Photograph by Deepak Tolange
Maya Angelou wrote a collection of essays titled "Letter to my Daughter." In the opening essay, 'Home,' she writes,
"...that no one can ever leave home...
...that one carries the shadows, the dreams, the fears, and the dragons of home under one's skin...
...that we feel safest when we go inside ourselves and find home, a place where we belong and maybe the only place we ever really do." (p.67)
Home is a place of foreverness. Home is a setting, a scene.
Family, the characters. Family in whatever forms and apparitions they occupy. Family as mom and dad asleep with the TV on; family as your younger brother that you can rewind and replay that single line from Friends with, and laugh and laugh and laugh and say nothing but "again," and laugh; family as the nonsense, as the understood; family as the lessons taught, and the lessons learned.
What makes family different from friends, acquaintances, lovers, co-workers, the barista you see every morning, the grocer that makes friendly conversation while your 'AUTHORIZATION' is 'IN PROGRESS', the football player, the ticket taker, the preacher at church and the devil on the corner what makes family different is nothing.
Importantly, it is the nothing. It is no need for words on the 12-hour car drive. It is no need to say sorry that you couldn't afford Christmas presents this year (even though all your friends, cousins, and ex-boyfriend got one). It is not seeing one another and knowing they are there. It is not speaking for months and knowing exactly what they will say. It is life; it is having nothing if not for your family. It is death; it is having everything even without them there.
Like home, family is something that is built from within. It is an empty space that we fill with interactions, and as these interactions are nurtured, with relationships. Family is that 'nothing' connection that turns out to be everything we are made of, just like home is that 'nowhere' place that turns out to be everywhere we go.
Maya Angelou never had a daughter. She gave the world her shadows, her dreams, her fears and her dragons. My mother had me. She gave me a book by Maya Angelou.
Photograph by Reelika Ramot
A man is trying to sleep. The night is in the peak heat of summer, and a thick film of sweat swaddles his body. In this sticky state, he feels like a newborn. His wife is in the living room reading on the couch; some prize-winning novel she started last week. He has to work early the next day, so he shuts his eyes and splays his legs open so things can hang freely. It is too hot for sleeping.
But he has to try. A weak breeze squeezes past the window screen and pokes his shapeless body, which resembles tapioca stuffed in sandwich bags. The hairs on his skin go up in relief. The air cools him, and he sighs deeply. He thinks about the dinner his wife made—a chicken fricassee with rice and beans; it was good, a little on the spicy side, maybe there was too much chili powder—and the sauces and lumps of fowl floating in his stomach like kids in a pool.
But he's starting to feel his pores gasping, oozing grease all over his body. The sheets beneath his Buick of a back are now damp, and the space inside the folds of his fat are actually beginning to feel wet.
He thinks about the dinner he ate, and then he thinks about his wife who cooked it. These days she sits a lot in their living room, where the carpet color matches the curtain color. The house they live in is white, with black shutters. It was finally purchased last November after twenty-five years of mortgages. They almost lost it in the "economic downturn," or the "recession," or the "subprime mortgage crisis." But they'd lost a lot of things, so it wasn't shocking.
Kids, for instance. His children are almost grown up, some in college, some working their first jobs, all far away from him. The last time he saw his eldest son Randy was at an Olive Garden, behind an endless basket of breadsticks and across from his son's then-girlfriend, whose cleavage eclipsed the endless salad bowl. He was graduating college. He did not turn out tall, like his mother. He took a banking job a few months later and hasn't called home since.
But that's just what grown-ups do, the man tells himself. They get busy. He isn't sure what the official age for a grown-up is, and anyhow, he is no example of that. He quit college to chase his dreams.
"What the hell is a cinnamontographer?" his own father had bellowed at the dinner table.
The man never ended up going to film school, or working on any film at all.
Then they died. Both his parents. That was another thing he lost.
Also, erections. To say that he and his wife didn't have sex was probably untrue; they just stopped having it with each other. Once he walked in on Sally jacking something with urgency between her legs on the couch. In a suspended moment he saw her, silent, eyes beamed ahead like headlights with the focus of an archer, sprinting to some euphoric finish line on their wall.
"Is that—" he began. "Is that corn?"
She cried as he stood there, coat still on, frozen with his briefcase and sagging eyes that observed the mechanics of ecstasy from afar.
That was three years ago. Another hundred pounds later, he was here, sweating like a whale in cardiac arrest on a bed by himself.
Stop thinking, he thinks.
His wife turns the page and it makes a crinkling sound. It echoes throughout the living room and bounces into his, ricocheting off his translucent thighs and springing onto the ceiling, landing hard on his bulbous nose. It veers against the wall and pummels square into the vast, useless space between his legs. He turns over in agony and lashes the pillow across the back of his head. No, no, no, he moans. He wallows, face-down, into the mattress. The backs of his thighs are sweating. His eyeballs are sweating. His wife will not stop reading.
