Black Woman Sitting on Window Sill Reading A Book

When The Cover Doesn’t Match

When I was twelve years old, I remember how my American teacher in Malawi asked me if I had copied the story I’d written for our assignment for English class. She was kind when she was interrogating me, and looking back I sensed she was gently trying to teach me a lesson. The story I’d written was about a group of children, à la Famous Five, having an adventure in the Scottish countryside. I’d spent my childhood reading lots of Enid Blyton books, and adventure stories by other writers and they were definitely my favorite genre. I was lucky to have grown up with fellow imaginative readers who liked faking adventures in the Scottish woods and a best friend whose mother worked for Harper Collins, so when my teacher asked us to write a story, it only made sense that I’d want to replicate the theme I loved the most, in a setting I knew well. I didn’t talk very much in class because I was still very conscious about being teased about my accent, so there is a chance my teacher didn’t know I had just moved to Malawi from Scotland less than a year earlier.

When I took my international school’s entrance test I remember the headmaster being so amused by this Black kid who spoke with a Glaswegian accent that he invited a group of teachers into the room to hear me speak! I lost track of all the students and teachers who teased and bullied me because of my accent (to this day I still have no idea why I was called a Scottish monk as an insult). There are events that take place, especially when you are younger, that you don’t have the vocabulary to verbalize, but you know they are important, and hopefully when you are older you can determine why. This was one of those events.

I didn’t even know what plagiarism was in those days and I thought the issue my teacher had with me was my writing a story that she didn’t think I had the right to write.

Why would I, a Black child, be writing about Scotland? I was always fairly gifted when it came to literature but I wouldn’t say my writing was that good at age twelve, so my still naive understanding told me that maybe I had done something wrong by having been inspired by British stories. I haven’t written a story since, and looking back I see that situation was one of several transformative ones that made me understand that how I looked did not align with what people expected of my reality and my lived experiences. Over the years it made me adamant that I would not assume someone’s story based on their appearance.

Since that fateful day in English class, I’ve learned plenty about myself and my place in the world. I’ve also learned how people like me are called Third Culture Kids, those who are often stuck between cultures and end up creating their own culture, a third culture. I’ve written and talked about being an invisible immigrant and how it’s hard to find a place to belong. My personal experiences have helped me empathize with all sorts of people and I delight in meeting people with unusual stories – stories you could not possibly imagine based on their appearance, nationality and so on. It’s a learning experience when assumptions are shattered, and hopefully it serves as a reminder for us to get to know people before assuming we can put them in a predefined box without doing the work.

Had I had the words back then I would have told my English teacher: yes, I was a Scottish-Malawian child writing a story based on the only country I knew intimately, while living in a country that I felt rejected me due to my foreignness – despite being my birth country. Yes, I was familiar with the gorse, heather, thistles and daffodils because I had not yet learned the flamboyants, jacarandas and frangipanis. I needed, at that time, an anchor, and literature has always been my anchor. That story I attempted to write, and then tore up out of shame, was the one I needed to write to feel connected to a country I missed at a time when I felt alien in my own country of birth. A country where I mispronounced the name of my own neighbourhood, where despite looking like the majority, I still had a strong sense of unbelonging that others could not possibly see or imagine.

In the end, it was literature that provided me with a safe place in which to connect with familiar experiences and remember my past – the one where I felt comfortable, accepted, aware and knowledgeable of my surroundings and the culture.

A version of this article originally appeared here on January 23, 2020.

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