the fabulous Dorothy Koomson (author of ‘The Rose Petal Beach’ and several other best-selling novels) picked ‘Precious’ as her favourite autobiography in this month’s Red magazine. It was such a lovely surprise 🙂
How simple a thing it seems to me that to know ourselves as we are, we must know our mothers’ names
first published in Glamour magazine
WHEN I meet Celine she is wearing a floor-length Marc Jacobs coat over Chloe jeans, a TSE Cashmere sweater and Jimmy Choo spike heels. She jokingly calls herself a “label whore.” In reality she is also a whore in the more traditional sense of the word.
Celine, a 20 year-old Economics undergraduate at New York University (NYU) has never had a pimp and she never walks the streets (she takes cabs everywhere instead) – but she is a fully-fledged hooker. In between lectures at NYU she gets paid $300 an hour for sex with strangers who are old enough to be her father.
“I don’t see sex and love as being inextricably connected,” says Celine, a tall, slim blonde with long legs and perfect skin. “I can make more cash on my back right now than I’ll maybe ever earn with a straight job,” she admits, tossing back her sleek, shoulder-length blonde hair (kept sleek and straight with a $700 Japanese straightening process four times a year at Frederic Fekkai). “And it’s easy. Nobody keeps tabs on you, especially not in a big city college like NYU. Nobody is in your business at all.”
A self-confessed shopaholic, Celine is simply not interested in making do on the $1500 a month allowance her parents send her. “That’s just rent and food money,” she says with a shrug. “That just covers the basics. It doesn’t leave me with enough cash to actually go out and have fun.”
Celine’s attitude is not unique. A new breed of university students in America are going on the game in order to live out their college years in style. These students-for-hire don’t have drug habits or money issues (they all come from comfortable middle-class homes) and they are not yearning to be rescued. They have sex for cash so that they can splurge on Prada shoes and meals at expensive restaurants.
Celine makes around $3,000 a week for having sex with four or five different men a night, three nights a week. She became a hooker a year ago. “I know it sounds corny, but living in New York is constant pressure to spend cash. Everybody is amazingly groomed and every shop you go into has like a million outfits that you are just desperate to own. I would go into Barneys Co-op and not be able to afford a single thing in the store. Not even like a hair-clip. My parents have always paid my living expenses but I couldn’t hit them up for designer stuff. I’d been fantasizing about becoming a hooker and making loads of cash for a while – but I didn’t think I’d ever have the nerve to actually do it.”
One day last year Celine took a deep breath and called an escort agency she had seen advertised in the Manhattan Yellow Pages. “I was interviewed in an apartment in midtown by the guy who owns the agency. My hair was shorter back then and he suggested I grow it longer or get hair extensions – because men like something to grab hold of when you give them oral sex,” she smirks.
“Then he asked me to undress, gave me a bottle of body lotion and asked me to massage him. He told me to treat him like I would treat a client so I did and we had sex in three different positions. It was totally gross, he was quite old and really fat. But afterward I felt like there was nothing left that I wouldn’t do. He called me with my first job that night.
“I don’t feel bad about the sex at all now. I tell my boyfriend that I’m in the library when I’m really seeing a client and I just get on with it and do what I have to do. Sometimes I get really turned on and have an orgasm but most of the time it’s a bit boring and just something I do to get what I want. “It’s a hell of a lot less demeaning than working as a waitress or something. And I always reward myself by getting a manicure and pedicure and going on a shopping spree at Bergdorf Goodman or Barney’s every Saturday afternoon.”
Celine may make it sound glamorous but this is certainly not a job for the squeamish. Student call-girls have to have sex with men they find physically repulsive and endure clients who insist on urinating on them or ejaculating into their perfectly made-up faces.
“The things that shocked me when I started don’t shock me at all now,” laughs Jenn, a statuesque blonde Aviation Management student at Toronto’s Georgian university, and a part-time prostitute. “I do most things – Greek (anal sex), Russian (where a client thrusts his penis between a girl’s breasts until he ejaculates all over her cleavage). The only thing I won’t do is sex without a condom.”