Suddenly he thinks of a pot roast. That's it, a pot roast, tender and moist—not unlike the underside of his arms—glazed all over with its own fat and some chopped carrots. He imagines his fork delving its glinting prongs into the sinewy chunk. It disintegrates to the touch. The saliva mills of his mouth are up and roaring, and he angles for the perfect bite. But the meat slides right through the fork like thin cough syrup, and he can't get it onto the utensil. It's like eating soup with chopsticks. He stabs at it again, but the chunk only runs down his fork—a caramelized drip right onto the plate, where it pools back into the shape of a perfect pot roast.
The whole affair makes him sweat more. The plate is a vast white sheet, just under his nose, and he chases the food around with his fork before succumbing to more desperate measures. If the meat will not come to him, he will go to the meat. He stamps his massive, doughy cheek on the plate and opens wide, a gaping hangar where the pot roast will park for eternity. The meat is a dark, sideways mound on his horizon.
With his free hand he nudges it, just to be sure.
It stays firm.
His saliva glands lose control and blast an uncontrollable highway of warm drool onto the plate, but no matter—it's going back inside anyway. His fingers prod the chunk just before his eyes.
One more shove and it's in.
He can almost taste it.
The last push is a hard one and he can hardly contain his anticipation before he shovels the meat at full velocity into his face, yes, here kingdom comes—when suddenly he arrives at the fleshy cram of his own fingers, the pudgy pointer jammed hard down his own throat and none of it, not a thing, tasting like pot roast and carrots.
It was gone.
It had left him, again.
Why, he moans. Why, why, why. He thinks he's crying, but it could well be the pond of drool beneath his face. The entire episode tires him. In five hours he would have to get up, drive twenty minutes to rot under mail room lights for the day, drive home and stare at the light beer selection in the fridge. He will talk, or not talk, to his wife over dinner. She will read her novel, likely for eternity. His children were never coming home. He couldn't remember the color of his living room carpet. He was two hundred and eighty pounds.
Two hundred and eighty. He thinks about this number. The eight does not look unlike him when he's wearing a belt. He could be the zero lying down. It all flattens out.
He counts blubbery sheep that have his face. They jump over a fence. He hits two hundred and eighty and starts over again, this time with a mustache on. He fancies himself French. The breeze is coming back. It's nice. It grazes over his skin and he turns on his side so it can hit his back, the one his wife used to caress but now tells him to wax. "It isn't that bad," he protests, but when she makes a face he's only seen right before she vomits, he nods his head and does nothing about it.
There, that wind—it's a wind now—gliding over the right plane of his body. It's as if someone is petting him, and he settles on that—the sensation of being pet.
He thinks he's asleep. Maybe not. But he feels different suddenly—his body, folded over on its right, is thinner, lighter, more athletic. His tits disappear. Everything is slim. He has difficulty breathing and puts his hand to his neck—there's a necktie there, that's why. He loosens it, and realizes there's a collar. The collar is attached to a shirt, and the shirt is underneath a jacket, and the jacket is over a pair of pressed pants. He's wearing a full suit. He looks good. At least that's what he's feeling—that he looks good. There's no way to know for sure, is there. He wiggles his toes and sees that his feet are in a pair of nice shoes. They're buffed and shining and the laces look made from silk. The shoes have an elegant shape to the toe: long, sleek, made of good brown leather. His grandfather used to tell him that you could judge a man's character by his shoes. So they're definitely not his shoes. His shoes are boxy, square at the toe, and there's a hole in the sole. Sometimes he can feel himself leaking out of that hole onto the pavement, where he steps himself all over the city's sidewalks.
What's he doing in a suit?
He's in a cold room and looks down, where a red carpet begins to form beneath his feet. At first he wonders if he's bleeding out of that hole in his shoes, but realizes he's not wearing his shoes. He's not even himself, is he? The bottom of his pants are perfectly trimmed. He can actually see his toes, which is refreshing. The carpet rolls out in all directions and the room fills with people, all dressed like him, some women in skirt suits, other men in the same crisp outfits of varying shades: blue, gray, black, blue, gray, black. They notice him. They say hello. His hand is being shaken many times over, and he finds himself smiling at their attention.
"Hey, Walter," they say, and they look into his eyes. "Good to see you again."
His name isn't Walter, but it doesn't matter. He must look really good. They are milling all over this room like caffeinated ants, walking bolted paths to where, he's not sure, but they're doing it with purpose, and that's all that matters.
He gets a cup of coffee from the breakfast spread and stirs in cream with a silver spoon. Maybe a person like him shouldn't be putting cream in his coffee. He should probably take it with soy milk. So he sets his old coffee aside and gets a fresh one, this time with soy. He stirs it with satisfaction and takes a sip, pretending he likes the flavor, which is horrid and tastes like bong water. He's had bong water before, in college, before he dropped out. His frat elders videotaped him, drunk and stoned, chugging it with a jock strap taped to his face. He threw up on the carpet, and they made him do it again.
He hasn't had bong water since.
He looks across the crowd and feels placed. He belongs here. The soy coffee is beginning to taste better, and he no longer feels the strangle of his necktie. He likes the way people are shaking his hand, even though they shake everyone else's hand the same way. A man next to him barks into phone and bats his arms around to make a point. A woman checks her blackberry, eyes hardening at something that drives her out of the cold, carpeted room.
