The voice in my head asks me, ‘Why do you crave visibility? Are you not visible already, by dint of being alive and well and loved? Break down this visibility that you seek.’
The truth of it, beloved reader, was that the concept of visibility, just like the concept of the God in me, was an abstraction I didn’t know how to make literal. I sometimes mistook being visible for being loved, and the two could not be more different. Visibility, in its most contemporary context, meant being validated by strangers on social media, which is a scary way of being. Most marginalised folks – ranging from femme gay boys to butch girls to gender non-conforming trans folx – were legitimately terrified of being visible beyond the boundaries they had constructed for their mastered cyber selves. Afraid of even walking down to the corner shop lest they were harassed, they raged and projected their rawest essences on Twitter and TikTok. (*Editor’s note: these references will not age well because, in the words of 30 Rock’s Liz Lemon, technology is not cyclical.)
So we became cyphers locked into the digitized attention-snatching economy, our entire creative lives dependent on clicks. Nothing I’m saying is remotely radical or interesting, but it’s the predicament I’m in as a worker whose livelihood depends on leaving a digital footprint.
This is why I found myself sitting in my editor Ornella’s office on a cold March morning. She had summoned me to discuss (or rather, scold me for) my lack of a social media presence. Now don’t get it twisted, reader. Back in the day I used to stack major figures on all my articles, and my combined Twitter, Tumblr, Facebook and Instagram following was in the tens of thousands. The level of engagement on all my pieces was berserk, with most features going viral and some being picked up on by the mainstream press. But a few months ago I had published that explosive #MeToo profile on Uche, which nearly crashed the website I was writing for. The downside to all this attention was that I was subsequently harassed and doxxed on the intanetz by the alt-right and had to close down all my social accounts for my mental and even physical safety. The dilemma was that in order to be a journalist in the 21st century you had to be digitally connected, or your carefully written and researched work would not reach a worthwhile audience. Worthwhile to advertisers, that was. This was stressful for me because my meagre income was at stake, and was stressful for Ornella because I was her star writer. Something had to give.
‘Migil, look at me,’ said Ornella, unbuttoning her top and flashing her fabulous titties. ‘I have spent a fortune transitioning. Affirming myself. I look like a cross between the sexiest stripper you’ve ever seen and a goddam Bantu goddess. The only problem is I still sound like Barry White on steroids. I have contorted my body – nipping and slicing at every reminder of what I used to be – but this voice, the most natural part of my essence, just will not shift. So what do I do? I work with it. Instead of trying to soften my timbre, I magnify it, make it sound like a booming sound system.’
‘What are you saying, Ornella? That I should have a sex change?’ I said.
‘No, you silly moo. I’m saying work with what you’ve already got. And by the way, it’s gender affirmation surgery, not a ‘sex change’ – that’s too, too 1970s. Your social media accounts have not been deleted. You’ve deactivated them temporarily and you can reactivate them just as easily. Put filters in place. Mute your Tweets. You’re a good writer, Migil, but good writers of all inclinations have to be connected to their readers. And darling, if I, as a transwoman, can force myself to be on social media in this increasingly transphobic time, then so can you.’
‘Is that everything?’ I said.
‘No, there’s a lesbian Somali artist called Señora Zahra who lives here in Peckham, and I want you to interview her about her upcoming exhibition. She’s super solitary and doesn’t do many interviews but I think you two would get on well.’
I pulled out my phone and said, ‘What’s her address?’
When I left the office, I didn’t go straight to Señora Zahra’s studio to conduct the interview as I had promised. Instead, I walked to my parents’ house. No-one was home. I went up to my Hooyo and Habo’s bedroom, removed my shoes, clambered onto their bed, dove under the duvet and blacked out.
I dreamt that I was secreting hashtag symbols, gifs and memes deriding me: entire Reddit and Twitter threads were slut-shaming me, saying that I deserved to be assaulted. My inbox was a bomb site composed entirely of hateful shrapnel kack. I had chosen to die a digital death and Ornella was trying to resurrect me. If this technology was supposed to amplify all of our voices, especially those of us who were marginalized minorities, why did I feel that the consequence of poking my head above the parapet was too painful a price? I dreamt that I was back in high school, being bullied and beaten every day. I fought back as hard as I could but I wasn’t physically strong enough, even now that I was in my mid-twenties, to ward off this childhood phantasmagoria. What if I walked away from it all, beloved reader? What if I chose to do something else with my short time on this planet? I was still young enough to retrain in a new field. I could create a whole new life for myself, one that was laced with abundant appreciation. I dreamt of my partner, Kayd. I dreamt of my parents. Would they be disappointed in my decision to leave journalism behind? They wanted me to be happy. But what would I do instead, to enable that happiness and of course earn me a living? The hunger and anxiety was kickboxing my matako all the way back to the Maudsley. I woke up in a right ole tizzy.
