A Letter on Men, to Harry Styles

Helena Hauss.jpg

Harry,

You were the first. My first. Headfirst, stinging eyes, scathing skin. The first time I wanted wanted. What is a girl’s obsession? What will – what can – it do, become, transcend? As soon as I recognize it, there is a crater of longing in my heart, overstuffed, leaking and ravenous. My first obsession was never about you. Maybe it was about me.

The compression of my girlhood: learning smallness, imbibing my unimportance through gulps of everyday America. Everyday trauma.

My father told me I needed a mantra if I was to ever successfully meditate. Ever successfully chill. I am incapable of chilling. I unfurl meaning from anything. I make somethings from nothings. Everything is so much, all the time, and I hang onto casual by its threads, frayed and slipping. There’s a book I love: Art as Therapy by Alain de Botton. He writes with a stillness I cannot cultivate; he writes about the sublime. I contorted you, Harry, into my own sublime, reaching it, scraping its lavish edges, delirious with its fragrance, its undulating and rose-glossed mouth.

Thinking of you made me happy, full. I didn’t need to worry about the consequences that women are always warned will come from our desire. I could be scarlet hot for you in secret. I wanted to think about you more than I wanted you for real. I made poetry of the too-much kind, the kind that scares boys and parents. We wrote fanfiction, so many of us, thousands, and read, shared, clicked, liked, offered feedback. We obsessed, devoured, hungered. We were incessant. An ecology of girl-want, of desire accepting desire. How we cleaved out a space for ourselves, a bunker buried underneath the dirt, our writing spinning us like Penelope and her threads. We never stopped. We spun and unspun. The spinning was the point.

Sappho was stung with love and so was I; you stung every crooked shutter in me. I crashed into the strangest parts of being alive. Somehow, you made me matter to myself. Do I outgrow this kind of lust- the conceptual fuck? Making you into what I want. Making you into someone impossible, because men in reality so constantly disappoint me. I cannot go outside at night, or even midday, in Paris or any city, without that disappointment accumulating. I haven’t gone outside in shorts and a tank top since I was 12. Not freely, not unconsciously, at least. Hypervigilance starts early for women. We tarp ourselves in self-consciousness, try to make our limbs untouchable, but nothing stops the whistles or calls or the dagger voices and fingers of men. A woman walking in a city is a revolution.

When Brett Kavanaugh was confirmed, my ongoing dissertation on “The Existential Exhaustion of American Women” grew by ten pages. When Brett Kavanaugh was confirmed, I sat on the Metro and screwed my eyes shut, struggling to breathe. I was silent glass, not wanting anyone to look at or touch me, not ever again. When Brett Kavanaugh was confirmed, not a single male in my life contacted me to ask if I was okay. I did this with the people I cared about, the women who had known their own Brett Kavanaugh, or maybe multiple. The people who had watched his hearing and perhaps felt their own traumas reverberate like gunfire through their bodies – a reinvasion. When Brett Kavanaugh was confirmed, random women on the internet made me feel warmer and more supported than any of my male friends did. I didn’t want to resent these men for not knowing, immediately, the riotous and chronic malady of being a girl in America. I did not want to feel hurt, but I did. I do.

Harry, sometimes (more and more nowadays) I want to crawl out of myself and abandon all of my whimpering skin, because it doesn’t belong to me. It belongs to them, their brazen eyes, carnivorous gaze. Swallowing me up. I am exhausted. Can anyone blame me for wanting refuge from the sickness of a culture? From the echelons of fear, white-hot and bloodlusty?

At thirteen, I loved you, but a close friend of mine, a boy, said, You know, Sofia, you’re one of the smartest people I know, but I feel like One Direction is really dumbing you down. A girl’s intellect and happiness cannot coexist. The intensity of my adoration somehow mitigated the intensity of my brain. I cannot love something and truly say I am a Smart Girl. At thirteen this was made clear to me. At eighteen I know better, but my subconscious still needs to catch up.

Fragmentary writing reflects my womanhood more honestly than clear un-stumbling prose. I cannot perfectly say so much in so little, but I have tried. For some stories need telling, otherwise they fester? This form of writing – unthreaded, scrambling to reveal itself even to its own writer, feels most true. Fragmentary writing is also a hallmark of Romanticism. In Maurice Blanchot and Fragmentary Writing, Leslie Hill writes: “The time of the fragment, in other words, is never the fullness of the present. It is the time of between-times: between remembering and forgetting, continuity and discontinuity, obedience and objection; and what speaks most powerfully in the fragment is no doubt precisely this unreconciled tension between the artwork and its unravelling, between its gathering and its dispersion, between time past and time still to come.”

