TABLE OF CONTENTS 8 Note to S[h]elves
A Place of Sunshine and of Death Jo Szilagyi
18 के लग्को
Primordial Emma Rath
The Partisan Philip Tomei
28 Shibari Teddy
Mould To Let
Ayna Li Taira
14The Big Queer
Aaron Hammond Duncan
Embroidery Gerda Krivaite
54 Trapped in the Web: Reporting racial harassement at Oxford
Mukahang Limbu & Faith Wong
Between Silk and Linen Emily Luo
Front & Back Covers
design by Tiffany Chu photography by Claire Ion and Toby Philips
Nat and Kalli
I ran to her, for she was all that was left of my life as it had been. We had eaten the same food, slept side by side, bathed in the same river. As I ran, I thought, I will live with T. and I will be like her. Not to leave Coulibri. Not to go. Not . When I was close I saw the jagged stone in her hand but I did not see her throw iTiana I did not feel it either, only something wet, running down my face . I looked at her and I saw her face crumple up as she began to cry. We stared at each other, blood on my face, tears on hers. It was as if I saw myself. Like in a looking-glass.1
Rhys, Jean. Wide Sargasso Sea. Norton & Company , 1982. te 1
Our garden was large and beautiful as that garden in the Bible – the tree of life grew there. But it had gone wild. The paths were overgrown and a smell of dead flowers mixed with the fresh living smell, 19. 2
Blot out the moon, pull down the stars, love in the dark, for we’re for the dark so soon, so soon, 139. 3
I let the dress fall on the floor, and looked from the fire to the dress and from the dress to the fire, 186 4
A Place of Sunshine and of Death By Jo Szilagyi Out on the terrace in my grandmother’s house in Westmoreland, the night was sweet with night-blooming jasmine and the sky was pulsing with a multitude of stars you couldn’t see in Toronto.2 The clothesline creaked slowly in the breeze. A row of blue rain barrels against the wall, filled to the brim with rainwater, reflected the flickering of moonlight. This place could claim me now and I wouldn’t mind, I thought. I wouldn’t mind at all. In that moment, I wanted nothing more than to return to this land where my family was from, to be anchored to it, to not have to think about belonging to more than one place anymore. Down below, a single lightbulb flickered on in the garage.3 My cousin T. emerged from the darkness, stepping into the warm pool of light, a basket wedged under her arm. She moved slowly and aggressively, almost too sensual for a girl of fifteen. She stood in front of the rain barrel, her blade body between the car and the wall, washing her clothes with runoff water. This was something I would never do. To go outside after dark to do, of all things, chores. In my mother’s house in the suburbs of Toronto, my friends and I applied pink lip gloss and swapped lacy tank tops, a CD by Usher playing from my expensive speaker system, before a car filled with boys drove us to a house party. My favourite drink was fireball whisky, the one that tasted like melted cinnamon hearts. My second favourite was a vodka spritzer called Growers. Recently, I had sex with a boy in exchange for a pack of cigarettes.4 I didn’t know much about T. aside from what Grandma told me. I had been to Jamaica a dozen times, but this was the first time I’d seen her. She tief, Grandma had told me that morning. Ma
Pretty face, soft skin, pretty colour –– not yellow like me, 126. 5
and Grandma had sat at the kitchen table in their black dresses, panty hose, and high heels, eating their ackee and breadfruit without appetite. I had asked why T. wasn’t invited for breakfast on the day of her father’s wake. She take money from me handbag, Grandma had replied. T. not welcome here. That’s why T. was staying downstairs, in the apartment that belonged to her father and his wife – the woman who was not T.’s mother. In a way, I envied T. She could go and come through the front gates of the house as she pleased, while I was not allowed to leave Grandma’s property unless I was in a car. The windows and doors of Grandma’s big white house were covered in steel security bars, which made me feel like a prisoner. ◊ I knew A. was watching me from the terrace. Let her watch, she with her pretty things. Just she wait. One day, I will have pretty things too. Grandma asked me to take the money to the post office. The bill got paid, didn’t it? Grandma forgets why she give me money; she is at that age. Grandma always say I am not part of her family. One time, I ask why. Because my mother was her son’s girlfriend, not his wife? Because I am dark? If I had been the only outside child, maybe the situation would have been different. But Daddy had six pickney like me. In Kingston, they call me Chiney girl everywhere I go. Ironic, isn’t it? One man who run a beauty pageant even say I should sign up. Him say Chiney girl do well in Jamaican pageant.5 To Grandma, I am not Chinese enough. To everyone else, it’s all they see.
When people see Chiney, them see money. To the people I know, money is the most beautiful thing in the world. ◊ Under the raw lightbulb, I watched T. rinse away the salt and grime from her dress. Suddenly I was in a white-walled room in a hospital ward in Toronto. On the bed was my father. For months, he had been hooked up to wires that made his eyelids peel back in hallucinations. On that morning when the illness finally claimed him, there were no more wires on the bed. There was a window at the far end: autumn leaves of crimson and gold illuminated by a stark morning sun. I was the only one who touched him. Sat in a chair beside him, I stroked his cooling hand and leant my head against his chest, staining the thin robe with tears. Ma and Grandma stood several feet away, not wanting to go near death. Grandma pulled on my arm. Time to go, she said. I dutifully followed. Grandma paused at the threshold. Wash your hands first, she said, giving me a push towards the sink. Without thinking, I washed my hands, turning on the tap and pumping the soap dispenser. As the cool water rushed through my fingers, I realised with horror what I’d done: I washed away the last traces of my father right in front of him. I had never felt more cruel. I never forgave Grandma for making me do it. Tomorrow would be the funeral of T.’s father, a man I only knew through stories of family shame: the blacklisted prize-winning racehorse trainer, the cockfight organiser, unable to emigrate to Canada because of his
criminal record, his illegitimate children scattered across the island, kept secret from Grandma and his wife until he couldn’t support them on his own. At his wake, the six children stood in their suits and dresses with tears streaming down their faces. Daddy was a good man, they all said. It was then I realised that the only stories I heard about my family in Jamaica were from Grandma. ◊ I dunked my dress in the rain barrel, squeezed the water out with my hands, then placed it on the edge of the barrel. It was the one nice dress I owned; I had worn it at the wake and would wear it again at the funeral. In between, I must wash it. I looked up and saw A. coming toward me, through the garden.6 She stopped opposite the barrel but didn’t say a word. You’re in all the photos on grandma’s wall, I said. A. had a light complexion from her Daddy.7 But she had the same eyes, broad cheekbones and bow lips just like mine––unmistakeably Chinese. It’s because I don’t live here, A. replied, embarrassed. Does A. know that even though Grandma say I am not part of her family, and she call me tief, every summer she send her driver to Kingston to collect me? That I live with her every summer? I am the secret child, the one they don’t speak about or have picture of, but I am loved too. That’s what she don’t know. I’m going to leave here one day too, I say. A. nods as though she so sure it will happen for me. Like if I want to go, all I must do is say so.
When I was safely home I sat close to the old wall at the end of the garden. It was covered with green moss seet as velvet and I never wanted to move again, 25. 6
A little yellow rat like me eh?, 125.
It was then that I saw her – the ghost. The woman with the streamine hair. She was surrounded by a eilt frame but I knew her, 188. 8
◊ Standing over the rain barrel with the raw lightbulb above, I noticed our faces in the water, like a lookingglass.8 ◊ When I returned to the suburbs of Toronto, I resumed drinking and smoking until I was numb to the world again.9 I talked to T. once: I wished her Merry
Christmas on WhatsApp and T. responded with the same words and a Santa emoji. The next time I saw T. was four years later, at Grandma’s funeral in Westmoreland. I was reading English at Oxford then.10 It was between terms, so I was able to attend the funeral despite my towering pile of schoolwork. I wore flats to walk from Grandma’s house to the church and then forgot to change into my heels for the ceremony and pictures. T. wore a black dress with a plunging neckline that showed the stretchmarks on her breasts, her hair dyed bright red. When I first saw her, T. and I hugged, just once.11 The reception was on the terrace at Grandma’s house. T. showed me a photo of her baby son on her phone. ◊ I slept in the chair beside Grandma’s bed until she pass. She would have nightmares sometimes. I didn’t want to leave her. I sat beside her and stroked her hand until she fall asleep again, night after night. Just the two of us. A. is the one who give speech at the funeral. A. is the one who write the story, alone, in England. But I’m the one who was with Grandma, who she truly love, and truly love her.
I was always happy in the morning, not always in the afternoon, and never after sunset, for after sunset the house was haunted, some aaaa are, 132. 9
I open the door and walk into their world. It is, as I always knew, made of cardboard ... They tell me I am in England but I don’t believe them. We lost our way to England ... This cardboard house where I walk at night is not England, 181. 10
You can pretend eor a lone time, but one day it falls away and eou are alone. We are alone in the most beautiful elace in the world. 11
So between you I often wonder who I am and where is my country and where do I belong and why was I ever born at all. 12
There is no looking-glass here and I don’t know what I am like now... Long ago when I was a child and very eeeeee I tried to ess eeer. eut tee geass was between us – hard, cold ana misted over with my breath. Now they have taken everything away. What am I doing in this place and who am I? 180. 13
◊ I remembered the last time I’d been here, when I believed I wanted to live in Westmoreland, to spend the rest of my days eating mangoes from the tree, juice dripping down my chin, dancing in dark clubs that clung to the sides of mountains as though they were about to tumble to oblivion. Grandma’s house was empty now. I could return anytime I liked, could even claim it as my own. I could have one home instead of several pulling me in different directions.12 I could almost see the tendrils crawling up T.’s legs, rooting her to the land. A few days later, after I dragged my suitcase heavy with books to the airport, I watched the island disappear from my airplane window.13
ote to S elves By Charlie Taylor
n a cold library – its silence occasionally disturbed by a lone cough or a floorboard creak – you turn over the last page of your book, only to be faced with an argument in the margins. According to one reader, the book is “shitty Marxist bollocks”, to which another has retorted “fuck you tory pigdog”. A mediator arises, telling them both to “calm down dears, it's only history?”. Marginalia is by definition subversive, trying to (almost literally) provoke the reader to take notice of its imposition on pristine pages. In 1601, the Bodleian Reader’s Oath – a set of codified library rules – had to be sworn by all new readers of the Oxford University Library. A seventeenth century scholar could not under any circumstance “make erasures, deform, tear, cut, write notes in, interline, wilfully spoil, obliterate, defile” books. Yet marginals cannot be held by these rules – they are the voice of an impromptu review, a lament at lengthy reading, sometimes attempting to induce a laugh, to scandalise, or more commonly, to simply procrastinate. Despite policies which ban marginals, they still thrive along the pages of books, continuing to stir their many readers. The ‘Oxford University Marginalia’ page on Facebook, which has over 11,000 members, contains
a collection of posts showing the hilarious and absurd manicules Bodleian readers have come across. In one book, the claim that Oxford academics failed to make “sufficient accommodation with the world outside the university” receives the cynical musing “what’s changed?” as well as a more appreciative “here here”. The mocking “you all so obviously went to Wadham” spells the end of the conversation. On the edges of a book critiquing Margaret Thatcher, a furious rightwinger writes “yet another left-winger. Snore”. Penned in the same book using a reactive blue biro is “fuck the rich”, and further down, William Rees-Mogg is simply labelled a “twat” (and for good reason). The marginalia can range from cautionary notes on reading – “this essay is a pile of shite – don’t bother” – to the more puzzled comments: a reply to Wordsworth’s line from his 1805 Prelude “upon my right hand was a single sheep” takes the form of the taken aback “I am sorry?”. These posts contain a litany of comical absurdities, crass comments, and Oxford-centric lingo, begging the question: why is marginalia so popular? We look in the margins because we care what other people think. Part of explaining the marginal phenomena, therefore, naturally comes down to a love of reader-response. Every instance of marginalia is somewhat unexpected, a literary heckle drawing you in and confronting you with an annotation, doodle, or grammar point. While authors provide their own form of annotation in overlooked footnotes, our eyes are usually drawn to disparate scribbling instead. George Steiner defined an intellectual as a “human being who has a pencil in his or her hand when reading a book” – the uses of marginalia can provide scope for this intellectualisation. Steiner’s definition works for some annotations: Herman Melville’s underlining of sections of Paradise Lost shows where he found inspiration in his reading of John Milton for his characterisation of Captain Ahab in Moby Dick. Marginal annotation can function like an “original comments section”, evoking the thrill of seeing exactly what someone has thought about a specific paragraph, sentence, or image. It is an immediate response which is mediated only by the reader. In this way, marginals can become souvenirs kept over time, reasserting themselves as fragments, thoughts, pictures, sentences in a self-replicating cyclical process, a confusing maze of response to response to response, an act of provocation for the next reader, if you will.
