August 11, 2009

hooks to hang me on

Large women’s eyes never welcome me as a fellow fatty. I don’t hear ‘English’ and think that’s me! I never get ‘we girlfriends gotta look out for each other’. Old ladies don’t see me as a comrade-in-arms. No one says ‘us Malawians’.

Calm down, don’t worry, this is not another boring rant about the evil habit of pigeon-holing people > face value. But I am slightly concerned by society’s apparent failure to squeeze me into a lovely cosy box of solidarity. What’s the criteria again? Perhaps if I tell you about myself, together we can find one suitable.

‘True friendship can afford true knowledge.
It does not depend on darkness and ignorance.’

Firstly, what you see first; my skin. Well I’d write about that… but even acacia would fail to pitch a sensory organ as a fascinating topic; I’d stifle sniggers at attempts to inscribe it with messages of history and hierarchy. And if I did manage to award my melanin (or lack thereof) a role in my identity, you’d be able to tell it was a mere exaggeration of something I usually think about when I’m on the beach.

I’ve lived in Malawi most of my life… but I don’t have an ancestral village here, or a whole other language of customs. Whenever I land at KIA I don’t kiss the soil or feel a mystical affinity with the immigration officer (as he stamps yet another tourist visa). Yet years of greetings and kwachas disqualify me from stringing together an insightful description of the country. I don’t have the fresh eyes of outsiders with other standards. I don’t know what living anywhere else in August 2009 feels like. I don’t know what hospital wards without guardians look like.

Surely having an English birth certificate is fertile ground for exploration … but I can’t remember the speed at which days pass in England, I don't know how to drive down the M1 or how cold the snow is. I can't remember the sound of the underground, or how it felt to be 10 years old (let alone the feeling of being born!). Last time I landed at Heathrow I didn’t kiss the soil or feel a mystical affinity with the luggage belt.

So maybe I should use my thousand words to sketch an outline of my physical presence, maybe that is me… well my face is not classically beautiful, no angular cheekbones, no big eyes. It is not typically ugly either, no bulging features, no awkward teeth. I am not thin - no jutting bony ribs. I am not fat, no stomach rolls (well no big ones). Which adjectives portray average curves?

Would it be worth delving into the common fate of ‘girlfriends’?... fortunately I'm not single enough to be hunting for prey or kissing around. Also fortunately I'm not couple-y enough to be holding hands with my man in the club, or arguing with him in the car park. I don’t compete with the premier league for his attention or look for recipes to spice up his evening. We're as together as much as we're alone. No hooks to hang an identity on there.

I’d love to provide an enlightening perspective on being 27… if it wasn’t an age perfectly poised between young and old. The mature end of music taste and drinking habits. The immature end of life lessons and wisdom. The skin on my hands is not smooth and tight, not rough and wrinkled.

I suppose the fact that I PRAY might encourage a logical-but-passionate monologue (the less clichés the better)…. except that I do not qualify for the title of ‘christian’ by many people’s definition, and persist in following God on paths far from the tracks worn by most church-goers.

I am not rich, I am not poor. I am not glamorous, I am not scruffy. There must be something. Education. Presumably most people can identify with one education system. Well I have MSCE and A-levels. I have a bachelors from Belfast, and a nearly-masters from Blantyre.

Even my surname has no story or accurate way of spelling... its' dubious origins give nothing away.

This is getting a little long, sorry I can’t package myself nicely in a few key phrases. Now maybe you start to see how absolutely impossible it is to communicate even a small part of me through the labels that you understand. Perhaps when they are all boiled away, I am a 'woman'... but even my experience of that may not be anything like yours.

Truthfully honestly I don’t know what most of these labels mean. I have friends who call themselves ‘African’, and we all saw what happened next link > african on thursday. I know ‘Malawians’ who are like chalk and cheese. I have met blond geniuses! I have met virgin sexologists (but that’s another story).

Suffice to say, my every first encounter is a slow-motion frantic flailing of arms; avoiding assumptions and desperately dodging expectations.

'Kinder the enemy who must malign us /
Than the smug friend who will define us'

Of course I find it hard when people gather a few misperceptions and decide I am different. They distance themselves. I clamber to associate, continually prove we’re together in this, scrape the barrel of belonging. Sometimes, from the outside, your box of solidarity seems snug and cosy.

But I find it equally difficult when people spot one or two similarities and think they are exactly the same. Suddenly I launch a relentless quest for disassociation, fired by the need to stand alone as a unique individual. Sometimes our little box can get unbearably claustrophobic.

So, dear reader, that is as much as can be said about Jess.
Criticise me, praise me, but please please see me.

‘The greatest gift I can conceive of having from anyone is to be seen by them, heard by them, to be understood and touched by them.’

