FROM OUR ARTISTS
Selected works from our creative community. Email georgia@femzinelondon to submit.
In conversation with writer Aschel St Ville
Interviewed by Krystle Amoo
Image by Precious Opara
Who do you write for?
I always say this. When I write, I write always for myself: I motivate myself, I express my emotions and my opinion, but I share my work because I know it will also help others.
For me, your writing is personal. I connect and identify with your words as if each word is a reflection of myself. Why do you think it's important, for Black women especially, to share our stories and document them?
I think it is so important for black women to be honest and vulnerable with themselves and with each other. We have been taught to be strong for so long while going through trauma and not acknowledging its effects. This lack of vulnerability has traveled through generations. Telling our stories frees us from pain and frees the generations that will come after us.
The title of your book sounds very much like a guide to finding our way back to ourselves - do you hope it will be used as a tool of recovery for healing black women?
I really hope my book will help open difficult conversations in homes. I hope it will help people to understand they are not alone in their experiences and sharing will help them and others heal.
Black women experience substantially higher rates of mental health problems than white women but are less likely to receive treatment. Why do you think this is and what makes us less likely to ask for help?
I think that in the black community we have so many other issues that we face, mental health has not always been at the top of our priority list. As such, it is so much more likely to hide our struggles instead of asking for help.
You often say that writing is your way of coping with anxiety and depression. Can you tell us a bit more about that?
When I write, I can be vulnerable and really express my emotions. For me it is a healthy way of sharing my pain and venting and it really helps me to put things into perspective.
My name is Aschel St Ville.
Current Location / where you reside:
Brooklyn, New York
What is your heritage, and has it influenced your writing?
I am originally from an island in the Caribbean called Dominica. I lived there for the first 19 years of my life. I think a lot of my writing and experiences stem from my life growing up in a small village on an island.
What is the story behind the use of your alias SabrinaJpoetry?
So, when I first started having the desire to share my work with others, I wanted to be anonymous. There were two reasons for this I wanted people to give an honest perspective of my writing, so I wanted to make sure that my work was being seen by strangers. Additionally, I knew I was going to be very transparent and I wasn't ready to be that vulnerable with people who know me.
How did you discover your gift of writing?
I think I have always loved to write but when people started giving me positive feedback on my work, I started seeing it as something that I am good at.
What was your motivation behind releasing a book?
I was motivated to release my book because it is honest and raw, and I know it would impact so many lives and inspire people to tell their stories.
Why did you choose this title for your book?
The title of the book 'To Those Who Find Themselves Lost' represents the place that I was in my life when I wrote it. Lost and trying to find myself.
When I read poetry by black women/femmes, it's as if they found my trauma, labeled it, while reassuring me these feelings or emotions are valid and not uncommon. Could you tell me who your favorite black poet is and a poem of theirs that you love?
Omg. My favorite black poet is Ijeoma Umebinyuo. She is a Nigerian writer and she is a gift. My favorite poem Is from her book "questions for Ada:
You are not weak
You are just tired for now
You are not quitting
I know you
I know you
You are just resting darling
I love this poem because it speaks of being patient and gentle with yourself.
What is your favorite poem from your book?
I love all the poems from my book as they all represent significant moments in my life.
I would say my favorite is:
You will become many women
Before you become yourself
Honor every one of them
I love this poem because it encourages us to honor our self at every stage of our life. Do not be ashamed of any part of your life or anything you went through. Focus on your survival and continue to grow.
What are your plans as a writer?
As a writer, I plan to continue releasing soul work. I plan to continue writing and inspiring. I also want to continue using poetry to encourage people to face their trauma and take care of their mental health.
Life online with marissa malik
Marissa Malik aka. Manuka Honey aka. mariimals talks to us about going viral during lockdown, their new status as an ‘influencer’ and how all this feels for their mental health and body image.
Tell us about these three months in lockdown, how your online life looked before and what it’s turned into.
I’m no stranger to living my life online. Growing up in a tiny majority-white suburb in the states turned me into a tumblr girl in my mid teens. Then, falling in love with UK music from a distance kept me (and keeps me) constantly in cyber-spheres to this day; even after moving here. Basically I’m an e-girl through and through, but the level of reach and attention I get now is something that’s unprecedented in my life. I went from a platform of around 7K to 28K in the 2 weeks following my FEM ZINE takeover after a photo of my stomach hair went viral. My DM’s were generally busy because of how much crossover there is between work and play on my account, but now keeping up with messages feels like a full time job. I’m not great at it yet, haha.
We love that we had a part to play here in your new platform. Anything that helps secure the bag we’re here for. But at the same time, it’s not easy having all that visibility is it?
