The map of Houston, Texas looks like a star break on a windshield. When the glass has been pierced by a sharp point, leaving a spiral of injury. Perhaps, due to a stone. A bullet. On the fourth track of Solange Knowles’ new album When I Get Home, there are gunshots. You could almost miss it; the clocking of the gun, interspersed with its firing, is so effortlessly melded into the melody. Much like news of recent deaths often sink beneath the frantic newness of news.
Unlike this album’s predecessor, the magnificent A Seat at the Table, When I Get Home is less construction than map, a route along the roots of a steady, reflective driver: Solange. She is credited as a writer on every track. But it’s important to acknowledge that this is not her story – “I realize how much wider, figuratively and literally, my work could be if I took myself away as subject” – but stories, plural, that are narrated by her. Here, Solange creates conceptual cartography: of her Southern roots, of black empowerment, black women, and their intersections with their own personal and collective histories, and their love, spirituality, emotions, and power.
There are numerous, predominantly black, collaborators on this album, all in various capacities, ranging from features, production to writing. The lineup includes such names as Tyler, the Creator, The Dream, Metro Boomin’, Pharrell, The Dream, Cassie, Earl Sweatshirt, Gucci Mane, Raphael Saadiq, Abra, and Playboi Carti. The most interesting “collaborations” however are the interludes featuring a variety of black female voices, including the artist’s. One interlude is titled “Can I Hold the Mic” which choppily samples a video of crunk group Crime Mob’s female rappers Diamond and Princess faux-interviewing each other – “Uh, bitch, can I hold the mic?” This leads into a spoken-word section by Solange herself:
“I can’t be a singular expression of myself, there’s too many parts, too many spaces, too many manifestations, too many lines, too many curves, too many troubles, too many journeys, too many mountains, too many rivers, so many – “
This instability of identity, of the failure to contain and distill Solange’s specific experience as a black woman, perhaps explains her decision to produce a sonic map instead, one that stops focusing on an inconstant, non-singular self, but instead actually charts out the terrain of self, exploring those many “mountains” and “rivers” that make up her emotional-historical-cultural-political being and existence. Part of this is paying a nod to those that came before her; on S McGregor, Solange includes a recording of Houston-born women Debbie Allen and Phylicia Rashad reciting a poem by their prolific mother Vivian Ayers: “I boarded a train/Kissed all goodbye.” The track comes very early in the album, right after the repetitive, one-liner opener Things I Imagined, as if to foreshadow the movement, both literal and figurative, and the endings or goodbyes that Solange has undertaken to realize her visions. When she asks Can I Hold the Mic, it is not to profess a personal declaration, not to ask to be accepted as one self, or embodiment of self, not even to ask for a seat at the table, but instead, to ask us, to invite the world, along with her as she moves and retraces the “lines” and “curves” of her map of being.
The cartography begins, as Solange’s life itself did, in Texas. If the map of Houston, her city, is a fractured spiral, then it revolves around its blackness. Houston Third Ward, where Solange grew up, is known for its black community. It was a civil rights epicenter in the sixties and had the first nonprofit hospital for black patients in the thick of the Jim Crow era. A profile by The New York Times Style Magazine states that “[Solange’s] output is infused by a fundamental orientation – culturally, politically, psychically – to blackness.” And this is her central spin throughout. Solange frequently incorporates the chopped n screwed hip-hop style in her core jazz and hip-hop music, inflecting her work with black musical forms that specifically nod to her city. A song celebrating black and brown things – “Black baes, black days”‘ – is named Almeda, an area in south-west Houston. S McGregor is for S MacGregor Way, where the aforementioned sisters Debbie Allen and Phylicia Rashad grew up. Way to the Show’s “candy paint” lyric pays homage to Houston’s staple slab scene, where cars are painted to look candy-coated. Meanwhile, Beltway refers to the road looping around Houston, which, on the tracklist, is cleverly followed by Exit Scott, a real exit off the Beltway 8 in southern Houston. In visuals for the album, Solange prominently features a ranch, with horses and dancers in modern cowboy outfits. “Hundreds and hundreds of people every weekend are getting on horses and trail-riding from Texas to Louisiana,” Solange told Billboard. “It’s a part of black history you don’t hear about.” It is clear the geography serves as scaffolding for the album, propping up every vision executed by the artist.
It is in Exit Scott (interlude) where Solange showcases the poetry of Pat Parker, a lesbian black woman from Houston itself. The poem is about love. In the intermission, We Deal With the Freak’n, Solange includes audio of Alexyss Tylor from her show Sperm Power 2: “We are not only sexual beings, we are the walking embodiment of god consciousness”, a track that is preceded by the Gucci Mane feature My Skin My Logo, which contains an outro resembling sexual climax. Solange explores the nuances and spaces of black love and sexuality through the lens of actual black women, from Parker to Tylor, each exercising agency and ownership of their sexual and romantic narratives.
These also expand to the topic of spirituality. In ‘Nothing Without Intention’, Solange cites the black beauty blogger Goddess Lula Belle’s video on Florida water, an item Solange carried with her to the Met Gala in 2018. Florida water is a unisex cologne made with alcohol and essential oils, used for purification, spells and spiritual cleansing. It is also a prominent part of Afro-American spiritual culture. In the track Almeda, there is a lyric that declares “Black faith still can’t be washed away/ Not even in that Florida water.” Solange simultaneously celebrates black spirituality while asserting the resilience and strength of black faith as transcending every hope symbolized by any spiritual object; black faith is stronger than any spell. On top of that, the refrain “nothing without intention” is a call to the listener, perhaps, to examine Solange’s full cartography as painstakingly and thoroughly mapped. As in an exquisitely made poem, every element is cherry-picked for maximum fruition. But invoking intention is also a rallying cry to her community, to the black community, to the black women before, with, and after her, to know and find and search for their beauty and being.
The title My Skin My Logo is a reclamation of the idea of using blackness as a brand (re: blaxploitation) and exacting power over it. Binz offers a similar celebration of wealth in this lens – “Dollars never come on CP time/ Wish I could wake up on CP time” – where CP time is ‘colored people time’, a historically derogatory phrase used to imply that black people were lazy and tardy. Solange basks in her wealth and power, spinning the narrative that has historically held people like her down for their success.
