Shruti Iyer on feminism, friendship, and sisterhood as alien-adaptation.
With the right papers, you can be a legal alien. This is a precarious comfort. You learn to cling to the legality of your existence. With every muscle in your thighs pushing you to run after the men who have just snatched your bag with your passport in it. Tears escaping your eyes, all the exposed burning air in your lungs when you finally have it back. This is the part of the story that you don’t tell: after you recovered that little black book, you shook for days. Non-residency is a fragile thing. There are less than ten people in this world that you would have run like that for.
Even the word alien feels absurd on the tongue: it calls upon that gray, raindrop-shaped emoji with the large eyes. (Not unlike London: also gray, also rainy, sometimes the uncomfortable sensation that someone is watching.) For the first year, I become an alien deeply averse to the rain and wind. I remember little of those months except entire weeks lost to sleep. All the times I stood in the harsh light of the supermarket, coming home with ingredients I didn’t know what to do with. And once, feet frozen in the carpark, as I watched entire crates of expired milk put in a garbage truck.
I convince myself that my moods must be seasonal, a strange symptom of this trans-oceanic unmooring. I pay very close attention to daily variation in the weather. (I wonder if the first Indians to come here suffered in the bleak English winters too.) This obsession with recordable, observable meteorological phenomena helps to localize, externalize causation, give a name to something. Seasonal Affective Disorder comes with it, the neat acronym: S.A.D. It becomes easier to talk about. “I think my S.A.D. –” I start to say, on numerous occasions feeling as though I were an adult avoiding the word sad around a particularly sensitive child. (This is not far from the truth.) The name gifts a series of intangible sensations a bounded way to occupy rooms and bodies. The weather gifts me release from culpability. It’s the rain, it’s not me. It’s the rain. When somebody asks how London is, I respond flatly: gray. A thousand alien emojis rising off the skin, falling from the skies to make circles in shallow puddles.
Migration meant a geographical deracination that was totalizing. An ache for sun. For rain that had feeling. Greenish water that clogged all the drains, sweeping dirty plastic and rocking empty bottles through the front gate. The drizzle of this country felt insipid, listless, tired.
But going home, going there also disoriented, alienated. Being away allowed me to forget. I forget: that plugs don’t have tiny switches next to them in India. I forget: the hum of ceiling fans. I forget: that it is not common practice to thank everyone constantly, a steady stream of “thank-you”s and “sorry”s dribbling from the mouth. (This marks me out as foreign more than anything else.) I forget: how effortlessly I once wore my privilege, barely able to notice it. (Now, sometimes I catch glimpses of it, like the sound of a cloak swishing out of a room; or I notice chafe marks if I contort my neck to look for them.) I forget: and then I spend a few weeks remembering. I forget: that it is difficult to write these things without feeling like you are betraying someone, somewhere. Possibly your former self.
I return to London. My entire body straining against the aluminium of the aircraft, trying to get here sooner than the ten hours. For the first few weeks I am back, I find myself taking long walks at night: so fast that I imagine my thighs will turn black, fall off. I walk with the dizzying, frantic confusion of an insect that finds itself in a house and is looking for the window out. I am so relieved to be able to walk at night. I Google Map every patch of green in the city, determined to visit them all.
I stand in the kitchen, watching the flowers already falling off the plants in the autumnal crunch. (In the spring, I obsess over taking pictures of all the flowers. This is how you moor yourself to a place, to people: in the documenting of details that nobody else finds marvelous. You take pictures of his face upside down, laughing at how his nostrils from that angle look like an alien’s eyes. You notice that flowers growing three streets away from you are the same flowers that grow opposite your house back home. Everything is a sign.)
I spend time with my friends: eating pasta, drinking wine. Sitting in restaurants, shaking with laughter. Bodies orienting towards the windows, we are as sharp and fragile as birds. My friend’s hand on my chin as she draws eyeliner on my upper lids, as we pull on loose trousers and dance for hours to music we love. Right up at the front of the club, against the speakers, the twisting synchronicity of the beats in our ribs. Feet aching blissfully as we pull each other onto the night bus, sleepy conversation before we collapse into bed. There is always water on the bedside table to wake up to. Always the tangled cords, never knowing whose cell phone charger is whose. Always the tangled happiness of the mornings.
I marvel at the turmeric from the cooking that finds its way under my fingernails, suffusing all my days with a yellow of labor. There is quiet. Finally I have some measure of distance, space, solitude; but I am thinking, always thinking of being somewhere else.
“Do you miss it?” A. asks, abruptly, as we stand in the line for a self-service machine at Tesco’s. (I suspect we are buying avocados.)
“What, being home? I guess. But you have to be careful not to romanticize either place. I’m there, and I’m dying to be here. I’m here, and I’m desperate to be there.”
A man using the machine in front of us looks up and nods, laughing. I look at him. He says, half-awkwardly, “I know exactly what you mean. I always think I wanna be there but, nah. I love it here.”
