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Bittersweetest taboo Bristol-based British-Indian poet, therapist and broadcaster Maya Kalaria’s first book is published this month, featuring fascinating thoughts on grief and its beautiful, overlooked lessons
nspired by Maya’s experience of losing her mother to leukemia when she was nine years old, and being part of a family and wider society which did not encourage the expression of sorrow, Half Woman, Half Grief also speaks via its themes and imagery of feelings of disconnection to India – Maya’s motherland – through colonialism. It’s a pertinent time for Bristol to explore such ideas, as Maya explained during an enlightening chat this month. Grief is still a taboo because we’re not comfortable with our own pain. It’s almost as if we fear that once we open the floodgates, we’ll never be able to close them again, or we’ll lose our sense of identity. When we look around, there are so many examples of people doing everything but sitting with their pain. From using substances to cope, to overworking or shopping, avoidance is rife. We see it in the difficulties we have in approaching someone who is grieving; we’re not taught how to support them but instead encouraged to avoid the subject or pretend that everything is okay. When someone is crying we often offer them a tissue, as if we’re saying ‘I need you to stop crying because your sorrow is triggering my own pain.’ The irony is that when we do sit with our pain, we start to truly heal. We can channel grief into a more positive power by simply allowing it to be what it is without trying to block it. Grief has a natural flow, and once it is experienced, it does ease. It isn’t some horrible, nasty enemy but rather our body’s healthy and natural coping process. When we become more comfortable with allowing it within ourselves and sharing our pain with others, we allow them to experience their own grief. We normalise and welcome it. That in itself is an incredibly healing and transformative process which I believe would have a hugely positive impact on our society. The main thing I have learned about colonial grief is that the past can never be buried forever, and that if a history of oppression is hidden, grief inevitably turns into fury. I feel like that’s what we were witnessing over the past few months in Bristol; a long-held, bubbling grief that could no longer be contained by the descendants of oppressed and historically enslaved communities. I can only speak from what I’ve observed and what I know as an Indian person, but it seems that people from the Black communities in Bristol not only carry the grief of their ancestors who suffered at the hands of colonialism, but they don’t often have the safety or space to truly heal because, sadly, racism and ignorance is still rife. I have seen positive, tangible change in the way we tackle this since the statue toppling. For a start, we’re all talking about it now. The fury and grief is out in the open, and this is the first step to healing as we can’t heal what we can’t see. The most oppressed communities have started to be heard, and even though it will take time, I can already see those around me becoming more open to our shared history and how the impact of British colonialism still affects Black and Brown communities daily. It has been incredibly healing and affirming to be able to express the parts of myself which I’d long-hidden for fear of them not being accepted, and to have people truly hear my deep pain. Often, authentic acknowledgment is all it takes to catalyse healing.
I wish for my readers to allow their grief to transform them, and for the book to be their guide. I want them to know if they allow grief to overcome them, it can be an incredibly healing and empowering process rather than something to be frightened of. There are so many beautiful lessons to be found in grieving that our society overlooks. 28 THE BRISTOL MAGAZINE
Grief includes fury, shame, sorrow, despair, and all the ‘ugly’ emotions that we’re taught are unacceptable, and this is entirely normal. Through misogyny and racism, we lose so much of our personal freedom, human rights and authentic self-expression. These are real, tangible things that we grieve for. For example, both misogyny and racism contributed to my development of body dysmorphia. I often grieve the confident girl I could have been had I not encountered these toxic systems which are in-built into the fabric of our society. I also believe that men and male-identifying people have just as much to grieve from misogyny as it can take away the empathic, receptive and nurturing sides of themselves – often connected with the feminine. How we deal with environmental grief is a poignant question, as huge wildfires ravage North America and so many people around the world are experiencing this kind of grief. It is completely normal as we are witnessing the Earth (our provider) undergo unrecognisable shifts, and things will never look the same again. I would encourage people to grieve for it the same way as they would a human or animal as we’re all inextricably connected to the Earth, and to share this grief with others as, chances are, they’re feeling it too. Once this grief is released and shared, it is unblocked, and creative solutions can flow through. I’ve always experienced Bristol as a creative, self-expressive and pretty progressive city, and the people I have met have encouraged me to be completely myself. I have a very intense side to my personality which is reflected in my poetry, and just knowing that this intensity is not only welcomed but genuinely appreciated by those around me has encouraged me to share pieces I might not have otherwise, for fear of being ‘too much’. With grief still a taboo topic I needed this validation. I spent years in the mental health field where a lot of people I worked alongside were incredibly supportive of my writing. Seeing the young people I worked with pursue their creative dreams also inspired me; in fact, the book came about because of a pact I made with a young illustrator I supported at work. I also met my partner through a Sacred Poetry group in Easton which was recommended by a writer friend, and he has been so supportive of my creative endeavours. I believe the theme of grief will continue for many of us. For reading around this I would recommend The Wild Edge of Sorrow: Rituals of Renewal and the Sacred Work of Grief by Francis Weller; an extraordinary book about all kinds of grief, and returning to indigenous, ritualistic ways of healing which many of our ancestors used to use. I also loved Untamed by Glennon Doyle, which deals with misogyny, racism and grief in a poignant, eye-opening yet hilarious way. Both books had me in tears! ■ • Half Woman, Half Grief, is out on 31 October; mayakalaria.com