Señora Zahra’s insides turned to silt when she saw the caller ID. The area code indicated that the call was from Kenya. She considered unplugging the phone and tossing it into the trash. Curiosity, however, compelled her to pick it up.
‘Hello?’ came a female voice on the other end of the line. ‘Zahra?’
It was Ahdia. They hadn’t spoken for seven years but she could still recognize her mother’s husky voice. The Señora hesitated for several seconds.
‘I’m here,’ she said, finally.
‘Zahra, I’m so glad to have gotten hold of you,’ said Ahdia. ‘It’s been so long.’
The Señora wanted to ask her mother how she had obtained her number. Instead she said, ‘It’s good to hear your voice, Hooyo. How’ve you been?’
‘I’ve been better. I’m not a spritely thing anymore. The other day I was talking to one of my friends and we both agreed that getting old is sopravvalutato – overrated. But enough about me and my worries. How’re you? You just walked out of our lives without any notice.’
I blame you, thought the Señora. You should have protected me. But she didn’t say this. Instead she said, ‘Hooyo, I was angry about a lot of things.’
‘But seven years of silence?’ said Ahdia. ‘I used to sit by the phone every day praying that you would call. But the call never came. Most days were fever dreams where I imagined that someone would call me only to tell me that they had found your corpse.’
‘You’re being manipulative, Hooyo.’
‘And you’re being disrespectful.’
‘I’m here now, Hooyo,’ said Señora Zahra. ‘Speak.’
There was a pause. ‘It’s about your Uncle Sadiq.’
Señora Zahra’s interior softness was replaced by steel. ‘What about Sadiq?’
‘He’s got testicular cancer. He left off seeing a doctor so it’s spread. He doesn’t have much time left.’
‘I’m sorry to hear that,’ said the Señora, although she wasn’t sorry at all.
‘I know you two were very close when you were growing up and he’s desperate to speak to you.’
Señora Zahra wanted to scream at her mother’s stupidity. ‘What does he want to speak to me about?’
‘He won’t say,’ said Ahdia. ‘He misses you. He loves you very –’
The Señora hung up the phone. She stood up and steadied herself against a shelf. Determined to not be sucked into a vortex of self-pity, she went through to her studio. The smell of oils and turpentine, incense and stale weed smoke was comforting. She picked up a blank canvas from the corner and set it on her easel. She lit a candle that smelt of strawberry cake. She poured some linseed oil into an empty jam-jar, reached for her brushes, paints, palette. The final act of preparation was leaning a mirror against her easel. The Señora glanced in the mirror and saw a matryoshka doll reflected back at her. This was how she sometimes saw herself. As a child, her mother had bought her a set of matryoshka dolls. They were black and gold. The Señora called them the memory dolls.
‘Why did you call them that?’ asked her mother.
‘The biggest doll contains these smaller parts of herself,’ said the young Señora. ‘She is grown and she is literally carrying all these memories with her, all her younger selves.’
Her mother bought her several more sets of matryoshka dolls, and the young Señora displayed them proudly on her pink shelves. At night, she would hear her bedroom door creak as Sadiq crept in. He cautioned her to remain silent as he explored her with his hands. She would detach herself from her body and watch her spirit soar out of the window and go screaming into the night. And she would stare at the matryoshka dolls on her shelves and marvel at them. Their gold filigrees glinted in the shadows. Señora Zahra would stare-stare-stare at them as she compartmentalised her entire being. When it was over, Sadiq would manipulate her into maintaining her silence. Don’t you know what happens to young girls when they misbehave? Don’t you want to be good? Those sentences, repeated with trivial variations night after night, became a psychic sore that wouldn’t heal.
Don’t you want to be good?
The Señora squeezed black and then gold paint onto her palette. As she began to work she kept staring into the mirror and seeing her matryoshka essence in the reflection. So she painted herself that way, meticulously crafting the contours of her doll-self on the canvas. As the painting progressed from outline to splashes of colour she grew confident.
She had been creating art since she was six. It was Sadiq who gave the young Señora her first crayons. His studio was a spacious shed in their garden. The young Señora would skip-hop-skip into the shed and find him half-listening to the BBC Somali Service on his radio whilst moulding the shape of a young girl from clay. All his clay figurines were pre-pubescent girls, sometimes naked, sometimes smoking, sometimes straddling horses. Once they had been fired, he painted them in garish colours. These girls seemed so suggestive with their plum-coloured lipstick and curly locks that the six-year-old Señora found them covetable. She wanted to emulate the figurines and she wanted to be with them. Once, Sadiq caught her rubbing one of his clay sculptures against herself. She quickly pulled out the figurine from her underpants and accidentally dropped it on the floor, causing it to break into pieces. She expected to be slapped but Sadiq, smiling and shaking his head, got a brush and dustpan and slowly swept up the pieces of clay. After Sadiq finished cleaning up, he looked at her as if he was seeing her for the first time. The young Señora was quivering.