Like Celine, Jenn became a hooker in order to indulge her passion for shopping – and she is unapologetic about the way she funds her glam lifestyle. “I actually enjoy the sex and I really get off on knowing a man is having to pay $250 an hour just to have sex with me,” says Jenn, 22, as she strolls barefoot around her apartment in Toronto. “They really respect me.”
A self-confessed shopaholic, Jenn has been a prostitute ever since she started university four years ago. “Toronto is very expensive,” she says by way of explanation. “And doing this lets me actually concentrate on my studies. Money is not an issue, I can afford pretty much anything I want right now. That’s a pretty great feeling.”
Jenn initially worked for an escort agency but went “freelance” once she had acquired a steady stream of regular clients. Now she advertises her services on the Internet and has sex with around twelve men each week. Last year she bedded more than 500 men and made $140,000.
Jenn’s boyfriend John stares at her adoringly as she checks her email for messages from potential clients. Her email monicker is “Ample Aphrodite”. John, a 41-year-old caterer, met Jenn a few months ago when he paid her $250 for sex. The next time they had sex, Jenn didn’t charge and they’ve been together ever since. John, who lives in upstate New York pops over the Canadian border to spend weekends with Jenn and goes out to a local coffee shop while Jenn has sex with clients.
‘It doesn’t bother me at all,” he says. “I’m an open-minded guy. She’s in control of her life.”
Jenn’s face lights up as she starts to talks about her favourite pastime: shopping. “I’m the shopping queen,” she squeals. “I buy a lot of clothes for my friends as well.” In the past year Jenn has spent $30,000 on clothes, $3,000 on manicures and facials, and $3,000 on lingerie. She blows the rest of her earnings on rent (her Toronto apartment costs $3,000 per month) and going out clubbing. “I don’t save a lot of cash. I can’t put my earnings into the bank because they are illegal earnings so I’ll spend it straight away. Occasionally I’ll deposit a big wad of cash into the bank and pretend that I won the Bingo.”
Prostitution among student call-girls is more about greed than desperation, according to Tracy Quan, a call-girl and author of the semi-autobiographical novel “Nancy Chan: The Diary of a Manhattan Call Girl”.
“Most of the prostitutes I know are materialistic, very attractive girls who like to shop,” she says. Tracy, a petite and pretty thirty-something with long glossy black hair, started having sex for cash while she was a student in Canada and loved it so much that she eventually dropped out of education to pursue prostitution full-time in New York.
“I enjoy the sex and the people I meet. I got a job in a Manhattan brothel when I was 19 and I was just thrilled to be working there,” she says. “It was an upmarket place that looks like a regular apartment from the outside. The madam worked from her private book – she didn’t advertise, so it was very safe. Our clients were lawyers, Wall Street bankers, doctors and fashion designers. “Some of the more famous fashion designers would pay me for sex by bringing me a dress from their showroom.”
After a couple of years at the brothel, Tracy stepped out on her own and built up her own clientele of regular clients, charging $500 an hour. “I look on it as a business although I’m no business genius,” she confesses. “I’ve never banked any of it. I just spend it. I’m a bit irresponsible with cash.”
Tracy hasn’t invested in property or stocks and shares. “I’m a bit irresponsible with cash,” she says. But she has invested in her appearance; she is immaculately groomed and the closet in her upper east side apartment is packed with expensive clothes and accessories.
“I indulge in Wolford bodysuits and Bottega Venetta handbags,” she says. “They look good with everything.”
The publication of Tracy’s book may render her too notorious to continue as a hooker but she says she has no regrets and feels prostitution has afforded her a well-rounded life so far. “I never have to take public transport,” she says. “I go to the theatre regularly and I eat out in great restaurants like Cipriani.”
Later, I talk to Lisa, a recent Cornell graduate (English Literature) dressed in dark blue Earl Jeans and a Dolce & Gabbana coat. I meet Lisa at City Bakery, a trendy Manhattan café famed for it’s hot chocolate (and frequented by the Sex and the City cast). Lisa orders a salad and mineral water and confides that she is “basically a courtesan”.
“I’ve always gone for rich, older boyfriends,” says Lisa, a stunning 28 year-old New Yorker who looks like a shorter version of Naomi Campbell. Prostitution is the first job Lisa has ever had. Her father (an accountant from Connecticut) is so generous that she could afford to wear Chanel and Helmut Lang to her university lectures. However, when she moved to England to embark on a Master’s degree at Cambridge, Lisa decided it was time to stand on her own two feet.