Is there a violence about fragmentary writing that scares the most entrenched and straight-edged of institutions and power structures? Most accounts of trauma emerge in fragments, not linearly or chronologically. Many cannot bear these fragments to be brought to the metaphorical surface. But this is what constitutes the survivor’s memory. It is jumbled and dismembered and everywhere. That does not mean it is inconclusive. That does not mean it is untrue.

I want so badly to hurl a hardback book at a gleaming mirror, dare it to break, crumble its peace, fracture my reflection, launch my own disrepair, cracked and kissed and in a jutted pile around my feet. How America seems to me a fragmentary planet, not coherent or summarizable, not neatly regurgitated, its history too dissonant. Or, rather, its histories too disparate, because my America does not look like yours and vice-versa. How womanhood never looks like any shiny one thing, but everything, most vibrant in its sharpest parts, and that sharpness, the most cutting stuff, is different for each of us. The cutting stuff is the most truthful part of womanhood, the stuff we’re not supposed to vocalize, but here I am, Harry. I am articulating the cutting.

Sofia

 

Artwork by Helena Hauss

Growing Up With Rohan

Written by Kaashif Hajee

bhupen khakhar.jpg

“So, tell me, na. What’s your girlfriend’s name?” she asked intrusively.

It was a typical family get-together. Aunties, uncles and cousins descended at our – the
unlucky hosts’ – house. As usual, the kids hung out separately in the bedroom, while the adults caught up (read: gossiped) in the living room. When dinner was served, however, the various generations were forced to come together and find common ground.

“Come on, you can tell me – I’m very cool, you know,” she persisted. “Not like your
Mother.”

Small talk was closely alternated with uncomfortable questions.

Anjali Aunty was our mother’s sister – our self-identified “cool” aunt. What that essentially meant was that unlike the other elders, she wore jeans and dresses, frequently went out to eat and would always rescue us from boredom with contraband alcohol at family functions.

Most desi families have an Anjali Aunty. Instead of asking us the run-of-the-mill questions for which we had rehearsed answers – “How are your friends?” “How are your studies going?” “Have you thought about what you want to do in the future?” – Anjali Aunty would ask about the latest gossip, popular films and TV shows, and where we had gone to party the previous weekend. But now that Rohan had turned 15, the socially acceptable age for a boy to be mingling with girls, this playful, well-meaning question too became part of the dinner conversation menu.

“I actually don’t have a girlfriend, Aunty,” Rohan replied, complete with a fake chuckle, infused with embarrassment. “Mumma, could you pass me the paneer please?” he asked, in an attempt to deflect any more probing.

“Oh wow, you mean there’s more than one? Pankaj, I’m sure your son has gone on you,”
Anjali Aunty said to our father. “Have you given him all your pearls of wisdom from your days?”

“Oh god, stop it, Anjali,” he replied. “Why do we always go back to that?” He pretended to
be uncomfortable but was visibly proud. He had been married to our mother for nearly 20 years, but it still didn’t hurt to bask in the glory of his youthful philandering.

“I remember how many hearts Pankaj broke as a young man!” another uncle
proclaimed. “Until he settled down with our darling Sameera.”
“Yes! And the apple doesn’t fall far from the tree, does it now?” agreed Anjali Aunty. She turned back to Rohan. “So when are you going to let me meet her, huh? Or should I say ‘them’? I’ve seen your Instagram, beta, you can’t hide from me!” she laughed, self-indulgently.
“Arrey no, aunty, it’s not like that,” Rohan said. His face visibly showed pain from pretending.
“They’re just my friends.”
Like Anjali Aunty would ever believe that. How uncool. Just friends? With all those girls? Ludicrous.

There had always been a set of concrete expectations for Rohan, many of which he
hadn’t been able to live up to: he was supposed to play all kinds of sports, excel at maths and science, be tough and strong, the whole good boy deal. I still remember how much it bothered him when I beat him at tennis, and when he had to ask me, reluctantly, for help with physics.

He was always a better writer than me, though. He’d probably write this story better too.

