In my early twenties, I used to keep notes in my iPhone from my walks through the city. I would keep a small inventory of everyday interactions, writing down overheard conversations and pieces of dialogue. Other times they were observations of a place or lines of description. My phone notes were filled with these snippets that held no purpose apparent to me. Occasionally I wrote out some of the notes into a Word document, and they had a fragmented quality, filled with line breaks and silences.
I liked to think that they mirrored reality. But I also remember that I wrote in fragments because I didn’t know what to say in between to join the notes together. I was confused by my attempted role as an observer. The flâneurs I had read were most often men. And flâneurs were white. While I adored the writing of Baudelaire, Benjamin, Wordsworth, Thoreau, my own notes never seemed to mirror theirs in the way that I was hoping, not in style, or in content. I couldn’t quite comprehend my position as a woman, and the strange mix of power and vulnerability that entailed. When I looked at these notes, at the time, instead of seeing a cohesive series of thoughts, instead I felt lost. Untethered. I wasn’t sure what exactly I was documenting. They read as raw, standalone. And there was some other quality or emerging theme in those snatches of observations that my mind was unable to pinpoint at the time. It wasn’t until almost a decade later, in my thirties, when reading The Stubborn Archivist by Yara Rodriques Fowler, that I started to realise what my mind was trying to comprehend all those years ago. As I was reading this book, I was drawn into the memories of that period when I navigated Sydney as a twenty-something bi-racial woman. I hunted down my old iPhone and read it alongside Fowler’s book, like a companion text, beginning a dialogue.
Fowler’s book is a work of fiction that closely resembles the narrator’s own life; we follow an unnamed young British-Brazilian woman from South London who is growing up between two cultures and trying to connect with a deeper understanding of her body. She relies on signposts such as her family history, family conversation, and the perspectives of the women who have shaped her – her mother, grandmother, and aunt. She is interested in the questions of what it means to be a brown, young woman and how to belong in the urban spaces she inhabits. The book jumps back and forth in time from the early 1990s to the 2000s so we see the main character struggling with her identity as a child and as an adult, caught between London and Brazil.
I was struck by Fowler’s use of a distinctive fragmentary style that is eerily similar to my own collection of iPhone notes:
Hey – I recognize you
What’s your name?
He repeated the syl-la-bles.
Yeah that’s nice nice, where’s it from?
It’s from Brazil.
Jeeeez. He bent over and whistled. I love Brazilian girls though!
Hey how you doing
Fine, thank you
Where you going darling
You don’t look like you’re from here.
Like, you don’t look like you’re from here
What do you mean?
Dressed so smart, you know
Well I live here I am from round here.
Here is one note I wrote on a Tuesday night going to meet a friend for dinner in Taylor Square:
Hey! Where you going?
You know somewhere good for us to go out in this city?
Why are you on your own, you should come with us.
You look exotic.
Where you from?
Hey. My friend was talking to you. We. Just. Wanna. Talk.
What. You don’t speak English?
What? You think you’re too good for us?
Where. Are. You. From?
My heart hammers, my palms go sweaty, and my lips stretch so far in the hope that they think I’m simple.
I smile so wide until the air shudders and goes soft again. They relax.
I smile stupid even as I grip my keys in between my fists like knuckledusters.
I was surprised to find the congruences between our notes. I remembered being mildly shaken by the encounter. I remember too feeling my own compliance and shame in my inability to speak. Writing words down after the event had felt like the only recourse for maintaining some sense of the self that I possessed.
Re-reading them, I was also struck by the underlying suggestion of violence in my notes and the ways I had become habituated to it. And I realised that theme in my musings, that what I had been unable to define for so many years, and that read so unlike the flaneurs who I wished to emulate, was anger. Both Fowler and I were navigating the streets of Anglo cities as young bi-racial women, feeling entitled to be there yet carrying a continual unexpressed rage. My own forgotten anger and feelings of powerlessness became clear to me only in reading Fowler’s pages. The difference between my notes and Fowler’s prose is that it reads like she knew exactly what she was trying to articulate.