It is suddenly beginning to feel hot again. Walter, or so they call him, tugs at his necktie. He wants to take it off. He unleashes it in the middle of the room and none of the other tie-wearing people seem to notice, so he takes off his jacket. There's a blast of air conditioning from nowhere. He turns his left side to face it and lets it run over his forearms, his ribcage, his firm buttocks. It feels so good he takes off his shirt, just unbuttons it right there amid all those people and none of them stares. Fine, then I'll take my pants off too, he decides, and he takes his pants off, letting the cool blast air things out.
His shoes are the last to go. He's sad to take them off and has the sense he'll never see them again. They were beautiful shoes, and he wished they were his. But as he loosens those laces and tugs off the heel, there's sand. It comes pouring out, as if he'd been at the beach, and he, from long ago, had buried them there. The sand doesn't stop flowing and he checks the sole.
There's a hole in it.
So much sand has leaked out that he's in fact standing on a mound of it. Something caws overhead: a seagull. The waves are just to his right. There's a little boy pounding a stick into the wet sand with a plastic shovel. It looks like someone he knows. The little boy's mother—she's also familiar, but before he can put a finger on all of it, someone calls out to him.
"Walter!" she cries.
She approaches him, her blond hair caught in the wind like a tangle of hay, a sand dusting over the bridge of her nose. Her freckles splatter high on her cheekbones.
"But I'm not Walter!" he replies.
"Oh, Walter," she says with relief. "There you are. We thought we lost you."
She looks exactly like the woman in an advertisement he and his wife passed two days ago walking past a Gap store.
"They don't actually look like that you know," she'd said to him.
He wasn't sure what she meant, so he grunted, and continued on their way. He thinks about this now as the woman from the window smiles at him, looking exactly like that. He wants to ask his wife what she meant. But his wife isn't here.
She's over at the sand pit, with the little boy. Walter squints at her and she's the spitting image of herself in their wedding photo, the one tucked behind the coffee coasters. Her brown hair is frazzled, half-up in a barrette. Her tanned breasts are spilling out just slightly from a polka-dot one piece that hangs itself around her long neck. She's radiant. She's smiling in a way that makes Walter squeeze his ass cheeks together and mush his fingernails into damp palms.
I can't go talk to her, he thinks. She's so pretty. She's too pretty for me to go over there and talk to her.
His wife is playing with their firstborn, Randy. He's shoveling sand all over her chest and she's giggling and Walter is getting a hard-on. This is wrong, he thinks.
This isn't me.
He stares at the beginning of his own family. Why doesn't it feel his? It's his wife, and that's their son, conceived the night they shared two bottles of cheap Merlot at Josephine's, on Pine Street, and came home to empty the liquor cabinet. Randy was a five-pound, six-ounce accident. Then came Lainey, then Max. Andrea was born after a miscarriage.
That had been hard on his wife. He had cupped her limp hands and felt her lungs shiver through her back each night when he cradled her. When day broke, there was the sting of warm salt when he kissed her cheeks.
He had been familiar with the nape of her neck, then.
At what point had they left themselves?
What had he done Tuesday night? Wednesday night? How long had she been reading that novel?
"Walter," comes a voice.
His name isn't Walter. But he glances up anyway. The people from the conference room are standing, blue, gray, black, on the beach. Their suits move like flags in the wind and they're arranged like props around each other, as if on set. He feels a momentary sense of relief. They know him. They had shaken his hand—with smiles, no less. If only he could get a soy coffee.
But something strange is happening, he thinks. The girl from the advertisement is standing before them, gesticulating. Walter strains to hear what she's saying. The cries of children and seagulls and waves drown out her voice.
"Walter—" she is saying. "Do you know where he's gone?"
They shake their heads. They seemed baffled. She hoists his shoe to identify him.
How does she have that?
Yet there it is, canoe-like in the way his foot had stretched it. It's his. He sees the laces, frayed like floss, the black leather more like scoffed bark gnawed by an animal. That boxy toe, fit for an oaf. He stuffs all of himself into those shoes each day, all two hundred and eighty pounds, and this day, after all this time, he wonders why he never bought a new pair of shoes.
There's a hole in the sole.
My god, that hole. Sand is flowing out it like a broken hourglass. It runs endlessly. She's holding it up and the wind is blowing the stream of manila beach westward. The crowd considers and shakes their heads.
"Do you know where Walter is?" she asks again.
There is an urgency in her voice that touches him. But he's losing track of the girl's voice. The wind is whipping sound away. He merely sees the outline of her lips, the shallow shape it makes of the name, Walter, her eyebrows pushed together in the frenzy of a mother who's lost her child.
The suits shake their heads again.
"No," they say. "We don't know a Walter."
My parents weren’t born until 1975, but they were total hippies. They had vague memories of Reagan, and the way our country turned its back on those with AIDS, HUD and Iran-Contra -- all of it. Their own parents had lived through the 60’s, but they stood on the sidelines and observed because they were too busy cobbling together enough to keep Illinois family farms going.
My parents met while at a mediocre state university, both feeling like they had a sign on their backs that said “Kick Me: I’m Poor White Trash.” But they always wanted to change the world. At first they thought it was through teaching, and the Ivory Tower and all that noise. They did everything right, and they got advanced political science degrees and made just enough noise to call it Social Justice and to feel like maybe they could bring kids into the world. So they did. Jimmy in 1999. Me in 2002.