I heard my parents’ voices downstairs. I got out of bed, wiped the sleep from my eyes and went to the kitchen where they had all congregated. My Habo and Adeer were chopping up vegetables whilst my Hooyo and Aabo were having coffee at the kitchen table. The mabuyu-sweet sound of Mariah Carey’s ‘Melt Away’ poured out of the stereo. My Hooyo saw me and said, ‘Baby, is you okay? You look like you’ve seen a sheitan.’
My Aabo stood up and pulled out a chair for me. I sat, and he pressed his palm against my forehead.
‘You’re not burning up, so we know it’s not Coronavirus,’ he said.
‘Oh for God’s sake, Diini, the boy ain’t dying,’ said my Hooyo. ‘He’s just depressed. What’s eating you, sugar?’
‘I fucked up today,’ I said. My Habo immediately put the kettle on.
‘Spill,’ said my Aabo. I told them what had happened at work, and that I had skived off from my interview with Señora Zahra.
My Hooyo picked up her phone and handed it to me. ‘Call your boss and make it right.’
I could argue with her but I would lose. My Hooyo was all about accountability. I picked up the phone and called Ornella’s office.
‘Migil, wagwan?’ said Ornella. ‘Why didn’t you go to the interview?’
‘Ornella, I’m not feeling well,’ I said.
‘Sweetheart, I know you’ve been through a lot recently but that’s no excuse to not do your job,’ said Ornella. ‘I had to send Bethany – bloody Bethany – to conduct your interview. Señora Zahra demolished her. Poor cow came back to the office in a right state.’
‘What happened?’ I said.
‘Señora Zahra sensed that she was a mediocre hack is what happened. It was like a scene from Silence of the Lambs. Thankfully, that will be our story now: ‘How Señora Zahra Made Me Cry’. Conflict between women, fifth-wave feminism blah blah. When are you coming into the office?’
‘I’m not coming back, Ornella,’ I said.
‘I’m not accepting your resignation, Migil. You’re going through some shit right now and I need your head in the game, so take two days off and come back with a clear head.’
‘Don’t argue, M. Take two days, and if your anxiety doesn’t pass in that time, we can reassess. Comprende?’
‘Yes, ma’am,’ I said.
‘I’ve got to dip. I have a date with a German botanist and you know how punctual those motherfuckers are. Deuces, darling.’
I hung up the phone.
‘Beauty, how can we help?’ asked my Habo.
‘I’m terrified,’ I said. ‘Every day I wake up to a barrage of abusive emails. I’ve had to change my phone number twice now. Man, I’m exhausted.’
‘Here,’ said my Habo, handing me a teaspoon of what seemed like honey. ‘This will take the edge off.’
‘What is it?’
‘Its deli bal, a Turkish honey with healing properties.’
‘Fahma, that shit will fuck him up,’ said Hooyo. ‘My baby already suffers from schizoaffective disorder. He doesn’t need more hallucinations.’
‘In solidarity with our son, we should all have some,’ said Aabo. ‘Go on, Fahma. Lace us with your madness-inducing mess.’
‘Ya Allah,’ said my Hooyo. ‘Youse lot want me to lose my already loose grip on sanity. Can’t we all just have a couple of beers, some dinner, and watch a silly comedy on Netflix?’
‘We can do all that whilst we temporarily escape the harrowing timeline that is this year,’ said Adeer Anatoly, adding wearily, ‘and it’s only March.’
He grabbed the jar of honey and a couple of spoons and placed them on the kitchen table. Brotherman scooped some malab from the jar and popped into his mouth. He smacked his lips, washed his spoon and sparked a cigarette. We all followed suit.
My body transformed into mercury, sliding off the dining chair and onto the porcelain tiles, a small pool of silver. I wondered if death was always this delicious and, if so, why were we so terrified of it as a species? If there was any comfort in death it was that we cease to matter to ourselves, which was a minor blessing.
When I was a child, I used to play sword-fighting with Samir, the kid next door, a Somali pickney who had Down’s Syndrome. Samir was a sweetheart with buck teeth and a sensitivity to bullshit. All the kids at school initially tried to pick on him because they assumed that his vulnerability connoted helplessness. Adults often make the same mistakes too, assuming that the disabled are snails to be squashed, physically or psychically.
