A Mixed Race Feminist Blog Interview with Isabel Adonis

Posted in Articles, Autobiography, Identity Development/Psychology, Interviews, Media Archive, United Kingdom on 2016-01-16 15:37Z by Steven

A Mixed Race Feminist Blog Interview with Isabel Adonis

A Mixed Race Feminist Blog

Nicola Codner
Leeds, Yorkshire, United Kingdom

About Isabel Adonis

I’m a private tutor, artist and writer and I live in Wales. My mother was a white Welsh woman and my father was a black man from Georgetown in Guyana. He was quite a well-known writer and artist. I was born and brought up in London until I was six when my father began working in Khartoum in the Sudan. I lived and went to school there until I was nine when my parents bought a house in Wales. For the next nine years I lived and went to school in Wales and travelled to Africa in the holidays. After five years in the Sudan my father worked in different universities in Nigeria. My parents split up when I was seventeen and my father returned to the Caribbean. My mother did not remarry. In my twenties I trained as a teacher but because of an incident at the school, which I think was race related I decided I would never teach. I have four grown up children.

Do you remember when you first came to understand that you are mixed race?

Yes, around the time that ethnic monitoring was introduced in the UK in the early nineties. I had no notion of being mixed race prior to that. I was not brought up to call myself anything. However I do not call myself mixed race now. I leave it to others to do that kind of thing. I resist being categorised in this way, since it is problematic. Identification functions by inclusion and therefore exclusion. I’m not happy with that…

Read the entire interview here.

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The term ‘black Welsh’ remains for me a white person’s concept used to deny me my own experience of racial oppression…

Posted in Excerpts/Quotes on 2013-06-18 16:50Z by Steven

The term ‘black Welsh’ remains for me a white person’s concept used to deny me my own experience of racial oppression (the Welsh themselves, are an oppressed and colonised people). ‘Black Welsh’ is not an identity; on the contrary, it is a duality and a contradiction. Perhaps this explains to some extent the high incidence of schizophrenia among black people. If I claim to be Welsh when everyone can plainly see that I am ‘foreign’, I must be mad. But if I claim to be black, that has no significance, it’s just like having freckles, and if I claim to be oppressed, I’m playing the race card, demanding special treatment. So to survive, I must be nothing, invisible and above all silent, because my very existence is a reminder that at least one white Welsh woman had sex with a black man, and that is the beginning of the end of the purity of the Welsh people. And without the Language of Heaven, the Calon Lân, (white heart) the sense of being a chosen, Godly people, what does it mean to be Welsh?

Isabel Adonis, “Black Welsh Identity: the unspeakable speaks,” BBC News, North West Wales, May 30, 2006.


…And… a conjunction of history and imagination

Posted in Africa, Books, Media Archive, Monographs, United Kingdom on 2012-02-18 20:15Z by Steven

…And… a conjunction of history and imagination

206 pages
4.3 wide × 6.9 tall
Paperback ISBN: 5800039355462

Isabel Adonis

And… is a psychological memoir of the lives of my mother and father, Catherine Alice and Denis Williams. Inspired in part by Jamaica Kinkaid’s Mr Potter, the writing explores the nature of identity, place, history, the meaning of a colonial background, the divisiveness of colour, alienation, and the tradition of the English language, which paradoxically both liberates and incarcerates.

My mother was from a small town in North Wales; my father from Guyana, both ex colonies: they met each other in London after the Second World War. My mother already had a child by a black American airman when she met my father, a scholarship student on the first grant awarded by the British Council. My mother had been brought up in an orphanage: she was very literate, religious and poetic and creative.

In London, my father was very quickly famous as a painter, but success, on white terms, proved to be a humiliating experience for him. They travelled to the Sudan to look for his ancestral roots; there he wrote what is considered one of the first postcolonial texts, Other Leopards. They then moved to Nigeria, where he worked with, and befriended, Ulli Beier, Wole Soyinka and others. This was in the 1960s, when the Mbari movement was in its infancy.