I can’t give you all the details. How my dad saw himself in every student, except the rich ones from the suburbs, whom he antagonized and shamed. Inside he was still poor with one pair of dungarees and boots he stuffed with newspaper. It made him afraid to stop working, to stop, period. Mom taught too, but once me and Jimmy came along, teaching didn’t hold the same import. We loved our lives. We lived in a town with a university at its center and everything radiating out from it. Jimmy and I would ride our bikes home and find international students from Africa and Saudi Arabia and the Philippines, along with the entire art faculty at our table, a little drunk. My mom was in the kitchen, so happy and a little high. She’d have us carry in huge dishes of curry, samosas, aloo goobi and garlic naan. She’d present us as if we were the most delicious dishes she ever made, one hand on each of our heads, blessing us. She’d kiss us all over our faces for the entire world to see.
Here’s what happened. So you understand my dad isn’t evil. My mom got sick. She was stage 4, so she wasn’t working. Couldn’t work. The state of Illinois was starving higher education. There were massive layoffs at the university and my dad’s program was small. Small but mighty, he used to say. Even though he was tenured and full, boom. He had one year of employment still, but he walked, out of principal.
My grandparents’ house, 13 miles outside of town with 6 acres had sat empty. My parents had cared for it—mowing and upkeep, and we mushroom hunted and picnicked and spent time there in all seasons for the thick silences, but my dad and mom explained we were going off grid, in a sense. We were going to grow tomatoes and sunlit happiness. I was 13. Jimmy was 16. We’d have a plethora of peace and quiet, which my mom really wanted. To die in. She said stuff like that so we’d press our face up to the fact that she was dying. She wasn’t scared. She thought it’d be like before she was born. And when I can’t sleep, I try to remember what it was like, before I was born. I think of the sign above the front door my dad made, reading “Utopia”. Everyone says I speak like some forty-year-old, but they don’t get it. Most adults don’t know what I know. Dad likes to say it isn’t their fault, but I sometimes wonder. Maybe I’ll be a hospice nurse. Maybe at 14 I’ve already found my calling. Easing pain.
My caseworker asked, “Knowing what you know now, what would you go back and change?” Made me want to punch her in the throat and I’m a pacifist. My dad grew weed, yes. He sold it to middle aged folks grappling with hard life and there was so much of it, suffering everywhere and the weed helped. It took off the hard edges so people could endure. My father never, ever glorified it and he mostly dealt in trade—an oil change, alpaca wool socks for the whole family, six loaves of stone ground wheat bread, and people came in and helped with my mom.
Mom died, bathed in our attention, the solidity of our love—we were a wall around her. The whole world was right there, in us four. I told my caseworker that’s all I’d say about it, in addressing you, the court, but maybe all of you gathered can imagine how the world was blown apart too. Maybe you can understand some pain can’t be eased. Only carried.
The people who once ate our table will turn their backs to shame us now. When the cops came, with a helicopter even, Jimmy grabbed my hand and looked hard into my face, looking for all the world like a child, not my nearly seventeen-year-old brother. “It’s just time, Suzie,” he said. “Dad will do it. We’ll endure it. When I’m 18, I’ll come for you and we’ll be right back here. In the meantime, you carry it all with you.” He pointed to his own forehead, and tapped twice, something my dad would do to tell us, “Think. Think.” We watched out the kitchen window, our beloved father in the front yard of Utopia, down on his knees, hands behind his head, centered in a spot light that made me shudder, that made my teeth chatter and so we grabbed hands, knowing the world had come to tear us all asunder.
Barbara Harroun is an Assistant Professor at Western Illinois University. Her most recent work is forthcoming or appearing in Fiction Southeast, Watershed Review, Rappahannock Review and Iron Horse Literary Review. Her favorite creative endeavors are her awesome kids, Annaleigh and Jack. When she isn’t writing, reading, or teaching, she can be found walking her beloved dog, Banjo, or engaging in literacy activism and radical optimism. She can be found at barbaraharroun.com.
Photograph by Reelika Ramot
You always wanted us to be well dressed on big occasions. And we were, Sandra and I, as we came rushing to the hospital to see you. We had been celebrating my birthday in town with friends that evening when the call came from Mum. She was sobbing. Hurry, be quick, she gasped… Something about Dad not being well…
Sandra drove as fast as she could. Although she did stop to buy some crisps at a petrol station. ‘I’m hungry,’ she said very matter-of fact like. We ate them in silence on the way to the hospital, driving through all the red lights. The air was thick with apprehension.
We arrived at the hospital. Our heels reverberated as we hastened through the tedious corridors. We were out of breath by the time we got to the right floor. A nurse with a kind face and rehearsed look of apology greeted us. She wanted to fill us in on what had happened before showing us to your room. She murmured something about giving you oxygen, about you trying to get up from your wheelchair but then…. Her voice sank, became inaudible and the world ground to a halt as she opened the door to your room.
There you were, in your hospital bed. You looked like you always did when you were asleep and I would come and say goodnight to you in the evenings. I took your hand- it was still warm from whatever residue of life lingered on inside of you.
