As a part of my work at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago, I learnt to made video essays. I started using the camera to replace my eyes, and on the days when my depression overtook me as a person, the camera became how I saw the world. In my video work, I aim to make more and more narratives about my place in the world and eventually expand to poetry production.
A very integral part of Povera and my work as a poet / educator / organizer was regularly checking in with friends, family, mentees. What helped me unlock most intimate connections was being the first one to open up – be vulnerable. When I moved to Chicago in mid-2018, I feared losing those connections. As a result, I mail out a letter on the 12th of every month to anyone who wants one. It serves as a diary, a letter, a call for action, a safe space to be.
- A set of cards/card sized paper prints with a fact that makes you smile when you read it.
- One side of the card has the “did you hear?” illustration in riso, or Good News Daily in old school print (has to be interesting enough for people to pick it up)
- The other side will have a typed out ‘news’ thing with a tiny note on the bottom saying these notes can be reused to give to someone who is having a bad day, or folded n put in a jar of feel good things, or a scrapbook. (I wonder if i can make that too )
Things happening around that have just made people smile. And think for a while when presented as “news.”
Being glued to the television, reading the paper or surfing the Internet increases ratings and market shares – but it also raises the probability of depression relapse.
- Because these things matter
- It’s important to put a lens to things that are very basic very day to day but are what make the day function the way it does
- To demonstrate personal is political
- Erasure and detournement
These are simple, no-frills strategies, like being present and showing up for what you can, like your work and your friends and your trivia night and your cat. Limit your phone time and consumption of Internet content, whether that’s social media, the 24-hour news cycle, or both. Our smartphones now feel like baby monitors that we should constantly be checking, but they can quickly turn into triggers for feelings of fear, isolation, sadness, despair, helplessness, anger, and frustration. Made time to see people in person, even if that’s just choosing to video chat versus texting — it made a huge difference. Got involved with the community (in my case Jones hall, SAIC)
Personal is political.
Political is personal.
Happiness as an act of resistance.
- IRL : cards – riso and laser print
- Online : Pinterest and Newsletter
- Gather ‘news’ through a google form and one on one asking
- A box titled ‘things that make you smile’ in Jones : calendar paper on top
- Erasure in newspapers collected in the last week to make ‘facts’
What do we have till now?
Fill out your news here : https://forms.gle/PVGrDH3y9ZR6he1U7
The first time I met poet Sarah Kay, I fell flat on my face. Literally. The second time we met(one year later) she asked me if I was okay while fellow poet Phil Kaye (they are not married, not siblings, and not together) took pictures of me and my friend and the handmade Rabindranath Tagore book I had gotten them on his phone. Up until that moment, I had only seen these two on Youtube, which was quickly becoming my version of television. Almost every spoken word poet in India has found their way to the mic with a Sarah Kay or an Anis Mojgani poem in their pockets. We had managed to build an entire community around spoken word and poetry off of the work poets of color in the US have done – Button poetry, Write Bloody and the Youtube channel speakeasynyc being the only places to access contemporary poetry.
Sarah Kay and Phil Kaye were the first poets I met in the list of poets who have turned into my personal heroes. When they came to India for the first time, people had flown into Bangalore from all over the country. They were heroes to an entire generation who found their way to poetry. When I met them, they were snickering along with me.
Sarah told Phil about how I hit my head when I fell and then wrote a poem about regret tasting like putting salt instead of sugar on my best friend’s birthday cake. They signed my books, the multiple copies I had bought for all my students and made a joke about the city we were in because ‘we know each other now’ and Sarah was ‘dying to crack this joke’. (Bangalore – Sarah said, more like banga-a lot!) We took some hilarious pictures in all three of our phones before we parted and the 200 people behind me could get their chance at a Sarah & Phil Kaye conversation.
This entire time, I had Sarah’s poem, Mrs. Ribeiro, running through my head.
I tell them, “Listen. Listen to one another like you know
you are scholars. Artists. Scientists. Athletes. Musicians. Like you know you will be the ones to shape this world. Show me how many colors you know how to draw with.
Show me how proud you are of what you have learned.
And I promise I will do the same.”
Sarah the person was a lot like Sarah in her poems.
