Isolation Read #3

Afua Hirsch is by her own description “a mixed-race Briton”. At the time of writing this book, a couple of years after the referendum which decided that the UK would leave the EU, she was 35 years old and still unable to properly pronounce her own name; by which she means, pronounce it to the satisfaction of her Ghanaian relatives.

She is the product of migration: her father, a white Jew whose parents fled Nazi Germany, just in time as it transpired; her mother, originally from Ghana, herself the child of a Ghanaian who had come to Britain to study at Cambridge University on a scholarship and who had returned to be an important figure in the early days of Ghanaian independence. Hirsch and her younger sister, grew up feeling very much out of place in the extremely white middle class 1980/1990s Wimbledon – an interesting aside being one of the first times her sister had seen an unrelated black woman out and about in their Wimbledon street, was when she stumbled across a young Serena Williams trying to get out of the suffocating atmosphere of the tennis tournament. An aside that feeds in very nicely to Hirsch’s discussion on the media’s obsession with and relentlessly negative portrayal of black bodies

She felt out of place there, and out of place at her private school and out of place at Oxford, out of place in Lincoln’s Inn and out of place when launching her career in journalism, and then in one of the most interesting sub-themes that runs the course of the book, out of place with her black working class boyfriend, later husband, who grew up in Tottenham: she was too Middle class, too privileged and too white for his friends. He, it later became clear was also Ghanaian by heritage and from somewhere close enough to her family’s roots, that members of each family knew each other.

With chapters entitled: Where are you from? (Which Hirsch describes as ‘the question’) Origins; Bodies; Heritage; Places; Class; The New Black; and The Door of no Return, Hirsch tackles the questions of identity and belonging from many angles, asking a lot of important questions along the way. Sometimes the answers to these questions are distinctly uncomfortable for white British readers (cutting through the kant around the vicious and racist enterprise that was the British Empire, is particularly well done, and of course, therefore, goes against the history that we have been taught of ourselves as a nation and which continues to pollute the way we view the world) but she is also honest enough to know that sometimes she frames a question to which she does not know the answer, or to which there is no easy answer.

She is similarly scathing about the oft-repeated ‘ I don’t see colour…’ or ‘ I am colour blind when it comes to people’ line, as if not registering and respecting the truth of the person in front of you is somehow doing them a favour.

Hirsch’s honesty extends to, what appears to have been an unsuccessful attempt at living in West Africa: firstly Senegal, then Ghana. While struggling in her formative years with the idea that she was’t accepted as ‘British enough’, she always harboured the desire to live in Ghana, thinking that this would be the place where she would be truly at home. Once there however, along with her boyfriend, it became clear that they were easy to spot as not being originally from Ghana/Senegal, that they were too much of London, of the UK. They were subjected to vicious attack at knife point, which Hirsch admits could have ended far more tragically than simply a robbery, had something not distracted the gang and the two of them were able to flee. This incident left them feeling they had no alternative but to live in a gated community, replacing whatever romantic notions Hirsch and her partner had about life in Ghana, with the cold facts of them as relatively affluent westerners in Ghana. Again, not fitting in.

The book is full of detailed research – as you might expect from a journalist on a national paper – the kind of rebalancing of the way we talk to ourselves about our own history that we desperately need more of – as a country we are just not honest with ourselves – all filtered through Hirsch’s own reflections and experiences.

It is hard to argue with the last sentence of the final substantive chapter (and why would you want to), in which Hirsch writes:

“A nation that singles out the youngest, brightest, most energetic and enthusiastic among them, and tells them they do not belong, is a nation that is getting something badly wrong.”

A final thought: how can you not love a book that concludes with all the usual thanks and acknowledgements, plus a playlist to the author’s ‘personal sense of identity’? Especially one that includes, Nina Simone, Bob Marley, Desmond Decker, Goldie and many others.

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