George Floyd’s murder revived the #BlackLivesMatter hashtag, but also the #AllLivesMatter hashtag and its various offshoots. Thus, when I saw a photo of a Lebanese protester holding a sign that said #LebaneseLivesMatter on Twitter, the first thing I thought was just how unaware of the global conversation this person is. In fact, I retweeted the photo with the caption: “READ THE ROOM.”
Given the conversation on the poor judgement of some people—many of whom are well-intentioned—in trying to advocate for all lives and not just Black lives, I had a negative knee-jerk reaction to the image. But it lingered in my memory. It is undeniable that such a poster in the U.S. would be out of tune; that said, thinking about #BlackLivesMatter, a primarily U.S. movement, concurrently with other global issues is essential to understanding and thus dismantling U.S./white hegemony — which in and of itself is a global and not a U.S.-only issue.
Since October 2019, Lebanon has been suffering from its worst financial crisis since the Civil War (1975–90), which has been now exacerbated by the COVID-19 pandemic. With inflation soaring and nearly 50% of Lebanese living under the poverty line, people hit the streets to demand their rights. I tried putting myself in their shoes: they’re watching social media explode with overwhelming support for #BlackLivesMatter, triggered, in their eyes as people unaware of the U.S. context, by the murder of one man, while thousands and thousands of people starved in Lebanon without anyone flinching.
I do not say this to undermine the Black Lives Matter movement, or to dismiss that George Floyd’s murder is symptomatic of a larger systemic issue in the United States and around the world. Anti-Black racism exists in Lebanon too. Lebanon, and the Arab world at large, are notorious for their unjust, racist kafala system—amongst many other symptoms of deep-seated racism, such as Western beauty standards, lack of representation of people of color in the media, and the like. But the issue, for those who claim that “Lebanese Lives Matter”, is about the lack of media attention— they are not denying anti-Black racism.
Social media is dominated by U.S. voices and perspectives. For instance, the country with most Twitter users is the U.S. at 64 million, followed by Japan at 48 million, and Russia at 24 million, even though the U.S. clearly isn’t the most populated country in the world. Thus, what goes viral on social media and other media outlets is often dictated by trends in the U.S. As such, people in Lebanon, and elsewhere, may see the Black Lives Matter movement as hegemonic vis-à-vis their struggles: while the whole world is talking about George Floyd and Black lives, no one seems to care about Lebanon.
(responses against Lebanese Lives Matter)
Appropriating the #BlackLivesMatter hashtag or slogan for other social justice movements dilutes people’s attention; it is a sort of hijacking of the Black Lives Matter movement. Yet it is important to note that the intention of the Lebanese people, or any oppressed group, is not malicious; their intentions are very different from those of racist Americans who advocate for #AllLivesMatter.
What we are witnessing—outside the U.S., in Lebanon and elsewhere—is a process by which the lives of minorities in the U.S. matter to the world more than non-U.S. lives, let alone lives of minorities outside the U.S. The reason the world cares about George Floyd now more than we ever did about Palestine, Yemen, Syria, Lebanon, and Venezuela—the list can go on forever—is because of U.S. hegemony, a hegemony inextricable from the systemic hold of white superiority and supremacy on the entire globe.
What we have here, therefore, is white supremacy benefitting the U.S.-turned-global fight against Black racism and police brutality. This may not seem like a problem, but the fight against racism cannot happen without global solidarity against U.S. hegemony. In a recent interview, Black activist Angela Davis “hop[ed] that today’s young activists recognize how important Palestinian solidarity has been to the Black cause, and that they recognize that we have a profound responsibility to support Palestinian struggles, as well.” She also pointed in the direction of Brazil, saying “if we think we have a problem with racist police violence in the United States of America, look at Brazil. . . . I think 4,000 people were killed last year alone by the police in Brazil.”
Davis recognizes, in pointing to Palestine and Brazil even as the Black community in the U.S. and its allies are in revolt, the importance of solidarity in dismantling transnational systems of oppression that know no borders. She gestures to the reality that one cannot selectively fight against oppression, for these systems are massive, interconnected, and inertial, requiring large amounts of force to disassemble them.
In this vein, it is also my wish that those who have now garnered a platform due to these systemic structures that privilege Western voices over non-Western ones—especially on social media—shed light on injustices that inflict much of the world now, not just the U.S. and the West. I hope that those people with influence remind those who are now so passionately protesting racist legacies—from statues to names of places and institutions—also speak up against injustices in other parts of the world in the future, as they arise.
On June 23rd of this year, Ahmed Erekat, a 27-year-old Palestinian man, was murdered by the Israeli police; he was shot and left to bleed for one and a half hours. He was accused of attempting “to ram his car into border guards” despite it being the day of his sister’s wedding. Like George Floyd, Ahmed Erekat, an unarmed Palestinian man, was assumed to be violent and left to die. But unlike Floyd’s murder, Erekat’s murder didn’t elicit a global outcry. Why is that? Where are the reading suggestions about the Palestinian struggle? Where are the “go educate yourselves” posts? Where are the “check your privilege” articles?
This plea to talk about all forms of injustice, not those only occurring in the West, should not be seen as a means of hijacking the Black moment or the Black cause (which, admittedly, is often the unintended consequence of hashtags like #LebaneseLivesMatter or #PalestinianLivesMatter). Rather, it should be seen as part of the struggle against white supremacy and U.S. imperialism. The white hegemonic structures killing Black people in the U.S. are the same structures allowing Israel to annex Palestine. From this standpoint, it becomes imperative that we engage in a more nuanced and dynamic form of solidarity, else we would be, in our struggle for justice, still perpetrating the structures we are fighting against.
If we only talk about George Floyd and Black lives, we will not dismantle the system that murdered him.
The Pain and Wonder of Childhood in Paula Rego’s Peter Pan Illustrations
Underneath a sky of milky stars and a doubled moon, Paula Rego imagines a mermaid drowning Wendy; the beloved “little mother” who was first written by J.M. Barrie in 1904 and then appropriated by Disney in 1953. Wendy half-floats, her body sprawled and still visible through a transparent black sea. She is not resisting the violence being enacted on her, and the mermaid doesn’t seem to be using much force. If Wendy is not dead already, she has accepted her looming death with a sad kind of nobility. This scene never occurs in the original novel. By situating a drowning inside a beloved and well-known children’s tale, Paula Rego reminds the viewer of an uncomfortable truth: childhood is not a landscape free from exploitation or violence. Rego’s Peter Pan illustrations are an exploration of the danger of childhood: a danger that is present in every adaptation of this text, even if it is forgotten or ignored. Rego makes explicit the trauma already lurking in this story, but she also manages to maintain the magic of Neverland, an element of this series that is often forgotten by scholars of her work. Fairy tales like Peter Pan do not create idealized, safe places for children that Rego is simply destroying by bringing in danger from the “outside” world; fairy tales have always been fraught with a danger that Rego brings to the forefront.
