[Review] 06C33 by Sofia Amina — Josh Mcloughlin

Sofia Amina, 06C33 (૧૦:૧૧ Press, 2021), 148pp.

The first single-author publication by Sofia Amina marks her out as one of the most important voices in contemporary British-Indian writing. Following on from the themes and issues of the brilliant Brown Anthology, edited by Amina and published last year with ૧૦:૧૦ Press, O6C33 (published under the sister imprint ૧૦:૧૧ Press) records Amina’s reflections, in poetry and prose, on life as an ‘Indian-English’ woman, both in the UK and ‘back home’ in India.

But the question of where ‘home’ is—where the heart is—resounds throughout Amina’s thinking and writing, animating her lyrical meditations. Amina is proud of her heritage and demonstrates a deep immersion in and affection for South Asian culture and languages. At the same time, as she says, Amina is ‘Lancashire born and bred’. O6C33 is Amina’s attempt to make sense of her experience at the confluence of these two entwined cultures, this most tangled pair of histories. Indeed, the idea and influence of ‘history’ are at the core of Amina’s reflections. In one snapshot, we see Amina ‘Sitting in a small room in a café in Mumbai’:

someone calls my name, tells the audience I am from England. A woman in the audience shouts leave it at that. She’s English. Leave her there.

I have never before been called English.

I have never before been insulted by being called English. 

I am English when I am outside of England.

I am Indian-British/a Paki when I am in England.

…and I suddenly felt defensive.

That’s my home you’re talking about. That’s my country.

Here the ellipsis in the final couplet belies the anxiety at the heart of Amina’s identity, at one moment excoriating the racism endured by minorities in England, in the next feeling the urge to defend ‘my home […] my country’. Home, heart, and history, are knotted tightly together, and Amina seeks to unsnarl them: 

Where does my history begin if my blood begins in another land but my childhood begins here? I am curious about the Maharajahs. I am confused about Kashmir. I am wondering about William who conquered this land of mine. Tell me too about the Tudors but begin with the red and white roses growing in my garden. If I met Babasaheb what would I say? Salaam or hey?

At the same time, we learn that there is a power in these ligatures, strength in mixed heritage and conflated history. Amina harnesses her questioning uncertainty, planting it to bloom into a celebration of many histories, many roots. To ‘People who look at me… sometimes not quite sure where my roots sprouted from’, Amina’s rejoinder is that ‘They sprouted from soil, water, rotis, pooris, dahi, cornflakes, pies, pasties and fish ‘n’ chips with lots of vinegar.’ Immediately following this, however, is a sobering reflection: 

When I sat down behind the reception desk and looked around, I realised how the reception area had become a little Brown island. The security guys were Brown and Brown looking. And then Brown me with her nose stud. This was a reception desk in Mayfair, London.

The ‘little Brown island’ is a parodic take on the delusions and fear-mongering peddled by those on the British right. At the same time, Amina drives home the bald facts of inequality in contemporary Britain, flagging up how bigotry is by no means confined to the political fringes. The title powerfully literalises the point. ‘O6C33’ refers to the British Standard Colours Chart, indicating Amina’s skin tone. ‘તુ આપણી જેવી નથી લાગતી tu aapri jevee nathi laghtee you don’t look like one of us’ relates an encounter with someone who ‘wanted to make it clear my skin tone did not belong to my family or my culture’ and who later tells the author ‘પાકલી જેવી લાગી pakli jevi laaghet you look like a paki’ because her ‘first nose piercing was on the ‘wrong’ side of the nose’. These ‘verbal punch[es]’ land with brute force, travelling in two directions: towards Amina as she recounts how the ‘weapon’ of ‘race’ has been used against her; and from Amina to us, as her direct yet elegant language powerfully relates her experiences. Take the first micro-poem, for example, entitled ‘Name’, which gets viciously to the point: 

being called a

Paki

being treated like a

Paki

without the word

Paki

leaving their mouth

The lineation here, isolating the racial slur, amplifies its horrible force. This is visceral, physical, sensory writing, palpable with anger and sadness, but also trussed up with determination and resistance. ‘Blood Roots’ offers a fresh take on the well-worn trope of the poet reflecting on how ‘When I am buried and my body rots, I will be eaten by worms’. Here, mixed heritage intermingles in the very soil of death as ‘This Indian-British woman will one day become an English Rose’ by feeding the country’s trees: ‘warm[ing] their earthly veins’ with ‘a few spices’. 

