Sometimes readers are not ready for what we write, either because our words are too close to inside parts of them they haven’t touched — some call these parts “memories” — or because these words implicate them somewhere ugly inside the circles that our narratives trace. Sometimes our words name a thing for them that they are certain, and they are right, that nobody will believe. Maybe our words leave them floating, trailing a bit behind the understanding that we’ve concretized with our story, their relating wounds now open, and with a realization that still there is not a safe place to land, that even putting language to trauma is not the end of it for any one of us, sometimes least of all for women of Color remembering girlhood. Sarah Akaaboune is someone whom I know now to be floating alongside the most talented of women doing this suturing of words to pain, of the present to the past, with poetic and painful visions trained on futurities that elude. I am honored that she sees me as a companion on this journey, that she’s taught me and our collaborators this semester who are excavating “narratives of girlhood” so many new, eviscerating and hopeful things by consistently dancing with our texts, practicing and modeling all the necessarily changing proximity and distance that they require for the possibility of their touching. She is a teacher in all these ways. I am grateful, and I am angry alongside her, but I am not sorry, and I know she understands why.
Ruby C. Tapia
Ruby C. Tapia is Chair of Women’s and Gender Studies and Associate Professor of English Language and Literature at the University of Michigan. She is the author of “What I Was Looking for Was Green” and regularly teaches the undergraduate course “Narratives of Girlhood.”
The first time I ever saw blood that did not belong to me was the day they removed a cancerous mass from my brother’s brain. There is something so different about blood that has been shed against its will — it pools into all the wrong corners, moves up instead of down, left instead of right, through things instead of around them. It is much brighter, much thicker, much louder than you’d ever expect blood to be, so much so that soon you can no longer discern between what is the floor and what is your feet, what is the wall and what is truly blood. It is stubborn, it moves with rage and defiance, it demands to be seen and heard and felt and returned to its rightful owner. And this time, it belonged to a 15-year-old boy in the room right across from my brother’s. He was dying. And I know he was dying because when we are about to die the world moves tenfold slower, as if to grant us the grace of enough time to say goodbye, and people behave in ways you’d never believe they could. They scream and shout and cry and beg and plead and yell and beg some more, move so fast they become the room and the windows and the doors, until as quickly as everything starts, it comes to a morbid stop, and instead, they’ll begin to wash and clean and scrub all the blood that has collected in places it never should have been. I watched him die, and I watched him die even when there was nothing I could have done, and I watched him die when everyone told me I should have looked the other way and watching him die became the first thing that ever broke my body. Because how do we be after we have just seen someone die? How do we move and live and fight, and how do we understand and reckon with the fact that it will one day be us and our brothers and our mothers and our fathers?
What I mean by something that has broken my body, or any body for that matter, and rather, what it means to have a broken body, to live in one, is to have a body that has exhausted every empty space and crevice in between tendons and joints and fingers and toes and jaws and teeth to make room for all the things it has witnessed. To have a body that has swelled three or four or five times its size so that we have to sew our back pockets a bit wider, build our tables a bit longer, buy our jackets and sweaters and shoes a bit bigger. Because our bodies have always felt pain first—anger and fear and grief first—far before our minds or selves ever have, and they never forget, even when we do. And a broken body is a body that does not belong to you, a body that can no longer protect you, a body that feels so lost and stilted, so unsturdy and crooked that for months and months and years and years, every morning you’ve got to snap your arms and legs into place and tell them nice things just to get them to do what you ask. And everything inside is misaligned and misfolded, tattered and twisted and tangled so nothing is ever where it’s supposed to be, and if you laugh too hard or cry too much or run too fast, your side might just split in half, and all the mean things people have ever told you and all the things you should have said but never did and all the other things your body has collected and sifted and stored might come tumbling out. And there will inevitably come a day when a body can no longer take, when it can no longer remember, when it can no longer bear, when it begins to give, to fissure and crack, when it finally begins to break.