It was hard to imagine you would never open your eyes again. I stared and stared at you. As if my staring might bring you back to life. Your head was tilted to one side and they had put a ridiculous bandage around it. I was hoping you might open your eyes like you used to and give me one of your reassuring side glances - a sign you were still alive. But this time you did not. It was you. But it was not you. I was angry. You cannot go, Dad. Not now. Not now! There is still so much I want to talk to you about. I need your advice more than ever. You cannot go! That was all I could think of then.
Mum was sitting by your side, sobbing uncontrollably. Her grief had transported her to another world. She hadn’t notice us arrive, even as we squeezed her in our arms. She was like a ghost, grasping your right hand, stroking your face, and telling you the most beautiful things about your forty years of love together, wishing no doubt that you would take her with you- wherever you were.
Everyone comes to an end. But nothing prepares us for that end. If we knew our expiry date perhaps we would be better prepared for Death? Before it choked our loved ones and took them away. Before it choked those left behind with brutal grief.
The truth is, I had begun to mourn you five years ago. When that old devil Dementia took control of you, slowly severing you from the old you, robbing us of the strict fatherly figure we were accustomed to. In some ways, you softened up. You even became more playful, surprising us from behind doors or unexpectedly breaking into song during meal times. You were fond of Sinatra’s ‘Young at heart’ or Pavarotti’s ‘Nessun Dorma’. Even your skin became softer. Like a peach.
Sometimes you liked to wander off in the middle of the day, leaving Mum in a state of panic every time you disappeared. Once you invited yourself round to the new neighbours. I think you told them there were ‘bad people’ coming to get you and would they terribly mind hiding you- just for a short while? They were very polite about it. You were drinking coffee, chatting away to them when I came to find you. When you saw me, your face lit up. ‘Ah, this is my daughter! She’s an actress!’ That was the first time you had ever introduced me so. It made me happy. I smiled politely at them. Thanked them. They smiled back politely. We all nodded politely in awkward silence. And I took you back home.
That evening Mum held your hand and wouldn’t let go. They were coming to get me, you told her, like a teenager who’s just been caught trying to sneak out in the middle of the night. No-one is coming to get you, my love. This is your house- this is the house you had built for us, remember? We have had some happy years in here. And you are safe in it. I want to go home, you told her. But this is your home, Mum would remind you, relentlessly. This is where we brought up our children. Do you remember your children? Look, here are pictures; this is your eldest daughter, Sandra, then Deborah, then Robert, here is Lavinia and look, here is Wilfred…Ah yes, you said, and smiled. We have beautiful children, don’t we? Yes, my love, said Mum, as she leafed through the family album with you.
Then Parkinsons made his way in too, like some unwanted guest feeling too much at home too soon, causing you to tremble, interrupting your speech patterns and driving Mum up the wall. For a while, she was in denial. We all grudgingly learnt to accommodate the intruder, as it tightened its stranglehold on you. We had no other choice. Nurses came and went, mornings and evenings. You feared them. To a certain extent, they feared you too- especially when you battled with them. You just wanted them to leave you alone.
I think you often pretended to recognize us when we came to see you. ‘Ah, good afternoon!’ you would greet us formally, with a twinkle in your eye which suggested you weren’t too sure who we were but were eager to uphold social graces nevertheless. Over time, that twinkle vanished and you became sadder. You no longer lifted your eyes to greet us. A cloudy film settled over your gaze and you spent whole afternoons staring into Nothingness- when you weren’t sleeping. Your skeletal frame sunk deeper and deeper into your armchair which eventually became an extended part of you.
In such moments I desperately wanted to hear you recount – just one last time!- the stories of your childhood in India where you fled to from Salonica, just before the Nazis invaded Greece. I wanted to hear about that time you cut the beard off that priest who was taking his afternoon nap under a tree or that time you sprayed a policeman with water, from behind a wall. I wanted to hear about your Cambridge days, what you got up to during the Cold War years- you were always so secretive about it…The umbilical cord of memories had atrophied over time, leaving me – leaving us - temporarily suspended in a No-Man’s land of Selfhood.
When the day came for us to choose the outfit you would wear for your burial, we made sure you were well dressed. We settled for your favourite outfit- the one you always wore on big occasions. Like Christmas and birthdays. The red checkered jacket, black trousers and your black bow-tie, with your polished shoes that still looked like new because you always took such good care of your things.
I retrieved the jacket from your cupboard, checked the pockets –just in case- and found a little note, neatly folded. ‘Dear Love,’ it began. It was a draft of a Valentine’s note to Mum; the hand-writing was shaky, the sentences incomplete. Till the very end, you maintained your need for perfection and had wanted to practice your hand writing before penning down your thoughts in a Valentine’s card- a tradition you upheld religiously during your forty years of marriage. It was the 14th of February that day. Mum has kept it in her purse ever since.
Born in London, Lavinia grew up in the UK, Switzerland, Germany and France. After obtaining her Bachelor's degree in German and Politics from Nottingham University, she went to drama school in Paris, then New York. She has acted in several plays and is the author of 'Célébrité: Mode d'Emploi', which was performed at the Théâtre de la Cité Bleu, in Geneva, 2008 and 'The Saint Factory', performed at the English Theatre in Berlin, in 2013. She recently wrote and directed her first short movie 'What Happened to Manfred', which is part of the official 2016 selection at the Stone Fair International Film festival, Romania.
