a content note, if you need one:
child sexual assault; medical fatphobia; homophobia, biblical and otherwise; cancer.
brown is resilience. my parents always told me i was heavy-boned, built from cast-iron at four-foot-ten and heavier than i should be. small enough to blow away on the wind on the wellington waterfront in my mother’s bright red windbreaker, borrowed to travel with the woman who raped me. was raping me, flown from california to be a sex tourist to a brown girl in a way that nobody in new zealand could ever imagine would happen here. a brown girl, then, because her trans woman partner her own age had broken up with her over the disgust that she was seeing a fifteen-year-old, and she had told me it was because she couldn’t handle her dysphoria knowing i was cis. a cis girl, fleshy and easy to use. broken in for her. preseasoned, in the way the cast iron pan with the wood handle was before the handle snapped on me and it became more difficult to clean.
all this to say: small enough that a stranger — not her — caught my hand and hauled me back in, a gust of wind, an oversized windbreaker, my hand, the waterfront on the way to te papa. i have to wonder what he saw, beyond the instinct of a kiwi bystander and his alarmed shout: a woman, or perhaps a girl, or perhaps nobody at all, still worth saving. nobody at all sits in the endocrinologist’s office as she weighs my breasts in her cold hands and tells me that i am practically obese, ‘for an asian’, despite being just under the threshold on even the master’s tools. she plugs the numbers into a BMI calculator then sighs and shrugs. for you it’s different, she says. for you the standards are higher. your weight must be lower. i sit bare-chested and brown and acne-marked on her examination table and my testosterone is screaming so low that labtests sent it to a university for counting and they returned it undetectable, and she takes me off the cyproterone that is doing it, and she tells me to lose weight.
when i am eighteen, nineteen, twenty: when i am skinny enough for her, possibly. i dabble in slam poetry. i post it on tumblr, the first piece with this title. brown is what you get before you waterblast your clean rainbow, colors on white, i say. two months later someone whose face i do not remember, possibly a transphobic lesbian — we call them TERFs now, we didn’t yet — leaks a joke i make about cannibalism in a private group to the director of the only queer youth organisation in town and tells them i am a potential murderer. i go to the next annual general meeting and wonder why all the white queers with stretched ears inch away from the spot where i sit, half-lotus, folded into myself on the floor in the way that people like me have always known how to be small. that is the thing about being brown, right? that it is terrifying to be around us because we are relentless. shaped from backs that should be bent, from a man spitting at me on victoria street west where i wait for the bus because my hair is buzzed short and dyed rainbow. that being alive is a crime in itself, a personality trait, a sun sign or a myers-briggs type: chewing your way through gristle to survive, though the dentist told me i’d long since ground my teeth so far down my canines don’t have points any more.
sometimes i tell a story in passing. two phrases, barely a sentence, i got exorcised twice and it didn’t take, something like that. one of the footnotes in a life whose broad strokes i hardly even remember since my brain injury, no stories as scaffolding unless someone shares something which sends them bobbing like corpses to the surface of my mind. oh, i say, and i try not to be rude, that reminds me. they say that it’s autism that leads me to demonstrate empathy this way, to say: i understand. this is how you know i understand, that i have lived something like this. it would work a lot better if i was telling the stories i thought i was, marked by levity, flippant and joyful in their decisive confinement to the annals of my past.
instead people look at me. you could write a book, they say, in much the same way the girls from the churches of my past oohed and aahed if the ghosts of past hands grew too much to bear and i spilled it out in the way that teenagers will spill anything in a tantrum, even blood. what i heard then was: your testimony is so amazing. tainted by the ochres they pictured my homeland in, the way that ghoulish crimes against children certainly don’t happen in the sanctity of god-defended new zealand. your testimony — that i had fled the demon-possession of asia, the grasping hands of the already-dead, and been resanctified. made a virgin, but an interesting one, touched by knowledge and serpents and all the things that they wished they could stand white-dressed in front of a congregation and allude to, tearfully and modestly, before baptism. isn’t it strange, that? that bad things happen, and we can survive so much more than we think we can, and if that surviving is baked into me from the moment i am cut from the womb in an emergency surgery at a student hospital, then it doesn’t mean anything. your story would be better on a white girl. a deserving victim. they don’t say it but they say as much: i wish you would share, they say, on occasion, but more often it’s i wish i could share.
