A Glass of “So Real” – a poem about diaspora and identity

As a person that is outwardly facing as someone from an Asian ancestry, but obviously mixed, I’ve encountered frequent questioning on my familial place of origin.

Born in Scarborough to Jamaican and Guyanese parents, I definitely get a couple odd looks as I do not look like the stereotypical West Indian. And that statement, “stereotypical West Indian”, has always led to convolution and internal conflict; I knew my history and who I was as someone from the Caribbean diaspora but yet the need to constantly validate myself to onlookers was very frustrating.

The Caribbean has had many peoples settle within the region – forcibly, coerced, or as an escape route. My personal history embodies all of these lineages but growing up, I’ve had my story denounced by many from the Caribbean and larger Canadian communities. This poem is my story.

The reason I named this poem ‘A Glass of “So Real”‘ is that many Caribbean countries drink a medicinal concoction derived mostly of steeped hibiscus called sorrel. Sorrel has a deep red colour which stains most things if spilled. To me this embodies our unity as Caribbeans and the blood that ties us together.

Though we may look different, this narrative is what joins us in solidarity.

Featured in Page to Stage by the Community Arts Council of Vancouver.

It was written that the first people were pureblooded
And eventually it was written in pure blood
You see, the lust for a new exotic type
Trickled down their lips
Thrusted from the arms of mothers and fathers
Taking jaws, fingers, and hearts
Lives lost forever, even if there was still a 3/4 beat

Flattened voices, still pounding like a drum
Still pounding full of tradition even if masked by gospel song
Mixed children taught to be indoors, where the pretty ones stay

And mastah say,
“He looks well learned”
“She looks fair, no burns”

And you wonder why we have a racial complex?
And I wonder why they’re still called red
And you wonder why we hate those that share the same blood but without physical trait?
We value but hate the blood taint

A history that wasn’t written but tattoo’d
Seared into our eyelids like we’re staring into an eclipse
Well ain’t that some shit?
We hate each other for the same reason they hate(d) us

And that’s why I fought with my own understanding

With my slanted eyelids, high nose, hairy ass legs,
Kinda brown(ish) skin… I don’t really know
I mean, I’ve dug hard to understand my whole lineage
But I know I don’t look Scottish
I don’t look Lebanese
I don’t look African
I don’t look Chinese.
I look Jamaican.

Nah. You don’t look Jamaican.

I could tell you all about the transatlantic slave trade, riding the tradewinds all throughout the Greater Antilles.
I could tell you about the Maroons and how they escaped the plantations to settle with the remaining indigenous.
I could tell you about the Scottish that wanted to be seen as fair, and came to get a piece of theirs.
I could tell you about the Lebanese that came to JA as a safe haven.
Or maybe it’s the indentured servitude of the Chinese.

Nah. You don’t look Jamaican.

Vexed at this type of test, I get thrusted into
Like my story is buried so far deep, some refuse to see it
Though all they need to do is focus.
That’s what it is, I know it’s there and this story has to be told
Whether you like it or not, it can’t be erased.
Lost no more but found forever.

I am a Jamaican, and this history is our connecting shackle.
And in these chains, we can set ourselves free.

Pass me a glass of “So Real”.

Art work:

Phuong Nguyen is an artist and art therapist that currently practices in Toronto, Canada. She is primarily a painter and has completed her Bachelor of Fine Art at OCAD U in 2014.

Nguyen is interested in people and the complexities and simplicities that come with being human.  Working with mostly representational subject matter, she aims to evoke emotion, nostalgia, connection, and empathy.  She has shown work in Canada, the U.S., and the U.K.

How to keep writing during a recession

Where did the last couple of months go? With many of us unemployed due to layoffs, or having contracts suspended/delayed, there is definitely an air of uncertainty. Atop of this, we’ve also seen the world protest for racial justice and true equality, a flame of solidarity we have never captured on this scale since the post-9/11 anti-war protests.

With all this instability, my mind became creatively clouded, oft feeling like my creative spirit was slipping through my fingers. So I decided to come up with some measures to help keep grasp of this, and in essence myself. I also realized almost everything I write is so damn serious, so here’s a meme to start us off.

Since that’s out of the way, here’s my 4 tips to maintaining creative space.

1. Warm-Up

Good god this is important. I have to stretch my body and mind to get into the groove. I’m not going full-Richard Simmons but my daily routine starts with deep stretching, deep tunes, deep meditation, and deep vibes. If I’m not tapping into myself, the real me is not going to translate on to paper / screen / in conversation.

2. Space-Making

It’s important to find somewhere you can rely on for safe creativity. A space that is free of distraction and free of judgement to allow for a free train of thought.

