Our current Writer in Residence is freelance journalist/reporter, radio producer and writer, Melissa Chemam. Melissa writes for many publications such as The Public Art Review, Transfuge Magazine, Le Figaro, Le Monde, Skin Deep, The Bristol Cable, Bristol 24/7, CIRCA Art Magazine, The Times Literary Supplement and Public Pressure. Below, Melissa shares the second episode of her writing on Still I Rise: Feminisms, Gender Resistance – Act III.
While I was settling in Bristol this autumn 2019, I interviewed again one of the artists that brought me to the city: rapper and music producer Adrian Thaws, mostly known as Tricky.
Tricky released his autobiography in October and we talked about his youth, his family, his music, and his hometown of course, Bristol. Though he spent a large part of his adult life running away from here, Bristol had shaped him in many ways. Like Paris shaped me, then forced me to leave…
One of the most touching thoughts Tricky shared with me was his strong belief in the fact that his mother Maxine (who died when he was only 4 years old) had been talking through him for all these years… His lyrics, he insisted, were women’s words, and hers in particular. This, he said, explains why he has written so many songs for female singers, with female storied.
He learned not so long ago that his mother had been writing poetry. She remained unpublished and most probably unread. As a Caribbean woman living in an impoverished area of Bristol in the 1960s, she could simply not hope to see her poems ever get printed and shared, Tricky added. That was how these times were. Her voice was unheard…
A voice for the voiceless
This idea stayed with me.
During this residence at the Arnolfini on feminism and resistance, I wanted to reflect on the feminism that “people of colours” and community groups who are called as “minorities” had needed to go through. And Maxine’s story came to resonate with theirs.
There are so many of them represented here in ‘Still I Rise’, women from Iran, African-American women, women from Botswana, South Africa, Argentina, India, Iraq and so on. These women were never fighting for individual rights, they were often fighting for others: for their children to have food, for the community to be heard, for their disabled relatives to be acknowledged, for their husband to be freed from political imprisonment.
In the way Tricky had been the voice of his mother for most of his artist’s life, these women had been for other women; and some men, photographers, storytellers, have been for some other women.
I have often had this feeling: that as a writer, I have been trying to be a voice for so many others… Women I interviewed but also women from the past, whose opinion would never have been asked. Women from my own family tree, as well, who were never taught how to read or write, who never had a passport, who never had the right to vote.
As a broadcaster, I tried to be a voice for many, many men as well. Living in Europe, and broadcasting from the BBC World Service’s main studio, I have, dozens of times, called men – mainly African men, exposed their opinion on air, while reading the news. A position that women were not allowed to hold until quite recently, in the 1950s and in some part of the UK and Europe even later…
Genders versus colours
For people with a history of colonial violence in their family, having a voice is in itself a form of resistance. Being a voice for others even more.
Let’s not forget that while it took half a decade to some in Europe to liberate their countries from the Nazis, in Africa or Asia freedom from oppression took more than a century. And for their heirs who happen to be born in the former colonial power, an added challenge has been to define themselves.
Many, countless actually, women took part in that resistance. To gain rights as so-called “minorities”. Not only for them as female citizens, but for their community. Yet, they were often forgotten by the historians.
And in some occasions, feminist resistance and protesting against race-based oppression were two very different fights… That many women in the “Global South” and in diaspora had and still have to hold in parallel.
One example: while I was sitting in the ground floor of ‘Still I Rise’ mid-November, a woman and I started to discuss about these themes. We were both watching the film about sexual violence featuring Suzanne Lacy and Corey Madden in the first room. She started talking to me about her experience as a woman “of colour”, as we now say. She’s British, her mother is English. Her dad was from an Afghan/Indian background but he didn’t raise her. Until this day, people ask this lady: when did you move to the UK? Because she has a “brown skin”. But she almost didn’t know her father… Let alone his country of origin. Unwillingly, she’s a face – and therefore a voice – for a man she hardly knew, and a colonial history that is haunting her despite her reality.
So, like Tricky and myself, this woman comes from a family that has seen women suffer not only from gender inequality but also from social injustice and post-colonial prejudice. It’s a difficult discussion to have but it’s needed more than ever.
Connection through common experience
For women like her, being themselves and being here is in itself an act of resistance… Against prejudices and projections. Working and claiming the same rights as men and as (other) British people is an act of resistance.
When you face this sort of prejudice, you know it’s not easy to deal with. As it more often than not takes generations, not a lifetime, to overcome racially motivated bias…
This is why it matters so much to me, after 15 years of journalism, to keep on meeting with people, to get to hear their story in person and witness their experience. Not only to use technology to get my questions across and receive some answers back more quickly, via the telephone or email. But to connect with them. To connect us all. Because in every story there is a potential for understanding a common fight, for a convergence in our fights. I actually wrote an entire novel about this…
And to perceive it, we also have to feel it.
This is the power art has, the power writing has: to make a collective act, to connect us via real human experiences, even in the times of virtual isolation and technological individualism. Luckily, with ‘Still I Rise’, and throughout Bristol, these sorts of connections remain a gift that keeps on giving…