“A Song Below Water” Is a Compelling Story of Sisterhood, Magic, and Police Brutality

“A Song Below Water” Is a Compelling Story of Sisterhood, Magic, and Police Brutality

When I first learned about Bethany C. Morrow’s A Song Below Water and how it featured Black mermaids, I couldn’t help but think of mythology, especially the Yoruba orisha Yemaya and the water spirit Mami Wata.

Depending on who you ask, some people interpret them as mermaids. I thought of them because I’ve wondered what a modern interpretation of a Black mermaid would be like. A Song Below Water managed to answer my question in a thought-provoking and touching way.

Tavia Phillips is a siren who must hide her powers in order to keep herself alive. Her best friend, Effie, is struggling with a painful past and strange happenings in the present. While they are trying to navigate their junior year of high school, a siren murder trial shakes Portland, Oregon, to the core. In the aftermath, Tavia and Effie must come together and come to terms with themselves.

One of the most notable aspects of this book is how it blends fantasy and reality almost seamlessly. Mythical creatures such as sirens, elokos, and gargoyles exist alongside humans, albeit not peacefully. Sirens (and other mythical creatures) have always been interpreted as an allegory for a dangerous woman, but this is especially noticeable when applied to a Black female protagonist. Tavia Phillips’s experiences as a Black female siren parallel what real Black women deal with every day, especially when it comes to police brutality. Not only are they considered dangerous for simply existing, but their voices are often silenced and dismissed when they try to speak up.

In fact, I found this book hard to read sometimes because it is a reminder of how difficult living can be for Black girls and women. Tavia is physically and emotionally scarred by a desperate attempt to get rid of her siren abilities as a child, while Effie is battling anxiety and nightmares as a result of a traumatic experience with mythical creatures. At one point, Effie even states, “Black and female and a siren is just layers upon layers of trauma. One time I said she’s [Tavia’s] too young to deal with this, and she said we don’t get to be.” Yet what kept me reading the book were the moments of joy that Tavia and Effie experience together and by themselves.

When it comes to Tavia and Effie’s friendship, they are close enough to be sisters. Sometimes I forgot that they weren’t related by blood because their interactions with each other were just as beautiful and memorable as those I’ve seen between real and fictional siblings. A particularly memorable scene is when Effie and Tavia are gushing over fan fiction written for Euphemia, the fictional mermaid who Effie plays at the Ren faire. Scenes like this show that despite the hardships they are dealing with, Effie and Tavia still create moments when they can enjoy their youth.

Tavia and Effie’s individual character development is just as powerful as their sisterhood. Over the course of the book, Tavia learns to embrace her siren abilities and use them as a force for change. The potential of her siren abilities is explored further as Tavia realizes just how powerful she can be. Meanwhile, Effie comes to terms with her past and learns that what’s “wrong” with her can be something that is wonderful, even when the world says otherwise. The mystery around Effie’s past and present keeps the plot intriguing and develops into a wonderful coming-of-age story.

As much as I appreciated many aspects of the book, there were a few I didn’t like. The lack of explanation for what an eloko was resulted in me doing my own research and doing my best to imagine what they looked like in my head. It might be difficult for other visual readers like myself to “see” what elokos are without a fuller description.

Another aspect of the story that made me a little uncomfortable is how Tavia uses spasmodic dysphonia as a cover story for her siren abilities, as well as how she sometimes uses American Sign Language when she can’t speak without exposing her siren abilities. Her use of ASL is understandable, but the author’s decision to have Tavia pretend to have what is a real muscle disorder is problematic from the point of view of disability advocacy.

It’s not clear whether A Song Below Water is a standalone or the first book in a series. Either way, it’s a compelling read. While the portrayal of police brutality and Black trauma doesn’t make the book easy to digest, the sisterhood and magic are major payoffs. A Song Below Water encourages Black girls to embrace their power, stick together, and never let themselves be silenced.

The Afro YA promotes black young adult authors and YA books with black characters, especially those that influence Pennington, an aspiring YA author who believes that black YA readers need diverse books, creators, and stories so that they don’t have to search for their experiences like she did.

Latonya Pennington is a poet and freelance pop culture critic. Their freelance work can also be found at PRIDE, Wear Your Voice magazine, and Black Sci-fi. As a poet, they have been published in Fiyah Lit magazine, Scribes of Nyota, and Argot magazine among others.

Top photo by Briona Baker on Unsplash.

 

Break Poetry Open Contest Winner

Thank you to all the poets who shared their work this National Poetry Month, sending their words to us, helping us to Break Poetry Open. I was drawn again & again to the voices with messages insistent & urgent, those words on the page that demanded to be read aloud. I paced my living room & kitchen, reading your words — caught in the cul-de-sacs of prose forms, the gullies of line endings. In particular, the poems that drew me back to them were the ones that challenged me. Your voices and forms were both brutally inviting and occasionally offered a stiff arm, keeping me at bay; it was this balance of vulnerability & withholding that kept me reading, re-reading, and wanting more.