I wrote and recorded a poem earlier in the quarantine that was all about battling creative anxiety and undue pressures.

Tune into it here and take some of that weight off your shoulders, Atlas.

I live in a basement with housemates (one being a 2 year-old) and this was huge for me. I needed to create a space that didn’t have to contend with a screaming child, casual conversations, and everyday stomping upstairs. I bought a desk and stool so that I didn’t have to work in the main area, and headphones to muffle out the noise. Depending on the day, I relocate to the balcony since the street noise never gets as loud as the house.

Does that mean you can’t come up with ideas elsewhere? Absolutely not. I would argue most of us come up with ideas away from our traditional creative spaces, like the toilet or in the shower (S/O to The Hustle’s Shower Thoughts). We then tote these ideas along with us until we can develop them from our established creative spaces.

“We Bleed What We Feed”

3. Do Stuff

Nothing is better than doing stuff. Just do it… bleh, did I just do that?

But seriously, doing stuff is an important way to get your brain to function from multiple perspectives. This is key for anyone working in copywriting or marketing: one of the best ways to understand various audiences is to walk in their shoes. And no, this won’t lead to having multiple personalities.

Split (2016)

When I’ve experienced new things, I’ve approached old concepts in a refreshed way. If we aren’t constantly questioning convention, how are we developing ourselves?

Think Jazz is weird? Listen to some Coltrane, Mingus, Brubeck, or Hancock. They’re all Jazz musicians but all have completely different approaches.
Haven’t read a book since university? Think about most of the content that you listen or watch, and there’s probably a book that talks about it too.
Drive everywhere? Start walking and taking in the fine details of your neighbourhood. Bricks may be laid in a way that you’ve never seen before or trees may twist at unique angles.

I like to say, “We bleed what we feed”, meaning that everything that we consume will find its way into our work, so just the act of exposure will be reflected on what we produce.

4. Take a Break

I guess the chocolate bar was on to something. This is probably one of the most difficult things for me: TAKE A BREAK OR BREAK YO’SELF!

excerpt from Friday (1995)

And it’s true. With all this anxiety from wanting to live up to my own expectations, and the sheer passion and energy I put into everything, the fear of burning out is definitely a reality. Check out Leah Bae’s The Burnout Project to learn more about burning out.

Taking a break away from what you love is hard, it’s your baby. But if you don’t take, at the very least, a couple hours off, you’ll be toast.

Mentally fried. Psychologically flambéed. Brain braised. You get the picture.

I noticed that when I don’t take breaks, even the slightest 15-30 minutes, my stress levels go through the roof (tbh, I’m still kind of fried right now while writing this). Life is hard enough already and we need to take moments to appreciate the things that we have achieved, to be happy, and treat ourselves kindly.

I know it’s easy to focus on the things that we’ve yet to do or are out of our possession (that’s how capitalism works) but being grateful for what we do have can help ease our minds and thoughts.

Creativity is necessary to keep the world ticking and going, and it’s important that we create space for it mentally and physically. Whatever it is that you do to fuel your creative fire, I commend you and appreciate your talent, even if I don’t know you or your work.

There’s still much to do in the world but it’s important to not forget about yourself and your gifts. By giving yourself the chance to hone in on your talents, you’ll be able to show up in the world even stronger than ever before.

PS. I suggest subscribing to The Hustle’s newsletter. They bring business news straight to your inbox, but in a fashion that is way more relatable and hilarious (dare I say more credible too) than your evening news. Think pop culture, memes, and gifs balled up with economics and current events.

And no, I am not getting paid for this…but I’m open to it.

The Leather Wearing Vegan

photocredit: Horween Leather

Sounds like an oxymoron, and you’re not wrong. I’ve been a dietary vegan for, give or take, the last 4 years, but I usually just say “vegan”. To some that’s a false statement, as I still wear leather and consume certain derivatives like honey, but after explaining that my sole purpose is sustainability, I usually get resounding nods. Maybe it’s because I didn’t have pets growing up, but my raison d’être is to leave the planet a little better than I came into it.

I walked in my closet one day and I began to ponder “What does it mean to be sustainable?”

I know that commercial farming in a global economy is the leading contributor to climate change, with the meat industry leading the pack by a long-shot. But what about my clothing? Was wearing leather really as bad as eating meat?

The simple answer is… it’s complicated.

Leather is typically a byproduct of the meat industry, that would be thrown away if not used, but what really tips the scale is our high global demand for goods. As our consumer culture drives our purchasing behaviours, we are buying way more than we need. I am an advocate for long wearing, hardy products that stand the test of time. Leather or otherwise, if we purchase less, we demand less of the planet and the market.