My book is not a biography, but focuses on impressions, and charts a holographic journey where simple accounts reveal the depth of their lives together from the point of view of one of their children. Anyone from teenagers onwards can read this multi-layered and imaginative book, whose centre is identity, culture, and the nature of desire. It is simultaneously personal and universal, and ideal for students at school, at college and university or for anybody interested in race, or what it means to be mixed.

The title symbolises the attempt of the writing to deconstruct the hierarchical structure of language, and knit from the fragments of identity, an authorial voice without authority – without the defining rejection of  ‘other’. The stripped down language allows the exploration of the clash of cultures—Welsh, English, and Caribbean.

Chapter One

In which my mother says she wants to be buried in rags and sacking – and is not.

And my mother always said that when she died she wanted to be buried face down in rags and sacking. She wanted nothing else, so that even in her death she could deny desire. She never wanted anything in life or death because for her, the worst thing was to want. And she said, “I don’t want, I don’t know how to want”, so that when it came to mentioning her end, she wanted to not want. She never saw of course that her dying wish was a contradiction, how it contained, in her denial, the very want she was avoiding, and that behind every denial of want was the want; the want she did not want. And she lived her whole life like this, negatively, and perfectly confident at the same time, not of what she wanted but of all that she did not want.

It was amusing, though she was perfectly serious; it was frightening too, since it demanded that I as her daughter would have to act on her wishes, and it was easier to ignore her. Her desire was to extend beyond death itself and this wish seemed to say more about her than almost any other thing. She said, “I don’t want any fuss made over me, I don’t want to be a problem to anyone, I don’t want a coffin, I don’t want a church service.” All contradictions, and her list would be endless, an impossible list of not-wants.

As much as she hated wanting and believed that she could not want, she hated religion even while it was at the centre of her life. “The Lord is my Shepherd I shall not want,” she said quietly to herself; believing that religion and desire were incompatible. It was imprinted on her brain as her earliest memory; wanting and religion did not go together, and if her life was to be religious there was no wanting.

Perhaps this was why she saw that they, the religious ones, wanted too much and therefore the Lord was not their shepherd, as the Lord was her shepherd. Perhaps she saw their hypocrisy but didn’t see her own reflection in them, for she sought always to be purer and yet still purer and she would always have to be lower, and therefore higher, in her relation to the world. She sought humility and she talked of virtue and smallness and she believed she was it; she spoke of those who stole virtue and she would turn every stone until she received God’s grace, even if it didn’t come to her until old age, like some biblical hero, and her life would be transformed by His intervention.

She would be transformed through religious baptism. She prayed for this; the life she was ceaselessly wanting, and while not wanting it she would search the good book,—Y Beibl, which is ‘The Bible’ in English. But her liberation never came, not even in death or before it, and neither did her dying wish that she should be buried in this non-conformist way.

And my mother had no shortage of rags and sacking. She had been collecting them over a long period of time. Some were plain and some had print on them and some were just plain dirty but she didn’t mind dirt. Holding them up to the light she would examine the size and the weave and if they were crumpled she would carefully and lovingly wash each one and dry it on a washing line and air it until it was quite dry. Once she even took out a bradawl, a small tool for pushing small cut strips of cloth through the weave, to make one of her sacks into a mat. And everything she did was for the glory of God, and sewing was a prayer and a meditation to Him, which had its own rewards, not here on earth but in heaven.

‘Rags and sacking’ demonstrated her humility, her smallness, her virtue, and she loved cloth more than wood and sewing more than carpentry. Carpentry was for men and she was not a man; her dealings with wood were restricted to the collecting of twigs for her coal fire. When she lived in Bangor, on the mountain and close to trees and woodland, she bought a red bow saw and a small dark red handled chopping knife to cut these small pieces of wood. Sometimes she could be seen sawing up a long piece of ash. There was an ash tree behind her home and sometimes she would drag smaller branches into her hillside garden and she would cut them again into twigs. But when it came to any consideration of death and dying it wasn’t wood she thought of, it was cloth. And besides, she wanted to resist them, those men that made all kinds of rules about this and that, and every type of human activity, and especially in matters of the human heart. She would express herself through the softness of rags and sacking.