—C. Kubasta, Editor, BMP Celebrates National Poetry Month 2019

Winner

“what do i know about consent anyway” by Hannah Soyer

Short List

“A composing book, 1973” by Daisy Bassen

“FOR COLORED GURLS WHO HAVE CONSIDERED SUICIDE WHEN THE TWIST OUT WAS NOT ENUFF” by Levi Cain

“[mispronunciation]” by Uma Menon

Editors’ Picks

Week Five

“To: that nought in da jcemestry” by Penelope Alegria

“To Cry Out” by Cassandra Hsiao

“This Cosmic Dance” by Natasha McLachlan

what do i know about consent anyway

Contest Winner

Hannah Soyer

Hannah Soyer is a disabled creative writer and artist interested in perceptions and representations of what we consider ‘other.’ She is the creator of the This Body is Worthy project, which aims to celebrate bodies outside of mainstream societal ideals, and the founder of Freedom Words, a program to design and implement creative writing workshops specifically for students with disabilities. She has been published in Cosmopolitan, InkLit magazine, Mikrokosmos Journal, Hot Metal Bridge, Rooted in Rights, and her most recent piece, ‘Displacement,’ has been nominated for a Pushcart Prize.

thisbodyisworthy.com

Twitter/Instagram: @soyernotsawyer

A composing book, 1973

Short-List Selection

Daisy Bassen

The book is old. The book has a yellow cover. The book was given to me by my father. My father was a teacher.

The book is simple. The book is deceptive. Deceit is valuable. Deceit is proscribed.

The sentences are short. The sentences make a song. The sentences want involution. A clause has claws.

The claws are yellow. The claws are old. The sentences are about bombs. The sentences are about immolation.

The book belonged to a girl. The girl was a student. She learned about bombs. The yellow of immolation.

The sentences are about runaways. She ran away. The girl. Clawed.

Daisy Bassen is a practicing physician and poet. She graduated from Princeton University’s Creative Writing Program and completed her medical training at The University of Rochester and Brown. Her work has been published in Oberon, The Delmarva Review, The Sow’s Ear, and Tuck Magazine as well as multiple other journals. She was a semi-finalist in the 2016 Vassar Miller Prize in Poetry, a finalist in the 2018 Adelaide Literary Prize, a recent winner of the So to Speak 2019 Poetry Contest and was doubly nominated for a 2019 Pushcart Prize. She lives in Rhode Island with her family.

FOR COLORED GIRLS WHO HAVE CONSIDERED SUICIDE WHEN THE TWIST OUT WAS NOT ENUFF

Short-List Selection

Levi Cain

swear on my mama no—swear on something more simple and sacred. swear on my brother’s future mixtape, swear on pig fat in collard greens and freshly whipped shea butter, arroz con what the fuck ever—that the cracked cushion chair of my hairdresser’s closet is in fact a cathedral, packets of yaki and remy dotted with the same angels, skin the color of good brandy. the nollywood movies blaring on the thrifted television is the preacher. there is one constant truth— the half-room in waltham is a tabernacle for second generation girls who never learned how to cornrow.

a blackgurl’s bond with a hairdresser is tighter than the binding of isaac, requires more faith than you ever know how to give after years of lye being applied to your scalp, after years of being teased by whitegirls who crow that your hair looks like brillo pads that they wouldn’t let their housekeepers scour the sink with. the same whitegirls who now quiz you on coconut oil and ask you to anoint them with the wisdom of deep conditioning.

i and every other blackgurl who grew up in the suburbs are haunted by visions of hot combs and strangers putting their hands in our hair, pulling so sharply we swear we hear the echo of a whip crack.

but those ghosts have no place here, in this space that has only space enough for you, your hairdresser, and maybe her friend from haiti who you do not know the name of but who twists braids so gently it is as if she wants to be your mother.

this is an act of love, but all gods are not filled with goodness and so neither is the woman who stands with jojoba in her right hand, 84 inches of kankelon in her left, who asks why you never seem to have a boyfriend, who told you she would rather die than break bread with faggots but passes you plantains as communion, presses your forehead to her chest as madonna, calls you daughter, welcomes you with open arms to a rented room in a part of a town that would make a principal’s lip curl —this blackgurl bethlehem, this satin covered resting place, this plane of being where you are you are blackgurl, are celebration, are miracle, are nothing but holiest of holies.

Levi Cain is a queer writer from the Greater Boston Area who was born in California and raised in Connecticut. Further examples of their work can be found in Lunch Ticket, Red Queen Literary Magazine, and other publications.

[mispronunciations]

Short-List Selection

Uma Menon

i try to pull out a chameleon’s tongue from inside my throat, change the color, change it all before another            [mispronunciation] leaves my colorless mouth

instead i find my mother tongue stuck inside my throat, a lump forgotten only by me & i find a desire, tucked away, to strangle her and choke myself before another            [mispronunciation] escapes without explanation

i am afraid that i have stained the english that i speak that it yearns to be bleached in cold sand

i watch my mother chug down womanhood, let it slide through the grip of her mother tongue, into the stomach of America              [& her mispronunciations]

Uma Menon is a fifteen-year-old student and writer from Winter Park, Florida. Her writing has appeared or is forthcoming in the Huffington Post, The Rumpus, and National Poetry Quarterly, Sahitya Akademi’s Indian Literature, and the Cincinnati Review, among others. Her first chapbook was published in 2019 (Zoetic Press); she also received the 2019 Lee Bennett Hopkins Award in Poetry.

To: that noght in da jcemetsry

Contest Editors’ Pick

Penelope Alegria

Th city light s r beutiful 2night. Sky twinkles starligt on sidwalks with cracks that almost shape like ur sillhouette in twinkling moondust. Clay polish tatters blu on ashes of cigar wrappers flickering burnt blac n im thinkn of the time u rolled roun in somebody else’s ashes in that gravyard next to the church with the clouds rdy to snow upside down crosses.

