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What are you?

“But what are you?”


I still didn’t know what she meant, or how to answer, even if it was the third time the chubby, frizzy-haired girl to my right had asked me. But I did know our teacher was listening. Her dark eyes, set either side of a velveteen red dot, jerked away from her register to fix me as I looked around helplessly at the displays of solar systems and mountain ranges that lined the walls. I shifted in my chair. First day in a new school, in a new country, was intimidating enough. I’m not sure I needed this mystifying interrogation.


“What’s your family name?” offered another girl, swinging backwards towards us on her seat. Her hair was an unusual, almost unnatural yellow, and skin I now know must have been very poorly suited for the ravages of the tropical sun. What did that mean? I’d never heard of a family name. Unless they meant…


Surname: McIntyre” read the low, melodious voice, and I became aware of our teacher’s presence beside me, register in hand. Apparently she had joined the conversation that was distracting us from our sums, but she put no end to it, much to my confusion.


“I know a McIntyre that worked at the bank.” she continued, “In Curepipe. And a friend of mine had a cousin who was married to a McIntyre, I think.”


She looked at me kindly, and there was something comforting in the south asian lilt to her words. But if it was confirmation she was after, she was in for a disappointment.


“That doesn’t sound indian…” said my neighbour.


“My Dad has a whiskey that’s called McIntyre,” said the pale, blonde girl.


“Yes, it’s an English name,” replied the teacher, not taking her eyes off me.


“No it’s not.” I scowled. “It’s Scottish.”


“You don’t sound Scottish. You sound English,” said my neighbour.


“What was your mum’s family name?” asked the teacher, setting down her register and perching delicately on my neighbour’s worksheet-covered desk.


I took my time in answering, not sure I had the right to refuse.


“Never heard of it. And your father sounds very South African.”


“I didn’t think you could be English,” said my neighbour, crossing her coffee-coloured wrist over my own for comparison. “My dad’s English. You must be South African.”


“She doesn’t sound South African!” the pale girl called back to us, visibly bored. “I’m half South-African! My mom is from Durban!”


Something that had been welling up inside me broke at that moment. There was no malice in their questions, but the scrutiny alone was hard enough for an eight-year-old to bear. I bent my head over the table, feigning interest in the sums on the laminated page before me, praying they would lose interest in whatever it was about me that they so urgently needed to know.


Long hours later, our car pulled up to collect us at the school gate. Something in the tense silence told me now was not the time to unburden my tiny troubles on my older brothers’ broader shoulders. Our driver, a smiley, round-faced man whose brown skin shone with the perspiration even the car’s air conditioning couldn’t hold at bay. It wasn’t until bedtime, when my mother came to offer her unnecessary assistance in putting on my pyjamas, did I break down and sob the day’s events into her arms.


“What am I, mummy?” I asked, watching as many thoughts chased each other across her gaze.


“You… are a child of God,” she began the rehearsed speech I had been raised on since before I could remember, “you are beautiful. You are clever. You are loved by your daddy and I and you are…”


“But what am I?! Why do they want to know what I am? I thought I was English. Am I not English? Why did that girl say I wasn’t English?”


“She meant… she meant you did not look English.”


The hands that held me gently slid outwards to grip me firmly by the arms.


“Now, look at me Lizzie,” she said, her jaw set, and something I did not understand flashing in her eyes. “This is a small country, and people here have small minds. They want to categorize you, to know where they should put you, where you belong.”


“But what did they mean? What am I?”


“That does not matter.” She said sharply. “What matters is what you are on the inside. Your nationality doesn’t matter. Your name, the colour of your skin…” she held my face as only a mother can, “the lovely colour of your skin, doesn’t matter.”


She kissed my face, pressing love and assurance into its pigmented surface, before turning out the light, and leaving me to my thoughts.


That night I slept secure, and awoke eagerly the next day. My name, or whatever I was had never mattered before. And mummy had said that it did not matter still.


I never suspected my mother could be such a gifted liar.




Commentary: This tiny flash piece was my first attempt at dealing with a subject I had never thought to write about. After reading Ariel Saramandi's excellent essay "An Education" in Granta Mag, I experienced a whole host of emotional and physical sensations no other piece of writing had ever elicited from me before. I came back to the piece again and again, curious as to why her (admittedly stellar) writing was having such an effect on me. It felt like revisiting some harrowing event from my childhood, but I could not quite place my finger on what it was until I realised, after reaching out to Saramandi, that the racism she outlines, that defined a large part of my growing up on the small island nation of Mauritius, was in fact a text-book traumatic experience, and one I could not bring myself to even imagine writing about.


Since then I have dabbled in exploring the theme in a whole array of different formats. I have a few poems and short fictions which touch on the subject, but I have yet to find the courage or opportunity by which to explore this side of my experience and identity, and current relationship with the racial state of things, within and beyond myself. This short piece of auto-fiction was a first step towards that, but I haven't had the stomach to submit it anywhere as of yet, as the memory of the event and what followed is still somewhat triggering.