She was a kind of expert on cloth and especially old cloth, it excited her in a sensual way; the smell, the weight, the feel, the weave, the dye and the colour reminded her of a lost skin, of lost love and lost intimacy; her mother’s long dark skirt, her beautifully stitched and starched white cotton blouse with full sleeves, the little buttons at the cuff, her father, Johnny Willy’s wool suit, his bow tie and his tweed cloth cap. She told me years ago, a tale of going upstairs as a child, to the attic and seeing the old clothes which her grandparents had worn and she hadn’t just remembered it, she had absorbed it into her child mind and her child body, and there it had stayed as some hidden language. She told me how she remembered the black and white clothes and how that was an image she had to live by, like the very skin she was in, and she would live with those colours of black and white, an image that would determine her destiny, an image to stand under and live by. Black and white bound her to a past and sustained her present.

She had never said anything about her own mother’s face, her mother’s hair or her mother’s skin or her mother’s ways. She never mentioned her mother’s name or her mother’s life, yet everything about her life spoke of mother. She just said: “She died when I was six.” And when I was very young I thought that when my mother died my eldest sister, Janice would become my mother and then when she died my sister, Evelyn would be my mother and then it would be my turn to be my mother, but it didn’t turn out like that.

Soon after my father left my mother, she busied herself collecting cloth. We had to leave Llandudno because the bank manager had insisted that my mother sell our house. My father had left us in debt, a debt that wouldn’t have mattered if he’d still been working in Africa, but he wasn’t. I can remember he earned about two thousand pounds then and it was called a salary, and this salary included free travel to Africa and the other benefits like boarding-school fees and something called superannuation. The bank manager called her in and he told her. He said: “You will have to have a second mortgage on your home.” And of course she didn’t want a second mortgage because she knew she could not pay the first, and the bank manager knew that too.

The debt meant that we had to leave the first house, which was called Beiteel. It was the first house, my mother had ever had, but it was a house which was never a home or a haven or a place of comfort or anything like that, though she wanted it to be. She had to leave a life, which at one time had almost given her a certain privilege and a certain status. Then she was no longer going up in the world as people say, and there was no more paid travel or boarding-school fees, nor was there anymore any superannuation, not that my mother was particularly interested in that.

And soon after he left we went to live in Bangor, which is just up the coast from Llandudno. There is a university on a hill overlooking the town which is in a river valley, though the river is nowhere to be seen. It was closer the mountains where she could buy a cheaper house and pay off the debt owed to the bank. She began to fill her time with collecting clothes from a charity shop, which was called Oxfam. There was only one charity shop at the time in Bangor, but later there were many more. And when there were more she went to the others.

Sometimes she had arguments with the women who ran the shop and she would return home, full of defiance and hurt and outrage. Most of all she despised their goodness and their monopoly on goodness. The way they had a chance to see all the clothes before she did, the way they wouldn’t let her negotiate for clothes as she would have preferred. Like an African woman she felt it her right to do that – to barter and bargain. She was poor and she could never understand why it was the poor who supported the poor. Each penny spent was noted in a little black and red notebook bought at Woolworth’s and she paid all her bills in instalments long before this idea caught on.

And after a long time she saved eighty pounds in this way and she deposited it in an account at the Halifax Building Society, so that she had another book. This saving pleased her and she was proud of her abilities to manage the very little money she had. She didn’t work outside the home because that was my father’s role and now he was gone and he had taken that life with him; the life she had worked for. She couldn’t stand the isolation, for she was a sociable sort, though she was not one for social niceties.