I thought heroes were supposed to be grouchy. But these people/poets were talking to me like I am a human being. Like they are as excited to meet me as I was to meet them. Like they were not waiting for their turn to speak or the line to speed up and get back to their real lives. Like this was their real life and they had worked hard to get where they were and did not think celebrity was a facade they had to put on. Their real selves and poet selves were the same people.
That was three years ago. Since then, I have come to Chicago and managed to meet/spend time/get to know some poets I and my country had previously only seen on screen. None of them have not lived up to their poems. None of them have made me wish I had not met them.
Merriam Webster defines ‘hero’ as
a : a mythological or legendary figure often of divine descent endowed with great strength or ability
b : an illustrious warrior
c : a person admired for achievements and noble qualities
d : one who shows great courage
Historian Daniel Boorstin in his book The Image : A Guide to Pseudo-Events in America says “As never before in art it has become easy for the great, the famous, and the cliché to be synonymous.” Published in 1962, The Image was a scathing book establishing the graphic and image culture as a way to turn mortals into gods and blurring lines between image and reality. He compares today’s image-oriented celebrities, quite unfavorably, to the action-oriented heroes of yesteryear. He coined phrases like “famous for being famous” and “well-known for well-knownness.”
Boorstin argues in The Image that the replica of art, any art – will take over the real. A picture of Monet’s Water Lilies will appear more seductive than the actual painting. The artist will have no agency over the image or spectacle that their work will then be a part of.
Working under this premise, one could argue that the image, any image is fundamentally democratic, an illusion we have repeatedly chosen for ourselves until we have ceased to see it as a choice at all. The image gives rise, Boorstin argues, to a “thicket of unreality which stands between us and the facts of life.” That is also how he defines ‘celebrity’ – An image of a person created, a pseudo-event which is neutral; who has no good or evil, merely an image built over the real – a layer to put on – to present under the right circumstances. Any hero(read celebrity) “has been fabricated on purpose to satisfy our exaggerated expectations of human greatness.”
It is the public expectation, even preference, for celebrities to be manufactured, mostly as goods and as gods. As people who are larger than life, do no harm and essentially possess no human traits. Their image is more real than their real skin and that image is what fans chase when out looking for photographs and autographs. This person who smiles on the camera and kisses the interviewer’s cheek charmingly. Imagine meeting real living human being – Who sneeze and choke and get tired of putting up a show. What a disappointment. I guess I have some sympathy for the 15, 336 people on the Reddit thread ‘never meet your heroes’ because their heroes turned out to be ‘assholes/refused to sign my ticket/had no heart/said no to taking a picture. ’
It is not 1962 anymore. The image is getting more and more transparent – to an extent that people are beginning to question its need. Celebrities and heroes are being questioned for their opinions, for their real lives and processes – held accountable for more than just their end products. Actors and characters, artists, writers, poets are learning to shed the celebrity layer and how their human sides. In the conversation about art made by problematic artists, art is also being held to a lens of how revealing of the artist it is. Dare I say, we are slowly approaching the age of labeling transparency as bravery?
We have slowly started blurring lines between a hero and a celebrity – a celebrity is not necessarily a hero, and a hero is not necessarily a celebrity but now that these two worlds are colliding I wonder who gets to be called a hero? My list looks like this.
a : Someone whose work you admire,
b : Someone who is walking the path you want to walk upon,
c : Someone who has overcome adversity,
d : Shown immense courage by putting the greater good above their own selves
Bravery is not mythological or illustrious. Neither is the greater good. The definition is changing to being more honest, digging deep into self, being more open to the truths and multiplicity of truths. At least in the poetry circles I am a part of. Interviews are turning into human conversions; Craft becomes as much about the person and the artist than the actual poem.
The person behind the poem is as much a part of the conversation as the poem. Poets with a persona are quickly picked apart by HD cameras and Twitter. These poets, with social media and Youtube as their media are talking about publishing, funding, friendships, love, each other, academia. They are also offering consultations and recommending poems every day. They talk about taking time off when they need. They are generous with their time and attention. They do not hide behind their high walls because (i like to think) they have none. Celebrity crushes and political opinions appear in the same place. There is no zero-sum game. When I meet these poets they do not disappoint. There was no facade for me to pick apart. They are as generous irl as they are on my phone screen. They are not celebrities – they don’t act like one – just humans.