That night after dinner, my mind was racing. As I lay on my bed, staring blankly at the ceiling, thoughts I had buried deep inside kept poking their ugly heads out. I could not for the life of me understand why it was so acceptable, and even encouraged, for him to have girlfriends (plural, apparently?), while I couldn’t have one boyfriend. For God’s sake, I was three years older than him! If boys are allowed to date during their teens, but girls aren’t, then who do the boys even go out with? It was absurd.

My thoughts tumbled ahead of me. Why was I so restricted? Because boys would take advantage of me? Treat me badly? And, of course, the old “log kya kahenge?” Yet nobody ever reprimanded my father for treating his high school girlfriends so loosely in the past. Nobody told him it was wrong.

Instead, my brother was encouraged to follow in his footsteps. And the logic was that my father always knew he wouldn’t eventually want to end up with “those kinds of girls” – the ones who chose to date him. He knew my mom was the one because she didn’t hang out with boys like him back then. I was supposed to be like her. Not the other girls, the kind my dad had dated. They lacked self-respect and integrity. Charming.

But Shanay and I had been quietly dating for two years now. I was crazy about him. He was smart, respectful, funny, and made me really happy. It was such a healthy, stable and mutually beneficial relationship, but I knew my parents would never see it that way. All it would look like was a boy tainting their lovely daughter, staining her integrity along with theirs.

My mind kept running a mile a minute. I wondered how and why having sex with Shanay was so different from my brother prospectively doing the same with other girls? Why did it not matter what I thought, felt or wanted? Why, instead of me not being allowed to date, was Rohan not being told to treat other girls with respect?

The rules have always been different for us. I can’t get away from that truth. Rohan can always go out whenever and wherever he wants, while I have a curfew, and get bombarded with phone calls whenever I leave the house. Llike I can’t look after myself at 18. I’m never allowed to go to sleepovers or on overnight trips, especially if boys will be there;  I’m always questioned if I’m seen talking to a boy for too long, hanging out too much, behaving “inappropriately.” Always: where are you, when are you coming home, who are you with, what are you doing, don’t talk to xyz, don’t go here, don’t go there, your skirt’s too small, dress too tight, shorts too short, neckline low, too much make up, take the red lipstick off, who are you trying to impress, stop attracting unwanted attention, stop, don’t, enough.

***

Rohan came into my room the next morning. “I want to talk to you about something.”
“What, Rohan?” I was annoyed. “If you want to complain about Anjali aunty and the fam then now is not the time – I have my own problems.”
“No, no, I don’t want to complain about that,” he shyly giggled.
“Okay then what happened? Don’t tell me you actually have a girlfriend and Anjali Aunty
called it before me.”
“No, but I think… I maybe kind of have a crush –”
“What! Oh my God, on whom? What’s her name? That’s so cool Rohan, your first proper crush in so long!” I started frantically looking for my phone to stalk this new girl on Instagram. “I was wondering what’s wrong with you. How long have you liked her for? How did you two meet? Why didn’t you tell me before?”

I was genuinely excited for him, but also silently bitter. It wasn’t fair. I could see it. He would ask her out, start dating her, our parents would let them go on fancy outings, bring her over and spend time in his room – no questions asked. I could never be that lucky.

“Who is she? Come on! Tell me.”

He replied, hesitantly, “His name is Gaurav.”

 

 

Artwork by Bhupen Khakhar

me and hymn

little boy cross-legged in the grass
looking up at the sky
farming for words
whose cup are you trying to fill?
you know you could
empty me and fulfil
your self. just want it hard enough.
say the right words, tell me good night.
soft things fall
but they don’t make a noise.
you’ve seen women shatter
before you
but divinity doesn’t
break.
———-you want a woman divine.


damn.
I gotta be tough
for you
I gotta be strong
for you
I gotta be touched
for you
I gotta be fine
for you
I gotta be soft
for you
I gotta be lost
for you
I gotta bleed

———-for you

what a woman divine.

she’ll do well in your poems
she’ll roam the thick of your words
she’ll cut through your darkness
she’ll lick the sun and paint your dreams
she’ll be art and artist
your creator and
creation.
how do you get her so
woman divine?

stone-cold smart mouth soft skin so fine
always doing
fine
no need to call me when there’s static
from your side baby i’m okay,
you couldn’t hear me anyways.

wrote her into me from birth:
women divine
struggling.
waiting
where i come from,
to speak
————i love you
is an offering. such flowers are given
at the altar of our hopelessness.
when you say
i love you
it is an exercise in words.
you want a woman divine
and write everything but
prayers.

me a woman divine.
my namesake a goddess
mounted on a lion.
She wields danger like a ribbon in her hair
She wrongs and then
She writes herself.
She sings songs over bones.
She builds and she burns.
She blooms and she folds.
She does what she thinks, She wants
what’s a woman divine?
keep writing, maybe she’ll

get real.

