Poly Styrene: I am a Cliché – Documentary directed by Paul Sng and Celeste Bell (UK, 2021)

 

I am a Cliché was released in January 2021 and has been playing mostly through streaming outlets and festivals since the summer. The film gives a rare glimpse into the soul of Marianne Elliot Said aka Poly Styrene, the brilliant, iconoclastic frontwoman for British punk band X-Ray Spex. It’s a sensitive and compelling piece co-directed by her daughter, Celeste Bell, and Paul Sng.

Bell explores her mother’s journey through the challenges that confronted her as a biracial, non-conformist artist, celebrating her life and her art and offering inspiration to future generations of artists. Other than two LPs with X-Ray Spex and a couple of solo albums, very little information remains about Poly Styrene, in contrast to the volumes of material available on her white male contemporaries (such as the Sex Pistols’ John Lydon). This film is a precious document that counters the ongoing erasure of BIPOC presence in the arts.

In addition to the documentary aspect of the film, Bell very deftly constructs a narrative that weaves in the complex and sometimes difficult relationship that she had with her mother, “A punk rock icon,” a famous figure, far removed from the flesh-and-blood person that she knew.

July 3, 1976 was the fateful day when Marianne Elliot Said started on the path to become Poly Styrene. She was hanging out on Hastings Pier on the day of her 19th birthday. She saw the Sex Pistols perform live for the first time. It was a life-changing moment. After a year hitchhiking across Britain seeking a purpose, she collided with it on her birthday!


Poly Styrene: I Am A Cliché, Official Trailer

This documentary may not have happened if Celeste Bell hadn’t explored her mother’s archives. It took Bell five years to process the loss of her mother. When she opened up those archives, she found photos, lyrics, albums… a variety of things of great value and cultural importance. She says she was “blown away” by the quality of her mother’s artistry. She wrote the songs and did all the artwork for the band herself. A number of Poly Styrene’s peers are interviewed in the film and there is broad consensus that she was one of the leading exponents of punk rock and certainly one of the most interesting and gifted songwriters to surface from the new wave.

Neneh Cherry relates how “… the first time I heard Poly’s voice, it was like an awakening for me. There were a lot of men around, but obviously, being a woman and being a young woman, I think Poly being a woman of colour on that scene was another reason why she became a huge role model for me, and I actually started singing because of her, to be perfectly honest.”

Marianne Elliot Said chose “Poly Styrene” as her stage name by looking through the Yellow Pages. “I thought I would use the name of something around today. You know, something plastic and synthetic – and I just looked in the yellow pages and then I saw it. It sounded alright, it was a send-up of being a pop star. Like a little figure, not me – Poly Styrene, just plastic, disposable.

That’s what pop stars sort of meant to me, so therefore I thought I might as well send it up.”

The film takes us through Poly Styrene’s childhood growing up in a poor family in the Gosling Way estate flats in post-war London. There was no separate bathroom and the flat was heated with two coal fireplaces. Her single mother, Joan, or ‘nannie’ as Marianne Elliot Said and her sister called her, worked full-time as a legal secretary.

Joan had met Poly’s father at a dance. He was a handsome and dapper Somalian immigrant with impeccable style. He asked her to dance, sweeping her off her feet. Poly’s sister recounts how their mother ended up with no friends: “They saw her as a black man’s whore. It was bad enough being a single mother but being a mother with half-black children was hey hey! The white community really shunned ‘nannie.’”

Poly Styrene struggled with her status as a “half-caste,” fitting in with neither the white kids nor the black ones: “When a white person looks at a mixed-race child, they think, My God, a white person went with a black person or vice versa. It’s their genes really. They want to preserve themselves. Because they see us as a threat to their genetic existence.”

Poly recognized the importance of identity early on. Although a born and bred Londoner, she was constantly questioned about where she was from. She developed a yearning for Africa and daydreamed about running away from England, where she never felt at home: “I wanna go back to Africa, learn about my heritage and how my ancestors lived. ’Cause all I’ve seen is Jungle Book. And I know that ain’t the way it looks. I grew up on Tarzan too. What can you do? I’m going to cross Ethiopia, see that ancient land, and then I’ll go to Somalia, barefoot across the sand.”