Poets I call heroes are not ascending diagonally. They are spreading horizontally, building a community as they go along. They are not living up to fantasies larger than life and then disappoint fans by being reduced to mere human pettiness. They are not achieving accolades by sacrificing their human sides. Not separating their art from their selves. They are not giants, not superhumans who are creating groundbreaking art. Just people trying to find and build a place for themselves. They are people trying to live their lives and using art to talk about things that matter to them. Poets I call heroes are people I call heroes.
My list of ‘poets-turned-heroes I want to meet’ has stopped looking like a list. Under every name I write down the conversation I had with those poets.
Poetry Foundation, April 25
The first time I met poet Kaveh Akbar, who has written for the New Yorker, Poetry magazine, Interview, has a weekly column with The Paris Review (all things I strive for) I couldn’t believe he remembered me from all of our Twitter conversations. A Reza’s diner in Kaveh Akbar’s poem has a childhood memory that turns into a conversation about favourite food at various diners and which celebrity chef has gotten Persian cuisine down, which prayer song works with what food and what prayer does for a ten-year-old Iranian boy in the US who’d never seen another Arab till he was 16. He then asks me about my life here in Chicago – If I miss India and if I am meeting my friends back home anytime soon. He listens as much as he speaks.
Thalia Hall, April 8
Andrea Gibson asked me who to get in touch with if they wanted to perform in India. While signing my books (one for me and a couple for my students back home) they ask how I think their show went. They had set up a booth for signing books and spent almost two hours talking to every one of us in the line.
Volumes Bookcafe, April 17
Eve Ewing told me to tell her what I thought of her new book. While signing mine, she mentioned reading my Ironheart review.
Camonghne Felix hugged me when we met. She had taught me in New York and said thank you for being there for her on the day of her book launch.
Safia Elhillo said hi, it was nice to see me again.
Poetry Foundation, April 11
I had never seen a Namaz ceremony. I prayed with Fatimah Asghar and Safia Elhillo who turned the Poetry Foundation in a prayer room before launching their new book. We all held hands as we prayed.
Lists have been promoted from a guest star to a plot-regular in my life lately. There was always someplace to go, somewhere to be and something to get done. My world looks like a dizzying blur. Consuming one thing after another, without waiting to swallow. No wonder my body is nauseated more often than not. And this isn’t even alcohol. Just me — in a state of constant flux. I barely begin to look closely in this new country when I have to turn my head and look at something else. I have two years in this place. 730 days to explore all of the 588 square kilometers of this city. I love it. And I hate how much I love it.
I have learned to walk faster. Dress appropriate. Wear comfy shoes. No heels. Walking into things without knowing where they lead. Questioning when I arrived — if I landed or was still up in the air.
Like most things in my life, The Green Mill was a coin toss decision. The place is so well-known to Chicago residents, it’s almost an afterthought. To me, spoken word poet, this was home to the Uptown Poetry Slam, the first poetry slam in the world (another experience to cross off my list ; number 12. On day 13, still remained unchecked).
You can spot if off the red line. The words “Green Mill” written in cursive script on the corner of Lawrence and Broadway. The doorman greeting me with a “Please be quiet during the performance” should have tipped me off. Little cards with the word ‘shhhh’ were passed out, and the staff gave people dirty looks if they talked. Grab a martini, Manhattan or Schlitz at the bar and then scramble for a seat. If you continue to talk, you will be openly shushed by the bartender or staff. A jazz band called The Fat Babies played in the background. It was in a fit of giggles that I realized I forgot to check if this was a poetry night (it was on my list). I had nothing to do tonight. It was then that I began to exhale. Really look.
Long, ornately wooden-framed murals of mountains, countryside, and seashores cover the walls with ornate wooden frames. The wooden, shell-shaped, light fixtures mounted on the ceiling are so big that they could crush people if they ever fell. Four poles holding up the ceiling are decorated in both — mirrored and black & white tiles. High-backed booths are crescent shaped with velvet seat backs. And, in the far corner, in all her alabaster glory, stands Ceres, Goddess of Harvest, rechristened Stella by the house musicians. Stella was salvaged from the lower depths of the Green Mill, dusted off, and returned to complement the authenticity of the art deco/art nouveau décor in the light fixtures and artwork, embellished with lavishly scrolled frames.