Did u kn o th grass smells lik tequila n th boys breaths smells like lilac flickering burn t blqck sparks n my legs feel like pillow n l8ly it dpens’t feel right wrapping myself up in white bedsheets bc they dont feel wuite as electric as ur fingertips n m drunk

Im drunk im dunk m drnk n i want u nex to me w legs like pillows n breath like lilac burnt black n u rollin around in someboyd else’s ashes n i dk y u wouldnt want that eithr

Penelope Alegria has participated in Young Chicago Authors’ artistic apprenticeship, Louder Than a Bomb Squad. Her work has been featured or is forthcoming in La Nueva Semana Newspaper and El Beisman. Penelope was among the top 12 poets in Chicago as a Louder Than a Bomb 2018 Indy Finalist and was awarded the Literary Award by Julian Randall. She has performed spoken word at The Metro, University of Chicago, and elsewhere.

To Cry Out

Contest Editors’ Pick

Cassandra Hsiao

yellow: the cold echo of collapse muddled muddied house of decay return to the ground that bore me grow betrayal roots below mold my fingertips bleed flag i no longer show pale yellow: crayoned sun shine shield i risk changing colors if i don’t yellow: aroma that does not lie trapped in tin pots roasted crisp red brown duck i can taste home cannot find home sell home know home remember touch of yellow: lazy tongue remarks sting firecracker never cool enough to swallow yellow: taste morning hours sunrise son rise sweet victory to open shop open bells jingle lucky cat licks its paws yellow: eyes glass over cat looks white yellow: light

Cassandra Hsiao is a rising junior at Yale University, majoring in Theater Studies and Ethnicity, Race & Migration. Her poetry, fiction, and memoirs have been recognized by Rambutan Literary, Animal, Claremont Review, Jet Fuel Review, and National YoungArts Foundation. Her plays have been selected as finalists for national playwriting competitions held by The Blank Theatre, Writopia Labs, Princeton University, Durango Arts Center, California Playwrights Project, and YouthPLAYS. Her work is currently being produced in theaters across the nation. She has also won a Gracie Award for her entertainment journalism and was recognized as a Voices fellow for the Asian American Journalists Association (AAJA).

Instagram/Twitter: @cassandrahsiao

Facebook: https://www.facebook.com/LoveCassandraHsiao/

This Cosmic Dance

Contest Editors’ Pick

Natasha McLachlan

Natasha McLachlan is a poet currently living in Southern California. After losing her speech in 2018 due to unforeseen circumstances, she fell in love with reading all over again, as it helped her cultivate self-care–this, she hopes, will be a cure for others in a hectic and frantic lifestyle. She was a first-generation college student, graduating from California College of the Arts with a bachelor’s degree in Writing and Literature. As a minority, she takes pride in breaking the barriers and stigma around individuals of color by simply being herself. When she is not writing, she is spending time with her family or bonding with her 9 siblings, whom she considers her best friends. Her inspiration comes from the moons and stars around her, nature being her greatest muse.

Forming out of the Void

At eight years old, I sat in church while the pastor informed the congregation that a wife’s body did not belong to her, that marriage meant that her husband owned her sexuality.

I doubt this was the first time I had heard this sermon, but it juts out in my memory. I sat stiffly in the pew, every inch of my skin hurting. It isn’t fair, I couldn’t say. I don’t want that, were forbidden words. The future I was being offered was the present: my body belonged to men now, and it would belong to men in the future.

I was raised to love a God that asked me for everything. My life, my body, my wants, my desires, my goals, my dreams, everything a person could possibly call theirs, God wanted all. The language of my Evangelical faith was, Less of me, more of Jesus, and, Not my will, but God’s. You surrendered to God, you died to self, you released all control and let God define you. And it was God that said that I would grow up to marry a man and give my body to my husband.

I was raised to love a God that asked me for everything. My life, my body, my wants, my desires, my goals, my dreams, everything a person could possibly call theirs, God wanted all.

There was no raging against this. As much as it hurt, as sick as I felt listening to those words, it was a sickness akin to grief: an acknowledgement, a resignation. This was the truth, commanded by God himself, and no small child had any power to change it.

I could only relinquish myself. This was the one line in the sand: obey God or rebel. One led to contentment, happiness, fulfillment. The other pain, destruction, and hell. All that was required of me as a child, the only thing I needed to learn was how to obey better. Obey the Lord. Obey my parents. Obey authority. And one day, my future husband. There was nothing else.

The sexual abuse took my body before I understood I had one. It was part of my formation of consciousness, how I categorized the world. What houses looked like houses where children were being hurt? What men looked like men who loved their daughters too much? Why did so many girls look like they deserved to be spared when I certainly didn’t? I made these assessments with the casualness of familiarity. By the time my parents were separated, and it was my second oldest brother leading me off to the bedroom, I had no sense that I could say no. It simply was. I’d trained myself into empty boredom. Bodies tune out consistent stimulus. I dissolved into nothing.

I had no sense that I could say no. It simply was. I’d trained myself into empty boredom. Bodies tune out consistent stimulus. I dissolved into nothing.

I was handcrafted by God to be a girl. It was my mother’s prayer. In the terror of an abusive husband and the chaos of two sons, she wanted the innocence of a girl, the quiet calm of a daughter, whole and set apart from the trauma of abuse. So God created me for her. I was an infant so beautifully still, so sweetly quiet, my mother could forget she was holding me in her arms. An answer to prayer.

