This piece was performed at Legacy Books, Feminist Writers Festival Sydney on Saturday 3 November 2018.
When I was seven years old, my second grade teacher made a ‘book’ out of the first short story I ever wrote, called Tilly the Witch. After typing the manuscript on a manual typewriter (hey, it was the 80s), she bound it in laminated red cardboard and illustrated it with black and white photos she took of myself and my classmates dressed up as the characters, with myself as Tilly.
Though that book is lost to me now, a victim lost to many long-haul moves; out of home, interstate, overseas, and back again, I haven’t forgotten her enthusiasm or how she told me to never stop writing. I did, of course. One of the unintended consequences of her interest in me and my writing was the perception in some of the other children that I was getting special treatment. This marked me as different. The bullying and taunts started soon after and would continue in some form or another right up until the start of Year 12.
During that time, I became an increasingly inward-looking child. Feeling alienated both within my family’s cultural community and from my school peers, I escaped not into writing but into reading whatever happened to be lying around the house. The newspaper, the Encyclopaedia Britannica. My older sister’s Sweet Valley High books. All of which is to say, I read stories that I never saw myself in. Despite my love and talent for writing, I stopped doing it, as the reality of being a daughter from a recently arrived Lebanese-Syrian immigrant family made that prospect seem laughable. It’s not that my parents were against it, it’s that creative pursuits were just not things that even existed in the realm of possible futures for their children.
At the age of 22, I was in the midst of my first big overseas backpacking trick. On the bedside table near my dorm bunk in an ultra-budget hostel in downtown Vancouver, a previous traveller had a left a copy of a fairly hefty novel, Behind the Scenes at the Museum, the debut of English writer Kate Atkinson. I picked up that book many times in the space of about a fortnight, contemplating whether I could be bothered starting it given it seemed not as fun a prospect as the underground Vancouver nightlife I was getting into at the time (hey, it was the the 90s).
As someone who had never read books by Arab writers or even writers of colour growing up, this was the first time I could recall where I felt like the protagonist could be me.
The main character’s name is Ruby Lennox, and this fact was certainly a factor in my decision to eventually begin reading it. But it wasn’t until couple of chapters in that I knew I was hooked. Ruby, you see, is our narrator, beginning the story from the moment of her conception, and this is how she describes her naming, shortly after her birth:
“My name is Ruby. I am a precious jewel. I am a drop of blood. I am Ruby Lennox.”
This sort of affirmation is not something I was used to. The fictional Ruby, who like me, would grow up to be a chronic loner, an adolescent who spent more time in her head than in the real world, was stating her worth. It would be repeated several times throughout the book, sometimes sarcastically, other times plaintively. But as someone who had never read books by Arab writers or even writers of colour growing up, this was the first time I could recall where I felt like the protagonist could be me. Was me.
I didn’t know it at the time, but what connected me so much to a character called Ruby Lennox, a white girl born in the north of England in the 1950s, was that I felt represented at last. By the sheer fluke of our names, I was able to transcend all the obvious differences and imagine a Ruby much like myself. This is the power and importance of representation. This is why it is so important that young people – all people really – can see something of themselves in some of the stories they read or films they watch; just to know there are people out there with problems and joys not unlike their own.
Had Atkinson given her heroine a different name, it is more than likely, I would never have read the book. Which is to say, representation must be more encompassing than the coincidence of names.
This book has meant so much to me, I’ve owned various editions over the years, and for many years would pick it up at random pages and start reading. Spanning many generations, criss-crossing centuries and continents, Ruby and the women in her family hold centre-stage through the Victorian era, the two world wars, the Great Depression; it’s not often you come across a book that can include all the momentous events without shifting the focus from the women.
Despite all our best efforts, white women still dominate feminism, they still reap the benefits of diversity and inclusion and ‘female empowerment’ leaving women of colour on the outside.
So profound was its impact on me that Behind the Scenes at the Museum reconnected me to my long forgotten dream of writing for a living and reminded me that being a writer is something that it is possible to be. For those of you who are fans of my writing, you have this book to thank for its existence; for those who are not fans, well you have this book to blame.
Fast forward a number of years, and I am now in the midst of researching my first book, a non-fiction account of the racial stereotyping of women of colour and how this undermines relationships between them and white women. I’m still searching for authentic representation, still wondering why the arts and media are so overwhelmingly white. I’m still appealing to white feminists to read and comprehend my work and the work of other brown and black women. How do I know they aren’t doing this? Because despite all our best efforts, white women still dominate feminism, they still reap the benefits of diversity and inclusion and ‘female empowerment’ leaving women of colour on the outside.
But rereading Audre Lorde’s essay collection Sister, Outsider has been a lesson in how so often the answers we’re looking for have been with us all along. Why do white women still struggle to read and apply the words of women of colour? Lorde answered this question more than 30 years ago when she writes, ‘For as long as any difference between us means one of us must be inferior, then the recognition of any difference must be fraught with guilt.’ For white feminists to acknowledge that there are differences in the needs and experiences of women and that they cannot represent all of us would necessitate an acceptance of the limitations of their own feminism and an admission that their progress comes at the expense of other women.
It is the generous wisdom and searing insight of thinkers like Lorde that drag us kicking and screaming into the future.
People are fond of describing forward-thinking people as ‘ahead of their time’. As much as her words still seem prescient today, it would do a disservice to describe Lorde as ahead of her time. If anything, such thinkers are exactly of their time because they have the capacity to diagnose the maladies of their era and prescribe the remedy. Nothing is inevitable and no progress is ever assured. It is the generous wisdom and searing insight of thinkers like Lorde that drag us kicking and screaming into the future. The problem is just how stubbornly resistant to this medicine the rest of us are.
Despite everything, I am still hopeful we can bridge the gap. I have to believe in a common humanity that can work with and praise difference rather than deny and punish it. And I have to believe that writing is one of the ways we can get there. Like Ruby Lennox who shares my perpetual outsiderdom as well as my first name, ‘it is my belief that words are the only thing that can construct a world that makes sense.’