Book Review: Just So You Know – Essays of Experience

Book - Just So You KnowThis slim volume of essays invites the reader to step briefly into someone else’s shoes and see the world from a different perspective. It gives voice to those who often go unheard, challenging our preconceptions on race, disability, language, mental health, gender and more. But it also interrogates the concept of identity itself. How Welsh are you? How disabled are you? How black are you? Together, these writers explore what it means to grapple with the varied aspects of ourselves, our families and our culture(s).

There are straightforward, analytical essays, and more creative pieces that hover between forms, unsettling and enticing in equal measure. ‘Dear O’ by Josh Weeks is a surreal series of letters from the author to his OCD. He describes the moment when CBT helped him to understand his own thoughts for the first time, ending with these words:

This essay was never about saying goodbye to suffering, O. It was about learning to mine the underside of that suffering – about discovering the joys and possibilities hidden beneath its surface. It was about us. It was about me.

And this reveals what lies at the heart of this collection – a voicing of the challenges that often go unspoken, an expression of what has previously been marginalised, misunderstood or simply ignored, and an acknowledgement that these things, however uncomfortable, however complicated, are what make us who we are.

The more I read, the more I began to ponder the whole notion of identity and its labels. Labels can be helpful, as I know from my own experience, but they can also be harmful. Hanan Issa, in the editorial, describes the impact this had on the book itself:

We wrestled with choosing a term that would properly specify the type of writers we were looking for: ‘Underrepresented’; ‘marginalised’; ‘unheard voices’ were all discussed at length…

The breadth and scale of human emotion and experience captured in these pieces channels a spectrum so vast and beautifully unique it seems somehow disrespectful to even try pigeonholing them all under one heading.

So how does one negotiate the complexities of identity? Perhaps that is something these writers have in common – their interest in writing. Ranjit Saimbi explains how the act of writing has helped him to understand his relationship with his own Sikh culture and heritage:

…literature has provided a framework for me to make whole the varying fragments of identity. I suppose that’s precisely what a poem is. A masterful poet is able to patch together seemingly disparate and disconnected words and images to make a coherent and unique whole.

An essay by Nasia Sarwar-Skuse explores the concept of displacement coupled with a yearning for home, echoing the Welsh notion of hiraeth. She examines the confusion of having more than one ‘home’, something that many people experience as they grow up and move around, but the ‘act of writing’, she says, has given her a sense of freedom:

it is within the act of writing that I find my sense of belonging… I carry my home with me. On the blank page I can exist in liminal spaces… In my own way I live outside others’ expectations of where my home should be, defining my own places of belonging. Home is anywhere that catches my imagination, where language wraps me in its arms and asks me to stay…

Dafydd Reeves also plays with this idea of telling one’s own story. He tells us a fairy-tale, drawing on the Welsh tradition of storytelling and folklore to present us with a clear moral message: that forced medication is acceptable ‘only when a person is a physical threat to others or themselves’. But he also plays with the idea that we can rely too much on materialistic concepts and scientific labels, in a society that often ignores the spiritual or philosophical aspects of life. ‘Studying Taoism made me think beyond the label of bipolar disorder’, says Reeves, explaining how the ‘conscious decision to stop engaging in black and white (or Manichean) thinking’ has helped him to understand that labels such as bipolar disorder are ‘just a story; a story you tell yourself’.

And labels can be destructive in ways that we might not even realise, as demonstrated by Isabel Adonis’ essay, where she highlights the current trend in Welsh education to separate Welsh speakers into different schools, in order to preserve the language:

I feel children are being indirectly taught how to be nationalist, to identify with being Welsh, thus creating others. The trend towards schools which will be exclusively Welsh exacerbates racial division; the English and the ethnic minorities…

She describes culture as ‘a very messy business, which is always changing and contradicting itself’, and Taylor Edmunds’ essay similarly focuses on the confusion of identity:

I hovered between the ‘White British’ box and the ‘Mixed – White British and Black Caribbean’ box. I felt conflicted. Sure, I was mixed – but mixed enough? I was mostly white, but not completely… This box ticking dilemma was when I realised that I didn’t know where I fit in

No book of essays can provide space for every marginalised voice, and the editors make it clear that they had specific ‘voices’ in mind when advertising for submissions. There is one category, or label, that I feel has been somewhat overlooked from this collection – that of religion. Although several essays do refer to religious belief as an aspect of identity, they do so, in the main, as outsiders, looking on. That said, it would be impossible to cover every ‘marginalised’ or ‘unheard’ voice in one slim volume, and it is clear that the aim of this book is to act as a starting point and a stimulus for discussion. It is a book that should challenge our expectations, and it certainly does that.

Just So You Know: Essays of Experience is published by Parthian Books

Declaration: I received a free copy of this book from the publisher.

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