Watching old videos about youth culture on YouTube can be illuminating, inspiring and let’s face it, entertaining. Seeing the old haircuts, clothing and seeing shapes not thrown in public for decades is a special piece of history that should be treasured. It was through watching these videos that I found Funk Music 20th Century Box (1980) which is a short documentary presented by a young Danny Baker. It was originally shown on terrestrial television in the UK to shine a spotlight on the particular youth culture at the time known as Jazz-Funk.
The Jazz-Funk scene was made up of lots of ‘tribes’ which were groups of young Jazz-Funk fans particular to a single geographical location, each tribe had its own name and uniform. The documentary focusses on a tribe called “The Brixton Frontline”, it follows a young man named Junior Fairweather who is a computer programmer from Brixton and part of this tribe. We follow Junior to get a sense of what belonging to one of these groups involves. He is seen trawling record shops such as Solar Records in Brixton London underground station with his fellow tribe members Eddie, Kevin and Phil and then in the pub with more friends discussing the latest records that they have bought or would like to buy. Later on we see Junior and friends dressed in military style clothing which is the tribe’s uniform on their way to a Jazz-Funk night. He describes his involvement with the Brixton Frontline as a “membership of a club, although there are, in fact, no members. It’s just a collective gathering.” He goes on to say “Whenever we go out, we don’t go out as individuals, we go out as The Frontline”. Although this military dress might seem quite a bold or provocative choice, they seem to fit in seamlessly with other tribes who have similarly random and obscure themes, as there is no reported rivalry between tribes. There doesn’t seem to be a rhyme or reason to the names or the uniforms but there does seem to be a genuine unity among them.
DJ Chris Hill describes the coming together of tribes as the coming together of a family. He specifically refers to the nights and weekends that he DJs at as reunions, as in ‘family reunions’. This is supported by the location chosen for the weekend’s away, a holiday camp in Caistor, Great Yarmouth. The sort of caravan park that the majorty of these people would have stayed in in their school holidays with their own families.
What is interesting about this documentary is the idea of youth culture becoming an alternative family. There isn’t any mention of this group being alienated by mainstream culture or disaffected in any way, which can be typical of other youth cultures. There seems to be no political message and tribe members do not speak of feeling rejected by society or their own families. This, for me, makes their choice to stick together all the more powerful. They aren’t filling a gap where a biological family or support network should be and they aren’t uniting to change society or the status quo. They are choosing to come together as a family just because they want to.
David Grant of the band Linx describes the Jazz-Funk scene as united and multi-racial, which, in 1980s Britain was important, as race was a contentious topic. He explains this unity as a result of being united by music, rather than clothing or ideology.
There have of course been other subcultures that have been brought together by music in this way but the tribes in this documentary are fascinating because they are on the one hand so individual—each tribe is based in a different geographical area and has its own uniform and customs. But on the other, these individual groups regularly come together to create one large self-identified family.
This is demonstrated most clearly in the documentary’s closing scene. We see young people dressed in uniforms and costumes dancing together, lifting one another up in the air. This is a visual representation of the united, multi-racial group that Junior, Chris and David have been talking about. The most touching scene is the final one, a crammed nightclub moving as one unit singing and dancing along to the 1979 Billy Paul song “Bring the Family Back Together”.
You can watch the full documentary above. BLYNKT doesn’t own the video, but hopes that you enjoy this blast from the past!
Photograph by Prima Alam
(with special thanks to Juboraj Shamim)
My little brother Mohan has gone missing again. Haven't seen him around for an entire day now. Second time this week. I suppose as the wiser and more intelligent sibling I should be out looking for him. But this story isn't going to write itself! And I have tonnes of homework to do…
According to my best friend Ranu, kids in big cities aren't allowed out on their own. What a nightmare! How do you hang out with all your friends in the neighbourhood? How do you discover secret shortcuts and climb your favourite tree? How do you show up all of your friends by being the best at hide-and-seek? Or any other game for that matter. I've lost track of the number of times I've won the 'Biggest Star in the Area' annual talent competition. Since we all know each other really well, it's quite common for children to roam around freely and play in our neighbourhood.
Anyway, Mohan is becoming quite a nuisance if you ask me. Not that my mother notices much. Or at least she pretends not to.
"Where's Mohan today, Auntie?" a visitor asked Ma earlier.
"Oh I'm sure he's around here somewhere. Probably just playing outside."
That's a lie. We all know where he really is - next door with his other mother, Saira.
You're probably thinking, 'Two mothers! How progressive for a small town!' Well, let me give you some background before your imagination runs a marathon.
I was about eight when it all started, this other mother business, and it's pretty much been the same story for the past six years. Saira and her husband had moved in next door when Ma was still pregnant with Mohan.
As soon as Mohan was born, Saira was helping Ma look after him and all sorts. She and her husband own a shop down the road, so they were pretty much splashing some serious cash on fulfilling Mohan's every need. Not that I was jealous. Money can't buy talent and I'm priceless.