He bags his beer and walks out. How many of us, bagging the binaries between here / there.
(I ask A., months later, if she remembers this. She has no recollection of it. Maybe it was a dream.)
Something as simple as looking at the world differently can cause another kind of deracination. A slow uprooting of the self from circles of belonging, a loosening of the irises to swivel off-center. You begin to ask difficult questions. You begin to be more difficult. You experience yourself as oppositional in most rooms you occupy. A geographical deracination coupled with a political deracination. There was a time when I had dual citizenship between the kingdoms of the political and apolitical 1, when stray racist and sexist remarks got little more from me than an acrid response and a slowly raised eyebrow. It is difficult to chart my own history of becoming oppositional, a killjoy.2 All I know is that it was unexpected, almost creeping up on me. First slowly, then all at once. (Soon, drinks that could have been dates became debates.) Oddly, traversing waters meant relinquishing a residency of a different kind: it became that much harder to make my oppositionality softer, render my politics more acceptable. Unmoored in both directions.
A geographical, a spatial, a temporal, a political deracination. (Even a bodily deracination: rape had a way of rendering the body porous. To say it had happened once always entailed the possibility that it could happen once more. I experienced myself as removed from the contours of my own body; its borders blurring into my surroundings.) Deracinated once, twice, three times over.3
Choosing to be political, however, also meant a deeper, more wholesome acceptance by other people. Friendships that are generated and sustained through a continued practice of sisterhood, constantly extending ourselves towards one another. Sisterhood acts as radical praxis, as emotionally fruitful and fulfilling labor. It means an enduring love, even when it ends (as messy and strangled as those endings can be). It means refuge, in a world where female emotion is dismissed and ignored. “To share the power of each other’s feelings is different from using another’s feelings as we would use a kleenex,”4 Lorde reminds us. The reservoir of empathy that we hold under the surface of our skins for our sisters and loved ones is in need of constant replenishment. requiring a full, deep participation: a daily delving into the lives of each other; a diving in and a diving out. When being political means paying attention to everything around you – often to the point that you worry you might be “imagining” things, seeing things where they aren’t there – sisterhood means paying attention to one another’s needs instead. A scalpel-sharp scrutiny is demanded of us: both towards our own actions and words, and the world’s. This scrutiny is exacting but nourishing. We know, together, that we are not imagining things. It abates the exhaustion we find in other spaces: of things we could not say, things we did not know how to say. Things that were too much. Places we had to make ourselves softer. Places we had to make ourselves harder. Less intense. Easier. Stronger.
(If “the monster is that being who refuses to adapt to her circumstances,”5 we were learning a strategic alien-adapting. Chameleon-like, we adapted all the time in the outside world, and like folklore about witchy women who are not as they appear, we came back to our homes in each other and turned monstrous. No longer having to adapt; our forms stretched out in their many-arms, many-eyes, wings and tails. This is where we can sit down and weep and still be counted as warriors. This is the place we had to make so as not to give ourselves away.6)
Technology allows movement through the world to be safer. A short text message to my friends when enduring bigotry at a dinner. A long voice note for other times. Technology as “sisterhood-to-go, please,” as home when you are away from home, as home when you are at home. A fleshy extension of the self into algorithms and codes. Love as a digital prehensile limb: a part of an everyday movement and holding in the world, even if mediated by distance. Distance became easier, more bearable. (A dead cellphone can sometimes feel like a loss, however temporary.) Friendship with other women, our political allies and friends, our creative inspirations and goalposts, is what we can take heart and joy in as we walk through a world that has both told us that we cannot be in these streets as exactly who we are, and that female friendship is insignificant, inconsequential, inevitably orbiting around male desire and need. We affirm it – over-and-over – because if we had known that it was possible when we were younger, we might have been different. We affirm it as a community of aliens doing the painstaking work of terraforming this place to one where we (and others) might be safer, where we might breathe more easily. We affirm it when we say, “I don’t know what I would do without you.” We don’t.
In some ways, this might be what is at the center of the anxiety over safe spaces (and to a lesser degree: trigger warnings). We are told over and over that “this is not the real world”; we do not get to exclude those that make us uncomfortable, whose presence alters our behavior and concerns, whose presence often dictates agendas. The real world does not have patience with our traumas. We ought to be “getting on with it.” Tenderness and trauma are dialects deemed effeminate, that we must steel ourselves out of. Carrying sanctuary in my pocket is helpful, but does not diminish the fact that the rest of the world can seem profoundly alienating in contrast. A sharper disorientation and confusion when you forget, or are unpleasantly reminded, that you(r body, your thoughts) are still foreign to others. As necessary as community is, it is often insular. Self-preservation appears to come with the dangerous cost of shutting oneself off. We are told that safe spaces exist as bubbles and that this only makes the world outside it more painful, the oppression more pronounced. We are accused of shutting our ears and eyes.
