‘You heard it in the cries in the air howling for justice.’
I recently saw this beautiful tribute to the Grenfall victims in Shoreditch, London – a mural which was a collaboration between writer Ben Okri and street artist Ben Eine, taken from the words of Okri’s poem about the Grenfell victims.
I thought this was a beautiful, moving piece, not intended to depress but make us stop, think, drawn in by bright colours and mull over the message. In a city like London where we are surrounded by art everywhere, noise, busy traffic, and overloaded with adverts and random messages – so it’s amazing to see something like this plastered over a huge wall demanding attention. The initial line grabs your attention, and whole poem is written in the corner of the wall to continue the message.
It’ has only been barely a month since the incident, but the Grenfell fire has rippled outwards in ways that we hadn’t imagined. I have read heart-breaking testimonies from the survivors, accounts from volunteers who went to help, and appeals from those with missing friends and families. Amongst it all has been many questions – how can this happen in our city? How can we stop this happening again? Are there still class divides in this city (the block was filled with immigrants, poor residents and the disadvantages)?
There has been a lot of furor in the news about who will be held accountable, whether there should have been more help offered to the survivors, and even whether the country’s leadership has done enough. I think this is something which I have thought about on a more personal level – in a city like London where we take it for granted that we live in safety, we must re-examine our priorities, and the fact that not everyone has the luxuries that we do. The mural is not just an expression of grief and anger, and a demand for justice, it’s also a request for awareness, for equality, and for a warning that this should not happen again.
They said I was too young to wear red lipstick, and to stick to my dolls and lipglosses, so I did not wear red lipstick.
They said red lipstick was for married women, and young girls should stay in soft pinks, so I did not wear red lipstick.
They said married women didn’t have time for makeup and should focus on their homes, so I did not wear red lipstick.
They said red lipstick was for a bride and I should not try to outstage her, so I did not wear red lipstick.
They said that red lipsticks were for young women, and I should wear more mature colours, so I did not wear red lipstick.
They said that red lipstick would look better on my daughter, so I did not wear red lipstick.
They said that I was too old for lipstick, and I should act my age.
I laughed at them and wore my lipsticks, pillar-box reds, rich scarlets, deep crimsons, blazing rubies, vibrant burgundies.
I bring life to my face with creamy sticks of red, embracing my feminine wiles, my brazen girlhood, and I will not be ashamed.
– Harlequin, 2017.
I wrote this poem with much deliberation, after reading a comment on my social media that someone made, which I thought was interesting. – the girl stated she had been told not to wear brightly coloured lipsticks because only married women should wear this. It brought to mind a few memories I have of being a teenager, and being told not to wear red lipstick by an Aunt who was a family friend, because red lipstick is for married women and not single young girls. I thought it was interesting that a specific colour had been relegated to relationship status, as if it would almost be vulgar to wear a bright colour, and even bring attention to myself. I’m familiar with this concept, the idea that you should not bring attention to yourself, not wear something inappropriate, as well as the many connotations which come with things like red lipstick.
Red lipstick, apparently, means that you are an attention-seeker. Loud. Inappropriate. Not religious. Not a ‘nice girl’. I like to think that these attitudes have changed a little over time – I’ve seen many girls see red lipstick as a staple in their makeup bag, and less something which is saved for their wedding day.
Nevertheless, I’ll admit, it did take me a few years to wear red lipstick – I think I was in my early twenties when I braved it, and then wondered why it had taken me so long. Even my husband, who is wonderfully open-minded and has never told me what to wear or what not wear, told me that if I lived in Pakistan I would probably have thought twice about wearing it. Coming from a fairly traditional, culturally-infused upbringing, my husband’s interaction with red lipsticks was limited to being something associated with married women, worn by women for their husbands, and rarely worn outside the house. Pink lips are so much more acceptable, softer, feminine and less sexual.
My own point of view is that while I understand the intended view behind it – a woman’s image and her beauty is meant to be protected, and drawing attention to it can bring issues – it’s unfair to simplify things as if a women’s ‘honour’ and image is all that she is, and that she is ruled by them. I guess a lot of this stems from the whole South Asian culture of a woman’s image, the idea of honour, and how this can get mixed up with traditional values which now feel outdated to us.
I recently read a story told by a blogger that I admire, who told a story about when she visited Pakistan – she was told off by her mother for smiling at a man in a supermarket, and told that she should at strange men. She may consider it to be friendly, but they may construe it to mean something else.
I could certainly understand her resentment – and what I dislike is that the onus seems to be on the women to limit herself, and hide herself. Whatever happened to the male gaze? Why not break apart the idea that the responsibility lies with the women and how she must take care in how she looks, who she looks at, and how her actions are responsible for her situation?