I’m so happy that FEM ZINE catapulted me into this position! I’m really lucky to have the platform I now do, and remain grateful for it. At the same time, I can’t deny the fact that the level of visibility I'm at is difficult to navigate. As much as I feel ambivalent about talking about the difficulties of being an influencer, because being one comes with a lot of privilege and access, it’s important to recognize the pitfalls and mental health impact of all facets of our careers.
One thing that’s been tough to handle is my feelings around my body image. Suddenly, my body is the center of my platform; specifically my stomach, which is an area I struggle to embrace about myself in relation to how I gain and lose weight. My body has undergone a lot of changes during lockdown; particularly weight gain, and it’s difficult to see images of myself circulate that I feel disconnected to as I don’t look the same now. I’m an Eating Disorder survivor, which plays a major role in this.
That being said, I recognize that I’m a thin, light skinned femme and I operate with all of the privledges that this comes with. The position I’m in has given me a new reverence and appreciation for “body positivity influencers” especially ones with much less conventionally attractive bodies than mine.
Can you tell us a bit more about how this experience has made you learn more about yourself and also maybe about other people?
This experience has made me realize the prejudice that comes with the title of ‘influencer’, as if that immediately makes you shallow or solely image focused, or causes you to lack nuance or credibility within your fields. It’s a status that trumps other aspects of me I'd like to shine through more because of this stigma, and I’m still figuring out how I feel about it now.
Visibility isn’t the be all and end all. As much as I receive a lot of love for my posts, I get a lot of really violent hatred too. On the regular. Dismantling beauty standards which derive from a global culture of what supremacist patriarchy won’t be undone on my page, but I hold a space in how I contribute to the larger “movement”.
This experience has taught me that being an “influencer” is a full time job. Fighting the algorithm is real. It’s not easy to just “create content” and vlog all the time. I really respect the labour people put into their pages the same way I respect all forms of labour that we have to do under capitalism to survive.
What's next? What are you going to use this space for and what do you hope to achieve in the next chapter?
I plan on using my platform to assist in disseminating information and educational resources for movements, especially BLM at the moment. I plan on being messy and posting too many IG stories. I plan on connecting with other qtibpoc+ cuties all over the world, and I plan on showering you all with belly hair selfies whenever I feel like it!
Photos by Mia Maxwell
Featuring Marissa Malik / Manuka Honey
Wearing Elsie and Fred
in lockdown with travis alabanza
At a time when so much is on pause, it feels like creativity is not. But what does it feel like to be a creative in this moment? What are the pressures, feelings and expectations? FEM ZINE sat down with Travis Alabanza, after organising a socially-distanced shoot, to ask about the state of the creative in lockdown.
Do you think there is a pressure on artists, even in this time?
I think there's just a general pressure on lots of different people. Artists or not. Right now, it's clear that certain types of work are protected and others are not. And that "time to rest and recoup" is an unfortunately not available to everyone. there is a pressure from a government that cares about profits and capitalism over health. There is a pressure on us to make decisions that we are not informed to make. On us to "band together" to protect things that a government should be protecting. I feel the same thoughts I had before this, about "creation" "output" "the speed to continue to make" are just heightened in this time. I'm trying to resist that pressure, but of course, sometimes it's hard. When we don't know where our industry is at, or how it will be, its hard to know what your job even is now, let alone to make in it. I think a lot of us are just trying. But the parameters have changed. So I'm trying, really trying, to remind myself what I just enjoy about making art, and doing art, and finding ways to gently be with that. I'm failing a lot, but that's part of it right?
Travis, really, how are you?
Hmmm. I'm avoiding answering that. As I know by the time this is published I would have changed my emotions 100 times. I'm not sure what the answer is to that question anymore, but I'm certainly bored of hearing my own thoughts. There's something so unconformable about just being with yourself. Without noise. I'm trying to sit with that.
Have you felt creative in Lockdown?
I think my knee jerk response to this is to say: no. I have not. But then I look at my past few weeks or month or whatever time is, and see that I have (as always) been creative. Just that it looks different to what I'm used to. The output has changed. I'm not writing a new masterpiece, finishing that script draft, making the next hit. No, I'm lucky if I can finish a sentence that feels exciting. But I have been creative in the ways I keep in touch with my friends, or how I send flowers, or the way I am dressing. my creativity is finding different outputs, and the goals of it feel different. It's been good for me to remove the show from the creativity, or the deadline, or the "reason", and to just do it when I feel it. BUT I also have wanted to try and learn to be ok with being bored. And not creative. And to figure out parts of myself that doesn't have to ooze creativity like this weird tap. Maybe you have to leave something for a second to figure out what you miss about it.
You recently had your Instagram HACKED by grassroots orgs and activists, what made you want to do that?