Henry David Thoreau
Anna Wickman
Virginia Satir


  1. Love it Jess!!!!

  2. Damn Jess.... am I hormonal (...I dont think so, sadly...), nope...

    That is a really moving piece of writing... this is me, I dont fit your boxes! But then you're also asking us if we fit into 'our' boxes. I have never tried to, or wanted to try to, fit into boxes, but there are people who do, I'm sure.

    Big respect Jess... great.

  3. Interesting Jess. We all desire to be seen, heard, touched, yada yada yada... I believe the best and most beautiful things in the world cannot be seen or even touched, they must be felt with the heart. Look with your heart for that beautiful friendship/relationship because what’s important is invisible to the eye.

    “There are many things in life that will catch your eye, but only few will catch your heart....pursue those” Michael Nolan

  4. Honest yet unassuming, concise yet probing, logical yet deeply substantive, simple but multi faceted, objective yet humble... fantastic jess..

  5. having a bad hair day jess....? what the deal...but on a more serious note - insightful, deep - but whr do u fit?

  6. @ ntawira - glad you liked it. i appreciate the value in good strong self-definition. do you consider yourself 'Malawian' or feel 'African'? if so, aren't those labels on conceptual boxes?

  7. so what cozy box would you like to be squeezed into?

  8. Acacia...

    I have strong self definition in some areas, and not so strong in other areas, it depends all on my own opinion of whether that area is important to me and who I am...

    Yes I do consider myself a Malawian, although I may not fall into a box of what others perceive to be Malawian, and, yes I do also consider myself African, although I may not fit into the stereotypical box of what an African looks or sounds like...!

  9. Wisdom Qodebreaker11 August, 2009 16:23

    Love me or hate me but please dont ignore me? Please when you look at me see echoes of yourself in my eyes but not too much as I am my own individual?

    Porcupine dichotomies in the cold? They huddle together for warmth and prick each other and so run away from each other only to face the cold again in their solitude and so huddle closer again only... you get the flow...

    My heart sees beyond your lack of melanin and hears your heart's cry. The cry of the Explorers who left shore as heroes and return as strangers to find a whole new world, new relatives and mildewed gravestones of old friends and kinsmen. Neither here nor there and always here and there.

  10. george naphambo11 August, 2009 16:42

    I see u jess.

  11. The best part about you,Jess,is that we cant hook you anywhere. Indeed this is what everyone should be happy to realise- that fitting in a box is not the desirable ultimate. You don't fit in a box? Great! That means you have the malleability to take on all the challenges of life. I give this piece a full 5-star rating. *****

  12. This is an outstanding piece of writing!... I want to read it again... I like the way you describe the tension between worlds.

  13. loved it. brilliant piece of writing, as usual - you manage to get me thinking every time. keep them coming - your blog posts have sparked off some interesting discussions for me! hope you don't mind me feeding off them!

  14. So not trying to 'sound the same'... :) but my favorite part of your piece is:
    "Of course I find it hard when people gather a few misperceptions... But I find it equally difficult when people spot one or two similarities..."

    I have tried and tried and tried to explain this aspect of myself to people but never got the words the way you did. Thanks for sharing.

  15. Stunning piece of writing Jess - a joy to read and to feel a shared lack of definability.

  16. Ecclesiastes 7:29
    This is all that I have learned: God made us plain and simple, but we have made ourselves very complicated.

  17. Zilanie Gondwe12 August, 2009 13:43

    i love it

  18. best yet, doll. ironic that the majority of people reading it feel the same! ha. i want to know who/what creates the inclusion/exclusion criteria for us? do we do it ourselves?

  19. Blessings Samuel Phumisa14 August, 2009 09:38

    You are a child of both worlds.... Citizen of the heart if you will.

  20. Be who you are and enjoy it. People will put you in the box they want, regardless of the facts. Just don't make the mistake of taking life too seriously!

  21. Having worked out what you're not, have you worked out what you are?!

  22. I needed a cigarette and mile davis in the background after I read this....I had to settle for "Blue in Green' by him...your expression...where is that have hooked lady..

  23. jess i have just read this for the first time, and i love it. i get it. it was you who described me as versatile and i think ur the most versatile of us all. ability to fit and make it work in every social situation.

  24. jesse that was genius maybe u need to concentrate on who u r n not who or what ur not... I don't like labels. Language can be one of the ways to determine nationality or interest in a country imagine showing up at heathrow claiming to be english but not knowing a single word of english.

  25. for a fleeting moment, I crawled in under your skin, and tried it for size, and realized that my own fits perfectly, overabundant in melanin, snug, but with enough room to outgrow any concieved pigeon hole. And it is here that I make my home. Beautiful, insightful piece. And as one of your commentators stated on the Theophilus piece, build on your words. Make something of them. R.

  26. I needed a cigarette and mile davis in the background after I read this....I had to settle for "Blue in Green' by him...your expression...where is that have hooked me lady..


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