“Are you sure you want this to be your life?” H. asks, his voice on the phone almost lost to the sound of five red buses careening past me at Waterloo station. “I mean, once you choose to be fully involved and committed to this feminism stuff, that’s all people will see you as. That’s all you’ll ever be. Are you ready for that?”
The answer, then, was so simple. “I don’t know anyone who doesn’t already think of me as that person,” I reason, giving up on waiting for the signal and walking headlong into the traffic. I ignore the cursing of the cyclists. “There’s no turning back with this stuff anyway. And I want to do it. I don’t see how it doesn’t already define me.”
I knew that choosing feminism made me oppositional to certain kinds of men, certain kinds of people. I knew wearing it made me difficult. I did not know, then, how heavy it would come to feel. I did not know that to choose feminism would mean to give up any claim to false consciousness, any claim to confusion or hesitation. I did not know that choosing to be a feminist, or making the choice to be seen as one, would mean that in the eyes of many men I could no longer be used, abused, taken advantage of. If to be a feminist meant to be intimately aware of the inner mechanics and functioning of patriarchy, then it meant that I could not possibly be confused about abuse, or hesitant to report it, or need time to understand and process it. It meant being compressed into a specific understanding of strength. It would come to mean sleepless nights: being seen as a specific type of strong and unrelenting feminist would mean that failure to confront my abuser or assaulter was equivalent to condoning it. You did not say anything. He thinks of you as someone that would say something. He must think his actions are acceptable because of your failure to speak. It would come to mean endlessly imagining those that may suffer because I failed. The soft voices of my friends as they remind me that it was never my responsibility, that it is not my fault. I believe them. The dreams come anyway.
(The costs of identifying as a feminist are different now. They will say to you that they like your company because you “do not let them get away with things.” That you are cutting. None of them will know how many get-out-of-jail-free cards you have wearily handed out once they passed “Go.” None of them will know how soft you have turned, how many days it took for the bruises to turn purple. Some of them will come to learn that you will let them get away with things. But it is easier for them to continue thinking of you as strong; it means not having to admit there was something to get away with.)
I begin to think about ways to imagine myself beyond my politics, but find myself dragged back into it at poetry readings, at dinners, when reading the newspaper over the shoulder of someone on the train. (Once you inhabit the kingdom of the political, it is difficult to go anywhere else. A surgically re-oriented eyesight cannot be undone. Once you migrate, you can return, but you cannot undo the leaving.)
Deciding to do the work of transforming a hostile environment by creating spaces exclusive to those like you is a bit like creating an alien colony. You begin to speak your own language to one another, develop a nomenclature to name your oppression. Your language will evolve its own sense of humor (peppered with emojis that mean different things in different contexts). This is probably the real fear about safe spaces: that those of us who need them will begin to have more exacting standards of the rest of the world. That we might not stop at naming our oppressions and fears. The real threat of safe spaces is the indictment of other spaces as unsafe, the possibility that we might ask for them to be made safe.
Late, one March night:
I have cooked S. okra for dinner and walked her to the tube station after. I lie on my bed. My phone buzzes; she is home safe. She pauses (I imagine her light fingers hovering over the screen), and she asks: “Do you think he only berated me for being ‘too logical’ because I’m a woman? Are men ever berated in the same way as women are? Is he just latently sexist?”
Maybe there’s a silver lining for us in all the constant criticism, the weariness, the surveillance of ourselves. Maybe we can penetrate more deeply into ourselves because we’re always too something. Too tender. Too logical. We’re constantly being told we’re too something but this might mean that in all the second-guessing and uncertainty, we are attentive to something; more likely to see what it is that is so profoundly alienating about living in this way. Maybe the practice of occupying multiple contradictory identities that push up against each other means that we can see something in the cracks that others can’t.
London is at the cusp of spring, slow warmth extending itself in the night. Little buds on bare trees already. If our hands and feet ache from the constant extension and double-checking, from dangling one limb after another through a very narrow crack to feel something that resembles a home; fingers numb from the strenuous work of terraforming this planet into one that takes us as we are; heels cracked from navigating our way through endless dualisms, it helps to know that sometimes we can see something down there. (I learn, later, about epistemic privilege; I begin to orient my work towards some kind of epistemic rupture.) There must be things that we see, furniture that we bump into in the night that leave scrapes and bruises on our bodies that we curiously peer at in the mornings. We can take photographs of them, send all the pain translated into pixels to our friends. We aren’t imagining thi(ng)s.
Audre Lorde (1984) “Uses of the Erotic”, in Sister Outsider, p. 58. Crossing Press: Berkeley. ↩
Bhanu Kapil (2006) Incubation: A Space For Monsters, p. 7. Leon Works: Providence. ↩
Adrienne Rich (1983) Sources. Heyeck Press: CA. ↩