Well, this is what I mean about creativity looking different. That felt creative. It felt like drama of a performance, Often in my work I look at negatives and things effecting me badly, and how I can turn it into something that is changing that outcome. The internet was making me feel shit, I did not like how having an instagram felt, I wanted to delete my account - yet actually, I just needed some others to show me what it could be used for. I was overwhelmed with information I should be digesting, so realised others must be too. And I liked the way having different groups on my accounts almost felt like multiple accounts in one. I loved seeing people interact, and hopefully act, with what they were learning. & to learn alongside those that engage with my account.
What things are keeping you going right now?
Mario Kart with Beth , Lala and Malik. A gap toothed Bitch dog account (as always). And watching people do tik Tok dances. Watching all of the final destinations with Temi
Photography and Fashion Styling by Mia Maxwell
Featuring Travis Alabanza
Directed by Zorawar Waraich
Shot by Zorawar Waraich
Hair by Russie Miessi
Makeup by Shiri Shah
Modelled by Shea Khan
Words by Shiri Shah
A shoot’s brief swiftly changed from “Peggy Moffitt meets Star Trek” to “How are we gonna survive this?” In one pandemic. Shea Khan is styled and painted to pay homage to icons like Twiggy and the vintage Sci-Fi films that helped define our Instagram catwalks today. Zorawar Waraich’s shoot, EARTH SUCKS, shares a sentiment a lot of us are relating to pretty hard right now. The making of our photo series overlapped COVID-19’s pandemic rise in the UK, encouraging us to rethink our relationship with the world and each other.
Apocalypse films have replaced the once camp and flamboyant dominators of Sci-Fi. With good reason, too. Remember when Fifth Element and Total Recall promised us action-packed futures and wicked colour schemes strewn all over us? Considering that global warming, human trafficking, and imperialism are on the forefronts of the collective political mind it makes sense that we project our cynicism onto our art. But even the most realistic apocalypse movie has been proven wrong by this pandemic. Instead of violent panic and dissipation of communities, we smile at each other (from two meters away) and cheer for healthcare workers. It’s the underfunded and under-resourced migrant healthcare workers, cleaners, supermarket assistants, and drivers that we have started appreciating. Contrary to mainstream representations of migrants in Britain (classed now as “essential workers”), the team working on EARTH SUCKS portrays queer people of colour, migrants, and refugees as ethereal and otherwordly whilst maintaining a firm grip on the fabric of reality. Waraich wanted warm, tropical and alien colours emphasising the models face, particularly the eyes to draw in intimacy and more importantly, authority. Often, it is impossible to imagine migrants as glamorous. As the MUA, I wanted to create an off-key, alien glamour. I used the iconic green shade to bring out the models features and pun on the archetypal martian.
This photo series brings together ideas of beauty within the Other, the so-called “foreign alien,” and the focalised beauty in fashion. The camp take on ethereality challenges the assumption that bodies of colour are indispensable. Waraich, the force behind @fuckoffaunty, felt like we’re watching the earth spin inside a blender - sparking this worldwide introspective journey through social isolation. Much science fiction produced in the 20th and 21st century anticipates the forced inward journey one takes during global crises. Take a look at The Machine Stops, a short story by E.M Forster. But science fiction that you don’t see in the mainstream, such as works by Octavia Butler, Ursula K. Le Guin, Samuel R. Delaney committed their craft to imagining new worlds and possibilities. They envisioned futures that have often been deemed impossible (such as mainstream gender fluidity, biological empathetic superpowers, and more). The ability to create better worlds is in all of our capabilities, whether it be through poetry, music, political activism, nature. We are all able to weave the world in our hands, in all our beauty as a move towards accountability and compassion.
EARTH SUCKS plays with the irony of the “superhuman immigrant femme” as an individual-collective that feels less pain, biologically works harder, and functions as an innate provider of intense labour from child birthing to literally making sure our world doesn’t fall apart. Fulfilling the fantasy of “The Good Immigrant,” or rather, the immigrant that is useful to us (the country) so gets to stay. The elderly, disabled, abused, people unable to work therefore cannot prove their worth to the capitalist structure contingent on the labour of lower classes. Sure, we’re awesome and have influenced well over half the globe’s style, music, cuisine, and more, but we feel pain too. We are tired too. Instead of providing the resources needed by essential workers (all of which is in budget) we use the idea of “heroism” as a scapegoat. These people do not have bullet proof capes, they don’t even have enough facemasks. These people are humans, even though they hold the future in their hands.
Faith and Jas
In this collaborative series, me and Jasmine explore what it’s like to be on the other side of the camera. We both have some experience modelling, but feel most at home behind the camera. As female photographers whose main subjects tend to be women, (and a lot of the time nude women) we thought it would be interesting to model for one another and experience capturing a nude body as well as modelling our own. It’s something which took us both slightly out of our comfort zone. Our works shares common ground as we both celebrate the female form through our photos. We’ve done this through this series, although this time we did it in a way that seemed more personal and forthcoming whilst taking inspiration from other female photographer’s like Juno Calypso, whose work takes on similar themes.
