In early 2019, the Scottish BAME Writers Network partnered with the Scottish Poetry Library to offer writers of colour a space where they could develop their craft as a community. The pamphlet ‘Ceremony’ is the result. It is a collaboration between fifteen authors, and lives at the intersection of multiple traditions, landscapes, and languages. From pieces that bear witness to injustice, to those that relish in the playfulness of form, ‘Ceremony’ is both a compilation of art, and a powerful act of resistance. You can read three pieces from the anthology below.
Lewis by Pauline Jérémie
A storm hits the island again during the night and three men wash up on the beach. At dawn they lay face down in the sand, their uniforms dark with water, seaweed in their hair and dried salt on the swollen skin of their hands. The remains of their ship surround their bodies. Their eyes, open and glossy, reflect the warm colours of the morning sky as the sun rises and we descend upon the beach.
We wear our traditional dresses, red with chrysanthemums embroidered on the bottom hem, and carry fresh eggs in the pockets of our white aprons. Our feet dig into the sand wet with dew and the memory of tide as we approach the bodies, and the hair that escapes our bonnets is whipped back into our faces by the cutting sea wind. We do not talk when we kneel by the men, nor when we flip the bodies over and uncover the faces of loved ones and strangers – we do not talk anymore.
The men are young, as always. The water has left their skin tight and smooth as newborns’. The seashells in their hair look like ceramic hairpins, and here and there a brave crab walks across a still chest and disappears into the fold of a pocket. We gather around each body in silence, grab legs and arms, and carry them back up the hill to the road where we haul them onto dark wooden carts. We arrange the bodies so the faces are illuminated by the sun, and place an egg in each of their hands. If the eggs break, the men will be buried; if not, their bodies will be burnt. We are running out of space in the town’s graveyard.
The sun finishes rising as we pull the carts through the empty land, past fallen trees and battered fields, in the smell of salt and death and under a salmon-coloured sky. We know this path well, now. It was once the road to carefree afternoons with our mothers and fathers, running into waves and crashing onto the shore with them. Now we have become the mothers, and the fathers have all died, and the children do not go near the sea anymore. Our convoy is silent as we march past cows and sheep on their morning graze, the hands of the dead lolling from the edges of their beds.
We reach the town as our people wake up, neighbours and relatives sticking their heads out of windows and doors to observe us as we walk down the main road. Children are held back by women young enough to be their sisters, and only a few old men show their faces. The young ones have all died and the old are dying and somehow the smell of death is stronger here.
By the time we reach the cemetery, the sun is up and shines onto our sweaty skins. We arrange the carts in a row in front of the gate and check the eggs. One of the men’s egg broke, the yolk running through the stiff fingers like syrup, so some of us gather around him to pull his cart away from the others. We wheel the remaining men to our house, our dresses flapping into our legs.
We remove our shoes and hang up our aprons at the door, and light candles to remove the smell of death from our curtains and clothes. The men are lain onto kitchen tables, their eyes staring at the ceiling. We bring buckets of boiled water and clean cloths. Starting with their shoes, we undress the men, open their shirts, cut off their trousers. Our trained hands roam the swollen skin like ants, and we wash the bodies with the care of mothers and the gentleness of lovers. The dead men’s faces glisten in the light of the candles, the dancing flames casting shadows in every crook.
We have forgotten how it feels to touch warmth and life, so as we wipe the sand and salt off nails and stomachs and legs, we ache to remember the movement of a rising chest, the beating of a heart, the blinking of an eye; we imagine the distant echo of a familiar laugh, the feeling of a hand on the neck, the sensation of lips touching lips. When finally the smell of sweat comes floating back to us like a memory made of dust we open the window and the scent of the nearby fire seeps into the room and breaks the fantasy. We close the men’s eyes.
We bury them in the evening in the light of our torches and the set of the sun. The land has dried but our shovels crack the earth without effort. We dig holes long enough for the bodies to fit in, deep enough for their spirits not to return. The ground is musky and moist; we dig up worms, cut in half.