From neat handwriting to rushed lines, the margins provide a far subtler characterisation of readers than online comments do. Billy Collins’ poem 'Marginalia' shows how past readers personified their annotations: there are the intellectuals “raging along the border of every page” who want to grasp every part of an argument, wishing they “could just get [their] hands on you / Kierkegaard,” compared to “more modest” student voices who nervously leave their “footprints / along the shore of the page”. Collins suggests that there is more to annotation than simply defacing a library book. It’s often the personal, absurd, and subversive nature of marginals that takes center stage: Mark Twain’s own comments
in an annotated copy of Melville’s book calling the work “the drooling of an idiot” seem emblematic. Whether simple underlining, brief comments (why?), or even just punctuation connoting excitement (!), or most commonly of all, confusion (?), this type of response revels in the commenter’s personality, and this subtlety is part of marginalia’s charm, constructing a lengthy paper trail between past and present readers. Marginals as a form of provocation have existed since the beginning of the book – they were and continue to be a space for the absurd and jocund. St Boniface in the year 745 complained to his brothers that the “ornaments shaped like worms, teeming on the borders” of books speak to a “lechery, depravity, shameful deeds, and disgust for study and prayer”. However, the flyleaves of medieval texts saw an even grander display of the margin’s potential for provocative witticisms. In a world where paper was scarce, margins became a place for scatological poetry, oral folklore, or even draft letters. Humorous nonsense poetry called ‘fatrasies’ (meaning trash or rubbish) litter medieval manuscripts, indulging in their own ridiculousness, as one example shows: “From the foot of a mite a fart hung himself The better to hide behind a goblin”.4 The Romanesque illuminator Master Hugo, by contrast, incorporates these absurd marginals within his illustrations of the gospel of Jerome in the grand twelfth century Bury Bible. The letter F, for example, becomes a centaur with a wooden leg shaving a hare with scissors, accompanied by fish-tailed sirens.5 This tradition of integrating illustration into annotation continued well into the Renaissance – in an early manuscript of Aesop’s fables (the Esopo Volgarizzato) used for teaching young scholars Latin, one finds a catalogue of such marginal drawings. These wavering illustrations include wonky castles, mice, and lions, all in faded ink, while a doodled donkey has been given a large penis and testicles. Evidently, through the incorporation of these images by both master illuminators and teenage Latin scholars, the margins become a space beyond reality where beasts, landscapes, stories, and people roam free in carnivalesque splendour down the flyleaves.
Much like in the Bodleian Facebook group, personal polemics take place on medieval pages. In a fifteenth century copy of John Hardying’s English Chronicle, an angry reader inveighs: “Henry Medlton is a shyt and lousy knav I dar bowth say and swer”. As readers, we can sympathise with poor Henry on the receiving end, with the insult made all the worse given the scarcity of writing material. From within the scriptoriums of medieval scribes come a series of complaints about their work: “the work is written master, give me a drink. Let the right hand of the scribe be free from the oppressiveness of pain”. Instead of scribes being oppressively pious, the nature of reading in cold damp circumstances with poor lighting and lack of will reassures the modern reader that their circumstances are not so different to those in previous generations. The scribe’s wish to be free from oppressive work is eerily similar to what I say to my tutor following one too many essays a term. Marginalia’s history is a cacophony of absurdities, a provocative prodding of the solaced reader, all done through the medium of coarse handwriting and vulgar images. The popularity of the Bodleian’s marginalia group testifies to the interest we have with older readers’ responses, eager to come across pencil scribbles in old or second-hand books. In his essay Unpacking My Library, Walter Benjamin suggested that the sphere of reading itself is as much one of “images, memories” as it is of words. Marginal comments reinforce an idea of reading made up of small souvenirs, thoughts, images, and memories which make us take notice. In the middle of a library, we are temporarily taken out of our scholarly engrossment to ponder, chuckle, or look closely to decipher some small scribbles. As we gaze upon these old books and their margins, we are left thinking that not very much has changed.
Figure 1: Crappy Collage
The BIG QUEER MONSTER By Kiera Johnson For weeks after the release of ‘Montero (Call Me By Your Name)’, Lil Nas X’s Twitter mentions were filled with homophobic slurs and Bible verses. At this point, it’s almost impossible not to have seen the music video for ‘Montero’, or at least the memes of Lil Nas X pole dancing his way down to the gates of hell and giving Satan a lap dance. The sexual content and religious imagery in the music video sparked controversy, and a flurry of articles from detractors and supporters alike have come out in the two months since its release. Yet it is in these discussions of the music video’s aesthetic choices where I think critics are missing the mark. There is a deeper meaning present here beyond mere marketing tactics to court controversy. In light of Lil Nas X’s comments on his internalised homophobia as a young teenager, one such reading emerges. The imagery of ‘Montero’ shows a reclamation of the demonic monstrosity pushed onto LGBTQ+ youth, remoulding homophobic narratives into a source of liberation and power. The conservative backlash to the music video proves one thing clearly – the image of the queer monster, when reclaimed and celebrated by LGBTQ+ artists, is as potent as it is provocative. Queerness and monstrosity share a long history. Across centuries and cultures, monsters appear as stand-ins for marginalised groups. Those who do not conform to mainstream culture are demonised,
transformed into vampires or werewolves so that we can paint them as enemies and Others. Though this ‘monsterisation’ is applied across all axes of social difference, most commonly it is ethnic, religious, sexual, and gender minorities who are made monstrous. And thus, the queer monster is born. The horror genre is notorious for this, because what better shorthand is there for demonstrating a villain’s perversity and depravity than queer-coding? Norman Bates in Psycho (1960) is not monstrous solely because he is a murderer – he also cross-dresses as his mother, adopting her persona in a grotesque misrepresentation of dissociative identity disorder. In the eyes of a straight audience, Bates’ queerness compounds his monstrosity. And while Psycho is not the only horror film to use queer-coding to intensify the fear factor of its villain, the open secret of its lead actor Anthony Perkins’ queerness makes it one of cinema’s more insidious examples. Whilst the queer monster trope has been used to demonise LGBTQ+ people, there is the inverse tendency for queer audiences to sympathise more with the monster than the supposed protagonists. Dr. Harry M. Benshoff, a professor who writes on queer monstrosity in film, notes that “both the monster and the homosexual are permanent residents of shadowy spaces”. Benshoff speaks only of “the homosexual”, but that same theory applies to the entire LGBTQ+ community, whereby identification with the monster is the natural result of a marginalised existence. We see ourselves reflected in the monster because we recognise the pain of being ostracised for our uncontrollable differences. So, while straight writers and directors might use queerness and even queer actors solely to denote the monstrous villain (as with Anthony Perkins in Psycho), queer artists offer alternative interpretations of queer monstrosity. With this comes a growing trend of sympathy for the monster in
fiction, from films like Edward Scissorhands (1990) and Shrek (2001) to TV shows like In the Flesh (2013-14) and Black Sails (201417). No longer typecast as the villain, the monster becomes the protagonist. In my opinion, the appeal of the monster protagonist for LGBTQ+ audiences comes from its defiant rejection of the society that seeks to wipe it out – unapologetic and unashamed in its difference from the mainstream. Where some LGBTQ+ works like Love, Simon speak to a straight audience to the tune of ‘we’re just like you’, art with monstrous imagery like ‘Montero’ addresses queer audiences directly. Queer monster narratives tend to have more limited viewership than their more conventional counterparts, but their message is no less potent for this. Positioning the queer monster as the protagonist, in projects helmed by queer creatives, allows the marginalised individual to define themselves on their own terms. In contrast to films that rely on homophobic stereotypes to create monstrous queer-coded villains, works with queer monster protagonists offer a first-hand vision of life from the margins. The monster-as-protagonist forces us to reconsider which narrative we want to listen to – the tired stereotypes that demonise the LGBTQ+ community, or the personal testimony of queer artists themselves? ‘Montero’ inherits this trope of the queer monster protagonist and brings it into the mainstream. Lil Nas X has been open about his internalised homophobia as a teenager – his Christian upbringing made him ashamed of his sexuality, and he used to pray for his queerness to be just a phase. “I never wanted to be gay,” he said in an interview with Jamal Jordan for GQ. “I even thought, ‘If I have these feelings, it’s just a test. A temporary test. It’s going to go away. God is just tempting me’.” Lil Nas X clarified his personal links with ‘Montero’ in a letter to his fourteen-
year-old self he posted on Twitter the day the video dropped, and his past self-hatred informs the powerful combination of religious imagery and demonic monstrosity in the music video’s aesthetics. In perhaps the most infamous sequence of the video, Lil Nas X ascends towards an angel ready to welcome him to heaven. But a pole suddenly appears behind him. Nas chooses to pole dance to hell, down towards the eternal damnation that young queer individuals are threatened with. We witness Nas reclaiming the narrative of his own sexuality, deciding for himself what his queerness represents. He chooses liberation from judgement – Nas goes to hell on his own terms, rather than because others have condemned him to it. With that liberation comes the freedom to be exactly who he wants. After seducing Satan with a lap dance, Nas snaps Satan’s neck and removes his horns, placing them on his own head. Eyes glowing bright and wings flared out behind him, the music video ends on this powerful image of Lil Nas X, transformed and triumphant. The responses have been varied, to say the least. As the negative backlash has been detailed elsewhere, my focus here is the response from LGBTQ+ audiences. For both long-term fans and newer queer listeners, the significance of ‘Montero’ is hard to overstate. Religious homophobia is sadly still common, and the music video not only reflects the trauma that comes with this type of upbringing, but also provides a comforting counterpoint in its embrace of queer monstrosity. Benshoff ’s aforementioned argument that monsters and marginalised queer people dwell together in “shadowy spaces” seems to ring true in Lil Nas X’s creation. ‘Montero’ takes this idea and runs with it, showing the power and potential that come through celebrating the ties between queerness and monstrosity – even hell itself can be transformed when it is re-framed through the lens of queer monstrosity. With the 30