Photographer & Model:
Faith Aylward @didudietho
Jasmine Engel-Malone @jasmxnemarxe
Lauren Nicole @lauren.nicolemakeup
Preparing my daughter for rain
By FEM features editor Krystle Amoo
I wrote this for my future daughter.
I pray that the pain of this life,
Never ever tightens your throat,
Or hardens your heart.
It is better to be a pile of soft bones,
than a wall, made entirely of concrete.
- I love you (by Key Ballah)
I'm working on a series of accounts dedicated to all the mothers around the world: to the biological mothers that gained their titles through tiresome births, as well as our community mothers, who may not have carried for nine months, but have been instrumental in preparing our daughters for rain.
I spent many full moons searching for my father's love; a longing, I guess, that will have to wait for another lifetime. I have spoken openly before about my father's shortcomings, but very rarely do I unpick or dissect my mother's. Maybe I preserved my mother's image out of fear; I would never want to be ungrateful for the sacrifices she endured by giving birth to me. It could also be down to the empathy and experience I now have as a mother myself – and the realisation that this role isn't all that rosy. For my entire life, my mother has been this extraterrestrial force that birthed five children, ran multiple businesses, and was never motionless. Through my adolescent eyes, she was resilient, invulnerable and indestructible. I loved to watch her, and she never fell short or disappointed me, but the idolisation of my mother came crashing down when I reached motherhood.
It quickly became apparent that my mother had raised me for a war without any weapons. Although physically present, there was a considerable disconnection when it came to raising myself and my siblings. She spent very little time and energy in teaching us how to survive a world designed to fail us. She taught me that it was better not to be seen than to stand forward for the battle. My mother chose to live vicariously through us (something most parents are guilty of). An unimaginable pressure for a child, and when we couldn't deliver, she often baptised us in words that made us doubt ourselves. Although she faced oppression, she sadly could not protect us from meeting the same fate. Instead, she continuously force-fed us with patriarchal thinking. Making us believe that as women, the pinnacle of our existence is marriage, wealth and motherhood. However, in her defense, she taught us by using the methods in which she was taught, misinformed by her mother and her mother's mother. A legacy of transgenerational trauma.
From my recent studies, I have learnt that our transgenerational trauma can end with any given generation. Simply breaking the toxic strings of our parent's aprons can begin the deprogramming. Not to dismiss fathers and their input, I wanted to talk with women of colour on how we are assiduously working on breaking generational "curses." How are we raising the next generation of daughters? What materials are we providing them with to repel the torrential downpour of patriarchy and any other destructive social structure that teaches women they are not enough?
Over the next few months, I will be interviewing women who are fighting to educate their daughters against all the odds. My first interview is with a woman who has taught me new a meaning of gratitude and fearlessness. It was an honour presenting these questions to her, and a privilege to get an insight into her world.
Do you hold strong bonds with all your siblings or maybe one in particular?
I am very close to my sisters and my brother, we are a close unit, and I bond with them all in very different ways. For example, my older sister and I had children around the same time, so we have bonded through our shared experience of motherhood. Whereas with my younger sister, there is an 8-year gap, so I feel part sister to her, and part mum or aunty if you know what I mean. My brother has a beautiful soul, and we have become closer as we have gotten older.
How important is family to you?
Family is very important to me. Over time though, I have come to realise that family is not just about blood. I have many friends who have become family also.
At what age did you give birth to your daughter?
I had my daughter when I was 29 years old.
As precious as that moment was, can you share with us your birthing story?
About halfway through my pregnancy, the midwife identified that my bump was measuring small. I then went for an ultrasound, and it was confirmed that my daughter was experiencing a condition called intrauterine growth restriction. This is a condition where the baby isn't growing very well.
I had to have lots of scans for monitoring during the rest of the pregnancy. Then towards the end, as concerns increased, my labour was artificially induced by hormones. I was in labour for a total of 11 hours. Just before my beautiful Sophia was born, I was told that her heart rate was dropping and that if she weren't out in the next few minutes, I would be rushed in for an emergency c-section. This scared me but gave me adrenaline and energy that I needed to push her out. The realities of the physical trauma of childbirth, whether by c-section or vaginal delivery, are not often talked about. For this reason, I will mention that I had a vaginal tear during my labour and had to have several stitches. Everything is completely fine now, but I think it's essential that pregnancy, birth and motherhood are spoken about honestly, as it normalises some of the challenging parts and lets us know that we are not alone.