Deep smoky jazz fills the club. Some trained, many untrained swing dancers shuffle across the dance floor dressed in perfect checkered suits, fedora hats and gingham dresses cinched at the waist. They pair up and break apart only to twirl back to the dance floor for another slow dance, with another partner. People in dancing shoes that have been well worn and polished in the preparation of this night. They know how to look effortless without looking like they have been practicing.
A jump back into the 40s, The Green Mill has been around for 110 years and has a proper past — with gory stories and all.
A leather-bound scrapbook behind the bar contains clippings from almost every major magazine and newspaper in the country. Stories of times when Al Capone ran the place : The lounge rules were strict — Whenever Capone entered the room, the bandleader had to stop whatever he was playing and perform Capone’s favorite, Gershwin’s “Rhapsody in Blue.”The booth to the right of the bar and across from the side door is where Al Capone used to sit so that no one could walk in either front or the side without him noticing. This place has a proud speakeasy legacy, reveling in the past, thriving in the present. I had to write it all down, before this feeling went away. Catch it before I forget.
The Green Mill is a leisurely stroll in a yellowed-out page of a book. A page from a carefully concealed book — A guilty pleasure in a dizzying life like mine. This was a place decked in vintage velvet. It hasn’t changed clothes to look trendy. It doesn’t answer to anyone. It doesn’t need to change to grow. A stop. A deep breath. A meditative retreat. A time of guys and dolls, a time when people would swing and dance and when the lounge singer was king of all. I almost wish you had to wear a tuxedo or evening gown just to get inside.
This is where my spinning stopped, where my head stopped hurting, and I could dance, without thinking. I was dancing. And only dancing. There was nowhere to go and nothing to do. These people were not trying to analyze anything. Or examine. Neither was I. What were we looking for? Was it the theatricality of dressing up, or the big-band music? I know my affectations tend to skew toward the sepia-toned. But I don’t think it was about some romanticized nostalgia: this was too bizarre.
I was able to rest while dancing in a speakeasy. The next time I go, I put on my heels and a checkered dress before I walk in.
No man is an island, John Donne said. To be human is to bond, and to bond is to share — happiness and the plenty, but also pain and exhaustion and desperation. We are all at the mercy of the people we love, whatever misfortunes they meet or bring upon themselves.
Nothing about being an addict is easy. Absolutely nothing about being with an addict is easy by a long shot. How do parents who try so hard to spread their arms as far and wide as humanly possible to keep things together, come to terms with some things just not being in their control? Beautiful boy is a drawn-out tale of a parent who has to watch his son descent into addiction. A painful reminder to the fact that you can love someone, but you try as you may, you can’t fix them. A reminder my parents have had about me, on more than one counts.
Beautiful Boy is based on two memoirs by Rolling Stone journalist David Sheff’s Beautiful Boy: A Father’s Journey Through His Son’s Addiction and his son Nic’s Tweak: Growing Up on Methamphetamines. Steve Carell plays David as a deeply loving but control freak of a man who starts to realize that he’s being held hostage, and there’s nothing he can do about it. He’s being taken over inch by inch with an anxiety of knowing that his son could die at any moment, and he cannot understand why. Carell pulls this off. He is urgent, imploring, silently haunted. Timothee Chalamet as Nic embodies the title Beautiful in a tender, slow burn. He is a doting elder brother one minute and a reluctant addict the next. He is effortless.
Addiction is a tricky phenomenon to depict on screen because it’s such an insidious, internal disease. What we often end up encountering is the same sorts of manifestations of the damage it can cause, both to the abuser and to the people who love that person, resulting in cinematic clichés.
Told in an often intriguing, often frustrating time-jumping format, Beautiful Boy has a gauzy detachment to its treatment which makes the tale harrowing; but only observed, never felt. Maybe these wispy memories are meant to reflect the characters’ inner state of chaos but it is almost too pretty in a deliberately artful way. It rests upon the shoulders of these two unquestionably fine actors. The story does not emerge as compelling or convincing, but it does its job.
There’s one thing this movie gets right: Addiction is a disease, not a moral failing, and it is a battle fought one day at a time. Fighting — not controlling and not curing. Nic Sheff went from sharing a joint with his father to become a full-fledged crystal meth addict. A child of divorce, on most days he is stable and happy Bukowski reading, Nirvana-loving teenager who responds to the rush of crystal meth because, in his words, it turns his world from black-and-white to Technicolor. Standing in front of a rehab group, he says, quite simply, that it’s the best feeling he’d ever known, so he didn’t want to stop.
