I’m supposed to be writing a children’s book. I have a deadline looming on the horizon. But I just can’t bring myself to do it. My brain is so overwhelmed by global events – which, since March 2020, have been one horror after another – that the creative part of my brain, the part which allows me to come up with playful stories and characters just isn’t working.
I’m also currently supposed to be working on a podcast for my PhD. Throughout the pandemic, I’ve used the podcast as a coping mechanism to be able to deal with the world turning upside-down. As the quarantine took a toll on my mental health over the last few weeks, I became socially disconnected from everybody but still worked furiously on the podcast. However, the last week made it impossible for me to carry on as usual. The video of George Floyd’s murder, the Black Lives Matter protests in the US and across the world, examples of police brutality against the protesters in the US, the lockdown-related migrant crisis in India where their humanity and, in some instances, their lives are being stripped away from them, the hateful rhetoric online in response to Black Lives Matter taking over social media, the lack of empathy, racism – both overt and disguised under doublespeak. All of it was too much. Due to the ingrained productivity-guilt which I’m trying to unlearn, I did manage to get some work done but I spent most of the week being unable to focus on anything except stories on Twitter. I felt like I was back in December 2019-January 2020 when the violence in India left me unable to function.
Of course, I realise that being emotionally distraught rather than physically shattered comes from a place of immense privilege. I’m privileged in so many different ways – I’m of Hindu background in a country with a Hindu-supremacist government. The systemic violence against Muslims, Dalits, and poor people doesn’t directly impact me. Although I’m currently a brown immigrant in a structurally-white country – a country which colonised my own a few decades ago – the university space accords me with significant cultural and social status. I’ve largely been protected from direct racism. And because I grew up in a country where my race didn’t marginalise me, I’m unable to even recognise if I’ve ever had any covertly racist experiences in the UK. I’m able-bodied and I haven’t been diagnosed with any mental illnesses so although the quarantine has taken a toll on my mental health, it hasn’t affected me drastically. I can still function with minimal adjustments. I’m lucky enough to be doing work I love in a structure which allows me to choose my own work hours because of which I could be unfocused and unable to work last week without any repercussions. I was supposed to record a podcast episode on Thursday – episode 13 – about the ways in which religion and national/regional origin have been weaponised by fascist governments. But the research for the episode and the events of the week ended up depressing me so much that I had to ask my friends to postpone it to the weekend.
Since I started properly working on this podcast in December 2019, every month there has been some new news event – usually more than a dozen at a time – which has contributed to the overall, as the Green brothers would call it, world suck. And I’m an optimistic person who always hopes that people working to make the world better for everyone will outnumber and push out the people who are working to make the better worse for everyone who isn’t a part of their group (religious, racial, gender, whatever). But I’ve found myself growing increasingly despondent and angry about everything that’s going on. Again, a place of immense privilege that I’m learning about the injustices and oppression prevalent in the world rather than facing them firsthand. And it sometimes makes me wonder, what am I doing with this self-indulgent PhD project that I love so much rather than going out there and being an active part of making the world better? Or why am I not in India actively working with children’s books and young people from deprived backgrounds, trying to make their lives better in whatever way I can? What’s the point of writing fun, silly children’s books? What’s the point of a fan podcast which largely focuses on cultural representations and marginalised perspectives in media? That’s a part of what made me stop working last week. Because sometimes, what’s even the point?
Then, over the weekend, a newsletter I subscribe to, included the image above. On Sunday, Black Lives Matter protesters in Bristol brought down the statue of a slave trader Edward Colston. Like many people in this country (though not the ones who had been campaigning for the removal of this statue for many years), I hadn’t heard of Edward Colston. And like many others, the removal of this statue (and tossing it into the river) educated me about his atrocities. (My self-care routine on Sunday involved sending delighted texts to my friends of the video of the toppling as well as messages against all the other racist statues in the UK. As the banner opposite Oriel College in Oxford declared, “Rhodes, you’re next.”) The protests over the week not only read to widespread horror and engagement with racism but also brought about concrete measures to stop glorifying racists in public spaces. The statue also became a conversation starter for racist representations throughout the UK and other parts of the world (more statues are being taken down and in Glasgow, under the signs of streets named after slave traders, activists have put up signs with alternate names celebrating black people). We did end up recording our episode on Sunday too and while it was filled with a lot of angry rants (mostly mine), talking to my friends about my feelings was extremely cathartic.
Because that’s why this matters. The reason I started writing and working with children’s books is because books were so important to me during a difficult childhood. And books are so important to me now during tumultuous global events. They not only offer me comfort but also hope for a different kind of world. Talking about intersectionality and different marginalised perspectives on this podcast isn’t pointless. I know media representations are important and I know fandom discussions about these representations act as excellent consciousness-raisers. Media representations influence mainstream culture which in turn influences mainstream politics. As Rebecca Solnit reminds us in Hope in the Dark, even in the midst of struggles for a better world, it’s important to celebrate the changes which we have witnessed as a result of past activist work in social, cultural, and political contexts. Popular culture and conversations shape people’s imaginations – in ways which can both limit and expand them. And ideas which promote radical exclusivity and empathy and respect for diverse experiences don’t just materialise out of thin air. There are millions of people working towards making their vision of the world real. That belief allows me to do this research, in the hope that even if it contributes the tiniest bit to a shift in the conversation and imagination, I can call it a success.
After a rain mushrooms appear on the surface of the earth as if from nowhere. Many do so from a sometimes vast underground fungus that remains invisible and largely unknown. What we call mushrooms mycologists call the fruiting body of the larger, less visible fungus. Uprisings and revolutions are often considered to be spontaneous, but less visible long-term organizing and groundwork — or underground work — often laid the foundation. Changes in ideas and values also result from work done by writers, scholars, public intellectuals, social activists, and participants in social media. It seems insignificant or peripheral until very different outcomes emerge from transformed assumptions about who and what matters, who should be heard and believed, who has rights.
Ideas at first considered outrageous or ridiculous or extreme gradually become what people think they’ve always believed. How the transformation happened is rarely remembered, in part because it’s compromising: it recalls the mainstream when the mainstream was, say, rabidly homophobic or racist in a way it no longer is; and it recalls that power comes from the shadows and the margins, that our hope is in the dark around the edges, not the limelight of center stage. Our hope and often our power.
Change is rarely straightforward… Sometimes it’s as complex as chaos theory and as slow as evolution. Even things that seem to happen suddenly arise from deep roots in the past or from long-dormant seeds.
– Rebecca Solnit, Hope In The Dark