As with The Brown Anthology (2020), Amina beautifully lays out South Asian scripts next to transliterations and English translations, colliding languages to build up a bricolage of heritage, influence, anxiety, expression, and identity:

Then something else too. Maybe something in the gut. I think it is a spark of pain, an instant recognisable jolt; the ancestors kicking you in the shins once or twice and whispering તમને યાદ નથી? tumni yaad nathi? don’t you remember?

We learn about the code-switching British-Indians must master in order to survive in an unequal and discriminatory culture, navigating this ‘war game being played over and over’ by ‘keeping our Brown culture out of sight, moving our Brown culture to the left, hiding, rejecting bits of yourself for a few moments, until the white/Other gaze has left.’ This ‘subconscious behaviour’, however effective a defence mechanism, eventually ‘translat[es] to being ashamed of being Brown’, an interpellation by which the othered subject ‘Pick[s] up on the points which have historically been used to justify being called a जानवर jaanvur, animal’:

Seeing this attitude, witnessing it slowly drip-dropping, becoming part of you. It becomes the right and wrong in your subconscious. Your mannerisms, your thoughts, pre-thoughts, the murmur, the electrical current running trying to become a thought, are all determined by viewing and experiencing this behaviour.

Amina registers the grinding exhaustion of the fight against racism and discrimination, admitting that, sometimes, expediency requires her to bite her tongue and grit her teeth in the face of bigotry:

sometimes you have to nod and smile and understand what you’re facing and understand you have a mortgage to pay and you say to yourself

the weekend is only a few days away. 

It will be different when I’m ahead.

So you take the colonial era shit just until you can make it out of there.

We listen in on shocking exchanges related by Amina during which she experiences casual racism, stupidity, ignorance and discrimination. ‘I sent a draft of a book cover to a colleague’, Amina recounts: 

She replied that’s the ugliest colour in the world. I explained the colour is supposed to represent my race. She apologised and explained how Pantone decided 448 C Opaque Couché was the ugliest colour in 2016.

Opaque Couché is also referred to as dark drab brown, not able to be seen through and difficult to understand. The colour was then selected as the plain packaging for tobacco products in Saudi Arabia, Slovenia, Australia, Norway, Israel, France and the United Kingdom. 

The colour of my race now represents the threat of cancer.

Amina’s language lands with brutal, shocking force. To read 06C33 is to be jolted with lyrical violence, woken with a rough shake and reminded that we emphatically do not live in an ‘enlightened’ society, that there is so much more work to do. But the text everywhere affirms that growth, personal and collective, is possible. We see Amina learning to fight back, working up the courage to challenge the casual remarks and ignorant generalisations that produce and are produced by a fundamentally unequal society: ‘When I was younger I didn’t have the courage to say anything, I just made sure I never saw them again. Now I can, and have on more than a few occasions politely asked said friend to live through being colonised before judging.’ At times we are asked to imagine walking in Amina’s shoes:

You walk into a room and in the few seconds it takes to look around, you unintentionally make note of the Brown people in the room. Some don’t notice, some nod back in recognition, others (most) ignore the recognition. You can feel yourself straightening your back and putting on a face for the public. How much of your Brown self have you left behind? Intentionally and unintentionally?

What makes 06C33 so powerful, so important, is not only its sharp critique of the casual racism and discrimination experienced by British-Indians but also its acute examination of the anxieties and conflicts within communities of ‘Brown folk’ about ‘who is Brown and who is not?’ White people—the unmarked, default race—can never truly understand these experiences, of course. White people will never have to navigate a politics of ethnic authenticity that is at once world-historical and ideological yet experienced acutely in everyday life, written on their skin. But Amina, poetically yet lucidly, renders these encounters and enables us to see the experience from the perspective of the Other. The work resounds with questions and notes to self: ‘Who is in and who is out? Who is beautiful and who is not?’, Amina asks. ‘If you change your Brown name to a white name does it mean every time you write your name you are signing your own internalised racist constitution?’ 