But I was also girl; my mother put on me the predilections of what she saw as feminine traits. My emotions were suspect, held up to scrutiny to determine whether they were true or had hidden motivations. Spoiled, prone to dramatics, feigning illness and weakness. A cunning child, willingly provoking her brother to violence for the sheer delight of getting him in trouble. My anger was an intentional cruelty I inflicted on my family, my tears manipulative attempts to avoid punishment. When my mother reflected on my childhood, it was with the assurance of her parenting skills; I was bad, but she had made me better. I was lazy, rebellious, manipulative, and she taught me obedience.

I was not a teenager, my mother pointed out with pride. Teenager meant self-exploration, independence, rebellion—all things that contradicted the relinquishing of self. The only lesson on defying that God taught was how wrong it was to defy God. So why not skip all that? Why not jump ahead to the right conclusion and avoid the misery?

For once my mother was proud of me. I received praise from her when I scorned my childhood self and called her a spoiled brat. Who else but someone who loved truth, whose thinking wasn’t clouded with self-interest, would be willing to acknowledge how wicked they had once been? I was wise now, someone who cared about logic before emotion. I disconnected so deeply from any felt experience that I insisted to myself that I was not hungry if I had just eaten, I was not tired if I’d slept through the night; these were facts. The body—the flesh, as our Christian faith called it, in all its carnality, only wanted to trick us, and I was not going to be tricked.

I disconnected so deeply from any felt experience that I insisted to myself that I was not hungry if I had just eaten, I was not tired if I’d slept through the night.

I had to rearrange my feelings to match what I was supposed to feel. The only trauma I was allowed was “a girl without her father,” and everything I experienced was assigned to it. Any other problem was merely physical. I was inexplicably sick a lot: headaches, stomachaches, allergies, and a chronic case of PMS my mother insisted could plague me all month long.

It is easy to feel afraid and call it being cold. Sadness simply becomes exhaustion. The wish for death a Christian’s desire to go home to heaven. It’s not that I was entirely unaware that begging God to kill me had no spiritual motivation. But when I slipped up, when I admitted to myself what I really felt, I had to go back to the process of making my emotions line up correctly.

I was a girl. I wanted a boyfriend. There was no question. It was easy to be this way, to logically reverse emotions. What did I feel toward boys? Attraction. What was attraction? What I felt toward boys. There was no conscious effort on my part, no confusion or doubts. It didn’t matter that I hated these things. They were so. They were determined by God and I had no fight in me.

It is easy to feel afraid and call it being cold. Sadness simply becomes exhaustion. The wish for death a Christian’s desire to go home to heaven.

I was solidly an adult before I could finally tell others about the sexual abuse. I worried that my mother was right; I was manipulative. Because to talk about the abuse was to intentionally recall the trauma, to bring to mind the kinds of chronic pains our bodies let us forget about. I didn’t have to do this, so didn’t it, by definition, mean I was playing the victim? It felt less like I was tearing down the walls to find the fresh, real, spontaneous self underneath. I was making myself climb back into my body and teaching myself how to map those feelings into emotional expressions.

Abuse survivors are often handed a narrative that says: there is no such thing as the complete destruction of the human soul. No matter who hurts you, no matter how broken you might be, you can’t help who you are, the reality of you. There is always a before to get back to, a version of yourself that exists untraumatized that you merely need to find. If any part of you is still affected by the trauma, then you have not arrived at your real self.

What did I feel toward boys? Attraction. What was attraction? What I felt toward boys… It didn’t matter that I hated these things. They were so.

What of me was unaffected by the abuse? What self existed prior to it? No one cared if the trauma was what caused me to say, I am straight, I am a girl. No one asked me if I should separate myself into pieces to determine their uninfluenced truth.

I couldn’t tell you who I was, only what I wanted. When I said, I’m attracted to women, it’s because the idea sounded so good. I wanted to be; it was the first time I imagined love as good. Was that the abuse talking? Someone who runs into the arms of women to avoid their trauma with men?

When I said, I am non-binary, I did so because it felt right. It meant I could conceive of my body as a home, something I could change and transform into a livable space. Does it make too much traumatic sense, the chronically dissociated survivor, calling themselves non-binary? What proof can I offer anyone that this is my unchangeable soul?

When I said, I am non-binary, I did so because it felt right. It meant I could conceive of my body as a home, something I could change and transform into a livable space.

None. But I’m more inside my skin than I ever was before. I have dimension, solidity, a sharper sense of my skin. What more is there to owning your body other than finding what makes it easier to live in? I’d accepted for so long narratives that said that easier was cheating, that healing meant forcing yourself into what made you miserable or afraid because it was good for you, that who you are was somehow different than who you want to be. And yet I cannot deny how much easier it is for me to look in the mirror now and say, I am me.

I looked at God and said, I am mine. I take back everything. No more surrender, no more less of me, no more resignation to who I’m supposed to be, whether I like it or not. Obedience taught me how to surrender myself and rebellion is my refusal. There is nothing more rebellious than the word no. No, I did not deserve the abuse, no, I am not my mother’s daughter, no, I will not marry a man, no, I belong to me.

It is incremental. I spent so long comfortable with being uncomfortable, so used to contorting myself into obedience. But I am teaching myself to resist, shaping myself so that my body feels distinctly separate from others. I am no longer without form and void. I called myself into existence. And it was good.

top photo by Zac Frith on Pexels

You Have a Body features personal essays on the the ways we reconcile our physical forms with our identities. This series explores how our bodies sometimes disagree with us, how the world sometimes disagrees with our bodies, and how we attempt to accept that dissonance.

Scripting Resistance

Indian cinema is the world’s largest film industry in terms of film production – you’ve probably heard of Bollywood, the mainstream Hindi-language film industry and Indian cinema’s largest film producer.