The Stubborn Archivist opens with individually titled fragments. The words are set deliberately on the page and resemble stanzas. Some pages contain just a few lines, or a single short paragraph, while other, longer sections take on a more stream of consciousness approach, with little punctuation or dialogue, so it feels immediate, present and breathless. The novel includes the mundane details of everyday life: a friend coming for Sunday roast, struggling with IBS, packing for trips to Brazil, beers with work colleagues, life with her parents in Tooting.
At first these texts read like snippets from a diary. Exchanges are conveyed without speech marks. The fragments appear uncorrupted – even banal – as they sit on the blank space of the page. Read together they form a considered statement about language, about the silences of mixed-race experience, and the intention behind the form emerges. The protagonist is often silent in the dialogue she reports, leaving it to the reader to infer how she might navigate the complexities of these everyday encounters. As the title suggests, she is an archivist, a silent recorder of the world around her, documenting her interactions rather than offering a critique. Some scenes are written as easy-going, familiar moments and she devotes many lines of wry humour to the well-intentioned liberals she meets.
Nathan texted her asking if she wanted to go to a Peruvian restaurant in Hackney? And also, he’s just finished Love in the Time of Cholera … and he’d love to know what she thought?
Other silences come from more loaded assumptions.
Yeah I’d heard of you, half-Brazilian
How did you know that?
Just did. I had a thing for Brazilian girls
Used to love Brazilian porn
Oh my god!
He turned his head and closed his eyes, and then looked at her.
Is that bad he said, touching her
Fowler is writing an immigrant story that explores universal themes of identity and she is also exploring a very particular set of politics connected to being bi-racial. When I first read this book, I was elated. It articulated so many of the day-to-day moments and thoughts and feelings that I had experienced in my early twenties and had since internalised. I was also embarrassed. It reminded me how I had felt when I was as young as the protagonist; I had been ashamed and I didn’t think these thoughts were for public consumption. Fowler’s book makes no apologies for its strong identity politics; when I was that age I felt I needed to protect in myself, not only by editing my public comments, but also in my own work. I was so scared of being typecast. I was scared that my writing, the one thing that had brought me some solace in my confusion, would become twisted and corrupted into seeming like a small, narrow set of politics. I was scared of only appearing on panels of ‘women of colour’ (that were never called that), and that anything I tried to contribute towards other issues would eschew questions of art and form, and only attract questions of Race, capital R. At her age, I had swallowed my own feelings down hard. ‘Owning it’ in the way that Fowler clearly does is a space that is only recently beginning to feel like it has political and literary validity . And, so, while reading her words exposed my old shame, at the same time, I rejoiced with her on the page. Here I saw issues of identity explored in new, invigorating ways rather than simply following the old tropes and expectations of migrant narratives. A new public discourse around race and representation has certainly emboldened a new cohort of young writers of colour to write interesting, experimental stories that often include nuanced critiques of the race narrative, including writers like Bryan Washington, Raven Leilani, Rumaan Alam, just to name a few.
Fowler also writes about her mother and aunt, how in their own ways they rebelled against their own culture, about why her mother moved from Brazil to Britain. She describes the predicaments of your mother considering another country home, of when the people you live among can barely pronounce your name, of how in being half, you don’t obviously look like your parents, how it makes it difficult to know exactly where you belong.
How can you explain your mother, who like all mothers looks very sexy and slim in some old photos, with her long curling hair and her John Lennon glasses but most unexpected of all, your mother, who no one has ever told you you resemble, in those old photos where she is hands in the air mouth open speaking straight white teeth into the camera, most unexpected of all in those old photos your mother is wearing some 1980s version of your face.
The narrator’s body plays a central role in the book. Fowler writes about how when your body no longer feels like your own, it’s hard to understand your place in the world. She spends pages dedicated to small moments of exploring, touching, shaming and recoiling from her own body:
She took a bath. Filled it full and hot and covered it in bubbles.
She took off her blazer and her blouse and her tights and her other clothes. Got her whole body in the bath. Didn’t look at it.
this broken body
this broken up body.
I found one iPhone note that spoke to the shame and embarrassment I didn’t feel comfortable speaking about at that age; now, just a decade later, it seems unremarkable:
At night, I touch my face, and wonder if I’m still pretty. A face that does not look like it belongs to a country. Brown hair, brown skin, brown eyes. A face which prompts people to ask, daily, where are you from. No, but, where are you really from?