‘So,’ he said, ‘we have ourselves a young lesbian.’
‘What’s that?’ she asked.
‘It means,’ he said, ‘that you like girls.’
‘Is being a lezbininim bad?’ asked the young Señora.
‘Well, lesbianism is against our culture. I wonder what your mother would think. Do you think she would approve?’
The young Señora thought about this before shaking her head.
‘No,’ said Sadiq, ‘she would not approve. What would she do if she found out that you were a lesbian?’
‘Oh, she would do more than that. She would kill you.’
Señora Zahra gasped. ‘No, she’s my Hooyo. She would never kill me.’
‘That’s where you’re wrong. She would kill you.’
‘Please, Abti, don’t tell Hooyo. I don’t want to die.’
Sadiq smiled. ‘It will be our little secret.’
She hugged him. ‘Thank you, Abti.’
He hugged her back. ‘But in order for me to keep your secret, you’ll have to do something for me.’
‘Anything, Abti,’ she said.
‘You must come to my studio every day after school. Since you like making art so much, I’ll teach you how to become great at it. Is that a deal?’
‘Go get cleaned up.’
She sped out of his studio in a state of gratitude. She considered herself lucky having an uncle like him.
As she painted herself now, these memories surged up through her subconscious. As her process intensified, everything around her shifted. She saw the postcards from her mother soaring out of the window like silktails. She saw the keepsakes from her ex-lovers being cast into the trash can. She imagined her photo albums being shredded to pieces. She imagined all her paintings being slashed with a switchblade. As her self-portrait neared completion she imagined the sharpest shears in her toolbox zooming across the studio and snipping away at her dreadlocks and dashiki until she was as naked as a new-born. When the painting was finished she imagined every knife in the kitchen flying out of its cabinet and hovering dangerously close to her face. The Señora had stripped herself of armour, artifice. She snapped out of her semi-fugue state and looked around the studio. She had survived the unspeakable only to find that the scar-tissue had sealed her lips, ossified her silence. It was time to sing the truth.
The Señora stood up. Her back and her neck ached. She poured herself a scotch, gulped it down and poured herself another. She took off her clothes, tiptoed to the bathroom, and filled the tub with near-boiling water. She stepped into the scalding water and scrubbed herself clean. After she was done she moisturized herself with body butter, before going through to the bedroom. She picked out a crop top, jeans, and a carmine fur coat. She got dressed and wrapped her dreadlocks in a silk scarf. She tweezed her eyebrows, applied carnation-pink lipstick and tugged on a pair of sea-blue stilettos. Once she was fully dressed, she called for a cab.
As the cab sped through South London, Señora Zahra was strangely moved by the scenes she glimpsed unfolding on the pavements of the city. She noticed Somali men standing outside internet cafés on the Old Kent Road, smoking cigarettes and spinning stories. She noticed the group of Nigerian schoolgirls being chatted up by smiling church boys. She noticed the Algerian couple having an argument outside Lidl whilst their baby screamed. She noticed the Mexican street vendors at Elephant and Castle selling phone cards and cocadas. The cab zoomed through Waterloo, passing wealthy, mostly white Londoners waiting in line outside the Old Vic theatre. The cab crossed the bridge towards Holborn, where a group of Malaysian students were laughing outside the London School of Economics, eventually stopping on a quiet street in Bloomsbury which was Señora Zahra’s destination. She paid the driver and walked into a bar called The Black Cherry Tree.
The interior of the bar featured exposed brick walls, prints by Matisse and Modigliani, and vintage leather sofas. The clientele was a mixture of European moneymen in Valentino suits, stylish Japanese lads with their white boyfriends, and a group of Ghanaian girls wearing sexy outfits created from kente cloth. This was where Señora Zahra first met her last girlfriend, Pelagia. It was the summer of ’96, and the Señora was seated at the bar smoking a Silk Cut when a white woman in pigtails and pedal pushers sat next to her. She had green eyes, a crooked nose, smoker’s lips, supple thighs, firm tits.
