Thoughts on writing and discrimination

What being a forty-something, brown, female writer sometimes means.

Dr Tasneem Perry
Photo credit Tony Gribben

Writing is a solitary life choice. Most writers will tell you that they write not because they have to or want to, but because they must.

I’ve been a writer for as long as I can remember. I used to write in diaries, on scrapes of paper and day-dream stories as an only child with very little privacy from over-protective, over-intrusive parents, my mother especially. I know it came from attachment and love, but it was exhausting and I often was afraid to write anything down on paper because it would be read when I was out of the house. This meant that I tended to live in my head, write in my head. As you can imagine, I was a strange, solitary child.

The transition and the courage it has taken to share my thoughts with the world took time. I’m still not comfortable with it and the long spells when I don’t publish are often because I can’t. I keep those thoughts in my journal. A few years ago when I KonMaried my things and had a festival of decluttering, I destroyed all of my old journals in an act of claiming the me of now.

I wish sometimes that I hadn’t destroyed those volumes. There were some important life-events captured within those pages, both heart-aches and triumphs. But, I wanted to forget, to cleanse and to focus on the present. I think I felt huge relief in letting go of the past, of claiming the person I was as I turned forty and left behind the need to prove myself to anyone other than myself. Now, I do things for myself, no one else. I thank the Divine Universe everyday for giving me a life-partner who allows me the space to be me. I don’t have to be anything other than myself for him, and he accepts and understands all of my ugly, flawed and broken imperfections.

My Women’s Institute reading group is reading Virginia Woolf’s A Room of One’s Own this month. I read this as an undergraduate two decades ago, but I really didn’t understand what it was all about then. I was a child of privilege. I came from a family that had old money, and though we didn’t have a lot of ready cash ourselves, I’d grown up around wealth, and was much better off than many of my peers. I was from the upper classes, I had the connections, the confidence and the ability to move amongst society. I really was so naive. 

Coming to England was an eye-opener. Especially because I didn’t move to the privileged, multicultural heart of the south, London, but to the much more, and here I’d like to say, gritty and often ignored by London and Westminster, Manchester in the north. Moreover, we didn’t live in smart Didsbury or Chorlton but in a much more “up and coming” neighbourhood. Now, I do understand. I’ve seen poverty, hardship and survival face-to-face. And more, I understand because I am discriminated against on three counts.

One, I am a woman. If you think there’s no gender bias, think again. It is alive and kicking a century after Viriginia Woolf wrote her masterpiece of a feminist track.

Two, I’m discriminated against because of the colour of my skin. People mistake me for Pakistani simply because that’s the only South Asian country they think people in Manchester are from. They assume so much about my supposed background, faith, language and person, just by looking at my colour. They assume I can’t speak English or that it is my second language. Many times I’ve been told, “You speak English really well.” I bite my tongue when I can, but often I can’t help but say, “I should hope so, since it is my mother tongue.” My Standard Sri Lankan accent aside, this is all I speak fluently. You might recall how once I was even called “Paki” on the street. I have gotten over the racist insult, but I can’t quite forget it yet.

Three, I am now discriminated against because of my weight and age. The world is very lookist. They see a person who is over-weight and they make snap judgements about that person’s activity levels and intellect. The same applies to social status. And, hitting the big 40 was so strange. Suddenly, I was not a thirty-something, but pushing middle age. I could be dismissed far more easily as passed it and passé.

Let me give you an little example, one of the many incidents that happen as I go about life. I was meeting a friend for afternoon tea on Oxford Road a few weeks ago. We’d arrange to meet at 5.00 and I went into Patissarie Valerie because we were going to have tea there. But I was early, so I took a seat, and was on my phone. I asked about the customer wi-fi and the manager was so rude. She said, “If you aren’t going to buy anything, the wi-fi is only for customers.” I had not bought anything because I was waiting for my friend to arrive before ordering something. I felt so discriminated against, treated like I was a scrounger when really I was just about to change providers and was running out of data. As you can imagine, I walked out of the shop and arranged with my friend to go elsewhere. I will never frequent them or give them my custom again. Do you think, they would have spoken thus to a white man in a suit who was waiting for someone? I think not.

And so, writing. Re-reading Woolf brought home to me the challenges of writing. She points out that it was impossible for Shakespeare’s twin-sister, if he had one, to produce his work, even if she was as gifted and as talented as he was because she didn’t have the education, the opportunities or the freedoms that he enjoyed. It is often the same today. Yes, there is equal education, but what is still lacking is acceptance and opportunity. Women, especially if they are of colour or of a certain age are so often dismissed as being less than their white, male peers. In a white man what might be seen as experience, is often in a woman, seen as being dated.

We need a room of our own. We need space and time. We need to be given opportunity and a chance. We need respect. We need to be not just heard, but listened to. And this is especially true for women of colour. Reni Eddo-Lodge writes about how she’s stopped talking to white people about race. I hear her exhaustion with trying to be heard, trying to be seen. White fragility, white bias is so prevalent that many people don’t even realise it is the thing that drives their behaviour and actions. I felt this at university when I was reading for my PhD. I would say something at a Post-Grad conference but so often, there was little interest. Then a male, white peer would repeat the same thing, albeit perhaps in a slightly different way, and there would be questions, discussions and interest. 

It is very hard to write, especially to write without anger, bias or emotion, and to give of one’s thoughts in a critical, fair and erudite manner when all around one is bombarded by the constant, tiny arrows of prejudice and discrimination. It takes away the writer’s ability to be clear, when there are so many other emotions swirling around in a miasma of distraction.

Writing is such a solitary activity. Writing is contradictory in nature, it is both fragile and robust, passionate and yet thought out, coming from the heart and yet worked and reworked until the exact words and meaning emerges. It is art. And unless women of minority communities, especially, are nurtured, given opportunity and the resources they need, we can’t do what we were put on this earth to do. 

And that would be such a loss. We need stories from all of the sexes, races and age-groups. Any less would distort and take away from the complex beauty of the world we live in.

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