‘Dont pretend to be something youre not’: a letter to my teenage self

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In an exclusive extract from gal-dems new book, three twentysomethings revisit their diaries and reflect on identity, sexuality and cultural heritage


Samanthi Theminimulle, 24
Diary entry, age 14

Today at school everyone laughed at me because I said pomangranate. Apparently its pomegranate. Ammi and Appachchi say pomangranate???? So embarrassing.
Ive always said it wrong.

Hi, 14-year-old me
Do you remember when you pronounced pomegranate wrong in front of the entire class and everyone laughed? All eyes were on you as you stuttered your way through. You came home, fuming and self-conscious, and looked up the spelling. Of course it was pomegranate! How could your parents have got it so wrong? You said pom-e-granate one hundred times, until you were certain it would come out right.

Its tough being the child of immigrant parents; lets not pretend that pronouncing pomegranate as pom-mang-granate is the only questionable thing your Sri Lankan parents do. Their own traditions and traits live on through you, whether you like it or not, and these arent always easy to explain. Especially when theres no one around who looks like you, eats like you, or lives like you.

But you try to explain if people dont get it. Everyone says your hair is greasy, but they dont realise it just has coconut oil in it to make it healthier. You have to ignore people at school laughing at your very full eyebrows and sideburns, or because your packed lunch smells funny. You feel forced to lie to your friends about not being able to hang out in the evenings and weekends, to hide that your parents are way stricter than everyone elses. (That last one will go on for a while, by the way.)

Well, 14-year-old me, Ill let you into a little secret. Yes, you do learn how to say pomegranate correctly. But 10 years on, after all that time, you will still always say pom-mang-granate in your head first. Occasionally it slips out when youre with friends, but instead of furiously blaming your parents for your embarrassment, you tell a story about how your Ammi and Appachchi moved to another country and achieved everything they wanted to.

They did it to put you through one of the most enviable education systems in the world and set you up for the rest of your life. Youre luckier than you currently know.

I know it doesnt seem like that now. You dont realise you need to defend all the weird and wonderful habits youve inherited and practised in the privacy of your home until someone starts calling you out on it. Yes, I do eat rice and curry with my hands. No, I dont celebrate Christmas and Easter. Yes, I wash my hair only once a week, because thats all it needs.

Youll blame your parents for being too different. After all, they are meant to teach you how to navigate the big wide world. The pomegranate mishap is just one of many that make you think that all the Sri Lankan things about you are uncool or a burden. Youll try to distance yourself so youre more like everyone else, but please, oh please, dont.

Fine, sneak out, shave your legs and go to art school, but dont pretend to be something youre not. I know at the moment you think fitting in is the most important thing, but youll come to appreciate all those little differences as quirks that make you the person you are. Hang tight and believe in who you are and where you come from.

On the other side of that, dont mindlessly be what your parents want you to be, just because its easier than telling them, Sorry, but I dont want to be a doctor or, Yes, I do have a boyfriend. Try to see things from your parents point of view and learn how to balance that with yours. If you dont, it could cause a continuing rift.

Samanthi
Samanthi Theminimulle in her teens. Photograph: Courtesy of Samanthi Theminimulle

Youll be pleased to hear that despite the many, many mistakes youll make, youll do a decent job at navigating the grownup world. Through university, work, travel and all the people you meet on the way, youll slowly learn to appreciate yourself and love the things that make you different. Most importantly, this will mean embracing your Sri Lankan identity.

Youll start cooking more Sri Lankan food. Youll go out with a Sri Lankan boy whose ease in negotiating a British and Tamil identity will make you want to learn how to do the same with your British and Sinhala identity. Youll become involved with an incredibly strong group of people who will open your eyes to a whole new way of expressing what it means to be a woman of colour. Youll collect a small group of friends who will encourage you to celebrate and get involved with South Asian culture. Youll read books and articles, and visit exhibitions that celebrate your history and your identity. Youll even start to learn your mother tongue. But honestly, youll regret not waking up and smelling the Sri Lankan food sooner.

What you could learn from your parents about your culture and your background is unparalleled. You dont know this yet but when youre 24, your parents will decide to move back to Sri Lanka for good. Theyll pack up 30 years of memories and experiences and ship them back to the life they once sacrificed for you. Youll lose your family home, the home-cooked meals Ammi brought to put in your freezer and the freshly cut mangoes Appachchi loves so much.

So, when you do stumble over the word pomegranate, picture sitting on the living-room floor, ripping the juicy red pom-mang-granates out of the off-white husk and squeezing them between your teeth until they pop. Take joy in waking up early to go to temple, getting lost in the folds of the gentle chanting and soft-smelling incense. Have fun making Vesak lanterns and help Ammi to make the small eats for Sinhala New Year.

I dont want to turn this into a to-do list, but I dont want you to miss out on all the wonderful influences around you. I dont want you to waste the time you have with your family. So, this is my heads up to you. Your parents are right there, right now: take the time to learn from them. I know youre not sentimental, but write stuff down more, take more pictures.

