‘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?
The bolts are from an old farm in the heart of a the area Bergsladen in Sweden. I found them in a barn. They had been lying there for a long time and they might well have continued to lie there until they had rusted away and returned to their original mineral form.
The bolts reminded me of human forms, and I felt they had something to tell. I heated them, forged, bent and twisted. I tried to create relations, meetings and situations and suddenly stories emerged about sorrow, joy, pain, warmth and humour. A kind of poetry was created, hence the title.
All sculptures are without title, it is up to the viewer to create his or her own. The bolt people are few in numbers, and maybe these are the last ones, but those that exist will remain to tell their stories.
It’s not often I come across art which is emotional and yet so simple and striking – but this is definitely the case. My sister told me about a series of photos featuring old, metal bolts, which have been heated, twisted and bent by Oslo-based blacksmith and photographer Tobbe Malm to form some beautiful portraits humanity, both positive and negative, in a way which seems pretty universal and easily understood.
While I love the poignant messages and the beautiful emotions in each peace, my favourite is the first one, of the mother and her child in her lap, it’s such a simple yet warming picture which could be representative of anyone in the world, and is perfectly rendered from the turns of their heads to the comforting feeling that comes from it. : )
What we do
When the shoe trips on the gutter
When the shirt rips
When the scarf flies away
When the road dips
When the rain pulls out hair
Makes vigorously-applied mascara run
When those carefully-ironed shirts’
Creases are undone
We sit and eat chocolate
And unbutton that top trouser button.
Pretty women wonder where my secret lies.
I’m not cute or built to suit a fashion model’s size
But when I start to tell them,
They think I’m telling lies.
It’s in the reach of my arms
The span of my hips,
The stride of my step,
The curl of my lips.
I’m a woman
Today I heard the sad news that author, poet, icon, artist, civil rights leader, woman, Maya Angelou passed away at the age of 86. She was famous for many things, being a writer, singer, dancers, actress and acitivist, but at the core of it all, she remained a sunny, beautiful woman who had many lessons to give and moved many of us while we were growing up.
When you learn, teach. When you get, give.
I remember reading Maya Angelou’s famous classic I Know why the Caged Bird Sings at the age of eleven after it was handed to me by a teacher who knew of my love for books and was always trying giving me new genres to explore. I was a huge reader then (I still am, but these days I find that I make less time for reading unless it’s on my daily commute) and was hungry for literature which went beyond the usual Goosebumps and teenage-angst stories. I found my fill in Alice Walker, Adele Geras, Margaret Atwood, and as I grew older, in post-colonial authors, post-modern authors and feminist writers such as Chimamanda Ngozi, Toni Morrison, Meera Syal, Doris Lessing and Arundhati Roy, but to name a few. This is just a tip of the iceberg for the amazing range of authors out there whose works I’ve swam through, floated through, devoured and then looked for more of.
Until blacks and whites see each other as brother and sister, we will not have parity. It’s very clear.
Maya Angelou is all of these. She was someone who wanted to push boundaries, making us re-think the norm, and above all, celebrated life, being a woman, being a person and seeing the human in us rather than the stereotypes and the labels. Is it any wonder that she is remembered for so many things? The one thing about her which spoke to me through all of her writing, which really resonated was the fact that she had lived such a hard life, and yet remained a positive person. I’ve met so many negative people, and indeed it’s in our culture to not be happy with what we have, to want more and to criticise, and yet Maya Angelou empathised the importance of being assertive and being proud of who we are and what we have. Growing up, I’m sure we all have stories to tell in which we felt alone, different or pushed down – Maya taught us that we can either let it define us, or use it to buil character, be happy with ourselves, learn from our experiences rather than being just content
You alone are enough. You have nothing to prove to anybody.
I love how this blogger put it. Maya Angelou’s words mean that we are not marginalised, pushed aside and made ‘just’. I, like my peers, am not ‘just’ a coloured girl, we ARE coloured girls – and this matters.
Maya Angelou may be gone from this world, but her words and her philosophy live on; as sad as it is that the world has suffered a loss today, it is also beautiful that she has left a beautiful legacy which continues to inspire so many generations.
If you don’t like something, change it. If you can’t change it, change your attitude. Don’t complain.
There’s several obituaries from prominent newspapers of the wonderful woman, here’s the one I liked most (and this one too) – the tributes, stories and accolades keep pouring in for this wonderful woman. I think they all sing the same thing – Maya Angelou was an inspirational woman to so many people because of many different reasons. For me, it’s because she introduced me to a whole new world at the age of 11 when I stepped into I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings, and kept going.
A great soul never dies. It brings us together, again and again
Maya Angelou, as her poem suggests, really was a Phenomenal Woman.
Rest in peace Maya Angelou, may you reach Jannah (heaven) and know the blessings and peace you showed to others. Thank you for your legacy – sharing your love, your knowledge and your wisdom and for generally being such a beautiful person. The world was, is and will be a better place just because you have lived. You will be missed.