‘They’re real,’ said the woman in an Italian accent.
‘Excuse me?’ said the Señora.
‘You’re scoping my tits and I just wanted to let you know they’re real. Here, feel them.’ She grabbed Señora Zahra’s hands, smiled, and pressed them against her breasts.
‘Very perky,’ said the Señora.
‘I’m Pelagia,’ said the woman. ‘What’s your name?’
Pelagia laughed. ‘I like that. Where are you from? Wait, let me guess. Ethiopia?’
‘Ding-ding-ding,’ said the Señora. ‘We have a winner.’
‘I’m a genius, no?’
‘Possibly. And you’re Italian, I take it.’
‘I was trying so hard to pass as Australian.’
‘You could still be Australian but of Italian descent,’ said the Señora.
‘You’re a regular diplomat. I like you. Light me a cigarette.’
Señora Zahra passed Pelagia a cigarette and sparked it for her. Pelagia savoured the smoke. Señora Zahra opened her purse, pulled out a cherry drop and popped it into her mouth. Pelagia leaned in and kissed her. She smelt delicious: a dash of citrus, strawberries, and smoke.
Minutes later they were in a toilet cubicle, semi-naked, fucking. Pelagia pulled Señora Zahra’s pants down, squatted and licked the Señora’s lips, tits, clit. Señora Zahra reached into her purse and removed a tiny bag of cocaine. Pelagia took it from her. She delicately dabbed cocaine on the Señora’s clit and tasted her. Señora Zahra’s abdominal muscles clenched. She spread her legs wide as Pelagia ate her out. Just as the Señora was about to come, a security woman wrenched open their cubicle door. They were tossed out of the bar hauling up their underwear and banned for life. They went back to Señora Zahra’s house, high on heat, and continued fucking into the night.
No one working there then would remember that now, and the Señora felt easy as she sipped her vodka and Sprite. She scanned the bar and caught the eye of one of the cute Ghanaian girls in the corner. She wore glasses and had a large and gorgeous afro. She smiled at Señora Zahra, who smiled back. After a while of this the girl came up to the Señora and said, ‘I really like your dreadlocks.’
‘And I’m digging your afro,’ said Señora Zahra. ‘Can I buy you a drink?’
‘Sure, whiskey on the rocks.’
The Señora instructed the bartender to put it on her tab.
‘I’m Ama,’ said the girl.
‘That’s a beautiful name. What does it mean?’
‘Fat at birth.’
Señora Zahra laughed. ‘Aren’t we all a little fat at birth?’
‘No, I was an enormous baby. My mother struggled to even carry me.’
‘Well, you look very svelte now,’ said the Señora, admiring Ama’s figure.
Ama snapped her fingers. ‘My eyes are up here.’
‘I’m just appreciating what the good lord gave you.’
‘The good lord had nothing to do with it,’ said Ama. ‘I was an athlete in high school and I still train like I’m on speed.’
‘It’s working for you,’ said the Señora. 'Ama doesn't really mean fat at birth, does it?'
Ama smiled. ‘I’m pleading the fifth.’
‘Cocky and cute, huh?’
Ama’s drink arrived and she sipped it. ‘So what’s your deal? Let’s start with a name.’
‘Call me Señora Zahra.’
‘And what do you do, Señora Zahra?’
‘I’m an artist, and I take it you’re a student.’
‘You get extra points if you can guess what I study,’ said Ama.
‘What do I win if I guess correctly?’
Ama laughed. ‘If you can correctly guess what I study, I’ll let you take me out for dinner.’
‘You’re in your mid-twenties so I would say you’re doing a post-graduate degree of some sort at the School of Oriental and African Studies. My guess is that it has something to do with international development.’
‘I’m studying animation at Central Saint Martins.’
‘That’s perfect. I’m buying all your drinks for the night.’
‘I should hope so,’ said Ama.
‘What made you want to study animation?’ asked Señora Zahra.
‘I have a Disney fetish.’
‘Don’t we all?’
Ama smiled. ‘I fell in love with Hayao Miyazaki’s work from an early age. My parents were actually quite encouraging. I don’t come from a rich family but I come from a very supportive one. My father would tell his friends in Accra that his daughter was studying how to make cartoons. When that got a belly laugh, he told them that the global animation industry was worth in excess of two hundred billion dollars. Now all his friends tell their children that they need to study how to make cartoons.’
‘So what’s the dream – Pixar?’
‘I would literally maim someone to work at Pixar,’ said Ama.