Given all that my daughter went through to come into this world, the fact that I had undiagnosed cancer during my pregnancy and given that I am now infertile because of the cancer drugs, I do consider her to be my miracle baby.
In those moments after her birth, skin to skin, what emotions were running through your head?
I was just so relieved that she was alive and healthy – oh, and that the pain had stopped.
Did you always see motherhood in yourself?
Yes, I always knew that I wanted to be a mother. Growing up in a large family, I knew that I wanted that too. I can't have any more children, but I feel so blessed to have my daughter.
What gifts (lessons) has your daughter brought you, since gracing your world?
My daughter has taught me how to put the needs of someone else before my own. She has taught me that we must be so careful and conscious when it comes to raising children. She has taught me of the need to actively challenge societies expectations of us, and its projections onto us. I say this because there is a lot of societal conditioning and subliminal messaging that goes on without us necessarily even noticing it. At times during my childhood, I lacked confidence, and questioned my capabilities based solely on my race and gender. I don't want this for my daughter. I aim to fill her with confidence so that she feels genuinely limitless.
As a mother myself, it's hard, to sum up in words what it feels like to be responsible for another human, and I was wondering if before she was born you ever thought about the grand scale of the responsibility that was waiting for you?
I had thought about it, but it's a different thing to experience it. I knew that I wanted to provide a safe, loving and secure environment for her to come into, and together my husband and I achieved that. With life though, there are always things that we just can't plan for. For example,
I never imagined in my wildest dreams that I would be diagnosed with incurable cancer when my daughter was only a year old. I had imagined that I would always be around to protect her, well at least during her childhood, but now it is a very real possibility that I won't.
So as much as I think it is important to plan and prepare where we can, I believe that the actual key to life is the ability to adapt.
My health has allowed me to realise that my job as a mother is not just to protect Sophia, it is also my job to equip her with the self-belief and life skills that are needed to deal with life as best as possible.
I came to know you via your social media. I remember reading your posts; I spent over an hour processing them before messaging you. Could you share your story with those that don't know you?
Well, it's a long story, but I will give you the short version. Nine months ago, I went from being an active mum and doctor to being suddenly diagnosed as a palliative care patient myself.
It started with me taking a bath one evening and noticing a lump in my breast. I went to see my G.P. who of course reassured me that it was probably nothing, as I was only 30 at the time, but they referred me to a specialist just in case. A few days later, I was seen at my local hospital, and I was told that I have breast cancer, but I was reassured that breast cancer is very treatable these days. I was even told that it could be cured with surgery and chemotherapy, but that they just needed to do a few scans to make sure it hadn't spread.
Then three weeks and many scans later, I was told that actually, the cancer had spread. Tumours were detected in my liver, spine and neck, as well as my breast. It was made clear to me that I was stage 4...there is no stage 5. It was made clear to me that the cancer was incurable and that my treatment would be palliative. I promised myself that I wouldn't ask about my prognosis, but I couldn't resist. I was told that no one can predict with certainty, but that on average people with this diagnosis live for three years and that 80% of people are dead within 5years.
So that's my story, and what I live with every day. I do not feel defeated though. I feel optimistic. I do everything within my power to optimise my health. I believe that medicine is essential for my healing, but that it's not healthcare, it's sick-care. Health care is good nutrition, exercise, time with loved ones, protected rest and sleep, mental stimulation and purpose. I do both, and most of the time, I feel good.
I also want to talk about the fact that if picked up early, most people with breast cancer can be cured. I want to let you know that the way for it to be picked up early is if we all check our breasts and pecks once a month. There is a social media movement called #feelitonthefirst; it encourages men, women and non-binary people to check their breasts on the first of each month. There is no correct way to feel or check and if you notice anything of concern you should go and see your doctor. Also, I have to highlight that you are never too young to get breast cancer, I know of people who have been diagnosed in their early twenties.
Lastly, I want to highlight that, for some reason, people sometimes see breast cancer as a white women's disease. It can affect men, women and non-binary people, regardless of colour. Statistics show that black women are more likely to present with later-stage breast cancer, which is less easily treated and less likely to be cured. So my message is that this is an issue that affects us all and that we should all be feeling it on the first!
It's hard to cover all in one interview, but I wanted to include a few crucial conversations you will have with your daughter as she grows, first being, what would you like to teach your daughter about her identity?
I want my daughter to know that her identity is multifaceted and that she does not need to fit neatly into a box. I want her to know that our identity evolves throughout our lives. Take me, for example, I went from being a doctor one day to a cancer patient the next, but even that is just one aspect of my identity. I am a Londoner; I have Scottish and Nigerian heritage; I am a mother, a wife, a sister, I am mixed race, I am vegan.
Our identity is made up of all of our individual experiences, and I want her to view her identity in that way rather than feeling the need to squish her identity down into a user-friendly version.