She found no role models in the media or in the music business. There were no Black women to be seen on the front pages of fashion magazines of the day. She was one of a handful of women of colour working in an industry full of white middle-class men. So she felt that it was up to her to carve out her own identity.

Poly Styrene was very much into the DIY ethic that characterized early British punk culture. She made her own clothes, wrote her own songs and came up with the artwork for her albums herself: “Clothes are never really you. That’s why people wear them. Cause you can just create an image with clothes. They’re just part of the facade. Which is good fun to play with sometimes.” She placed an ad in the Melody Maker in 1976 that said: “Young punx who want to stick it together.” She auditioned the band members herself, and X-Ray Spex was born.


Punk Britannia at the BBC:  X-Ray Spex – The Day The World Turned Day-Glo (TOTP 1978)

Rhoda Dakar (The Body Snatchers/The Specials) recalls the explosion of punk rock in the 1970s in Britain: “We were embraced by punk because punk was full of people who nobody else wanted. We were welcomed because we were already outsiders.”

“Some people think little girls should be seen and not heard,

but I think: Oh bondage, up yours!”

~ Poly Styrene – “Bondage Up Yours”

“Bondage Up Yours!” was a call to arms against oppression for women and young people of colour in Britain. The song was rejected for radio and television because of the superficially BDSM theme of the lyrics: “I was just talking about all forms of bondage, you know, oppression and everything else. Sexual bondage stems from that… it’s all part of the same thing really. It all depends which way you take it… yeah, it’s to do with all bondage. And it’s bondage because it hasn’t been played, and that proves it as well. That’s bondage in itself.”

Poly Styrene explored themes in her music that were far from the typical punk rock fare, including genetic engineering, mass media control, the environment, disposable fashion, and society’s obsession with cleanliness. The artifice of the music industry and its insincerity influenced her, and she imagined a future dystopic plastic synthetic universe where the natural world has retreated. The final triumph of everything that’s fake.

Another theme that runs through much of Poly Styrene’s work is that of consumerism. “It wasn’t a conscious attempt to be clever. I just thought that I’d write about all these plastic things because they seemed to be creeping in more and more. Which is why New York totally blew me apart. I saw everything that I’d been writing about in extreme, but for real. For them it wasn’t a joke, it was the way they lived. For me it was all a joke – play with it, indulge it, have fun with it because there’s not really that much of that over here… but when you go there, it’s so bad that you think, God if that’s what it’s going to be like, I don’t want it.”

Over time, her songs were evolving to reflect how her feelings were changing; she wanted to reflect those changes in her music. She had started to branch out of the political power pop of X-Ray Spex, fusing pop, rock, funk and reggae into a rich and at times playful tapestry of sounds that only a rapidly maturing artist like herself could pull off.

She was misunderstood by the media, which wanted more of the original X-Ray Spex brashness. Poly Styrene had already moved on. A diary entry from the time reads: “I muse over the future and all it may bring. I open Pandora’s box of hope. I envision a time in the distant future when synthetics rule. The downside is, humankind will destroy the natural environment; the upside, burgers will be cruelty-free veggie rubber buns.”

Unfortunately, her solo album Translucence, which featured her outspoken political views but showed a more vulnerable and introspective side of her, was a commercial flop that led her to leave the music scene in spite of her optimism.

By the time Bell was born, Poly had left her punk phase far behind. She never really considered herself a punk, nor was she limited by the formula of punk. However, she recognized that the scene was the perfect vehicle for her own creative transformation.

Marianne Elliot Said and her daughter, Celeste Bell (Source: Twitter)

 

The latter part of the film deals with Poly’s disenchantment with her life as a punk/pop star and the decline in her health. She is confined after a misdiagnosis of schizophrenia. A later evaluation confirms that she was actually suffering from bipolar disorder. After withdrawing from public life, she found happiness and spiritual growth in the Hare Krishna movement, taking her daughter to live with her for a while at Bhaktivedanta Manor in Watford.

Sadly, cancer took Poly Styrene from us in 2011. She leaves a long legacy of accomplishments, including a memorable performance in 1978 at the Rock Against Racism rallies in Victoria Park, London, triggered by Eric Clapton’s drunken outburst in which he praised Enoch Powell’s anti-immigrant philosophies and called for Britain to remain “white.”