No one attends the funerals anymore, so we stand alone in the vastness of the land we are filling up with men like seeds that will never grow. We put our torches out in the soil. The wind picks up again as we leave the cemetery, and another storm hits the island during the night.
“Scotland can feel very isolating for people of colour. The Scottish BAME Writers Group helped me feel more at home and find a community where I live. The organisers and fellow writers are all incredibly talented and it’s always an honour to get to work with them and be inspired by them. They were also all amazingly supportive when I started Middleground, a magazine focused on telling the stories of mixed race people, and helped me promote it, fund it, and connect with other writers.”
– Pauline Jérémie (author of ‘Lewis’)
Excerpt from ‘Sa Kabila Ng Dagat (Across the Sea)’ by Katalina Watt
The passing of the sun marks the end of this first day of many. She imagines the grains of sand slowly shifting back into the sea, time spooling itself backwards to Before. They have not yet met. He is on the other side of the land and she is across the sea. They have gossamer strands connecting them and would not give each other a backward glance.
He looks at her on the beach and it ignites something in her body. They have been urgently waiting for this reunion to replace bittersweet temporary touch and pangs of longing. The ripple of this moment is a pebble across the still lake of her skin. Years from now they cannot imagine their lives without the other. The strangeness of this being and yourself becoming entangled, so you don’t quite know how you would begin to trace the threads of your separate lives. The patterns of your moments together becomes something beautiful, more closely valued because it is a collaboration.
These memories skitter across her mind. Now they are across the ocean but a tug like an umbilical cord will tether them to this land forever. The beach is a haven against the urban sprawl which smells of salt and dirty banknotes. People flock here looking for a peace which no longer exists. It has been tarnished and eroded like the shoreline. Sometimes when she watches the waves from their new home, she thinks of her mirror self in that foreign land and imagines the waters of the world flowing from self to self.
“The Scottish BAME Writers Network has had a profoundly positive impact on my writing through inspirational and useful workshops as well as opportunities to connect with other writers of colour in Scotland. The collaborative pamphlet project Ceremony in partnership with Tapsalteerie and the forthcoming networking event with Scottish publishers and industry professionals have created the space for writers of colour to meet, hone their skills, and present their work to a wider audience.”
– Katalina Watt (author of the excerpt from ‘Sa kabila ng dagat (Across the Sea)’
Until We Are Free
You are experts in colonizing our brown and black bodies
You have spent centuries mastering the art of manipulation
You think that we are your slaves
You have pit us against one another
You exploit us
You have never cared about us and you never will
You think that we are cannon fodder
You see a target in each of us
We are bullets made to your taste
Colonial leftovers from a past unwritten
The result of violent entitlement upon our women
Our bodies are mines
Made of precious material that you excavated
Until we became easily obtainable and disposable
It is time for us, brown and black folks, to realize that our existence is not dependent on whiteness
We must listen to the echoes of our ancestors aching
It is time to dismantle their supremacy
We must clench our hands together in rapport
Remember that we have existed since before they were created
It is time to make them realize that they live because of us
We must ease the trauma brought by whiteness in our genetic memory
We are children of Akna, heirs of this world
It’s time to take back what is rightfully ours
Power and magic run in our scorching hearts
It’s time to unite forces and not let whiteness tear us apart
We belong here and here we are going to stay
We are strong and wise like an ancient forest
Long-life to my colourful siblings across the world
till the last one of us is free, in the revolution we shall meet
till the last one of us is free, in the revolution we shall meet
“In a world were BIPOC (Black, indigenous, and people of colour) writers are constantly told that their life experiences aren’t valid, and as a consequence, are often ignored in the mainstream industry in Scotland and the rest of the UK, the network has created a safe space to share those life experiences and the ways in which they’re represented in our work. It has also equipped me with tools to further my skills as a writer by bringing in established authors to share their practice and experiences.”
– Etzali Hernández (author of ‘until we are free’)
Recipient of 2019 RSL Literature Matters Award Alycia Pirmohamed shares some of the work from the ‘Ceremony’ anthology.