Pride, having pride in an inconstant state of self and history, and comfort with this pride, are key factors of When I Get Home. A lyric in My Skin My Logo states to “blackberry the masses”, a gorgeous play on words that recalls the saying “The darker the berry, the sweeter the juice”, which elevates dark skin. At the same time, there is the darker double meaning in “bury the masses.” It’s an invocation, to and for the black community, that is sweet-bitter; like the Houston cars lacquered to look like candy, this lyric draws on both the pain and beauty of blackness in a political world, invoking, above all, hope, the sweetness and necessity of it.
In the same NYT magazine profile mentioned earlier, Solange recalls being afraid of the Holy Ghost as a young girl at church. This fear, not just of that imaginary phantom, but a wide-encompassing fear, found in the pit of every artist’s chest, manifests in the intro track Things I Imagined. Solange ends this song with the lyric “Takin’ on the lie.” By the time we reach the last track, Solange no longer imagines but declares: I’m a Witness. This song transforms the old lyric into “Takin’ on the light.” There is a movement here between imagination and vision, fear and realization, off-track to grounded, intention to execution. In When I Get Home, a title itself implying a road and destination tied to self, Solange sketches for us this journey, maps out the paths that have led her to this exact moment as both artist and woman and black being. How strange, how searching, and how beautiful it all is.
It’s no breaking news that Vogue, controversially considered the world’s ultimate fashion bible, will finally have a cover shot by a black photographer for the first time in its 126-year-old existence. The magazine’s iconic September issue, the most esteemed and awaited of the year for which even a documentary film was released, has been “lent” to Beyonce this year. She apparently has free reign over the creative production in exchange for her presence on the cover, and has picked the African American photographer Tyler Mitchell to shoot it.
Trevor Noah’s reaction to the news is my favorite, because it’s both celebratory and uncomfortable, like good alcohol – “Finally a good headline with the words “black person” and “shoot” in it! This is dope!”
What is undoubtedly a cause for excitement is also a prime opportunity to examine the historically dominant whiteness of media outlets that control the circulation of images and perceptions of global trends. Who are the major puppeteers of what’s deemed “hot or not” and why are their channel-flip-fast trends so colorful yet their playing fields so colorless? Why does it take a black person, whose extreme levels of fame and global influence almost elevate her above conventional race hierarchies, being given the opportunity to temporarily control a historically white space, in order for young black, talented creatives to break out in the absolute upper echelons of their industry? One could argue that the Vogue cover, normally coordinated by the steely hands of editor-in-chief Anna Wintour, is typically reserved for highly established photographers. But why are no black photographers considered highly established, or plainly speaking, good enough? The deeper issue is that creative industries of fashion and other arts continue to be white dominated arenas where we have to constantly be questioning whether white people and people of color are being given equal opportunities and advantages.
It all boils down to: representation matters. The truth is I could’ve tweeted about this news but I chose to write this piece instead because even now, not enough people get it to take action.
So I’ll break it down here. Why does it matter so much to have a black photographer shooting the cover of Vogue?
A photograph, although static, still serves as a medium of narrative. Images tell stories and if they didn’t, we wouldn’t care so much about Instagram and how our timelines make us feel everyday. We wouldn’t pin ourselves to screens – TVs, laptops, iPhones, magazines. Our generation has simply never been more visually generated and motivated, and the effects of this reality can’t be judged with accuracy either, because we are the first generation to live this way.
A photograph on the cover of the most famous magazine in the world has the power to influence millions of people worldwide. This means its narrative is scarily pervasive around the globe. Rihanna’s recent Vogue cover, the one with her skinny drawn-on eyebrows, has thrown the world into a tizzy, questioning the entire culture of eyebrows, and spawning think pieces on the evolution of eyebrow styling and its impact on style and beauty perceptions. See what I mean by scary influence?
When we analyze the narrative of an image, we look at several factors: what/who is in the photograph, why are they there, how are they positioned and placed, and who put them there. The creator of the image is important because in their creation, we are seeing through their eyes. The image is a product of its creator’s specific bias and perspective. If the holy grail of fashion produces images that are always shown through a white lens, then we always experience a white narrative. The positioners and placers, the narrators of high fashion, are white, so our views of style morph into constantly examining high fashion through a white lens. And this, today, is simply unacceptable. No one should have to be writing a think piece about why style, image and creativity are produced equally well and thought-provokingly by all races and cultures, and that displaying their diversity not only matters, but just signifies common sense.
Tyler Mitchell is a 2017 graduate of NYU’s Tisch School of the Arts. He grew up in Atlanta, becoming a photographer in his teens, taking pictures of fashion and youth culture, particularly surrounding the local skateboarding scene. In 2015, he self-published a book, El Paquete, containing photographs of skateboarding youth, architecture and fashion in Havana, Cuba.
He has come to be featured in several prolific media outlets such as Complex, i-D, Teen Vogue and Lomography. His cover for Teen Vogue featured gun control activists Emma Gonzalez, Sarah Chadwick, Nza-Ari Khepra, and Jaclyn Corin, wearing all-black in perhaps a nod to the outfit of historic freedom fighters, the Black Panthers, with the hashtag #NEVERAGAIN.
“I depict black people and people of color in a really real and pure way,” Mitchell stated in a New York Times profile last year. “There is an honest gaze to my photos.”
Mitchell’s work is currently on display at the Aperture Foundation in New York (through August 16), in the show “2018 Aperture Summer Open: The Way We Live Now”. His vivid portraits, showcasing a refreshing tenderness, introspection and hope, of young black men, are partly inspired by 1980s street photographer Jamel Shabazz, and serve as a response to Mitchell’s own coming-of-age struggles as a young African American.
“I was always mentally placing myself in relation to others and very conscious of my blackness. There’s a form of what I can only describe as ‘racial schizophrenia’ that goes on in the mind of an adolescent boy,” wrote Mitchell in his artist’s statement for the exhibition. “I am synthesizing what I see to be a full range of expression possible for a black man in the future.”
