Pen To Print

Monday Memoirs: What Now?

Introduced by Holly King

What Now reminds me of an exercise my GCSE Drama teacher gave us: find all the ways to express ‘come in’. We went through the obvious ones: cheerful, inquisitive, excited, angry, sad, seductive (well, we were 15); then moved onto a broader range: apprehensive, exhausted, reproachful, worried, apathetic, desperate. I feel that, similarly, there are many ways to pose the question: What Now?

What future awaits us now? What will happen to our jobs, our schools, our communities, our homes, our prospects, our holidays, our loved ones and social norms that have been with us our entire lives?

What about our grief? Grief for the loss of simple things, like reaching out to tap a stranger on the shoulder to tell them their bag is unzipped, or summer BBQs with generations of family together. What about griefs like the loss of jobs, homes, health, loved ones? COVID-19 whirled in, knocked us down and carried away some of us. While it was causing mayhem, it was impossible to think of any grief not attached to this situation. But death continued, uninterrupted, collecting people on the list already in place before the pandemic. Loss came on us hard, stinging like a slap to the face while we were distracted.

Because we couldn’t grieve in the way we have always known, those losses were made worse by lockdown. I never realised how communal grief is until I wasn’t able to grieve with others. By having to socially distance myself, I kept grief separate from me. My world had become the size of my flat; this half-formed thing sitting in my periphery, reminding me of the reality waiting when things returned to ‘normal’.

Things haven’t returned to normal, though. Grief is the hardest thing to deny people. Crematoriums have limited funeral attendances to immediate family members and, as a consequence, mass gatherings outside them have started grief-stricken fights with staff over their right to mourn together: as a collective, as an embodiment of love, sadness and memory echoing and reaching above us in one last breath of life.

It’s hard to write like this so publicly. I don’t want you to go away feeling weighed down, but I have to acknowledge the scared, exasperated side to What Now? We sit and await the latest news about what we are allowed to do now, what the R number is, what establishments are opening, what is expected of us, what other fallout there is. Yet, we all wait and we all ask: What Now?

Some of us will be better off than others, some of us have more safety nets, some of us have been impacted less, or less directly, but we’ve all been impacted.

So, my answer to What Now? is, I don’t know. But what I do know is that now we stay together in every way we can, in every way we have been (as Write On! Extra has showcased). We strengthen our empathy while strengthening our immunity. Now, we support each other. Now, we create: time for video chats, a message to a loved one, PPE for key workers, a network to help the vulnerable and elderly, a light for someone to see through their darkness.

There is never any other time than now, and we decide what we do with it.

 

This week’s feature by Denize beautifully asks and answers ‘What Now?’ in a personal context. 

What Next? can only be answered according to individual context.

In my case, my recent loss prompted the conclusion of artistic reflection through artwork that has spanned 10 years and which shaped my artistic practice. Part of that work was triggered by my father’s death, and 2020 demanded the closure of that reflection following my mother’s death during the pandemic. As a full-time carer to both, their experiences have been woven into the fabric of my artwork. As I continue to be challenged by questions of my heritage and history, I have recorded my thoughts and reflections accordingly, exploring how humanity handles these issues. In response, I have been developing a body of work within my art practice, which explores social issues related to the legacy of colonisation.

While I understood the construct of British slavery specifically from a very early age, it was not until a visit to the National Gallery in 2008 that my mother and I recalculated its relevance to us. On seeing a dress on a woman in a portrait, she was transported back in time to her five-year-old self, with a vivid flashback to her grandmother, who wore such a dress, albeit a much older and shabbier hand-me-down. She stopped, unable to move, and I couldn’t get any sense out of her. I was thrown in response to her confusion and distress.

We sat down in silence, looked at each other, asking ourselves why my great-grandmother would be wearing such a dress. It was very unusual: the dress was obviously not made for the Caribbean, as it was too heavy and impractical, and it would have been very expensive – not something they could afford. Local knowledge on the Island identified my great-grandmother as coming from Cape Verde (Portuguese West African colony) and I later learned there was a history of steady indentured labour from West Africa to the Caribbean, following emancipation.