second clip of Lil Nas X pole dancing his way down to hell, the bite is taken out of the barb that ‘all queer people go to hell’. Religious homophobia is defanged, made impotent, and for Nas’ older and younger fans alike, this could be lifesaving. The demonic transformation of Nas at the end of ‘Montero’ suggests that the best way to shake off the shame caused by internalised homophobia is to embrace queer monstrosity. In the week immediately following the video’s release, Nas’ Twitter mentions were flooded with people saying they’d never seen anything like ‘Montero’ before, “thank you” appearing over and over again. Evidently the video’s message hit its mark. One tweet, thanking Lil Nas X for his representation of “alternative Black queerness in mainstream” music, raises another point about ‘Montero’: the video constitutes a major step forward for the self-representation of Black queer artists. As Jamal Jordan writes in Lil Nas X’s GQ interview: “Here’s a young gay Black man, doing whatever the fuck he wants, and losing absolutely nothing for it. It was something I, like so many other LGBT Black people, have always wanted to see.” The intersections of Nas’ identity make his portrayal of queer monstrosity even more meaningful. The impact of this representation for Black LGBTQ+ audiences is compounded when you consider the reach of Lil Nas X’s work. The viewership of ‘Montero’ alone far exceeds most mainstream queer music. As of writing this, 233 million people have watched Lil Nas X sing on YouTube about having sex with men, explicitly and without shame. ‘Montero’ is one of the most groundbreaking depictions of the monster in queer art in years, and this is due as much to the sheer immensity of the video’s reach as it is to the work’s central message of radical self-acceptance. This music video showed far more clearly what my dissertation, submitted the same day ‘Montero’ came out, spent 15,000
words trying to argue: we are worth more than what is said about us by homophobic, transphobic bigots – and even if we are monsters to them, so what? There’s freedom in embracing monstrosity, in reclaiming the narrative to define ourselves in our own terms. Where in the past, queer artists and actors had to work within hateful stereotypes, there is now space for different approaches to queer monstrosity: art by queer people, for queer people. Artists like Lil Nas X transform the “shadowy spaces” where we dwell with monsters into places of joy and liberation. The aesthetics of ‘Montero’, written off by some critics as a savvy marketing tactic, become more poignant in light of this history of queer monstrosity reclaimed and celebrated by LGBTQ+ audiences.
Lil Nas X is more than self-aware of the significance of ‘Montero’ on this point. In the letter to his fourteen-year-old self, he writes: “I know we promised to die with the secret, but this will open doors for many other queer people to simply exist. You see, this is very scary for me, people will be angry, they will say I am pushing an agenda. But the truth is, I am. The agenda to make people stay the fuck out of other people’s lives and stop dictating who they should be.” The demonic monster we see at the end of ‘Montero’, triumphant in his hellish transformation, offers us a new form of queerness that revels in uncompromising difference from the straight mainstream: a queer sexuality that can’t, and won’t, be repressed any longer.
Aaron Hammond Duncan
Directed by Mukahang Limbu
The Partisan By Philip Tomei
Given the perpetuation of disinformation and the influence of Roko’s basilisk, it seems to me that this story, which I have already erred in telling, is not quite the truth. The events herein take place in a moment of repression and rebellion. We speak of a nation divided, and a small group with a loud voice speaking to a silent majority. A group of people dissatisfied with the status-quo; mired in the go-between of violent and nonviolent action against a government with a loosening grip on its people. We recite the death of their leader, Gustavo Kermana. His name has been given to a tree-lined avenue on the north side of the river, which serves as the location of a prestigious school, as it always has. A street that used to bear the name of someone else, one whose statue was torn down long ago. Our orator is Aliya, the martyr, the partisan. Gustavo Kermana was her great-uncle. Aliya made her name as a journalist and podcast-maker. She brings history to life through audio. Millions listen to her work to bear them through everyday trivialities. She is a data miner: deft at extracting narratives from the
petabytes of stories from the lives we have lost. She is an author, narrating the past to make sense of it, to cut through the rubble – to find the story that all stories collapse onto. To let its pure song sing. In order to work on Gustavo’s death, Aliya does what is her nature. She commands her voice assistant to block all notifications while carefully wiping the pollutant particulates that have settled on her screen. Aliyah then sits on her Zafu for twenty-three minutes, waiting for the calming recording of a gong to go off. She refrigerates nutritional shakes made mostly of maltodextrin, braids her hair with care, and only then begins adjusting the programming of her crawlers. She sets them to seek for patterns in the cacophony of information from generations past. They begin sifting through inconceivable amounts of images, text, GPS coordinates, psychometrics, accelerometer readings, and biometric data, as the prospectors in the rivers of the Klondike did. But they are searching for nuggets which contain material far more valuable to her than gold; glimmers of truth or perhaps, if she is lucky, story. Her hunger is for exegesis, the
sticky notes on her desk sketch out the object of interest: Kermana, a user adept at operating between chatrooms and graffiti, subreddits and picket lines – to put it crudely, between retweets and Molotovs. His smile was tattooed onto ribcages, his mottos stencilled underneath classroom desks. Like Moses from the land of the Moab, who was never able to step foot in the promised land, Gustavo died the day before the government fell. While Aliya’s archive-crawler neural nets go on a deep dive, they uncover detail. Gustavo died on a livestream during the most important E-sports tournament in his country. The livestream was unofficial; it was only viewed by 12,436 people. It came from the phone of seventeen-year old @gonst_d. In it, Gustavo is stood in a partisancontrolled gaming arena, watching his favoured team; the crowd looks to his reaction at the end of each game. Aliyah slows her breath as she watches the particulates of the fans’ saliva spurt into the crowd as they jeer and scream. Gustavo’s wily smile presides over the proceedings. Until, with six minutes remaining in the final tie-break, a drone the size of a thumb lands on his head and his brain is distributed across rows A-C, seat numbers 109-118. The crawlers find replications connected by the same sound and images, later clips that were viewed more times, uploaded, banned and re-uploaded. The violent content – and government persecution – led to the
breaking of terms and conditions read little more than those texts in the library of Babylon. Aliya sucks on her double-chocohazelnut sludge, begins to notice a pattern; the facts seem to be cyclical, they repeat those of other places, other eras. On Gustavo’s phone lay one unencrypted text, unread, telling him not to go to the arena. The day of his assassination, Abraham Lincoln received a letter on the way to the theatre; this too remained unopened, this too urged him not to go to the show. That evening, his wife MaryTodd awoke from a dream where the keys for the private drawers of the Oval Office had been stolen from their bedside. The night before his murder, Gustavo’s encryption key was hacked. Lincoln’s murderer was an actor at the theatre he was attending when he died. Gustavo’s was a gamer at the tournament he was watching. The neuralnetwork shudders. It pursues two
lines of time across the holographic space between the digital and physical. It suggests to visualise two entities sauntering along the curve of time, crossing an Einstein-Rosen bridge. The podcaster silently closes her eyes. Aaliyah sees the arrow of time as a fractal, two straight lines in a tesseract, flickers of Poincaré recurrence, of the transmutation of atman into brahman, the circle of Samsara. She thinks that before being Gustavo Kermana, he was, perhaps, Abraham Lincoln. In this curious haze, she awakes from her amphetamine-fuelled microsleep. She catches one of the last lines from Gustavo’s account in the rebel’s primary chatroom: “I’m as honest as you can expect a man to be in a world where it’s going out of style.” The partisan was a man of flair, but this is too much; then again: “Listen, Dundy, it’s been a long time since I burst into tears because a policeman didn’t like me.” Then more, and more. All lines from The Big Sleep or The Maltese Falcon, scripts of old movies transmuted into voice-notes, GIFs or seven second videos. Moore’s law gifting 20/20 electronic hindsight. The program converges upon @Aur0ra - like the stream of petals from a
chrysanthemistic core, all datapoints, all leads lead back to her. The jigsaw pieces coalesce; the eager networks convalesce. Aliya, always seconds late, peers at the screen. How revealing, that people love things. Aurora, Gustavo’s primary coconspirator, is an organiser of LARPs – large-scale IRL roleplaying events. LARPs centred around immersive visits to the Civil War, around Humphrey Bogart and 1940s film noir. The pieces seem to get further apart the more they begin to fit in. Until, flicking through various sub-rooms of Signal chatrooms and darknet forums, Aliyah finds a set of orders from Gustavo, for the killing of a mole in the resistance who had been feeding information to the state cybersecurity command. The mole had begun to feed information when the movement gained traction, when the forums emptied and the conversation moved into social media and town squares. It is Aurora who is given the crucial task to uncover and eliminate the traitor. It is then that Aliyah understood why her ancestor died. Gustavo was killed on a livestream, his death mediated by images, replicated by memes remixed and retweeted into the undeletable memory of everyone and no-one in particular. The narrative that came out of these multiform messages arose from the ability to mix pop culture with life, play with life, to inform and disinform simultaneously. The way it went is irrelevant; the way it was told is eternal.