Bollywood, screened worldwide, with its colourful musical sets, expensive aesthetics and elaborate dramatic plots, is often considered an ambassador of Indian culture, usually generalised to stand in for ‘South Asian’ culture as a whole. Unintended or not, Hindi cinema contributes significantly to how South Asian women are perceived, a problem when women are cast in limited and reductive roles. So how is contemporary Hindi cinema scripting women?

Director: Have you read the script? This is the hero’s fight scene. You are the heroine… You just have to be the victim… the damsel in distress… That is the test of your acting.

Angry Indian Goddesses (2015)

Historically, Bollywood idealised women as self-sacrificing mothers, wives, and daughters, cast them as victims, and hyper-sexualised them as objects of the male gaze and as the popular ‘item girl’. Mehboob Khan’s Mother India (1957) is considered a classic of Indian cinema: an epic following the piteous trials of a poverty-stricken mother who, through the ultimate act of maternal sacrifice, becomes a pinnacle of morality and Indian womanhood. Women’s roles are overwhelmingly scripted in relation to men: they are wives, mothers, daughters, romantic interests, and victims of sexual violence. The Geena Davis Institute of Gender and Media found that only 25% of 493 characters in popular Indian films were women.[1] In 77% of mainstream films screened between 2012 and 2016, women completed a romantic function.[2] Yet, there is a slow increase of women-centric films in which women are not simply plot tropes. In 2018, Veere De Wedding presented us with a female buddy movie about modern relationships, Helicopter Eela charted a single mother’s relationship with her teen son, Patakha explored two rural sisters’ tumultuous relationship, Hichki introduced an aspiring teacher with Tourette’s syndrome, Raazi drew on the true account of an Indian spy, and Manikarnika: The Queen of Jhansi, a historical biopic of an anti-colonialist warrior queen, is due to be released in early 2019.

Women’s roles are overwhelmingly scripted in relation to men: they are wives, mothers, daughters, romantic interests, and victims of sexual violence.

Of course, it’s not enough to count the number of women-led films if we aren’t scrutinising their characterisation. Where is women’s anger in all of this? Are women allowed to be angry? The 1980s saw the rise of the ‘avenging woman’ genre in Bollywood, which counteracted the stereotype of female passivity, and envisioned women as avenging agents appropriating violence to deliver justice for themselves. Insaaf Ka Tarazu (1980), Pratighaat (1987), and Zakmi Aurat (1988) are famous examples. Yet, the whole genre turned on the rape-revenge trope. Films like Insaaf, whilst progressive, reinforced victim-blaming scripts of the ‘good’ and ‘bad’ victim, and the film industry seized on the opportunity to screen graphic rape scenes to draw in viewers. The avenging woman genre imagined a world where female rage was given agency, yet it was a world where women became powerful because of their violent initiation into victimhood. The unsettling message: women can only be angry if they have been subject to extreme brutal violence, and only after they have tried and been failed by the legal system.

The avenging woman genre imagined a world where female rage was given agency, yet it was a world where women became powerful because of their violent initiation into victimhood.

The past few years has seen the rise of films centring ‘strong’ female leads who often use their anger, aggression and violence to overcome adversary. Soojit Sircar’s Pink (2016) is a notable example, demanding a national conversation on consent and victim-blaming rhetoric. Minal, the main female lead, acts in self-defense against her would-be rapist by smashing a bottle on his head. She is championed in court: by showing women’s success within the legal system, Pink makes space for women’s anger. Avinash Dash’s indie production, Anarkali of Arrah (2017), similarly champions a village performer, assaulted on stage by a powerful politician, who responds by slapping him, and with further verbal aggression when he attempts to ‘buy’ her. Her eventual success in getting justice once again legitimises her rage and rejection of the passive role of the ‘good’ victim. The popularity of biopics like Mary Kom (2014) and Dangal (2016), which look at the lives of an Olympic boxer and two world-class wrestlers respectively, suggest a move away from the idea of violence, aggression and physical strength as exclusively masculine traits. Films like Mardaani (2014), which centres a female cop busting a sex trafficking ring, NH10 (2015), a suspense thriller in which a couple get caught in rural violence, and Akira (2016), where a college student takes on four corrupt police officers, all build up to violent acts by the lead women, acts which are championed by the storyline. Any other conclusion would be robbing the women, and the viewers, of narrative closure. Granted, violence and rage in films like Mardaani, NH10, and Akira are characteristic of crime thrillers and action dramas, when we consider all of these films inter-textually, we see a heightened interest in envisioning women’s rage: what it might look like, how it may be utilised, and what transformative effect, good or bad, it may have.

Of course, in a billion-dollar film industry, if the Strong Woman becomes a best-selling, profitable trope, it’s hardly surprising that films increasingly capitalise on the trend. Based on all-time box office revenues, Dangal was the highest grossing ($340 million) Bollywood movie worldwide.[3] Notably, films such as Dangal and Pink ultimately valorise their male leads, who emerge as the key agents in empowering women and delivering justice to them. Bollywood is still slow to embrace women as their lead ‘heroes’. Independent Hindi films, in contrast, have always taken more risks, and in films like Pan Nalin’s Angry Indian Goddesses (2015), we find a nuanced exploration of women’s rage.

This is Kali, the angriest Indian goddess… Durga takes her most ferocious form to annihilate all evil so a new world order can be formed … Each of us has a Kali inside.