In fact Samir was a young ragamuffin-in-training and he would get into more punch-ups than Chuck Norris (and like Señor Norris, he would often win). The other kids learned not to mess with him early on.
One day, we were playing with our lightsabres in my parents’ backyard when Samir accidentally poked me in the eye. It took a few seconds for the pain to register, but when it did, I screamed like a strix. Samir started crying and begged me to stop. I screamed and screamed into my mother’s arms, in the ambulance, all the way into the emergency room where I was anaesthetised and operated on immediately. The point I’m trying to make with this anecdote is that when the anaesthesiologist put the gas mask on my face, she told me not to be afraid. Reader, I blinked once and then I told them not to operate on me because I was not yet under.
‘The operation is finished,’ said the surgeon.
That single blink was in fact four hours. I think that’s what death feels like, an everlasting blink.
This unspooled sensation I was experiencing right now was too dope to be equated to death. I felt more alive than I had in aeons.
‘Migil, how’s that shizz hitting you?’ asked my Aabo, smoking his cigarette. Was it the same one or another one? How much time had slid by?
‘I’m thinking about the past,’ I said, ‘I’m grateful to all of you for loving and nurturing me the way that you have. I know I’m not an easy person to deal with.’
My Hooyo leaned over and kissed me on the nose. ‘You’re one of the kindest, most open-hearted people I know and we’re all proud to call you our pickney.’
‘Thank you, Hooyo,’ I said.
We sat in silence for a while, savouring the sunlight spilling into the kitchen.
Adeer Anatoly poured vodka for all of us and we sipped it, our senses heightening gradually.
‘I’m really lucky to be part of this family,’ said Adeer Anatoly. ‘We’re all full of our own, very particular idiosyncrasies, but we belong to ourselves and to each other. I’m honoured to call you my forever family. We’ve survived all kinds of trauma, individually and collectively, but we’re here, together, still trying to make a way out of no way. I salute all of you.’
‘Man, that honey has us in our feelings,’ said my Hooyo. ‘Fahma, what the fuck was in that shit? We’re all here ready to bawl our eyes out.’
‘You know I love you, Amram,’ smiled my Habo Fahma, hugging my Hooyo. ‘I might have slipped a teensy-weensy sprinkling of ecstasy into the honey. You know? To add some flavour.’
‘What?’ shouted my Hooyo. ‘Is that why I’m so dehydrated?’
‘Prolly,’ said my Habo.
‘You will hear all about my grievances tomorrow,’ said my Hooyo, standing up, ‘but right now, you and I are heading to our room for some insane, angry sex. Come, my love.’
‘Now you’re talking my language,’ winked Habo Fahma, getting up. ‘Enjoy your evening, gents.’
After they had left the room, I said, ‘Well, I’m not sticking around to hear my mothers boning, so I’ll catch you guys on the flippy-flop.’
My Aabo and Adeer laughed as I got my coat and left the house.
As I walked down Bellenden Road, the vibrancy of Peckham gradually seeped into the ether. The streets were emptied out, a cello played a mournful melody in the background. I didn’t know what was going to happen to my community, to my city. I didn’t think we could recover from this deadly and discombobulating season with our sanity intact. I was heartbroken until I remembered that my parents had survived the civil war in Somalia. They had languished in refugee camps in Kenya as children. My parents had done battle in order to arrive in this country, in order to be recognised as human beings, in order to shield me from the worst impulses of others. They had sacrificed their souls for me. My family was composed entirely of frontline workers.
I was overcome with a rush of gratitude as Tom Misch’s sinuous music poured out of someone’s window. I stood still for a second and savoured the carefully orchestrated beats, the guitar line that echoed like a wail. And that’s when I saw it: an elephant wearing glass butterfly wings, walking peacefully down Rye Lane. No-one else seemed to notice it. I thought it was an omen and so I followed it. I trudged behind this exquisite psychic ephemeron whilst around me the whole city erupted into claps and cheers for the doctors, nurses and paramedics who were risking their lives for us. It was 8 p.m. on a Thursday. I clapped too as I followed the elephant with the glass butterfly wings, which slowly guided me home, to safety.
Reader, I’m grateful to be alive. I’m grateful to be sharing these songs of survival with you. Let us continue to sing together until we erase time, until we melt into the harmonies of this hymn.
Let us sing, reader.
Let us sing.
Image by DIRIYE OSMAN and JAROSLAV SCHOLTZ