So my best friend Ranu said that her ma once heard Omar's ma talking about how Saira couldn't have children of her own and wanted to take Mohan away from us.
Once I even heard Saira introducing him as her own son! I didn't bother correcting her. She can have him if she wants. It's really my mother's fault, since 'Mohan' literally means bewitching. I think that's what he's done. He's bewitched poor Saira with his charms, or is it the other way around? Saira's cast a spell on him with the promise of an infinite supply of chocolates and toys.
Ma must have heard these rumours too, because things got a little heated at Mohan's fourth birthday party a couple of years ago. Brother dearest had started calling Saira 'Ma' and treating us like strangers. My mother was not pleased to say the least. A legendary showdown took place that day.
"I know what you're trying to do, Saira! Don't you dare try taking my son away from me! Just because you can't have your own!" Ma was literally screaming her lungs out. She was all red in the face with steam coming out of her ears and everything.
"Oh don't be ridiculous! I can't help it if Mohan loves me more than he loves you!" The Other Ma was being equally as loud, "And we all know that Maya is your preferred child and a girl genius!"
OK, I added that last bit myself. Although I am both the favourite child and a genius.
After this most eventful birthday party, Ma tried everything to keep those two apart. She was pretty harsh with Mohan at first, she even resorted to keeping him locked up at home like one of those city kids who don’t even know who their neighbours are. When severe discipline failed, she resorted to bribing him in order to keep him home. More sweets and toys for the bewitching Mohan!
In the meantime, Saira and her husband had adopted a cute little newborn of their own. Ma's worries seemed to magically evaporate as soon as this happened. Why would Saira want Mohan now that she had a baby to keep her busy? I mean, why would anyone want Mohan anyway? Spoilt brat that he is.
Nothing really changed though, despite the arrival of Saira's newborn. Saira and Mohan are still as inseparable, and insufferable, as ever. But Ma is no longer too concerned by any of it.
So now you can see why it's no surprise that my dearest little brother has gone missing again. I sometimes wonder what it's like for Mohan growing up with two families as well as having an incredibly inspiring and gifted older sister. Maybe I'll ask him, if he comes home today.
Photograph by Prima Alam
We link hands and look at the water as the sun sets on the brook. We watch it glitter as we each swing our legs back and forth wordlessly, lost in thought. I break the silence.
I ask you, “What is your mother like?”
I want to know what kind of woman brought you in to the world.
Was she young? Was she old? Was she married for a long time or was she just a child herself when she had you?
I want to know how much she wanted you.
Were you planned meticulously, did she keep a track of her ovulation chart religiously? Did she have a small ring-bound notebook with baby names which she kept hidden in a secret place?
Or was your name an afterthought? Were you hastily labelled by a shell-shocked teenage Mum?
I want to know whether you look alike.
Did you get your high cheekbones and long straight nose from your mother? Is she an elegant woman with a strong, almost severe face which is growing harsher with age? Or is her face plump? Do her warm, soft features balance out the tough masculine extremes which characterise the face of your father?
I want to know if your mother is a generous lady.
When you were a child did she shower you with gaudy, flashy plastic robots and cars? Did she give you anything your heart desired? Or did she take a more traditional approach, teaching you the values of quality over quantity? Did she carefully hand you a small selection of wooden toys which have been passed down through the generations?
I want to know if you get your personality from your mother.
Is she gregarious and lively on the outside but quiet and secretive on the inside, just like you?
Or is she just one of the two?
I want to know if she is proud of you, and I want to know how she shows it.
Does she keep dozens of framed photographs of you around her living room documenting every stage of your transition from a baby into a man? Does she talk to strangers about you? Or does she keep her love private? Are the pictures of you tucked safely away in a wallet meant for her eyes only?
I want to know how she loves you
Does she call you and text you regularly to say how much she loves you? Or does she think that her love should go without saying and so you never hear her say it, the words “I love you”. I wonder if this has had an effect on you.
I want to know so much about the woman who made you. Which is why I asked you that question,
“What is your mother like?”.
You turn to look at me, open your mouth and reply,
“Yeah, she’s nice”.
Women in Zika affected countries have been advised by their health officials to ‘avoid pregnancy’ in order to minimise their risk of having a baby with birth defects associated with the disease. In El Salvador women are being asked to refrain from getting pregnant until 2018.
Zika is a virus spread through mosquito bites, which in adults causes symptoms such as fever, a rash, joint pain and bloodshot eyes. Most adults recover within 7 days and are free of the virus within around 20. Only 20% of adults who have the virus experience symptoms. Zika is not a new virus and has been prevalent in Africa and Asia in the past.
In late 2015 a Brazilian doctor noted the huge increase in the number of microcephaly cases in his region and linked this with the Zika virus. He believes that there is a link between being infected with the Zika virus during pregnancy, microcephaly and other birth defects.
At this time, the link between Zika and microcephaly has not been proven, but the evidence that there is a link is growing stronger. There is also evidence to suggest that the Zika virus can be transmitted sexually as well as through mosquito bites.
The Zika virus has been spreading rapidly through large parts of Latin America, the location of this outbreak has significance. The majority of countries infected by this most recent outbreak are predominately Roman Catholic countries where abortion is illegal and the population have poor access to family planning education.
