You Will Find Me Here
I am 28. Pregnant with my first child. I am packing my home for a move to what we hope will be a good place. In the box with my childhood diaries and mixtapes I throw in a huge stack of notebooks. A floppy disc labeled- my novel. A battered orange file named-my poems. The box is still unopened- I have never returned to it and I knew I wouldn’t. At 28 I was done with trying to be a writer- it was a fairytale. It was not for me.
I have been silenced a lot in my life.
Humiliated and mocked into quiet retreat. From the little girl waiting for her letter to be answered by her absent father –
-to the primary school girl who stood up to cruel and casual racism in her 1980s playground- found herself in the remedial class despite being a fluent and keen reader.
To the teenager mocked by her peers for not getting the irony- missing the joke- in their racism and rampant misogyny.
To being the victim- of a short lived but violent assault on a bus, when she dared to shout back at a group of men calling her a paki.
To the home help for an elderly woman, who would frequently yell- you dirty foreign bitch– and despite the accusations of stealing, of not knowing her job and her place- still cared for her for two years.
Found a way to steal herself and silence herself, to see that woman’s humanity and fear despite, let’s call her Jean, despite Jean’s inability at times, much of the time, to see hers.
To the student who talked about her family history- her grandmother- in a research paper on postcolonialism and women- too personal not academic. Feedback from a classmate- I found this really unfair- that she should do well because she has a personal history of colonialism – this is not what this course is about.
To that mature student (I was 21 and not that mature) with her first properly clever writer boyfriend who said her writing was too confessional- it borders on being hysterical (she was writing an experimental novel about the over sexualisation of a young brown girl growing up in Scotland- it was highly ambitious, pretentious and looking back probably quite good) Christ! People will think this is about me– she stopped writing.
She oohed and ahhed at his gritty writing about his Northern childhood. She read her books. Maya Angelou, Toni Morrison and Jackie Kay, like contraband, in the corners of their wee home (she put her own work away- embarrassed at her “overwrought” emotions. He left her years later for a Canadian girl who called him a prick. She thinks this is irony but she would probably need him to tell her that).
Point is- it took me a while to stop putting my writing away in boxes -to be stored out of sight. It took me a long while to take the risk to share my own stories- to allow myself worth.
I am thirty four in my local library in Dunbar. I stand with a group of mothers. We are sharing our writing. The place is full – almost twenty folk and on a Tuesday night too. We have been writing together for a year. Each month we meet here in the library. We have clubbed together for two creche workers to look after our babies. We write, we cry, we laugh, we really properly laugh- and those mornings are a longed for home- my words rush out the floodgates- I had kept them back for so long.
This writing group which we called- the writing mums- quickly becomes the most important thing in my life, which with three children under five and after the loss of a hard won career as a teacher- a traumatic miscarriage leaving me too broken, had stopped feeling like my life. I had no confidence left in myself to be outside in the world anymore but as I stood with my friends and read my poem about losing my baby, as they read their poems about the numbness of postnatal depression, about a longed for child after IVF, about the joy of watching a first step, about the joy of that first step back to yourself- I felt this release- this relief. Och, it took a while (or it took the time it took). It took me that long to understand I did not need to wait for permission to tell my story and my stories- I could give myself permission- and perhaps in community and in friendship I could help create a space that others could give themselves permission too.
As we served the wine we had brought for our audience we all were taken aside by other mothers and by grandmothers for a tearful hug and for a- that was my story- oh that was my story. I realised there was power in this- this was important. One woman said, well I wish I hadn’t brought my husband – you can’t expect men to listen to all that blood stuff. Oh yes, this was important. This art thing. This performing thing. This fucking hysterical thing.
In 2014, my father died. My daughter was also very ill at the time and for months I rushed from the deep despair of grief to terrifying ambulance rides – it was an awful and dislocating time. I sat one night in the parents’ flat at the Sick Kids and started writing what would come to be my play- The Drift.
I was beyond fear.
I would tell my story. I would write the way I wanted to- in my own rhymes and rhythms and in my own voice. I would hush those voices that all my life had ushered me to the corners of myself, to that remedial class I’d never really left. Those voices that attacked and shamed me- I was done. I didn’t care if no one wanted it- I wanted it. I wasn’t sure how I would cope without it. I had kissed my father in the morgue and promised him something. I kissed my daughter exhausted in her hospital cot and promised her something too. Something it took three years of writing to understand. A promise to let him go. To be my best self for her. To bear witness. To stand for him. To speak about our history, that hidden history, to speak out against our country and the lies it tells itself which had broken him- broken him for me. I would not let it go unspoken. When my son started experiencing racial abuse at school, this promise was remade and strengthened.
But The Drift was never supposed to be more than one or two small performances to an invited group of friends and family. A pamphlet perhaps with a wee print run. It had a bigger journey than that. Would I have written it the way I did if I knew I would have to perform it to audiences across Scotland? That The National Theatre of Scotland would want to produce it. I don’t know. I am glad I did. But that fear of being taken to the remedial class returned. That fear of that quick punch to the face haunted me- as alone I walked onto stages to say Fuck you, Scotland.
