I have done it. I’ve made the brave (see: financially and emotionally damning) decision to pursue words. And so, for the foreseeable future, words and their meanings will determine my success, both academic and professional. That said, I think now is time I unpack why I’ve been so afraid of my own.
From children’s classic The Tiger Who Came To Tea in my earlier years to Dolly Alderton’s Everything I Know About Love more recently, literature has permeated my life, and I am glad that’s so. I’ve found an incomparable joy in sourcing words to consume feverishly.
Books taught me the universality of emotion and, for as long as I’ve been able, I’ve been rejoicing in how healing it is to see your own feelings articulated by another person. At school, my eagerness to read delighted my teachers and I was encouraged to develop and share my own opinions on the latest books I’d read; this opinionated spirit bled through to all aspects of my life and subsequently, my name became synonymous with talkative.
“I was able to eventually retain my opinions and appease those in charge. Unbeknownst to me, in the midst of keeping to curfews and getting reports signed, I had lost my once-defining ability to say what was on my mind.”
Being chatty from early on came with its benefits; I was witty and able to entertain, earning me secure friendships and the label of class clown. Moreover, my natural ability to articulate myself meant schoolwork came naturally to me. But as I transitioned from ‘child’ to ‘teen’, and social convention bore down it’s silencing weight, my talkative nature brought problems and the once positive attribute became the primary cause for my punishment.
Conflict at home became more frequent as a result of my backchat (though I always liked to think of it as verbal dexterity…) and teachers at school began to view my witty contributions as disruptive. Disciplinary measures were implemented both at home and at school and I was able to eventually retain my opinions and appease those in charge. Unbeknownst to me, in the midst of keeping to curfews and getting reports signed, I had lost my once-defining ability to say what was on my mind.
This was confirmed to me after I received feedback from an interview which stated one of the reasons for my rejection was they perceived me too ‘timid’. I was dumbfounded and devastated. Never before in my life had that word been associated with me. This rejection felt like an attack, a condemnation of my personality. I felt lost, as though the steadfast and vibrant person I thought I was had vanished; replaced by a cowering shrew of a woman, who had disbanded her feminist ideals and succumbed to the silencing force of the patriarchy.
“The Colour Purple set my soul ablaze upon my first reading, and I’ve been running back to it in times of need ever since. [It] led me to check my privilege as an autonomous, western Black girl in the 21st century and encouraged me to stop moping and recognise that I was the master of my own fate. If Miss Celie could overcome her hardships, then I most certainly could too.”
I had spent so long censoring and shrinking myself down, convinced I was pleasing others and it was the right thing to do and it had left me uncertain and lost, with a backlog of tweets drafted for fear of backlash. I felt like a failure. So I did what I had been doing in times of crisis throughout my life, I picked up a book.
First up was Alice Walker’s The Colour Purple. This book set my soul ablaze upon my first reading, and I’ve been running back to it in times of need ever since. Like the wise aunty I perceive it to be, it leaves me with advice and inspiration enough to tackle whatever is troubling me at that moment. This time around, Celie’s story led me to check my privilege as an autonomous, western Black girl in the 21st century and encouraged me to stop moping and recognise that I was the master of my own fate. If Miss Celie could overcome her hardships, then I most certainly could too.
“I can’t say the fear of judgement has disappeared – in fact, the opposite is true – but the plight of these characters has bolstered me slightly to be more unapologetic with my opinions and existence. I’ve begun taking steps towards reclaiming my voice, albeit some are small … slowly but surely, my confidence is growing.”
Then I read How To Fail by Elizabeth Day, and although largely autobiographical, this book resonated with me all the same. Day’s chapter on careers has stuck with me. She spoke of how in order to gain confidence, she channeled a fat-cat businessman character that she’d created for a novel. This method led me to ponder how so many straight, white men are disproportionately successful.
Aside from the systemic structures giving them the leg-up, these men often possess an unwavering self-confidence and sense of entitlement and once I got past the indignation this sparks in me, I became quietly impressed. I decided to try and give this unbridled confidence a go, if it was good enough for the powerful ‘John’s’ of the world, then it was good enough for me.
I can’t say the fear of judgement has disappeared – in fact, the opposite is true – but the plight of these characters has bolstered me slightly to be more unapologetic with my opinions and existence.
I’ve begun taking steps towards reclaiming my voice, albeit some are as small as requesting an extra pump of vanilla in my coffee as opposed to gratefully sipping my bitter latte to avoid a fuss. I’ve stopped raising my voice to octaves audible only to dogs when thanking men bus drivers. I started communicating my feelings to people when they upset me and sharing my honest opinions (via Twitter and otherwise). And slowly but surely, with the help of many inspirational Instagrammable quotes and my mum, my confidence is growing.
Learning to take up space loudly and proudly once again is a work in progress. It likely will be for the rest of my life but the characters of and words of wisdom in my favourite books have aided me every step of the way. With their guidance, I am certain there is nothing I can’t do.
Nali is passionate about pro black activism and mac and cheese. @nalisheboo