Oh, and just one final tip. If you ever feel the urge to cut yourself a box fringe dont do it. Trust me, it wont suit you.

Love,
Samanthi

Was I somehow failing at being black?
Niellah Arboine, 25

Niellah
Niellah Arboine in her teens. Photograph: Courtesy of Niellah Arboine


Diary entry, age 16

School was decent. Went over to see Nina after school and on the way the year nine fan club just got at it! Look at you, er, whats up with her hair?! I mean seriously, you can never win and you try not to take it to heart and I dont, but I dont know what Im doing wrong.

Dear Niellah,
Ive just turned 25 and youre 16. When I found this entry in your diary, I thought back to those years at school and that feeling of not fitting in not to mention the hideous grey polo necks. It made me want to tell you that you are doing just fine. Trust me, you are. And I promise you that one thing you must never worry about is your blackness.

Black is who you are; its not about what you wear or the music you listen to, or how you speak. Youve grown up in south London, and in your school there are kids from all walks of life.

Mostly you enjoy school. You play the french horn in orchestra and brass ensemble, and you sing in the choir and the chamber choir. Youre the sarcastic joker in your friendship group and people are drawn to your dry humour. Its fair to say you are a bit of nerd and you sometimes find books more interesting than people. But you cant shake the feeling that to some people, you are the wrong type of black.

Its making you too anxious to sleep and you keep writing about it. There are some girls, two years below you, who always laugh at you. They are black, like you, but theyre more Just Do It bags and Kickers, while your mum is dead set on you having socially repulsive Clarks shoes and a sensibly large bag for your textbooks. These year nine girls scoff at you on the bus and in the school corridors. You believe they are laughing at you because of your hair, your choice of clothes and the fact youre dragging around a suitcase-sized musical instrument while listening to David Bowie on repeat. You worry that these girls think you arent black enough.

I want to reach back through time and hug you. You havent done anything wrong, so you mustnt blame yourself. I could tell you to ignore them, but its OK to be upset.

A million unanswered questions are whirling around your head. Is it possible for you to be an Oreo: somehow black on the outside but white on the inside? Is that supposed to be a compliment? How can you act white if theres a black face looking back at you in the mirror? Are you somehow failing at being black?

This letter is to tell you to be proud of who you are. You come from a long line of amazing people from Jamaica, with a vast, rich history that your mother has made sure you know about. Do you know what it has taken for you to be here today? What your ancestors have survived so you can walk this earth? You are the only person who gets to define your blackness.

To be honest, to be black you just have to be black. Wild, right? So dont change what you wear just because those girls laugh at your leg warmers. Wear them with pride, wear them for practicality, wear them because you want to! Right now, you are spending your time at school trying to fit in; you will spend the rest of your life trying to stand out. (And, you never know, you might see those same girls waltzing around in leg warmers soon.)

I know you also feel that your blackness is defined by the music you listen to. At school, and in society at large, knowing the words to every rap song supposedly makes you black. And while it is a part of black culture for some, it doesnt have to be for you. Its OK to have eclectic taste and listen to soul, pop and glam rock. Some of what you are listening to right now is categorically bad, but if it makes you feel good, it doesnt matter.

Fall wildly in love with David Bowie while everyone else listens to whats popular in the charts. Youve been enthralled by him since you saw him strutting around with his spiked blond locks in Labyrinth. Its a little odd that a black girl growing up in the noughties feels so close to this white superstar born in the forties. But maybe youre not that different. You were born and raised in the same south London neighbourhood after all.

Be true to yourself. Im worried that you are reacting to those girls by trying too hard to fit in with your white peers. Your teachers certainly think you are the right kind of black. Youve even been told you speak well for a black girl. Try not to take this too personally, but that isnt actually a compliment. If youre being told you look nice, talk eloquently or act differently for a black girl, the implication is that black people cant do or be any of those things.

Are you rejecting parts of your culture to assimilate? You avoid bringing in food from home in case people ask questions. And what about your bedroom walls? They are littered with photos of gaunt white women in Vogue. Where are the women you can see yourself in people that look like you, with your hair and your shaped nose and your colour eyes?

Your afro hair is one thing thats obviously part of your black identity and at the moment you have a problem with it. You are obsessively straightening it, even though it is burning and breaking off at the ends. Believe me, your stiff spiky bob isnt any cuter than your soft kinky curls. Learn about protective hairstyles and care for your locks.

Its a long journey and you wont stop trying to figure stuff out. But dont get swayed into believing youre the only black girl to like certain things or speak in a certain way, as if that makes you special or different. Youre not the first black person to like rock or classical music; youre not the worlds only black nerd.

Find solace and strength in your black friends and family. Keep reading, too. It will open doors and help you through your whole life. But maybe try reading books with characters who look like you. Find musicians who sing the genres you love, join groups for blerds (black nerds) and fill your room with beautiful art. Listen to the advice of the people who love you, like your mum: shes always fighting for you to see the beauty in your blackness. And keep writing that diary. Use it as a way to be honest with yourself.