Everyone involved in Nic’s life wants to do the right thing for him, but there is no magic cure. The repeated rehab is hard and painful and doesn’t last long, and Nic would genuinely try, before not wanting to go anymore. David lives in fear that Nic will relapse constantly watching for signs of an impending episode.
As much as this movie is about addiction, it is in most parts an oblique cautionary tale about parents projecting their egos, identities, and expectations on children whose journeys will always be their own, for better or worst-of-the-worse. David loves his son more than anything, and the film keeps flashing back to his memories of Nic when he was younger. It’s his way of asking: Where did I do wrong? The movie tells the story of David’s road to accepting that he didn’t go wrong; he didn’t cause any of this. It just happened. Despite his intelligence and protective impulses, he’s not in charge.
The movies don’t show us much that we haven’t seen before in movies, but what it does show is utter helplessness. A parent’s greatest fear might be that of being powerless to save their child from disease. Addiction to crystal meth means your child’s brain is on fire, chasing a high that will never match that first time but which doesn’t stop the chase. The spiral of trying to save an addict from themselves is entirely authentic. There’s no cut corners or fake sentimental beats, no fraudulent uplift factor. Rehab leads to a halfway house leads to another relapse. In an especially desperate parental gesture, David as the last resort himself tries some, to understand what his son gets out of this high. But he cannot understand. There’s hope, and then there isn’t, and then there’s hope again.
At it’s best, Beautiful boy is sobering. You don’t even have to be a parent to connect with the heartbreak and horror of watching David read through his son’s journal. He slowly realizes just how the insides of his son’s head must look like.
It’s a movie about characters who are stuck and can’t move forward because of addiction, so the movie itself can’t move forward. We’re in the muck with David and Nic, and while our heart breaks for them, we also don’t have any answers.
While the film lacks narrative momentum, its heart is in the right place. The narrative around addiction almost reminded me of living with someone with a mental illness. I remember being sick, I remember being depressed. I remember my parents and my sisters not wanting to see photos from those days. They do not want to live through seeing me that way again. As hard as it is for me, it was equally hard for them. Reminiscent of Mira T Lee’s debut book, Everything Here Is Beautiful, this is one of those few stories which tries to humanize a disease, turns the camera eye to not only the patient. But also the caregivers. The tumult of loving someone with an addiction can exhaust even the most caring person.
An ‘imagined identity’ which had the opportunity to make humans out of us all, chose to ‘stand erect’, literally. Declaring openly in 1890, Germany’s Otto Bismarck himself said the following while considering the figure of Germania as the monumental symbol for the United Germany. “I don’t find the figure of Germania appropriate. A female being with a sword in such a defiant pose is some-what unnatural. Every officer would agree with me. A male figure, a mercenary or an old German Kaiser would have been more appropriate.”
While this led to his own image with a sword becoming the image for this imagined nation, the Bismarck Towers that followed, walked into similar patterns of erecting towers, essentially phallic symbols which were larger than life, in shape and size as an attempt to use scale as a form of intimidation and reverence.
With phallic figures, statues and monuments all over the world from London, Washington to Jaipur in India, towers, and obelisks and statues marking male figures in open stances of power are what construe of a lot of monuments we see in the world today. The obelisk, which as a structure originated from Egypt is a long pointed four-sided shaft, the uppermost portion of which forms a pyramid. The word ‘obelisk’ literally means ‘Baal’s shaft’ or Baal’s organ of reproduction. Whether of Osiris, Baal, or fertility in general, it was a representation of fatherhood and patriarchy.
Examples range from the Washington Tower to the Empire State building that Valerie Briginshaw infact cited as a symbol of American pride and “the ultimate sign of American phallic power”.
What does a monument speak? And how does the intention differ from the impact they have eventually? Be it the Bismarck towers or the Charlottesville Confederate Statue, the conflict lay in the vast difference between the intent and the impact they had after they were built respectively.
With an immense amount of focus on the visual and material reminders; and evidence of the male domination spread so far and wide across the world, the other dimension of it also can be a blatant disregard of acknowledging or wanting to display any women figures with any amount of power or structure. The enormity of this erasure is spread across art forms. Not only in monuments but art, in general, has a problem of a whitewashed aesthetic where definitions of what makes good art are based upon the fragility and beauty depicted in the historical context. As a result, the image and identity and the vocabulary of what it means to be a woman can be pointed towards a destroyed representation.