Words are powerful. What words do you like to speak into your daughter to help her build self-esteem and self-worth? Do you practice affirmations?
I try not just to tell her that she is beautiful or cute. My husband and I make a point of praising her when she does something clever; when she figures something out or puts words together to make a sentence. We also make a point of praising her effort and attempts even if the desired result is not achieved. We really would love to cultivate a growth mindset rather than a goal-oriented mindset. By this, I mean that I would like for her to develop a belief of self-efficacy so that if she is not successful at something the first time (or second, or third) she does not feel defeated.
We want her to know that she is smart, capable, strong and funny, we tell her this, and once she can, I will encourage her to join in with these affirmations. She is two now, and we don't want her self-esteem to be based on her appearance or to be heavily gender-influenced.
I have been reading up on love, and it means something different now; I realise love is more than just a feeling. I'm excited to teach my children that love is an action and not only limited to the feeling you get from romantic love. What advice would you like to give your daughter about love and relationships?
The main thing that I want her to know that love should start with herself and that the most important relationship is with herself. If she can love and respect herself, then the rest will follow, she will invite the love and respect of others and will be equipped to give out both of these things.
Following on the topic about love, there is a huge misconception that only men practice patriarchal thinking, but women can and do exercise this also. What will you teach your daughter about feminism and not falling into the box of thinking women are submissive objects in society?
Fantastic question. I have been doing a lot of unlearning recently. I have to admit that I was raised by a traditional African father who, if I am honest, was sexist. Whether we like it or not often societies, patriarchal approach and gender expectations can rub off on us. To unlearn these things takes a conscious effort, which is what I am working on now. Fortunately, my husband is with me on all of this. In terms of my daughter, I just want her to feel free and that there are no limits, regardless of gender, age or anything.
Lastly, but most importantly - her voice. I remember growing up and always being told to be quiet, don't speak unless you are spoken to - how are you raising her never to mute her thoughts and emotions?
I can relate, being raised by an African father, it was the same. There was a hierarchy in place and to challenge or question specific individuals were not encouraged. The word respect was used to mute us as children, the phrase "respect your elders" was pretty much synonymous with don't challenge anything your elders say or do.
I want my daughter Sophia to know that her voice is important. She is only two, but I try to give her choices about what she wants to wear or eat, I give her options and allow her to choose. I listen to her and encourage her talking, even if it doesn't always make sense. I want to teach her to respect her fellow humans, by respecting her I am leading by example. I must just add-in that I strongly believe children need guidance and boundaries, so as much as I want to encourage her to use her voice and make choices it has to be age-appropriate, and her level of autonomy will increase with her age and maturity.
K: I guess these are the blueprint for navigating through life, a gift from you to her - I think it's beautiful that you include her on your journey. Even as young as she is, there is a connection forming - stronger than flesh and bones that will never be threatened. That connection, that love she gifts you each day, channel it always and let it be your healer. Thank you for this moment, for your openness, and the resilience you possess not to be consumed by a diagnosis. It's evident that you are present, I witness it through your daily display of gratitude, your energy is contagious, and I'm grateful for you.
Photos and words by Krystle Amoo @aboutmefirst
Krystle: Can you tell us your name and the meaning behind it?
Em: My name is Emues Deacon-Smith. I like to be called Em. Emues means kindness in Urhobo [an ethnic group in southern Nigeria].
Growing up as a mixed-race child in the 1980's, my name always seemed to make my life difficult. It seemed impossible for people to pronounce, and I was often teased about it. At the very least, it was a talking point and often triggered people to ask "where are you really from?". As a child who was born and raised in London to a white mother and a black father, I felt like I was really from London, but it was often clear that my brown skin and name caused others to feel differently about this. From my name, people made assumptions about me that were often just that, complete assumptions. Over time though, I have become proud of my name and the part of my heritage that it represents.
Can you tell us about your childhood, for example where you grew up and if it was in a nuclear family?
I grew up in Camberwell, South London. Our household consisted of my mother and father, my two sisters and my brother. I am a middle child. My mum is a doctor, and my dad was a university lecturer. Both my parents were career-focussed and always emphasised the importance of education. I would say that my dad was the strict one, while my mum tended to be more relaxed about things. I thank my parents for the values that they emphasised during my childhood, but there are things that I am choosing to do differently as a parent.
Growing up in a mixed household, did you ever struggle with identity issues? Or would you say you had a balance of both your British and African heritage?
Growing up mixed race is different for everyone. I think that most of us have identity issues at some stage. It may be to do with our race, sexuality, disability or even just our own unique experiences of life. Often having to deal with life events such as the breakdown of a relationship, the loss of a job or even a bereavement can cause identity issues.
