As a writer, my main concern is inviting the reader into a world that they might not otherwise know. And if it’s a world they do know, I want it to feel familiar to them. If there’s one thing I strive towards when it comes to writing, it’s legitimacy. And as a reader, I’m looking for exactly the same thing.
When it came to judging this competition, for young black writers aged between 16 and 21 on the theme of conversations, I spent a lot of time either being wowed by their penmanship, or astonished that I could so easily connect with what they were saying. It’s been a long time since I was that age, but the skill of a good writer is drawing anyone in, whatever the gaps in age, culture or knowledge.
The memoir piece by our winner, 17-year-old Amna Mukhtar, checked every box. I was pulled in immediately; I fell into their story, and into a life brought alive, just two lines in. From then on, the narrative is as smooth as liquid, despite the thorny topic. When the judges met to speak about it, it was clear we all felt the same. I’m so excited to see where Amna’s writing goes next.
Another thing I’m looking for as a reader is humour. When I wrote my novel Queenie, I knew that I was going in with some pretty heavy subjects, and that cloaking them in humour might make it easier to read. Twenty-year-old Zakiyyah Deen got me straight away with her piece about discovering she has alopecia. Olivia McDonald, 21, wowed the judges with her retelling of a conversation led by her single mother; Olivia, her twin sister and her brother are told by their mother that they can ask her anything, and she’ll be completely honest with them. Such candour is hard to come by: in family conversations, and in essay form.
Finally, I wanted to give a shout out (or a special commendation, if you will) to Lauren Musa-Green. Her essay about starting at university was a masterclass in expressing the exhaustion of being a Black woman in a typically white space. “How would I boil this down fashionably,” she wrote, “what did they want to hear? My own take on race relations in America? Or how that compares to my own experiences in England? Or maybe a personal story of a racist encounter would satisfy them, in this fleeting 15 seconds of fame as the token black friend.”
If these young writers are the future, I am filled with such hope for what’s ahead.
Candice Carty-Williams is the author of bestselling novel Queenie.
I liked girls: I was going to be condemned to hell
By Amna Mukhtar
From childhood, I had been surrounded by the gorgeous adornments of Islam: the gold name of Allah on the highest point of the bookshelf, the Qur’an displayed on every table, the glorious colours of the prayer mat. And then there was me: queer in the midst of it all. I grew up with nails hammered into the roof of my mouth, the knowledge of a dirty secret stapled to the crescent moon in my night sky.
I still see myself at 10, hearing the word for the first time in the playground. It had been thrown across the yard like an insult, an accusation: “Ew! Are you a lesbian?” When I got home, I asked my mother what “lesbian” was, and she recoiled as if I had said a bad word. Later, through a frantic Google search, I found my answer: it was a porn category, a fetish.
When I was 13, I asked my Qur’an teacher the same question, and she said that not giving a man her love is the greatest sin a woman can commit. I remember knowing that I liked girls, and realising that I was going to be condemned to hell, because I had a disgusting, corrupted heart.
At 16, I brought this up with my ex-boyfriend. I watched him grin and say, “That’s hot.” I watched him laugh, waited for the joke to sound funny, bit my tongue. He looked down at me and laughed: “It’s just a phase, babe!”
A month ago, I couldn’t resist asking my mother if she still loved me when I came out, as if her support and affection were conditional on my sexuality. I held my breath as she promised me that the mosque would not hate me, only that it would not allow me to marry under the roof of Allah. I knew then that my love was a sin, something to be prayed for and corrected.
My mother told me that beyond the doors of the mosque, God was always watching. My God answered each prayer, whispered desperately at night, but reminded me to be afraid. My God put my brothers and sisters to death. How was I to accept that the God that felt like love was the very same God called upon in conversion camps? How was I supposed to say that I love the light of God, even when I have seen it burn the flesh of others – even when it has left me stranded in the dark, alone?
I have always believed that the best sort of conversations are the ones that were never meant to happen. As a frightened and confused teenager, I didn’t know anyone else like me until I raised it on Tumblr. The conversation had developed in the comments section under a piece I had written titled, “Persephone chokes on the jargon of silence”. How sad it is to find a home in a community of outcasts – and yet how powerful. Together, armed to the teeth with mutual understanding and compassion, we discussed whether God is real, and if she is, why she hated us so much. I learned words such as acceptance and valid – speaking a softness that my mouth was unused to.
