For many years I’ve written around rather than through my own experiences, largely because stories told by people of mixed heritage have not been supported by gatekeepers of the screen, page and stage. It’s only in the last few years that I’ve changed the order in which I describe my background, now prefacing Afro-Caribbean before Anglo-Irish. I’m making up for lost time. Time spent desperately trying to cling onto a white cultural identity that I’d always thought more palatable for the status quo.
My bi-racial identity has been a complex story, trailed by ellipses rather than a definitive full stop. I grew up in Canberra, in a very white, middle class community with a pale-skinned, blond-haired mother, the epitome of a westernised beauty we are all taught to admire. Mum was my living Barbie doll, her hair my secret delight: long, straight strands that relent at a brush willingly. I remember brushing my own hair, painfully pulling through knots as self-punishment. It’s no surprise that the first stories I wrote as a child had a quiet yearning for whiteness.
It’s no surprise that the first stories I wrote as a child had a quiet yearning for whiteness.
I was born in Guyana but my parents migrated to America soon after, before my mother and I returned to Australia when I was two. My untold B story is a history that was never fully unpacked because it was connected to my absent Black father, whom I resented for making me less ‘Australian.’
Besides, African-Australian identities were largely absent from the 80s popular culture I grew up in. People tried to place me in a fictionalised context and I remember being called Lucy from 'Degrassi Junior High', and then oddly, Yannick (Noah) during tennis lessons, a reference to the French male tennis player from the 90s.
I often wondered ‘what is Blackness?’. On screen, it was all sass and one-liners watching ‘Different Strokes', and ‘Webster.’ Blackness was a form of entertainment. At music camp, when I became the punchline in a joke about Velcro hair, I forced myself to laugh. When people asked what my middle name was, I’d sigh internally. Akosua comes with a history that placed me somewhere else, a long story about a problematic past. "Oh, that’s pretty," strangers might say. But, no, it’s embarrassing having to spell it out or listen as the Vice Chancellor butchers pronunciation as I walk across the stage to receive my degree.
In my first novel, the semi-autobiographical protagonist is as naïve about their heritage as I was.
When you don't want to rock the boat you are still a passenger in, writing leads you into self-imposed solitude. I began to question why I othered myself. Could I work my way back with kindness and curiosity? As many people of mixed heritage will tell you, writing through one’s own skin is as much about reclaiming the self as recalibrating a landscape devoid of diversity. For many, fitting in often means leaving another part of the story out, or never being wholly accepted in either cultural context. As my allegiances between each ‘camp’ shift, I’ve often felt like a fraud.
While the fictionalised memoir is often touted as a means to romanticise the past or prioritise the positive aspects of lived experience, writing has been a painfully honest reflection on why I used to racialise emotion, attributing virtue and safety to whiteness and suspicion and fear with blackness. In this sense, writing is not a choice. It’s self-imposed therapy that helped me unpack the fear and loneliness of being here and also of there.
Writing ‘own voice’ stories has been a stop-start process; the sum of numerous often-unwieldy drafts punctuated with self-doubt and surprise. When I accepted the equation of two whole halves, writing about my Afro-Caribbean heritage became a rite of passage back into territories once deemed too fractious to deal with, a conversation with myself that I’d put on hold.
Though clichéd, ‘be the change you want to see’ is the perfect mantra, because I’m not waiting for permission anymore.
In my first novel, the semi-autobiographical protagonist is as naïve about their heritage as I was. Only through finally asking my father - now very much a part of my life - to fill in the gaps, was I able to engage with the past and claim ownership over how I place myself in the world. Though Dad’s goat curry needs a little work, I love nothing more than the sound of steel drums belting out Calypso or reading about the ‘sheroes’ from the awesomely named ‘Guyanese Girls Rock’ website that I avidly follow. No matter our heritage, sharing stories is how we find and build community. Now I’ve written out some of the pain, I want to pivot and look at my mixed heritage from other angles. I want to choose my own punchline.
I do recognise the privilege of being given the tools and opportunities to use writing as an act of confession and reconciliation, hoping that the path I make is wide enough for others to tread. Though clichéd, ‘be the change you want to see’ is the perfect mantra, because I’m not waiting for permission anymore. Instead, I’m going to write myself out of obscurity and into a broader conversation, one page at a time. So please, whatever your heritage, come with me. I’d love to hear your story too.
SBS wants to hear your story...because there's a writer in all of us. Submit your story of 2000 words or less that speaks to the beauty and/or challenges of being Between Two Worlds in diverse Australia and you could win up to $5000 and kickstart your career. Entries close September 16. Go to www.sbs.com.au/writers for more information and register here to enter.