January 26, 2020March 17, 2020 7min readBy Divya Seth
Have you ever thought about the fact that we are all just babies in grownup bodies? Do you want to simplify your life to just a neat set of your favorite things? In this series of short, journal-style essays by Brown Girl writer Divya Seth, she asks these questions and explores sexuality, catcalling, and why the hell coffee is so expensive in a city full of mice.
I have my baby pink vibrating dildo in one hand—my favorite, it’s so soft!—and am clicking around one of my favorite sex worker’s lesbian porn channel with the other. I’m going to reprogram the way I do porn, the way I orgasm, the way I excite myself. It’s a full moon, the last one of the year, and of the decade. A full moon in Sagittarius season, my season. I’m newly 24, and I want more for myself. As I masturbate, I’m struck by the intensity of what I’m feeling over the course of just nine minutes. Here’s what happens: I’m here because I can’t stand to watch one more man stuff his phallus into another woman. It’s just one of those days, sorry, but not really. I’m here and I’m reveling in pure, unfiltered pleasure. I watch them touch each other so genuinely and intentionally. “I want to feel seen,” I think. Every caress has a purpose, and their tongues feel real on my own body. “I want to be free,” I think. At times the stimulation is literally too much, and I blow air out of pursed lips. I didn’t expect to feel joyous, achingly joyous. I watch one lesbian rub her breast on another’s clit and masturbate her with it. “There are no rules,” I think. I realize the title of the movie is An Old Flame and remember that I have no female old flame. That I can’t do what they’re doing. That I’m afraid and shy and nervous. “I wish, I wish, I wish,” I think. I didn’t expect to feel melancholy.
December 13th, 2019
The perils of walking around the city: I made the mistake of wearing leggings yesterday. My butt looked incredible, but apparently a Street Man response to this is to treat me like a zoo animal. It doesn’t really track, does it? Every piece of sidewalk blessed by my beautiful ass should have promptly unfurled into a red carpet—because that’s how good my leggings made my butt look—but, instead, I was greeted by men aggressively waving in my face, yelling in my ear, whistling as though beckoning a dog. Just thinking about it, my sympathetics activate, my jaw clenches, my face is taught. If you come close enough, you’ll hear a low rumbling growl beginning to bubble up out of me. I should come with a warning: Don’t tap the glass. The kind that only children are foolish enough not to heed. The glass is nice. It’s cozy, I guess. But the threat of violence is always looming. So long as attempts to instigate me bounce off the glass, my glass, I can maintain my illusion of safety. The glass contains me, muffles the sounds and smells of the outside world, keeps me sterile, untouched, and unresponsive. Growls are sedated in here. The street can never be mine, because I already belong to the inside of my glass cubicle, my 9-to-5 to 5-to-9. What does anything feel like? Marble strokes are cold and seamless, no asphalt or warm knuckles graze me, nothing hurts in here. So long as I’m contained, safely contained. Protect me from the world, and, while you’re at it, protect it from me. The glass is alive with my rage, and it only grows thicker. A quote from a piece of writing I found at the Herstory Archives floats into my mind: “A lesbian is the rage of all women condensed to the point of explosion.”
December 17th, 2019
Inside of the most expensive coffee shop I have ever seen, I’m momentarily surprised and disgusted by the tiniest little mouse I have ever seen. I’m not much of a screamer (there’s a sex joke in there somewhere), so I sit and watch it. The littlest mouse scurries shyly along the floor where the brick wall meets the slate tiling, lurking in the shadowy areas of the room. The littlest mouse is looking for the littlest snacks, obviously. Having made the decision to not scream or make a ruckus of any kind, I’m now quietly rooting for the small thing. It runs among the feet of patrons, unbeknownst to them. Isn’t it curious how these people never look down? My heart skips beats as the littlest mouse is almost seen many times. I’m sitting here bracing for the inevitable outrage and chaos that will result once the comfortable white folks of this astonishingly expensive establishment find this infiltrator. I can’t help but think: Isn’t that a little bit of an over-reaction? I mean, I know the plague was a whole thing, but, my little friend is really minding his own business here. I’m strangely proud of him/her/them—it is audacious to demand the right to live freely. And sometimes that demand is simply existing in public, in a small, overpriced coffee shop.