‘Whoa, dark,’ said Señora Zahra.
‘If you’re sincere.’
‘What kind of paintings do you make?’ asked Ama.
‘I create magnificent tableaux using nothing but pure sweat and dove blood.’
‘Sweat isn’t pure and dove blood is so passé. I would be more impressed if you said you used the mucus of an Asian crested ibis.’
‘Oh, but why limit ourselves?’ said Señora Zahra. ‘Why not use the beak of a Hræsvelgr as a palette knife?’
‘You know what would be truly awesome?’ said Ama. ‘If you came up to me and said, “I have created this gorgeous painting using Big Bird’s poo”. Chris Ofili would have wept with envy.’
‘Yeah, but we all know Big Bird takes a massive dump only once every decade. And he always does it in a very discreet corner of Sesame Street. How do you suggest we go about getting some of his highly collectable poo?’
‘I can’t answer that,’ said Ama. ‘But what I can say is that Big Bird is very litigious and highly protective of his excremental property. To make it worse he’s represented by Alicia Florrick, and we all know she’s the best lawyer in the business.’
‘No hay problema,’ said Señora Zahra. ‘Olivia Pope is my best friend and intercontinental lover. There’s nothing she can’t do. I heard she’s the reason why the magic carpet in Aladdin can fly.’
‘Das ist interessant,’ said Ama. ‘I spoke to Walt Disney’s ghost last night and he told me, confidentially of course, that Olivia Pope was the inspiration behind the genie in Aladdin. Walt Disney’s ghost worships Olivia Pope.’
‘To Olivia Pope,’ said Señora Zahra, raising her glass. ‘Long may she continue to solve every conceivable problem known to man, Muppets and magic carpets.’
‘Salut,’ said Ama, downing her drink.
They were silent for a minute before Señora Zahra said, ‘Do you want to get out of here?’
The next morning the Señora woke up satiated. Her tongue tasted of Ama, who had crept out whilst the Señora was snoring, but had left a note on the bedside table. Señora Zahra rolled herself a spliff and brewed a pot of liquorice and mint tea. She sparked her smoke and sipped her tea, luxuriating in the memory of the previous night: the feel of Ama’s hand around her throat as Ama teased the Señora’s tightness, opened her wide, licked her tits, stroked her deep with a titanium dildo until she was studded with sweat. They fucked each other like they had been fasting and were now feasting. Sacrilege never tasted so sweet. After they came, the Señora licked Ama’s cream and kissed her. Their session continued into the dawn, interrupted only by brief breaks for smokes and Southern Comfort. Eventually, the Señora collapsed with exhaustion.
Now she read Ama’s note, which was decorated with a deft doodle of Big Bird taking a dump.
Muchos gracias for a super-fun evening. Here’s my number, 07700 900558, in case you ever want to discuss Big Bird’s poo (amongst other things). Speaking of Big Bird, here he is dropping off some of his mythical excremental property. Long live Big Bird!
Señora Zahra chuckled to herself, crunched up the note, and chucked it into the bin. As she stood up to pour herself another cup of tea, the phone rang. The area code indicated that the call was from Kenya. She opened her toolbox and pulled out a hammer. She atomized the phone, which was plastic and shaped like an apple, into glinting red shards. Señora Zahra relaxed and returned the hammer to the toolbox. That’s when she saw a ladybug crawling around the phone’s carcass. The Señora tried to crush it with her fingertip. This proved impossible: the ladybug was made from metal. Señora Zahra stepped back. Soon, metallic ladybugs had crept out from every corner of the kitchen until the whole house was infested with them. Señora Zahra opened all the windows but the ladybugs refused to leave. After they had hemmed her in, they enshrouded her. They coated her hands and feet and hair. Señora Zahra closed her eyes and claimed defeat. She opened her mouth wide, calmly, and allowed the metallic ladybugs to pour into her.
A ladybug drifted through the window and landed on Anissa’s copy of Bessie Head’s A Question of Power. Anissa didn’t want to scare the insect away so she allowed it to loop around her, land again, and forage for aphids on the tulip pin holding her hijab in place. When this proved futile, the ladybug whirred out of the window.
The classroom was filled with a multi-culti crew of fey boys who were whispering conspiratorially amongst themselves. You could smell the hormones below a blend of Britney Spears perfume, Lynx body spray and sycophancy. Anissa could hear what they were saying.
‘He’s too sexy. Why is he teaching in a high school?’