She had sex for cash for the first time in London last year – with a wrinkly 67- year old entrepreneur she met at a cocktail party. “He took me to lunch the next day, asked me if I needed anything and when I mentioned a Calvin Klein dress I’d seen in Dickins & Jones, he bought it for me. I had sex with him that night at the Dorchester. During foreplay he asked me to lick his anus because it really turned him on. I was only able to do it by visualising the shopping trips I could have in the future if I kept on the right side of him.”
A year later and back in New York, Lisa still sees her first client (who is married with children Lisa’s age) when he flies into New York on business once a month. He writes her a cheque for 1,000 pounds each time they meet, showers her with gifts and pays the rent on her TriBeca apartment. Lisa sees her six “other boyfriends” (all married men in their 50s and 60s) more regularly; two or three times a month. She pretends to her parents and friends that she is a freelance publicist. “I don’t have a boyfriend though, that would just be impossible when a client is paying my rent,” she says with a shrug. “It’s tricky leading a double life.”
Besides being tricky, leading a double life is also emotionally corrosive, according to New York psychotherapist Dr Patricia Lyons. “Leading a double life could impair these girls’ future self-image and self-esteem. The fact that they are college graduates and potential college graduates makes them different from women who turn to prostitution because it is all they have available to them.
“If they go ahead and tell their boyfriends the truth about their pasts they will probably never secure that their partner really loves and respects them. And if they don’t tell, they’ll have to deal with the constant fear of being found out.”
Although Jenn confessed that she was a hooker to her mother and younger sister years ago – she had kept her night job a secret from her friends at university until one day last year wen she was exposed during a computer class. “Some of the other students found my web-site in the middle of a packed classroom and started screaming and ridiculing me. It was soooo humiliating.
But Jenn remains undaunted. “I’m not sure when I’m going to give up being a call-girl,” she says. “My clients really respect me, although they often seem surprised when they find that I can hold an intelligent conversation.
My intelligence always makes them ask me why I do this for a living. “I tell my clients that I do this for the same reason they work in merchant banks and in law firms – for the money. I could make $250 a week as a waitress or I can live it up on $2,500 for a few hours’ lying on my back. It’s a pretty easy choice.”
copyright Precious Williams 2010
Angelo Ellerbee, hip-hop’s Professor Higgins, teaches rap stars the rules of etiquette by Precious Williams
article first published in The Times (London)
“SOMETIMES I’VE had to approach rappers during interviews, ask them to step outside, discreetly hand them a bar of soap and a flannel and tell them to go wash their body,” says Angelo Ellerbee, founder and CEO of Double Xxposure, the world’s only finishing school for rappers.
Known in New York as hip-hop’s answer to Henry Higgins, Ellerbee charges about £140 an hour. He teaches clients how to pose for the camera, order in restaurants, get into shape, eat healthily and express themselves without “cussin’ ”. “It’s an institute of knowledge,” he says.
Ellerbee , a 47-year-old gay former ballet dancer, may seem an unlikely mentor for socially challenged urban-music stars, but his clients — who include Mary J. Blige, Sisqo and the rappers DMX and Ja Rule — beg to differ. His clients, he points out, are “from some of the rawest environments, where they don’t know the basics of social skills and etiquette.”
Bad manners, he says, are a worldwide epidemic, particularly in the urban- music industry, which is why he plans to open an office in London next year. “You people have slightly better manners, but it’s changing. Rappers wherever they are in the world seem to pride themselves on being thuggish.
“Things have changed for the worse. During the Motown era, recording careers were well planned and images created and enhanced by professionals who helped the artist develop every aspect of themselves. Diana Ross and the Supremes came from poor backgrounds but they were fabulous and elegant. Those days are long gone.”
Reclining in his office opposite the Empire State Building, Ellerbee is resplendent in a Gaultier pinstriped suit jacket. His office is decorated with signed photographs of clients. A typical challenge was the rapper DMX: “ He turned up days late for a shoot with GQ. They had hired a tiger for the shoot and the tiger was getting tired of waiting for DMX, and everybody else was getting tired of waiting too. DMX would agree to do interviews and then only do five out of 25 of them. Eventually we had to resort to doing e-mail interviews, and then it would be me actually doing the interview.”