We are strong for enduring this, more powerful than any of the hate spouted by our religious communities. Strong for seeing others take God as an excuse to torment us, to enact their bigotry, to enforce and execute violence against us. The book that showed us that not all books are homes: I spent hours combing through that book, searching for the pages where my flaws were addressed. We have been told, “God loves you.” Is this what it feels like to love God, too? Am I supposed to feel I must hide parts of me away, in order for my creator to love me back? Was this my very first relationship with abuse?
It was that online conversation that saved me. It was a conversation that made me understand myself: I am not a porn category, a fetish, a dirty word.
I see myself once again typing “lesbian” into the internet. That frenzied, panicked, terrifying Google search; a crime I had to commit when no one else was home. Somewhere inside me, I knew that something was wrong. “What is ‘lesbian’?” typed my little fingers. I wish I could say to myself: don’t look, child. Any beautiful thing will be destroyed by the answers you are taught. Go out and experience this world for yourself. Talk to people who know the plight of feeling that they somehow love wrong. That’s the only way you’ll learn.
Here, friend. Speak. I am going to listen. God knows nobody else did.
Amna Mukhtar is 17 and studying for their A-levels.
I look like an uncle
By Zakiyyah Deen
I was on FaceTime with my boyfriend. It’s the beginning of lockdown and this is our primary means of communication. He asks what I did today. I reply, “Ate food, watched Netflix and went for a walk.” LOL. We both know I didn’t go for a walk.
I’m undoing my extensions. Senegalese twists. Cut into three. Bra strap length – the golden ratio. I’m halfway through when suddenly, “Babe, why does that part look flat?” I say, “What part?” but I know exactly what part he is talking about.
Rewind three months, I noticed some odd goings-on. I started getting an extremely itchy scalp. Every black girl knows: NEVER ITCH. You or Mumzy spent way too much time and money for it to get ruined. A firm pat will do the trick. Next, small bald spots, but certain styles would hide my sins. A messy bun with slicked edges – problem solved. Then full twists began dropping out during styling. Yikes.
It got to the point that the hair in the middle of my head was missing. Yes, people. I looked like an uncle. I’m making a joke about this now, but at the time I can assure you I was not laughing. (Hands up “I use humour as a coping mechanism” gang.)
I let our nightly conversation come to an end, put down the phone and beelined to the bathroom. I touched my remaining coils and did one of those ugly cries, the ones you don’t want anyone to see. Then I thought: “Fix up, people are dying. Racism. Transphobia. Pandemic. Environmental Crisis.” This only made me feel worse and I cried some more.
The next morning, I hit up my best friend – Google. As I searched my symptoms (which many doctors advise against but pfffft what do they know?), I was attacked by phrases like “alopecia”, “permanent hair loss” and “cancer”. Guess what? I cried again.
After hours of searching and crying. I stumbled across a website called The Belgravia Centre: the UK’s leading hair loss clinic. They were offering free Zoom consultations and I thought, “Bun it. I have nothing to lose – except more hair”. (Sorry, humour as a coping mechanism again.) I set up the Zoom call and was mad nervous.
Not even my mum had seen my hair properly. This beautiful hijabi womxn and I spoke for an hour and she informed me that I had two types of alopecia: traction alopecia, which is a little more common, and the other one was central centrifugal cicatricial alopecia (CCCA for short). I could start a treatment programme with them, but they couldn’t make any promises as sometimes this type of hair loss is irreversible. I’m an actor so, while it’s sad to say, a big chunk of my career relies on the way I look. It was terrifying. But not as scary as telling my boyfriend.
I decided to voice note him. It’s less scary than a phone call but braver than a text. Worst-case scenario, I could delete the message and put my phone on Airplane Mode (shout out NSG). I explained what I had, what I was gonna do, the price (extortionate, might I add) and my insecurities. Seven-minute voice note, you know. I dashed my phone and started cleaning. Why do we do that? Hit me up if there is an actual psychological reason for this. Twelve minutes later, he replies. It’s five minutes long.