Academic Jack Zipes argues that Rego’s images “suggest that the world is discombobulated, and that childhood is a period of abuse and danger for children.” The mermaid lagoon is not free from the dangers that adults face, and neither is Wendy. The mermaid is larger and more powerful than her: she has two strong tails, a broad muscular back and rippling shoulders. Wendy, by comparison, is limp and lanky, only half the size of the mermaid, and is being pushed down into a black sea with nobody in sight to rescue her. Zipes calls this image of the mermaid drowning Wendy “brutal,” and in her monograph, Paula Rego, Fiona Bradley refers to this mermaid as having a “savage determination,” to kill Wendy. Critic Rosenthal argues that “Wendy for once is a helpless child rather than a solid nurturing female… Rego’s version of a siren of the deep is about as unalluring as she could be.” Yet all three critics neglect to address the calm beauty of the image, the nuances of the violence being enacted and how the characters are reacting to it.
At first glance and partially because of the title, we know the mermaid is drowning Wendy. She is undoubtedly being pushed down into water by a threatening figure. So we expect to see something brutal or savage. But Rego subverts that expectation. There is no splashing, no struggle, no fear. The sky creates a starry backdrop that looks sublime and peaceful rather than sinister. The mermaid is strong, but there is no anger on her face, her expression rather oscillates between sadness and grim determination. Her mouth could be firmly closed with a concentrated brow, or her mouth is open and grimacing with sad, upturned eyebrows, expressing regret or worry. It depends on how the viewer sees the image. If Wendy was cropped out, the mermaid could merely be doing manual labour, or massaging a lover, based on her posture and expression.
Wendy is not fighting for her life, either because she is already dead or because she has no desire to fight. Her left arm rests against the mermaid’s tail, and her right arm floats upwards, her hand awkwardly bent out of the water. Her face and ears seem to be out of the water, leading to the question of why the mermaid isn’t pushing her down by the head. Wendy seems oddly reliant on her murderer to stay afloat. Her legs are spread in a way that resembles some of the women in Rego’s “Untitled. The Abortion Pastels” series such as the one below.
Wendy is vulnerable specifically as a young girl. The more the viewer looks at the image of her and the mermaid, the more maternal the mermaid seems. She transforms into a mother who is simultaneously pushing her daughter down and keeping her alive. She doesn’t seem to want to kill Wendy — she easily could if she wanted to — and if Wendy is already dead then the question becomes: why is the mermaid still holding her up?
Behind the two figures, the pole on Marooners’ rock is the only sign of a male presence, where the pirates will later tie Tiger Lily in an attempt to murder her. This conveniently phallic object looms over both women like a flagpole, looking down on them. Not only is Rego pointing out the existence of trauma in a child’s world through this drowning, she is depicting its nuances. Sometimes it is beloved, trusted figures who enact violence on children. Sometimes one kind of violence is the only way to spare a child from another worse kind. The image of abuse can also be painted as hauntingly beautiful; throughout the Peter Pan illustrations, however, Rego shows that pain and beauty can coexist in one moment.
Jack Zipes argues that art made in reaction to fairy tales serves to undo their imagined utopias. Artists such as Rego use the fairy tale “to pierce artificial illusions that make it difficult for people to comprehend what is happening to them.” But I disagree with the assumption that fairy tales seek to create a utopia, or “soothe an anxious mind,” as Zipes calls it. In fact, much of what is explicit in Rego’s mermaid image is implicit in both Barrie’s and Disney’s versions. In Barrie’s novel, Wendy and the mermaids do not have a good relationship– they present a threat to her, “she never had a civil word from them… they utter strange wailing cries; but the lagoon is dangerous for mortals then.”
In the play version of this story, also by Barrie, Peter warns, “They are such cruel creatures, Wendy, that they try to pull boys and girls like you into the water and drown them.” Their threat to Wendy is distant under Peter’s protection, but it still lurks. This fairy tale specifically warns against groups of women who live together outside of a patriarchal structure. Wendy is better off being a “young mother” than risking the unknown amongst the mermaids. The Disney adaptation picks up on this fear of autonomous women and makes it more explicit by heightening the mermaids’ threat: they grab Wendy’s clothes, try to pull her down, and splash her. When Peter tells them to stop, one mermaid declares, “we were only trying to drown her.” Rego takes this fear of autonomous women, embedded in the original text and the film, and uses it to show how women fear each other and hold each other down.
In her article “Paula Rego’s Sabotage of Tradition: ‘Visions’ of Femininity,” academic Gabriela Macedo points out how Rego violates the invisible boundaries that demarcate what can and cannot be criticised: “Rego’s career has been devoted to crossing into forbidden territories (fascism, Catholicism, patriarchy); while her rewriting of national memory aims at exorcising fear, as well as exposing guilt and hypocrisy… makes it at the very least difficult not to see.” I would extend her argument to include childhood and fairy tales as other forbidden territories that Rego violates. Childhood is treated like something sacred, and adults expect children to behave in certain ways because of their own imaginations of what it means to be a child. Fiona Bradley argues, “Rego’s subjects refuse to conform to what might be expected of them, courting ambiguity so that their situations remain mobile… tender embraces are easily confused with violent struggle.” It would be nice to imagine childhood as a period of simplicity and tenderness, but Rego uses ambiguity to violate this imagined utopia that is dreamed up in the minds of adults. In the Peter Pan series, Rego makes explicit what already anxiously lurks in fairy tales. And she violates tacit understandings that we all collectively imagine childhood as something pure, and free from trauma.
In Rego’s illustration “Tiger Lily Tied to Marooners Rock,” a young girl in a loose white dress calmly allows herself to be bound to a rock that will soon be deep underwater. Her body is relaxed and her eyes are closed, but we know that she is awake because she squats against the rock rather than sprawls against it. Her captor is an unsmiling male figure who is emerging from the strange black shape around them, presumably Marooners Rock itself. Both he and the rock are black: parts of his body are disappearing into it, and he appears more statuesque than the other characters, creating the impression that he is a part of the rock coming to life, or has been carved out of it for the purpose of binding captives.
Two boys watch Tiger Lily’s demise with curiosity, and two mermaids do nothing to come to her aid. Similar to “Mermaid Drowning Wendy,” the violence of this image is doubtless. Tiger Lily is trapped on a rock where she will eventually die, and nobody seems interested in rescuing her, even though they easily could. Yet Rego once again subverts expectations about how violence is supposed to look, and what it can mean.