For me, I would say that I wasn't aware that I had any identity issues until my late teens or early twenties. I was born in the 1980s, my parents raised us to identify as black, even though we had a white mother. They felt that society was going to treat us as though we were black, so we may as well embrace it. After all, it was only in 2001 that the U.K. national census began to include mixed-race as an option for ethnicity. Before this, you would have had to tick the white box or the black box. I guess you could have ticked both, but it would not have counted as they did not report data in that way at the time.
Anyway, in my late teens, I began to embrace my full racial identity as a mixed-race, half Scottish and half Nigerian Londoner. I realised that I did not need to simplify my racial identity for the ease of society, and that it was up to me how I wanted to identify. I also realised that my race was only one part of my identity.
Before this transition in my racial identity, I had been somewhat afraid of identifying as mixed-race rather than black, as I did not want to contribute to colourism. I wanted there to be unity and equality. Now though, I understand that racial differences often need to be acknowledged for inequalities to be recognised and addressed. In my heart, though, I believe that we are all just part of the human race.
'...you would have had to tick the white box or the black box...I realised that I did not need to simplify my racial identity for the ease of society, and that it was up to me how I wanted to identify.'
What emotions did you go through on hearing your diagnosis?
As a mother, my biggest concern is my daughter Sophia. When I first got diagnosed, I felt fear, and I was afraid that my daughter might have to grow up without a mother. Fear was my first reaction, but for her, I choose to be strong, and I want us to make the best out of the situation. I try to strike a balance between preparing for our future and living in the present. I try to embrace all of the experiences that this life has to offer us.
As positive as you are, on the days that negativity creeps in - what has been your biggest fear?
My biggest fear is that my daughter may have to grow up without a mother. I want her to know that whatever happens, that I will always love her and I will always be with her as I am a part of her. I want her to trust and believe in herself.
Have you ever worried about not being physically around to watch your daughter? How do you cope with the anxiety?
I worry about this all the time. When I feel anxious, I try to remind myself that worrying is not the best use of my imagination, and I believe that stress hormones are bad for my mental and physical health. So, I take stress and anxiety management very seriously. The things that I find helpful are exercise, meditation, yoga, using my singing bowl, talking to friends and family, affirmation, practicing gratitude and distracting myself with an uplifting audiobook or podcast. I realise that I need to care for myself in order to be present and active as a mother.
16. I'm sure even in those dark moments, seeing your daughter every day must refuel you, does her energy subside your depression / negative thoughts?
I would have to say yes. The great thing about toddlers is that they are just so hilarious. The things that Sophia does and says are a constant source of laughter. I look at her, and I feel grateful to be alive and to have experienced a life full of love and joy.
What other self-care rituals have you adopted to keep a healthy mind and body?
Before my diagnosis, I wore ‘busy’ as a badge of honour. I thought that exercise was synonymous with self-care. I now realise that exercising because I felt insecure about my body was the opposite of self-care. I have come to understand that actually, self-care means resting, as well as nurturing the mind, body and soul. Self-care is essential for optimising our health. This is incredibly important to me within the context of my cancer diagnosis, but regardless of whether we have cancer or not. I believe that self-care is essential for optimal health. For me, I look at self-care in 3 parts, care for the mind, body and soul.
For my mind, I listen to inspiring podcasts and audiobooks; I meditate, I practice gratitude and affirmation. I also make sure that I always have a project on the go for both enjoyment and mental stimulation; right now, this is my personal training qualification.
For my body, I consider food and exercise as medicines. To me, they are just as important as my actual medicine. Exercise is so important to me that I have been undertaking a persona training course which I have almost finished. In terms of my diet, I eat a whole foods plant-based diet. I have also been trying to prioritise sleep as it is restorative and fundamental for healing. This is difficult due to the side effects of my medications, but I put a lot into making my sleep as good as it can be. I dim all lights in the evening time, I sleep with an eye mask and sometimes if I am struggling I play white noise and use a lavender pillow mist.
Lastly, to care for my soul I try to follow my intuition, this often leads me to spend time in nature and creating, at other times it leads me to spend time with loved ones and sometimes it means spending time alone. A couple of years ago, I didn't believe in the existence of souls, being from a scientific background I just didn't think in the way that I do now. I now realise, though, that there is more to life than what we see with our eyes and that there are just some things that we cannot understand with the logical parts of our brain. For example, there is no logical reason for us to appreciate the beauty of flowers and nature, but we do. I believe that we all have a soul that is yearning to be nourished and that feeding our souls is essential for our overall health and inner peace. I must add that what my soul needs may be very different from yours. Simply put, I believe that connecting with our intuition is a way to connect with the needs of our soul.
I noticed that you include your daughter in your rituals, is it deliberate, and if so, why is it essential for you to teach her how to practice self-care?