Angry Indian Goddesses (2015)

Set in Goa, Angry follows a group of women as they celebrate the upcoming nuptials of two of their members, Freida and Nargis. Whilst tackling sexual harassment, Angry offers a positive portrayal of women’s sexuality and pleasure, casting them as active, conscious agents rather than hyper-sexualised tropes. The film opens with a humorous montage of each character’s anger at everyday harassment and structural misogyny. Frieda, the photographer, frustrated at having to shoot a misogynoir-promoting advert for a skin-lightening product, tears up her cheque. Pam, the middle-class housewife leered at during a gym session, drops weights on her harassers. Mad, an aspiring indie musician, told to play an ‘item song’, is shown aggressively stamping off the stage towards her male hecklers. Su, owner of a mining company, in a tense boardroom scene, challenges stereotypes of mothers as incapable of being ruthless. Laxmi, Frieda’s maid and companion, catcalled on her way home, gives the perpetrator a dose of his own medicine, grabbing him by the balls. Joanna, an aspiring Bollywood actress, tasked with playing the damsel-in-distress slips out of her script and challenges the director, throwing out all the fake padding on her breasts and hips, yelling that he, and the rest of the Bollywood industry, have ‘no idea about women!’ Through this meta-fictive parody, Angry signals its challenging and rewriting of cultural scripts which regulate how a woman should behave.

Angry Indian Goddesses (2015) offers a positive portrayal of women’s sexuality and pleasure, casting them as active, conscious agents rather than hyper-sexualised tropes.

The film takes a darker turn when the main characters encounter a group of men, the Lal Topi Gang, known to harass women. The film reaches its dramatic climax when Joanna is found brutally gang-raped and murdered by the Gang. When the police arrive, the women are confronted with a justice system more invested in asking derogatory questions about their clothes, drinking, and smoking, Joanna’s career as an actress, and Freida and Nargis’ ‘unnatural’ relationship, than they are in delivering any justice. Faced with this victim-blaming discourse, the grief-stricken women, filled with rage, are propelled to take matters into their own hands.

Perhaps the most striking aspect of Angry is how it simultaneously legitimises women’s rage and envisions a collective social conscience and responsibility as an alternative means of seeking justice. The climactic scene is dark and filmed with shaky angles, mimicking the women’s adrenalin-filled rage: who pulls the trigger when they shoot the members of the Gang, and who stops whom, becomes somewhat blurred. The following day, the policemen interrupt Joanna’s funeral, demanding that the perpetrators own up to their crime. The women, defiant and unapologetic, stand in admission. Then, something remarkable happens. The members of the congregation, in the presence of Joanna’s body, a visible reminder of violent misogyny and the deeply flawed justice system, all stand up one by one. Faced with this declaration of collective culpability – a complete rejection of state authority and an indictment of its inability to deliver justice to victims of sexual violence – the police can do nothing. Angry leaves us with a utopic vision of what happens when women’s rage, and a community’s collective anger and social conscience, finds expression and is utilised to combat misogynistic, violent social structures.

Faced with this declaration of collective culpability – a complete rejection of state authority and an indictment of its inability to deliver justice to victims of sexual violence – the police can do nothing.

Whilst Angry, like the 1980s avenging woman genre, validates women’s rage after a vicious act of sexual violence, it counteracts the idea that anger can only be legitimised within that context. Throughout the film, the women refuse conventional ideas of victimhood in their professional and personal lives and articulate anger for a variety of reasons. When they discuss vengeful Hindu goddess, Kali, the message is: ‘Each one of us has a Kali inside us.’ Anger is presented as being an emotion, and a resource, we can all tap into. Angry thus presents anger, and violence, as an essential aspect of women’s existence, and challenges the gendering of rage as masculine, the eroticisation of women’s passivity and the sanitisation of women’s behaviour.

Angry’s unflinching portrayal of women’s anger is relevant particularly in recent discussions around India’s #metoo movement: whose voice and whose anger is legitimised and heard, particularly in a caste-based society? Indian feminism has historically privileged upper-caste women’s concerns and issues, often at the expense, and erasure of, lower-caste women. Most of the Hindi films cited in this essay, including Angry, centralise urban, middle class, and upper-caste characters. Angry does make space for Laxmi, the lower-caste maid, to violently express her rage and grief: witness to her brother’s murder, yet having his case pending for eight years, Laxmi takes a cricket bat and smashes his murderer’s bar, aggressively threatening him, and secretly acquires a gun. Through Laxmi, we see the complexity of anger: it is justified, destructive, powerful and powerless at the same time. At the end of the narrative, she chooses to let go of the anger which has consumed her life. Laxmi’s rage is a fitting response to the legal system which specifically fails lower-caste communities; however, the film also highlights that anger is not always the right solution for the individual.

Anger is presented as being an emotion, and a resource, we can all tap into. Angry thus presents anger, and violence, as an essential aspect of women’s existence, and challenges the gendering of rage as masculine.

Significantly, Angry chooses Joanna, a half-Indian, British national as the figure around whom the community and national media rally. The police comment that there will be heightened media attention because of Joanna’s British citizenship: a subtle but flaying indictment of how national and international outrage is limited to the ‘right’ kind of victim, and those who fall outside that category (lower-caste women, rural women, trans women, marginalised ethnic communities, sex workers, and non-binary and gender fluid people) do not qualify for the same large-scale, collective response. Angry, in conversation with other contemporary films legitimising women’s anger, can be seen as a call-to-arms. Coming in the wake of the brutal gang rape of Jyoti Pandey in 2012, which led to international outcry and public protest demanding changes in the laws governing sexual violence, Angry is an inspiring manifesto for unity and the power of women’s rage. We must push our reading further: whilst the final shot shows the community rallying for Joanna, our anger and outrage cannot be confined to high-profile cases of sexual harassment only. If, as the films suggest, we choose to embrace anger as a tool to combat social injustice, fight for democratic rights, and challenge flawed state structures, it must be inclusionary to achieve its full potential.