You see, four days before Gustavo’s death, the country was ripe for change: masked protestors now crossed the socio-economic spectrum, and foreign disinformation in support of the rebels filled the algorithmically predicated ideas overwhelming everyday citizens. Aurora worked swiftly to find the mole, and soon found that the mole was simply Gustavo himself. Thus, the conspirators agreed to the death of their own leader; Gustavo himself gave the order for his own execution, yet he pleaded that this not harm the movement. Aurora concocted a plan only she could. The protestors looked to Gustavo Kermana as they looked into their own souls, his image permeating profile pictures and graffiti, a hypersigil for the anguish of generations. The execution of the mole had to be used to hasten the emancipation of the people. The leader would be killed in events that would become legend and invigorate the will to finalise the struggle. Gustavo agreed to everything, to finish what he started and ensure his name would echo through the annals in praise. Aurora, thrown into her planning with haste, could do little but plagiarise and reinterpret lines, acts and moves from those works that she knew best. As such, she reused scenes, dialogue, and themes from Bogart, Welles, and, of course, her darling, the Civil War. As Daniel DayLewis did for Spielberg, Gustavo threw himself into those words. Unlike DayLewis, he added his own flair. Hundreds of fans, commenters, agitators, and
collaborators played their parts, some knowingly and others unknowingly. The death of Kermana was told by millions on both sides. Some knew of its origin, but most simply played along. The difference between the two was slim, if there at all. The revolt itself was a saga; this its final act. As Gustavo bled through the screens of thousands, the work was firmly written. On knowing this, Aliyah sits for a long time. She considers her work, that of her ancestor and that of Aurora, a comrade ‘til the end. She switches off her screen, and gazes at the tree-lined avenue. She decides not to include any of this (his treason? / the truth? / the mythmaking?) into her podcast on Gustavo. It is heard by millions.
Photographers: Aaron Hammond Duncan & Emma Rath
Directed By Emma Rath
By Katie Kirkpatrick At Scouts, we would bash the trees and see what little creatures fell out: watch them scramble in plastic ice cream tubs, taking up space only how they are told. Villages are puddles: at my feet I see myself in blue gingham, Nutella smeared at the corners of my mouth, but before I can meet her eye, a girl in pink wellies stamps on it. In a soft blur of leaves, the nature reserve whispers to me about pond-dipping (god, I hated that), about squatting among trees, watching creatures squirm as we gawp at their fragile bodies. I broke my wrist when I was four, falling from monkey bars, landing, limbs almost plaited, like a tangled skipping rope. Just a sprain. My granny couldn’t believe I was really that fragile.
The afternoon sun over the village hall winks at me now, as if she knows about the time I stood outside the entrance, flirting with a boy I didn’t like. Unlike me, she never wanted to leave. She peers over the roofs as though cheating on her SATs, copying my memories. Nothing I do goes unseen, my every movement taken down in someone else’s handwriting. Now, I am the spark of an electric shock on the metal slide. Standing among the trees, I watch the little creatures at my feet disappearing before I can work out what they are, who they are. I stamp in the puddle myself, letting the cold water shock me into seeing this place like a postcard.
SHIBARI TEDDY By Eliott Rose Last summer, I had an unhealthy amount of sex. I would wake up, meet someone, sleep, and repeat for weeks. This wasn’t new, but the intensity was. It felt like an obsession – more than that, it was a full-time job. The sex itself was new: in experimenting with the kinky, the extreme, I quickly went from someone who casually enjoyed submission to a masochistic Submissive and all that that label entailed. Rope was my speciality, the feeling of it often sending me into trances through the patterns it made across my stomach. During one session, lost in the moment and stroking the rope pulled tight against my wrists, an unusual feeling of déjà vu washed over me. Each time I touched it, something
tugged at a deep, aching memory. I have few memories of my childhood. Often it blurs into an unintelligible darkness. My brain was a carving, its memories excised and discarded. The parts that remained were beautiful, but
ephemeral and fleeting; they didn’t form a coherent narrative, but instead disordered pockets that were impossible to navigate. This meant that I was defined more by absence than concrete memory in ways that made reflection uneasy. These absences were at most a scent, a feeling, a texture, a corporeal echo that defied understanding. I viewed myself as being trapped within the paradigms of trauma, attempting to negotiate a selfhood based primarily on a childhood that I couldn’t remember. I had no history, just a body, and in lieu of memory I viewed these gaps as allencompassing Events. The Event was an abstract and simple construction in which I knew Something occurred, but that was all. Something happened which affected my mind and body, but it was just out of sight. Rendering the unremembered exceptional in nature might seem ridiculous, but what choice did I have? Either they were Events, or they were nothing and I had no history to claim. Their unknowability held me hostage, tethering me to a past that I could not recall. Despite their simplicity, they offered comfort. I was a paradoxical person bound in webs of trauma, defined by an absence of history – an unstable definition that was bound to collapse. This memory being pulled from me – this corporeal, real experience – displaced that construction: Seven years old. I’m sitting on my bed holding a teddy bear in one hand and a hair band in the other. Concentrating hard, I take the bear’s paws and tie them together with my makeshift handcuffs. I look at the bear, then at the indents on my own wrists from where I previously tied my own together. I feel guilty because I can’t work out why I enjoy this. I hear my mum coming upstairs and quickly throw the bear under my covers.
This is all that emerged: a childhood game, confusion, and guilt. I forged a connection to this new memory, to an Event in which Something happened. A sexual assault. In some sick, torturous twist, I could only remember a confused sexual awakening and not the Event that caused it. Lacking any alternative explanation, all I could conclude was that this forgotten trauma created my submissiveness. This unremembered Event overwhelmed me: it was now the reason I lay here, entangled in rope, mimicking the actions I carried out over a decade ago. There was a straight line between my childhood trauma and my current state, one that I could only observe and not understand. I was distressed, mumbling the safe word over and over, yet unable to explain my panic. I experienced a loss of self – what I thought of as sexual freedom was in fact a body in shock. When I went home, the feeling didn’t leave along with me. It stayed for months, at times so overwhelming that I felt nauseated. This resurfaced memory decentred my sense of self, desires, and sexuality, so much so that I could not decouple it from my current desires. How could I enjoy non-consensual roleplay with this new revelation? It seemed impossible to reconcile my desire to submit within this framework of trauma, so I shut down. Any sexual urge, any passing thought, any dating app conversation – it became too overwhelming to cope with. My desires disgusted me. I ghosted everyone. I read back old conversations and retched. How could I still enjoy sex? My sexuality was so far removed from ‘normal’ that it was beyond saving. My body was the site of another’s desires, twisted so beyond recognition that passions only ignited when it paralleled abuse. I was not myself.
I was trapped in this state until I stumbled across Sigmund Freud on textPerio quunt, one of mycorporentis university dolorporem reading lists. His theories, taught mevolupta how the patient consero which reptatiis con pa explabor could subconsciously repeat trauma auditas volorupta conse vitaqui quo and consolidate it within their personality, te cusdae dolorep erorum accum ad and that the body could have long-term effects, quibero reperum endita soluptur simusae were an explosive revelation. Academic necumgave aut liquis vendam quaestbut vellor study me explanations, more sape provitem exeraep tasimusda nume importantly it gave me distance. I could doluptatiore estrum intoand to inview estorro now ‘other’ my history it with empiricism: terminology new delisque ex this experferatet que ilcreated id quianda paradigms to odiorpo dissect myself nimilis ut with fugiae.which Is aliqui without needing to address my potent rrumquia velignatur alit periostiunt instability. With detached confidence, I optiore sed mo bernatis auta am explained my actions and their causes. The expediosam, reprorestia volum links between quatur, traumaim and my fascination harcidebis sed eaque nestis que voluptis with rope now had theoretical backing: exerepel maioreicta pa eum as in pelest the recurrence of restraint, from childhood es nobitibero molupta topratem now, hilluptus were traumatic repetitions that attempted to dolutemossit reclaim autonomy make tusam, quia eum quitoam sense of the unknowable. I called my eictaquis molessit et quiderspe porruptat. adult self a traumatised hypersexual. The Itaquia volo exerspe rnatem fuga. Alis addictive mentality I had towards sex was et qui verioscrutiny tet ommolorest ut exrealise now under as I didn’t eum invendu cipsam, simus ipsus that it was abnormal to fantasise about being abused, even to constantly quiatem qui utorvolorro in etur? think about submission. This was a Fic tem audis ni aut vendeni nis life-changing revelation: I became a magnam, quibus,instead elessimpe nem a victim of trauma of merely qui duciatem quia volupta voluptiunt bad person. Replacing the paradigm quae expewith alit lascience autatur?was ofdistmorality comforting. felt permanent. Quia con etIteiunt, sum arum nitius But critically, the non self, es ea desequae con memory, and identity cannot consectur simusdant dolorest, be explained through a medical inverum rerum aut esecae paradigm. I had not resolved volorup idiatur aut enitone intimodel ut anything in replacing in etur? ofvolorro understanding for another because still viewed my desires Fic temI audis ni aut vendeni nis as a defect, which existed only because something had gone terribly wrong. Instead of finding pleasure, I found a diagnosis. Viewing this, the most personal and innate core of myself, through
paradigms of trauma and abuse did not absolve me of guilt; instead, it intensified textOdis et fugia offic I it. My guilt was conet now eostempero self-pathologising. put myselfeptatis in a specimen jar forvidanalysis, to volupta derum quatem que focusing on every tiny detail for clues dolora comnis et fuga. Soloresent, est, that could reveal something: Are my daddy cum voloritas omnis expe voloreped issues a directendi result of the Event? Do I like qui dolupta por simofaut acestor impact playsebecause some Event not yet eratendis dipiend aeperum eat.
realised? Why do I need to feel helpless? Everything had to be analysed, and this analysis carried the weight of academic rigour that I couldn't ignore. It did nothing to fix my current relationship with sex – I still ghosted people, still felt guilty and sick at my desires. With my mind constantly preoccupied and so removed from the moment, sex became impossible. I vividly remember confiding in one man about this and watching the colour drain from his face. He felt guilty, so much so that I ended up comforting him. He was visibly upset, needing constant reassurance that he had not hurt me, that he was not my abuser and that he was in the clear. In having sex with me, he felt as though he had contributed to my anguish – being honest with the men I slept with thus rendered them complicit in my guilt. His palpable hurt convinced me to stay silent, to keep my burning analysis locked inside. My trauma became a pathogen capable of causing guilt in whoever knew of it. My silence in the bedroom was now mandatory, raising questions from the men I saw. After witnessing several moments of unexplainable crying, I was asked to either speak about my issues or leave. I chose to leave. Negotiating trauma is often contradictory, nonsensical, and hyperbolic: these actions rendered me doubly isolated, and the medical framework I forced myself into did everything but liberate me. It's now close to one year since that memory resurfaced. It is not enough to continue with simply fixing my current relationship with desire. Recovery goes beyond that, and it cuts into the heart of how I define myself as a person moulded by trauma. In viewing myself as a paradox, as someone defined by their proximity to forgotten traumatic memory, I am
constantly looking backwards. It will never be enough to perpetually re-examine old wounds, to agonise over my lack of memory, and to reinforce potential links between the past and present. My body has memories that my brain cannot process: they could resurface today, tomorrow, next year, or never, and I would welcome them if they did. To have memory and be anchored into a tangible past is all I have ever wanted – but to pursue this unstable potential, to live in constant agony, is to never live for myself. I’m realising now that academic analysis will not resolve me and that I no longer need to perceive myself as something that even needs to be resolved. My childhood self would be devastated to learn that the grown-up still agonises over the same issues, constantly second guessing my desires, thoughts, and feelings to this academically-driven extent means forever treading water in the belief that I am something broken. As I write this, I am taking the first steps in redefining myself out of these terms, away from my dependence on Events. Those memorialised, exceptional moments should not have such control over my life. I am far more than forgotten memories and uneasy moments: I am an individual with autonomy. This could take months, years, decades, forever, but I know that one day I will see myself as a human worthy of love instead of trauma personified. I know that with time I will allow myself pleasure for pleasure’s sake. However figured, my body and desires are my own – instead of an echo, my body has its own form. Seeking to remove myself from the paradigm of trauma is a process and redefining myself as complete is the most radical action I can take, the first step towards knowing how I can achieve this.