So I guess when it comes to red lipsticks, I resent the fact that there is a lingering mentality that to wear red lipstick is to be brazen, overly-confident and ‘modern’ – and it’s even worse to me especially, that a lot of the comments I have received, and other girls get, are from older women in our society. I believe there is so much more to women that shouldn’t be reduced to how much make-up they wear, that being confident isn’t a negative thing, and that perhaps things like red lipstick shouldn’t be treated like a dirty thing.
Below, a picture of all the red lipstick I own.
-Women of Colour
by Mehrin Poetry
As I grow older, the importance of my mother tongue comes more clearly into focus – although at times it feels like I have a lot to learn yet. As someone who was born and grew up in England, I have always considered English as my ‘mother tongue’ simultaneously and alongside with Punjabi, which is were I feel my roots also are. During my childhood and my teen years, I spent so much time exploring the wonders of English, the literature, and studying the words that I felt a little like I lost some of the the words of Punjabi. I have always had a passion for English, whether it was the literature, or just the pure study of words, and it’s a little embarrassing to me now that Punjabi doesn’t always come as naturally as English does.
It puts me to mind a poem I studied as a teen – Search for My Tongue by Sujata Bhatt – which I didn’t fully understand at the time, but which makes so much more sense to me now. The poem symbolises the author’s fear of losing her cultural identity and her ‘mother tongue’, and of the idea that assimilating in a ‘foreign’ country comes at the cost of losing your roots. While I can understand the fear, I think it is a little different for me as well as I didn’t emigrate to the country like the author did, but was born here.
Growing up, I was one of the only Asian girls in my school and often felt a little left out – being among mostly white children made me feel like I had to strive more to fit in, from dress, tastes, clothes and culture, and I remember at the time that I divorced myself from my culture a little – my home life and my school life were always kept separately. Don’t get me wrong – I still had chicken curries at home cooked by my mum, still spoke in half-English-half-Punjabi to my parents and relatives, and made the most of Eid celebrations and glitzy salwar kameezes sewn by my mum. But I have always felt that the culture I was educated in did not understand Pakistani culture or language in a way that I could embrace it.
One of my earliest memories is my mum taking me to nursery on my half day, holding my hand and slowly teaching me words in English – colours, numbers and letters as we swung our hands and stopped at Sainsbury’s for our weekly shopping. My dad taught us Urdu as best as he could alongside our Quran lessons after school – although I’ll admit I wasn’t very interested in learning at all (and couldn’t wait til we could run off and watch TV!) It’s always felt a little ironic to me that these days I meet so many immigrants who are slowly learning English, while I am on the other side of the coin and trying to learn Urdu and Punjabi a little better.
As I entered my late teens, my school environment changed – suddenly there was an influx of Indian, Bengali and Pakistani students at the school who had transferred in, while a lot of the white students in my class left, preferring to stop their classes and go into work. I felt incredibly out of place – here were Asian kids who were comfortable in their skins, knew in jokes in Urdu and made it normal to talk about the things we had at home. Fast-forwarding into university this was even more the case – I found myself surrounded by mostly Asians, and would sometimes self-deprecatingly describe myself as the ‘coconut’ – looks brown on the outside but white on the inside. While my friends were into British-Asian music, Bollywood and Indian restaurants, I was a self-described goth; into soft rock music, heavy black eyeliner and desserts at The Cheesecake Factory.
Over the next few years, my friends, my family and my husband have all played a part in making me comfortable with my words – I can be English and Pakistani and speak both languages without one being more important than the other. I’ve learned a lot more Urdu over the years – mostly from Bollywood films, online websites, and even an Urdu course I went to once (it was terrible, we spend six classes going over the same basic phrases because everyone kept forgetting the previous lessons). These days, whenever I need to know a word, or the meaning of a word, I’ll ask my sister or mum, and my husband is a walking dictionary for this too. I also get a lot more practice – I work with a lot of clients whose first language isn’t English and often have to translate – we all acknowledge my Urdu and Punjabi are terrible but passable, and I’m a lot less embarassed than I used to be.
This isn’t a sad story – as much as I wish my Urdu and Punjabi were more fluent than it is now, I feel like I’ll get there. I have found my own way to embrace my roots, language and culture, and I’m happy with that. I know that I’m not the only one with this issue – I’ve come across a lot of British Asians who can barely understand their parent’s language, and don’t speak a word of it, preferring to stick to English. I can also see this in second-and-third generation parents when speaking to their children in English. When I think of myself, I would love to teach my future children my mother tongue. Urdu is a beautiful language and it is my husband’s language, but Punjabi is where I feel my home and my roots are, so would always want to pass this on too. Having said that, I don’t think there is anything wrong in being fluent in, and choose to speak in English. I grew up devouring books, studying English (and blogging in English), and I think it really is an amazing language with so much depth.