Most of the art and monuments that have created our identities largely reflect how the society required women to adopt either a traditional female role around which the real identity somehow had to be worked around or a traditional ‘rebellious, feminist’ role which still challenges the so-called norms of female identity.
As bell hooks speaks so eloquently in her book Black looks, “Opening a magazine or book, turning on the television set, watching a film, or looking at photographs in public spaces, we are most likely to see images of black people that reinforce and reinscribe white supremacy. Those images may be constructed by white people who have not divested of racism, or by people of color black people who may see the world through the lens of white supremacy-internalized racism”, this quote can very well be true for the constructed image of women through history. Images shown and constructed throughout history are often through a ‘white male gaze’, with internalized sexism strewn across the way bodies are built and held together to the kind of expressions and outfits we see that are considered ‘desirable’. Roxanne Baker in a speech at the Platypus’ Fourth Annual European Conference said, “The fight for women’s emancipation is inextricably tied up with the fight for human emancipation, that is, with the struggle to end class society and all the forms of social oppression that it generates”.
“There is a direct and abiding connection between the maintenance of white supremacist patriarchy in this society and the institutionalization via mass media of specific images, representations of race, of blackness that support and maintain the oppression, exploitation, and overall domination of all black people.”
While defining something that was an important reminder of our history, which is one of the functions of a monument, I believe there is a massive misconstruction of the female identity through actually building elements of weakness, fragility, so-called beauty to just plain erasure and reluctance to actually acknowledge any depth or add dimensions to what it means to be a woman. Though instances of women and their contribution are finally coming up, movements like #MeToo and Hannah Gadsby’s Nanette are finally speaking about women in history and representation, monumentalism has played an extensive role in symbolically and subliminally making women feel small, unrepresented and invisible in certain cases.
There are only so many monuments capturing any form or a multi-dimension woman found. Some I can recall are the Immigrant Mother or The Valiant Five in Canada, The only depiction of female monumentalism in India I see as the statue of Raani Laxmibai, whose overall depiction is very similar in character to Joan of Arc. The portraiture of what it means to be female through history has been a very skewed version viewed only through men in positions of power. The female identity that has been fleshed out for us hardly ever captures intersectional identities; And if they do it is often in a reductive, distorted manner.
What do we do with monuments which are symbols and actual manifestations of oppression and violence? Do we tear them down like the Charlottesville incident or the Cecil Rhodes statue at Oxford or maybe start creatively re-writing the actual pasts of women throughout history? Do we make the monuments of men and only men smaller in size, build women the same size? How do we go forth to creating a representation of what it meant to be a woman in history through monumentalism? What can be a form of constructive inclusion?
Art Institute of Chicago
Drawn to the inherent need to freeze an image in time, leave traces to document what was happening when it was happening, Charles White, a native Chicagoan who began his formal art education at The Art Institute of Chicago, brings forth a literal representation of lives of the African-Americans through a lens where it is difficult to fathom where he stood in context. A lot of it feels like a robust statement of solidarity, wanting to be one with the subject while a lot of it looks like it is captured through the eyes of a photographer holding a microscopic lens to reality.
Using a highly realistic way to approach the desire to engage with mainstream art discourses while embracing the specifics and nuances of Black identity and experience, Charles White’s art manages to form a language around unexplored dimensions of black lives from 1918 through 1979. He deals with emotions delicately, almost with a carving knife, careful of what to not scrap off from the canvas to create a narrative in every image in itself. Charles white’s black humans, done in charcoal and pencils and lithography shine and shimmer. Walking through the retrospective is an uneven, unsettling glimpse into the reality on a life and culture that is known and familiar, but uncomfortable to behold and acknowledge; Or maybe does not have to vocabulary to. What words describe a man’s process of walking into a life, building a society in a space where he has no inherent place in?
James Baldwin in his book, In The Fire Next Time says “there has been almost no language” to describe the black life. “Neither its horrors nor the pleasures,” adds bell hooks in Black Looks. And then comes Charles White, who was possibly in search of one himself. Using everything within his eyesight and his grasp, Charles White’s challenge to find artistic language to express difference almost requires no words. The narrative, spoken of black lives through black eyes adds dimensions to lives and culture and society; correcting the record on the African-American experience in this country.