Looking at Mitchell’s work, it seems fitting why Beyonce chose him. Although a weak song, Beyonce’s music video for “Apes**t” with husband Jay-Z also employs image as narrative in a powerful way. The couple often stand in statuesque poses in front of some of the world’s most famous paintings, including the Mona Lisa, at the Louvre Museum, what is known as a historically white space. The most famous artworks displayed at the Louvre are almost always white images and thus, white narratives, with occasional displays of people of color either as slaves, servants or savages, or depicted through a completely orientalist lens. In the video, Beyonce and Jay-Z literally place black bodies amongst the white marble floors and statues of the Louvre to assert black presence and excellence into the artistic narrative of the space they’re in. A row of black women dance in front of the painting of the coronation of Napoleon, one of history’s biggest colonizers, while Beyonce sings “I can’t believe we made it”. Jay-Z raps his verse in front of the painting “The Raft of Medusa” which depicts survivors spotting their rescue after their boat suffers from a fatal crash; the comparative slave boat narrative becomes apparent. An image of a painting where a white woman hugs a white man with a stab wound, is recreated with a black man and woman, and the stab wound morphs into a symbol of police brutality. This is emphasized further by an image of black men kneeling outside the museum, literally “taking a knee” in reference to NFL football players, led by Colin Kaepernick, kneeling at their games to protest racism and police brutality. Even the censored title becomes a symbol of erasing black presence and excellence out of global artistic, social and political narratives for centuries. And plenty more metaphors abound, too many to recount in full here.
What this video and the upcoming Vogue issue can remind us of is that there is still a lot of work to be done when it comes to diversifying the arts and its various narratives. As a society that is increasingly interconnected through media and its distribution of the arts, we need to do better when it comes to being aware of what we’re consuming and producing, and through what particular shade of lens.
This is Trump’s regime A neocolonialist bureau in a Post-colonial city The grey building with its well-manicured grass Has its guards stand tall with Cartoon moustaches that are Anything but funny
They make you feel so small First they spit orders into your face to Empty yourself bare You feel like a child who Ate her homework And stumbled into the headmistress’ office with a bad stomachache
Then they make you stand in silence Even as you try to make conversation with the Equally nervous person behind you who’s Going to visit their daughter for the first time in 3 years or the Hopeful student who just got into this university in Iowa or That one in Arkansas
“Sir how old were you when you left Tehran” “My parents are sponsoring me” “Husband is in Philippines, ma’am” “Virtual key accounts manager” “Housewife” “Sir it’s a one number question can you just answer me straight” “Until I was eighteen ma’am”
Accents Interrogated by some voice on TV with no soul And we were not allowed to look, our knees Trembling like we were waiting in line at the Site of an execution After all capital punishment is still a thing in Free America
“NYU?” “History major” “Your visa is approved ma’am” Such ease in my privilege I thought I moved worlds and Tried to keep my relief in check because there were still many Before me and after
All these words rehearsed in nervous minds and robotic ones The white people at the counters had nuclear missiles to blow our hopes dry And turn our hearts into a giant Wasteland that was once An American dream
I wanted to punch Uncle Sam and scream I hate America Or burn down a McDonald’s while Showing my middle finger to Trump But I kept silent with my head down And as I walked out I saw a woman in a burqa And I have never been aware of Privilege as such
Artwork by Yeo Tze Yang, “I Could Live in Hope”, 2015
My best friend missed her flight because she needed to see the Eiffel Tower. She simply would not have been to Paris without seeing the Eiffel Tower. On the day, the train takes just a bit too long but when we emerge from the Bir-Hakeim metro station, finally, the tower emerges like Goliath pouncing upon our fantasies. The sky is grey; the Eiffel Tower is grey too. My friend peers up at it and I quickly snap a photo. It comes out fuzzy, bleak. This picture will exist as a record on her Instagram, that she has been here, that she visited this continent, that she came to this city and stamped it.
She was here. She was there.
Later, when my friend disappears down the stairwell, into Bir-Hakeim station and out of her Paris, I walk closer to the base of the tower. There are little knots of West African men, selling mini Eiffel Towers on keyrings. Five for a euro! Five for a euro – small, medium, big! I can tell they are West African because their accents have that curious spooling of two histories – French and Wolof maybe, or another native language. Colonial and natural. It is one of my favourite accents, as if speaking whilst a truffle rolls around in your mouth, a sticky mixed chocolate truffle where the white and dark are swirled together like marble. I am reminded of my friend Arame, an economics major from Senegal who studied with me in Abu Dhabi, how her lips turned even such words like “finance” and “merger” into a unique kind of music.
The West African men are smiling at us but their grins all have droplets of anxiety lodged within them, like weak rain struggling to slide down the tower’s crisscrossing beams. It is raining now. They huddle into themselves, into their almost threadbare hoodies, and spread their hands across the mini Eiffel keyrings, as if gesturing to an array of potions that when drunk, will transfer you somewhere else, up the tower and beyond, all the way to your far-off dreams.
Aéroport Charles De Gaulle
Name: Vamika Sinha Date of birth: 03/04/1998 Sex: F Occupation: Student Nationality: Indian Place of Issue: Gaborone
The stamp on my passport page exists like a tattoo on skin: a visible mark carrying a history, an imprint both borne out of and onto memory. Permanent. What is the story behind this fading French thing? How has it become a double mark of identification, both technically, my admittance through the Paris airport, as well as metaphorically, an engraving on my evolving identity?
The story of my stamp begins, as it usually does, on a page.
When I was 15, I checked out a copy of Ernest Hemingway’s A Moveable Feast from the school library. This is a memoir written about Hemingway’s time spent as a struggling expatriate journalist in Paris during the 1920s, surrounded by his friends and fellow artists, Scott Fitzgerald, Gertrude Stein, Ezra Pound, James Joyce and others – known as the “Lost Generation” in the artery of history, a clump of artistic creatives, meandering misers and penniless geniuses. A Moveable Feast is a mosaic of a time and a place and a set of people now lost to us in the present; personal accounts, written observations, streams of consciousness and old rendezvous’ melt into each other on the page, with the fluidity and irregularity of the River Seine. Throughout, Hemingway mentions several addresses of cafés, apartments, bars and residences that can still be found in Paris today. What results is a fragmented piece of textual cartography, mapping a narrative of Paris through the lens of a writer and artist amid the city’s jazz age.
I was a believer. I believed in Hemingway’s moveable feast; I believed in his city, his Paris in text. I believed it and committed to it as something holy, a distant reality and sacred fairytale. Maybe I still do, in a corner of my gut. At 15-16, I was lost, inside the unwieldy spines of literature that were so much larger and smarter than me, inside the mouth of an impending future as a literature student-maybe, an expatriate journalist-maybe. Through Hemingway’s text about his Lost Generation in Paris, I could remain lost but also find a sense of belonging in that lost-ness, of smoky cafes and smoky opportunities. Paris had come to save me. It was reaching out a hand to help, fingers outstretched, one of them looped on a cigarette and the rest promising to propel me into a city that, in its own beautiful, fragmented authenticity, could allow me too to be that beautiful, fragmented thing: a creative human, comfortable within itself, comfortable as exactly itself and what it was trying to be.
