“I see my purpose as supporting individuals to nurture their greater potential,” I blurted out to Gabs when he asked me about my mission in life. I felt quite proud of myself for using words that sounded virtuous to my ears. After all, everyone else I said this to were impressed by this lofty purpose.
Gabs however, seemed unimpressed. We were in his office in Noordhoek for our weekly coaching session. I was sitting on the soft and comfortable black leather couch, and he was on a one-seater version opposite me. Even though we were in the middle of winter, natural light was streaming through his large office windows. The electric heater created a toasty warmth in the spacious urban-like studio. Aside from the space to sit and chat, there was room to work and many bookshelves filled with second-hand books. Behind Gabs’ chair was a big red heart – representing Gabs’ Heart Intelligence Coaching logo.
Gabs felt like the male version of me. We were born on the same day, both Aries. He from Venezuela, me from South Africa. He had a typical Latino sensual look, black hair and a two-day unshaved beard. Sometimes I convinced myself that Gabs’ good looks and accent that sealed the deal in me choosing him as my coach. However, in moments of radical truthfulness, the real reason we clicked was because he could see through my bullshit and call me on it, gently at times and at others taking a hard stance.
Gabs always said I’m like a Ferrari, that everything about me is in top form, I just need to be tuned in the right places – and he is the person to do it. I believe him, and know that coaching me was a big hairy challenge. He admitted to me in a moment of vulnerability when we celebrated our birthday together, that I intimidated the shit out of him when I first showed up at his studio. I could relate to this. When I am intimidated, I’ll fake it until I make it. The second quality that Gabs brought to our dynamic was a softness, one that I was not necessarily in touch with. I found it ironic that Gabs was more in touch with his feminine energy than I; to navigate this world I’ve shrouded myself in masculine energy.
Gabs continued to hold my gaze. I tried to distract myself by paying attention to the way his unruly hair kept falling into his face. Using his facial features as a focal point was a respite from a conversation that seemed to be heading into a danger zone. He knew I was stalling.
“Shamillah,” he said. “I wanna know the story behind what you just said. Tell me why you think that is what you are meant to do. If you want, tell me about the wound you are trying to heal.”
With a heightened sense of danger, and deep discomfort, I started fiddling with my fingers, changing my sitting position, and looking around the studio at the different pictures on the walls. My gaze landed on a sketch of a little girl in a field of flowers. The stark contrast of the girl sketched in black and white against the field of colourful flowers stirred my senses. I looked down at my hands, still avoiding his gaze.
The image on the wall evoked much more than I could handle. I felt myself gasping for breath, and realised that it was time to stop hiding. I looked at him, and made the brave decision to trust him and myself. ‘I am afraid to go there, Gabs,’ I whispered. In the most gentle way, he returned my gaze with unconditional love and acceptance. He said nothing and simply waited.
We had been doing these sessions for more than a year. Each week, I had to drive over Ou Kaapse Weg to get to Noordhoek. That drive over the mountainous pass was inevitably filled with noisy inner dialogue.
‘What more is there to say to Gabs? There’s nothing more that he can uncover. This is taking up too much of my time.’
On and on those voices went, rebuking me for continuing this very inconvenient trek up the mountain every week. Amidst all this noise, somehow, the voice I call my inner activist always managed to sound out all the others.
This voice would say: ‘Even if there is nothing more, making time for myself is a revolutionary act in and of itself.’ I liked the idea of an inner revolution.
Gabs continued holding space for me in that warm, soft manner. He sensed I was about to open a box, and that this was something I had never allowed myself to do before. So he simply waited, neither prodding nor encouraging. Letting me know that whatever I did would be ok.
I felt safe and held. So I said, ‘I am going to tell you something that I don’t think I have ever said out loud before. I have always prided myself on just getting on with life, of not dwelling on parts of my story, or to feel ‘sorry’ for myself. So, I don’t tell the story of my past or my circumstances that has made me who I am today. I am okay with others doing that, but I don’t give myself permission to do it.’
Although Gabs was saying nothing, I felt as if he was holding my hand – walking with me to gently open the box. Ready to catch me if I fall.
‘The truth about me and my wound, you ask? I have never even acknowledged this to myself. You have noticed this red birthmark on my face. When I was born, it was blue, and it covered half of my face. This mark, has not only visibly affected me, it is also one of the reasons I am who I am today.’
I began to tell the story of a little girl, born into a big family, who because of the mark on her face felt different. In this family, people often end up with nicknames, something related to a physical feature or character trait. This little girl’s nickname was ‘blou oog’ (blue eye) because of the appearance of the blue on her face, making her eye appear blue too. This nickname made her stand out even more, just like the ugly duckling amidst the other ducks, because she looked so different from her siblings and cousins.