“You are beautiful inside and out, and I don’t care about what you do with your hair or how you look. You are gonna get through this and I’m gonna be with you the whole way.” I felt like I was in a Disney movie. But a new-school one where the princess is black, the dreaded curse is alopecia and the prince can’t even visit because it’s lockdown.
All bants aside, it’s so important to have someone on your team and it doesn’t always have to be a parent, partner or peer. Sometimes it’s yourself. To all my girls – no, to everyone facing alopecia or experiencing hair loss. You are beautiful. That’s it. That’s the essay.
Zakiyyah Deen is 20 and a writer and actor who has appeared in Steve McQueen’s Small Axe and the BBC comedy Enterprice.
Mum said: ‘Ask me anything and I’ll tell you the truth’
By Olivia McDonald
It was a Friday night in September, and a family meeting had been called. My mum, older brother, and twin sister filled the front room, making the atmosphere claustrophobic and tense. I couldn’t tell if it was the damp in the room, or that family meetings never happened, but I felt uncomfortable as I pre-empted the conversation.
I can remember the feel of the brown leather sofa, sticky and warm against my legs. We waited as my mum’s face, pensive in the light, scanned ours while she paced the room. There was a long drawn-out silence before she spoke, but, when she did, her voice quivered and was low, showing us a vulnerability I’d never seen before. At 16, I had heard stories about my mum’s life, but nothing as candid and honest as this.
A single parent, she had always tried to do her best by us, but despite her efforts our upbringing at times felt chaotic and difficult. I often felt resentful of her lack of income, and her struggle to present us as middle class. Another source of tension was her recent embrace of “radical honesty”, inspired by the US therapist Brad Blanton’s book of the same name. This new interest of my mum’s was both amusing and irritating to me and my siblings. Why did she need to do a course to learn how to be honest? It didn’t occur to me until afterwards how hard being radically honest truly is, especially as a woman; there was the risk of being judged negatively, and the possible rejection.
Sitting with her mouth hardened and eyes wide, my mum said, “Ask me anything and I’ll tell you the truth.”
“Did my dad ever hit you?” my brother said.
She began to recall a time when she was 21 and punched in the face and knocked out cold, waking to the cries of my brother, who was just a baby at the time. On hearing this, my brother grew angry and stormed out, slamming the door shut with such force that the whole house shook. And then a question I had came to mind: have you ever had an abortion?
With a deep breath, she told my sister and me about the painful decision she had made at 17 to terminate her pregnancy. Her parents had died before she was 10, and she had no one except her older sisters to give her advice. I had asked my mum about abortions when I was younger, and she had denied having had one. I understood the complexity of that decision, and that it did not make her a bad person. But I still felt angry that Mum had lied, and that the illusion I had of her was shattered.
How should I behave? What should I say? I began to cry and was torn between feeling her pain and feeling betrayed. My mother had gone from someone who had survived and succeeded in spite of the turmoil, to someone who was vulnerable. Someone who still seemed ashamed of her past. The words wouldn’t stop coming from her mouth. They flowed like the tears running down both our cheeks. She told us that, at the time, it felt like the only decision she could make, and one that was in everyone’s best interest. Without her parents, she felt powerless and alone. For my mum, being radically honest meant that she could release these ghosts of her past.
I look back now, aged 21, and see how this experience has shaped me, allowing me to be honest with myself and garner healthier relationships with those around me. As a woman, having a negative self-image and keeping pain bottled up inside is detrimental. My mum’s journey of radical honesty is ongoing and she continues to foster conversations with us that seek to empathise rather than criticise or blame. She wanted us to know that we are never alone, and that we always learn and grow from our experiences. I am grateful, and would like to do the same if I have my own children. Shame is a prison, but the truth can set you free.
Olivia McDonald is 21 and in her third year at University College London, studying history and politics.
• The competition was judged by gal-dem co-founder Liv Little, editor-in-chief Charlie Brinkhurst-Cuff, Guardian Weekend editor Melissa Denes and members of the Weekend and gal-dem teams. The three finalists each win £250. The overall winner also receives three months of mentoring from the gal-dem editorial team, and a one-to-one workshop with a Guardian journalist.