***

[1] Published in 2014, the study looked at popular films across 11 countries. Figures are rounded. https://seejane.org/symposiums-on-gender-in-media/gender-bias-without-borders

[2] The Irresistible & Oppressive Gaze: A Survey Report by Oxfam India. https://www.oxfamindia.org/irresistible-oppressive-gazeisurvey-report-oxfam-india

[3] As of June 2018. https://www.statista.com/statistics/282411/bollywood-highest-grossing-movies-worldwide

Top photo: cast of “Angry Indian Goddesses” (2015)

“What if we took all this anger born of righteous love and aimed it?”

—Ijeoma Olou, “We women can be anything. But can we be angry?” Medium.com

ANGER showcases essays and poetry featuring well-aimed anger from femme writers, writers of color, LGBTQIA+ writers, First Nations writers, and disabled writers.

Utilizing Anger in the #SelfCare Communities

The first time I remember seeing Audre Lorde’s proclamation that caring for herself was an act of political warfare widely circulate on social media was during the Women’s March of 2017.

That January, millions of women lined city streets in protest of the inauguration of Donald Trump. I imagine that their chants were the same I heard standing outside of Trump Towers after the presidential election of 2016, such as the declaration Trump was not my president and the proclamation that love trumps hate.

I say “imagine” because I did not attend that Women’s March (or its sequel in 2018). Instead I watched in awestruck rage as pictures and video clips appeared on social media of white women wearing pink, laden with signs expressing their fury. This is what solidarity looks like, I saw captioned beneath one image, and I resisted the urge to comment with the correction: No. This is what it looks like when white women feel their power threatened.

Many of these women had been silent in the wake of the state-sanctioned murders of Black folks and even critical of Black liberation protests. The centering of vaginas as an indicator of womanhood by march attendees showed a continued lack of interest in the lives of trans people. Nonetheless, solidarity was demanded and expected from those of us with aspects of our identities that were being minimalized, erased, and silenced.

Solidarity was demanded and expected from those of us with aspects of our identities that were being minimalized, erased, and silenced.

On Twitter, I watched as Lorde’s words reverberated among Black women reminding each other not to feel guilty for not participating in the Women’s March. These were affirmations of the disappointment I felt that while 53 percent of white women voted a white supremacist into the presidency, a decent portion of the other half revealed that they would only show up in defense of their own interests. That day, I learned caring for myself meant embracing my anger.

***

Since the election of 2016, the market for self-care has grown rapidly. Beneath its hashtag one can find lifestyle brands, witches proposing group hexes on the likes of Trump and Brett Kavanaugh, pictures of matcha lattes, herbal tonics, crystals, tarot cards, and astrology charts (the latter two being my most-used mediums).

That day, I learned caring for myself meant embracing my anger.

As writers Jordan Kisner and Anna North have pointed out, the ideology that investing in one’s wellbeing is political is rooted in Lorde’s A Burst of Light: Living with Cancer. Through diary entries Lorde examines survival within a racist, homophobic, and sexist healthcare system, as well as the importance of finding joy and her commitment to connecting with Black women and people of color around the world.

Much of the growing wellness industry (worth billions) markets products to upper-middle-class white women who stripped Lorde’s quote of its true context and ignored her emphasis on community in favor of prioritizing individual comfort. Following this logic, women are encouraged to focus on what makes them feel good and cut out what and who makes them feel bad—meaning anything that causes discomfort. This offers justification for not confronting the racism, misogyny, and homophobia Lorde was interrogating.

Women are encouraged to… cut out what and who makes them feel bad—meaning anything that causes discomfort. This offers justification for not confronting racism, misogyny, and homophobia.

In this binary, emotional experiences can be defined as negative and positive (with anger often falling on the negative end of the spectrum). It is up to the individual person to take accountability for their undesirable feelings, which can be conquered if that person invests enough money in the right tools and practices. However, one does not have to acknowledge the benefits many reap from structural oppressions, because one of the great tricks of capitalism is spotlighting personal responsibility.

***

Beyond the dominating images of carefree people of privilege associated with #selfcare, I was able to discover communities of people of who, like me, hold an interest in magic and wellness practices yet also recognize the reality of the world we inhabit. Within these circles there is the acceptance that an exclusively positive perspective is unrealistic when honoring the full range of emotions one’s body endures, especially when challenging outdated frameworks. There is discussion around accessibility to self-care products for low-income people. There is no secret to success for marginalized people whose existences are inherently in opposition to systems built on whiteness and cishet normativity.

What if anger were thought of not as a challenge to care, or even as a byproduct of unfortunate circumstances, but as necessary for growth and change?

Yet even in the most progressive spaces, where anger is perceived to be natural and inescapable, it is also understood as a sentiment that one must ultimately move past in healing in order to achieve the ever-elusive inner peace. But what if anger were thought of not as a challenge to care, or even as a byproduct of unfortunate circumstances, but as necessary for growth and change? And what if the tools we purchased to foster feeling good could also hold space for our anger, highlighting the ways in which we could aim it constructively?

Accepting the aggravation I felt over the Women’s March was critical to the welfare of my being, because it allowed me to look more critically at the relationship of power between white women and Black and Brown women. Unpacking the whitewashing of Audre Lorde’s work assisted with diminishing the final remnants still seeded in my mind that I just needed to think more positively to dispel the negative energy that was blocking me from success.