In the years that she was growing up, everyone else was told they were beautiful or pretty, yet she cannot remember anyone saying those words to her. Like any other little girl, she craved acceptance, affirmation and acknowledgement, and in her child’s mind, the mark on her face prevented that. She imagined that the only way she could get positive regard was to be very good. She would be praised for being a good child, but soon she realised that being good over time meant you got even less attention, less acknowledgment. Not ready to give up, she decided to apply herself to be outstanding in everything. She completely shut her mind to the fact that she had a mark on her face, hardly looking into a mirror and avoiding being in photographs. Instead she focused all her energies on this mission to be exceptional.
The little girl grew into a teenager who discovered that because of the birthmark, she was completely blind in her right eye. Again, she absorbed this information, and never told anyone, except her mother. She was determined to maximize the use of her other eye, and managed this quite well without letting anyone know. The teenager was quite good at hiding, she cut and combed her hair so that her bangs would fall across her cheek and eye, so no one would notice. She excelled as the top student at her school, and at home she was the known as the most responsible and reliable member of her family. She was the only one in her entire school that got admitted to the University of Cape Town. Moving through early adulthood, even when she struggled, she kept at it – working on weekends to pay her fees and earn money for bus fare. The little girl had grown up to achieve the kind of success that others recognised and valued, for many years being the only one in her family who had a university degree, that had traveled outside Cape Town, that had traveled the world, and so much more. Even though she appeared as an adult, she was still nursing the wound of childhood. Up until her 30’s, she continued to hide her face from the world, afraid of being rejected or dismissed again.
This is one of the reasons she stumbled into the field of coaching, wanting to help young people who, for whatever reason are different, and may feel unseen, unloved, unworthy, and, as a result, might limit themselves. She supports these young people by helping them to discover their inner value so that they are not hurt when those around them do not recognise this. With a renewed confidence, they can set out to achieve what they want.
As I finished my story, I felt emotional and had to stop to control my breathing.
“So that is my wound, Gabs. Every time I work with the youth, and coach somebody, I want them to feel valued and accepted. Most of all, I want them to realise that the love and acceptance they need most is within themselves.”
Gabs helped me to see that the one who came up with the strategy of being exceptional was a child using childlike reasoning. He stood me in front of the mirror so that I could acknowledge a naked truth: as a result of my early experience, I had rejected myself. This truth bomb was the hardest to accept or own.
But I did.
Quietly, I stared at the reflection in the mirror, my naked face, my birthmark, my blind eye, and connected to a truth that the greatest rejection was actually within myself.
I knew that my healing journey had begun.
The small boy has come in for his therapy session. He is flushed and excited and filled with joy.
“And what has made you so happy, Lwazi? “I ask.
I am eager to know. The words tumble out from his mouth with six-year-old enthusiasm.
“I have been running with my friends,” he gushes. A game of catches on the school field at breaktime it seems. He proceeds to demonstrate. He flings his arms onto the wheels of his wheelchair and swings the chair with vigour around the physiotherapy gym in a few haphazard circles to prove the speed of his running.
“Well done!” I enthuse.
A week previously, he had said, “I wish I could run with my legs like the other boys do.”
His voice had been sad and tinged with hope.
“And so, you can,” I had responded. I proceeded to explain that while some children ran with their legs, others, like his friend Noah, ran with the help of a walking frame.
“You’ve seen Noah?” I asked. Yes, he had nodded.
“And what about Esihle?” I had continued. “He runs with his crutches!” The erstwhile despondent head was now nodding vigorously. “And as for you, show me your strong arms.” He showed me his bulging biceps muscles with pride. “With these you can push yourself fast in your wheelchair,” I said. “You have wheels. You can run. Your wheels are your legs!” By this stage his smile was broad. He giggled.
It was the encouragement he’d needed.
He changed from the boy with the flail legs in the wheelchair who could not run, to the boy who ran on the field with his friends.
When I was five, my step father took me on a journey. We made our way to a building in central London where, without explanation, I was told to be a good girl. As we stepped inside the self-satisfied polished odour of this place, I knew immediately I was somewhere important. We sat waiting in a dim high-ceilinged office until we were called into a room where a man with glasses sat behind a desk. I was frightened by the cavernous room, the glint of the man’s glasses.
I remember little of what was said. Mostly, I remember the falsely confident tone of my stepfather’s voice as he spoke to the man, the kind you might use when embarrassed, and you try to hide your discomfort through a feigned carelessness, a counterfeit bravado.