December 24th, 2019
This is the biggest secret they don’t tell you: The older you get, the easier it is to see that every other person was once just a baby. A crying baby that grew up and morphed into a thing with feelings, and thoughts, and voting rights. That’s every person whether they’re explaining their thoughts on americanos versus lattes or how trickle-down economics is a flawed theory or how isn’t it so funny that we carefully track dog breeds but don’t really hold the same energy for cats? All of those people were once babies, and those babies ate a ton and shat two tons and now they have amassed so many opinions and experiences, even though some of them should have just stayed babies, and maybe some of them (your ex), really did. I have a good friend who gets sassy with her father occasionally, and when she does, her father reminds her: “I taught you how to hold a spoon.” While we might think we know things now, as grownup babies, there was once a time when we didn’t know how to hold spoons. We are babies and we have come very far because now we have highbrow thoughts on interior design such as, “mahogany is a beautiful wood and would complement my dining room very well in the form of a table.” But deep down we are all still babies, and in the way that it’s funny to watch a baby struggle to hold a spoon, maybe it’s funny for someone else Up There to watch us struggle to live our lives as grownup babies.
December 28th, 2019
Another year is coming to a close. It’s remarkable how much more connected I am to other people on Earth today, compared to last year. I took the time to wish my friends in Cameroon “Merry Christmas!” a few days ago, and collected warm replies over the following days. The love from them is boundless, it is unrelenting and fearless. It is unlike American love. To my surprise, I can still feel its glow through my phone. The profoundness of the blessing that was Cameroon is not lost on me—when American capitalism and transactionality and posturing gets me down, I remind myself of the love I felt in Cameroon, its depth and its purity. Knowing something better is out there has saved me on many occasions. I wonder how disappointed my Cameroonian friends would be if they came to my apartment in New York City, and lived here a while. I mourn their hypothetical realization that the image of America they held was an illusion, and behind the veneer of prosperity is emptiness and relational isolation. But if I can measure my prosperity in love, then this year was a prosperous year, and Cameroon made me wealthy. I suppose this means that I should plan to leave America for good one day. But the enormity of my family’s sacrifices to birth me and raise me in the United States shackle me here. Each sacrifice is a pebble in my pocket. So, I’m settling for manifesting my dream for community here. I dream of a coven of queer women. I dream to live in a community of positive reinforcement rather than punitive measures. I dream of a family defined not by blood relationships or legality, but by the strength of our bonds. I dream of radical love.
January 6th, 2020
I want to be so neat and crisp and clean. I want to have just one of each of my favorite things. And I want to have not too many favorite things. One type of parchment paper I love. One favorite snack. One favorite movie, book, song. One best friend. One lotion that I love very much. One signature scent. But instead, I have four different perfumes sitting on my vanity. Three favorite parks. Two of the exact same brand of fleece-lined leggings because I love them so much. I want my things to be orderly because maybe then, my life will be as well. Wouldn’t it be so nice if you could just pack up all your belongings into neat little white boxes and stack them up just so. Exactly ten white cardboard boxes is what my life fit into when I moved here. I was so satisfied in taking up no space at all. And the space I did occupy was squares, how convenient. Squares that fit perfectly on top of squares to form cubes. A collection of right angles. But that’s not me anymore, because I’ve multiplied into a catastrophe of acute and obtuse angles. Of curving string lights in my room and stalactite candles on my shelves and varying dimensions of art on my walls. It is so uncomfortable to be freeform. Every move and manner of being is uncharted, every pairing of clothes yet unknown to fashion magazines, every angle of my face unique, bizarre. To fit the cake mold is satisfying, if you’re a batter, pourable, ready to be transformed into a perfect circle. But I’m already done, risen, cooked through and through. I arrived on this earth already prepared, so the cake mold slices at my uneven parts. I live my life an asymmetry, and it is a painful rebellion.
Seth’s musings provide food for thought in parts of our lives that we rarely think twice about. Her unique perspective is refreshing, how often do you find yourself rooting for the mouse in a coffee shop? Read more of Seth’s work here.
I first started writing it for submission to a competition with the Borough Press. I wasn’t sure what story I wanted to write because I felt obligated to write certain stories or write in a certain style. I pretty much got fed up and started questioning myself. When I put pen to paper and got serious, the story that came out was a story of grief not necessarily specific to my life. I knew I wanted it to be about a family going through grief for decades, and how grief can arrest and impact the family structure.
When you first started writing, which part of the story came out?
It was the very first chapter. The first three chapters of the book came naturally. What you read in the book is untouched from the first draft that I submitted. I knew it was about a family that was going through grief. I knew I wanted it to take place between Trinidad and Toronto because I was born and raised in Trinidad and lived in Toronto. I wanted that sort of cross-generational mixture of family in the book as well – to see how each generation dealt with grief.
