Playing in the Light

by Yagnishsing Dawoor


Assembly

Natasha Brown, Penguin Books, 2021


I May Destroy You

Michaela Coel, Falkna, 2020


Misfits: A Personal Manifesto

Michaela Coel, Ebury Press, 2021


I May Destroy You creator Michaela Coel had a peculiar message for writers, as she stood in American limelight at the Emmys. Accepting the award for ‘Outstanding Writing for Limited or Anthology Series’, as the first Black woman to win it in the award’s 73-year history, Coel did not gush about how honoured she was. Instead, she used her moment to caution about the toxic effects of a visual economy that ‘entices us to browse through the lives of others to help us better determine how we feel about ourselves, and to in turn feel the need to be constantly visible’. This impulse to be seen — online as in real life — affects the most private of us. How we thrill to brandish spangled slivers of our lives in a travesty of the more copious, less glamourous parts. The ready grace with which we step into the skimpy scripts made for us when assimilation augurs kudos, a break, money. Visibility gratifies like very few things, but it also comes with its own oppressive mandates, especially for Black women whose bodies are stalked by cross-hatching burdens of mistreatment. Can we reclaim the shadows once we’ve come to equate visibility with success? Can Black women really thrive within the glare of public attention? Coel advises disappearance, a voluntary withdrawal from the world: ‘From us. For a while. And see what comes to you in the silence.’

Two recent works come to mind that tackle the pitfalls of visibility within the dual remit of Black womanhood and ‘disappearance’ politics: obviously, Coel’s acclaimed BBC/HBO show about sexual consent, I May Destroy You, and Natasha Brown’s gut-punch debut novel, Assembly, about an unnamed Black British woman’s psychic and bodily unravelling in racist Britain following her cancer-diagnosis. In Coel’s work, millennial icon Arabella Essiedu (played by Coel) finds comfort in the silence opened up by her material retreat from the world, when she finds herself unable to meet the multiple exigencies of her life in the aftermath of her rape. ‘Disappearance’ takes a more harrowing form in Brown’s novel: apprised of the metastatic proclivity of her illness by her oncologist — how, if left for too long, her cancer will travel ‘through the blood to other organs, growing uncontrollably, overwhelming the body’ — Brown’s protagonist displays not stunned incredulity or dismay, but relief at the prospect of a permanent break from the debilitating drudgery of racism (and classist and sexist condescension) she’s made to tolerate daily. Death is alluring, liberating. ‘Why endure my own dehumanisation?’ is her stoical admission to the reader.

In an interview with Vogue, Brown has spoken about the paucity of narratives that center on Black characters who seem to have it all, and yet are dissatisfied with their lives. Both Coel and Brown seek to upend this trend. The two women in their works are relatively successful. Arabella is a star on social media, while Brown’s protagonist is a high achiever in the world of finance. However, if Arabella’s visibility is the accidental upshot of her witty nigh-always-clamorous Twitter presence, that of Brown’s protagonist expectedly transpires from her mobility in a white-run, male-dominated industry. Race, class, and gender interlock with injurious consequences in Brown’s novel, rehabilitating intersectionality — that increasingly institutionalised but often grossly misused linchpin of Black feminist thought — to the task of parsing the interactive forms of mistreatment suffered by Black women.


Unlike her white boyfriend with old-money privilege, the standing of Brown’s protagonist, we are told, is the result of personal and generational hard work — ‘so much suffered, so much forfeited — for this opportunity. For my life.’ Her Oxbridge education, her City lilt and mannerisms, the money she’d amassed are all things that have been arduously striven for. Now bedecked ‘with the legitimacy of a flashy title at a blue-chip company’ on top of what her colleagues see as the convenience of her Blackness, she becomes ‘visible’ in ways that invite belligerent attention to her. After she is chosen to take up a top managerial position in the company she works at, a white male colleague tells her she was favoured ‘over qualified guys like him’ because she is Black. ‘He says he’s not opposed to diversity. He just wants fairness, okay?’ For her white male colleagues, she is undeserving of the position. Note the man’s surly appeal to ‘fairness’, which Reni Eddo-Lodge describes in Why I’m No Longer Talking to White People About Race as that avowedly British trait invoked by Britain’s racists to inveigh against what they see as the corruption of merit when merit fails them. Note also how ‘guys’ takes on an exclusively masculine meaning here.


