[News] SBS Emerging Writers’ Competition: Arani Ahmed extract

Janey was pointing at Melissa. “You can’t play with us today, you’re different,” she said, at first meaning the clothes we were wearing. I looked at the translucent white of her pointing arm, over to the rough tan of Melissa, then back down at the brown of my hands.

Author Arani Ahmed.

Author Arani Ahmed.

I was darker than Melissa, but I wasn’t aware of it at school. Everyone around me, the kids from my neighbourhood, my teachers, had made me believe that I looked like them because they were all that I saw reflected at me. I spoke in the way of any child brought up in Sydney’s western suburbs, and I brought sandwiches to school in a red lunch box but more often than not had $2 in my pocket for a meat pie from the canteen.

Melissa looked at us, at me, and said, “I’m different? But what about …” Janey nodded, and I made a slight shake of my head. We three glanced at each other, our minds struggling with a thought that was raw, unjust, and under-prepared. Melissa scrunched up her face, turned and galloped away, wiping tears from her eyes.

Later that day, I would go home and catch my reflection in the bathroom mirror above the sink. Large, brown eyes, small lips, big ears, hair stretched back into a glossy black ponytail, frazzled ends along my hairline.

Looking back at me was a face I didn’t recognise, in more ways than one. My hands turned on the tap, and lines of dark brown freckles dotted my skin. These I mistook for dirt and so I scrubbed. I washed once, twice, I washed three times. But when I was done my hands were the same.

My crush that year was a boy named Ryan, the first in a series of skinny gay boys and later queer men that I would fall for, repeatedly and consistently. He had Nick Carter hair, parted in the middle and falling into his eyes, and a piercing in his right ear lobe. I used to kick him under the table. He used to blush and ignore me.

Others gossiped that he was gay, because of his piercing: “Don’t you know? That’s why it’s in the right.” That made him, somehow, all the more enticing. I would go on to spend my high school years joking that I was “a gay man trapped in a woman’s body”.

These were the only words I had at that age. Inaccurate and hurtful today, I would say them flippantly, an idea so far-fetched in my corner of the world that everyone excused its meaning.

Twenty years later, when I first, with honesty, let the word “transgender” form on my lips, it felt right in one language, and pushed me further away from the other. I had spent years grappling with pieces of a broken tapestry, trying to draw connections with what memories would surface and break through. I tried to translate that word and my thoughts, to lay down those feelings in a way I could share with my family, but there was no common ground or history I could grasp. I’d never seen a “me” before that encompassed all parts of that whole.

The fight took place on two fronts; two worlds thought to be incompatible but which comprised the fundamental parts of me. If neither part could exist, then how could I exist?

Two worlds thought to be incompatible but which comprised the fundamental parts of me. If neither part could exist, then how could I exist?

It was only important that I didn’t fail. To tell my parents was to take that battle from inside and let it culminate on the surface of my body. At the heart of it was the knowledge that I existed as an extension of those around me. If I transformed my body, I would also be transforming the fundamental parts of my ma, my papa and my brother.

When I did open my world to them, we were sitting in the living room of my childhood home. I stumbled through in broken Bengali and imprecise English, attempting to untangle a truth I had only ever learnt to hide.

Papa, after sitting silently, intently, seriously, while I stammered my way through half-formed sentences and waves of emotion said to me, “I wish you would have told me earlier. I could have supported you.” And in that moment, when my heart was open and bare, I had a lurching, impossible thought: Okay. Let’s go back then. Let’s go back and try again.

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It would take a few more years until I recognised myself in my reflection, still learning to love. Standing over the bathroom sink I looked at the lines of freckles along my arms, up to my face and my own patches of beard. I let that wide-eyed child hold my hand, remembering what they had learnt.

I rubbed the shaving gel on my face and let the razor pull down to reveal my brown, queer skin.

Between Two Worlds: 30 Powerful Voices from the SBS Emerging Writers’ Competition (Hardie Grant), judged by Tara June Winch and Behrouz Boochani, is out now.

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