Another major concern is the manipulation of material history and the representation of artefacts in ways that distort the record: ‘You read the small print next to the artefact, the one your ancestors or you never signed. The looters’ words and their version of history.’ Of course, as Amina reminds us, ‘The word looted is never written’. But against ‘the looters’ words and their version of history’, she offers her own.

A third of the way into 06C33, we are confronted with two floor plans of the British Museum. The first, ‘Before the Apology’, details the familiar cultural ‘loot’ of the British empire: Shiva Nataraja, the Rosetta Stone, the Parthenon sculptures. The second imagines the museum ‘After the Apology’, when ‘All artefacts have been returned to their country of origin’. The result is a transformed collection, beginning with ‘The British Woman’, from Boudica to Queen Elizabeth II (by way of Sophia Duleep Singh), followed by a journey through pre-historical, Roman, medieval, and early modern history. The alternate exhibition culminates in ‘Empire, Sea Power, and the Apology’. Amina’s reimagination of the British Museum organises the collection into a more accurate narrative of theft and repatriation, of colonial plunder, the slow and difficult creep of accountability, and finally contrition, apology and amendment. This is undoubtedly a more fitting rendition of British history than the eclectic imperial swag boasted unjustly by the museum today.

Many works take up only one page. This tightness of form lends an episodic quality, but key themes return, given more detailed elaboration as the text develops. ‘The difference in behaviour is subtle’, for example, unpacks some of the issues raised in ‘Name’, noting how being treated differently ‘becomes a recognisable behavioural pattern because of its repeated occurrence’. Amina goes from relating this prejudice and discrimination (‘Then there are the outright insults which make it clear they think you and your kind are uncivilised’) to striking a defiant tone as she recounts how she learned to respond to racism: 

When I was younger, too shy and with no confidence, I could not say anything in return. Later when I am older and I need to make rent I still can’t say anything. Years later, I still need to make rent but I have changed. I can calmly bring my voice to an authoritative level and say something in my soft Lancashire accent which lets them know the ‘Raj’ fucking ended in 1947.

Throughout the text, the weight of ancestry and history press down on Amina’s reflections as she carries, quarries, and questions the burden of cultural inheritance: ‘Where does my history begin?’ ‘Do the ancestors with their memories come and stand by our door, or maybe stand by our bed as we sleep?’ she asks. ‘Does the idea of our Brown ancestors being a coolie, in servitude, slavery, enduring the insults and the beatings, stay with us in our subconscious?’ 

Above all, one event stands out in this tangled knot of history and heritage. As the above passage suggests, ‘partition’ reverberates throughout text. But, as Amina shows us, it echoes throughout history, too, in more ways than one. The word not only describes the appallingly short-sighted and arbitrary Partition of India in 1947, a few lines drawn carelessly on a map Cyril Radcliffe, displacing tens of millions of people, causing millions of deaths by stoking religious conflict, and continuing to to be a source of instability in the region today. ‘Partition’ also shapes the identities of those British-Indians, like Amina, at the border of two societies, one foot in each culture, a deep knowledge of and love for both – yet never fully at home in either. The beauty of 06C33 is its attempt to heal these partitions, not by forgetting or turning away from history but by confronting it, rethreading it, and rewriting collective and personal narratives in ways that make empathy, sympathy, and solidarity visible and possible.

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Josh Mcloughlin is a writer from Merseyside, UK. He is editor-in-chief of New Critique, a Wolfson Scholar in the Humanities at University College London, and he was shortlisted for the Jane Martin Poetry Prize 2019. His work is published or forthcoming with The Times, The Spectator, The London Magazine, The Fence, Review 31, and elsewhere.