Many moons ago, when I was an English teacher, my students and I had fun playing with words. During a lesson on word play, my students learned why they cannot grow leaks, but they can, leeks. They also found out the difference between invisible and invincible, and what being irascible is as opposed to being eraseable.
As a wordsmith, I love how one word can change the context and meaning of a sentence. I think that the world ought to have a Word Play Day. It would be a day dedicated to celebrating the power of words and the fun of word play.
Speaking of celebrations. It’s party season. I was invited to a celebration recently at the Arboretum, an obscure little venue off the Charing Cross Road. I know the Charing Cross Road very well because it is the road that separates Soho from Covent Garden and the one that leads to Chinatown or Leicester Square, and if you walk down Charing Cross Road from Leicester Square station, you’ll come to The National Gallery and to Trafalgar Square, where pigeons used to perch and poo on the head of King George IV.
All this is, of course, mapped in my head, as I can’t read maps on paper or Google. I have walked this road many times. I know how to get to Chinatown, the National Gallery and Trafalgar Square from Leicester Square station, but I don’t know how to get to the Arboretum, the venue where said celebration was taking place. I’ve never been to the Arboretum because I’ve never heard of the Arboretum. I will find out that is a private member’s club, so private that the door to the venue was so hidden that I had trouble finding it.
It’s good that it’s a private club and it’s just as well because the guests, of which I was one, were underrepresented authors and illustrators, and we are, I’d like to think, part of an important club that brings diversity and representation to children’s publishing in the UK.
The event was organised by the Book Trust, a trustworthy charity, “the UK’s largest reading charity and [they] reach millions of children every year with books, resources and support to get every child reading, regularly and by choice.” It was to celebrate the Book Trust Represents research report (2020-2021). The research was conducted by Dr Melanie Ramdarshan Bold, a Senior Lecturer/Associate Professor in Children’s and YA Literature Studies at the University of Glasgow. She looked at the representation of people of colour among children’s book creators in the UK. It was a hopeful report because the statistics showed that since 2017, there has been a visible increase in the representation of authors of colour in a (pre)dominantly White publishing sector in the UK. But for the group that identifies British East and Southeast Asian, we were the least represented group, next to British Arabs. So, I still felt somewhat invisible. But I continue to be filled with courage and fervour to advocate for more of me and my community in books.
I arrived at the Arboretum unfashionably early. As I can’t read maps very well, I always factor in “lost” time when travelling. I am conscientious like that. I was greeted at the door by a young Book Trust employee, who was Black. I apologised for my early arrival, she reassured me that it was okay, made sure that I had a place to hang my coat, which I went to do. I returned to the reception area and a White woman stepped in, smiling. I smiled back and introduced myself. The woman, whom I will later discover is someone high up in the charity, said to me, “Oh, you’re very early. Would you mind leaving and coming back again, as we can’t entertain you just yet.” The first thing that came to my mind on hearing this was a group of juggling monkeys in a perfect picture book spread. I shook that image off.
“Oh, it’s okay, I don’t need entertaining, just a place I can wait for the event to start. Perhaps I’ll wait in the foyer.” I offered a solution by force of habit.
“Oh, no, we can’t have people jam up the foyer. Just take a short walk and come back again on time.”
This time, I was a little miffed because I was embarrassed, and really felt an unwelcomed guest.
I said, “sure!”
But the White woman changed her mind. “Oh, okay, then, why don’t you wait over there. Go sit in the corner and hide, make yourself invisible there,” she said to me, pointing towards an area where there were boxes, bags, and seats.
“Of coure, if you didn’t mind, I’ll wait over there,” I said and apologised again.
“Yes, go and be invisible over there!” the woman said in a haha kind of way, but firmly. “We can’t entertain you until we’ve done the sound checks.”
At that point, I felt a hot rush of ire rising from the pit of my stomach to my face. I am invincible, I said inwardly, breathing in and out slowly, trying to keep calm. I will not be invisible, I repeated in my head.
“I am very good at being invisible, I’ll assure you. As an author of colour AND a woman of colour, invisible is what I’m good at doing. I have the cloak to go with it, too!”
All these words tumbled out of my mouth. I am no longer in control. I saw myself from above and didn’t recognise the petite ethnic Asian woman standing there.
I am surprised that I had even said those words, because I am so used to being the model minority, told always to never ruffle feathers, to not rock the boat, and just hunker down and be good. But I was certainly very naughty that evening. I refused to go home until I went big… big on telling this White woman that her choice of words were outrageosly inappropriate, they were triggering me, and I do not accept them.
But I didn’t get a chance to do that, because after those words tumbled out of me, the woman’s face dropped (in horror, I guessed) and she turned around and walked off. Left on my own, I wondered if I should go home. But I told myself to breath in and out, breath in and out, breath in and out, and went “over there” to sit down and hide until I could show my face…again.
As you can see, I am still processing this very incredible and incredulous event. Writing helps me process better, express myself more effectively, and find a solution or catharsis to the things that are bugging me psychologically. After my experience, something happened in Buckingham Palace, where a person of colour was made to feel very awkward and unwelcomed at an event. I am not comparing what happened to Ngozi Fulani to what I’d experienced at the Arboretum; the two incidents are not the same but they’re not far off the mark, either. What I am saying here is that perhaps, there ought to be some sort of diversity training for members of staff in an organisation or establishment that works with persons of colour. [Boy, how I hate that term!] There are just some things one does not do: touch a Black person’s hair and tell an author and woman of colour to be invisible.
Luckily, I chose to be INVINCIBLE instead.