I touch my face, and wonder if I’m still pretty.
A moment later, I hate myself for caring.
Part of my bewilderment at the time lay in the mixture of anger and sexuality I felt surrounding me. And in the way it seemed to speak to something deeper that was lodged into the sandstone crevices of this city and country. I was confused because half of my family and blood were ‘from’ this land, and the other half were migrants. I didn’t feel l belonged to those who knew the full hardships and experienced the hissing, cutting sounds of racism, when I did not. At least once a week people would just come up to me, unbidden, to analyse my face out of a seemingly detached interest – well, here is the European, and there is the Indian, and this part could almost pass for Italian, people would say, pointing at the tricks that my face seemed to suggest to them. I felt caught between the different layers of arguments and miscasting, without belonging enough to own either of them. The push and pull dynamics rocked me for years. It only felt safe to tuck my thoughts, like this one, into my password-protected phone notes:
My mother calls this country an insecure patriarchy. I think what she means by this is like that time when I was walking back from the beach, and I felt light and salty and full of air, and some men called out to me from their front porch, and I raised my hand in a return friendly wave, as you must always be friendly in this country, and they called out again, and told me that I looked like I would be someone who could give them a good time, and how about I come around the back while they all took turns to fuck me, because that’s what I looked like I needed, and wanted. Then they slapped each other on the back, forgetting my crumpled existence, laughing and pleased with each other that they had the power to easily drag a woman down on a simple summer afternoon. My mother says men like this fear beauty. It possesses something they have never been taught to understand, or believed they could have, so they distrust it deep within their bones. She says in other countries, for all their faults where the men can act much worse, that at least they have the guts to recognise and revere something beautiful. They might put it on a pedestal, or determine its only function is beauty, but they would never jeer and taunt and then deny it, like they can do here. Because these men in these countries have thousands of years of belief and trust in their patriarchy they know they are at the top. Here, men have been left to fend for themselves with no structure or role models, and they don’t know where they stand. She says she doesn’t know which is worse.
At the time I was writing my notes, I was thinking a lot about my space on the streets. And how the aggression of the body mixed with sexualisation and race, about how all this was exhibited in confounding ways to a wide spectrum of racial interactions:
The sunglasses sold at the Discount Chemist with a poster of a blonde with a cleavage and an insincere smile and a speech bubble coming out of her mouth.
Hi, Buy Me.
A young Lebanese man points to it and pretends to fuck the air and his mate claps him on the back.
Fucking dumb white sluts.
Reading Fowler helped me also to remember the delight of being a young woman in a city as she mixes high and low culture, subverting Pride and Prejudice, to capture the sprawling joy of women’s sexuality in public:
And in the dark Soho night there would be dancing/
drunk tipsy where’s my oyster card dancing/
night bus first tube sun rise dancing/
high heels red dress lipstick dancing/
loud loud laughing Lydia Bennet laughing dancing
It helped me remember that period wasn’t simply marked by weakness, silence, and confusion but also the inherent power and authority that I had forgotten I felt at that time:
And there are times, like when I put on red lipstick, or I don’t wear a bra, or when the summer lightning cracks, and my nipples harden, and men sense the charge in the air, I feel powerful in the streets, like they are mine.
Fowler’s work has a rare curative power. When I was younger I could not have imagined a dialogue like the one provoked by The Stubborn Archivist. I felt proud reading this book because it allowed me to see more clearly the girl who wrote those notes in her phone, lonely and confused, walking around Sydney. The girl who didn’t feel good in her body. The girl who felt like the outside didn’t match what she was feeling inside. The girl who felt alienated by other people’s assumptions and views and her own responses. The girl who was raw with anger and the fierce language coursing through her but was scared by her own feelings. And the girl who didn’t feel it was okay to voice this and didn’t know for many years how to go any further than tapping notes into a phone. The girl who tried to solve her issues, as so many of us do, and understand the world around her by collecting fragments, hoping by documenting it would somehow make her braver and grow bigger than the self to move these feelings of darkness into something more universal, to feel more understood by a country, a city, a body and a voice.