Tiger Lily, like Wendy, does nothing to resist the violence being enacted on her. Her captor has no true legs to chase her with, and he is just about to finish tying her up. So how did he force her into that position in the first place? If someone else brought her there, then why isn’t he tying her himself, and making sure that she doesn’t escape? Tiger Lily looks neither scared nor sad about her future death, and her expression remains peaceful, perhaps even joyful. If she wanted to escape, she could have easily wriggled away from the animate rock-man. So it seems that she has decided to allow this violence to happen. Maybe she even sought it out herself; maybe she enjoys it. This intersection between pleasure and pain is not supposed to occur in children’s stories because it is usually seen as disturbing or sexual. Seeing a young girl getting pleasure from violence is a violation of our collective imagination of childhood. Macedo writes about Rego’s violation of Catholicism and patriarchy, arguing that, “Whether ‘the mater’ confronts directly gender or games of power, social and political hierarchies, it always ‘defies the pain’ and gives the viewer no solace, but… a tantalizing sense of pleasure and threat.” Tiger Lily, as a child, experiences both pleasure and threat in a violent world. She is playing a game that we usually think children are exempt from.
In the background of this illustration, at a strangely small scale, a silhouetted male figure points a rifle at a mermaid tail, which is diving into the piece of land he is standing on, or into the water behind it. The presence of the mermaids to the right of the picture makes it clear that the tail is a mermaid and not a very large fish, so it is definitely a female being hunted. The image is easy to miss, but it presents a foil to Tiger Lily’s behaviour. She may have sought out the violence she is experiencing, but the mermaid runs away from it.The viewer then returns to wondering why Tiger Lily is so complicit in her own trauma.
It is possible that she desires this pain and enjoys it, but that does not make her passive or powerless. Rosenthal argues that in this image, “Rego depicts her [Tiger Lily] as just another helpless female, which is doubtless legitimate considering her plight. One would, however, have enjoyed seeing what Rego might have made of this feisty Redskin woman warrior… had she chosen to depict her in one of her more militant moments.” Rosenthal doesn’t acknowledge the power of Tiger Lily’s choice in the face of violence. Instead of being afraid, she embraces trauma and appropriates it for her own use; Rego could have illustrated this female warrior in a fight, but she chose to depict a more nuanced situation where Tiger Lily remains somewhere between freedom and constraint, despite literal bonds. She is not “just another helpless female.” Her decision to find pleasure in trauma is an act of resistance, an alternative to militancy, and a representation of how some women and girls find freedom under immense patriarchal constraint.
Tiger Lily and Wendy are both young girls who are threatened by violence. It is a threat that is implicit in Barrie’s fairy tale and exists in the lives of real children. It would be wonderful to imagine that childhood is a utopia free from trauma, but fairy tales have always hinted at the vulnerability of children and the horrors they face. Rego draws out the danger that lurks in Neverland: where female monsters drown children, men tie little girls to poles, boys shoot girls out of the sky, and a grown man is obsessed with capturing and killing a young boy. Rego’s work complicates and amplifies the anguish of childhood, whilst maintaining another seemingly paradoxical truth, which is that fairy tales, childhood and trauma are often also beautiful.
References Rosenthal, T.G. Paula Rego: The Complete Graphic Works. London: Thames and Hudson. 2012. Grey, Tobias. “Paula Rego’s Dark Fairy Tales,” Blouin Art Info. Macedo, Gabriela. “Paula Rego’s Sabotage of Tradition: ‘Visions’ of Femininity,” University of Wisconsin Press. Peter Pan (film). Walt Disney. 1953. Barrie, J.M. Peter Pan, Or The Boy Who Would Not Grow Up. The Folio Society. 1992. Barrie, J.M. Peter Pan. Aladdin Paperbacks. 2003. Zipes, Jack, The Irresistible Fairy Tale. Princeton University Press. 2012. Bradley, Fiona, Paula Rego. Tate Publishing. 2002. Miller, Sandra, “Paula Rego’s Nursery Rhymes,” Print Quarterly Publications. 1991. Rosenthal, T.G. “On Art and Essays” Andrews UK. 2014. Fortnum, Rebecca, Contemporary British Women Artists: In Their Own Words. Taurus & Co. 2006.
Mermaid Drowning Wendy, Paula Rego (1992). Tiger Lily Tied to Marooners Rock, Paula Rego (1992).
Cover art by Paula Rego “Captain Hook and a Lost Boy”
Vincent van Gogh is experiencing a 21st-century renaissance. Popular portrayals of the troubled artist are increasingly appearing on both the small and big screen – a Doctor Who episode, the film Loving Vincent, and the most recent movie depiction from director Julian Schnabel, At Eternity’s Gate, starring Willem Dafoe.
In all of these representations, van Gogh’s mental health is at the forefront of the story — it is hard to mention him without bringing up the self-inflicted severing of his ear in the following sentence. Perhaps the cliché of the ‘starving, tortured artist’ can be attributed most notably to him. This is certainly how we view his art—through the lens of a man who grappled against life, cornered by his own mind’s wolves.
In the late 1880s, after cutting off his left ear and offering it up to a prostitute, van Gogh was admitted to a hospital in Arles in southern France, where he was living at the time. He was severely bleeding, in the throes of a manic depressive episode.
van Gogh was discharged a little over two weeks later in January 1889. One of his first paintings afterward was a still life: a teapot, a candle, a bowl of onions, a letter to his brother Theo, his pipe, a medical self-help book and an empty bottle of absinthe. The quotidian details of his life.
It looks like the painting of a man trying to revive creativity back into his life. van Gogh’s reason for placing the bottle and medical book was, perhaps, to show that he had tried to return to living a normal life, but was ultimately failed by his inability to overcome his mental illnesses. As a result, he had fallen back into his old ways of self-medicating with strong liquor.
In a 2014 study published in the European Journal of Social Psychology, Wijnand van Tillburg, a psychologist at the University of Southampton, led a research team who discovered that we perceive an artists’ work as ‘better’ if we are told they are of an eccentric nature.
In the study, 38 students were shown an image of van Gogh’s Sunflowers. Half of those students were informed that the artist is suspected of heavily mutilating his own body, while the other half were not given this information. They were then asked to give an evaluation of the painting. “As predicted,” the researchers wrote in the paper, “the art was evaluated more positively when van Gogh’s eccentric behavior was mentioned.”
But why is this? It seems like the more we view an artist as idiosyncratic, the more authentic we believe them to be. This is a pernicious standard to set – particularly for young artists trying to break into the field. Mental health struggles and creative talent do not need to go hand-in-hand. Jim Morrison drank himself to death at the age of 27; Kurt Cobain, at the same age, pushed a shotgun to the roof of his mouth and pulled the trigger. Sylvia Plath ended her life by putting her head in a microwave. Each had much creative potential extinguished by early death.
But Picasso lived to be 91. Salvador Dali until 84. Harper Lee passed away only a few years ago at 89. Indeed, there are great artists out there, deserving of myriad superlatives, who have never struggled with mental illness. At least, none that were life-ending or destructive. We do not view the works of Jane Austen, John Milton, or Igor Stravinsky as any less deserving of credit simply because their works did not come from a place of instability.
Sadly, even these examples may not mollify those who believe creativity flourishes better under mental strain. The Norwegian painter Edvard Munch, who produced likely the most iconic artwork of the 19th century in ‘The Scream’, once wrote in his diary that: ‘My fear of life is necessary to me, as is my illness.’ He was often concerned that if he lost his illness, he would also lose his ability to paint.
