“Why are you back from work so late, dressed like a slut? Why are my collars dirty and what’s this crap on my plate? Why are you so stupid, I need an educated woman…”
Sounds like a jouska, right? A hypothetical conversation played out habitually in the mind? That terse analysis, a purging talk perhaps, is Deborah Emmanuel’s poem, ‘I Love You’ – a poem about how the past should not colour the future. A powerful paean to accepting your past and yet not allowing it to define yourself, just like how the wind rustles the leaves of the trees and yet does not change the nature of the forest.
A Melange of Voices
Singapore, a diverse country of different cultures and communities, holds out a promise of racial inclusiveness and yet has a poet who found it difficult to fit in. Recently, the same poet, performer, and TEDx speaker Deborah Emmanuel rendered her poetry to a group of high school students at UWCSEA. It began with her past, of how she had trouble fitting into the Singaporean community. She introduced the concept of common formation in Singapore, also known as CMI, which stands for the Chinese, Malay, and Indian communities. Deborah claimed that she couldn’t fit herself into any of these categories. To a majority of these students, Deborah had proposed a point that hasn’t been discussed threadbare in the school. A contributing reason as to why students in International schools never discuss this issue is perhaps because they don’t necessarily need to worry about it. UWCSEA, well known for its inclusiveness, encourages student interaction across barriers of religion, race, culture, and gender. “Not fitting in” is an insignificant issue in the nurturing environment of the school. However, students and teachers never notice those who fall through the cracks of the school community. Through her poetry, Emmanuel helped the students realize how oblivious they have been to their surroundings.
Labeled for Life?
Indeed, students from schools like UWC have learned to accept different identities determined by sexual preference (LGBTQ++), race, religion, and skin colour. However, what is most troubling is that these categories have labeled us from the second of our birth, basically narrowing our choices, from the clothes we wear to the people we associate with. When the society determines who and how we are, it gives us a particular mindset that we learn to live with all our lives. But, when the mindset breaks, minds are discovered lost and unable to fit into the norms of a society. International schools break these barriers among the school communities, defending students from how societies outside the school walls really are. When Emmanuel says, “I am treading upon the same soil, muddy boots taking searching steps, backpack filled with “English stories”, looking for the place that I belong but the history alive in me is unable to speak,” it shows the mismatch between her English culture and her Malayalam history. In a way, it reveals how UWC students have this “international” English culture which is inclusive in many ways and how when they return to their home countries, their true identities aren’t accepted and they are excluded in the communities in which they belong by birth. The schools don’t equip the students to handle the world just as the world is not prepared to handle the students.
Although international schools have allowed their students to explore a variety of minority groups, there are still a handful of individuals who do not fit in. There will always be that single person in the classroom who will constantly be excluded from activities and won’t have any friends for reasons unknown. Similarly, Deborah Emmanuel was never able to fit into the CMI system, nor the westerners who inhabit Singapore. She could possibly have been a part of this handful of people who lurk in the background of every situation.
Doing the Immeasurable
Yet, a major question asked during a period of existential crisis, depression or just pure frustration with life is “What is the point of doing something if no one else is even listening?” A question that shows signs of giving up and is perhaps used too often by the present generation. They give up too often when they think something has become too rough or too complex and has slowly become too deformed and monstrous to be taken care of. But, it is important to carry on working as there will be a time when people will start sitting up and taking notice. Take Van Gogh for example, not until his death did people notice his artwork which changed how people saw things. This is not to say that death is required to be noticed, but to engrave your existence in the world doing something immeasurable and valuable should be encouraged.
I Love You
Deborah had performed “I love you” a poem written for her mother. She seemed to be promoting the idea that love isn’t permanent and that love doesn’t last forever. Anyhow, both ideas do sound a bit mediocre and obvious. But they do strike a question in the mind – is there only one way for love to be? Indeed, the sense of love between people can differ widely and yet remain the same. It is true, love isn’t unchanging because, at some point, one person or the other will run out of emotions just like how one day, the sun will burn out or the world will come to an end. A line from her poem reads, “The need to have another person exactly as we want them, an unwillingness to accept that everything is impermanent.” This proves how people change to be noticed which shouldn’t be the case. The society should change, or more specifically, people should learn to adjust to accepting differences. The poem advances to the idea that accepting a person comes with loving them for who they are. It admittedly is ‘cheesy’. However, it is remarkably true. People like Deborah who had an abusive past should not be penalized in a community for expressing her ideas differently. Deborah expresses the pain from her past through the spoken poetry which is different to others who may simply decide to keep it to themselves. For her, silence is not acceptable.
A Wider Perspective
This talk has definitely given the students a wider perspective as to how oblivious children all over the world can be to their surroundings, as well as how they underestimate their powers. This generation is heedless about issues like recycling or global warming or racism or the refugee crisis, let alone worrying about the few who fall through the cracks of a society, mainly because they don’t want to. They feel as though these problems will go away at some point and don’t want to accept that it will only increase till something drastic occurs. Lost as they are in the digital world, they don’t notice the actions which are beyond the technology, even though historically they are the most well-informed generation. However, change can happen if only they stop for a moment to individually reflect on how they can make a difference.