-archive and its role in forming national consciousness and identity. For readers and viewers, seeing one’s self represented on the page or screen can open up to them what's possible. As Justina Ireland reflects:
“In all of my reading and book devouring, not once did I read a book that featured a black girl or woman. There were no black girls slipping into fantastical worlds and saving prophesied kings. There were no dark-skinned girls facing down their serial killer boyfriends or black women falling in love with their millionaire bosses…
Magic, love, and heart-stopping action just didn’t happen for black girls. We didn’t exist in those spaces, in those books. It was an apartheid of a different kind, a literary genocide for black women, and by extension, an apartheid of the imagination. By reading those books, I began to believe that those things also didn’t and couldn’t exist for me.”
A different representation of ourselves. A complex representation of ourselves. A powerful representation of ourselves. A reclaimed and owned identity for ourselves. That’s what was possible.
The piece moves with me.
Sometimes the answer is in not saying.
The piece goes round and circulates to the things that were always there and circulates back to the things that have been asked and that the piece is still asking. The things that are still being lived. Still being understood. You see, these are more than just dry words on a page, more than just black on white, more, than just exercises. More than just objectives. What you see is blood. And it is still bleeding and it is still healing and so—
I changed my mind, changed my tune, but just to look at everything as clarity pierces the cerebrum (the crescendo crashes it reaches the shore) till we get to see it’s everything one and the same all is within me the life the lived experience the things I’m trying to write—all of it they are piercing arrows (the answer is still not saying) they are in the soul until I find the animal within until it howls and rips through the page this broad question I can let it fly I can let it ravage and it will leave ashes and it will leave burns I am a dark-skinned woman and I am on voracious-vengeful-apocalyptic-destructive-holy-sanctified—FIRE.
Once Upon a Time, or
I Pretended to Be Brave
Has it ended yet? Is it over yet? Tell them to wait. Tell them a voice like theirs like ours is coming. Don’t worry, don’t go yet tell them not to cry not to try to scrub scrub scrub their skin away into the shower into the water to wonder wonder about bleaching and lightening isn’t that better isn’t that nice there’s a brand called “Fair and Lovely”; you know, childhood is lost before it begins.
Tell them to stay in the spaces that edify them and build them up don’t stay in the ones that slowly slowly chip away insidiously creeping in until there’s nothing left. You end up losing your backbone; a cancer has eaten you from inside out. Read the books about your heroes and heroines watch the good films oh wait: I’m sorry there weren’t those voices and stories and movies for you I’m sorry they still aren’t really there they got erased they gotten hidden they got overwritten white-washed out these Hidden Figures I’m sorry no one ever told you. I’m sorry your parents were too hard on you and didn’t make home home didn’t tell you any other truths to combat the lies you internalised the bullets swallowed I guess they didn’t know any better, either. At that time they were just trying to survive. But I’m coming just wait don’t disintegrate yet don’t fall into yourself like the stars no longer shining. Tell the little ones the ones after me the ones now that follow that will look to me to us—tell them never to be quiet tell them never to accept the bullets but to throw them back never lick the hand that beats you don’t try to be palatable, “acceptable”, in an acceptance that will never accept you. But yes yes maybe maybe that’s what I’ll do I’ll come home I’ll come straight home and I’ll write and I’ll write and I have no choice I have to make the words be and this mess— it’ll produce something and I’ll write and I’ll write that’s what I’ll do I’ll come home I’ll stay up I’ll write and it will do you good please don’t disintegrate I hope pleez I tink it may be alrdy b happning pls wayt I primise ders anthr wy to be u cn b u cn bcome….
Piriye Altraide is a Nigerian born writer, spoken-word artist and self-proclaimed dancefloor extraordinaire. Piriye’s work centres on identity, belonging and the journey to self-acceptance in the context of the African-Australian diaspora. Piriye has featured at Afro Hub, Girls on Key and for Multicultural Arts Victoria. She is a 2014 Perth Poetry Slam finalist, co-curator of RMIT’s Un-lecture series, and has had her work published in Mirrors of Africa.