Ellerbee prides himself on being resourceful — his mantra is “by any means necessary”. He will do what it takes to whip wayward rappers into shape. Sometimes that includes teaching them how to read and write. “A quarter of my clients can’t read,” he says. “Nobody even knows because they can get away with not writing their lyrics down and simply reciting them straight into a tape recorder. But I have a subliminal reading test. I invite them to my house, put on the video of the movie Native Son, and get out the popcorn.
“Afterwards I hand them a copy of the novel by James Baldwin that inspired the book. I give them two weeks to read it and then ask them how they thought the book compared with the movie. The book is entirely, 100 per cent different, from the film. If they say it was the same, or if they have no comment at all, I conclude that they can’t read but are too proud to admit it. And if they can’t read a book, how are they going to read and understand a recording contract? “If you can’t read, there’s no pot of gold at the end of the rainbow for you.”
Ellerbee first noticed the plight of talented but illiterate and socially challenged artists when he worked briefly in PR at Chrysalis Records in the 1980s: “They were raw. They made fools of themselves often and had no idea. There was nobody to teach them the basic social graces that we should be taught by our parents.”
Although Ellerbee grew up in the projects of New Jersey, his mother taught him manners. Now he’s going back to the projects on a reality TV show called Charmed to share what he’s learnt, like a modern-day My Fair Lady. Today, the etiquette guru is providing a crash course in manners to Field Mob, a burgeoning rap duo from Georgia. The rappers — who want Ellerbee to teach them how to behave in restaurants and impress music-industry executives — are late. Two hours late. “But that’s still early for rappers,” says Ellerbee. “They’d have to be five hours late before it’s considered late. Some of them turn up days late.” He chuckles to himself then shakes his sleek head.
Finally, Field Mob arrive, two and a half hours late, their waistbands drooping almost to their ankles. Ellerbee swoops out of his office to meet them and gets straight down to basics. “Y’all reading contracts these days?” he asks. “Do you have a lawyer?” The rappers mumble an incoherent response.
Ellerbee’s assistants have set up a makeshift restaurant table in a corner office, with crystal wine glasses, candles and a damask tablecloth. The rappers are seated and wine is poured. “S***! He gave us real wine,” exclaims one, taking a gulp.
“What’s the first thing you should do when you sit down at a table?” Ellerbee asks. “Eat!” they say in unison. “The napkin,” says Ellerbee, grimacing. “Do either of you know what to do with it?” There are confused stares. “You put it in your lap,” Ellerbee says. “Not like a shawl around your shoulders. Don’t use it to wipe your nose with. Making it in this industry is not just about getting cars and jewellery and women.”
At the mention of the word “women” the rappers’ eyes light up. “Some of these rappers get carried away by their fame and start imagining that they are Tom Selleck or something, that they are sex machines,” Ellerbee whispers.
“They will demand a female journalist for interviews and then spend the whole time winking at her and imagining she is there to have sex with them. They lose the point of who they are and why the journalist is there and then get upset when the article comes out stupid.”
Speaking of interviews, the Ellerbee alumnus Mary J. Blige challenged an interviewer to a fistfight early in her career. Was this before or after she’d graduated from the charm guru’s boot camp?
“Mary,” says Ellerbee fondly. “She needed work. That happened before I worked with her. Like a lot of people, she needed to learn to express herself without resorting to anger. It was a long journey. Working with these artists is like brewing real coffee: it takes time for it to be ready. The good stuff is not instant. But Mary has finally brewed into a lady. And she’s reading books now, too.”
Rap on the knuckles: Angelo’s tips for new stars
1. Stay as humble as blueberry pie out of your mama’s kitchen. Be a pleasure to be around.
2. Defer to God no matter what.
3. Have commitment. Put in the work to promote yourself in the best light possible. Invest in yourself. Remember that it’s your career, not your record label’s career.
4. Remember that reading is fundamental and educate yourself. A class in accounting is a good idea too.
5. When travelling don’t bring nine people along for the ride — remember that ultimately you’re paying their expenses, not the record company. Leave the entourage at home.