While the cross-hatching is unlike anything I have seen before, it is the eyes, that he has so eloquently concentrated on, chosen to super-impose context and figures to just document, before making a statement. Very fluid, very graceful lines speak in a blocky narrative and extra-ordinary detail about the lives, the grief and the loss experienced in the African American lives in and around the world war two to the civil rights movement. There is a distinct cubism in the way he approaches portraits while keeping the emotions, as human as possible, not twisted into grotesque and undesirable. There is an eloquent despondency which flows through the curving lines and bodies which are twisted to fit into bolder frames; the language speaking of an unrequited desire, of wanting to curve gracefully and being forced to take a turn due to segregation.
Charles white stands tall in solidarity of the aliens. Of the dreamers, the language-less, the rebels, musicians and artists and workers and laborer’s who have been given no space to be but have been used mercilessly, squirmed and squished till there was nothing left but a sense of feeling empty.
There is no sense of mockery. No accusations. His art speaks without instructing the viewer as to what to feel. But when the body contorts itself to try to find a place in a painting and does not; there is a distinct sense of unease, almost voyeuristic; To try to find a place in an already lacking space.
There are also no heroes, just human beings who get tired, who need comfort, who feel, who wait, sleep and dance and sing in times of tragedies. Emotions that explore the turbulent life of an outcast culture who was never given the grace and dignity of appearing human. The people in Charles White’s art radiate substance, presence, and agency. They act as deliberate correctives to the rampant misrepresentation of blacks in white-controlled mainstream history and art. Giving names and faces and actual human traits through the eyes of someone who was right there; Without a filter.
It has been two years since my journey with Spoken word Poetry began. More than 7 years since my recognition of my declining mental health did. Speaking about it, did not begin in the first 5 years. Neither did acknowledging it exists, so any prospects of help or medication was certainly out of question. I belong to a family of well-read, really aware human beings who somehow have failed to understand mental health as ‘being a thing’. I did eventually get help.
I have struggled with telling my story. So I have often resorted to telling it in bits and pieces to suit the person or the occasion I am catering to. Today is when I put it together for once. Offer it without filters.
But this is not a sad story. It is not even a story that will make you cry. It is more of an exhalation. Me, finally speaking it all, out loud. Or rather, writing it down. This is a documentation of these years that it took for me to finally be able to talk about it. And while I am doing this, I am aware of just how many people have had absolutely no idea of anything that has been going on, Including my parents.
Trigger warnings : PTSD, suicide, self-harm, repression and depression.
My first episode with depression was when I was 16. I was unable to function or study. Being in class 10 came with all the pressures of being an over-achiever. Coming from a family of unrest, where all of were so scattered that we knew nothing about each other, I coped by learning to eat a lot. Chocolate was my go to. I remember gaining weight, being called fat, being body shamed, teased by everyone who’d never seen with an ounce of fat on my body. And guess what, I didn’t care. Eating the chocolate came easier. Another trick I had discovered was self-harm. If I hurt myself enough, anything else was just an addition to that. I could deal with the emotional stuff if I could manifest it on my body.
I was a 16-year-old over-achiever with a family almost divorced and an eating disorder. But I did top the school.
The second time it hit me was the very next year. I was almost done with school. Ready to begin out in the real world when I was assaulted in Ahmedabad. There were two men who stopped just short of rape because my phone wouldn’t stop ringing and my best friend wouldn’t stop calling. I never told anybody about this. I did try to talk to a therapist in my family, a family friend actually who told me to ‘stop making it a big deal, it wasn’t even a rape, technically.’
I was a 17 year old at NIFT with a history of trauma, depression and self-harm. I was also still an over-achiever.
Of course I could not catch up to the fast pace of a design college. By the time I got to my second year in college, I was an emotional wreck. I had amazing friends and yet had managed to get to a point where I had absolutely no idea I was so depressed that I had stopped eating. One meltdown day, I finally told my mother I couldnt stay in the college anymore that I was ready to die rather than stay there a moment longer. When she came to meet me, I was 30 kg in weight, I couldnt eat without throwing up and I could hardly breathe anymore.
2012 had me being diagnosed with 3rd-grade lung infection, which is a variation of tuberculosis, only a grade higher. I was allergic to my meds and that led to a drug-induced jaundice.