Albert Rothenberg, an American psychiatrist, and Doctor of Medicine, has carried out long-term research on the creative process in literature and art. Of creativity and depression, he has said: “Studies using test or clinical assessments have not proven a connection between creativity and mental illness. Almost all have had methodological and conceptual inadequacies: absent or poor controls, investigator bias, unreliable testing tools. None have demonstrated validity with respect to actual creative performance.”
Throughout the centuries, artistic mediums have existed as a form of escapism. Art exists to bring joy to our world or to help us work through something painful in our lives—to make it through to the other side, perhaps scathed, but still surviving. But one should not fall victim to the mindset that one must suffer needlessly for their creation. Depression is not a pre-requisite for creativity. If anything, it stunts it. Suffering, in the end, rarely contributes directly to creative inspiration, despite the widely held romantic beliefs which commonly suggest otherwise.
In fact, creative periods tend to become less frequent the more mentally ill a person is. The last thing on someone’s mind who is struggling with depression or severe anxiety would be to pick up a paintbrush or begin writing a novel. They simply wouldn’t have a desire for such a task, considering it likely too onerous. However, one fascinating element of Vincent van Gogh’s life is that he seems to be an exception. From his moving to Arles, to the time of his eventual suicide—van Gogh painted somewhere between one hundred to two hundred pieces of artwork, 75 of which came in an 80-day creative burst. But still, it was not enough to save him.
One of his final paintings, completed the month of his death in July 1890 (some believe it to be his very last, although this is still debated), is Wheatfield with Crows – an ominous dark blue sky with storm clouds forming, signaling impending destruction. The wheat extends as far as the eye can see, blowing violently in the wind. Above these wheat fields are crows flying in the distance, getting further and further away until those most distant are nothing more than a speck.
There is an ineffable sadness to this painting. One that was not lost on its creator, who, when writing to his brother Theo that same month, said of it: “They are vast stretches of wheat under troubled skies, and I did not have to go out of my way very much in order to try to express sadness and extreme loneliness… I’m fairly sure that these canvasses will tell you what I cannot say in words.”
It is not hard to imagine that van Gogh may have seen himself in his last few weeks as one of those tiny birds in the infinite troubled sky: frail, afraid, departing to somewhere unknown. The hurricane of his thoughts sweeping him, and his creative potential, away forever.
Artwork by Vincent van Gogh, “Wheatfield with Crows”
If you were to ask what the 20th century’s greatest turning point in music was, most would say the emergence of rock and its infamous counterculture. Others could bring up the post-punk 80’s synth era with its drum machines and lush electronic sounds. But it might surprise you to learn that the rise of hip-hop has had the greatest influence on modern-day music. Music informatics researcher Matthias Mauch and his colleagues, have analyzed over 17,000 songs that have topped the Billboard charts over the years, and concluded that hip-hop’s ascent has led to the greatest musical revolution in terms of chords, rhythms and tonal properties. While rap is the most ubiquitous form in hip-hop, we can understand more from the genre’s overall culture: hip-hop culture has led to numerous developments in fashion, art (i.e. graffiti), new ‘languages’ which are too often dismissed as ‘ghetto’ or ‘slang’, and new styles of dance. For the urban underclass, hip-hop is more than music, but encompasses a whole way of life.
Yet for all its ‘clout’, hip-hop culture is still so often maligned, disdained by polite (read: rich, white) society. We find it associated with all things reprobate: drugs, violence, poverty, lack of a future. Psychiatrist Alvin Francis Poussaint, and Cosby (yeah, that one) accuse hip-hop for promoting the “moral breakdown of the family”; conservative social commentator Thomas Sowell specifies that hip-hop is the largest factor holding back African-American youth. Numerous groups endeavor to censor hip-hop, while politicians blame it for “desensitizing teenagers to the effects of guns, drugs, and gangs and inciting violent incidents.” Hip-hop culture is outright tarnished, its elements deemed cancerous to social order.
Hip-hop is a socio-cultural movement that sprung up in New York City, specifically in Bronx and Harlem, by and among young African-Americans. Cultural anthropologist R.H. Codrington traces hip-hop back to three antecedents: the West African griot tradition of wandering storytellers, the black church with its ‘call and response’ style of music, and oral competitions called “playing the dozens” in which people faced off with their verbal skills. Hip-hop’s originators utilized whatever was around them in their daily lives – DJ turntables, paint spray cans, block parties, samplers and so on, in order to express themselves. They railed against the system, a system that spawned hopelessness under heavy oppressive, racist structures and spiteful policing. From the very start, hip-hop, aside from being an artistic outlet and landing pad for daily expression, was political.
However, in its late stage, hip-hop has largely succumbed to the adverse effects of neoliberal capitalism. Its absorption into capitalist systems stems from the distance that “polite society” maintains with the hip-hop world – a world that is generally lower-class/urbanized. This is an underclass that French intellectual Georges Bataille would describe as miserable for it is “excluded from the general community whilst being exploited for financial gain.” All the while, in the words of Slovenian philosopher Slavoj Zizek, polite society maintains itself as the privileged empty point of universality, perched at an elevated position from which they can gaze down at these ‘miserables’.
When polite society secludes itself from the hip-hop underclass, neoliberalism slyly steps in to fill this distance by packaging and commoditizing hip-hop into an easily consumed form in the global market. In her article “Corporate America Cozies up to Hip-Hop”, Claire Atkinson delves into the marketization of hip-hop as a vessel for merchandising products by business firms. The most revealing facet of her argument is that hip-hop’s appeal is not just limited to a narrow scope of companies: almost every corporation is trying to cash in on the hip-hop image, from automobile manufacturers to fast-food restaurants to telecom companies. Atkinson quotes the advertising agent Larry Summers: “Hip-hop is where rock n’ roll was in the ‘70s. It’s evolved into a safe place… there’s too much bling-bling in it for everyone.” Of course, by safe space, Summers implies a safe space for corporations, rather than the actual creators and practitioners of hip-hop. Polite society, on the other hand, embraces this heavily commodified hip-hop – hip-hop as product – under the guise of multiculturalism.
There are two main drives behind corporations’ engulfing marketization of hip-hop culture. Firstly, they have identified a desire in polite society to embody the other without actually becoming the other. At the heart of hip-hop is a jouissance that seems inaccessible to those outside of the culture. Hip-hop celebrates the notion of being different from the mainstream ,whether it is through one’s attire or language or even their gait. Moreover, hip-hop exalts the very libidinal pursuits that are suppressed in polite society: fulfilling one’s innermost sexual passions, seizing power, taking control of the ‘block’, defying authority. Corporations appropriate this jouissance and peddle it to those outside of hip-hop culture who wish to get in whilst still staying out. On this, Zizek quips that in “…today’s market, we find a series of products deprived of their malignant property: coffee without caffeine, cream without fat, beer without alcohol.” A person who wants to project the image of a gangster without the actual lived experience could buy and dress up in hip-hop attire in order to ‘feel’ like one. Those who do not even know what pimping in the streets is could listen to heavily sexual hip-hop songs and live out their crude erotic fantasies without literally acting them out. A teen who has never gone against the law could use hip-hop slang and rap along to the top hits just to derive the feeling of being rebellious amid their suburban comforts. The appropriation goes on and on.