Leather: Honouring Life

Leather is one of the most beautiful materials in the world; it ages gracefully, will hold up to elemental forces, and can last decades. When compared to faux leathers, often derived from the oil industry (another catastrophic force to our environment), full grain leather outlasts them all indefinitely. You can moisturize and condition leather over the years, but the same cannot be done to faux leather. Faux leather is known to disintegrate and flake, resulting in the need to purchase more goods and feeding right back into the consumerism and consumer complex.

Does this mean we should jump straight into buying only leather goods? Not necessarily. Not all leather is produced the same, as seen in the below video. Just because something is deemed high quality does not mean that it is.

Credit: Rose Anvil Artisan Leather Goods

The Consumer Product Chain

The consumer product chain is rooted in cost efficiency, bringing the products that we demand to market at the lowest possible cost, thus maximizing return.

To counteract this, consider what it is that you need, and determine what will fulfill this with the most logical sense: a cost-benefit ratio. There’s a great article that touched on the subject over at Heddels, I definitely suggest that you give it a read.

The idea of Cost Per Wear can lend a new mindset to the cost of the things we own. Not to mention the environmental benefits of reduced consumption, operating this way should lead to a cheaper lifestyle overall that has you spending less time shopping…”
– Heddels, Understanding Cost Per Wear

Because companies are selling goods at such a low cost, sometimes of questionable quality, and we continue to buy them, it justifies substandard working conditions and horrendously low wages. We need to demand more from manufacturers and the companies that contract them. 

One of the leading ways we can make an impact is through their pocket books. If profits drive their decisions to produce cheaply, both through labour and materials, it can also drive decision to produce more responsibly.

Standards of Living

With all this being said, I understand affordability is a major factor when consuming products. I don’t know everyone’s financial position but I do know that over consumption is affecting all of us alike.

Feeding into our never-ending desire to quench our consumerism, we will continue to purchase goods until the planet simply cannot handle production anymore.

Much like dietary overconsumption without consciousness is leading to obesity coupled with malnutrition, our overconsumption of finished goods is leading to compromised living conditions for those in vulnerable, developing countries. These developing nations are at the bottom of the production cycle, where the textiles are being produced, products are being finished, or raw materials are being sourced.

“Water is key for life, central to societal development. Water risks affect industrialised and developing economies alike”
– World Economic Forum, 5 Risks from Water Overuse

To produce all of this, water and energy consumption is high and byproducts can be toxic. The communities affected are usually those of lower socio-economic status and thus don’t have the resources to clean their water sources or relocate. This excess water consumption is also destabilizing our water tables and a major contributor to ecological and sociological catastrophe.

My Experience

I’ve lived on both sides of the fence; I used to buy in excess to “fit in”. Though I didn’t have a lot financially, it felt great obtaining something new and looking fresh whenever I stepped out the house. But I realized that, truthfully, none of that was important.

What matters most is that there will be a prosperous tomorrow for all and to continue a healthy relationship with myself. I was seeking outward applause to make up for, what I believed was, a lack of power in my life. Real power is making conscious decisions that genuinely empower yourself and the world.

Sure there are larger things at play, such as corporate and political interests, but our collective efforts have resulted in policy change in the past. We can do this. 

You’re worth more than just a “thing”, an object.

You’ve worked hard to earn your dollars. Purchasing anything is an investment; you’re investing in more freedom, in a specific aesthetic, in creating more energy, etc. Be mindful when parting ways with your money, your time and effort is worth way more than something that will fall apart in less than a year.

Embers: Keeping the Creative Alive Amidst Covid-19

I wrote a poem once about keeping my spirit alive – my creative spirit and my spirit of determination.

It can be difficult at times to channel into that aspect when we need to constantly think about all the other real world issues. For the last couple of weeks, covid-19 has ceased regular operations for many of us. This brought various challenges that some have never seen before, and for others, made them worse. Challenges like food insecurity, housing instability, and social isolation.

For those of us who work within the creative sphere, when the hard times hit, we’re often the first affected. We may be on short-term contracts, looking for the next gig, or be a part of a mass lay off.

Sometimes it feels like it’s hard enough justifying why someone needs a creative on their team. Then add on the fact that organizations are being hit with newfound strained budgets; they’re just trying to stay afloat to see a post-coronavirus light. The reality of the creative just got a bit more difficult.

It’s in these moments I find myself asking “Why am I a creative?”

“Do not pray for an easy life, pray for the strength to endure a difficult one.”
– Bruce Lee –

Sometimes I have to really dig for this answer. I’ve surrounded myself with many types of people growing up, working in various industries alternative to myself. It’s easy to be dragged by their successes and have that weigh against you. Some work in insurance and government, others in banking and real estate. Though I’ve tried my hand in many of those industries, they don’t quite mesh with me.