On being enough of a woman was the essay intended to rebuild my body, the essay meant to restitute and reconcile, and it soon became the essay that took from me more than it ever gave, the essay I’ve regretted writing more than anything I have ever written, and the essay that broke my body so bad it felt like I would never be able to put it back together again. In the year since its publication, I have received dozens of emails and letters and messages, paragraphs and paragraphs, full-fledged pieces in their own right, detailing accounts of hopelessness and vulnerability, powerlessness and voicelessness, from people I grew up with and people I’d never heard of and people I thought I’d never hear from again. I’ve read every single one of them so many times that I know who sent what and which parts make me cry and which parts make me laugh and whose pain I know best and whose pain I’ll carry that week. I’ve found these often trickle in more than usual during the holidays, maybe because Christmas and Thanksgiving and the Fourth of July have a special way of making us feel so alone that we become a million times more aware of who we are and what we’ve done and how little and how much we really have to lose all at once. I’ve always wondered what about that essay, what about me, made people so honest, so willing to share the sorts of things they’d never tell someone at the bus stop or in line or at the bank because these are the sorts of things we are never supposed to tell anyone. These are the things we stuff deep down into our knees and elbows, behind loose baseboards and in the darkest places under the bed.
What I wrote was not meant to weaken me, to divide me in the way it did. The day On being enough of a woman was published, I felt like I had shrunk half my size. I felt miserably shameful, like I had done something gravely wrong, the same sort of muddy, sticky, unrelenting feeling you get after telling a big, fat never-ending lie you know you’ll have to remember for the rest of your life, so often that it becomes the truth. Because to have everyone frantically scramble to assure you of your beauty, of your worth, that you are indeed enough, to hear I’m-so-sorry-and- I’m-so-sorry-and-sorry-and-sorrysorrysorrysorry over and over while equally having everyone tell you that they believe you and see you and understand you after what feels like a lifetime of no one ever believing you or seeing you or understanding you, becomes so staggering, so big and out of control that it does something to you, picks and rips you apart so that somehow somewhere something in your body comes undone. Because writing about your pain is a complicated matter; it demands courage and bravery and power of will even if what little you have left is directed towards living instead. It is an inherently violent act, in that you must choose how much of it the reader will bear, choose how much they can handle, choose what they’ll think afterwards and choose how they’ll feel, choose which pieces of you they’ll keep forever.
I was not bullied growing up. To call what happened to me bullying is to imply that it was simply a casualty of childhood, of girlhood, that every little girl everywhere has had to endure some version of my life in one way or another. Bullying is a lean and mean word, an empty word, a flimsy word, a word that lacks brevity and confidence, a word that does not afford accountability, culpability or responsibility. The boys I went to school with were calculated, vicious, awful and terroristic in nature—more than just plain mean—and everything they did ran far deeper than asking me out on dates as a joke in front of everyone else or masculinizing me or demonizing me. There is no agency in what happened to me, no autonomy or freedom of choice, because so much of it has been informed by everyone else; everyone else called it bullying, and everyone else told me it was a part of life, and everyone else told me that boys will just be boys. It breeds an ugly raging cycle of doubt, of dismissal and invalidation, of wondering if maybe I really did have it all wrong, that things didn’t happen the way I thought they did, that I had imagined it all. And when you live this way for so long, the only thing you can really remember is what everyone else has ever told you.
But my body never forgot. For nearly a decade, I switched out of classes and sat on the opposite side of every room they were in. I took different stairwells and different hallways, different buses and different routes into and out of school. I lost friends. People stopped inviting me to places whenever they were around. If I ever did see them, they made me feel terrified, made my chest feel so tight it became difficult to draw even one breath, made me painfully aware of my body like it was too big and too small all at once. They left me with a sort of visceral sickly feeling, the only feeling I ever came to know around them, the kind that comes with being punished for some sort of grave sin that everyone knew about but me. And the only thing I had ever done wrong was grow up in a community that did not value women of Color, that did not value our bodies, our girlhood or our womanhood, that denied and stole them from us in a way it never did to any other kind of woman.
There is nothing fair or explainable, nothing strong, nothing brave, nothing resilient or powerful about enduring this. It depletes you, denies and takes from you, so that it becomes a part of you instead, something you must learn to live with, something your body must adapt to, must learn to make space for in an odd corner of your lung or heart or stomach, somewhere, anywhere, forever. There is no other way. It will continue to inform nearly every decision you make, the people you choose as friends, the people you choose to love, the people you fight for and live for and write for.
You do not let go of these sorts of things. And you do not recover from these sorts of things if recovery entails that things will ever go back to the way they were. But rebuilding, rectifying and reconciling is always an option, the only option. And even though a body can never be rebuilt the way it once was, it is still a task that requires honesty and humility, tenderness and tact, and forgiveness. Forgiveness of the self more than anything else, but forgiveness of the world too, because for as many dreadfully awful people and places a body has seen, it also has seen just as many wonderfully delightful people and places, just as much humanity, good grace and care, kindness and love, because our bodies never forget, even if we do.
MiC Senior Editor Sarah Akaaboune can be reached firstname.lastname@example.org