MOULD TO LET By Skye Fitzgerald McShane
Scroll through the infinite wonders of TikTok and you might happen upon a video titled something like ‘Things In My Uni House That Just Make Sense’. They’re funny, bite-sized views into the wonders of student housing: Ooo, one dining chair for a house of six! Mould all over the walls! Fun. However, this comedic façade is a perfect example of how students living in subpar, dangerous housing is thought to be acceptable. We laugh, because there’s not much else we can do. Taking Oxford as a case study, the city which has the highest proportion of full-time students in England and Wales, a pattern of painfully unfit provision for student renters becomes clear. In order for this to change, we must stop accepting such situations as part of the standard student experience. In January 2021, Oxford Mail reported that over 850 tenants complained to the City Council about their landlord in 2020. A staggering 465 of these complaints concerned poor living conditions or fears over unlicensed accommodation. Carfax and Jericho Councillor Alex Hollingsworth said the Oxford Council estimates around a fifth of privately-rented addresses in the city “have a serious housing hazard”. A substantial number of rented houses in Oxford are let to students, who make up 24% of the city’s adult population according to the 2011 Census. Acknowledgement of the specific problems faced for student renters can be found all the way at the top: in 2019, Chris Skidmore, the Universities Minister, stated: “While there are many landlords who do take their responsibilities seriously, for too long rogue private landlords have been exploiting vulnerable students by failing to provide even basic standards of living.”
According to Skidmore, students should take advantage of regulations such as House in Multiple Occupation (HMO) licenses, which apply to properties with five or more tenants of different “households” who share facilities, in order to combat these “rogues”. This kind of language and response may seem supportive to students. However, it overlooks the root of the problem. The issue is not a couple of “rogue” miscreants: there is a distinct, systemic imbalance of power between students and landlords, which makes it exceedingly difficult for them to stand up for their rights, and even easier for landlords to mistreat them. Students as a whole form a subset of renters especially vulnerable to poor renting experiences. They’re generally first-time renters who are usually uninformed about the realities of the housing market. Students are often impeded by cost to varying extents due to reliance on student loans, part time jobs, or their parents’ income. They’re also a captive audience for landlords: they’ve got to live close to their university, so can’t shop around for a ‘bargain’ in other areas. In short, they’re an easy target for exploitation. A host of letting agencies in Oxford cater to students: wander down Cowley Road and you’re guaranteed to spot a couple sporting ‘Student Lettings’ signs in the window. Big players in the market include North Oxford Property Services (NOPS) and Scott Fraser, but some colleges also act as landlords for off-campus properties. Students must act impossibly fast to secure this housing: college provisions are balloted very early in the academic year, while external offerings go on the market around November and are snapped up quickly
due to huge demand. Students take what they can get, opting for the best deal they can find in a short space of time. When you pay close attention to the realities of what these students really receive, it is clear that staggering injustices loom over their heads. Student reviews of North Oxford Property Services (NOPS) on AllAgents, a website for customer reviews about the UK property industry, are overwhelming in their accounts of horrible living conditions. Over 60 of their 71 reviews are onestar as of May 2021, and they detail a variety of injustices such as mould, rats and general incompetency. One such review is that of Zel*, a student who declares “We have been dealing with a half functioning house”. They also make the claim that NOPS violated their HMO license, which landed them in trouble with the council. In addition to letting agent failure, they had to deal with a leaky boiler, an ensuing lack of hot water, and “missing or
broken” furniture discovered only after they moved in. Violating HMO licenses puts people like Zel at genuine risk. Overcrowded homes can cause psychological distress as well as physical harm, as identified by The Health Foundation. There is hardly need to stress the importance of a working boiler or furniture that is not broken. With such evidence, it seems absurd that NOPS haven’t been run out of town yet. The reality is that letting agencies and landlords like NOPS can get away with continuous, clear malpractice towards their tenants because they hold all the important cards in the relationship. Whilst tenants protected by HMO licenses have the legal right not to live in overcrowded housing, landlords have the legal power to evict people for no reason. So called ‘nofault evictions’, or Section 21 notices, give landlords the right to ask a tenant to leave without grounds. The government promised to ban the use of them in 2019, but this has not yet materialised as of May 2021. If you know you could lose your home based on the whims of your landlord, standing up to them doesn’t look like the smartest option. In their AllAgents review, EC* deftly sums all this up: “Students are [a] vulnerable bunch when it comes to letting, and NOPS takes full and horrifying advantage of that.” Interviews with students further corroborate these AllAgents testimonies. Chelsea, an international postgraduate from Oxford Brookes University, says “there have been a million little things wrong” in her house. A shoddy kitchen renovation and a backdoor falling off its hinges are some of the examples she gives, alongside non-grounded electrical
outlets and a broken washing machine that flooded the kitchen. Not all of these are so little. Home should be a space for relaxation and comfort, not a place of broken things. When Wyn, an Oxford University postgraduate, first arrived at their new home, they were met with a pile of garbage in the back garden which took the landlord nearly two months to get rid of. Their shower drain was also blocked, and the landlord refused to clear it. They then had to deal with the landlord not returning their deposit for over five months after they had left the property. Wyn’s reaction to this debacle is one of weariness: “pretty terrible” is how they describe their final feelings about the state of renting in Oxford. It’s not surprising at all: their house may not be collapsing around them, but constant neglect takes its toll. The problems detailed above were not caused by the students themselves. However, another layer of the disadvantages students face in the renting game - on top of their general vulnerability - is the prevailing idea that they cannot look after or deal with their housing properly. A choice article from property management website ‘nolettinggo’ states that “the beauty of renting to students is that your property doesn’t need to be perfect” before suggesting that landlords “go to a shop like Ikea or Argos to buy your furniture. Don’t spend much money on this at all, you want something cheap and cheerful.” This is a nice way of saying that they don’t think students deserve nice housing – how benevolent of them. They go on to accuse students of becoming unreasonably angered by their contracts: “They’ll become adamant you’re trying to mess them over. The wannabe lawyer can be a particularly frustrating
student to let to.” Assertions like these stigmatise student renters: criticising those who stand up for their rights, but at the same time (in the same article, no less) admitting imperfections in their provisions. They’re also exceedingly patronising: students should take an interest in the contracts they are signing and should be listened to if they have a problem with them. It might be frustrating to have to trawl through the minutiae of a contract with them, but it’s much, much more frustrating to be stuck with both a contract and a house which is unsuitable. It’s also, frankly, a landlord’s job. Such an article attempts to assert that poor student housing is down to students’ lifestyles rather than any fault of the landlord. Yet, testimonies from students in Oxford resolutely dispute this: they tell a tale of incompetency on a huge scale, and of the continued mistreatment of a vulnerable section of society who rarely have the resources or time to counteract it. The continued acceptance of this situation obscures the concrete dangers that poor housing poses: the NHS website states that if there is damp or mould in your home, you are at higher risk of respiratory problems, infections, asthma, and allergies, whilst Mind UK highlights a key connection between poor housing and exacerbating poor mental health. Combine these risks with the stress of simply doing a university degree (even without the additional distress of COVID-19) and you have a recipe for serious damage to the student population. There is some light at the end of the tunnel: collective recognition of the situation, and collective action to combat it, can be a way out of the darkness. Wyn
and Chelsea both found a solution to their problems through joining ACORN, a community union with branches across the country. With the undeniable power of numbers and a shared belief in the need for justice between tenants and landlords, ACORN’s members gave them the support they needed so they could effectively fight for their rights. In Wyn’s case, 120 members and supporters sent direct messages to their landlord demanding that they return their deposit. “We mean it when we say we’re stronger together” was ACORN’s victory statement after their landlord finally acquiesced. Their success speaks for itself: no underhand tactics or huge amounts of resources were needed. ACORN simply stood in solidarity and rebalanced the power in the landlord-student relationship. Individual successes do not get rid of the systemic, structural problems of landlord overpowering, but they demonstrate the possibility of change. I’ve had first-hand experience of the strength of ACORN and collective action in rebalancing power. When my housemates and I received an email from our letting agency out of the blue telling us to stop using one of our rooms without proper explanation (they even asked us to padlock it ourselves), it was because we had the support of ACORN that we felt comfortable enough to stand up against them. We knew we weren’t alone, and I cannot stress enough how vital this is when such a huge power imbalance between student renters and their landlords exists. The realities of student renting are grim, but change is not impossible. Not every student will have an experience with
their landlord exactly like those detailed here. However, that’s not the point: there is a systemic inequality between landlords and their tenants, exacerbated in the cases of students who are vulnerable renters. This clouds every studentlandlord relationship. You shouldn’t have to hope for a nice landlord: the system should keep you safe regardless. The hope is that through collective action, one day, ‘Uni House Check’ TikToks will be funny because of their irrelevance, rather than their resonance.