My advice to others who are struggling with re-learning their mother tongue is don’t give up, and don’t feel embarrassed. When I first started learning Urdu properly, I was told by a lot of people that I was terrible at it, and that I was barely understandable. I used to feel embarassed and immediately stop trying to speak it in front of them, and feel a little unsure of myself. These days I laugh and agree with them, but I don’t stop learning. Language, culture and words will always evolve over time (which is why ‘fleek’ is now an acceptable world, when a few years ago it was a non-existent one), and there are so many opportunities to learn with the internet, media and courses.
Who knows, maybe I’ll learn to speak French properly next?
is pure radiance.
she is the sun
i can touch
― Sanober Khan
Ode to Yellow
I hold you in my hand, a burst of sun
Glimmering through skin, bouncing away,
Eager to catch that glimpse of joy
Sway like sunflowers, inviting us to play
Slip through silk, glass, clouds
Gently buttery tones shining in my eyes
In Flanders fields the poppies blow
Between the crosses, row on row,
That mark our place; and in the sky
The larks, still bravely singing, fly
Scarce heard amid the guns below.
We are the Dead. Short days ago
We lived, felt dawn, saw sunset glow,
Loved and were loved, and now we lie
In Flanders fields.
Take up our quarrel with the foe:
To you from failing hands we throw
The torch; be yours to hold it high.
If ye break faith with us who die
We shall not sleep, though poppies grow
In Flanders fields.
– by John McCrae, May 1915
I’m a big fan of re-tellings of fairy tales, the more detailed and historically accurate the better, particularly if they’re set in a specific period of history or place (or even in a sci-fi type of setting which doesn’t exist in normal history!)
I’ve grown up with Grimms fairy tales and Hans Christian Anderson short stories and fairy tales, and while I devoured them as a young child (the grislier the story, the better!), it always left me wanting a bit more. What happened to the servant-girl-turned-princess after she married the prince? Did she get on with her in-laws? Did she have to learn to cook and manage the household, or did she get bored? Why was it that the heroine was always beautiful, charming, slim and easy to befriend? What happened to the plain girls, or the ones that didn’t have fairy godmothers? What if the wandering princess who ran away didn’t meet a friendly passer-by, and ran into someone with darker intentions, or she didn’t end up making friends with generous, understanding animals and get food from them?
These days, of course, such stories aren’t enough. I’m always looking for stories, which look beyond the original fairy tales, which have more to them than relying on the beauty of the heroine to save her, or the princely-ness of the hero to get him along and defeat the dragon. My biggest gripe, I think, is the fact that the hero and heroine always get married the next day after their troubles are over, and live ‘happily ever after’ – what exactly constitutes a happy ending? Having lots of gold and wearing pretty dresses to balls? Having children who were royal and then retiring to old age where they would reminisce over their adventures of youth? Or even just surviving to a certain age with all your limbs intact. A lot of the fairy tales we read as youngster glossed over these parts, making sure that the story ended when the hero got his gal.
For me, it isn’t always the case – which is why I turn to fairy tale re-tellings to see these characters fleshed out and their lives developed to something more credible.
That’s not to discredit fairy tales at all, I certainly do see the appeal of an easy story, where prince-meets-girl, has a dilemma of some sorts and then eventually it all ends in marriage (this is starting to sound more and more like an Asian Star Plus drama), and there’s a magic to them which is unique; but in this day and age I think we question a lot of these stories, and it’s easy then, to see why re-tellings of fairy tales are popular – to acquaint us with the heroes and their flaws more fully, and to immerse ourselves in a fairy tale in all it’s details.
So here are my Top Ten fairy-tales retold, by various authors, although it’s by no mean conclusive (I’m reading one at the moment!) – and there’s certainly more I wanted to add to the list but couldn’t!
10. Castle in the Air – Diana Wynne Jones
I’m not sure how much this fits into the category of ‘fairy tales’ or typical fantasy stories, but Diana Wynne Jones has always been one of my favourite authors, because of her wacky, wonderful storylines and her mix of sci-fi, fantasy, quirky humour and odd brand of romance which has always utterly appealed to me. This is re-telling of sorts, of the tale of Aladdin and his quest to marry the princess he is in love with – but of course, all sorts go wrong, and there are plenty of other wizards, djinns, witches and magicked cats thrown into the mix to make the plot all the more complex. I loved this book, and although it was a written as a sort-of sequel to Howl’s Moving Castle (which I also loved!), Castle in the Air has its own unique style which is something I really think would appeal to readers who aren’t interested in traditional fairy tales – particularly because of the way the story has a quirky way of being able to relate to us in an ordinary way too.