6. Understand timing and punctuality.
7. Don’t arrive at a photo shoot or interview high.
8. When meeting people for the first time remember that first impressions create a lasting impression.
9. Wash — you may think you know how to wash yourself, but do you? Pay attention to hygiene.
10. No cussing. Learn to be articulate. Try to talk about your life experiences without using the word “motherfucker” in every (or in any) sentence.
first published in The Independent….on 17/5/2010
Race under fire: Is being white something you can learn?
What does it mean to be white? An explosive new book by an American academic argues that whiteness isn’t biological at all – in fact, it can be learned. Precious Williams disagrees
Monday, 17 May 2010
It is tempting to tell ourselves that we’re on the verge of an inclusive, multicultural new age.
An era where colour doesn’t matter all that much, where race doesn’t define us. After all, society is changing. Radically. The Conservative Party’s first-ever black female MP, Helen Grant, has just been elected. And across the pond, there is a black man in the White House. Or is there?
A controversial new book, The History of White People, claims that Barack Obama is, to all intents and purposes, white. Not because he had a white mother but because of his educational background, his income, his power, his status. The book’s author, the eminent black American historian Nell Irvin Painter, has written a fascinating, sprawling history of the concept of race, looking specifically at the idea of a white race and at why and how whites have dominated other, darker-skinned races throughout recent centuries. The conclusion of Painter’s book – which has taken more than a decade to research and write – is explosive. Race, she argues, is a fluid social construct, entirely unsupported by scientific fact. Like beauty, it is merely skin-deep.
Technically, she has a point. The $3bn Human Genome Project revealed in 2003 that every human being has a unique DNA sequence which differs from that of any fellow human being by just 0.1 per cent, regardless of ethnic origin. Thus, all humans beings are 99.9 per cent the same and, from a scientific viewpoint, there is no such thing as racial difference.
And now along comes this weighty history of white people, written by a 67-year-old black woman, telling us that the white race has never really existed. Unsurprisingly, America’s far-right are furious. On the white supremacist group Stormfront’s internet forum, one member complained that the book: “will likely win a Pulitzer – just look at how they patronise and indulge these negroes”. Another member said Painter “is just jealous of our history and of the beauty of white women”.
Painter remains unfazed by the criticism: our perceptions of race are expanding, she claims, and she herself is, she says, effectively white – by virtue of her lifestyle (she’s a Harvard-educated former Princeton history professor currently pursuing a master’s degree in painting).
Being “white” in America is perhaps like being upper-class in Britain, except in America a wealthy, well-connected black person can become “white” and a disadvantaged white person could lead a life that’s “black”.
Historically, the entire classification of ‘whiteness’, Painter argues, was in no small part a philosophical justification of slavery. The white-black thing was about economics. Whiteness came to represent freedom and nobility, while black-skinned peoples were now cast in the role of the underdog. Prior to the transatlantic slave trade, white-skinned people were not routinely held to be more elite than blacks. In medieval times, it was largely whites who were the slaves. During the 1300s there was a dearth of labour as a result of the Black Death, and Christian kingdoms in the Mediterranean enslaved more and more white-skinned people – hailing from Greece, Turkey and Bulgaria. It was another 200 years or so before the growth of the sugar industry demanded more and more slave labour. White-skinned Europeans began to enslave Africans to work their plantations. The transatlantic slave trade flourished. White-skinned slave owners, enjoying the financial fruits of this new slavery, started to deify themselves, self-identifying as inherently superior to blacks – morally, socially and intellectually. Suddenly blacks were held by their white ‘owners’ to be only three-fifths human. The widespread worship of ‘whiteness’ had begun; to date it has not ended.
Here in the UK we may be inclined to dismiss this book as the latest emblem of America’s never- ending obsession with race. We might imagine we are so integrated here that we are beyond needing to discuss race and unpick it and re-examine it. But we would be wrong. Whiteness may only be a social construct but it is still a powerful one, and the concept of whiteness continues to represent a social holy grail. In her book, Painter presents the idea of non-whites moving onwards and upwards to become virtual whites as pure social progress. I beg to differ. I see this as quite a step backwards. In fact, it takes me back several decades.