Corporations also capitalize on a trend which French philosopher Rancière describes as a shift from the politics of passion to the politics of compassion, where all that polite society could offer to the hip-hop underclass [is] mere pity without actually addressing their deep-seated issues. In the music industry, the sob stories of hip-hop artists with rough upbringings are ever-emphasized so as to appeal to those who misguidedly think that buying their albums equates to ‘saving’ them from the ghetto life. In the art world, as scholar Lynn Powers notes with regards to graffiti, “in most cases the work’s popularity was based more on the novelty of being produced by poor minority criminals than on any intrinsic artistic value.” Even in today’s heavily charged political environment, with rampant (recorded) police killings and wanton mass-incarceration of the black, marginalized underclass, protest slogans from the hip-hop community are soon commodified into fashion statements for polite society to drape themselves in as a means of showing ‘support’, all whilst maintaining their privilege.
As time goes on, the corporate world’s infatuation with hip-hop culture is being taken to the most absurd, extreme degree. Philosopher Gilles Deleuze notes that in this age of neoliberalism, differentiation has taken the place of actual production. There are now ‘hip-hop dance clubs’, ‘hip-hop video games’ ‘hip-hop movies’. By the same token, essayist Thompson Ahmir quips that, courtesy of corporates, we now also have ‘hip-hop food’, ‘hip-hop politics’, ‘hip-hop intellectual’ and even ‘hip-hop architecture’. Of course, corporations will do whatever it takes to reap more profits, even if it means marketing things that have nothing to do with hip-hop as authentic ‘hip-hop’.
The commodification of hip-hop thereupon leads to a watering down of its content. As corporations try to capture as much of the market as possible, they ‘tone down’ hip-hop’s radical aspects to make it as palatable for consumers as possible. As earlier stated, hip-hop emerged as the voice of the voiceless within inner-city ghettos; it was an assertion of their abject agency. However, according to the writer Blanchard Becky, “the commodification of rap has allowed large paychecks and platinum records to erase the historical, social and economic contexts out of which rap has emerged, from public consciousness.” Consequently, the hip-hop underclass is left without a tool to speak out against their oppression. Isn’t this what polite society wants after all, a pretense that everything is fine, since the ‘end’ of politics has set in?
Furthermore, the commodification of hip-hop magnifies the simultaneous dehumanization and fetishization of the ‘other’, the hip-hop underclass, by polite society. Though these processes seem disparate, their outcome is of the same vein. The dehumanization of the hip-hop underclass arises from the dynamics of social abjection, for as Bataille emphasizes, “…it is fitting that the insolent rich evoke the bestiality of the miserables: they have taken away from these the possibility of being human.”
Fetishization, on the other hand, arises from polite society’s desire to imitate the other. This is highlighted above: we have seen how corporations capitalize on and peddle the ‘real’ within the other.
But how does this depreciation of the other manifest itself to taint the hip-hop underclass? Blanchard points out that “… rappers have been pressured to take on the limited roles that have proven profitable… that of the ‘pimp’, the ‘gangsta’, and the ‘playa.’” The artiste Michael Franti adds that “Through commercialization of today’s music, there is a lot of pressure for young black men to conform to very specific roles.” The market has a very narrow misconstrued picture of what, to use Zizek’s terms, the ‘typical’, or the ‘folklorist other’ in the hip-hop underclass constitutes. When polite society desires to become the ‘other’ by purchasing commodified hip-hop, they do not really yearn for the ‘real’ other, but rather desire to imitate the ‘typical’, the ‘folklorist other.’ This then indicates to the hip-hop underclass that they must suppress the ‘real’ in them in order to embody the ‘typical’, for this is what polite society is willing to spend money on. However, the ‘typical’ as construed by polite society is damaging to the underclass. This typical image of hip-hop as gangster, materialistic, decadent, lawless, hyper-sexualized, and drug-fuelled is ultimately absorbed back into the underclass, piling onto the socio-economic problems they already bear.
The corporatization of hip-hop has resulted in the dilution of its politics, and the fetishization and dehumanization of the ‘other.’ This deviation is encapsulated comprehensively in the journalist Christopher Farley’s perspective, which Blanchard quotes in her article:
Corporate America’s infatuation with rap has increased as the genre’s political content has withered. Ice Cube’s early songs attacked white racism; Ice-T sang a song about a cop killer; Public Enemy challenges listeners to ‘fight the power’. But many newer acts are focused almost entirely on pathologies within the black community. They rap about shooting other blacks, but almost never about challenging governmental authority or encouraging social activism.
Yes, there has been a shift in hip-hop. However, commodification alone by the corporate world does not fully account for this shift; it is an external factor after all. There are internal factors too, behind the shift of hip-hop from its socio-political aims, which most if not all critics and writers such as Blanchard and Farley fail to see. All these concealed internal factors can be summarized by one word: hate, in the Baudrillard-ian sense of the word. When Farley talks about how ‘many newer acts are focused on pathologies within the black community’, it is hate at play even though Farley does not recognize it as that. As Jean Baudrillard states, this hate is “a logo, a kind of label, one that, like graffiti displays a modality of living: ‘I exist,’ ‘I live here.’’” This hate is also an expression of alterity, for as the hip-hop underclass is secluded from polite society, it embraces this exclusion: “I won’t join the consensus. It’s not negotiable. It’s not reconcilable.” The source of this hate lies in what Deleuze observes as a change from disciplinary societies to societies of control. Thus, when Farley laments that hip-hop nowadays does not take on the big Other due to commodification, he and many other critics fail to see that in societies of control, the big Other is no longer centralized: the big Other has effectively rendered itself invisible, dissolving into the consensus of the majority. Thereupon, hip-hop no longer has a conspicuous control tower to which it can direct its protest towards. Without an object to channel its passions towards, the hate becomes self-hatred, self-destruction. This self-hatred and self-destruction then materializes itself as the perpetual violence and decadence in hip-hop culture. It is a hatred that only further aggrandizes a people whose only means of asserting the self is that very same hate.
The most vital discussion that hip-hop needs right now is of its future. And this future definitely entails a return to its past- to its role as the force of the urban underclass marching against societal oppression. However, mapping out hip-hop’s forward trajectory entails resolving both the effects of commodification and hate. Artists such as Kendrick Lamar, Talib Kweli and Dead Prez are pushing hip-hop in this direction. We can only hope that more notice, and join in.