Lou, the man with whom Brown’s protagonist is meant to share the promotion, tells her he ‘agreed’ to sharing it with her, a passing confession wrapped in congratulatory language that makes her triumph seem contingent on the kinship he says he feels with her because he ‘grew up poor, you know. Dirt-fucking-poor in a shack, essentially in Bedford. So I get it. I get the grind.’ The alienation of Brown’s protagonist from her circle is complete. Her presence is irresolvable and unsettling to those around her: ‘strangers, acquaintances, even friends’. Again and again, we see her self-police her visibility, will herself to disappear. ‘Be invisible, imperceptible. Don’t make anyone uncomfortable. Don’t inconvenience’, she tells herself. ‘Exist in the negative only, the space around. Do not insert yourself into the main narrative. Go unnoticed. Become the air.’ Rach, her best friend, can only offer her so much solace. Rach who ‘says she understands, of course. She understands, but it’s still tough, you know? It’s like being a woman isn’t enough anymore.’

If her new-money class status and her gender are always part of her protagonist’s dehumanising racialisation in the novel, it is her Blackness and the whiteness of the world around her that Brown most critically turns her attention to. And in this consideration, she searches widely. Everything from Britain’s colonial past to Operation Legacy, the national curriculum, Enoch Powell’s ‘Rivers of Blood’ speech, Winston Churchill’s legacy, Brexit, and the British monarchy, are useful.


Even Brown’s protagonist’s itinerary in the novel is cannily purposive. Starting in London, where she lives and works (and wends her way around white aggression), the novel builds toward a dreaded garden party hosted by her boyfriend’s parents at their family country estate — a place that screams Empire. There’s a perverse metafictional ritual Brown’s protagonist conducts once there. She zeroes in on the racialising questions hurled her way (she’s asked, for instance, about Meghan Markle’s baby — ‘Now that’s progress, that’s modernisation. Inspiring stuff’, George, her boyfriend’s father tells her). She highlights how their wealth and lavish lifestyle may have been funded by slave-owner compensation money that her ‘taxes paid off’; she says of her boyfriend that his acceptance of her encourages her colleagues’: ‘his presence vouches for mine, assures [them] that I’m the right sort of diversity’.


She makes whiteness a salient part of what we, as readers, understand about her boyfriend and his family. Anything that would leave their whiteness unmarked is left off: ‘I’ve reduced the son, the family, and their home, to choice moments, flashes, summaries’, Brown’s protagonist tells us. Her boyfriend and his family are types ‘stitched … together from the words and actions of others’; exaggerations of 'people, real and complex individuals’. Of the family’s wealth, she notes its ‘basic physicality’, how ‘the house, these grounds, the staff, art— [are] all the things they can touch, inhabit, live on … Imagine growing up amongst this. The son, of course insists the best things in life are free.’ Brown’s protagonist’s relationship with her boyfriend feels doomed, thwarted by a temporality that precedes them both, what Claudia Rankine in her multi-award-winning work Citizen: An American Lyric, calls the ‘battle between the “historical self” and the “self self”’.


As the novel nears to a close, Brown’s protagonist seems to have lost all enthusiasm for the party. The place has become insufferable to her, and with it, its residents. We see her cut through the garden, and shamble off down the driveway, through the gate, into the surrounding hills. A temporary exit to signal her permanent vanishing to come.

Unlike in Brown’s novel, whiteness, in Coel’s show, is mostly guised. Like a tripwire — hidden but intricately laid out — it striates the ground under Arabella’s feet. Arabella, Coel’s protagonist partly modelled on herself, is a writer. Facts about her life come to us fitfully over the show’s twelve episodes, loosely mirroring details from Coel’s trajectory, as described in Misfits: A Personal Manifesto, her debut book based on her MacTaggart lecture. Arabella, we learn, self-published a book for Twitter; it was called Chronicles of a Fed-up Millennial and its success earned her agency representation for her second book. In the show’s opening, we see her in her agents’ office, struggling to finish a draft for the next day. She takes a break from work, late in the evening, and joins her friends at a bar. They do drugs. Her drink is spiked. She wakes up hungover, with a gash on her forehead. She quickly realises she’s been raped — a fact that her publisher takes in with unalloyed delight (‘Rape! Fantastic!’ she clucks), seeing it as potential material for a book that could sell. Arabella is initially in elated shock that Susy Henny, the head of Henny House with which she signed a publishing contract, is Black, but ultimately understands that her Blackness is as unintelligible to her, as it is to her white agents. When Arabella goes to her for a top-up on her advance, bringing up her rape as having messed up her writing life, Susy simply restates the terms of their agreement, corralling Arabella to her demands: to write a book about her rape. Her lack of empathy for Arabella is chilling, if not altogether surprising. Susy Henny’s own Blackness is bound by the laws and pretences of a predatory and — let’s say it as it is — white industry. The draft Arabella is asked to finish allows her to speak at a writing summit, a creative meeting space for Henny House’s non-white writers that doubles up as the publishing company’s idea of ‘diversity work’.