I know Ive come across as quite demanding, but its because I want the best for you. Youre going to have to learn to love every black inch of yourself. Its not easy and maybe youll spend your whole life trying, but you are worth the fight. There is no right way to be black: our differences make us beautiful and we must value them. But first you have to love the skin youre in.

Love,
Niellah

Sex is all about who you are doing it with

Liv Little, 25

Liv
Liv Little in her teens. Photograph: Courtesy of Liv Little

Liv,
You are 16 when you first fall in love with a girl. It is an intoxicating, all-consuming feeling. You have never been particularly shy when it comes to dating, but youve never wanted someone to like you back as much.

She is unbelievably beautiful and mysterious. You fall for her, certain shes the first person in the world who is right for you. Without sounding like a condescending adult, youre being dramatic but thats OK.

Youve already had drunken nights where you kissed your close friends at parties, Katy Perry style, during games of spin the bottle where the boys were very much in control. But these moments mean nothing in comparison with your feelings now.

Youve only ever been close with one queer girl before, so this is unknown territory. Its new and confusing (in a good way) and youre wondering if these feelings are normal, whatever that may mean. Dont fear judgment, or the girls at school who single out the lesbians theyre immature and not worth your attention.

Youll tell your friends that you like this girl. The boys will make pathetic jokes about what two girls do together, as though your feelings are somehow made up or invalid. Because you arent taught about relationships outside of heteronormative ones, you may internalise their ignorant comments. You are going to have to unlearn what society packages as the norm: that a womans sexual pleasure is in the hands of a man.

Up until this point, your sexual encounters with boys have been underwhelming at best. When your best friend sat down on your bed and told you about masturbation you were not only embarrassed but horrified. But you deserve to figure out what you like. You dont have to sleep with boys just because that is what your friends are doing. You certainly dont have to pretend to enjoy it when you dont. Sex is not your duty; it is not their right. Nor is it only defined by penetration. Sex should feel good; it should be consensual and you should be able to articulate what you want, no matter how awkward that may feel.

Despite all these confusing feelings, your relationship with this girl will blossom. Youll chat over MSN, spend hours talking on the phone every night and waste away summer days in the park. Youll kiss for the first time, awkwardly (mainly on your part), in the bathroom of a sweaty club filled with angsty teens with dilated pupils. Youll enjoy the thrill of it all and youll replay these stolen moments for days, weeks, after the event.

Youll be so sure of how you feel that one day after school, youll go to the regular spot with your mates and theyll all say, You should definitely tell your mum shell be totally cool. So youll phone your mum, surrounded by a crowd of friends, and tell her that you have some news. Youll blurt out that theres a girl you really like, and when she tells you that thats totally normal and that youre at the age to experiment, youll be confused, if not underwhelmed, that her response isnt more dramatic. Youre pretty sure this isnt a phase or an experiment and, for you, this is your moment of coming out. But be happy that you have a mother who is open and understanding. She will continue to be your number one supporter.

You and this girl, The One, will fizzle out. Many things do when your heads are in different places. It ends messily. Youll look back at your Facebook messages. In one conversation, youre discussing comments made about both of you by some of the boys you know. At the time, her Formspring account has been inundated with horrible comments about her sexuality. By the time you return to the conversation, her messages have been deleted, leaving only a stream of your messages to her. Its as though she never existed.

Your last one says: you occupied most of what i thought about and now its back to old liv. Going back to the old Liv means that, after this relationship, you wont allow your feelings for women to resurface for another eight years. Figuring out who you are and where you fit in will be challenging. Your sexuality and body image are two of many things that youre trying to understand. Youre also black and a woman, and those bring their own challenges, but youve got this. Youre going to be great.

Youll have relationships with men, some long term, which will be good but missing something fairly fundamental. For a while youll think that this is your problem, and youll even self-diagnose as asexual. But slowly you will grow brave and listen to what your inner voice is telling you. When you do finally start dating women, you will discover that sex is all about who you are doing it with.

Of course, when you start dating women youll encounter cultural blockages along the way, unwanted attention from the public and even, at times, interrogation from strangers. Youll feel crushed when your grandmother asks, Do you think that is natural? That question will replay in your mind. This isnt because you perceive her view to be true, but because there will be moments when it seems as though things would be simpler if you were straight. But your sexuality isnt a choice. What is natural anyway?

Eventually those who matter will be on board. Surprisingly, your grandmother will be one of the first to support you, because she loves you. Your dad will avoid any mention of it, but thats just your dad. Hed be the same if you were bringing home a boy: the thought of his darling girl with anyone will never be something hell be comfortable talking about.

I wish you didnt have to spend years figuring out that its OK to like women. It really is. Dont wait. Dont think your first has to be your last.

Liv

I Will Not Be Erased: Our Stories About Growing Up As People Of Colour by gal-dem (Walker Books, 7.99). To order a copy go to guardianbookshop.com.

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Read more: https://www.theguardian.com/society/2019/jun/01/a-letter-to-my-teenage-self-gal-dem

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