She kept on buying and collecting. She collected cardigans, jumpers, waistcoats with fancy buttons, wool coats for children, wool coats for grown ups, silk dressing gowns and printed dresses, hats, Kangol berets in all colours, hats in hat boxes and leather gloves and dressing-up gloves made of delicate leather, lacy tops and silk scarves, fox furs and beaver furs and fur coats, pleated skirts and tweed skirts and silk and Scottish kilts and pyjama cases. Each item was lovingly washed or brushed, altered or mended and assigned a place in her bedroom, which was soon bursting like a well-stocked charity shop. The berets were steamed and thoroughly cleaned and she wore them with pride. Every single thing was significant, ordered and perfectly clean, for if anything had a small stain she would douse it with lemon juice or iron it with brown paper or brush it until it was clean.

In addition she collected small things like buttons and lengths of ribbons and braid and broken brooches and expensive pens that didn’t work and endless pairs of reading glasses (for the frames), old leather bags and satchels of different kinds. She liked discarded things and worn things and all those things which were unloved and required attention.

The bedroom suite was a pale wood and had been bought second hand from Auntie Maggie’s son, David, for seventeen pounds, the first and only bedroom suite she had. Auntie Maggie had come to the house in her usual way and said that she had something for my mother. She said: “David is selling a bedroom suite and it is such a bargen.” My mother put so many clothes in the wardrobe, it could not be adequately closed and she had to jam the door shut with a rolled up bit of paper. She had a pair of purple curtains on the window which I had bought for her from Pollecoffs – an old fashioned shop where receipts were always written out by hand with a pen and ink, and the money went on odd journeys around the shop in a lift and a brass container, and men spoke graciously of service.

Her dressing table was covered with used lipstick cases, old perfume bottles, empty talcum powder pots, empty tin tubs of Nivea and empty tin tubs of Boots face cream which was like Nivea, a tube of pink Germolene and a pot of lanolin, a home made silk bag, old safety pins, and boxes of unused Morny soaps. There was always Johnson’s baby powder, a tall white container whose smell of babies filled the air.

For darning she had a mushroom shaped wooden tool over which she stretched a woollen sock for repair: she would unravel the broken threads and begin creating a new warp and weft with a long darning needle and fine wool, kept on a card. She would be sat hunched over by a window straining towards the light as if in prayer, and darning was prayer itself. She could do this for socks and she could do this for stockings and she knew how to make a proper patch for a cotton sheet and how to make a bodice for a girl’s dress and how to make women’s underwear and how to make an ankle on a pair of knitted socks. She knew how to make a girl’s dress and a pair of trousers without a pattern, how to make every kind of skirt and cut it on the bias or how to make a pleat. And she seemed to know how to do everything to do with clothes as if it were a language she knew.

And shoes. She collected all kinds of shoes, flat brown shoes, leather brogues with proper stitching along the soles and not moulded, shoes with great long laces made of leather and some had laces not made of leather, high heeled shoes in patent leather which she would never wear, purple suede shoes and pink shoes, shoes with bars and shoes with buckles, stuffed with balls of scrunched up newspaper and shoe horns. And once she bought me dancers shoes by Anello and Davide and I loved those shoes and I had two pairs, a red pair and a black pair.

The insides of shoes would be cleaned with a damp cloth, moistened with Dettol, she believed in Dettol, just like the cross itself: after which she would put one shoe next to the other shoe, as if they were twins and place them under the bed. She must have had about forty pairs of shoes of which she only wore one or two pairs, and not one of them new, and they were pushed under her bed along with other treasures for the life she might lead or might have led. There was a large piece of sandstone, which my father had taken from an archaeological dig at Meroë in the Sudan, a rolled up print which the artist Roger Hilton had given my father. She had some manuscripts, and a box of green tiles which had been made for a coffee table designed by my father and based on a rubbing from an Egyptian tomb. The table was never made, though for a time it was there in the house, just put together roughly. I always felt it very bad luck to keep that piece of sandstone, for I feared it would act as a curse on her life and his, to remove something sacred, like when Lord Carnarvon raided the Egyptian tomb. I had read all about Lord Carnarvon in a book on archaeology given to me by my father.

