Fiction | ‘Words and Colour’ by Phoebe Tsang | Issue 36 (Nov, 2020)

Nisha is going to a workshop for BIPOC writers, and Josie should come too. 

What’s BIPOC? Josie asks, nervously. It sounds like a counter-culture movement. Definitely alternative, possibly deviant. Something she should stay away from if she wants to stand any chance of fitting in with society in general, and school in particular. 

Nisha doesn’t ask if Josie’s been living under a rock. She says, Black, Indigenous, People of Colour. The words roll off her tongue. 

Am I People of Colour? Josie asks. 

You’re Asian-Canadian.

Josie’s foundation shade is Medium Ivory, just two formulas away from Nisha’s Medium Taupe. 

It’s not about your actual skin colour, Nisha adds. It’s more about having a maginalised voice because you come from a different background.

Nisha has the annoying knack of answering Josie’s questions before she even asks. It’s because she grew up in a large family ‒ you learn how to read people fast.

You know I’m not a group person, Josie says.

There won’t be that many people.

How do you know?
How many BIPOC writers do you know?

Josie thinks for a moment. In all of her first-year classes, white Canadians outnumber international and non-white students. If each of them was a writer, what would be the total number?

Stop trying to do the math, Nisha says. Just look at it as a way to make new friends.

I already have friends, says Josie. It’s just that she can count them on one hand, while Nisha befriends everyone she meets. Why can’t you go without me?

Because you’re the only friend I have who’s into this sort of thing. 

But I’m not even a writer!

Yes you are ‒ you’re always writing in that notebook. 

That’s journalling, says Josie. It’s not the same.

But Nisha won’t stop there. Lots of writers write about themselves, she says. Anne Sexton, Jeanette Winterson, Pasha Malla. People love reading that kind of stuff.

The idea of being read by other people makes Josie feel like a snail that’s been poked with a stick.

Nisha says: You don’t have to share your writing with the class, if you’re not comfortable.

Last term, there was a party at the student house Josie shares with three other Medical Sciences majors. She tried to avoid it by staying late at the library. Nisha found her and dragged her home, because the guy she’d been crushed on all term would be there, and she needed moral support. Besides, Josie was the one who’d told her about the party, and she wasn’t going to show up uninvited and alone. 

Josie agreed because Nisha promised, in her sweetest voice, not to leave her stranded. With Nisha by her side, Josie wouldn’t have to worry about awkward introductions. She could simply coast in the wake of already opened conversations. 

Nisha’s crush never showed. Sometime after midnight, she decided she was drunk enough to call him, but her phone was dead.

Josie said, Why don’t you use my land line? 

She put Nisha in her bedroom, and closed the door on her. Then she went to sit outside on the front porch, where it was quieter ‒ the stoned kids passing a joint around didn’t seem keen on conversation. The downside was breathing in their second-hand smoke. 

Half an hour later, the party showed no signs of winding down, and Josie was getting cold. She went upstairs and banged on her bedroom door, but the living-room funk jam rocking the house was louder, so she opened the door and stuck her head in. Nisha sat on the edge of Josie’s bed, phone clamped between ear and shoulder. She was leafing through a spiral-bound notebook in her hands. 

As soon as she saw Josie, she flipped the book shut and slammed it back down on the night stand. Josie sprang back as if she’d been repelled by an electric fence, and pulled door shut behind her. 

Five minutes later, Nisha was back downstairs. Sorry I took so long, she said. 

Josie has never asked Nisha what the hell she was doing, snooping through her journal. Isn’t Nisha the closest thing she has to a best friend? What could she possibly have read that Josie wouldn’t willingly confide? How much does it matter what Nisha ‒ or anyone, really ‒ knows or thinks about her?

On the other hand, Josie feels like she ought to put the record straight. Some days, she writes things in her notebook that she feels with every fibre of her being. The next day, she’ll read her own words and wonder who that person was, whether that life was real or imagined. 

Not everything in Josie’s journal is true just because she wrote it.

We all need community, Nisha says. You are not an island. 

Josie pictures the Toronto Islands, crowded with tourists, wedding parties, lost poets, landscape painters, nude bathers and cyclists. You go there to get away from the city, only to find that everyone else had the same idea ‒ we’re all in the same boat.

Besides, Nisha says in her cajoling voice, maybe Brian will be there.

I didn’t know that Brian was a writer. 

Josie’s read his poems in the student magazine. She cut them out carefully, and slipped them between the pages of Essentials of Clinical Geriatrics. Each time she reads them, she’s amazed by how you’d never know that English is his second language. But she’s not going tell Nisha that.

Not everyone there will be a writer writer, says Nisha. It’s inclusive ‒ that’s the whole point. 

Inclusive, meaning including bad writers?

You’re not a bad writer. 

Josie looks Nisha in the eye and says, How do you know I’m not a bad writer? 

There, she’s said it now. And it was easier than she thought it would be. 

Up to this point, she wasn’t sure she’d ever ask. She’s still not sure what kind of response she’s expecting. Maybe an apology for what Nisha did that night, alone in Josie’s room. Or a confession at least.

She feels bad for putting Nisha on the spot though.

It’s fine, Josie says. You don’t have to answer if you’re not comfortable ‒

No, you’re right, Nisha interrupts her. I read your notebook. I’m sorry. I shouldn’t have.

And? says Josie. 

I’m sorry, Nisha says again. Please don’t be mad. I didn’t see much, I swear ‒

I’m not mad, says Josie, I just want to know what you think.

Okay, says Nisha. If you really want my opinion, I think you should just ask Brian out already, instead of writing about him.

That’s not what I meant, Josie says. What did you think of my writing?

I think I’d have to read it more closely, Nisha begins.

You were in my room for half an hour!

I was on the phone, says Nisha. But to be honest, your writing was way more interesting than the conversation.

So if I go to this BIPOC thing with you, Josie says, arms crossed, are you saying I’ll magically fit in?

People are people, Nisha says. But it’s time you found your tribe.

Josie pictures a room full of people who have nothing in common, brought together because they want to write. They may not know that they are writers yet,  each on the verge of discovering a strange, new identity. What will they write about, let alone talk about? How will they find common ground? 

When they look around the room at each other, their differences will be instantly obvious. Because it is about colour after all. Colour shifts, changes, fades, merges, blooms and shimmers like a hologram. How can she put these colours into words on a page that simply say: I am?

Phoebe Tsang is a Hong-Kong born Chinese, British and Canadian poet, author, librettist and playwright. Her poetry and short fiction has been published internationally in journals and anthologies, including Asia Literary Review and Literary Review of Canada. She is the author of the full-length poetry collection, Contents of a Mermaid’s Purse (Tightrope Books, Canada), and the recipient of numerous artist grants in North America.

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