This piece is part of HWO’s feature on Radical Friendship.* The feature is an exploration of different configurations of friendship, both intimate and symbolic, and the radical potential of these relationships. You can read an introduction to the series here.
An eight-year-old girl in a Toronto classroom in 1968 hears the teacher ask for a definition of “negro”. The girl has no idea what the word means. A boy points to her. The teacher, embarrassed, says no, “Tessa is something else”. She turns to the little girl: “What are you, Tessa?”
Ten-year-old Tessa stands before a mirror with her brother and sister; they are measuring noses. Her sister’s nose is the smallest, the most “Caucasian”. Giggling furiously, Tessa and her brother battle it out for second place.
The adolescent Tessa is reading Jane Eyre (Eyre is her mother’s maiden name). She comes across the description of Rochester’s first wife, the Jamaican creole Bertha Mason, her “lips swelled and dark”. Later a man, kissing Tessa, bites gently on her “exotic” lower lip.
Tessa McWatt is a Guyanese-born novelist, essayist, librettist and professor of creative writing at the University of East Anglia. Shame on Me: An Anatomy of Race and Belonging is her memoir of growing up into a racialised identity foisted on her by what she calls “the plantation”, the ethnically divided, hierarchical world that we all inhabit, but in strikingly dissimilar ways. Like her, I am an expat middle-class Canadian working in an English university. But unlike her I am white – and though I know McWatt well, her book has come as a shock to me.
It was sugar that brought McWatt’s ancestors to the former British Guiana. She owes her surname to her Scottish great-great-grandfather, cousin to slave overseers on the sugar plantations. Nothing is known about her African great-great-grandmother. Her maternal grandmother was the daughter of Chinese labourers escaping war with the Japanese (Shame on Me opens with her grandmother’s rape by an uncle). Other ancestors were Portuguese, Indian, Arawak, English, French – generations that “pulse with miscegenation” have endowed McWatt with a lineage so richly diverse that “it might cause a system outage” in a DNA laboratory. Stories of these ancestors – some fact-based, others imagined – loop through the book, set inside an “anatomy of race” told through body parts: nose, lips, eyes, ass, bones, skin and finally blood, the “mixed blood” of hybridity. Every anatomical part is a racial signifier, the body fragmented into its “coloured” components. “My true aspiration,” McWatt writes of her teenage self, was “to leave behind what my body represented to others”. But no woman, she soon discovers, can do this, and certainly no black woman.
Friendship may be born of affinities, but it lives with mysteries. How do we ever really know someone else? With male friends I expect some of the mysteries to be insurmountable: affection intermingled with the enigmas of sexual otherness. With women my expectations are different. Mystery is there, but also the communalities of women’s experience, especially those of the female body. Or so I’ve long assumed. But if friendship is also a mirror to the self, as Aristotle said, what happens when the mirror shows a radically different experience of embodiment and its lifelong consequences?
“To strangers, even friends, I am images of violence and oppression,” McWatt writes. She is a symbol of “shame and destitution, slavery and indenture”. I don’t like this; I don’t want my friend to represent anything but her unique self. But McWatt shows that this symbolisation is inescapable, that people’s perceptions of her features, her skin, are inevitably coloured by history. Was I really unaware of this? No and yes. The circles in which I move are strongly antiracist. But it took the intimacy of the storytelling in Shame on Me to bring the reality home. McWatt and I both grew up in a country marked by centuries of gross mistreatment of its indigenous population. The injustice and violence visited on indigenous North Americans is a horror story. But of the two of us, it is only McWatt who was once derided as a “dirty squaw”, just as in London she’s been called a “black bitch”.
“If you’ve never had a moment in your life where you realise your skin colour alone makes other people hate you, you have white privilege,” the US film/TV producer Lori Lakin Hutcherson wrote in 2017. McWatt has been subjected to many shameful indignities, of which I had previously known nothing. Shame on me, one might think, although she will not be the one to say it. There is anger in her book, but it is a generous political anger directed at the “plantation” as a structure of exploitation and inequality that is “everywhere” now in our society, immiserating great swathes of the population, corrupting our politics, undermining human solidarities. Seen in this light, the racialisation of this plantation world, unconscionable in itself, is shown to be symptomatic of a degradation of social existence that deeply affects us all.
“What are you, Tessa?” the little girl was asked. We think we know our friends intimately, as “other selves” as Aristotle also described it. But this can be a damaging illusion, closing off discovery. I am fortunate. McWatt is a storyteller who in Shame on Me has given me the means to rediscover her: a gift that every reader of her eloquent and moving book can share with me.
* This review was originally published in the Guardian.