i have no desire to exorcise myself in a comprehensible way, much less behind a loaned pulpit. this is what you get instead: wishes, dandelion seeds in the wind. i see myself in the stories of memoired brown and black queers who know what it is to build a spine from the way thighs splinter if prised too far apart. i see it there, the thread that we’ve all found, that we hold onto because there is nothing else for us, diving this deep: under pressure, we are compacted into the shapes that whiteness then expects us to keep. even now, at the surface, where blobfish take on their name because the lack of pressure folds them into newly grotesque shapes.
i’ll be honest: i don’t know how to survive up here, not yet. my therapist tells me i am doing well. i have burnt through my fair share; it is by sheer luck that a social worker who is sitting in on my psychiatrist appointments — he is a man, and we cannot be alone — has the phone number of a psychologist who she knows to be good at dealing with difficult people. she laughs on the phone, that intake enquiry, when i relay that on. did they say that, she asks. it turns out to be true: i am a prison abolitionist, and she is an ex-corrections psychologist who has worked with high-risk offenders nearly as long as i have been alive, and for a time she assumes that what she considers my optimism comes from naivete. then we get into the meat of it and she sees differently.
the meat of it, of course, being the meat of me. this year i am enduring a sweltering summer — no hotter than back home, but i have learned that the sun here is four times as vicious — with a shiny new shoulder scar that stings at the slightest blush of sunlight, even indoors. it is too hot to wear sleeves; i let it keloid and swell red and angry anyway. the surgeon — private, i have maintained health insurance because i know i collect pre-existing conditions like my mother once collected high heels — tells me it is benign this time, and i think about how resilient my body is. how, years ago, twenty minutes on a bed in the sun as a student-survival-prostitute napping naked between clients gave me a spot between my legs that was cut out of me while i stared up at a parody tui ad on the ceiling: this won’t hurt at all — yeah, right. that skin healed without a scar, between my cunt and my arse. my shoulder will continue blooming for months to come, i know already.
the story of that shoulder is another aside, the way my stories fold into each other like those infinite little origami story-choosers we used before we knew about tea leaves or natal charts or visual novels written in twine: you unfold one, and there is another, joined to it by sinew and scar tissue. none of it is interesting, unless i tell it interestingly: a lump that grew after acupuncture after a major brain injury grew and grew and grew for seven years until it exploded, me weeping on the floor of my bedroom in front of the mirror and cleaning up more detritus gray-crumpled and pouring out of my body than i knew bodies could make. i am a sex worker; i have had acne all my life; i know about MRSA, and the ways that things can go wrong for good if something goes wrong once. i sterilize everything. i go on a work trip that somehow involves abseiling down a waterfall in the dark in the waikato with nothing but a band-aid on my wetsuit-covered open wound. my mirror is streaked to this day.
brown is, i wrote, and then recorded in audacity, exporting it to reluctant mp3 for tumblr. performed it once, though i couldn’t tell you when behind the frosted glass of my post-concussion memory. what i want to say now is this, to you, my dear one, nineteen and homeless and posting angry and alone on tumblr: brown is more than you think it is now. i do not mean to condescend to you, to your metaphor, natural debris that conceals a rainbow. but you are luminous already, darling. you will learn to love — i will learn to love you. and this is what we want: not to be resilient. not to be moss or lichen, already there, hard to prise from the small spaces we’ve eked out for ourselves. to be vulnerable in the ways white people can be — overripe, full to bursting, tender to the point of runoff — and demand love all the same. to be beautiful in our broad back and our slender ribs even if the shoulder that has been out of joint ever since that one policeman twisted our arm behind our back never carries any weight again.
brown is strong, beloved. brown is strong enough to dream of weakness. to step into glass slippers and shatter them and walk bleeding the rest of the way, bare feet too honest to look at. brown is filthy and depraved and earnest and shuddering under the weight of everything that has been packed into us and sealed with the kind of extra-strong tape that smells so strongly chemical it lingers on our callused fingertips. and, well: god in his mercy promised that he would not flay us skin from soil again. that’s what the rainbow is, isn’t it? a promise. brown is a promise to you, mung bean germinating on the whiteness of a wet paper towel: you will become the person i am now. i will become the one you cannot imagine tomorrow.