Did you always want to be a writer?
I don’t think I knew. It’s just one of those things that you think is impossible, so there’s no point dreaming about it. But when I was a young girl in Trinidad, I imagined myself carrying a leather briefcase and I don’t know why, but I knew I was going somewhere important, and I had something important to do. I always loved writing, but the truth is people get in the way and they dissuade you. It’s all around you – that the arts is not a viable career and if you pursue it, you have a 95% chance of failure. But after working 10 office jobs in three years, I’m like, ‘I’m not happy,’ so this is actually the failure. I knew I needed change.
How do you navigate the space of being told that art is not a viable career, especially in the Indo Caribbean community?
Those challenges were around me all the time. It wasn’t even my family, but it even comes from friends and acquaintances. When you’re young, being an artist is hard, and you’re told there’s no point in doing it. I listened to people who said that, and got office jobs and did what everyone else was doing because apparently, that was the way to be happy. Five years passed by and I realized I wasn’t happy and I should have never listened to those people. I started writing. I started doing something that made me happy and treated it as a serious craft. I did not treat it as a hobby, but as something that was going to pave my path. I really worked in a tunneled vision. So I never told anybody what I was doing – I didn’t want to be dissuaded. I had to be my own champion. I know that doesn’t sound healthy, but back in 2012, I didn’t know about community.
Cassandra, the main character is a writer, like yourself. How much of Cassandra’s story is your story?
My family is very supportive of my writing and it took some time for them to get there. Like many families, they kind of saw it as a hobby. Once they saw that I got published, they took it more seriously. Now, they are supportive of my writing and I think in the book, Cassandra’s family is not that supportive. They just weren’t interested in her writing, which is why she didn’t talk about it. It is a little bit reflective of my own experience.
It wasn’t based on a true story. That is something I get asked often – a lot of people say ‘she’s Trinidad and you’re Trinidadian.’ The places I wrote about are from my memory, but the plot itself is fiction. I wanted to challenge myself to write something truly fictional. I grew up in a household of strong Trinidadian women. I wanted to write about strong Trinidadian women, the roles they play, their histories and their backgrounds. The characters aren’t necessarily based on anyone particular in my life. Overall, it was a joy to imagine and write it because each one of these characters are very different from the other.
The novel has nine major female characters and at most three major male characters. Why did you want to tell a female-driven story?
I grew up in a family of predominantly women, and most of my Caribbean friends also grew up in families of predominantly women. They really are, in my experience, our caretakers. For me, my family and my friends, our mothers are our worlds – we love and admire them. Family is their priority; raising their children is their priority. I wanted to write about Trinidadian women because I wanted to tell each of their stories. I want more Indo Caribbean and Caribbean women in fiction. I think anything that I write will always be about Caribbean women. I want to contribute to that field of literature. I have such enormous respect for them; all the sacrifices that they’ve gone through to bring their kids to new countries – some of them single moms. There’s nothing else I really want to write about, to be honest.
One of the other things I noticed was keen attention to the setting. How many of these precise details came from your own life, if any of them?
For Trinidad, a lot of it is based on my memory of the island and my home there. But I did have to turn to my family for specific details that I thought I may have imagined. Because I grew up mostly in Toronto. I was insecure about writing about Trinidad, so I went back to my mom and my family, who lived there for over 40 years. In terms of the house in Toronto, some of that is from my experience and some from imagination. I’ve written and talked about this book before, “The Poetics of Space” by Gaston Bachelard, which examines the psychology of houses. I tried to construct a house that would accommodate the psychology of the characters. If the house seems very detailed, it’s because I made it so, to accommodate certain secrets and people’s personalities.
Why explore the psychology of a house?
It’s not an original thought, but I think the way space is organized around us, or the way we organize ourselves in a space dictates physical behavior. If you’re in a wide open space and you don’t know anyone, that can seem intimidating. If you’re in a closed space, that can also seem intimidating. I tried to organize the space to give each character privacy from the other, but then once they were in a common room, it really changed the dynamics of their interactions.
What makes a family?
I think people who have been through challenges with you for years make a family. That’s not even a blood thing – I have friends that are like family because we’ve been through things together over decades. It’s people you’ve experienced highs and lows with, but managed to stick with throughout the years. But ‘family’ can also be people who you haven’t talked to for years, who you’ve had a fragmented relationship with. For those sorts of relationships, it can be an unhealthy loyalty or a wondering of what could have been.