At 19, I got the opportunity to find my own Paris, not just Hemingway’s, but like a warm baguette hugged to my chest, just mine for the savouring. What I write today is my own textual cartography, perhaps just as fragmented and even more questioning of what it means to put down a city on a page, to formulate its borders in words, to stamp it.
Next to Paris’ oldest bookstore is an overpriced café. You can sit inside a little plastic enclosing with a heater above your head, to protect you from the cold rain. I sit in a corner with my two friends. We order tiny coffees, black and bitter inside shiny, white cups. The rain drums gently on the plastic roof, like the sound of someone’s footsteps running away. For the next hour, my friend reads aloud from a French poetry book, maybe it was Rimbaud. Sip, sip, sip. The rain falls steadily. Run, run, run. We stare off into the distance and speak stiltingly in our nascent French. Oui, oui, oui. We think, we are sure, we are intelligent. My friend lights a cigarette and the meeting between paper and flame makes a soft fizz. All of history, conversations past between Sartre and Picasso and Dali and Beauvoir inside warmly lit cafes, are smoke phantoms hovering above our heads. I wonder if this is what it is to truly be in Paris. I think, I am sure, I want this to be true. The cigarette dies out and we are left with a stub, an unfinished book, a hefty bill and some rain. We think, we are sure, we are very, very young in a very, very old place. Somewhere in a little Haussmanian apartment in the 5th arrondissement, a little child kneels at the feet of his ailing grandfather, exchanging stories bright like peeling pink paint.
“May I have a Nutella crêpe please?” “Bien sûr, mon ami. Here, have some tea.” “Really? For free? C’est vraiment gratuit?” “For free, mon ami – welcome to Paris.”
Outside my dorm, deep in the unglamorous 14th arrondissement, there is a crêpe stand. Pass by and you will be followed by Holiday or Sinatra, wispy in your ears like smoke; pause to stop and you will get free Middle Eastern tea in a small plastic cup. Opposite the stand, there is the way to the airport, direct on the RER B. The central artery of the Paris metro, this train connects all us students to the rest of the city and also, in a way, to the rest of the world.
I sip my tea in thought. Hmm…there is some mint in this, a generous amount of sugar…it reminds me of the two-dirham tea I like to buy in downtown Abu Dhabi. A sentimental taste. My mouth warms up from the cold, metallic newness of the French language.
“I am from Palestine,” he says, after I praise the tea, fishing for a recipe to WhatsApp my mother. “The thing is, you will not be able to make this on your own. You will have to come here only. Why? Because first, I make it with love. And then, the ingredients are plants I bring from home, from Nablus. So I think I will keep this recipe secret,” he says, grinning, one hand on the Algerian sauce, the other wielding crepe batter.
One day, my Mexican friend Diego, who studies at NYU London, visits me for the weekend. Every time I host a visitor, the first thing I do is have crepes with them. It was how I was welcomed to Paris and how I want my friends to be too. Something warm and fulfilling, something I come to consider more Parisian than even a baguette or spotting beret-clad heads in the winter. Diego orders a “crêpe special”, hot with eggs, meat, veggies, sauce and cheese. It is 10pm and the stand is busy. Conversations fizz around us, mingling with the steam of the crepes and the ever-present radio jazz. A man beside us orders in Spanish and Diego interrupts, gleefully pouncing on the chance to speak his mother tongue. We find out the customer is actually Italian and studies business in France. I interject in English that I am planning to go to Italy soon and he rattles off a few recommendations for things to do in Rome and Florence. He asks us where we are from and we sigh with faux-exasperation at having to explain the curious complication of being a NYU Abu Dhabi student. The act is tiring but secretly pleasurable. Diego explains that he is Mexican but studied in Costa Rica before moving to the Middle East for school and is now doing a semester in London. I explain my Indian origin, growing up in Botswana and then meeting Diego in Abu Dhabi before coming to Paris for this semester. Our new Italian friend is fascinated and then surprises us by saying he too applied to NYU Abu Dhabi. I feel heady. A guy from Iran joins in our conversation. Behind me, the American girl who lives next door to my dorm orders a sandwich in French. Two passers-by greet the crepe man in cheerful Arabic, their words bouncing off each other like happy marbles. I am struck at this moment by the thought that I am content.
“Do you like it here in Paris?” Diego asks the crepe man.
“Oh, yes. I love my crepe stand. People come here and I can give them tea and food and for a little while, I can make them feel at home. I have met so many students like you. I know so many of their secrets!” he laughs. “I like helping them. Sometimes I will know my customer’s birthday and I will offer them a crepe for free and they will start to cry. I just want to make people feel at home. This is a big city. I like it. I have experienced a lot here. I have suffered here, I have almost died here. It is important for me.”
I return to his stand almost every day – after classes, after dates, after naps, after long work days, after crying, after grocery shopping, after bittersweet Skype calls, after clubbing. The food is cheap and I know, however much I ache with aloneness, I will always get a smile here, always a friendly “ca va?” that isn’t just for obligation, and always a cup of tea that, although irreproducible, will never fail to reproduce a tender memory of somewhere I once lived. Perhaps I will also hear another language, a Moroccan grabbing a quick dinner or a pair of German backpackers clutching cups of tea. I bask in this flagrant display of diversity and difference. The crepe stand becomes a kind of utopia, a microcosm of the globe, tongues full of various languages, cultures and histories, all meeting over a few Nutella crepes in peace.
“What is your name?”
Diego asks the question and it occurs to me that I do not know the name of the man who serves me crepes almost every day. He laughs, the sound of skittering marbles.
“Uh. You can just call me the Crêpe Man. That’s it, that’s who I am.”
I understand: this jovial, dreadlocked man will never reveal his identity to me. He is telling me I will never really know him and that is true. We will eat his crepes and talk for a little while and then we will all go on our ways. We are transient. My first day in Paris, I boarded the RER B to the Cité Universitaire station, realizing that at one point, I will memorize almost all the stops but never really understand what any one of them means. I will write about them. That’s for sure, again and again, until I am an old lady, quietly making tea for herself in an apartment, on the corner of experience and optimism.