 

Image from the film “Frances Ha”, dir. by Noah Baumbauch

powerful woman

your palm is a map, they said
drawn upon with lines
by a man above you, they said
your future is there
where the line
breaks

(and what is a palm but a leaf but a land but a country)
(and what is a line but divide but a border but fate but a worry)

how long i will last depends
on how i am held, they said
whether a hand is extended in
a fist or caress.
which means, will they love me
roughly or, well

(and what is a fist but landlock but a trap but stopped breath but control)
(and what is a caress but medicine but peace but an exhalation but love)

so i teach the land of me how to breathe
to inhale and exhale
someone else’s decisions, they said
i must find balance, walk the line
ready to spread myself
wide as a smile, call it love, don’t
scream it inside a fist, then
move on, forget
gather my skirt full of memory

(and what is a tightrope but decisions but existence but what happens to you)
(and what is balance but finally, power to a woman)

when i’m splayed five finger wide
like a palm frond in the wind,
it is still only an invitation if i say so
yet i know you often do not care.
even during a storm,
when i say welcome, come in
i know i could be left
in peace or in pieces, they said

it all depends on the hand
you’re given.

(and what is a country but something governed)
(and what is a woman but something governed)
(and what is man without a hand to govern)

in search of happy endings,
i span the equator
wound that cuts me in
two or more places, i learn
to call those wounds homes:
thatch them with thoughts and
erect them upon my heart till they push
out roots, and give way
for flowers

(and what is growth but defeating the odds)
(and what is blooming but a woman, without)

keep going, they say
your life is always there:
somewhere else.

and i’m searching still
travelling newer terrains
till the land of me stops breathing and
even my palm will not remember
the power it never held.

 

 

Artwork by Mequitta Ahuja, “Performing Painting: Seated Scribbler”, 2015

Panic grass

Settled on the side of the road
She is
A mandrake mother.
A witch planted deep with
Her many green middle fingers
Reaching for the sun,
Her nose filled up with dirt.
Witch-crass she lies buried, smirking
And in the night, she rises slow
A shower of loose earth
Commanding gleaming moonbeams
In a spotlight search for
Your daughter.
Yes, you, the Father with the
“I have a gun” t-shirt— smiling
Next to her prom date.
You think you’re funny, don’t you?
But the panic grass is coming.
She clambers in through the
Midnight window to find
Daddy’s little girl
sleeping.
Your virgin angel will learn the word
Orgasm
For the very first time.
Mandrake mother will shove
A hunger in her stomach
And clamp a hand across her mouth.
Your daughter will eat fire
So, you will want to show her
That iT’s a maN’s WorLd
And teach her to aCt LikE a LadY
But panic grass creeps in
Each night
With loose thighs and a flirty smile
To teach her how to use a condom.
You’d rather
Teach her to rEsPect herself
A whore does not a good wife make
But
When day breaks like an egg
Across those violet morning skies
It will sizzle with the smell
Of a white dress roasted,
And the witch-grass, she’ll lie buried, smirking.

 

Artwork by Georgia O’Keefe

Calloused Hands

Written by Mhraf Worku

 

One day, in bed,
with the air delirious of lust and need
you say, I stump you.
it confuses you that,
I love to hold delicate things
but only with my calloused hands.

My calloused hands:

I come from a line of strong women
I reek of them
I come from a place where
women go to battle
then return home, drenched in blood,
to sow the seeds of teff.

I come from a place
where,
mothers breastfeed their sons
while their daughters milk the cows.
A place where
men are taught to be indulgent,
with woman to serve their indulgence.

I come from a line of strong women:
whose hands bear mark
of the weeds they have plucked
and of the demons they’ve tamed

No, I don’t know what softness tastes like
or how it would feel in my palms

but I still seek it
with my calloused hands.

 

Artwork by Carol McIntyre, “Healing Hands”

The Pond

Back then the pond looked okay to swim in, and it never really was, but we still did, me and the other boys. The ice would melt in the springtime and on a day when the sun came out and there wasn’t a trace of snow left, we would all gather around. We didn’t even have to say it, we just knew we would. All the boys in the neighborhood, it was like the pond was calling to us. The older ones would tow the younger ones along, kicking and screaming—they’d heard the stories.