Ali, Lorraine, and Eryn Brown. “Hip-hop, Not Beatles, Had Greatest Influence on Pop Music, Study Says.” Los Angeles Times. Los Angeles Times, 9 May 2015. Web. 17 Dec. 2016. Atkinson., Claire. “Corporate America Cozies up to Hip-hop.” Advertising Age. Advertising Age, 13 Oct. 2003. Web. 18 Dec. 2016. Bataille, Georges. “Abjection and Miserable Forms.” N.p., n.d. Web. 10 Dec. 2016. Baudrillard, Jean. “Hate, a Last Sign of Life.” N.p., n.d. Web. 14 Dec. 2016. Blanchard, Becky. “The Social Significance of Rap & Hip-Hop Culture.” Poverty & Prejudice: Media and Race (n.d.): n. pag. Web. 10 Dec. 2016. Codrington, Raymond. “In the Beginning: Hip Hops Early Influences.” OxfordAASC. Oxford African American Studies Center, n.d. Web. 10 Dec. 2016. <http://www.oxfordaasc.com/public/features/archive/0806/essay.jsp>. Deleuze, Gilles. “Postscript on the Societies of Control.” 49 (1992): 3-7. Web. 20 Dec. 2016. Mauch, Matthias, Robert MacCallum, Mark Levy, and Armand Leroi. “The Evolution of Popular Music: USA 1960–2010.” Royal Society Open Science (2015): n. pag. Web. 17 Dec. 2016. <http://rsos.royalsocietypublishing.org/content/2/5/150081>. Perkins, William. “The Rap Attack: An Introduction.” Temple, n.d. Web. 10 Dec. 2016. Powers, Lynn. “Whatever Happened to the Graffiti Art Movement.” Popular Culture, 1996. Web. 14 Dec. 2016. Robinson, Chris. “The Effects of Commercialization on the Perception of Hip Hop Culture and Black Culture in Mainstream Culture in the United States.” Digital Commons At University of Denver. N.p., 2011. Web. 14 Dec. 2016. Thompson, Ahmir. “How Hip Hop Failed America.” Vulture. Vulture, 29 Apr. 2014. Web. 10 Dec. 2016. Tyler, Imogen. Revolting Subjects: Social Abjection and Resistance in Neoliberal Britain. London, UK: Zed, 2013. Print. Watkins, S. Craig. “A Nation of Millions: Hip Hop Culture and the Legacy of Black Nationalism.” The Communication Review (2001): n. pag. Web. 14 Dec. 2016. Zizek, Slavoj. “Multiculturalism, Or, the Cultural Logic of Multinational Capitalism.” N.p., n.d. Web. 10 Dec. 2016.
I spent a long time dismissing Ariana Grande. It was the easier option. Her giggle-pink “gumdrop” dresses echoed the candyfloss in her music; I imagined her lost to the commercial pop wasteland. What a thing to be lamented – and there truly is no better word for it – those angelic vocal abilities. Swamped under sticky harmonies and oversaturated lyrics, baby baby baby, moonlight and clouds and kisses. The pouting photos. Pretty purse. Tiny girl.
But underestimating Ariana Grande is a gross miscalculation of what she represents – the power of a woman with a voice, the healing escapism of pop culture, the triumph of love over pain. It is a denial of the agency and thought involved in crafting her narrative, one that has been marked with incredible trauma, and suffered from burning scrutiny. And in a strangely unfeminist way, it is also a devaluing of her grace and resilience, only for its pretty package. An ultra-feminine woman singing like syrup, is not worthy of gritty, hard, serious conversation.
Grande’s music is characterized by a sweetness that is deceptively surface-level. It is classic pop. She sings about love and goodbyes and dreaming. She creates and inhabits a carefully constructed fairytale. In August 2018, the singer stated that titling her latest album Sweetener, was about “bringing light to a situation, or to someone’s life, or somebody else who brings light to your life, or sweetening the situation.” It was pouring sugar on bitterness. It was compassion. It was surviving.
Sweetener marked an ongoing cathartic process for Grande. Life had taken a turn. Amid an endlessly soaring career, Grande had experienced the loss of her grandfather and several highly publicized breakups, including with famed rapper Mac Miller, a relationship she deemed “toxic” on Twitter. In May 2017, her concert in Manchester, England was bombed by terrorists, leaving 23 dead and hundreds injured. Her speedy engagement this year to comedian Pete Davidson was ridiculed by many. She talked about dealing with intense anxiety.
Struggle is not a sweet subject. But in Grande’s songs, that reality did not persist. Although lacking in cohesion, Sweetener was lauded for the very idea it existed and operated on – reclaiming one’s narrative. Grande was facing personal tragedy with hope, determination and tenderness, not because it was required, but because she knew this was what she deserved from life. Everyone deserved it, the ability to rise and grow and smile from pain. The mode of mainstream pop was unconventional, but the intention was not. In “God is a Woman”, Sweetener’s first single, Grande sang about owning and embracing her desire and sexual prowess, and in pleasing her partner, not because she was obligated to but because she took pleasure in it. In “no tears left to cry”, the music mirrored her words, transforming mid-way from ballad to dance pop; she sang “I’m loving and living and picking it up,” and “We way too fly to partake in all this hate/We out here vibing.” Every song was an ode to loving – loving herself, those around her, through her situation, whatever that came.
Here was a woman, watched by millions, who had suffered. A woman often dismissed as childlike and superficial. A woman with a strong and incredibly loud voice. And she was using it, not only for enjoyment, but to shape both her public and personal narratives in order to reflect who she was. Beyond a pop princess and online personality, Ariana Grande was just a person.
Since the release of Sweetener, Grande’s struggles, and persistent cathartic journey, have not ended. In September 2018, her ex-boyfriend Mac Miller passed away from a drug overdose; people online blamed her for leaving him and letting him spiral. During a performance at Aretha Franklin’s funeral, Grande was publicly groped by a pastor. Only days ago, her engagement to Pete Davidson, whom she had been living with, ended. And with the world watching, she had no luxury to disappear – most of all, from herself.
Pop music is not always a site for frivolity. The breathy, celestial flutterings of Grande’s music are also a safe space, not only for herself, but for all her fans and listeners. Pop can be a place of warmth and security, a sonic embrace, temporarily freeing from the grit and anxiety of daily struggling. Amid personal chaos, Grande retreated into this fairytale she had created for herself with music. Snippets of her recording in the studio emerged. Before anyone could blink, she was out with a new single: “thank u, next”. In it, she sings about her various exes, thanking them for all they had brought to her life, good and bad, and choosing to move on to someone else: herself.
“thank u, next” is reminiscent of the likes of Taylor Swift, who has long been poked and prodded and skewered by the media for making pop music about her exes. The cover art for the single is similar to the promotional material for Swift’s album Reputation, pasting up published headlines about the singer. It is evident that Grande carries forward a torch Swift lit long ago. Both, in their own ways, critique the media-driven narratives surrounding and shaping them as powerful and talented women in a cut-throat, highly scrutinized industry. Both have sang and spoken about empowering women, but through the very direction of their art, implicitly embody that mission too. Through their art and perseverance, they seek to love and heal themselves; and merely by watching them do so, we are inspired to do the same.