On a bright Friday afternoon, I find myself outside the Châtelet-Les Halles station, waiting for a good mood, waiting for a friend. I have ordered a chocolat viennois, my favourite thing to drink in this city, the uneven pyramid of white cream on dark, dark sweetness. The sun slides itself into vision, lazy and slow, leaving the air, my hair and the glass on the table draped in light like honey. There is the urge for a cigarette. All around me, young Europeans bloom like individual petals off their round café tabletops. I am alone. Their clothes are simple and beautiful, their espresso cups glossy, their mouths effortlessly curled around Marlboros and common French expressions – ben non, en fait, ouaiiiiis. My clothes too are stylish if cheap, my highlighter new and shiny – 3 euros’ worth from my closest Franprix – and I am silently watching everything through my amateurly lined eyes. Down to its spring light, Paris has effortlessly smooth skin, without trying. Without trying at all.
It seems I have arrived in the great belly of the feast. Sipping on my drink, I pull out a book to read by a prolific writer; the café waitress wafts over with a tissue-like receipt; I respond automatically with “merci”; I wait. It is a performance, a kind of ballet routine, a series of movements I once learned in a dream. But I know my almond skin peeks out of the corps de ballet, like a shy sun from within the clouds. I know I cannot really speak like them, even after months of language classes, their matte mouths talking away at Sartre or Islam or fascism, so many things that always somehow only concerns them, while thousands of tiny cigarettes die at their pale hands. So many creamy white Venus sculptures coming to life in a café outside Châtelet. So many of them mattering, without trying. Without trying at all. They do not know the smallness of being from nowhere, of being a mere capillary in the body of relevance.
They do not know me and I do not know them.
Gare de Lyon
This morning, I talked to the Crêpe Man again before work. I found out he has a Master’s degree.
“My major was political science and international relations. I used to work for the presidential cabinet here, receiving the, how do you say, the internationals? I was in the administration.”
He flips over a crepe, his lips mouthing the words to something by Louis Armstrong playing on the radio. I am surprised and then ashamed at being surprised.
“So why are you not doing that anymore?”
The Crepe Man explains to me how he didn’t have good relations with his colleagues in the administration. “They didn’t like me. Probably, it was jealousy. I could speak French, although not as well as them, but I also spoke English and Arabic, and better than them. So they were, kind of like, hostile to me.”
“Did they say something? Were they ever rude to you, directly?”
“No, no, it was…I felt it. I could just feel it. Sometimes they don’t have to say anything but you know. You feel it. You feel you are not wanted there.”
I nod and do not say anything.
A group of tourists come up to order paninis and cokes and the crepe man strikes up an animated conversation, signalling me to wait. I take this chance to really look at him. The Crepe Man’s face is a clear expressionist homage to the emotions he has worn in his life. His shadowy jaw, his swinging dreadlocks, a mouth stretched with both sorrow and beaming, a pair of temperamental dark eyes with crow’s feet.
He turns to me when the tourists leave.
“I can speak about six languages. Arabic, of course. English, because now everyone in Palestine, they are knowing English. I wanted to be different so I came to France and now I speak French too. Also, a little Spanish because I think it is a beautiful language. I like travelling there and I wanted to learn it to speak it there. And you know, it would also be helpful for my diplomat job. And then there is Portuguese. One time I had a Portuguese family, they were my customers and they were visiting so while they were here, I picked it up,” he pauses to flip a crepe over. “I also speak Hebrew.”
He doesn’t say anything more so I ask him how he learned it. He laughs, slightly nervously. I wait to see if he will answer.
“Okay. Okay, I, uh…you know, Fidel Castro once, he said that to understand your enemy, you must know their language. So…that is why I am able to speak it.”
I nod and do not say anything.
Jazz from the radio fills the gap in our conversation, the sound of it a pat on the shoulder, a comfort for both of us.
“Who doesn’t like jazz?” the Crepe Man laughs, “But to me, this is the music of resistance,” and I am astounded by the reality of someone still listening to jazz as exactly what it once stood for: a subtle revolution. “I listen to it because for people like me, this is the sound of resistance. Of not wanting to surrender.” He goes on to tell me how he is planning to form a jazz band in Paris. In Palestine, he used to work as a music teacher’s assistant, just like I once did in Botswana. In Paris, he laments how the music for people like him has become a bizarrely bourgeois commodity.
“For good jazz, you have to pay all these euros just to be in the presence of it. That’s not what it’s supposed to be!”
After I leave with my panini, I put on some Coltrane and take the long commute to work. The RER B reminds me of the A train in New York, how it travels up to Harlem, the once-hotbed of jazz and resistance.
My phone pings with an email from my boss. For a few weeks now, I have been working as a writing and communications intern at a tourism start-up, doing translations and fluffy blog pieces to attract Anglophone customers to the company. The window by my desk looks over the city like an observant parent. In the distance, the Sacre-Coeur rises from the skin of Paris, a pretty little blemish that is the former village of Montmartre.
When I arrive at the office tower outside Gare de Lyon, the glass doors slide open quietly, submissive to their guest. I walk through, moving faster to catch the elevator going upwards. A different receptionist is in the lobby today, an old East Asian woman with unflattering eye makeup, spectacles and a pixie cut. She stops me at the entryway.
Because I am a new intern, I haven’t received an access card yet to enter the offices. The receptionists usually let me through with a smile when I tell them I work for Intripid on the 11th floor and that I will receive my card in a few days. Today, however, I am stopped.
When I approach the desk, the receptionist starts rattling rapid-fire French to me, gesturing me to fill in some forms and show a bunch of IDs. I think I have to sign something. I have to explain who I am. I try to cling on to the hooks of familiar words and phrases, to notice when they curve up into questions in the end so I know I have to formulate a response. She asks me many things. I rummage for the words, my French coming out toothy and gapped.
I can see the receptionist getting angry. The receptionist is pissed. She slows her words into mockery, speaking in a painful, loud, laboured French, modelled to fit my apparent incompetence. She sighs and rolls her eyes and purses her thin lips. Out of the corner of my eye, I see two of my colleagues emerge obliviously from the elevator, heading out for a smoke. I have been standing here for twenty minutes.