The governments' responses to the outbreak have generally been to advise women not to get pregnant. This is little comfort to the thousands of women who are currently pregnant and have been exposed to the Zika virus. In nearly all countries which have been impacted by the recent Zika outbreak, abortion is completely illegal. In Brazil, abortion is only permitted in the case of rape or if the mother’s life is at risk. In El Salvador, where women have been asked not to get pregnant until 2018, it is not permitted under any circumstances and women face up to 40 years in prison if they seek an illegal termination. At present there is no indication that these governments are willing to change their policy in light of the growing epidemic. As a result, anxious mothers await to see whether their babies will have escaped harm or whether they will be born with long term, debilitating health complications which include visual and hearing problems, seizures, developmental delay, intellectual disability and mobility problems. These conditions are often lifelong.
To combat Zika, governments in Latin America are putting money into accelerating research and creating a vaccine. However, it is unclear how long it will take to create a vaccine and how long the threat of this epidemic will last. It is perhaps a consequence of the laws surrounding abortion that health officials have asked women to avoid pregnancy in the first place. In any country this advice is at best naïve, but in predominantly Roman Catholic Latin America, this advice may be completly unrealistic. The Catholic church’s recommendations for family planning are either to practice complete abstinence or by calculating when a woman is at her least fertile in her cycle.
Evidence shows that in the US nearly half of pregnancies are unplanned, this figure could rise to up to 56% in the Latin America where Catholicism is more widely practiced. The dominance of Catholicism means that access to family planning and sex education is not as widely available as it is in for example, the rest of the Americas.
In response to questions surrounding the Zika virus, Pope Francis has said that “avoiding pregnancy is not an absolute evil”. He believes this advice to be preferable than the risk of babies being born with microcephaly. Some have read between the lines and believe that Pope Francis is hinting that in light of the outbreak, if devoutly Catholic couples in the region needed to use contraception while at risk of Zika, then that would be ok. But he did not say this explicitly, and the official position of the Church towards contraception and abortion remains unchanged.
With such minimal and impractical advice from the state what hope is there for millions of women who have been given such an impossible task? It seems as though while health officials and scientists hastily conduct research and try to make a vaccine, the responsibility for quelling this epidemic has been given to women of child-bearing age. It is unfair and unfeasible to ask women who have no access to abortion and limited access to contraception and family planning education to ‘avoid pregnancy’. While these governments are doing the best they can to find a vaccine and discover more about the link between the Zika virus and microcephaly a stronger temporary solution is urgently needed. Men and women in the area must be equipped adequately to keep themselves and their families safe, access to education and contraception is needed. Family planning is not only the responsibility of women.
How can we, in non-Zika affected areas help people access the resources that they need?
As a result of this lack of state involvement, more and more people in this region are turning to charities for advice and support. This is where the public can make a difference. If you would like to support people in countries affected by the Zika virus, you can do this by:
More detailed information on how you can make a difference can be found here.
Photograph by Stephen Jackson
When one encounters a story like Kafka’s “Metamorphosis,” one cannot help but think to what extent our bond with our families which at times seems to be the most unconditional form of love in the world, is in fact conditioned by our physical being. “Metamorphosis” is essentially a story about the imprisonment of a human being within his animal physicality (isn’t it a universal truth?). It is a sad fact, but stories about sick family members, senior homes, among many sad family stories, tell us precisely that family is after all a worldly union. It comes with all the worldly constraints and conditions which challenge the unconditional love we feel within it. Especially when a family member is deprived of basic capacity of communication, due to illness or old age, it becomes difficult for the familial bond to endure.
We all want love to transcend. The difference of skin color, beauty and ugliness, old age, all those worldly things, to be overcome. But the brutal truth told by Kafka’s “Metamorphosis” is that Gregor was expelled out of his family because of his physical deformity. As he became an unrelatable monstrous bug, the family bond he took for granted deteriorated. When Gregor, propelled by an urge to respond to his family’s inquiry about his bodily conditions, heard only an incomprehensible squeak coming out of his mouth, there was no transcendent love available to him or to his family.
“Metamorphosis” does not so much explain to us what family is than asks: does what we call family (and familial love) always already conjure up definitive categories of humanity? More specifically, does becoming a family require family members to first of all be human? As in Gregor’s case, his new bug body, something that primarily changed nothing of his subjectivity, seems to have expelled him completely from the context of family, as well as from all other social contexts. The moment of despair resulting from miscommunication was robbed by an existential chaos—Gregor was unable to even affirm his own human nature in front of his family. He could not exonerate himself from the condemnation from his very own family of being less than human.
Maybe we should rethink the whole idea that we were born into our families. Maybe there is nothing that we were born into, apart from our bodies, which grant us part of our humanity. The other part consists in our becoming relatable social beings, establishing relationships with other human beings, and finally, becoming a family or a community. Then when old age or sickness seizes us, it will do nothing more than putting the precious feelings we reared to the test. Maybe love will win. Maybe it won’t. Then it will take us back to the examination of what constitutes human.
Carly Dee and Q Lei, Editors of BLYNKT magazine and hosts of BLYNKT podcast