“So many beginnings without end, have you found yourself attracting strays?”
– from November’s Galactic Rabbit, written by Gala Mukomolova
Lifting my head up from the paper I was reading from, holding the microphone like anchor, I felt something drop! out of me. Onto the floor. With my eyes, I followed its trajectory and found a sea of heads, blurring into the distance. A crowd of people in their seats. An audience. Faces of the women I shared this experience with were in a row right in front of me. Like quiet tides lapping at the water’s edge, their eyes held in them patience and support and anticipation. “Thank you,” I finally said, exhaling outwards and onwards everything that I was holding inside me. I did it.
At this year’s George Town Literary Festival (GTLF), I read ‘Fire’ to a full-house as part of the ‘Voices*: Woman I Dream‘ showcase. I read a piece about living with the traumas of child abuse. A meditation on the inheritance of grief and rage. I spoke about the vicious cycle and the painfully difficult journey it takes to end it – of, ultimately, turning anger into light.
I wouldn’t have finished writing this piece, wouldn’t have sent it off, wouldn’t have read it out loud, if it wasn’t for the many things both inside and outside of me that allowed this to happen. At every stage of this process, I had to check in with myself. I had to make sure that after all the years of being conditioned into silence, after all the years of fighting and fighting and fighting to call this life my own – I had to pause and sit and breathe and ask, I’m ready for this, but can I carry myself through it? I’m still in awe at how much I can push myself. How much I fiercely try and keep kicking up the dirt. If only just to learn what my being, in these limbs, with this voice, in this body, can do.
You see, before I put on that dress, found comfort in a stone I could fit in the palm of my hand, and stepped out the front door, I was recovering from a breakage I didn’t think I could get through.
I was out of breath, out of movement, out of words. Or so I thought.
Let the light in. There are unbroken things inside you. Hang in there. You are human you are human you are human.
After years of falling apart and putting myself back together, I know I was reaching a place where, once I cross its borders, I would never return from. I also know this was something connected to that ancestral song of grief – forcefully forgotten except for a slight but tremendous trembling in the bones and a scream saved up in the throat.
Honestly, I don’t know how much more I can take. But the fact that I can now (hesitantly, but still) actually ask for help shows that I’m also hiking on a trail that’s brighter than any of the ones I’ve been on before. I ask for help, this time, from the right people. The ones who, like in Kamila Shamsie’s story about a riptide, I can trust with my body – I can trust them to leave me in the waters because they will come back. They wouldn’t see me drown, even when I was tired enough to let myself sink.
Acknowledging that I am supported hasn’t been easy. And this is a lesson I’ll probably be learning again and again.
Most of my past relationships have been toxic, especially when they should’ve been at their most nurturing. Exhausted from vicious patterns, I subscribed to the belief that I was undeserving of love. I gave credence to anyone who made this damaging narrative real, and even after the hard work of trying and undoing, I still attracted those who, in relating our hungers to each other, ended up feeding on me instead of conversing with me.
I’m learning that it takes a lot more than just hard work to detangle a narrative that shaped over two decades of your life. It takes years. It takes months of stubbornly searching for conversations to keep you afloat, hours of practising new routines where one of the first things you do in the day is forgive yourself for finally beginning to forgive yourself.
I ended the week by reading a poem at the GTLF finale’s Open Mic event, realizing how much I was dealing with by facing my fears – with the writing blocks, stage fright, and a guilt that followed me after (yet another) friendship added to my collection of mournings.
There are some things you let go of because if you don’t, it turns you ugly. Like myths you release to make room for newer, kinder ones. Like stories that need to be said so you can stop being invisible to yourself and make the most out of survival. Like the anger you need to let out so you can hold it and mould it into momentum.
I inhale and hold the resilience that keeps me coming back to my words, my movements, my hope for connection.
I exhale with a sigh of relief because I know despite everything, I’m still able to love and hope.
And it’s this love and hope that has kept me open in the hardest of moments. Open to sign up for a writing workshop when I was feeling helplessly overwhelmed, to walk through the anxieties and the self-doubt and listen when I was told, It’s okay if you don’t want to go through with it, but can I just say something? You’re doing so well. To make peace with loss, honor grief as a friend, and to keep making a life for myself.
the flowers now, blooming in unbelonging
not as an apology,
but as victory.”
– from ‘Ilunga**,’ the poem I read at the open mic.
* Voices is an annual writing workshop for women, produced by Penang Women’s Development Corporation (PWDC). It’s a two-day workshop that aims to encourage women writers both in their literary endeavours and in finding ways to challenge the kyriarchy through their art. The gender and intersectionality workshop was conducted by the brilliant Rubi Mahes. The writing workshop was held by the inspiring Bernice Chauly, and the overall curation was done by the talented Yasmin Bathamanathan. Thanks to the support of each of them and of fellow participants, this experience was easily one of the highlights of my year. Keep an eye on PWDC’s updates for next year’s open call – I highly recommend this program!
** Ilunga is a Bantu word that roughly translates to, ‘a person who is ready to forgive any abuse for the first time, to tolerate it a second time, but never a third time.’ The poem appears in a zine curated by Al Ibrahim, An Oversimplification of Us.