“Okay, you listen. I. Am. Very. Busy. I have a lot of work. Can you speak French? No…English? Do you speak that?”
I stare at her.
“I have. A lot. Of work,” she repeats.
“Yes, yes, I speak English,” the words spill in a gush, my mouth re-adapting to something it is confident with, to a renewed sense of control.
The receptionist chews up the seed of my French and spits it into the air. Something in me is shrivelling. This is not even her language. It is not mine either. English, French, none of us own them. We are instead owned by them. I stare at her, the way her soot black eyeliner misses the rim of her eyes. I can’t look away. I can’t run away.
The receptionist begins explaining the forms to me in English. Her English is very bad, like a piece of broken glass on the floor. Something in me wants to clamp down my boot and crush it. To say words like “discombobulate”, words I know better, that are so big they could dwarf her mouth the way she has dwarfed me. It feels sick, this power, this desire for control, this primal display of humanness, this sharp rebellion against being made into an alien in a matter of minutes. I want her to feel it. I want it to squeeze around her neck as well, like a too-tight turtleneck.
I want to make her feel like she is the one without the bloody access card.
Instead, I quietly sign my name and walk through to the elevator. I have a lot of work today.
Porte de Choisy
“Bienvenue de chez moi!”
The tram doors open to a blustery Wednesday evening. My Malaysian friend Tzy Jiun has brought me to an Asian supermarket because she wants to taste her way across the distance to home and because I have very little money to eat. We are going to buy ramen and on the tram there, I stick my head in a novel while trying to calculate the maximum number of Indomie packets that will be affordable for two weeks. My friends crack jokes in the corner or scroll through Instagram, swaying from the poles in order not to fall.
Last night, I woke up at 4;34 with a scrabbling in my stomach. I gulped water and rolled over to sleep. The good thing about sleep is that you can will yourself into oblivion about anything real. I will not get eight hours again, ok. There is one frozen lasagne in my fridge and half a baguette in my bag today, ok. I have three pages of writing to finish tonight, ok. There are four tram stops to Chinatown now, ok. I study literature but life is also maths, ok. Maybe not Pythagorean theorems but the cashier counts out your change in French, ok. This ATM doesn’t tell you your balance in English, ok. Two flicks of mascara on your eyes so you cannot cry today, ok. 17 more days till home and your mother cooking for you again, ok.
Okay. Okay. Okay.
How many okays does it take to really feel ok?
I go quiet as we thread our way through apartment blocks and food vendors. I think my friends have become used to this but today, it’s not because I am feeling anxious or depressed, as I have nervously explained to them in past cases. I am watching Tzy Jiun practically bound across the concrete and zebra crossings and it makes me glad to see her find a sense of warmth, a semblance of her home in “the land of white people” as she calls it. For months, I have been reading her poems, unashamedly angry and desperately tender, as she writes about conversing with two old ladies near Porte de Choisy in her language, or eating with chopsticks, her everyday rebellion. I have seen her quietly write herself into a middle finger, aimed at the white boxes she’s had to tick all her life, again and again.
I have been ticking boxes too. Sometimes I become the box itself. A white box – grease-soaked cardboard flimsy – of chilli chicken curry, made cheap with too much oil and too much haste, in a far-flung foreign country. For take-away, please. I walk ahead, looking up. The apartment blocks in Chinatown are off-white and look like stacked boxes. If I squint my eyes a little bit, they transform into a beige neighbourhood in an unimportant part of New Delhi. My stomach is scrabbling and I squint harder. So many boxes in the world, all I am doing is trying to make a home out of them.
On the tram, between calculating ramen purchases, my eye snagged on a few phrases from my novel, that come back to smart in my vision.
“That’s nothing! You’re just making yourself sad.”
“You’re just making yourself sad.”
Nowadays, if you feel something, it is nothing. It is fleeting, it will pass, it is temporary, it will not stay – therefore, it is nothing.
I too am fleeting in Paris. I will not stay. I have been fleeting in every country I have ever been in: the one I grew up in, the one I fell in love with, the one on my passport, the one where I was born. What am I, then?
If you theorize an emotion and put it in a box, it becomes something. If you put people of color’s feelings into an A4 academic document, they become something. If you tear down our historical temples and buildings, then come to marvel at our ‘exotic’ ruins discarded like wrappers, we become something – the Paris of the East, the Switzerland of India, the Venice of Asia or whatever else. After Van Gogh died, someone put his paintings in four-corner frames and only then they became something.
But weren’t they always beautiful on their own? Weren’t they?
Inside the Asian supermarket, called Tang Frère (I note the amalgamation of a Chinese and French word each, a space left purposefully in between, the latter word meaning ‘brother’), it is a labyrinth. Foreign symbols and labels surround me in flocks, stacks, boxes. I am overwhelmed. Tzy Jiun is skipping across the aisles, picking things out for herself. I shuffle through the foreign sea, trying to find the ramen. I wonder if there is a place like this for Indians, or South Asians at the very least, somewhere in Paris. I berate myself for not having made the effort to find it all this time. In my head, the symbols around me transform into familiarity – Haldiram’s snack packets, Kurkure, Dabur remedies, okra, rows and rows of Maggi noodles (the mildest flavor, hot), Amul dairy, Britannia biscuits, chai, Everest masalas, even paan and somewhere wedged in between, incense sticks. My eyes close. For a moment, I think I might slide to the floor, so quick that nobody would see, a smooth, boneless crumple.
My eyes shutter open.
I must be too hungry; this is no way to think.
Our plastic bags are full and the walk back is desperate. Bead by bead, restaurant after restaurant, follow on a string. What a beautiful necklace! Tzy Jiun seems happy.
Homesickness is something experienced by many but always felt so firmly as an individual, so very on your own: alone. It’s like birth or death. There is no one else in the world who can understand what my mother’s biryani symbolizes, walking through a street near Porte de Choisy. But I know, everyone has their own assortment of eggs in their basket, their own collection of pains they can turn over and polish, hopefully neglect, shamelessly consume.
“Every step, there is a new kind of smell hitting you,” Tzy Jiun exclaims as we walk. She is right. Everything smells foreign, fresh, delicious, and my stomach is scrabbling, my innards like scorpions on sand. Through the windows, men and women lift heaving chopsticks to their lips; through the windows, people carry on and carry on and carry on, inside the apartment blocks, inside a box. I look around me before we near the tram, squinting. The thing is, even here, where another people try so beautifully, so naturally, to assert themselves in this city, all I can see is another place where I don’t belong. Again. That’s nothing! That’s nothing! That’s nothing!
