It was break-time at school. We were four.
“You are coloured,” Sarah Steele informed me.
Confused, I looked down to the luridly coloured My Little Ponies we were playing with, one pink, the other purple.
“No, I’m not.”
“Yes, you are. Your skin is brown. That means you are coloured.”
I looked at our hands atop the coloured plastic ponies. Hers were creamy white, mine – I could see now she had not been lying – really were brown. It was a sad day. School was a very nice one for gentlemen’s daughters in the home counties. In 80’s England that meant, for the most part, everyone was C of E, Thatcherite, white. In such a space and time, I did not want to be coloured, brown, pink or purple. I wanted – as every four year old wants – to be exactly the same as everyone else.
But I wasn’t. I later seized otherness as my role, playing the part of misfit rather well. I didn’t have to be the same as everyone else. That was ok. By the time I left school, I had found my tribe amongst London’s club kids and show queens and other such tender renegade types. We all had fantabulous character names that we’d given ourselves, and no one cared where anyone, or anyone’s parents, came from.
(Incidentally, as we matured and had normal conversations in the daylight hours, we also discovered that many of our tribe were of ethnic descent. Who knew? There are Asian goths growing up in Streatham. What comfort my 12 year old self would have taken in learning that simple fact…)
Anyhow, those names allowed us to magnify the most splendid parts of ourselves. And there was an honesty in the make-believe too, we could be whatever we truly desired to be: “Give a man a mask and he’ll tell you the truth.” So, I wrote a lot under different pseudonyms or Anglicanisations of my name with no fear of disappointing anyone’s expectations to read about bhagis or saris or whatever Asian experience my actual name may conjure up.
But the thing is, names carry meaning. The various names I wrote under were creations and fictions themselves. Whatever they wrote was not penned by a complete person with a back story and a history. Whilst they had the freedom to speak some truths, they were not true to whoever I am. And I have come to realise that, in my stories about identity, displacement, duality, reinvention, assimilation, I am unwittingly recounting my second-generation British Asian experience, just through different voices and settings. Whatever we think and do – whatever we are – is due to everything that has ever happened to us. Our personal experiences and histories are the map of each of us. There is no running away from this.
Ironically, having now legally changed my last name (due to marriage, not just on a whim), relocating to a country I was not born in (just as my parents did), and having small children who will one day too soon have their own second-generation immigrant identities to figure out, it finally seems important as a writer to reclaim my actual name. Not my marital name, that would allude to yet another different culture and an ancestry that is not mine. But the name I used when I was four, at school, being shaped by all the experiences a person goes through to emerge as a whole individual. That heritage, voice and story is mine, and now I feel old enough and me enough to own it.
Copyright 2018 Joon Haque. All rights reserved.