‘Why is he teaching at all? He could be a model.’
‘No, he looks more like a porn star.’
‘Whatever, dude. You know Anissa’s uncle has got that man locked down.’
‘Have you seen Mr. Ngom’s biceps, though? I just want to fuck him. Just once. One hit of this boy pussy and you know he would be sprung.’
‘Personally, I just want to kiss him. You can tell the man’s got mad tongue play.’
‘I bet Anissa fancies him too.’
‘Course, she does. Are you kidding? But that bitch is weird. I don’t like her vibes.’
‘No one does, but no matter. I’m here for Mr. Ngom.’
‘Get this: apparently, he’s half-Senegalese, half-Finnish.’
‘What is this book club anyway? I hear we’re supposed to be reading some African shit.’
‘Duh, it’s called The International Book Club.’
‘What’s this book about?’
‘Don’t arks me, man. Some weird shit. I tried to get into it but it was deep as hell.’
‘You know I signed up for Mr. Ngom, right? I don’t business about what he’s teaching. I just want to be around the man for a minute.’
‘You don’t take English Lit, do you?’
‘Nah, man. What am I going to do with an English A level? I’m doing physics, maths, biology and chemistry.’
‘Does anyone in this book club study English Lit?’
‘Anissa, obviously. I don’t get her though. What’s her deal?’
‘No one knows, man. The girl has no friends. All she does is make her weird little origami things and hide in the library.’
‘It’s always the girls with no friends who surprise you, though. I heard she comes in early every morning and swims in the pool. One time Alexa saw her changing into her swimsuit. Get this, now. Apparently Anissa has got a banging body. Like a proper dope body and her hair is down to her arse and it’s pink.’
‘Why does she cover herself up though? She’s really pretty. I don’t get it.’
‘She’s a Muslim. That’s what she’s supposed to do.’
‘I’m telling you, man, that girl is probably a massive freak. All them “good” girls usually are.’
‘She’s like a question mark to me and I don’t like that.’
‘Quiet. Here he comes.’
Anissa chuckled to herself as Miika walked into the classroom and the atmosphere immediately shifted. The students gazed up at him with awe spiked with appetence. Anissa knew that at work Miika made a deliberate effort to downplay his sex appeal: unlike the clothes he usually wore at home, which clung to his muscular body, he was now clad in a loose shirt and a pair of trousers that were two sizes too big for him. Some members of the class sighed in dismay. Anissa knew that Miika was no-nonsense and disliked being objectified by teenagers with daddy fetishes. It was her uncle Farhan who enjoyed such surplus attention.
Miika put his bag, a dusty briefcase that functioned as an attention-deflecting device, on his desk. He turned to the members of the book club and said, ‘Even though this is an after-school book club, I will be conducting it as an A level literature class.’
Most of the boys groaned.
‘If you feel you can’t stomach the heat I would suggest you pack up your bags and head straight to another club – like soccer or street dancing.’
Nobody shifted from their seats.
‘No? Okay, then. Let’s play.’ Taking a marker from his briefcase, he wrote Bessie Head – A Question of Power on the whiteboard. ‘Does anybody know who Bessie Head is?’
Everybody looked blankly at each other. Anissa kept her head down, not because she didn’t know who Bessie Head was, but because she didn’t want to be seen as the only student who did. Miika looked at her but she avoided his gaze. He turned to the whiteboard and wrote, As one minute of Googling would have told you, Bessie Head was Botswana’s most influential novelist and, crucially, one of the best writers of the 20th century.
‘The rest is for you to find out. And you need to be taking notes during this book club.’
Everybody scrambled for their notebooks. Anissa, who had hers out already, remained still.
‘We will be dealing forensically with only a few pages at a time but I expect you to have your analyses ready each time we meet,’ said Miika. ‘Comprende?’
A few members of the book club nodded.
‘I said, “Comprende?”’
This time everyone nodded.
Miika clicked his fingers. ‘Okay. Let’s do this.’
‘Shit,’ whispered one boy. ‘I thought this was going to be fun.’
‘Let’s start with the beginning,’ said Miika, opening his copy of the book and reading the first three sentences out loud:
‘It seemed almost incidental that he was African. So vast had his inner perceptions grown over the years that he preferred an identification with mankind to an identification with a particular environment. And yet, as an African, he seemed to have made one of the most perfect statements: “I am just anyone.”’