Anger is not born just out of fear and sadness. It is aligned with joy and love. I am angry in defense of what I care for, and that includes myself.

I do not want to evolve past anger. I want to keep it close, as it reminds me of the work that needs to be done. I step into it fully, because anger is not born just out of fear and sadness. It is aligned with joy and love.

I am angry in defense of what I care for, and that includes myself.

Top photo by nappy on Pexels

“What if we took all this anger born of righteous love and aimed it?”

—Ijeoma Olou, “We women can be anything. But can we be angry?” Medium.com

ANGER showcases essays and poetry featuring well-aimed anger from femme writers, writers of color, LGBTQIA+ writers, First Nations writers, and disabled writers.

The Big Fat Lies We Tell Ourselves

The big fat lies we tell ourselves. Think, then vote…

It may seem easy to live in denial, to push away the truth, to tell ourselves the same big fat lies. Women have been doing so for ages. But denial can in the end lead to self sacrifice, to self-annulment, and the realization can be unforgiving for the Self.

Fortunately, after years of silence, women are finally vocalizing their pain and suffering at the hands of men in positions of power, and it is cathartic just to listen to all those voices, let alone open up oneself about me-too.

Fortunately, after years of silence, women are finally vocalizing their pain and suffering at the hands of men in positions of power.

The now viral me-too movement has not only revealed the pent-up anger that was hiding inside women across the United States, in so doing it has gloriously released the seeds of a new woman — the kind we don’t know well enough yet.

By providing a conduit for many women to express their anger at the injustices served them, the movement has also made women come together, creating a powerful solidarity front that has the potential to change the world.

This brave group of women are shining the light ahead, showing the way for other women. Teenage women are taking note, in particular, and take pride in their older sisters for standing up, vocalizing their pain and telling the truth — a hard and, at times, humiliating thing to do when it involves a violation of intimacy.

By providing a conduit for many women to express their anger at the injustices served them, the movement has also made women come together.

Women across the world, too, however, in developing and underdeveloped countries, have been riveted by the me-too movement, many marveling at the unmasking of powerful men who abused their power and employees, and others who still toe the paternalistic line of labeling the movement “political correctness gone mad.” The debate rages, but debate there is at last. Imagine how energizing the debate is, how empowering it is for women who live in areas where men are never questioned about such conduct.

This new generation of women (and some men who have kept an eye on the allegations arising from the cases against Kevin Spacey), who will one day join the workforce, try out in acting auditions, and navigate the snake pit of relationships with those in power, will now come equipped with an arsenal of both precedent and inspiration drawn from those who spoke up, and for the ramifications and vindication that mostly followed.

This new type of woman, mostly found in the United States and the West, is (a) powerful in her solidarity with other sisters, (b) angry, and (c) exhausted, of course. (What woman isn’t from juggling all those roles?) All that pent-up anger she has struggled with is now out in the open, and it has become encoded in the genes of young and old women alike. Yes, women are finally openly angry — they are not afraid to voice their anger. And now those in power have to tread carefully, for the me-too movement is fresh in their memory banks. As a result, it is hoped that women can finally look forward to a more women-friendly workplace that finds sexual harassment intolerable, providing inspiration for the rest of the world to follow suit.

All that pent-up anger she has struggled with is now out in the open, and it has become encoded in the genes of young and old women alike.

The facts speak for themselves, as this new angry woman is powerful. By all accounts, she will lead the vote in the U.S. midterms in a few days and prove her power. She will have an impact.

It is not just the me-too movement, however, galvanizing women to vote and to run for seats in record numbers. It is also the polarizing case surrounding the confirmation of Supreme Court Justice Brett Kavanaugh following allegations of sexual misconduct by Dr. Ford and others.

As the midterms near, both sides are fired up, with polls showing that in particular women — Democrats and Republicans — will be voting in large numbers. The outcome will show who is angriest, for if there is one thing about this midterm that stands out, it’s the anger polarizing left versus right. Women are also at odds with each other over these politics, but let’s not lie to one another.

If there is one thing about this midterm that stands out, it’s the anger polarizing left versus right.

Who is the bully in the room who does not respect family and allows children to be separated from their families at the border? Who is the man caught paying off a call girl? Who has admitted on tape that he likes to touch women, to abuse his power? That they just let him because it’s him? Forget the politics. Look at the decency of a party that still supports an amoral president.

Women are also well aware that there is no silver lining if you lose yourself in the other. The other being the non-you. The polar opposite of you. A man who has no regard for family, for children taken from their parents at the border? Is he not the other? When society — or a powerful man — expects you to bend out of shape to mold yourself to its expectations, whether through marriage or work, or motherhood, or the vote, or whatever, the loss of identity will only deepen.

When society — or a powerful man — expects you to bend out of shape to mold yourself to its expectations, whether through marriage or work, or motherhood, or the vote, or whatever, the loss of identity will only deepen.

Your identity cannot be fished out at a later time and still hold its shape. It will have changed. It will be unrecognizable. And though you can fight to shape it back, it will often be at a high cost, an uphill battle, and towing a weight (the present) to boot.

Vote. It counts.

For the future, for the kids, for the world.

Top photo by Element5 Digital on Pexels

“What if we took all this anger born of righteous love and aimed it?”

—Ijeoma Olou, “We women can be anything. But can we be angry?” Medium.com

ANGER showcases essays and poetry featuring well-aimed anger from femme writers, writers of color, LGBTQIA+ writers, First Nations writers, and disabled writers.