The man wrote with his pen as he listened, then instructed me to stand up and come towards him. Uncertain, I looked at my stepfather.
‘Go on. Listen to the man.’ Reluctantly I stepped forward.
‘She must lift up her dress.’ I didn’t move.
‘Go on!’ my step-father insisted. Then he softened his voice. ‘It’s okay.’ I lifted up my dress.
The man waved his pen upwards.
‘Higher.’ I obeyed again, this time lifting my dress so that my panties showed. Behind his glasses he eyed me coldly, measuring me against some invisible standard.
‘Now turn around.’ Slowly, wobbling with fear, I rotated before him.
‘You’ll need to pull her panties down a bit.’ I froze. It was worse not being able see his glittering glasses, only to feel them behind me.
My stepfather did as instructed. I could feel his uneasiness as he tugged down my panties. A moment of silence followed and then my father pulled my panties up again. I turned around while my stepfather retreated to his seat.
The man grunted as I faced him once more. Waved his pen again to show he was done with me. With relief, I ran the few steps to my stepfather.
Later we would learn I had passed.
As we walked away from the big building hand-in-hand, I looked up at my stepfather.
‘Papa, why did that man make me lift up my dress?’
Actually I don’t remember asking him that. By then I had already learned that to remain silent was a refuge from the frightening parts of my life I didn’t understand, a way of warding off danger. Still, in my fantasy, I like to think that I did ask, that the little girl who was me was brave enough to voice the more difficult question and that we had the following exchange.
‘Papa, why did you let that man make me lift up my dress?’ My stepfather looks down at me. ‘He needed to see if you were white enough.’
I imagine how it might take a moment for me to absorb this disturbing answer. I am silent. In the pause, my stepfather smiles in answer to my as-yet-unspoken question, and in his best final-line-of-a-fairy-story voice adds, ‘and of course you are.’
Despite being half-Japanese, my bathing costume line had shown me to be ‘white enough’. Now my parents and I, along with my younger, blonde brothers could travel unhindered back to South Africa, where being Japanese meant being classified as an honorary white. I had been given clearance as completely white, a whiter person than I had any right to be.
So began my initiation into being someone other than who I was. It would be many years before I understood the full burning shamefulness of that small but potent event. It was 1967.
Author’s Note: this is the prologue to a memoir in progress about growing up foreign in South Africa and the search for my Japanese father.
This is the prologue for Desiree-Anne Martin’s forthcoming memoir.
Words are my drug of choice.
They are my refuge; they are my panacea. They are the antidote to the poison that runs through every artery and vein of the anatomy of my childhood. Long before the hastily inhaled cigarettes that burned my throat during second break, half-hiding in between the crumbling headstones of the long-forgotten brides of Jesus up at the small convent cemetery. Long before the bottles of Bioplus mixed in cups of too-strong coffee that kept my heavy eyelids from drooping while I poured over mind-numbing high-school calculus equations and heady historical facts about dead people and disremembered places. Long before the back-end of the toothbrush connected with my epiglottis forcing the acidic, bilious contents of my stomach to lurch out of my mouth and leave telltale splatters across the toilet bowl. Long before the shiny blister packs of slimming tablets that would make my heart race and jaw tremble and makes me rub my hungry, concave belly with reticent glee. Long before that first sip of cheap, red wine ran into my parched veins and quenched every thirsty cell of my body until it felt like I had come home at last. Long before I submerged myself in the unbearable heat of that scorching bathwater over and over again to relieve the unbearable pain of what lay trapped within. Long before the codeine daydreams and the benzo comas. Long before the endless stream of men and women that filled my mouth, my cunt, that filled any void that existed. Long before LSD made my unconscious bleed all over my reality. Long before the dizzying nights of delirious dancing spurred on by the piles of cocaine I snorted up my raw nostrils and even before the chemical hazy halcyon Ecstasy-laced weekends where I fell in love with everything and everyone except myself; and long before the crack pipe burned my bottom lip and pinned me up against the wall, scrambling for an exit route; and yes, long before the needle pricked my flesh and sent that noxious, precious elixir straight to my orphaned soul and cradled it and made it whole. Long before all of that, there were words.