‘That’s an intriguing starting point,’ said Miika, ‘but we all know that none of us are “just anyone”. We all have complex histories, cultural backgrounds and social markers that inform how we see the world. And yet Bessie Head is trying to blur all those boundaries by stripping away this character’s sense of specificity. He is “just anyone”. The implication, however, is that as an African, being “just anyone” is presented as the perfect state. Do any of you have any thoughts on the value or lack thereof in that argument?’
No one rushed to say anything. Anissa raised her hand. Miika nodded at her.
‘She is making it explicit that this man’s experiences are universal.’
‘Interesting,’ said Miika, ‘but isn’t the universal rooted in the specific? Isn’t specificity what makes the universal resonate as widely as it does?’
‘Not necessarily,’ said Anissa. ‘When I wake up in the morning, I’m not thinking about my complex history, cultural background or social makeup. I’m thinking about brushing my teeth, having a shower, eating breakfast, catching the bus. My identity never enters my mind. In those quiet moments of day-to-day living, I am just anyone.’
Miika nodded. ‘What do the rest of you make of Anissa’s assessment? Do you agree or disagree with her opinion and, if so, why?’
‘I don’t agree with Anissa’s opinion,’ said a Jamaican lad called Liam. ‘Even those day-to-day examples Anissa listed require some culturally specific navigation.’
‘Expand,’ said Miika.
‘When I wake up in the morning,’ said Liam. ‘I take a shower like everybody else but afterwards I have to comb my hair out into an afro even though I want to wear braids, because braids are deemed unacceptable by this school’s dress code. Most days I don’t want to comb my hair. I want to walk about proudly with my nappy roots on display. My mother, on the other hand, rejects nappy roots for their nappy nature, which is to say she finds them inappropriate in any context. Even my breakfast, which is usually plantain, grits or ackee and saltfish, is very specifically Afro-Caribbean. Even when I’m running to catch the bus to come to school, the bus driver sometimes won’t stop for me because he assumes that, due to the colour of my skin, I’m some kind of troublemaker.’ Liam turned to Anissa. ‘Specificity is king.’
‘I respect and value where you’re coming from,’ said Anissa, ‘but I want to ask you something. Have you heard of the Acacia Tree Meme?’
Liam, along with everybody else, looked confused.
‘Please elaborate,’ said Miika, looking pleased. ‘What do you mean by the Acacia Tree Meme?’
Anissa reached into her folder and pulled out a printout. ‘The website, Africa is a Country, published an article called “The Dangers of a Single Book Cover: The Acacia Tree Meme and ‘African Literature’.” In this article there was a picture collating many books by African authors and Western authors writing in an African setting. Whether it was Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, Barbara Kingsolver, John Le Carré or even Bessie Head, the only commonality that these writers’ books shared was the fact that there was an image of an acacia tree, a Lion King-style symbol of Africa, on the cover.’
Anissa passed the printout to Liam, who was smiling.
‘What’s your point, Anissa?’ asked Miika.
‘Acacia trees don’t even grow in most of the countries the books are set in. The Acacia Tree Meme is about the dangerous assumption on the part of Western publishers that all the lives contained within the pages of these vastly different books, with their eerily similar acacia tree covers, are interchangeable. The problem with applying interchangeability to anyone or anything is it renders that interchangeable person or object redundant. Bessie Head, on the other hand, is making a case for the flip side of that coin.'
‘Which is?’ said Liam, passing the printout to Miika.
‘In a literary culture that routinely presents the collective African perspective with tiresome and, frankly, racially-charged undertones marketed as exoticism, Bessie Head is simply trying to say that the African man or woman, in this context at least, doesn't have to bear the burden of wholesale cultural representation. This character, regardless of what we may discover about him later on in the book, has granted himself the permission, the freedom to be “just anyone”. For any member of a misrepresented or marginalized community the act of being “just anyone” is a privilege. The reason why he's made the perfect statement is that he's granting himself a privilege only afforded, in fiction and in real life, to white folks. That’s why the term “soul” appears five times in the first paragraph alone. This is not about a disregard for elegant variation. One's essence is what’s at stake here, not one’s geographic or sociological bearings.’
The group was silent for a second. A boy in the back, impressed, said, ‘Shit.’
‘Indeed,’ said Miika, before turning to the whiteboard. ‘Let’s take some notes.’
‘Not so fast,’ said Liam, turning to Anissa. ‘You’re making a convoluted argument for a character that is essentially a phantom. Maybe he is “just anyone” because he is a delusion who has appeared in the form of an African man in the mind of Elizabeth, the protagonist.’