I admit I feel lucky to have such female artists spearheading the creative industry around me. Artists like Ariana Grande learn to to undo all that is done to them, and be completely unapologetic about it. They remind us that personal choice and exercising agency over one’s narrative, in whatever way they find most healing, is the ideal example to set within discourses on self-love, women empowerment and feminism. And their skilfully crafted stories, songs, selves, which have such power, pushing their way onto radios and Instagram feeds, force us to listen. But of course, listening is a meeting in the middle; we too, must make the effort to listen with awareness and intelligence.
After all, a truth in a pink wrapper is still as important. And if it’s too bitter, there is much sweetness, still, to be found, and made, in the world we live in.
In a striking short story titled Out on Main Street, the writer and visual artist Shani Mootoo deconstructs the idea of the authentic Indian identity, countering it with the notion of hybridity, which arises out of (post)colonial actions and legacies, cultural collisions and globalisation. Mootoo herself is a culturally-nationally hybrid figure. She is of Indian descent, but was born in Ireland, raised in Trinidad, moved to Canada at 19, and identifies as queer. This short story reflects the actual complexity of these intersections as they manifest in reality; it is set in Canada but is written explicitly in Trinidadian vernacular, mixed with some French and Hindi, and the narrator is a Trinidadian lesbian of Indian descent in the midst of encountering other similar types of mixed-identity characters. The effect makes the reader question and then debunk, in the context of this specific piece, what exactly constitutes a “real” or “authentic” Indian. Mootoo, through displaying such hybridity in her writing, both of and in the language, pokes holes in the myth that there is even such a thing as an “authentic” Indian (or any nationality/culture) and how ridiculous it is to have a set of standards for cultural/national purity in a world replete with increasing cultural collisions.
Mootoo sets up her argument right from the story’s introductory paragraph: “Janet and me?….we is watered-down Indians – we ain’t good grade A Indians”. Already, we are introduced to the concept of what it means to carry the label of “Indian”. Where there is “watered-down”, there implicitly is purity to act as a counterpoint. Mootoo makes it clear that her protagonists, both the speaker and Janet, are of Indian descent and also look it – their skin is the appropriate shade of brown, but nothing more. At the same time, the narrator and Janet speak both to each other, and to us as readers, in their language of comfort and seemingly birth nationality, which is Trinidadian vernacular. Mootoo implicitly attaches Indo to Trinidadian, to create a hybridity right from the beginning, that immediately calls for the reader’s attention. Meanwhile, she also begins alerting us to the stereotypical standards we prescribe to ‘real Indianness’. For instance, “grade A” is a soft allusion to the commonly held idea that Indians are academically driven, studious and straight-A students; this becomes a prescription for the perception of a ‘true Indian’, that the hybrid figure does not meet. They are different, diluted and thus, inauthentic.
Mootoo continues to tease out other methods of “watering down” or diluting the authentic Indian. There is the “kitchen Indian”, someone who only engages with the Indian culture by eating its food, but does not perform any other aspect of prescribed Indianness. We are prompted to question ourselves as readers about what our own standards for a ‘real’ Indian are, which will additionally alert us to the perhaps alarming thought that we actually harbour these standards, even if subconsciously, in the first place. The parameters for authenticity most likely differ from person to person but there will be common themes: raised in India, eating Indian food, religious – most likely Hindu, wear cultural dress, speak Hindi well, good at math and science, fairly conservative, observe tradition consistently. Straying from or stretching out these parameters results in a feeling of both cultural and national dissonance, both in a person’s internal and external space, and a resulting hyphenation of their identity to accommodate the unwieldiness of that complexity i.e the hyphen-born hybridity present in Indo-Trinidadian. Hence, that dissonance is exactly what would cause someone like the narrator to proclaim “all a we…is cultural bastards”, suggesting they have been proven illegitimate to bear the title of mono-cultural, pure, belonging authentically to the identity that perhaps only their physical body reflects. In other words, they are born outside of the culture they should fully be inhabiting, and this externalization or displacement makes them a “bastard”, an illegitimate child, whose physical features reflect their mother (culture) but their expressions of personal identity often stem from elsewhere – in the narrator’s case, being born as ethnically Indian but their language and disposition being distinctly from Trinidad.
There are several other types of hybridity Mootoo inserts into this story. Firstly, the narrator is a butch lesbian. Many prescriptions for the model Indian woman, largely stemming from Indian society itself, place pressure on women to perform a high level of docile, sweet femininity, to be “so femme that they’re redundant”, like the narrator’s girlfriend Janet. Indian society also has a long history of shunning homosexuality. By simply existing as who she is, the narrator, alongside the femme Janet, already challenges and pushes against these pressures while simultaneously feeling and inhabiting them.
In a later instance, we meet the “Chum-chum brothers”, cafeteria servers who appear Indian, and who mock the narrator for not prescribing to the authentic Indian standard for language, which would be a flawless performance of Hindi. Ironically, the brothers turn out to be from Fiji, therefore exposing they are ‘inauthentic’ Indians themselves; they too are immigrants, and products of an interesting postcolonially-motivated history in which indentured labor from South Asia was taken to places such as Fiji, Malaysia, Kenya and the Caribbean many generations ago. The very event of one of them mocking the other for not meeting some pure cultural identity standard that neither of them have, or could ever have, begins to feel completely absurd. Thus, Mootoo effectively rips another hole in the myth of there being any kind of purity or authenticity of identity in the first place.
What emerges is a narrative where space is made and filled by a variety of Indians who are expected to be impure or deemed “watered down”, by themselves, by other cultures, by similar “cultural bastards” and by all types of Indians. The expectations differ and so do the realities. In Out on Main Street, white men walk into an Indian cafeteria and offer a Muslim greeting because that is their perception and reaction to their model of the Indian. This standard is unmet. The Fijian-Indian servers place an expectation on the narrator’s language to reflect, seamlessly, her Indian heritage, by speaking good Hindi and performing an idealized femininity. This too is unmet. A critical Indian woman, cheekily called Giraffebai by the narrator, places a pressure on Indian males (in this case, the servers) to be respectful even though she believes they are not, in retaliation to Western expectations placed upon all Indians to be “sexist and uncivilized”. These are complicated chains of expectations placed upon the Indian identity from all directions, both from outside and within, which coalesce into the prison-like fencing of a model for authenticity – which, in reality, does not exist beyond our own trappings of stereotype and prejudice.
“So tell me, what yuh think ‘bout dis…” Mootoo asks us in the final line of her story. What she really demands of us is to go back and question the assumptions and pressures we place on people to perform mono-cultural identities that conform to what they are supposed to be rather than what they actually are. Mootoo urges us to see the myth of cultural authenticity for what it is – a myth. An Indo-Trinidadian is not just Indian, but specifically, Indo-Trinidadian, emphasizing that equal space is given for both to exist side by side, and respected as legitimate that way, both within notions of Indian identity and Trinidadian identity. And aside from inhabiting these hyphenated realities or hybrid identities, these figures are also so much else, regarding the many other intersections and permutations of other aspects of their identity, such as their sexual orientation. Mootoo pushes us as readers to ponder ways to make space for hybridity and to accept it as real and authentic too. That hybridity does not make anyone less or diluted or improper, or deserving of chastisement, shame, mockery and most importantly, a sense of failure. Ultimately, we are reminded that no one is and should be considered a failure for being who they are, but rather, the failure lies in our ability to accept the complexity of what that actually means for various human beings and their complicated yet completely valid sense of belonging.