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Joe Christmas and the Chamber of Secrets – The Black/ White Dilemma in William Faulkner’s Light in August

Posted in Articles, Literary/Artistic Criticism, Media Archive on 2011-10-06 01:57Z by Steven

Joe Christmas and the Chamber of Secrets – The Black/ White Dilemma in William Faulkner’s Light in August

Africa Resource
21 paragraphs

Isabel Adonis, Writer and Artist

I read William Faulkner’s Light in August in my early teens and I scarcely understood it.  But I understood something and many years later a woman at a party mentioned that she had read the same novel at college.  For a while she talked about miscegenation and on my return home I decided that this was something that I wanted to look into.  I wandered down to the little second hand bookstore in Bethesda where I used to live and it was the first book that I found there, as if it had been waiting for me to claim it. I am mixed race, my mother was Welsh and my father was from the Caribbean.  Many people treat me as if I am black, an exotic, and a foreigner. But I have lived a life like the character in the book, lonely isolated and forever going round in circles searching for my authentic self. And just as in Faulkner’s deep south I live in a society which is determined to make me bad, determined to make me take the role of scapegoat, to make me ‘the other’ of themselves.

In the novel we learn that Joe Christmas’ skin tone is “parchment” and that he doesn’t know his parents though he suspects one of them was black.  He was left on the steps of an orphanage on Christmas day, hence his name.  In the book he is aged thirty-three so we know that he has a Christ-like persona: he has come to redeem our sins. As a little boy in the orphanage he is fond of making his way to the dietician’s  room where he likes to suck on her toothpaste.  On one particular afternoon he has taken the toothpaste from the sink when he hears her returning to her room with the interne from the local hospital.  For safety, he hides behind a cloth curtain and witnesses her making love.  Because of his anxiety he eats too much toothpaste and is sick.  As a result, he is caught by the dietician…

Read the entire essay here.

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Black Welsh Identity: the unspeakable speaks.

Posted in Articles, Autobiography, Media Archive, United Kingdom, Women on 2011-10-06 01:06Z by Steven

Black Welsh Identity: the unspeakable speaks.

British Broadcasting Corporation
North West Wales

Isabel Adonis, Writer and Artist

Isabel Adonis was born in London and brought up in Llandudno, the Sudan and Nigeria. She spent 21 years in Bethesda before returning to Llandudno. She helped found Timbuktu, a new international arts and literary journal.

This piece won the best article award for 2002 in New Impact magazine.

“I am a woman. When I look in the mirror I see a woman. When other people look at me they see a woman. I know what a woman is and I am one. Once when I was a child, in Africa, I had my hair cut very short and the other children started calling me ‘El Walad’ – The Boy. It was very distressing, but I didn’t start feeling like a boy, and the children wouldn’t have been teasing me if they had really thought I was one.

If anyone asks me what it feels like to be a woman, I’m stuck for an answer. There doesn’t seem to be any other thing for it to be like or unlike; it feels normal, natural, un-problematic. It doesn’t feel like anything at all: – what does it feel like to be human?…

…I am Welsh. My mother was born and brought up in North Wales, speaking Welsh. I have lived most of my life in Wales. When I look in the mirror I see brown skin and African features. When other people look at me they see an exotic, a foreigner.

If anyone asks me what it feels like to be a black Welsh woman, I’m stuck for an answer. It doesn’t feel like anything at all; it feels like being human. I am my natural colour, and I live in my natural home, no problem.

But as soon as I step out of the front door, there is a problem. Most of the people who meet me are thrown into confusion and conflict. They like to think of themselves as being tolerant, accepting, unprejudiced etc. so they try to treat me as normal although their senses scream out that I am different. They try to be sensitive, avoid the word ‘black’, avoid the subject that is always on their minds. Many prefer to avoid me if possible, they find it a strain…

Read the entire essay here.

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