‘But that doesn’t make him any less real to Elizabeth,’ said Anissa. ‘She is seeing him as a fully cognizant being.’
‘I’m not convinced,’ said Liam.
‘Sello, the figure in question, who is real in Elizabeth’s mind – who is as real as her, because in the end she’s a fictional character too – has made the perfect statement that he is just anyone because it is a radical position for an African man to take. It is a position of self-generated power and privilege. It would still be a provocative statement even if we were to consider him a phantom. I come from a Somali family and mental illness is taboo. Bessie Head could be making an assessment that mental illness can happen to anyone, including Africans.’
‘I’m preserving my disagreement,’ said Liam.
‘Noted,’ said Anissa.
After the book club was over and all the other students had left, Miika bowed to Anissa. ‘Milady,’ he said.
Anissa curtsied. ‘Milord.’
‘That was a skilful analysis,’ said Miika. ‘You should go into law.’
‘Uncle Farhan has got that covered. There should only be one lawyer in any given family, otherwise every dinnertime would feel like a deposition.’
‘Where is all this confidence suddenly coming from?’ said Miika. ‘Are you seeing someone?’
‘Is it Señora Zahra’s influence?’
‘A bit,’ said Anissa. ‘What I like about her is that if she wants something she doesn’t stop until she gets it. She doesn’t apologise for herself. I admire that.’
‘It’s clearly rubbing off on you,’ said Miika. ‘Your uncle and I would love to meet the Señora. Let’s set up a dinner date.’
‘I can’t guarantee anything but I’ll ask her.’
‘Do that,’ said Miika, packing up his bag. ‘Do you need a ride home?’
‘No, I’m good. I have a drawing session with the Señora and I could do with the walk.’
‘Be great. I’ll see you at home.’
‘Thanks, Dad,’ she said, cheekily.
Miika smiled. ‘See you later, my love.’
As she stepped out of the main building Anissa found Liam sitting on the front steps.
‘Hey,’ he said.
‘I wanted to ask you something real quick,’ he said, ‘and please feel free to decline if you're not interested. Do you want to go grab a coffee sometime?’
His smile became fixed. ‘Way to burn a brother without missing a beat. Why?’
‘What do you mean?’ said Anissa.
‘Why won't you go grab coffee with me?’
‘You challenged me publically.’
‘And that's a problem because –?’
‘Here's a word of advice,’ she said, ‘never publically challenge someone you fancy, certainly not me.’
‘Wow,’ he said. ‘Is your ego that fragile?’
‘You’re a cunt, you know that?’
‘Right back at you, Bob,’ said Anissa, strolling out of the school and onto the street. As she headed for Señora Zahra’s house, enjoying the autumnal sunshine, a ladybug buzzed around her face before landing on her nose. Anissa laughed and the ladybug, startled, lit out and disappeared into the distance.
Anissa arrived at the Señora’s home and found the front door ajar. Becoming alert, she rang the doorbell. When she didn’t receive a response, she pushed the door open and stepped inside.
‘Hello?’ she called out. ‘Señora, are you home?’
She tiptoed through to the studio and found a smashed phone on the floor. She squatted down and examined the remains of the phone. Her throat dried up. What if someone had broken in? What if they were still there? She could hear tap water running in the bathroom. Anissa walked down the hallway towards it, holding her breath. A memory card which contained images of her mother’s corpse in the bathtub slotted itself into her central unit. By the time she reached the bathroom door she had started hyperventilating. She hated this loss of breath control.
She knocked. ‘Señora, are you in there?’
The water stopped running. ‘Anissa?’ came Señora Zahra’s voice. ‘Is it time for our session?’
‘Yes,’ said Anissa, trying not to sound breathless. ‘Are you okay?’
‘Why wouldn’t I be? Go ahead and start without me.’
‘Do you want me to clear away the broken phone?’
There was a long beat.
‘I had forgotten about that,’ said Señora Zahra. ‘No, I’ll do it. Just start your assignment without me.’
‘What is the assignment for the day?’ asked Anissa.
There was another long beat.
‘A self-portrait,’ said Señora Zahra. ‘I want you to create an unflinching self-portrait. You have two hours and the clock starts – now.’
‘Okay,’ said Anissa. As she headed down the hallway she could hear bathwater being splashed about. Unnerved, she hurried into the studio. She could still hear Señora Zahra splashing water on herself. Anissa quietly repeated a dua, an Islamic act of supplication. Her heart stilled for a second. That was when the Señora began to sing whilst bathing, the same thing Anissa’s mother Hira used to do; the same thing Hira did moments before she drowned.