9. Beauty – Robin McKlinley
I’ve read a couple of versions of Beauty and the Beast, but this one appealed to me less because of the storyline, and more because of the atmosphere it creates. Although it’s quite a solemn story, the characters created are endearing, and McKinley is one of my favourite fairy tale-retellers because of her ability to make ordinary doings interesting. In this story, Beauty is not so beautiful (although her two sisters are), and their fortunes are not so fortunate, as their father’s business is ruined and they are forced to move to the countryside to survive. From there the story begins, where Beauty’s father strikes a deal with the Beast to save his life, and where there’s always a suggestion of magic which is never quite revealed til the end.
8. Wildwood Dancing – Juliet Marillier
I loved this story as a child – twelve princess sisters go dancing every night, all night, so that every morning their slippers would be worn out, much to the consternation of their father who never figures out why – until he sets a task that any man who manages to find out will be rewarded with marriage to one of the daughters (plus the kingdom). Juliet Marillier is another of my absolute favourite authors, one who captures a period beautifully and puts in a lot of research into her books so that the detail is just amazing. Wildwood Dancing is set in 16th Century Transylvania, and is based on just five sisters who go dancing every night – but it is here that it gets more eerie. The ‘Other Kingdom’ they visit every night has more than just fairy folk, there’s a hint of ‘Night’ people, vampires, and the risk of losing one’s self. Add that to the threat of forced marriages to overbearing cousins, and the idea of ‘wildwood dancing’ becomes less innocent and merry, and instead more about the sisters’ survival and independence. A great read, and one of Marillier’s best.
7. Confessions of an Ugly Stepsister – Gregory Maguire
I love Gregory Maguire’s imagination and the way he twists a traditional story to make you look at it from a completely different angle – and Confessions of an Ugly Stepsister is no different. Maguire sets this story during the ‘tulip mania’ era in the 1600s, where the two ‘ugly’ sisters and their toughened mother Margareuthe have fled the witch claims of England to Netherland to find their fortune among the buying and selling of valuable tulip bulbs. Meeting the spoiled Clara and her rich parents, Margareuthe quickly sets to finding a place in the household, and moving upwards from there amidst a backdrop of art, religion and the idea of beauty – which is ambiguous, complex, and certainly doesn’t tell us who the heroine is in this whole tale.
6. Deerskin – Robin McKinley
This is one of the darker stories I’ve read, and certainly it is a brave one. I remember reading this story as a young child (and an African version of it as well!), of a widowed King who cannot find anyone to match his late wife’s beauty – and instead decides to marry his daughter. While in the original fairy tale the horrified princess escapes, meets a prince and lives happily ever after, in McKinley’s tale, there are a lot darker events which take place which change the heroine’s life forever. McKinley’s writing style is almost ethereal here, and it’s certainly a brave topic she covers – rather than writing about balls, riches and beauty, she writes about surviving rape, losing family, and looking for acceptance in adversity. And I think she succeeds well in this novel, creating a character who is truly admirable and shows the real meaning of being a princess, and of the strength it takes to rebuild yourself have faith in yourself. A very moving book, although heart-breaking in places too.
5. Ella Enchanted – Gail Carson Levine
This is probably the most recent fairy tale re-telling that I read, and I really liked the quirky, funny tone of it, which tells the story of a girl whose fairy-tale gift at birth forces her to be obedient, amongst a land of ogres, fairies and gnomes. Which is not the best gift, seeing as Ella finds herself being forced to obey commands from others who don’t always have her best interests at heart. Although this is just a loosely based on the story of Cinderella and has its own side tangent, it’s still a good story in itself (I preferred this much more over the film too!), and has plenty of ways of showing the good side of fairy tale creatures and magic.
4. Revolting Rhymes – Roald Dahl
I have no idea if this counts, but I’ll add it in because Roald Dahl is another favourite author, and I LOVE wacky, satirical takes on any story, which Dahl spins perfectly. These are a collection of short poems which tell classic fairy tales in a completely opposite way (Cinderella runs away with a nice man who makes jam, for example), in true Roald Dahl style, with brilliant Quentin Blake illustrations. If you like Dahl’s work, you will probably already have read this.
My favourite line is probably from the Red Riding Hood story:
The small girl smiles. One eyelid flickers.
She whips a pistol from her knickers.
She aims it at the creature’s head
And bang, bang, bang, she shoots him dead.