I remember smuggling a book into the toilet on a Sunday afternoon during my designated naptime when I was four years old. I already had problems sleeping when I was supposed to. I was teaching myself to read, having stolen my older brother’s Kathy and Mark readers from his brown boxy school case. Kathy has a bright red dress and milky white skin framed by hair cut in a severe brown bob that never moves no matter how much she was urged by Mark to: “Run, Kathy, run!” Mark also runs a lot, in his short blue shorts and knee-high socks accompanied everywhere by their dog, Spot. They run everywhere, they frequently sit on the mat, they ride on the bus to the City with their Mum who wears a smart green hat and a coat, and once they drive in the car with their Dad who also wears a hat which he takes off every evening when he comes home from work.
I recall sitting on that cold tiled toilet floor, the avocado green and white-patterned tiles – tracing the words with my index finger and matching them to the garishly coloured illustrations of a smug, dawdling tortoise and an arrogant, reckless hare. I remember my frustration at not being able to decipher some of the words. I wanted to know them. I needed to know what happened. I remember the look on my mother’s face as it appeared at the crack of the open door: surprise, then anger and disappointment. I felt ashamed, found out. I instinctively hid my book behind my back. I hid my words. Like I would hide everything else that would come after.
And later I would achieve small literary victories: having stared for what seemed like an eternity at a large ornate framed black-and-white photograph of my mother on her wedding day that rested on the white melamine TV unit – trying and failing to make sense of the words printed beneath the photo – one day the phonetically pieced together “VAN KALKER P-A-H-O-T-A-G-R-A-P-E-E-H-Y-A-H” suddenly and magically made sense and I yelled at the top of my childish voice, much as I imagined Archimedes proclaimed, “Eureka!”, “PHOTOGRAPHY!” I marched triumphantly around the house repeating the newly discovered word over and over again, “Photography! Photography! PHOTOGRAPHY!” This made no sense to any of my family members, but I didn’t care to explain it. The word, the unearthed treasure, the reconstructed jewel, was mine.
When my brother was in Standard One and I was in Sub A (which would later come to be known as Grade 3 and Grade 1 respectively), he would climb into the car after school bemoaning the fact that he had to learn a four stanza poem about seashells on the sandy seashore by the end of that week. I had it memorized and could recite it by the end of the 20 minute drive home.
Once I could read confidently, I consumed books, in fact, all reading matter I could get my hands on. I inhaled words, chewing and digesting them greedily at any given opportunity. Blurry-eyed and bent over my runny porridge, during car rides despite my stomach swirling and my head pounding from carsickness, propped up in my bed long after the 8 o’ clock TV news jingle had signaled that it was time for my brother and I to go to sleep, during school holidays where I would scour over prescribed set work books and finish them long before the academic year even began, anywhere and everywhere, I wrapped words around me like a steely suit of armour.
I would write too. I started my first “Secret Diary” at age 9, inspired by The Secret Diary of Adrian Mole and I would journal well into my late twenties and again in my thirties. I would religiously scribble my one-dimensional observations and fickle feelings down onto paper in my oft-criticized, untidy script. I would use the diaries as a tool of self-expression, but also as a tool of blatant manipulation, leaving them open on certain pages in strategically placed locales for my prying mother to find if I wanted to communicate something that I was too afraid to do directly. Like asking for my first bra.
Words became my guaranteed escape from the lies and the secrets, from the trauma and the terror. I found solace in the fantastical worlds that books offered and the inviting landscapes that my imagination conjured from the dry, sweet-scented pages.
Later I found refuge in the words of annotated scripts and dense screenplays. Words that had a transformative effect on my domain, and even more so on my identity. In drama class at school, at the theatre school that I secretly auditioned for and gained acceptance into, I could morph into anything, anyone. Just, please dear God, anyone that wasn’t me. I could take myself away from my reality and slip into any space and time, just by uttering a few appropriated lines or manipulating my larynx and changing my accent. I hid behind the safety of others’ words because mine always seemed insufficient or often entirely absent.
Words held unimaginable power. Words, when pieced together in a certain manner, exerted great influence. I became adept at weaving stories, a mixture of fabrications and quasi-truths, to cover up the reality of how utterly ruined I felt inside. I learnt early on that I was a remarkably convincing liar and that deception slipped off my forked tongue easily and without reason or apparent provocation. I lived in a constant state of semi-realism, blending fantasy with reality and spinning it around myself like a comforting cocoon. I used anything, any form of control, to not feel the excruciating pain of the truth.
But I am done with deceit. Lies hold no more allure for me. Laurie Penny, feminist commentator and author wrote, “All I’ve ever wanted to do with writing is to move the world in small ways with words,” and that is the sum total of my most humble hope. That I find my words again and that they form my truth and that truth is steadfast and undeniable.
That my words connect with another and move them to tell their truth.
And that words will, somehow, begin to heal what has been broken.