This is, to some extent, deliberate and in part a necessity. Yes, I want to expose my daughter to my beliefs about the importance of self-care for the mind-body and soul, but also, I don't always have the luxury of childcare.
I love that you are open with your story, sharing your state of mind with both the highs and lows. Mental health has always been stigmatised; I feel our generation has been working towards detaching the negative connotations surrounding the topic. Definitely, for my mother's generation even the words uttered out of your mouth was a taboo which in turn created the stigma, why is it vital for you to own your mental health and not shy away from it?
Well after medical school, I worked in various specialities including surgery and paediatrics then after a few years, I decided to specialise in mental health, so this is a subject that is very close to my heart. I have seen first-hand the stigma that is associated with mental health issues. I am also well aware of the difficulties that many experiences as a result of social media comparisons and falling into the trap of believing that what they see on social media must be a full representation of another individual’s life. Anyway, for these reasons, I feel compelled to share both my highs and my lows. It is very therapeutic for me, feeling that I can be my whole self is liberating and actually from the responses I have been getting people to seem to find it refreshing and can relate. After all, we are all human, and it is natural to feel low or anxious sometimes.
How did your parents deal with your diagnosis? I guess it's hard to identify what you are going through ultimately, but do you feel they have been supportive in understanding about the mental battle you undergo daily?
It has been difficult for my parents and my whole family; we are all close. They do their best to be supportive and understanding, but I have realised that unless you are the one going through something, you cannot know what it's like. The good thing is that you don't have to completely understand someone's experience to support them and show them, love, this is what they have done.
I asked the above question because I know you have one African parent, and I remember growing up in an African household, when I mentioned "therapy" as a healing tool for my depression, I was met with a lot of questions as to why, as if to say, "what depression?" I was wondering if you noticed the difference in how your parents have dealt with the news, and if you think cultural differences played a part in this?
This is a really interesting question and yes, I think that actually, their cultural differences have impacted their response to the situation, as well as personality differences of course. My mum is Scottish and a doctor, her response has been very maternal, quite practical and at times quite doctorish. She comes with me to all of my appointments and is a great advocate for me. She very much lets me know that it's alright to be sad and emotional. She supports my lifestyle changes too, and she has become fantastic at cooking vegan meals.
Whereas my dad has been more fatalistic, he has said that he will pray and trust that everything will be ok and that's all we can do. I think I fall somewhere between the two approaches. I am an empowered cancer patient, and I feel that there are lots that I can do to optimise my health despite being considered "palliative". You know my nutrition, exercise and all of that, but at the same, I also surrender to the universe and trust that some things are bigger than me. I will do all that I can do, but after that, it's out of my control - you know? I am not going to waste energy worrying once I have done my part.
I'm obsessed with transgenerational trauma, and I think our generation, in particular, are active in making changes to end the trauma we inherited from our parents. When starting a family, were you conscious about not repeating any trauma from your childhood?
Yes yes and yes to this question. I am so glad that you asked about this. To improve things, we must see what is good and worth keeping, but we must also recognise what we would like to change. Both my parents experienced childhood trauma which undoubtedly influenced their parenting styles and ultimately our childhood experiences.
My dad was a first-generation immigrant, and he came to the U.K. as a pre-teen in the 1960s. Growing up, he experienced a lot of racism, ranging from being asked where his tail was in the P.E. changing rooms to physical attacks. This was his trauma. My mum's childhood trauma took another form. Her mother died during her teenage years. Despite them being very different, my parent's childhood traumas influenced their parenting style. They parented from a position of fear, they taught us to be risk-averse, and we were constantly on high alert as to what could go wrong. During my adult life, and particularly since my diagnosis, I have been determined to unlearn and cleanse from fear. I am determined not to pass fear down on to my daughter. I want her to look at life from a position of hope and optimism, and I want her to know that anything is possible if we at least try.
I think with my daughters I'm dedicated to preparing them for the storm. I often say my mother, prepared me for war without the weapons. What tools are you hoping to give your daughter so she can navigate through life?
Great question, when I first got diagnosed, I realised that my objective as a parent until this point had been to protect Sophia from the world. After my diagnosis, I grieved because I realised I would not necessarily be able to protect her. I then realised that actually, my job as a parent is to equip her with the self-belief and necessary life skills. The first way that I intend to equip her is by loving her deeply and letting her feel unconditionally loved so that hopefully she will develop good self-esteem and loves herself. I feel that this sort of security is the ultimate platform for success.
I want to teach her not to attach her sense of self or worth to accomplishments or things. I want her to know that regardless of what she chooses to do with her life, she is enough. I want her to trust her instincts.
Growing up I was always looking for external validation, and I would love from her to learn from my experience so that she doesn't have to go through the same process of unlearning that I have had to.