When I was born in the early Seventies, my mother – an African-born black woman – decided to try turn me white. Not by bleaching my skin but by sending me to live with a white family, so that I would be fully immersed in white culture, pretty much from birth. My mother, who had grown up under British colonial rule in Nigeria, wanted to make me as white as possible so that once I was grown-up I would, she was sure, thrive and prosper in her adopted country, England.
The idea was that I would begin absorbing white privilege right from the start, before I was even old enough to talk. My mother wasn’t alone in this way of thinking. At that time, thousands of other African-born, recently migrated parents were paying white families to raise their babies and children. They presumed that white culture would rub off on us and open doors for us. To give us the best of starts in life, they felt it necessary to separate us from our blackness.
To hear Painter tell it, race is about “us” and “them”. To be one of us is to enter the hallowed elite of ‘whiteness’. Everybody else is one of them. In my case, I was the nobody caught in between, acceptable to whites to a degree simply because I was always there. I didn’t feel black. When I looked in the mirror I saw nothingness reflected back at me, I did not see myself as black. I was praised (by my birth mother) for having such a white accent that anyone speaking to me on the phone would have no inkling I was black. Until they saw me in person.
In the end, as I began to grow up, race – even if it is merely a social construct – became the elephant lurking in every room. Supposedly, by becoming an honorary white I had arrived; but all I felt was a sense of loss. It was like I had had something stripped away from me. Later, in my mid-teens, I opened my eyes and found that society had now become my mirror, and I saw myself reflected back at me – a black person, whether I liked it or not. And I learnt to like it a lot.
Of her book, Painter says, “We think, or we used to think, until I wrote my book, that race was something permanent inside you, but …[this concept] changed.” She adds, “I am what my parents made me … I am not my biology.” I disagree. If I was what my foster parents had made me I would surely still be self-identifying as white.
Race as I see it is something you carry from your ancestors – it’s your lineage and your cultural heritage; it’s about where you originally came from. Even if you’ve not experienced the land your ancestors hailed from, or met the parents you were born to. I am African and I am also British. But no “enlargement of whiteness” is ever going to result in me being labelled English. And why should it? That race, or the concept of race, exists is something to be celebrated, not swept under the carpet.
Race is everywhere, lurking beneath the surface – or not. It’s there in the silent assumptions we sometimes make. If we really are a post-racial society, why do we have Operation Trident, the Metropolitan Police unit set up in 1998 to investigate so-called ‘black crimes’? Why do we have those higgledy-piggledy ‘Black Interest’ shelves in Waterstone’s and WH Smith, bringing to mind the ‘COLOUREDS ONLY’ signs in pre-Civil Rights America and crammed with anything from gangsta-lit to Toni Morrison? I wonder if that’s where Painter’s book will be shelved.
The perception within this country and the perception of this country among other nations is that Britain is largely “over” race. An African- American friend recently told me he thinks the UK is fabulous and extremely liberal “because you all accept each other over there. There is no race.” Actually, race has always been here. Historically, non-whites were referenced according to their creed or nationality. It wasn’t until around 1625 that the word “black” in Britain came to be used when referring to a person of African origin. Before then, a white man with black hair might be described as “black” or “a black”, while Indians were often labelled “hindoos” and Africans were frequently called “Moors” or “Ethiops” (Aethiopia was an early European word for Africa).
At a recent dinner party I mentioned that I was reading Painter’s The History of White People. A friend sitting opposite me casually remarked that she feels very proud of her family history – and of her race (she is white). There was a stunned silence among those seated around the table. The subject was swiftly changed. Later, one of the other guests (also white) leant over and whispered to me, “I hope you’re not offended. She’s not usually such a bigot.”
So, merely admitting that you like being white makes you a social pariah? What’s wrong with liking being white? Or black? Or both? Or something else?
The incident reminded me, in reverse, of an episode from my childhood, when I was around seven or eight. There I was, still a black girl in an all-white environment. My foster family loved me and just wanted me to somehow, miraculously, fit in as naturally as they did into our white working-class surroundings. It was never going to happen and I think perhaps I’d just realised this. I’d heard, on a TV show, a man singing a mantra that both puzzled and delighted me: “Say it loud: I’m black and I’m proud”. James Brown. I burst out with it, repeating his words to my foster mother. I watched the confusion and disappointment descend over her face.