Classic stuff. Read the poems online here, or otherwise at your local bookstore/library/nephew’s house, you cheapskates.
3. Spindle’s End – Robin McKinley
This story is one which I’ve read and re-read quite a few times, because I loved the beautifully captured characters in the story. Sleeping Beauty has always been a story which intrigued me as a child, partly because of the scary evil fairy and also partly because of the whole intrigue of a fairy hidden away to save her life. In this story, she is hidden away in a small town, “as safe as ordinariness can make her”, and turns into everything but a typical princess – she hates singing, dancing or needle-work and loves following the blacksmith around, befriending animals and has short hair – exactly what makes a loveable, clever and even brave character. There’s a great twist to the tale at the end, which also adds a whole new depth to the story and makes it even more brilliant for me. This was the first book I read by McKinley, and it’s also my favourite of hers, since it’s one she really makes her own in an original way.
2. Tender Morsels – Margo Lanagan
I absolutely love this story, and it was a very close contender for the number one spot, simply because of how much I liked this story about the two sisters, Snow White and Rose Red. It’s not an easy read, and one which does not shy away from difficult topics like rape, incest and violence, yet does so in a very classy way which focuses the story on its magic, and the amazing characters. This was a really strong feminist story, in my view, which teaches about women being independent and strong despite difficult circumstances, and also the idea of love and family prevailing over all. I’ve recommended this book to (and practically forced it onto) several friends and sisters, to get them to be as enthralled as I was with this book, partly because reading it made me realise why I loved reading and fairy tales so much.
1. Daughter of the Forest – Juliet Marillier
This is probably the book which I read as a young teen and which captured my heart with fairy re-telling, and I’ve never looked back since. This story is based on a classic one about a sister and her six brothers (although various stories have more brothers or don’t involve swans) who are targeted by their evil stepmother, the brothers turned into swans and the sister chased away. Marillier completely develops this story so that it is set in old-time Ireland, where the protagonist is Sorcha, only daughter of a Gaelic chieftain who has to fight for her brother’s lives when they are endangered. There is plenty of subtle magic, romance and eeriness in this novel, and also plenty of flaws in each character – which is made all the more readable by the amazing research and detail put in by Marillier about this period. While this follows the lines of a traditional fairy tale, it is so much more than this – there is a lot of emphasis on the cruelty of humans and well as their love, and the fact that Sorcha is a young girl who is at a turning point of her life which changes her life. I think I related to this as a teen because her character is a ruly, grubby tomboy at first, something which girls can imagine rather than being royal princesses – and it is this which made her more realistic. This is another story I’ve been trying to force on others for years, and which I won’t stop recommending because of how amazing it is.
- White as Snow – Tanith Lee
- Rose Daughter – Robin McKinley
- Mirror Mirror – Gregory Maguire
- Jane Yolen – Briar Rose
- Strands of Bronze and Gold – Jane Nickerson
- Zel – Donna Jo Napoli
- Sleeping Beauty by Anne Rice (be warned, this is more 18-rated!)
- Rose Daughter – Robin McKinley
- Sun and Moon, Ice and Snow – Jessica Day George
- Beauty Sleep: A Retelling of “Sleeping Beauty”- by Cameron Dokey
- Wicked – Gregory Maguire
- East – by Edith Pattou
- A Curse Dark As Gold – Elizabeth C. Bunce
- Enchantment – Orson Scott Card
- Goose Girl – Shannon Hale
- A Kiss in Tim – Alex Flinn
- Golden – Cameron Doke
Please feel free to tell me about any you’ve read that you would recommend!
…is quite a different story to the hustle and bustle of the day time. It’s still busy, and it’s still full of perpetual movement, but it’s a new kind, a graceful kind of movement. The slow walkers, the young citizens, the businessmen have all gone home to dinner and the delights of on-screen entertainment, and those who are left are the curious walkers, the lively thrill seekers, the late shoppers. Here are the ones who want to explore the city in its neon glow of city lights, electronic billboards and glaring mobile phone screens. The young pixie students come out to play, the hungry seek out hidden away restaurants and eateries which lure them in with promising smells and twinkling, luxurious decor, and the sight-seekers wander around languidly, peacefully, drinking in the famous buildings while the inviting shops offering trinkets.
We are all like busy ants, all following our own streets to make our own way, cleverly interweaving to walk around others, not faltering, but rather slowing down to side-step and glance sweepingly, laugh with your fellow walker, and point a camera or two, tap an Oyster card, that magical ticket to the doors of anywhere.
A skip, a hop, a trip away.
Or rather, in London, a bus, a train and a river away.