After each lesson learned, I repeat the exact same question I started with, “Why am I a creative?”

Under self-induced scrutiny, I try to decipher this map-of-life and figure out the best way to navigate through it. I’m trying to do something I love, pay my bills, and live a fulfilling life. This pulls me in every which direction.

My favourite composer, and jazz great, Charles Mingus said, “Making the simple complicated is commonplace; making the complicated simple, awesomely simple, that’s creativity.”

Armed with this statement, I boiled down my answer. My sole responsibility is to keep my creative ember crackling.

During ancient times, in both nomadic and civilized senses, there would be a fire keeper – someone responsible with keeping the embers alive, the flame of society alive. Even for nomadic tribes, as they moved from site to site, the fire keeper would tend to the ember throughout the journey.

In those times, the flame was seen as a symbol of life. It gave us the ability to cook and stay warm, thus extreme care was needed to ensure that it never extinguished. The flame was oft revered as a point of praise and religion.

That is our job as creatives, to keep the ember alive within and wherever we find ourselves. Embers can easily burst into full flames and start a fire but it is difficult to start a fire from nothing.

“Write while the heat is in you. The writer who postpones his thoughts uses an iron which has cooled to burn a hole with. He cannot inflame the mind of his audience.”
– Henry William Thoreau –

Our work is not something to be lost and dealt with haphazardly.

We are not direct sellers, we are not accountants, we are not a part of the legal team.
We are storytellers, illustrators, and capturers of the moment.

Creatives are community builders.

Creativity is not simply a skill used to drive economy, though it very well does. It’s a skill used to connect and unite. Without community, our society is nothing. Without creativity, we talk about nothing.

Our job is to stay grounded in reality but also tap into the endless potential of the world around us. We don’t work in silos, we don’t work unilaterally – we are collaborative with others and the wonders that are encapsulated in the world.

This is why we’re so important – we connect. This is the fire we bring into the world.

Oh and that poem? Here it is.

Ember Ember Ember
Do I feed it and let it burn bright
Or do I let it burn out and meet its plight
What is it about fire
It creates and destroys
Provides fuel and sight
Poof to ash or proof of life
Or life that once was
To produce life once again
Crop over, turn over – my heart’s pounding once again
That’s another flame
But the same game
No shame, this is my own lane
It collects and protects, from crash and collision
You can enter my lane but to exit… That’s imminent
I ride on my own, towards the fireball
No clouds even on a rainy day
I say once again what I said before
Feed it and let it burn bright

Dream on and dream more
If I let it burn out, there’s no bringing back these dreams
It stays alive in me like an alien being
Plant this and care for it
Catch it and keep moving like stairs forward
I can’t afford — to move back
Dreams were caught in this dichotomy
You see, what I sought was what I ought to be
You see, these dreams bring sight to be free
To be a dreamer, brings up the flames inside of me
To which it stays
It tears down the world everyday
To leave a bigger, better, and brighter way

New Year, New Spleen – an Old Year Resolution

Happy New Year y’all! Aside from the typical “New Year, New Me!” exclamations I constantly see flooding my social media and other media outlets, this year I’m going to look inside for my resolution – deep inside. The spleen to be exact.

I’m far removed from my Physiology 103 days (holla at me Ryerson) but a quick little Google search tells us that it’s a key organ for fluid balance and blood filtration. Pretty important stuff seeing how blood is the transporter of oxygen, antibodies, and minerals in the body.

It’s interesting how some of the lessons we can learn from are shown to us in some of the most rudimentary examples. We’ve lived in our bodies since day 1 and when we look inward we see the spleen is a great example of how we should approach life.

It’s like our own internal yin and yang – providing balance as long as we give it the right elements to function properly, such as adequate nutrition, water, and minimal stress. But here’s the caveat: we can live without a spleen, just with a lot more difficulty.

Much like ourselves, we can constantly live in the face of adversity and disability, though it would bring a number factors along with it: imbalance, fear, dissatisfaction, etc.

Is this a thriving environment?

This year, I’m going to dig deep and live my truth and passions, making sure that I am balanced through my daily practices: writing, poetry, yoga, Muay Thai, nature, being mindful of the people I spend my time with. This will help to create a balanced environment, filtering out the barrage of negativity that may come my way.

It’s not to say that negativity won’t come my way, that would be an unreasonable and disillusioned way to think. It is to say that no matter what comes my way, I will be prepared.

I’m looking forward to this year and maintaining the balance needed to facilitate and grow beyond my current ceiling.

How are you planning to maintain balance in 2020?