The tram approaches and we step inside. Here is another box, where we don’t look at each other, until, of course, we are home.
This area is full of immigrants. You can notice these things on the train itself, the porous carriages filtering in a more eclectic mix of people as you approach Barbès. Tall, thin black men in ripped jeans and denim jackets, women in muumuus and babies strapped to their backs, young boys in rip-off designer kicks and snapbacks, huddled over a cheap iPod, a desi man with gel in his hair, talking just a bit too loud on his Nokia cell. My friend Zoe and I chew our bottom lips. This metro station is not pretending for anyone. Here the doors open to the smells of urine and urbanity; a vendor sells strawberries by the narrow staircase.
I am ashamed to say I immediately feel unsafe. My eyes scan the crowd for women. Especially, I am afraid to say, white women. The type who don’t look like they belong here. I put my head down, saying nothing, snaking my way through hordes of men, fingers extra tight on my purse, my wallet, my phone case.
As we walk out in search of a café, we pass a store called the Rose d’ Orient. It means what it sounds like: the rose of the orient. Zoe and I are drawn to the beautiful window display – bejewelled gowns with unusual draping, sequined lehengas, a grand Ethiopian wedding dress. Both of us are surprised to see such a casually expansive, rich display of African, Middle Eastern and South Asian dress. Of course, we smirk at the name “orient” and chuckle, remembering all our conversations about post-colonialism and Edward Said, watching them trickle into a small part of a small store in an “ethnic” area of northern Paris. We think, we are sure, we are very intelligent. Orient is the kind of word that if it were an object, would surely reek of incense; it is a kryptonite for alternative Parisians, or the “bobos” as they’re labelled here, the bourgeois-bohemians.
Later, I will go home and type the clunky French name – “Barbès-Rochechouart” – intomysearch bar and this will come up:
“Everyone has their own story about Barbès, but there are repeating themes in the stories of outsiders: the disproportionate number of men in public spaces, Friday prayers in the street, drug traders and crack cocaine, the market under the Metro overpass, hijabi girls, and pickpocketing. Told to loved ones and strangers alike, these stories form the public reputation of Barbès and regulate the paths that individuals take to work and the places they frequent and shop. “They’ve never been here,” a co-worker tells me of her friends as we’re walking to my apartment. “And I don’t think they ever will.”
But of course, the orient is more than a word, I realize as we quickly walk towards more open spaces, wider streets. The orient is, in fact, an object. Just like a woman is an object. A piece of humanity made into concept, then galvanized by ignorance, misperception and blindness, into nothing more than a thing. It is an erasure of complexity – within this place, within Barbès, within the Orient, within people like me. It reeks, every single day.
Barbès is described as the kind of place where “disorder becomes danger”. There are no neatly lined boulevards but neon signs and corn husks and salons for African braids. It is a tapestry. The French is woven through with Wolof, Arabic, Urdu and more. The butcheries sell halal and there are foreign spices in the local groceries. There are swarms and swarms of swaggering, staggering men, hands stuffed in pockets, whether yours or theirs. There is the colonial and the natural, designer and original, splayed together on the streets like lost, scuffed Adidas sneakers looking for their pairs.
I am suddenly angry – a hot flush of shameful frustration. I am angry that an immigrant area is approached with such disdain. That my default setting is to think of an area as “shady” if it is full of black and brown men. I am angry that almost every immigrant neighbourhood I know is a blemish on a city map, a place of poverty and disrepair, a place to avoid. I am angry but I also understand. Of course. Of course, Parisians are scared. One is scared of the unknown, what they do not know, what they do not understand. This is a Parisian orient. This Barbès, this tapestry, this thing. I too am scared. In my H&M dress and bourgeois stability, I too am scared and I write this to try and redeem myself. Barbès, in a way, is a bit like Porte de Choisy. It is a place of outsiders trying to belong, trying to assert themselves in an environment that does not try to understand them. It is a place for people like me, teetering on the edge of a home but never really getting there. It is a place of cardboard constructions, both literal and metaphorical, on the street and within inner consciences. Barbès is ugly. It is poverty, low prices, sweaty pockets and gangs. But Barbès is also hope: it is coins found on the pavement, tinny boombox rap, markets, hot meals, intoxication. Prayer.
In the windows of the Rose d’ Orient, the mannequins resemble queens, beckoning me to two different kingdoms, that of my past, watching technicolor Bollywood films in the living room, and the shallow future, the color of my bridal lehenga, jewelry and rituals around a pious fire. Zoe knows I have been feeling homesick and she asks me if I want to go inside. I do. I want to go inside because Paris is a place of cravings and here I crave control: control, because some part of me thinks touching these fabrics could let me place a steadying hand on both my trembling past and trembling future, or in other words, just a trembling me, the notion of my identity. I want to go inside because I feel a greater sense of kinship here, somehow, than when I walk along the Champs-Elysees or the cafés in trendy St Michel.
Inside the store, an old hijabi woman in spectacles giggles in Arabic with her colleagues as she spreads out 4 euro-kaftans for Zoe to look at. I wonder, as I do with almost any immigrant in the west, how she got here and what exactly she is doing in this foreign place. It’s the writer’s elusive bait: what’s the story? My fingers run over the sequins of a children’s lehengaon a hanger and I am back to being a little girl watching Bollywood films in my bedroom, unaware of her own story and how it will unfold, from the foot of Africa to the foot of Montmartre, like a magic time-travelling carpet. As we walk out of the store, I return to my 20-year-old self, feeling less scared and more disoriented, as if I have just emerged from daydreaming on the couch at home. We walk back to the metro station and as I swipe my Navigo pass, I smile faintly at the strawberry vendor before boarding the train.
Porte de Clignancourt
Writing about a city, just as writing about any subject, is a way of documenting it within history, for giving it a voice, for making it human almost, letting it breathe and move and speak. It may have dreams, it may have fears, it may have flaws and disease. The Nobel Prize-winning writer Saul Bellow asserts that “the city has always been an important literary symbol, and the ways in which a culture writes about its cities is one means by which we may understand its fears and aspirations.” When we narrate a city, just as we when we create any story, we add complexity to an existing or new narrative about it. Some cities, like Paris, have been written about for a very long time, by many people – famous, poor, foreigners, nobodies. They have been filmed and spun into verses, boxed into blog posts and captured in fiction. A place like Paris is complex in a way that it has many narratives, regardless of whether these are diverse or multifaceted. Complexity is the key word. The more narratives that exist on a particular subject, such as the city, especially if they come from various types of sources, differing socially, historically and culturally, then the better it is. The story of the city thus gains complexity and there is more to untangle, to pick apart, to unravel into understanding.