I am a mixed race woman- who I often joke is only seasonally brown- I can pass. I think I can. I am a native English speaker. I have a British Passport. I have a Scottish accent. I know in some ways how this country works. I am a privileged person of colour but still I am a person of colour. A writer of colour. I feel how transient and fragile my position is. How precarious my career is- the assumptions made that I am not a talent instead a tick box. That my work is emotional and not crafted. Patchy and negligible– aye. That my success is the result of other people’s good deeds. This is the thing of it- the truth of it. I know how few places and spaces I and people like me can occupy – that these opportunities are limited. Is this changing? I don’t know. The rise of the Right. The short lived Black Lives Matter solidarity. The frighteningly quick backlash. The inevitable back to normal-ness and the Right still rises -taking some old allies with it. The fear was not quashed with that black profile pic- it is still there. The fear- the expectation that you will receive a quick and humiliating punch to the face (literally and figuratively) if you ask for too much-point out too much- it has not gone away. That 3am fear that you have sold yourself for trinkets- it does not leave you. And it is not always irrational and unfounded. Though sometimes it is.
What does this do to you?
I have a family to protect. I have to have the emotional energy for them. I keep my voice, my activism, my politics within the edges of my own pages and stages- in the part of my life marked work. I chose to be an artist- to choose what I say, when I say it, how I say it and in what form I say it. I find my world in community and friendship- not on twitter. I am not up for the dashed off tweet arriving like a scream, delivered like a slap, sticking around like…Reactionary self justification should be the stuff of drunken nights down the pub and should be forgiven and forgotten like Sunday’s hangover- we are all allowed to be the asshole on occasion and within the privacy of friendship. But I do value those who contain and put thought into their public utterances – those who are motivated by kindness and humility. I retweet them often.
I am now 42. I have started to believe in myself as a writer. I am growing more confident in my work but I still need the safety and support of my writing groups. They are still home for me. Groups such as the Writers of Colour and the Writing Mums hold me steady. And I try to put my work in curated spaces too, spaces that are thoughtful, respectful, and careful with the work they are given, such as the wonderful Fringe of Colour, because I know how quickly women of colour are reduced and belittled. How they receive a much harsher scrutiny than their white counterparts. I have seen it. I know a little of what that scrutiny feels like and what a false narrative can do to your well being, your career and your safety. I know, I have seen, how easily deliberate misreadings of the lives, the work, and the intentions of people of colour are believed.
My daughter is no longer a baby but a bright and healthy eight year old. A few months back she started talking to a lady in a local cafe about her new book– Goodnight Stories for Rebel Girls. One of these rebel girls is a young transgender girl called Coy. The lady she struck up a conversation with, said to her- well, that’s just not right. Rosa replied- why don’t you try and understand how hard it would be to be her. The lady ignored her. We are all so quick to dismiss those who challenge us. To label empathy and kindness as stupid or niave. To dismiss someone’s lived experience as irrelevant- not the point- if it doesn’t back up our point- like the student who offers her grandmother’s story to their study of postcolonialism. It’s not fair to bring a real life into it- this is not rigorous. This is not intellectual. These are not our rules on debate.
Why don’t you try and understand …
I vowed to myself when I left Jean’s that I wouldn’t be driven by my own ignorance, by my own fears and pain -into complicit silences, into hateful behaviours and easy bigotry. I am ashamed to say, over the last twenty two years, I have not always kept that promise to myself. I have let myself down time after time. I want to always be working at becoming a better human but I fail- frequently. I don’t always do the work. I have not always been as open to listening and learning as I should’ve been. But I have always wanted to be around people that are working on that thing of growth and maturity. I seek spaces where that work is allowed and supported. I seek out people who accept that we are all flawed and as capable of change as we are of mistakes. I like to think I write and live in the grey- at the intersections. I definitely seek out friendship and work from artists that live there too. I believe art can transform us- the artist and the audience. It has transformed me. I believe that being ourselves in all our gory glory is beautiful and brave but making room, moving aside, holding space, sticking your foot in the door, wedging it open not only for yourself but for others. Insisting that spaces are safe and inclusive. Creating community in your practice and in your work. Well, that is I think truly revolutionary and properly courageous. And it’s what I am coming to think is the real work of the artist.
(But you know, I may change my mind on that).
Hannah Lavery is a short story writer, poet and playwright. Her pamphlet of short fiction, Rocket Girls, was published by Postbox Press (Oct 2018) and her poetry pamphlet, Finding Seaglass: Poems from The Drift was published by Stewed Rhubarb Press (May 2019). The Drift, her autobiographical play, was produced by the National Theatre of Scotland for a nationwide tour in 2019. Her most recent play, The Lament for Sheku Bayoh, was commissioned by the Royal Lyceum Theatre for the Edinburgh International Festival 2019. She was awarded a New Playwright Award from Playwrights Studio Scotland and was named as one on BBC Writers Room Scottish Voices of 2020. She was recently selected as one of Owen Sheer’s ten writers asking questions that will shape our future for the International Literature showcase, a project from the National Writing Centre and the British Council.