I was raised part-time by ghosts: grandmothers, cousins, the ouija board channels a family tree still hairpiled in ‘60s bouffants, still listening to Rumi on the radio. I occupy the absence of these women, whose lives I remember in a pre-Revolutionary Iran that I’ve certainly never known. And to their company I am adding, like scrapbooks I kept with cutouts from Vogue, cutouts from museum postcards, cutting out traces of a history more personal than known.
I’ve heard how my mother’s cousin, who ended up in a Catholic boarding school at the age of 6, came to study philosophy and literature—how the mother superior invited her to her private study, and pointed out which books she must not read, and in which order she must not read them, before leaving her locked there for the afternoon. I know how my grandmother stood naked in front of the full-length mirror, while my mother and aunt watched from the bed—how she would raise her arms from her sides until her breasts were lifted by the shoulders and sigh, remembering that her first husband, the man she’d married when she was only sixteen, had got the best of her body, and her beloved Mr. E (my grandfather), was now left with ‘two shrivelled, sunny-side-up eggs’. One of those shrivelled eggs grew a cancer that she hid from all but the pious seamstress who sometimes stitched their clothes. My grandmother died in a foreign city, the same city where I was born. She had been the penultimate of five sisters, the mother of two girls and, though she never lived to see it, the grandmother to three more. When I was fourteen, I dreamt that I would only ever bear sons.
These women are known to me in stories and in stories I have grown this family up and out, down and deep, rooting and rising while I push leaves from the outer edge. My mother has often been the medium to these visions, hands on the table, eyes rolled back, the witching hour upon us by the bedside and over bowls of rice. We mark old birthdays on the calendar like saints’ feasts. Alone, I claim ancestry further afield. I call on Sei Shonagon, the medieval Japanese writer whose Pillow Book was so vicious and familiar that I sobbed into the carpet, as though I’d met my own dead family face to face. Long before I started leaving home to drink in company, I would disappear into the bathroom with my mother’s makeup and emerge, my face painted like the portrait on the flyleaf. Shonagon gets angry when someone sneezes in a quiet room, she has a lot to say about the morning after the one-night stand. Sometimes Shonagon makes lists of mountains, lists of rivers, lists of things she hates and things that make the heart beat faster. She intimidates the men of the court by completing a poetic exchange in Chinese. As she plucks her eyebrows hair by hair, her mouth forms a perfect ‘O’.
I am learning to loom. I will not bear my height, but impose it, like Niki de Saint Phalle’s Nanas, babes in bikinis, dancing their massive hips and sweeping arms into a space that they fill with power, joy, and colour. I am bold patterns, towering shoes, looking straightintheeyes sharpshooting. I am Niki with a gun in her hand, executing balloons by firing squad SPLAT SPLAT SPLAT and I’ll use the paint on my mouth and cheeks and go to the club and move like a babe in a bikini, dancing my hips and sweeping my arms. I will be Claude Cahun with a webcam. I’ll tattoo on my inner lip: Sexton, Austen, Hurston, Woolf, Millay, Dickinson, Divine.
It seemed at a time like I was fated to spend some years as a demibrown gal reading the dead white guys, but it’s women and children first on this vessel and I’m getting ready to jump ship in the company of medieval mystics. Margery Kempe and Julian of Norwich have their hands on the ropes. I’m having visions of visionaries—of Margery who woke up one morning next to her husband and explained that she simply had to leave. Margery who travelled to Italy, to Palestine, weeping, wailing, and writhing into public spaces despite the threat of assault and imprisonment with which her too-present body was met. Margery who travelled to meet Julian, and Julian whose own mystic visions she revealed from the extreme confinement of an anchoress’ cell. The first female English author and the first English autobiographer speaking through a window in a church wall.
We don’t know Julian’s real name any more than we know Shonagon’s. They come to me, their arms open and their faces turned away. But I know them as they are now both of me and for me, like sepia stained photos of my great-grandparents high in the Alborz mountains. I will cut them out and stick them down, like icons and miniatures. In miniatures and icons, Julian sits at the window in the wall, accompanied only by a tabby cat. She is holding a quill in one hand, a book in the other. The pages of the book show a line from her Divine Revelations. They say: ‘All shall be well’.
Words: Mina Odile
Illustrations: Jena Kane