In his book Crepuscule, the novelist Roman Payne describes how people wonder why so many writers come to live in Paris. The answer, he states, is simple: Paris is the best place to pick ideas. Just like if you want to pick opium poppies you go to Burma or South-East Asia, if you want to pick novel ideas, you go to Paris. Perhaps in Hemingway’s lost Jazz Age, this meant something different. Today, when I think of Paris as fodder for the budding novelist, I think of how history collides with gritty graffiti modernity, how Senegalese men shift awkwardly beneath the city’s greatest monument, so much a part of the Eiffel Tower lens yet always photoshopped out of history. I think of how a Syrian man beneath a Chanel advertisement asks for a “coin or a smile” at the Denfert-Rochereau station, close to midnight when I return from a sour date, foolish and feeling sorry for myself. I am a crumpled receipt in a Parisian street bin but I am still a scholarship student; I stop to smile at him, almost sinking to my knees. I think of how a young black Frenchwoman makes and sells feminist art using only black and white inks, at the Clignancourt market, right opposite a little, old white lady stooped over her vintage flea shop. She tries to sell me a leather bag as soft and pliant as memory, then closes up early because of her bad knees.
Halfway into my Paris fairytale, I am disillusioned. I become that bridge across the Seine that needed its love locks sawn off because it couldn’t take the burden. I sag under the weight – the towering Eiffel, the catcalling in Barbès, the crowded Louvre, the bobo cafes and daily commute on the RER B. I become the bags under the Crepe Man’s eyes, grocery bags full of debt and unshed tears. This place is a mess. A raggedy patch-up of stories held together by the needle of the Eiffel.
I have been living in Paris for months now. I have spent these months unravelling a tapestry of Paris that existed in my head prior to arriving here. I’ve been trying to worm my way to the apple core of this city but then I’m not sure that’s entirely possible. However much complexity we create, however much we try to unlearn then understand then re-weave a place in our own words, can we ever really find the “real” Paris? Does the “real” Paris even exist? Can a city, like a human, ever be caught in essence, ever hold a singular truth about its identity?
The question then becomes a matter of authenticity. Everyone is in search of this mystical thing, this “authentic” experience. We want the local food and the checklist of historical monuments and the native lifestyle and all the years of history classes we took, come to life.
But what happens in between? In that liminal space: the metro carriage travelling between Concorde and Stalingrad; the blank spaces between the checkboxes on your TripAdvisor itinerary; the margins of A Moveable Feast; the gaps in conversations between Arab perfume sellers, Canadian tourists, French bankers, Indian exchange students?
One afternoon, I decide to watch a film called “Paris, je t’aime”, meaning Paris, I Love You. Ironic, actually, because right now I hate it. It is foreign and it doesn’t make sense, this place, this thing. Baguette crumbs slide off my mouth onto my shirt. I lie in bed, retreating from the disintegration, the slow crumble, of my fairytale. I press play.
Halfway through this city montage, my face is wet. I am the pedestrian in the corner of a scene set in Montsouris. I am the protagonist in the 3rd arrondissement, a visiting actress of a period film who quietly falls in love with her hashish dealer. I am a rat scurrying under the Hotel de Ville, suffering from an acute case of Stockholm Syndrome. I am living and breathing in Paris.
“Paris, je t’aime” is a collection of 18 vignette-like short films. Each film has a different director, all of them setting a different-colored lens on the city. These directors are diverse, offering various cultural backgrounds, styles, genders and perspectives to the overall cinematic collage that is created. In one short set by the Quais de Seine, a French boy, sitting by the river with his two catcalling friends, meets and falls for a young hijabi woman. In another set at the trendy Marais, a prominently Jewish-gay neighbourhood near Saint-Paul station, a male art customer is attracted to a young male printshop worker, behind one of the heavy Marais doors that hide whole art galleries behind them. The customer spends the whole film explaining how he thinks this worker, who does not open his mouth, is his soulmate. After he leaves, it is revealed that the worker could barely speak French. A segment at Place des Fetes in the 19th has us watch a Nigerian man who is dying from a stab wound ask out his female paramedic for a cup of coffee. The story unfolds into flashback and it is revealed that he had fallen in love with her at first sight some time before in a parking lot where he worked as a cleaner. By the time the paramedic remembers him, the man has died. The film ends on a shot of the paramedic holding the coffee that has finally arrived, the clink-clank of the cup in her trembling hands drowning out any other thought.
What unifies each of the short films in this movie is, of course, Paris, the muscling, electric, sweet city that contains all these people, whether they are permanent or transient. Each film is also, in some kind of way, a love story. But none of these romances are conventional, often twisting and turning into the world of misunderstanding, chance and the macabre. Some are not even romances involving people, but instead ideas, objects, narratives, the city itself. “Paris je t’aime” picks up the label of the “city of love” and plays with it, stretching it, poking it and ripping it at the seams.
You may have realized by now that this piece of writing does the same thing. Every vignette I have written is set at a different metro station. Each one plays with my own pre-existing label of Paris, my initial passport stamp, the Hemingway-esque fantasy I carried here. It pulls it and pokes it and plays with it, this thing. The first time I felt any sort of relationship, any kind of love story, however flawed or twisted or magic, with Paris was when it was contextualised before me in “Paris, je t’aime”. In two days, the stamp on my passport will go moot as I fly out of Charles de Gaulle and end the final chapter of this fairytale. I will leave with this on the page, a collection of my own love letters to Paris. Love is a complex thing. It can start at a metro station, lie quiet on the street like a stubbed cigarette, flow down the route of the RER B and end up on a young girl’s notebook page.
If there’s one thing I know, Paris is always there, waiting for us. It beckons and we come. We will always show up for love. We will snap that Instagram photo of the Eiffel Tower and it will come out grey and blurry. And we will go back aboard the RER B while the West African men smirk into their hoodies, quietly palming our euro-worth dreams.