I’m looking through the box of “things he gave me” when the thought occurs to me. It’s a good time to be lonely. I’m holding his red sweater, stolen. The monster he bought for me at Comicon. The colourful string of lights he got for my dorm. It’s undeniable, even after a year and a half of being single, I’m still lonely. It’s an ugly thing to admit. Shouldn’t I have settled into single life by now? Did love put emptiness into me when it left, a space that only it can fill?
Well, even if I am lonely, 2018 is a good time to be.
On a day when I can waste 2 straight hours playing candy crush, 1 more scrolling through my Instagram feed, and another 5 after I open Netflix, I never have to sit in the mud of loneliness. I can be mindless for 8 hours without even coming up for air. I forget to eat. I forget to be lonely.
Technology-induced mindlessness is like a fog; you walk into it with purpose, sure that you know your route, and soon it’s all around you. The longer you stay, the harder it seems to be to get out of it and the less you want to. When you do get out, your smartphone beckons you back like a will-o-the-wisp. Your bed becomes a den of charging cords, Cheetos and blue screens. Your Mom asks you to “join the land of the living”. But at least you are not lonely. You can’t be when you’re not thinking, sucked into the muggy world of technology.
I was alone a lot as a child, and sometimes lonely. But I didn’t have a smartphone to encourage that obscuring fog to roll in. Instead I drew scenes from Harry Potter. I made up games. I counted pennies and organized them according to how shiny they were. I confronted loneliness with a head tilted curiosity. Like a word scrawled on the back of my hand, to be found in the dictionary later. It didn’t bother me much, and was usually washed away before I remembered to look at it again. I was too busy being curious.
2018 is a good time to be lonely. Especially when you’ve left behind that childlike ability to fill the world up with your imagination and keep it at bay with creative business. Instead, you can ignore your loneliness. Constantly consume technology, like a pac-man, instead. It’s only when you’ve been mindless for too long that you realize you’ve eaten your way into a hallway of ghosts.
I’ve found myself in that cobwebbed corridor more often than I’d like to admit. What has been even harder to admit is that when I was with him, I felt much more like a person than a pac-man. I guess there’s something undeniable about the void that love leaves in you after you have to let it go.
We were together for three years. We were a history-debate induced rivalry, turned friends, turned high school sweethearts. It was my first love. It started with a kiss at a party and then we tumbled into a relationship. We went to prom together. During A-levels we took all of our classes together. We joked about co-dependence with ease. Technology followed us into our nights and into all of our time apart. When I was with him, technology wasn’t a fog of mindlessness but a safe haven. Written proof of the love story I was living. We finally parted after a summer of living together, convinced that technology could carry us through long distance, when he chose a university in England and I chose one in Abu Dhabi.
We broke up like a tooth extraction done slowly. It happened after 8 months of long distance. The break up wasn’t because we didn’t love each other; we had continents, different lifestyles and changing goals to contend with. They got the better of us. But for a long time, I hated to admit that I was lonely. Sad, of course, but lonely felt unfeminist when I was surrounded by amazing friends. Am I not the “strong” and “independent” female protagonist in my story? Why did the lack of him make me feel so empty? I decided that it didn’t.
When I first packed all of the things he bought me into a box, I imagined myself healthy and “doing surprisingly well”. It was the end of 3 years of being his girlfriend, I saved crying for the shower, I went to class. I flirted. I let mindlessness fill up that summer. I loved the fog- look at me! So independent! Not wallowing.
He and I did those nice, oddly formal check-ins that happen when you’re so used to thinking about someone else’s well-being, their day, and what they had for lunch, that it would be too painful not to know, at least, that they’re okay, and they didn’t spontaneously decide to hate you. I deciphered his messages, I crafted my own. I waited, forcing myself to wait for longer and longer between each message. I was NOT lonely.
But still, it is a good time to be lonely, especially when you have classes to attend, part time jobs to run to and dorm parties to get embarrassingly drunk at. When I wasn’t doing that, I let the fog roll in. I watched Gilmore Girls and The Handmaid’s Tale, shows he and I wouldn’t have watched together. 9 months after the breakup we met at the mall. Afterwards we would agree that it had been melancholy and stilted, but at the time, I told myself it was nice.
It wasn’t until I went to the city of love that I realized, yes, I was lonely. I stopped letting the fog in while I was sitting by the Seine, there was soft music playing from a speaker and a bottle of wine being passed around. Paris is just about the worst place to be broken-hearted but I took a page from my younger self’s book. I treated loneliness curiously. I dissected it in my journals. I let it become poetry. I wallowed. I stopped being a pac-man and went out into the world instead. Loneliness is ugly, and it makes you feel ugly. I had to learn that it did not define me.
It would be great to be able to write that the loneliness went away, with this realization.
2018 is a good time to be lonely. You don’t just have the tech fog to keep it at bay, but the invented narratives of social media as well. When curating an Instagram feed, a series of funny tweets, or a Facebook album, you trick yourself into thinking that you can’t be unhappy when you’re living the story that those pictures and captions tell. My days in Paris, aside from dissecting loneliness, were filled with Instagram-worthy adventures and coffee shops. I created a narrative out of my life. I told myself that I was the girl in the pictures. I could admit that I was lonely, but only to myself. The world would never know. Then my ex and I met again in England, for our mutual best friend’s birthday, and things finally felt normal between us. I let myself really feel how much I missed him. I got over my fear of him knowing that I did by telling him. “I miss you”. Our post-romance relationship finally felt like something real again. Something tangible.
Telling him that I missed him helped me to start feeling less alone. I let go of the image of myself that I’d been crafting so carefully and I found out that he didn’t have to be pushed into my past. What I felt afterwards was a mixture of relief and sadness. He and I both marveled at how easy it had suddenly become between us, despite the confused feelings. I was finally being honest.
It’s easy to live with loneliness in 2018. But it is also easy to become comfortable in it. To make a home out of it. Technology will help the fog roll in, and you can convince yourself that the characters from your TV shows and movies are part of your life. You can post well-curated Instagram photos and tell yourself that the smiling person on your feed is you. It is almost- almost- like not being lonely at all. Except that you are a pac-man. And ignoring loneliness hurts.
So, while I sit on my bed, looking through the box of things he gave me, I remind myself to feel it. I am lonely. To write it on my hand, like a word to be looked up in the dictionary later. And maybe one day I’ll find the aching has been smudged away, but the box and all the good things that love gave me can still be opened any time.