I was 20, depressed, had to drop out of college for a year, was on a bucketload of medication and weighed 30 kg. I couldn’t even breathe on my own.
The next two years were spent in recovery. The other two in college after I was better. But by the time I graduated, I was a different person. I was ready to come back to the city of Ahmedabad. The place where all my trauma began. I was also aware of the fact that I did not want to be a fashion designer. At all. Which is when I began this blog. Which is when I began writing again. I also realized I now have scars on my lungs which will last for my lifetime, as a side effect to my medication. Pulmonary fibrosis they call it.
The last three years I lived in Ahmedabad. I, am now a pro at the art of rebuilding a life. I was aware that all my plans had failed and now, I didn’t want to make one. Failing hurt too much. I was a woman untethered, ready to begin again, to give myself over to anything that caught my eye and to jump blind into this thing called life. Which is what led me to the best things that have happened to me. Everything from poetry to friends who are now family, happened because I walk through life as a blank slate, everyday. I wipe off the past everday and begin new every single day.
But the depression has no schedule. It hit me more times than I can count in these years. In fact I can chalk it all up to one big episode of being in a daze while trying my best to use a windshield in the fog.
I met a man who taught me the importance of letting people be. Listening quietly. And with all my knowledge and so-called wisdom, it took him telling me that it was not my fault, that I needed a therapist that I still suffered from severe PTSD, that I could finally gather the courage to find one. After 5 failed appointments and many downright bizarre experiences, I found one I could actually talk to. I finally stopped the self-harm, the cutting.
And while that has helped, immensely, sometimes the medication is a pain. But very necessary. I have learnt to accept my life with therapy and medication as integral parts of it. I have learnt to wake up on days feeling like a total failure and wanting to die. I have learnt that there are days when all i want to do is stop existing. I have learnt that I will want to scream, shout but I have repressed my trauma in a way that doesn’t allow me the liberty of space.
Every day I learn the extent to which I have repressed my fears. Every day I learn just how much exists in me that I didn’t know I had. Everday I change, my suffering changes. Every day, I go to sleep wishing I don’t wake up. I learnt I have multiple mental health issues. And while I thought all this time it was high functioning depression, it was last month that it became clear I am highly driven by my PTSD which goes beyond the assault, beyond the sickness, beyond the depression. It goes all the way to my childhood. But I am learning to ask for help.
And while I sit here writing all this down, hoping to make some sort of sense into this thing that I call life, I see no chronology anymore. None of what has happened has ever affected me directly. And everything I am is a jenga tower carefully stacked upon invisible bricks that might give up on me someday.
I am learning to breathe, everyday.
Poetry helped. Everything from classical to spoken word to the amazing amazing utterly gorgeous people who are a part of the poetry community helped. Poetry was the first place I belonged. They let me breathe and I, in turn, tried to do the same to anyone in need. Poetry communities have been so supportive, so accepting, so attentive to all of this. There is a place for anyone who needs. I found a quiet nook to fit in.
And while I could list down a lot of things that did help, it was mainly friends and family I made through my art that helped. There exist in this world people who are constantly trying to be better, kinder, braver. They exist, and I am lucky enough to have found some of them. A lot of them. So while this post might be a confession to many, it is thank you note to a lot. Even if you are reading this, this is a thank you note to you.
PS: I had hoped for this post to be a chronological explanation of who I am as a person, but clearly, I am struggling with that. And I think almost all of us do, at one point or other in our lives. And though I am not okay, I am learning to ask for help.
Artists who helped: Andrea Gibson, Neil Gaiman, JK Rowling, Dan Fogelman, Richard Linklater, Gilmore Girls, Lorde, Porcupine Tree, Audioslave, Sarah Kay, Anis Mojgani are few people (very very few artists) who help. Always.
This is me. Struggling, every day. Somedays on medication, somedays on self-loathing, some on pure adrenaline and some out of sheer will to not live. But I manage to take one breath after the next. This is the space where I live, in the attempt to take one breathe after the next. On my good days, I will try and be there for all people I can, on my bad days, I barely manage to get out of bed. But this is where I live, you know my address now.
I have begun using my poetry to talk, to create safe spaces, to talk more about mental health because I often struggled with it myself. And my struggle isn’t a solitary one.
So here it is. The coming out story. They say it begins by telling a loved one your story. Here it is.
(if you need to talk, need a friend, I promise to help)