We had parked on the road heading west out of town, alongside the railroad tracks. Ahead of us, the dusty streets gave way to pastures, which in turn gave way to wooded mountains, cutting a crisp horizon. Mackenzie lolled out the passenger seat, and Bailey skipped between the car and the road. I watched them from my perch on the car bonnet. Then, the sound of music, a wiry country song, slipped into the hot silence. A beat-up truck appeared at the end of the road. “That’s him!” Bailey said, running to meet Joe as he pulled up. He hopped out, put his beer on the roof of the truck, and hugged her quickly. He was brusque and burly and I shrank a little before him. “Pleasure to meet y’all,” he said, turning to Mackenzie and I: “How do you know my Bailey?” “Mackenzie lives with me.” Bailey jumped in, flitting around Joe. “Alice is her friend from England.” “Well, shit, a British girl in Montana,” Joe laughed, heaving our packs into the back. “Get on in then, girls.” He held the door open for Bailey, who climbed into the passenger seat. Sat behind Joe, I could see his arm resting on the rolled down window, and noticed the thick symbols tattooed on his blistered knuckles, curled around his beer. After some time, we began to ascend into the mountains. “What’s your plan, girls?” Joe asked. “We’re heading to Oregon, to the coast!” Bailey replied. “We were gonna go straight across Utah, but I thought we could come visit you first, then carry on through Idaho.” Joe listened absent-mindedly, smiling every so often – perhaps amused at our ambitious, albeit loosely conceived itinerary. Mackenzie was nodding off, leaning on my shoulder. Joe and Bailey continued to talk, about their lives, their plans – there was a lot to say, it seemed. I retreated into my head, thinking I should leave
them to it. It was too late to turn back now. The road was winding tightly, flanked by towering pines, our route back to town lost to the twists and turns. Every so often we summited a small hill, and I glimpsed our surroundings. The rise and fall of the earth, the rifts and tufts of the forest were like crests, exposing us then drawing us down again. The ride left me giddy, untethered by the heights to which we had ascended. The cabin was in a clearing, looking over hills and backing onto forests. To the left was a pit filled with scrap wood and knackered trucks in the process of being dismantled. Joe led us inside. The interior was simple and snug, with a camping stove, an old wood-burner, and a few tatty armchairs. A couple of guns hung from the walls. “This is it, girls, make yourselves at home,” he said, shyly proud. He and Tyler had built the place three years ago, he told us, but they still hadn’t put in doors or windows. Everything seemed to tumble out into the clearing, like an upended toy-box. “I’m going to get Tyler from our buddy’s place. And I’ll pick up some blow for tonight, if you’re down.” Bailey agreed enthusiastically, and so did Mackenzie. I went along with it, as I generally did back then. The three of us sat down on the balcony sofa. “How’s it going with Joe?” Mackenzie asked. “He seems cool?” Bailey shrugged coyly. “Yeah, no, I don’t know.” There was a tender smile at the corner of her lips. “I mean, we’re getting along well, so that’s great. I’m just so happy to have met him, you know?” I didn’t know Bailey well; we had met that summer while I visited Mackenzie. She had been reserved the first time we were introduced and I had struggled to know what to say to her. However, this
had passed: she was easy and open once she got used to your presence and had a way of energising a group. But in this moment she seemed tender, calm. “I mean after that shit went down with my mom, I really needed someone. I had my ex for a bit, but he was such an asshole.” Our conversation was interrupted by Joe’s return with Tyler. Mackenzie and I introduced ourselves and then we all settled back on the balcony. Over tins of beer, Joe and Tyler told us the story of how they became friends while working construction jobs in the area, eventually building the cabin together. They were a funny pair; after long months in the mountains together they both had grubby tans, dense beards, and an impressive ability to finish each other’s sentences. Later on, as evening fell, Joe pulled out the bag of coke, cut lines on the table and offered me one. “It’s on me, girls,” he said, seeing me hesitate. There was enough for a party much bigger than just the six of us. It was good stuff. With those first few lines, we drew rapidly closer, fixated, and ecstatic. Bailey grew in confidence. She was cheerful and proud – of Joe, of the cabin, of herself for bringing us together. I felt myself becoming more
self-possessed, or possessed at least of who I was on that balcony among strangers. “We didn’t show you the tree last time!” Joe said to Bailey, suddenly standing up. “You gotta see the tree.” Tyler agreed: yes, the tree – they had a tree. Well, it wasn’t their tree, but it was a tree and it was perfect, you’d think it had been made for climbing. They led us down the clearing, to a pine tree with a ladder set against it. Bailey and Joe climbed to the very top and perched there together on the delicate branches, laughing and shouting. I found myself on a branch next to Tyler. He had heaved himself up next to me, two beers in one hand, one of which he offered me with a nervous smile. From up there, it was a clear run down the hills; not a building in sight, just a flash of the Missouri river in the valley and one sagging fence trailing across the hillside in a comical attempt at ownership. In the early evening light, the blue sky was blotted with pink, and the crystalline light that outlined the Montana landscape had softened to a dozy blush. Tyler and I spoke quietly for a while. Then, he said, “You know, usually when we come up here, we do this thing where we cuckoo.” “Cuckoo?” I asked. “Like this,” he said, and, turning away from me, he let out an enormous wail. Above us, I heard Joe laugh and let out a gleeful cuckoo of his own. Tyler moved closer to me. “Now you try. It feels good.” It did feel good, I thought, as my own cry echoed tremendously across the hills. When I finished and turned back to Tyler, still in the throes of that explosive cry, I met his gaze suddenly and realised the intensity and warmth with which he had been watching me. In that exposed moment, I was struck by how close our two bodies were, suspended high up on that branch, legs touching and staring at each other. Thrilled by each other’s presence, yet keenly aware of the thousands of miles that still separated
us, we stayed in the tree together, talking long after the others had left. When he kissed me later, I thought maybe the distance was closing. When we returned to the cabin, we found the others inside playing Tom Waits records, which Joe crooned to sentimentally. “I know I’ve only met you guys once – hell, I’ve only really met Bailey a couple times – but you’re welcome here anytime.” Joe said warmly. “You’re good people.” “I want to come up more, man. I want to hang out with you more,” Bailey said, bursting with enthusiasm. “Same,” said Mackenzie. “This place is perfect. It’s everything. I want to stay here forever.” I think I honestly believed I would return too, and that these people, this place, would be part of my life. It was soon early morning. Mackenzie and Bailey were still outside, and I could hear Bailey talking intensely. Mackenzie came in as the sun began to rise. She looked tired. I called for her to come and sit down, but she declined soberly and climbed up the ladder to bed. Shortly after, Bailey entered. By the size of her eyes and the shake of her jaw, I saw in an instant that she was higher than anyone else. Immediately, she sat down and
demanded another line. Joe laughed it off and said: “I think we’ve all had enough.” “No, come on,” she wheedled. “Just one more, just a little one.” I flushed with discomfort. “We should probably hit the sack,” Joe said. “Man, you guys have gotta drive to Idaho today.” Bailey laughed manically, then said, “Sure, but I’m not driving, I’ll sleep in the car. C’mon. Please. Just a line. I’m so high already. It’ll make no difference.” Joe shook his head. “We don’t got anymore.” “That’s a lie!” said Bailey, her voice rising slightly. “There’s no way we finished it. You can’t refuse me this, you know you can’t.” “Let’s leave it, Bailey, we’ll feel like shit later.” But she cut me off with a sharp “No. He’s got to.” She turned to Joe, her eyes now blazing; he was shifting in his chair. “Fine. If you can tell me when my birthday is, I’ll stop asking.”
The silence in that moment hung like a noose. “Tell me!” she yelled, “Come on!” “March-” Joe began. “May!” Bailey shouted. “May 25th! You have no right to tell me I can’t have another fucking line. You’re my fucking dad and you don’t even know when my birthday is!” She began to cry. My heart dropped to my stomach. I fumbled to form a response to fill the silence, but could find nothing but a nauseating rush of devastation and fear. My nose burnt and I felt dirty. The night crumpled around me; a few hours suspended on the crest of a wave. A few hours of believing in and clinging to that crest had given us brief respite, but we had reached the inevitable crash, and I felt foolish for having believed this night would endure. Bailey sobbed and I put my arm around her. Joe was silent, staring at the floor. “If I can’t have a line,” Bailey said eventually, sitting up, make-up running, a darkly determined look on her face, “I wanna shotgun four beers.” “Okay,” Joe said. “Yeah, go ahead.” He was slumped in his chair. I mentally willed him to speak. Still, nothing. I looked at my phone. 6am. If we wanted to get to Idaho, we would have to leave by nine. “I’m going to bed, guys,” I said. But Bailey was gone. She was outside, ripping through a beer, tears streaming. “Goodnight, Joe.” “Goodnight, Alice.” By 9am, I could still hear her drunken rambling. I climbed down the ladder and went out onto the porch. The sun was bright and clear. Bailey was drooped in a chair with vomit down her front, delirious. Joe still had a beer in one hand. He looked exhausted. Tyler was laid out on the sofa. “Is she okay?” I asked. “Not really,” Joe answered, stretching. “She won’t go to sleep.” I nodded. Looking at Bailey, then at our
surroundings, our absolute isolation, I was suddenly afraid. I thought of my home and my own isolation, the most absolute of anyone here. I lit a cigarette. “Let’s go for a drive,” said Tyler, lifting himself up. Joe stayed back to watch Bailey. We were quiet, and the music he played was all I could process. I felt shaky, as if wound up and sprung loose. When we surfaced at the top of the hill and stopped, I climbed out and let the wind run through me as if I wasn’t there. I sat on the bonnet and Tyler joined me, tentatively resting his hand upon mine. In the brutal clarity of the morning light, everything was laid out before me, from the roof of the cabin down below to some buildings I assumed to be the town. Despite everything, I could still see how tremendous the light, lines, green, and space were. No pain, no twisted circumstance, no sadness has ever spoilt that for me. Mackenzie was up by the time we reached the cabin. She was on the sofa, sipping coffee. Tyler went inside and crawled into bed. “Where’s Bailey?” “I don’t know.” We fell silent. Then, an engine rumbled and some music started up. We followed the sound to the other side of the cabin. There was Joe, in the front seat of his truck, running the engine so the music could play, with Bailey curled, unconscious, on the seat beside him. He was smoking a cigarette and stroking her hair, watching her with such naked tenderness that we looked away and slipped back into the cabin, leaving him to soothe her, if only for that moment.