My great-grandmother had lived in the immediate shadow of recent enslavement on the island. I also discovered that she hadn’t initially lived in the village, but instead at a ‘big house’, and my grandmother had to take her children there to see their grandmother, as she only came to visit at Christmas. When she retired, she had a big brass four-poster bed. Nobody knows how she obtained it, but my mother loved it. She had very little recollection of her grandmother outside of that, and even less of her grandfather. As we continued talking, I began to understand that the slavery people spoke of was so much closer in every way. I now saw how much it had shaped my grandmother, my mother and her sibling’s attitudes and behaviour.

The stories of the hardship, struggle and poverty of the Caribbean emerged bit by bit and began to answer questions that had been niggling at me throughout my lifetime. Armistice Day, V-E Day, Remembrance Sunday and Veterans Day amongst others since 1918, have collectively memorialised loss, and globally acknowledges the freedoms the world enjoys today. In January 2000, 44 Governments from around the world met in Stockholm to discuss the importance of Holocaust education, remembrance and research. Many governments established an annual Holocaust Memorial Day. Windrush Day was introduced in 2018 to acknowledge the contribution of people recruited from the Caribbean to help rebuild Britain over 70 years ago. Yet it does not acknowledge that the Caribbean only exists as a consequence of European slavery and, more specifically, British slavery. I had always wanted to know how it was possible to disconnect these two histories, which were, to me, clearly the same.

Within the context of ‘What Next’ there is urgency in preserving Caribbean culture, heritage and our stories. The older generation is passing away and we must capture their stories as an integral part of British and European history, changing the course of what is an established but incomplete history.

For me, ‘What Next’ is sharing our stories as part of a whole nation’s history. As an artist, I believe that transatlantic slavery and the brutal plantation as an agricultural cauldron, which laid the foundations for the industrial revolution, is everybody’s history. Without repairing that legacy, the damaged fabric of society continues to deepen. If ‘privilege views equality as discrimination’ then its monologue becomes and remains the voice of society bringing us to where we now stand.

My artwork African Violet…Hybrid Of Circumstance! is not the usual ArtBook, but a culmination of 10 years of research made using Art as storytelling, and she has shaped my artistic practice. The ‘she’ journeys through race, time and place as an artistic resolution of European enslavement and empire. Consequently, the mapping of those journeys is an integral part of her narrative and brings the geographic centre stage. She illustrates through motif how much the past is present. Parallel undercurrents exist, simultaneously seeking beauty in the darkness of death and her history as a way of healing. While she is many journeys within a journey, ultimately she exists as a consequence of the greatest love of all: sacrifice. The sacrifice of a generation.

Incidentally, ‘What Next’ is the name of a Leadership Development forum that provides personal development for African and African Caribbean people in the UK, using a foundation of ancestral wisdom of Caribbean proverbs. The What Next Forum is run by ’One Hand Can’t Clap’ the name itself being a proverb. My ‘What Next?’ is to conclude and self-publish my ArtBook, which unpacks into an installation exhibition and honours that legacy.

Connect with Denize on Instagram: @iesha.denize

 

Below, Denize describes the personal loss she recently experienced.

Grief And Fear Are Strange Bedfellows: A Mothers’ Tribute.  

Dealing with death has increased for many people in the last four months. It has become difficult to encounter someone who does not have a personal story of loss. That loss is compounded by the inability for people to carry out rituals normally associated with death and the lack of close contact with others has had a critical impact. There will be unresolved grief from the pandemic across the world for many years to come, and we will all be challenged to find ways to respond to that.

In my case, dealing with death facilitated an intersection of grief and fear, exacerbated by the extraordinary circumstances we find ourselves in. I lost my mother. She was a part of the Windrush Generation and so the racially hostile environment which targeted them has impacted our entire community. It becomes much more difficult not to be connected in some small way to someone who has been impacted by the Windrush deportation policies. These are the same people who now appear to be disproportionately dying; apprehension and uncertainty emerge as the impact of the collision of those two emotions: grief and fear.