We would gather around at the edges, looking down and puffing our chests out. Once they got there the younger ones wouldn’t cry anymore—they knew what would happen if they did, and nobody wanted to get pushed in. Some boys would hum to themselves but the others hated that because we thought it might call them up from underwater. Whoever they were. We sometimes felt their strong fingers on our calves, when we let ourselves wade up to our necks.  The older boys said to never go far enough that you can’t touch the ground anymore. Our mothers forbade us from doing it at all. The factory was pouring something in the water that made your skin feel slick and sticky afterwards.

But then that summer there was a boy called Jack Hadley. He didn’t believe in the stories. His mother and little sister were making dinner at home while he went out exploring. His sister called him “Jackie” but he’d pinch her if she did it in front of anyone else. Jack liked swimming and when he showed up at the pond, one of the boys dared him to go first. He’d never been in before. He was a new kid trying to prove himself.

We were impressed. He didn’t even wince from the cold water, and he wasn’t ashamed to strip to his boxers in front of everyone. He had one curly hair on his chest, and was skinny enough that you could see his ribs. He went calf-high, knee-high, waist-high. His legs looked like bendy straws. Nobody had ever been that far into the pond alone. By now you were supposed to call on someone else to join, and he would call another, until all of you were in. But Jackie was alone. He pushed a floating can aside and pretended to smoke on one of the reeds for our entertainment.

“What do you all look so scared for?”

He twisted a reed into a gun and aimed it at my chest. We locked eyes. There was silence.

“BAM”

He pretended to shoot me and even though I wished I hadn’t, I jumped. A bird flew away with a twittering disapproval. I felt the others’ eyes on me. I was torn between telling him not to go any further, and proving that I didn’t care about him, didn’t care about the gun or any of it. I wasn’t a baby.

“I dare you to go out to your neck”. I regretted the words as soon as I said them because his expression had already accepted the dare before he could. All the boys bit their breaths back. He walked backwards, facing me. He went elbow-deep, nipple-deep, shoulder-deep. He was going too fast. The pond looked like it was breathing hard. Like a woman in porn. Each of us started to feel a shard of ice burrow deep into our hearts.

“Stop!”

The word burst out of the boy beside me.

I echoed it with my own weak “stop,” as another step had him up to his ears.

Jackie started laughing, and was still laughing when the pond water started to seep into his mouth. His mouth got bigger and bigger, like his jaw was unhinged. Like a reverse fountain, like pulling a plug. His mouth was still laughing when his eyes started to panic. When his face changed colour. His mouth was wide when the water went up his nose and poured into his ears. Then he disappeared with a little pop, leaving a pretend reed-gun behind.

Jackie’s mom and sister moved away. They made a grave for him but the truth is nobody took the body out of the pond. Nobody could dare to drag along the bottom to see what’s in there. It took them a week to get us to even admit that we’d seen Jack the day he went missing. I told my Mother over and over that I was the one who killed Jack but when I tried to speak my voice collapsed. No sound came out. My mother begged me to speak. Couldn’t I become a little clearer? Couldn’t I just tell her somehow what happened? Couldn’t I stop being so angry all the time?

When winter fell I went back to the pond for the first time. I walked out onto the ice, cleared a patch of snow and looked down. I could see straight to the bottom through the green murk. I lay on my stomach and finally spoke, but all the words that came out were not what I wanted to say. I heard myself, and realised I couldn’t connect a meaning to a word anymore. When I spoke, sentences came out like [apple] snow. Machine. I. quiver. [HELP] no less than . golf . falling. The more I spoke the less sense it made. The more I spoke the more I tasted blood.

Jackie floated up to the surface eventually, like I’d known he would, and we lay face to face, staring at each other through the ice. His skin was bloated and his hair moved like the weeds at the bottom of the pond. His mouth was still unhinged in a grotesque smile. A beer label had attached itself to his thigh. He was so beautiful. And marred. I pressed myself against the ice and hoped to warm it enough that I would sink through. They found me almost frozen and unconscious, with raw knuckles from trying to punch my way through to him. They told my Mother I’d been in a fight. When I spoke, it was with someone else’s voice.

 

 

Artwork by Rosanna Jones “Body Part II”