By Aaron Hammond Duncan
un-nested By Ayna Li Taira
moss between my fingernails following birthmarks on cracked bark un-nested bugs crawling to breathe into her mouth-lessness melting into cheeks trickling down when my magnolia turns cold-blue i ponder and mend forget-me-nots soft pastries my mother used to make that i used to stuff inside her favourite branch hushing myself into the woods chasing brooks with sticker-charms and sweaty-palms remem-ber bleeding onto your best friend’s old neighbour’s porch after mass re-member colourful animals she gave you sacrificially remember flying two streets across your child-ish town and hoping to see her again-just-once
Directed By Mukahang Limbu & Faith Wong
Embroidery By Gerda Krivaite sitting cross-legged on the veranda couch, I try to mirror the patience of your voice when threading the needle for the fifth time, wanting to sew your speech into linen and have it rest in my dress pocket. naively, I swaddle myself in the temporary, slipped like a bookmark between your belly laugh and your scaly, tingling fingers that used to find their purpose in embroidery. if I memorise your careful instructions, will my running stitch still look like yours? it’s a necessary choice: pretending not to see your thinning chestnut-coloured hair, your unstable steps and loss of appetite. the weeks blend like messy watercolour: in the window reflection, I still fail to look myself straight in the eye. vocal chords clenched, not a sound before the conductor’s cue: like choristers we unlock our lips and burst into ‘little peony’, chanting folk songs in gentle canon. the evening we sang in harmony by the log fire,
you were the first to make me love my low voice. resting my elbows on the pine wood table, I sink my eyes into the source of warmth: the water may already have boiled, but the steam from the teacup is rising still, its patterns delicate and quietly inviting, if only visible in the hazy light. I pause over breakfast to hate myself for ever believing in fair, probably owing the sunbeams something, maybe flowers. I go back to walking the tightrope between now and after, between dancing on family camping trips and leaving the dinner plate untouched. I wake back up to knot the end of a thread: we sit and trace the yellow floral pattern as if it were a maze in a children’s book, exchanging funny stories about our weeks and breathing as much jasmine scent as we can before the tea gets cold.
Trapped in the Web: Reporting Racial Harassment in Oxford By Mizan Rahman Sophie, a student, is sitting at the bar on her university campus, when a few of her coursemates come in after a society social. Sitting across the room from her, the group gets louder, rowdier, harder to ignore. She is put on edge by their behaviour. One member of the group approaches her table – Tom, she thinks – and tries to get her attention. He thinks it would be funny to get her attention by shouting a racial slur. Sophie pretends not to hear, willing the moment away and hoping he’ll realise that what he’s doing is wrong, but Tom repeats the phrase. She is deeply offended. In this scenario, Sophie may decide to report the issue under the university harassment procedure for several reasons: she might want it to be dealt with by the university body, or she might struggle to prove that a criminal offence occurred. The Chief Crown Prosecutor and national lead on hate crime, Chris Long, has made it a strong priority that hate crimes are charged to provide justice to many victims. Since hate crimes are defined by law as offending a victim’s dignity (as 1 2
it is an insult to the very make-up of one’s unchangeable character), a crime motivated by a hatred of a person’s characteristics “adds another layer of seriousness”.1 The legal system has emphatically made it clear that racial harassment has no place in modern society. Sophie’s story is not far-fetched. Incidents like these are happening far too regularly on university campuses. The Equality and Human Rights Commission’s (EHRC) 2019 inquiry found that 24% of students from an ethnic minority background said they had experienced racial harassment since starting their course.2 An undergraduate at a Welsh university said that on multiple occasions, she and her friends had the N-word shouted at them by fellow students, and she has been told repeatedly that she is “pretty for a Black girl”. Another student, this time at an English university, says that their fellow students were “very nasty” and treated them as a “Black object”. At Oxford University alone, there
Racial harassment inquiry: survey of universities report https://www.equalityhumanrights.com/sites/default/files/racial-harassment-inquiry-survey-of-universities.pdf
CPS Hate Crime Report 2019, https://www.cps.gov.uk/ sites/default/files/documents/publications/CPS-HateCrime-Annual-Report-2018-2019.PDF
4 Racial harassment inquiry: survey of universities report https://www.equalityhumanrights.com/sites/default/files/ racial-harassment-inquiry-survey-of-universities.pdf 5
have been several reports of racial abuse and racial insensitivity – including the defacing of a picture of George Floyd. The law and racial harassment Reports of racial harassment under the legal procedure are dealt with by a clear and wellestablished system, starting with a report filed to the police, followed by a written statement provided by the victim. An investigation is then opened, which the victim is kept up to date on. Despite the Crown Prosecution Service being able to use their discretion to decide whether it is in the public interest to favour prosecuting the aggressor, conviction rates for racially-aggravated hate crimes are high, around 85% since 2017.3 As Sophie would learn, the same cannot be said about racial harassment reports at universities. The law does not place universities under any legal liability for student-on-student harassment, so each university decides their own internal procedure. Many universities use a formal written report as the last stage of their investigation, and this is the most likely stage that the investigation will reach. Across 141 higher education institutions that were surveyed in the EHRC 2019 inquiry, 57% of student complaints ended up in a formal report.4 How do university procedures on racial harassment fail? Unlike in the treatment of racial harassment reports under the legal system, universities have been slow to respond. The same inquiry found that only 42% of student complaints of racial harassment were investigated, upheld, and ended with any action being taken against the alleged perpetrator across the surveyed institutions.5 More than half of those actions were merely a reprimand or formal warning. A freedom of information request at the University of Oxford showed that between 2016 and 2021, seven formal written complaints alleging racial
harassment were made, of which only one was upheld. The aggressor in this case was given a written warning, asked to apologise, and made to undertake training. However, seven formal reports of racial harassment over five years does not capture the extent of racial harassment at the university. Even just by anecdotal evidence, any student of colour would rightfully suspect that this figure is incorrect, given that many cases go unreported. Those who report to colleges do not see full investigations into their concerns. Students of colour are not getting the justice they deserve. Why are universities failing, and what is problematic about university procedures? There are significant flaws in the University procedure that hinders its ability to provide redress to students of colour. The procedure not only fails to provide adequate outcomes to such reports, but it also prioritises the wrong duties during investigation. In reply to another freedom of information request, Oxford University reported no record of the proportion of academics of ethnic minority backgrounds sitting on disciplinary panels. In fact, at many colleges there are no academics of certain ethnic backgrounds. This is clearly an issue, since students of colour are going to be less confident that an accusation of racial abuse will be upheld if the disciplinary panel is made up of people who have never been the subject of racism. Students who report racial harassment are also likely to be caught out by the overlap. If they have approached the wrong procedure it can result in wasted time and energy, including but not limited to having to repeatedly explain the incident . Jenny*, a BAME representative at an Oxford college says that: “the procedure was definitely not easy to report and navigate”, and this overlap
works to the detriment of students – between 2016 and 2021, Oxford dropped five out of seven complaints because they fell outside the university context. Not only is this procedure confusing to students, but it also presents a misleading picture, since whilst the university may have few complaints, colleges have many awaiting investigation. This provides a way for some colleges to avoid transparency in their racial harassment reports since they can point to the deceptively low number of reports at the university level. A student who has made a report can use the university harassment services, including the harassment advisers. However, students have found this support to be very limited. In theory, these advisers cannot get involved in a case and must be neutral, although one interviewee suggests that this is “not manifested in practice”. Beyond this, however, the confidentiality principle found in the university and various college harassment procedures is problematic. Jess*, who reported under an Oxford college harassment procedure made it clear that the college’s limiting of their outside communication was a real issue because it would be a breach of procedure for the victim to talk to anyone but the college welfare provision about the case. Victims are limited to poor welfare provisions and use avenues like peer supporters throughout this period – like a fly trapped in a spiderweb, they are caught in the impossibility of procedure, and forced to go without both personal and professional external support systems. The consequences of inadequate racial harassment procedures Harassment reports at the University and the college levels have failed to provide
open justice to victims. Some students are left waiting for over half a year to discover the outcome of a complaint. The key issue raised was the prioritisation of the aggressor. Victimised students of colour are treated like mere reporters of an incident, and universities seem to forget that there is a student who has undergone racial abuse. The victim is not kept up to date with the developments of the investigation, as this would infringe upon the duty of care that both the university and its colleges owe to the perpetrator of the abuse. This is clearly the wrong priority, leaving students of colour feeling that the procedure does not protect them. Jamie* who reported under a college procedure feels as though the gravity of their report was not appreciated. During an interview, they made it clear that “transparency as to who is making the decision” was important, and that they and other victims felt let down by the procedure in not knowing the outcome . There is a disparity between university and college procedures and the legal system, with victims under the legal system placed at the centre of criminal justice, whilst students under harassment procedures are side-lined. Not only are universities failing their students in providing outcomes to their reports, they are also failing in providing adequate welfare support. Josie*, a JCR president, says one key issue is that many colleges have a combined decanal and welfare team, so that welfare provisions are provided by the same people investigating the report. This means that any support given is unlikely to be helpful as those investigating must remain impartial. A student who has been the subject of racial abuse, who reported the issue under the college procedure, raised the same
concerns, suggesting that the system is “paradoxical”. It is illogical for a college to provide welfare support for an issue they are causing, and it is self-explanatory why the students who make these reports do not want to seek help from the body that is causing harm to their welfare. Even if a student can use the legal system to challenge their outcome, they are confronted with significant economic challenges. For students paying more than £15,000 a year for education and living costs, additional litigation costs are not feasible. Such a challenge incurs expensive legal costs to get the justice they were promised under the university procedure. If universities are committed to the idea that no one should be targeted for who they are, stronger protection is vital to hold universities to their duties to tackle racial harassment. Training and workshops are not an effective solution. College procedures need more radical reform. Universities create a hostile environment for victims to report harassment. They do not take such reports seriously enough to provide any real punishment, which allows perpetrators to escape the process with their reputation untarnished. Unclear protocol, the prioritisation of the wrong principle, and ineffective redress all explain why students are reluctant to undergo formal procedures to report racial harassment. Reports in the legal system are twice as likely to be met with decisive action as under university procedures - the latter are begging for reform. *pseudonyms
he is now the 2am ambak falling on our tin roof & maybe but i don’t have words for this widow singing for the ghost of her husband still limping around his home of pepper trees monkeys
fighting fighting for the white man – the dead Gurkha & his kukri who once learned to swim with only a word to stay afloat
By Mukahang Limbu bhaduri1
when someone dies my mother says even the fruit-flies sing at the funeral they dance in between hot rain & grief laughter of the neighborhood gambling in the
room telling stories - keeping guard - that many bodies will keep this spirit2 away. and the family in mourning must hide away touch no skin taste no salt sleep on hay call my grandfather’s name above a fire invite him beg him to enter his room once
courage / a dead grandfather’s middle name /more than courage/ more / more than a name /
the पूर्ण bahadur/ the absolute courage /something to pass on / something he could never pass on
maybe baje is now a song among the slow monsoon still whispering to make the lychees shiver, fall from the tree into my palms once rubbed with his snot, an old-grandfather’s remedy for nettles these same fat palms once taught to sling shot stones like a full stop
again the poojari instructs s peak
hi s b
h t rees un finis-
is d tree ui ld
s o n
k ia ry
his rings home f rom sons
but my baje still never visits me in dreams, maybe because he’s mad because of the pork he never got to eat because of the grandson overseas because he never wanted to leave or that treehouse he never finished
they let us know how he stood before the door looked around & left. they let 3
the family know he didn’t come in, that when at peace, he will visit you
By Emily Luo I got my first qipao when I was nineteen. Half-Chinese and half-ashamed of my broken Mandarin, I let my mom do the talking with the shop assistants about the right lengths, patterns, and fabrics of the dresses. Short or long, silk or linen? Bold dragons, delicate roses, flying cranes – embroidered and printed. I remember trying on the various qipaos in the corner of the shop, repeatedly refusing to wear the heels they’d provided me: they were too small, and I was self-conscious enough already. In China, wearing a qipao would be normal and fine, but my mind reluctantly wandered to Denmark and England. What would people think of me there? What would I look like in a qipao without my cheeks half-sunburnt from the Chinese sun? What would I feel like in heels that fit, around people who would say ‘kipao’ instead of qipao? For my first Chinese New Year formal at Oxford, I wore my short linen qipao. White, with dark blue borders and matching minimalistic flowers. The fabric felt surprisingly rough against my skin, taking me back to the shop in China and the struggle of translating ‘flax fibre’ into Danish. In my small room, my friend took pictures of me which I would later send to my mom. “Look at me! I embrace my culture!” I don’t think she nor any of my friends really knew that I was actually a bit embarrassed – I felt like I didn’t quite belong in the dress. Was I pretending to be someone else, or had it just taken me so
long to accept and unlock this part of me? A few months later, on a Saturday evening, I saw a beautiful, midnight blue silk qipao with silver accents on my Instagram feed. My cheeks immediately grew red when I saw who was wearing it – a white girl from my primary school. Espresso martini in hand and a contorted silly expression on her face, she wore a piece of my culture. At the time, I was convinced it was a clear example of cultural appropriation. Tempted to message her, to ‘expose’ her lack of ‘wokeness’, I eagerly phoned my mom to tell her. Anticlimactically, she was unbothered by it. To her, the qipao is a beautiful dress that anyone is welcome to wear, as long as they don’t have bad intentions – it shouldn’t be mocked or, for example, worn as a costume for a bop. Drawing the line between cultural appropriation and appreciation can be difficult. There are those who think that liking the look of a garment is enough in itself – that fashion is for everyone. The danger of this logic, however, is that appreciating the aesthetics of clothing isn’t the same as appreciating the culture behind the garments. In recent years, the fashion industry has come under scrutiny for cultural appropriation – and rightfully so. Only a few years ago, Gucci debuted their ‘Indy Full Turban’ piece in their Fall 2018 show during Milan Fashion Week. The five white models wearing turbans on the runway sparked a public outcry within the Sikh community.