Despite living here for over 60 years, my mother became increasingly afraid and it was necessary to continually reassure her that she was OK and would not be deported. I arrived in Barking just as Marks and Spencer closed and before Vicarage Fields was built and my mother came with my father about 10 years later. She worked as a cook at the bus garage on London Road, next to Barking Abbey School.

My children loved going out with their grandma, because bus drivers would just pull up, open the doors and let her on the bus when she was out walking; she was such a big part of their lives. I was so grateful, because I remember when I was at school I did not know what a ‘Nan’ was. In my immediate circle, no one had grandparents, and over the years very few of my peers had an experience of grandparents. It was expensive to visit the Caribbean; the cheaper option (ship) could take up to six weeks. My parents, like many, had not planned on settling here; five years maximum was a common aspiration.

Lack of decent housing and limited access to social housing forced them to buy property and they stayed to honour those mortgages. My parents, like many, stayed here for over 50 years, the best part of their lives away from their families and communities, missing important milestones back home and instead creating new communities. My mother was adventurous and involved in community activity wherever we lived. At 60, she learned to swim at Barking Abbey Sports Centre with a local Scottish woman. She also learned upholstery, aromatherapy and reflexology and, as the years went by, she kept herself active.

More recently, she was involved in many of the Pen to Print events, workshops and classes. She was part of the Elderly Active aging group and went to Bingo and Zumba classes at the library. She also went to the Melting Pot Caribbean lunch club in Ilford and regularly visited friends across London. Last year, she was at the first Black History Month event of almost 15 years in Barking (we usually went to Newham) and she really enjoyed herself at the Broadway. We visited Valance House and Eastbury Manor House, as well as some of the ‘Everyone Everyday’ community events. She enjoyed the breadth of diversity of all the people with their different cultures around her, so she couldn’t understand why people wanted to leave Europe through Brexit. She encouraged her children, her grandchildren and great-grandchildren to do the same as she had. In 2020, the year of the global COVID-19 pandemic, unfortunately, she missed the milestone of her 80th birthday by just two months. We miss her smile…

She greeted the sunrise everyday
And she smiled
Whether or not the day was going her way
She smiled
Such a wonderful and gentle smile
Bright like the morning star
Twinkling afar
With the power
To lift your troubles
And whisper to your heart

Her smile
Like a warm embrace
Uplifting as it spread
Contagiously
Across her face
Until it hugged you
Comforting your soul

When people brought bad news
She listened carefully
Before she told them what she knew
Was true

That God is good
And would give you strength
To continue
And she smiled

And with every smile
She let God talk

A moving poem that vividly describes a woman I never met, but feel as though I did, thanks to her daughter.

Finally, we visit Wallis again, with her last Monday Memoirs strip, titled: Degree In Time.

Visit Wallis’s online shop – www.etsy.com/uk/shop/WallisEates

Wallis is also the London co-ordinator of Laydeez Do Comics – https://laydeezdocomics.wordpress.com/

Connect with them on Twitter: @laydeezdocomics

Buy tickets to Wallis’ Draw to Explore online workshops https://buytickets.at/walliseates/368693

This has been a rather poignant and solemn last Monday Memoirs; but have no fear, we’ll be back to embrace the changes in the world and on this page.

After a short break and the release of Write On! magazine issue 5, I will return with an updated ‘Monday Moments’ page in August. Check out the Editor’s introduction (https://pentoprint.org/introducing-write-on-extra-daily-posts-for-difficult-times/) for upcoming themes and how to submit your moment to inspire, uplift and motivate us all through to our next Monday meet-up.

What future awaits us now? What will happen to our jobs, our schools, our communities, our homes, our prospects, our holidays, our loved ones and social norms that have been with us our entire lives?