Edited by Sharmilla Beezmohun
Flipped eye publishing, 2021
Review by Suzanne Harrington
Like a brimming fruit bowl, this collection of forty essays, short stories and poems overflows in flavours of feeling. Hot, cold, angry, funny, heart breaking, heart broken, courageous, resilient, indignant, surreal, revealing, erudite, hopeful – here is a gathering of writers writing about their otherness, in a world where they are ‘not quite right for us’.
Raman Mundair cross examines the phrase in her essay ‘The Anatomy of Rejection OR The Power of Un-Belonging’:
Quite – as in almost, nearly, possibly, but not. Tantalizingly close.
Right – Right is centred by and rooted in whiteness, patriarchy, being male, straight and able bodied. This becomes ‘the norm’.
Us – ‘the norm’ in action… ‘us’ are the gatekeepers, the guardians of culture and taste.
Rightness, she writes, being ‘the norm’, is ‘fundamentally an approximation of whiteness.’ Brown people who wish to gain access to power – she mentions a few prominent Tories – undergo ‘an act of shapeshifting… but at what cost?’ She wonders how writers and artists of colour are supposed to respond to being not quite right – ‘Bend our words and the worlds we create to fit? Dull the rhythms on our tongues?’
‘Tall and black’ historian Colin Grant writes with icy recall about being accused of aggression by his (white, female) manager at the BBC: ‘If I had been tall, white and Oxbridge educated you’d say I was assertive. I’ll accept “assertive”. But “aggressive”? No.’ It all goes a bit Kafka when his inquisitor responds, ‘So you’re accusing your manager of being racist?’ Grant states it was never about aggression, or assertion: ‘I was on trial for not fitting in.’
Back at the start of the collection, John Hegley offers a cracking poem about not fitting in at the school disco. Neither does Nazneen Khan-Ostrem, a ‘Kenyan Asian British Norwegian Muslim female punk’ who ‘dreamed of being Siouxsie Sioux’ which was ‘not a very common thing to be in the 1980s’. Golden skinned, ‘it wasn’t easy being a goth’ either. In ‘The Freshie Rocker’, Manchester’s afshan d’souza-lodhi writes about being ‘desi and Muslim and punk.’ She wears a hijab, goes to Rammstein and Marilyn Manson gigs, where ‘everyone around me is white’. She loops between black leather, kurtas and wry frustration.
Kerry Hudson, born poor and white in Scotland, is told her background is ‘not working class’ but ‘individual dysfunction’ because she’s clever and articulate. She spent her university years ‘carving away my sharp council estate edges (and a lot of my personality) to try to fit in with the public school Mirandas.’
Byron Vincent gives a vivid, funny account of being a super-sensitive four year old.
(Me: Is any of this real? What is reality?
Mum: Eat your chips.”)
His orchid gene does not work on the council estate. ‘The kicks and punches don’t just injure, they sculpt. We begin to calcify, to lose feeling in the parts of ourselves where feeling counts.’ In response to this insanity, he goes mad for a few years.
This is just a tiny taste. From China to Bangladesh, India to England, this Speaking Volumes anthology of voices – known and still unknown – is richly varied. It is exactly right for us.