To distract herself, Anissa fished around for a dustpan. She found one and cleared up the demolished phone, tipping its remnants into the bin. She unzipped her portfolio and pulled out a blank sheet of paper, then removed her pencil case from her backpack and set it on the table. Señora Zahra was still singing in the bathroom. Anissa tried modulating her breath. She felt something crawling up her spine. It felt like an insect. She swiftly removed her jacket, sweater and shirt. She went into the hallway and turned to the mirror there and noticed a ladybug creeping across her back. She fumbled about trying to flick it off but the ladybug was stuck to her skin. The Señora continued trilling as she bathed. Anissa’s head began to pound, opening a pipeline to her nerve endings. Soon a swarm of ladybugs was canvassing her entire frame. She removed everything she was wearing, glanced in the mirror, and recoiled at her reflection. Her body was now a human nest for ladybugs. She could feel them crawling under her armpits, between her toes, up her anus, down her throat, and inside her vagina. The sensation was scratchy, like a sentient effervescence. Where were they going? She resisted the impulse to vomit. Every time Señora Zahra sang or splashed about in the bathroom, the ladybugs on Anissa’s body reproduced. Señora Zahra’s meerkat-shaped mobile phone, which was lying on the table, began to ring. Anissa ignored it but the caller refused to quit, redialling every time it went to voicemail. Eventually Anissa picked up the mobile phone and spoke through a mouthful of ladybugs. ‘Hello?’
‘Hello? Who’s this?’ came an elderly male voice on the other end of the line.
‘Anissa,’ she responded in a muffled tone.
‘I can’t hear you,’ said the old man.
‘Anissa,’ she repeated, raising her voice. ‘I’m a student.’
‘Where is Zahra?’
‘She’s not here,’ said Anissa, trying desperately not to cry and straining to hear the fragile voice above the noisy rush of the ladybugs. ‘Can I take a message?’
‘Tell her to call me back,’ he said.
‘Who may I say is calling?’
‘Tell her,’ he said, ‘it’s the man who has made her the woman she is today.’
Before Anissa could respond the old man hung up the phone. Anissa looked at the caller ID and noticed the call was from Kenya. She suddenly realised who the old man was. The ladybugs were now breeding frenziedly inside her body, filling her up, constricting her breathing. She put the phone down with exaggerated care, sat at the table, and embarked on her self-portrait. Even though she was tremulous, she drew each line accurately, smoothly. Señora Zahra had stopped singing in the bathroom. Anissa gradually calmed down as she shaded the contours of her drawing. As her confidence in the image increased the ladybugs started popping one by one into fine metallic powder. By the time she finished the drawing the ladybugs had all disintegrated into dust. She realized then that she was naked and sweaty. She was reaching for her clothes when Señora Zahra walked into the studio.
Anissa looked away. The Señora came over to her and tenderly helped her put on her clothes. Anissa wiped tears from her face as the Señora helped her slip on her underwear. ‘Please don’t take a bath when I’m here,’ she said. ‘Please.’
‘I’m sorry,’ said Señora Zahra in a soft tone.
Anissa wrapped her hijab around her head. Señora Zahra adjusted it for her, pulled her close and embraced her. ‘I’ve become very fond of you,’ she said.
Anissa wiped her nose and said, ‘I’ve become fond of you too.’
They smiled at each other. Only then did Señora Zahra look at Anissa’s self-portrait. It was a nude image of Anissa gazing into a cracked mirror, which revealed infinite reflections of her wearing a burka.
‘You’ve created a mise en abyme,’ said Señora Zahra.
‘What does that mean?’ asked Anissa.
‘A mise en abyme is a technique in which the image contains a smaller copy of itself in a sequence that recurs infinitely.’
‘It’s a very good self-portrait,’ said the Señora.
Suspicious of this unexpected praise, Anissa searched the Señora’s face. She seemed sincere. Anissa thanked her and packed her belongings. As she was about to leave, she turned back and said, ‘I forgot: a man called.’
The Señora looked startled. ‘Oh?’
‘He was an old man. He called your mobile phone. I think it was your uncle.’
‘Thank you,’ said the Señora, tightly. ‘There will be no session tomorrow. We’ll reconvene in two days’ time.’
Anissa nodded and left. Once outside she quietly repeated a dua, then sprinted home.
Image by BOBBY ROGERS