I’m Nigerian, Nepali and Malayali, I’m queer and I’m femme presenting. And instead of secreting away these markers – I’ve enhanced, extended and exaggerated them.

Writer and poet Joshua Muyiwa is sitting at a table and gazing to his left There are flowers in a vase on the tablePicture courtesy: Suhas Entur
Voices Opinion Friday, January 22, 2021 - 15:24

There’s a lot of the unnecessary that has found itself attached to me on account of my differences from those around me. And like dog hair on a sofa, it has been inescapable. I didn’t have the language to describe myself yet, but because there have always been others before me, other people already had all of the words. In time, those words have either lost their sting, have been absorbed to thicken my skin or have been weaponised by me. But like all words, their power depends on who is wielding them. And yes, it does still hurt – but also baffles me – to think of the clarity of the actions executed and insidious gestures employed by those around me to make me feel like an outcast.

Like at a neighbourhood friend’s single-digit birthday party, his stylish, coiffured grandmother asked me to take the photos of the cake-cutting. At first, I thought it was quite an honour. The friend’s uncle showed me that I had to look through the viewfinder of the camera, wait for the red square to stop flickering, turn green and then click. I felt very important. The uncle placed me in a predetermined position atop a chair opposite the table, while the rest of the party was at the other end. They sang, the friend blew out his candles, cut it, bit into it and then fed everyone immediately around him a bite. While I waited for the steady square, squeezed the trigger to take the shots. At the sound of whirring – signalling the end of the film roll – I stepped down and tried to slip into the same level of fun as everyone else. While returning the camera, I asked the uncle if he was going to take a few more because I wanted to be in them too. He gathered all the adults and the kids together, arranged us and made us make monkey faces. Before he could take the photo, my friend’s grandmother quickly walked up to me, firmly took me out of the group and got the uncle to take the photos without me.

Even before I was ten, I knew the reasons my friend’s grandmother didn’t want me to be in those birthday photos. I had understood that it was generous of her to even invite me but she didn’t need to be reminded of this time. I already knew the motivation behind italicising even in the previous sentence. Though, I have also understood that it was generous of me to not make a scene either on that day. (All this is completely unnecessary, right?)

Another of these unnecessary things that has found itself attached to me on account of my differences from those around me – expense. A few nights ago, I was at a friend’s place in the neighbourhood. Dinner and drinks brewed into garrulous, greedy gossiping and too quickly it was way past midnight. And though this friend’s place was just a short walk away from my apartment, I booked an Uber auto to get back home. It isn’t a particularly expensive decision, but these little things add up.

While I’m trained to calculate, collect and coddle each of these losses, it isn’t these individual incidents or incurrences that bother me, it is the way these prejudices play out through our societal systems. Many many many many months ago, I had applied for a full-time ‘content editor’ job at an e-business portal. The corporate HR guy spent the whole interview shooting questions on “liking my get-up”, the length of my dreadlocks, the value of my silver bangles, the “crazy colours” of my draped yardage and nothing at all to test my skills at being able to get this job done. And again, I had to be the generous one, and politely answer these enquiries with to the point responses.

While I left that interview knowing that I wasn’t going to get the job, it is these kinds of exchanges with the ‘regular world’ that reminds me of the tiny expenses that keep piling up while just trying to live a basic, independent life. I see the ways that certain choices and other original sins of mine have acted as hurdles to leaping into jobs with competitive salaries or into groups to network.

I’m multi-ethnic – Nigerian, Nepali and Malayali, I’m queer and I’m femme presenting. And instead of secreting away these markers to make myself more acceptable – I’ve enhanced, extended and exaggerated them. Blackness has been trouble, so I wear it as a badge. My queerness and femme-ness are the man-made things you could see from the moon other than The Great Wall of China. I’ve chosen not to hide, not to be ashamed and there have been consequences – some crushing, some celebratory.

There are ways that individual incidents defeat me because of their reflection in other arenas that we were all fooled into believing are governed by merit alone. But last year, in this global pause, I began to find myself adding the small mercies afforded to me, precisely because of my choices and sins, into my accounts book. The true success of these prejudices was that I’d only been listing out the losses so far.

While there are concerted ways to making an outsider, ostracising and othering persons with differences, the world isn’t lost to these persons (and myself) either. And we must beef up this mythology too. Last year, while all my means of making money disappeared, I had so many wonderful friends help out in ways that were tangible. That acted as a buffer against the world that was changing, requiring me to renegotiate with it. They were (and have been) buying me time to do so in a world of reducing resources and growing prejudices.

And despite my lot, I’ve found a place in the world that allows for me to be as complicated or simple as I want to be. And yes, I continue to encounter those like my friend’s grandmother or the corporate guy, who allow their prejudices dictate, direct and determine their actions in the world. But I’m less put off by them, I’m no longer the generous one, I’ve found my own ways of landing a few well-placed punches. I’ve also been surrounded by people who are able to peek behind the performance, see the smoke and mirrors, and still be an audience.

And this kind of generosity wouldn’t have been afforded to me if I was any other way either. Like a pig picking out a truffle, I’ve developed a nose for loss. But, I might have to retrain and sense the other ways I don’t just occupy the world but shape it, pleat it and drape it to wear it on me well.

Joshua Muyiwa is a Bengaluru-based poet and writer. Views expressed are the author’s own.

Show us some love! Support our journalism by becoming a TNM Member - Click here.