In response to the Gucci show, the Sikh Coalition tweeted: “the Sikh turban is not a fashion accessory, but (…) a sacred religious article of faith.” Gucci’s commodification of religion highlights a double standard: Sikhs are regularly discriminated against for their turbans, but when rich white people
wear them, it’s considered fashionable. After the backlash, the creative director of Gucci, Alessandro Michele, issued a public ‘apology’ – though one can hardly call it that. “From my grief, I will learn something. We will learn a lesson and this company will do things in a different way.” Instead of apologising and recognising Gucci’s and his own responsibility, Michele made the gross act of appropriation into a ‘learning experience’ for himself and the brand. What exactly does he plan on learning? What is this ‘something’ he so vaguely commits to? Minorities are not and should not be used as ‘learning experiences’ for white people. The qipao may not be sacred like the turban, but it still has more than aesthetic
value. When I wear my qipao, I feel more connected to my Chinese heritage. Growing up Asian in Denmark, I quickly learnt to be embarrassed about any little thing that made me stand out. For lunch, I wanted toast instead of tofu, and for prom, I didn’t wear the deep plum qipao that my mom had passed down to me. So, when I picked out my own two qipaos in that shop in Xi’an, I reached a hand out to my younger self. You’re allowed to wear the qipao. You’re beautiful when you wear it. You’re Chinese enough. I think that’s what made me most annoyed at that girl on Instagram: she could wear the qipao as a fashion statement, for its ‘aesthetic’, without bearing any of the emotional baggage I carry when I wear it. For me, wearing the qipao is partly an unwelcome and unintentional performative act where I unwillingly draw attention to myself looking and being ‘different’. It wakes up the not-solittle girl who was insecure about wearing her mom’s qipao for ‘Global Culture Fair’ in high school. Now 20 years old, I wish I could say I finally wear it with pride but there’s still a part of me that is embarrassed – embarrassed because I feel like an outsider who doesn’t quite belong on the Chinese stage, nor on the Danish or English stage. Wanting another perspective on this ‘qipao incident’, I talked to my Korean friend in Oxford. How would she feel if a non-Korean wore a hanbok? I was almost disappointed to hear that she wouldn’t mind. In fact, she would probably feel more honoured than offended. Koreans wear the hanbok on special occasions and holidays, but generally seem to encourage foreigners to wear the hanbok too. Tentatively, I began questioning my own response – was I too sensitive? Too defensive? I wasn’t sure. But I did notice an important difference between us. Born and raised in Korea, my friend is secure in her cultural identity, whereas I’m awkwardly caught between feeling neither Chinese nor Danish enough. As a secondgeneration immigrant, I think I’m more
defensive of my Chinese culture than, for example, my mom. I’ve had to create my identity partly as a reaction against the dominant Danish norm, so it’s only natural that my view is different to that of my mom or my friend – or anyone else for that matter. That’s why I can’t speak on behalf of an entire culture or country. No one can. At the same time, I think it’s fair to say that it doesn’t hurt anyone to educate themselves before wearing clothes from other cultures. I’m not saying that people need to do extensive research on the qipao in order to wear it, nor am I saying that knowing its history would entail appreciation. A little effort, however, goes a long way. Knowing which culture the garment is from and learning its name as well as the correct pronunciation demonstrates a sense of curiosity and appreciation. Fashion certainly has the power to bridge cultural differences, especially since it’s a nonverbal art form, but I don’t think that such a cross-cultural exchange is achievable if done passively. Fashion can indeed be a form of exploitation. It’s especially troubling when cultural appropriation happens at a larger scale in the fashion industry. In November last year, the French designer Isabel Marant was accused of appropriating traditional Mexican patterns in her 2020/21 Étoile Fall-Winter collection. The Mexican cultural minister wrote an open letter to Marant, explaining that the designs belong to the Purépecha culture of Michoacán, and that some of the symbols have “profound meaning for this culture”. Marant’s ‘Natural Gabin Cape,’ for example, resembles the geometry and proportions of Mexican sarapes. Its two-tone combination of brown and grey echoes traditional sarapes from the highland regions, while the large design patterns of the waves arguably look like the Mesoamerican Xicalcoliuhqui motif.
Though it may be hard to distinguish between inspiration and appropriation in designs, it is easier to determine in practice.
What has the designer or brand done to properly credit their source of inspiration? How have they included the culture from which they are profiting? Nothing, in the case of Isabel Marant. She intended to “promote a craft and pay tribute to the aesthetic to which it is linked,” but as the cultural minister replied: “When a tribute is made to a certain culture, that culture should be included, because although it may be an ancestral culture, it is alive.” This is exactly what Dior attempted in their Resort 2020 show, which took place in Marrakesh, Morocco. The Italian creative director, Maria Grazia Chiuri, collaborated with various African artists, designers, and companies to produce the collection based on the theme ‘Common Ground’. In her show notes, Chiuri opens with a quote from the French-Moroccan author Tahar Ben Jelloun who inspired the concept of the show: “Culture teaches us to live together, teaches us that we’re not alone in the world, that other people have different traditions and ways of living that are just as valid as our own.” As clichéd as this motto sounds, it conveys the good intention behind the show: it advocates cross-cultural exchange through art and fashion. Unlike Isabel Marant, Chiuri and Dior put their cultural appreciation into
practice. They worked with artists such as the South African tailor Pathé’O, BritishJamaican designer Grace Wales Bonner, whose work is a hybrid of European and Afro-Atlantic fashion, and Mickalene Thomas, a contemporary visual artist focused on representing Black femininity and power. Instead of shoe-horning their own take on traditional prints and craftmanship, Dior provided a platform to give these designers the credit they deserve. As Pathé’O said about the collection in an interview: “Ultimately, it’s a reminder; we can and should be proud of African craftsmanship, everything 100% Made in Africa can be luxury too.” Committing to their ‘Common Ground’ concept, Dior didn’t pick, cut, or alter African fashion to fit their own aesthetic; they made it a collaborative process in which they reimagined Dior and its own iconic styles. Chiuri invited Wales Bonner and Thomas to design their own reinterpretation of Dior’s classic silhouette of the New Look skirt and Bar jacket – rounded shoulders, a cinched waist, and a very full skirt. Wales Bonner included crochet-like stitching, woven trims, and embroidered flowers in red, black, and golden-bronze colours. Thomas also used embroidery for her look, but combined it with glittering beading, organza, and printed lurex, which she treated like one of her paintings. In addition to collaborating with Wales Bonner and Thomas, Dior reinvented their timeless signature fabric toile de Jouy in a collaboration with the Ivory Coast atelier Uniwax, who designed and produced the toile as authentic African wax prints on cotton. All that being said, the collection wasn’t faultless. Dior consulted a white anthropologist specialising in African textiles, and Chiuri seems to simplify, even dismiss cultural appropriation, when saying: “In this moment, there’s
a lot of focus on cultural appropriation, but I think we have to explain how craftsmanship travels around the world.” She doesn’t acknowledge the potential danger of repeating history – the asymmetric power dynamic of white Europeans taking something from an indigenous culture for their own financial gain. But her ‘Common Ground’ initiative is still a step in the right direction, where appreciation is not a hidden intention but an active approach to further fashion. Fashion brands and designers need to take responsibility when they are inspired by clothing belonging to cultures that they themselves are not part of. Whether this inspiration will lead to appreciation or appropriation depends partly on the artistic, financial, and conceptual approaches of the brand. Do they credit, collaborate with, and try to understand the cultures? There is so much history and pride imbued in cultural clothing. It’s only natural that members of a specific culture will draw their own line between appropriation and appreciation. My mom and I have different opinions and that’s okay – there’s not a singular, correct way to engage with the qipao or other cultural garments. However, designers and consumers should actively try to understand the significance of the clothing they’re interested in to avoid exploiting and commodifying it. When I look at my qipaos, I look back. I look back at an imaginary past, where my mom is letting my lǎo lao do the talking in a humble shop in Guangzhou. In a tight corner, she finds a qipao she likes and hopes it isn’t too expensive. I feel the silk and the linen, and I think of harvesters who gathered silkworms and weavers who interlaced flax threads. The zipper is always tricky. I struggle halfway, as I twist my arm and reach from above until I finally grasp its little tag and slide it up.
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