In Misfits, Coel expresses ambivalence about the term ‘diversity’ because she ‘couldn’t get clarity on it’. Coel describes getting to work one day when she was shooting Chewing Gum (her 2015 show with a predominantly Black cast) and finding ‘five actors and actresses ranging in tones of brown and black … bound up in one-third of a trailer’ while a white actress had one to herself, a scene she compares to ‘a fackin’ slave ship’.


‘Diversity’ in I May Destroy You is exposed as a venture that is less about genuine inclusion and more about image management. As British-Australian scholar Sara Ahmed writes in On Being Included: Racism and Diversity in Institutional Life, it is diversity that ‘expose[s] whiteness by demonstrating the necessity of this act of provision’; diversity that is ultimately more ‘about changing perceptions of whiteness rather than changing the whiteness of organisations'.


This is dramatised in a conversation Arabella has with Susy before the writing summit, in which she asks her if she can have her work read by an aspiring actress, her best friend Terry. Susy only agrees after making sure that Terry has ‘the same background, the same education’ and perhaps more importantly, that she, too, is Black. Brown’s protagonist is similarly tokenised by the firm she works for: ‘I do these talks — schools and universities, women’s panels, recruiting fairs — every few weeks,’ she tells us. ‘It’s an expectation of the job. The diversity must be seen.’


Arabella, unlike Brown’s protagonist, however, also feels the added pressure of being a microcelebrity. Between the pull to be online at all times, tweeting her thoughts, and the duress to produce work in an environment that is insensitive to her plight (there is, too, the doldrums of a failed romance with an Italian drug pusher), Arabella feels lost, overwhelmed. Gradually, we see her rehearse the politics of invisibility that Coel advocated at the Emmys. She goes offline, deleting her social media apps, and retreating, with the help of Terry and her other best friend, Kwame, from the ‘visible’ world, seeking ways to heal herself (and write her book), all while playing cat and mouse with her publisher and agents, until she is eventually dropped.


In Troubling Vision: Performance, Visuality, and Blackness, Nicole R Fleetwoord’s study of African American performance, she avers that ‘blackness and black life become intelligible and valued, as well as consumable and disposable, through a racial discourse.’ Performance, she argues, can uncover and trouble the scripts through which Blackness becomes visually known. In a looser sense than meant by Fleetwood, ‘performance’ lies at the heart of both Arabella and Brown’s protagonist’s social existence. Brown fills her novel with instances where her protagonist exhibits a pointed awareness of the roles she’s expected to endorse. At work in her interactions with her colleagues; in the assembly halls of schools where she says she’s sent to inspire Black girls with her ‘old lines like new secrets’; at her boyfriend’s home where she’s expected to whip up for the guests ‘a veneer of new-millennial money coolness; serving up savage witticisms alongside the hors d’oeuvres’ and have at the ready the sundry reactions they might demand in exchange for their ‘abundance’ — ‘polite restraint, concealed outrage and a base, desirous hunger beneath’. All these roles are a ‘fictionalisation of who [she is]’, but she plays up to them until she decides not to.


In her illness, she finds a possibility for escape. ‘Why subject myself to their reductive gaze? To this crushing objecthood?’ she tells the reader. ‘Surviving makes me a participant in their narrative.’ We don’t get to know if she follows through with her decision to leave her cancer untreated, but there’s more than a hint at the end, that her mind is made up, that she will refuse the ties that bind her to a continued physical existence. Arabella too fails to play up to her part. She will not be reduced to being a dash of diversity in a predatory publishing world, nor will she write a novel about her rape. She does, however, complete a book (we never find out what it is about), but on her terms, away from the limelight and unburdened by publishing pressures (the book, we learn, is ‘independently published’).


Coel and Brown are unconventional and daring. Their characters repudiate the easy consolations of playing in the light. In embracing disappearance, Arabella and Brown’s protagonist complicate the notion that visibility must necessarily redound to the benefit of the historically invisibilised. Black people have always lived out their lives at the crossroads of visibility and invisibility, often occupying both states simultaneously. More specifically, then, what the experiences of Arabella and Brown’s protagonist suggest is the need to query the kind of visibility that folds over the lives and bodies of Black women once they become successful. And that, maybe, just maybe, in certain situations, invisibility is preferable to visibility.


YAGNISHING DAWOOR is an Antonian. Two years ago, Salman Rushdie impressed him by pronouncing his name correctly.


Art by Izzy Fergusson.