The book doesn’t have a happily-ever-after ending. Why?
Not ending the story in a neat little package was very important to me. I think there’s a certain expectation in storytelling by readers that a story needs a conclusion. And, to me, this is not what actually happens in the real world. The reasons people read a book are different – some people are reading for escapism, others are to better understand cultures and other people – so it depends on the reader and what they’re looking for. In literary fiction, readers are more open to an inconclusive ending because literary fiction can take things to a darker, more serious place than other genres. If I wrapped up the story with a nice little bow, it would be untrue to what this family has gone through. I wanted to show how unsolved issues can pan out. I didn’t want to take the story from a sad beginning to a happy ending. Not all stories end happily.
What do you want readers to take away from “Wild Fires?”
I set out to write a story that had a universal theme. I wanted to feature a somewhat normal story with Caribbean characters. It wasn’t centered around race or indentureship because a lot of the Indo Caribbean literature that I’ve read has been – and rightly so. That’s where I learned about our history and our stories. But that was not a story that I wanted to tell first because it was not the story that was closest to my heart. When I started writing, I realized the story was really about grief. I wanted to show Caribbean women and Indo Trinidadian women, in a universal light. We are a result of these histories yet go through normal things like grief, secrets and family dysfunction.
Following the publication of “Wild Fires,” Jai is pursuing her Master’s at Oxford University as a Kellogg’s Scholar. While attending school, she’s looking to write a short story about Caribbean joy to contrast the dark themes of her debut novel and portray Caribbean women in unrepresented ways.
“Wild Fires” is available in Canada and the UK and will be available in the U.S. in Spring 2023.
“Confessions to a Moonless Sky” is a meditation on the new moon and guilt. I wrote it when I was living in Dallas and was driving back from a dusk prayer. The new moon terrified me on that drive. I was diseased by the knowledge that my partner, at the time, had seen the worst parts of me. There’s immense shame in this piece—it seized my self-image. If the moon could become brand new, then I could start over.
I often ponder on the moon’s reflective nature and pairs of eyes. I’m hyper-fixated on how I am seen by others. Unfortunately, the brilliance of seeing your reflection in another person leads to negativity. After all, those who are too keen on their own reflection are the same people who suffer from it. It is possible to use shame to fuel one’s retribution and personal growth, without becoming consumed by it.
We can look to Shah Rukh Khan succumbing to alcoholism in his own sorrow and then later imbibing his sadness in Chandramukhi. “Confessions to a Moonless Sky” is a lesson for us: Don’t be Shah Rukh Khan in Devdas, instead embody pre-incarnation Shah Rukh Khan in Om Shanti Om!
Sometimes when the moon abandons the sky, I wonder if I drove her away.
If she comes back, will she be the same? How I wish she would come back new, truly new! That way she’d have no memory of the sin I’ve confessed to her. You noxious insect. Sin-loving, ego-imbibing pest. You are no monster, for at least a monster has ideology, it sins with purpose. You sin just to chase ignominy.
But the moon won’t say that, she never does. She’ll just leave the sky and return days later, slowly. And I’ll wonder if she’s new, perhaps she won’t remember my past confessions. What does it matter? Were the moon replaced with one from a different god, I’d drive her away, too.
NAKED: The Honest Musings of 2 Brown Women was born in the autumn of 2018, when Mimi Mutesa and Selvi M. Bunce began sharing their poetry collections. It was scary, beautiful, and terrifying when they decided to trust each other with their most intimate thoughts. Not only did they feel relieved after doing so, but Selvi and Mimi also felt more seen as women of color. They embarked on their publication journey, so others may feel as seen as they did on that fateful autumn.
“Ingrown Hair” deals with the themes of societal and family pressures that are reflected throughout NAKED. Mimi and Selvi have always written for themselves. They see poetry as an outlet, and their poems exemplify their personal frustration and vulnerability. “Ingrown Hair” speaks to Selvi’s experience with the societal pressures of South Asian women, such as getting married, being a good wife, becoming a good mother, and leading a certain kind of life.
There is something strange beneath my skin
telling me to build a house,
make a home,
I am not sure how to reconcile it.
My mother was strong
and a mother after all.
My philosophy has been to spend my time
on myself and the world.
I have always thought
I could simply address the thing under my skin
when it finally crawled out.
But when my family starts guessing
who will get married first, and my father
has been saving wedding money for years,
I begin to wonder
if I will have to pluck it out.
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