Last weekend, a group of drunk, white men passed me on the quiet end of a road in Shoreditch.
“Afro head,” one of them shouted as we passed each other.
My first thought was fury. A disproportionate, unadulterated rage and an urge to jump at him, pulling his own hair from his scalp in a bloody, Game of Thrones-esque retaliation. But being brown, female and alone on a small road meant that I was mindful of my safety. So I did nothing, said nothing, and swallowed my anger at another public, race-based taunt – and I vowed to write about it the following week.
I’ve recently reflected on the idea of monetising trauma and whether it’s a cathartic exercise or a displacement activity that weaves the trauma more permanently into your psyche. Writing about difficult experiences feels productive. Even more so when you’re paid to do it. And when you post your words online, you’re assured they’re important.
The sobering truth is that trauma sells. Especially now in the age of information, and especially for trending topics such as racism, homophobia, transphobia, gendered violence, intersectionality etc. where we’re all trying to do better and educate ourselves. Even privately within circles of friends, trauma can be social currency in self-deprecating humour or “seeing the funny side” of experiences that weren’t funny. Hannah Gadsby’s comedy show Nanette is an unapologetic example of this. “I put myself down in order to seek permission to speak,” she says during her set, explaining the truth behind jokes she’s told to carve her comedy career. Soon after, she talks about wanting to quit comedy altogether.
When you are other from society’s norm, you can mould the tensions you experience into anecdotal suspense. And the deafening praise that you get when you open up in a controlled environment like an article, a comedy set, or even just a practised anecdote makes it hard to judge whether the act of getting it out into the public is productive or not. It’s even harder to know whether it’s helping you heal.
I first questioned turning pain into power this year when, for the second time in my life, I struggled with anxiety. For me, it’s racing thoughts, unexplained tears, a fear of random things like sharp objects or going to Tesco, and infrequent panic attacks. To manage it, I’ve been writing short swathes of ramblings in moments of destabilising panic. Afterwards, I’ll edit a few lines and rebrand it as flash fiction. Creatively, the output sits somewhere between poetry and soul-exposing journalling. But after almost a decade of trying to get fiction published, my shortest and most chaotic seems to be cutting through.
Theoretically, this is a good thing. Producing powerful prose when feeling most weak sounds commendable. But after one was published and I realised that I’d submitted a raw, unedited version, I felt naked. Any praise I got I caveated with, “I submitted the wrong version!” And I said it like it was funny. Not like it was so painful that I felt like throwing up.
In the context of queer trauma, journalist Aimee Hart explains, “I used to feel like monetising the grief I’ve experienced, and the grief that my community has experienced, was cheap, almost rude”.
The idea of monetising grief being cheap is interesting. After a redundancy, I sold almost a year’s worth of articles on race and inequality in the UK. Looking back, the objectives for each were all pretty “cheap”. Packaged with good writing and published by reputable outlets, sure. But my main aim was to drag the perpetrators of my pain. And if we’re talking about healing, this is pretty much just allowing yourself to ruminate on negative topics.
Each article allowed the trauma to grow and fester. And, like Reni Eddo-Lodge admitting that after her original blog post, she doubled her time spent “engaging with white people on the topic of race”, writing articles hasn’t given me closure. It’s allowed me to dig wider cavities into the wounds. It also meant that I’ve spent the last two years boxing myself into a writing niche that I’ll probably struggle to get out from. Writing what you know is a prison of your own making; the authenticity of your voice adds value, but then when you veer from it, is that value lost? I can’t help but feel that content “based on true events” is the only string to my bow. And if I don’t write about the mixed race experience or race-based trauma, I’ll be suddenly no longer relevant.
Thinking back to Shoreditch, I recognise that my Game of Thrones reaction would have been totally disproportionate to what was actually said. But maybe so is this. When people inevitably gasp and say, “in 2021?!”, “In Shoreditch?”, “And no one said anything?”, the answer is yes. To all of the above. And having to clarify it over and over adds to my Black girl anger, despite the fact that I’m the one who put pen to paper to bring it up in the first place.
For you, the ism or phobia being explored, the often dramatic reaction to your experiences in the public domain can blind you with affirmations that sharing it is useful. But I feel like a cash cow of experiences, exploitatively milking myself for content. Perhaps journaling is more conducive to healing than throwing your thoughts into the public, even if sharing those experiences turns out to be useful for others? I honestly don’t know.
But I guess the deepest irony here is that I’m saying all this in an article.