I had been taught it wasn’t the done thing to talk about being black. If I had to talk about my race at all (and I was largely discouraged from doing so) I was trained to refer to myself as “coloured”. Any references my white peers made to my blackness were furtive and apologetic and usually prefaced with the phrase, “I’m not being funny or nothing….”
Today, you can talk about being black but when black is reflected back at you via the media, it is almost always in a negative light. Headline after headline reports that black people are more likely to knife each other, drop out of school, get STDs and fail to get jobs. Meanwhile, if you are white, and you like being white, it’s considered taboo to admit as much. Unless you are a member of the BNP.
Is this progress? Race may not technically exist, but surely the last thing we should be doing as a nation is lulling ourselves into believing that the concepts of whiteness and blackness do not exist or matter. Must we chip away vital pieces of ourselves in order to be non-offensive? Denying the existence of differences inhibits us from celebrating our diversity in all its glory. Multiculturalism is surely about far more than merely enjoying a chicken korma or liking Dizzee Rascal. It’s about not being expected to apologise for who you are, whoever you are.
September 16, 2012 · by hay-festival · in Nairobi
‘Ben Okri said of last year’s Storymoja Hay Festival, ‘Iit’s an almost magical experience to be here.’ I disagree – it’s not almost magical, it is magical to be here.
It’s my first time in Kenya and my first taste of Nairobi is the relentlessly cheerful street-hawkers weaving through traffic and trying to sell us everything from squirming puppies to vibrant chiffon scarves. Arriving at the Storymoja Hay Festival I’m dazzled by the enthusiasm (and politeness) of the dozens and dozens of schoolchildren milling around the National Museum grounds. One young woman runs up to me and asks me if I’m Precious from the Academy Award winning movie. I tell her I’m not that Precious, I’m another Precious. I hear her murmur to her friend, “They made her look sooo different in the film”.
A young man in a smart school uniform asks me to sign a copy of my book for him. Only problem is there’s no sign of my book at the festival’s book stall. Bloomsbury, my publisher, shipped copies several weeks ago but they’re not here. Will they not be on sale at all then? “These things take time,” I’m told. (The books appear the following day and appear to have sold out within a few hours. Nobody can say Kenyans don’t read books).
If I had to describe the vibe of the festival in two words I’d choose the words authenticity andaccessibility. It’s almost as if there is something missing – the self-consciousness and the slight (or not so slight) pretentiousness you often encounter on the UK literary scene. Not a sign of that here. At the Storymoja Hay, in a single afternoon, you’ll see school kids under the tutelage of a local artist called Boneless, practising dance steps to blaring hip-hop under the blazing mid-afternoon sun. And members of Nairobi’s gay community discussing their lives. And Jung Chang chilling in one of the lounges, wearing a huge floppy hat and a warm smile.
Favourite moments for me are a panel where Nigerian writer Jekwu Anyaegbuna says of writers too concerned with winning literary prizes, “If they are not shortlisted, what will they do? Go and commit suicide? ” And Lola Shoneyin’s session where she tells us, “Sometimes you meet random people who are so mental that you just have to put them in a book.”
The people we meet in Nairobi, random or otherwise, are no madder than people anywhere else in the world. But they are far warmer.’
India Arie says ‘I am not my hair….‘
I disagree with her. I am my hair. Of course my hair (dreadlocks these days) is not all that I am. But it is all that I have chosen it to be. Hair’s one of the few physical characteristics we have control over. Everything we do to our hair is a choice. We can (fairly easily) change its texture (temporarily), style, length, feel …whereas it’d take plastic surgery to alter our facial features.
So what’s the point of spending vast amounts of money, time and energy putting in a weave or relaxer only to say “it’s only hair?” All of it is a choice. Personally I’ve sported weaves, relaxers, braided extensions, afros, twists, cornrows….And when I chose those styles I chose them because I liked the way they looked on me, at the time. Later, I fell in love with the natural texture of my hair and chose to reveal it. Whatever style we go for, why should we disown our hair and our hair choices – whatever those choices are – by saying I am not my hair? Our hair is surely as much a part of us as our brain, our eyes and our heart . I claim my hair 🙂
Read on for an interview I did with the writer Memphiz at Charcoal-Ink