Her legacy includes two superlative and hugely inspiring albums with X-Ray Spex, Germfree Adolescents (1978) and Conscious Consumer (1995); her solo albums, Translucence (1980) and Flower Aeroplane (2004); and her final album, Generation Indigo (2011).

 

A selection of artefacts from Poly Styrene’s archives (Source: film’s official website)

 

 

 

 

 

 

Run J Run, by Su J Sokol, Renaissance Press, 2019

 

Run J Run, Sokol’s latest novel, was published in May this year by Renaissance Press, a publishing company whose roster features writing that doesn’t fit into a standard genre, niche or demographic and which hopes to uplift marginalized voices. Sokol’s beautifully detailed and poignant writing fits perfectly into the mandate that Renaissance has established.

Sokol describes herself as an “activist and a writer of speculative, liminal, and interstitial fiction.” She immigrated to Canada with her family in 2004 from New York City, where she was a legal services lawyer. She now makes Montréal her home and it is here that she practises both her art and her activism. In addition to her writing, Sokol works as a social rights advocate for a Montréal community organization.

Cycling to Asylum, Su’s debut novel, was long-listed for the Sunburst Award for Excellence in Canadian Literature of the Fantastic. Her short fiction and reviews have appeared in a number of magazines and anthologies. Su also curates and participates in readings and literary events in Canada and abroad.

On her web site, Sokol describes the novel as “a riveting tale of friendship, love, and chosen family. Using the tools of psychological drama and erotica, it presents a compelling critique of both the treatment of mental illness in our society and the false boundaries we construct in our personal relationships.”

We follow three principal characters who are close friends, as they navigate the challenges that life presents to them. Jeremy, a high school English teacher, grapples with a failed marriage and the loss of his brother. Through the processing of this grief he unexpectedly falls in love with his best friend, Zak. Attractive, wildly unconventional, seemingly happy in an open and loving relationship with his partner Annie, Zak seems to embody everything missing from Jeremy’s life. The arrest and death of a marginalized student at the Brooklyn high school where they both teach trigger Zak’s mental breakdown and slow descent. Jeremy and Annie are compelled to cross boundaries, both external and internal, in a desperate attempt to save him. Run J Run celebrates the day-to-day heroism and the humanity of ordinary, flawed individuals faced with trauma, loss, and marginalization.

I really liked the depiction of a non-traditional family in a way that honoured their journey. We learn of the struggles that face them, from daily challenges to the ongoing fight with mental health issues. In addition to all this, as individuals and as a family, they suffer the attitudes of society and are marginalized simply because of their family structure. The novel explores how society can react to marginalized identities, both individual and collective, in ways that are not accepting or are even oppressive, and how we can sometimes internalize such oppressions and turn them on ourselves. The lesson emerging from the story is that family structures and the relationships that characterize them, whether traditional or not, are fundamentally human, and hope lies in our individual and collective search for our authenticity and our compassion at a human level.

While not articulated expressly, the social and political conscience that emerges from the story is perhaps best represented through the character of Annie. Her individual narrative, her reassurance, the compassion and the quiet strength she brings to the challenges that her family is confronted with, ultimately help us identify and understand the structures and values that exist beyond those that patriarchal and hetero-normative societies impose.

As someone who lives in a non-traditional family structure myself, the story resonated in profound ways for me. Such eloquent narration and representation of the story of this fictional family provide valuable images and models that are not broadly expressed or represented. This narrative, these images, legitimize and celebrate the triumphs of this non-traditional family as it navigates through the maze of life overlaid with the additional challenges of mental illness, depression and a desire of one of its members to take his own life. The story leaves us with hope and the sense that if we are to evolve, it is the attention to our humanity that will move us further, and compassion is the light that will guide us along this path.

Brilliant and compelling with moments of rare beauty, I found this novel hard to put down. Highly recommended!

 

 

My Undiscovered Country by Cyril Dabydeen, Mosaic Press (2018), 129 pages

 

Cyril Dabydeen is a Canadian writer born in 1945 in Canje, Guyana, where he worked as a teacher. He came to Canada in 1970 to study at Lakehead University and later at Queen’s University. He is a prolific writer of poetry and prose, and his work has been included in numerous anthologies published in Canada, the U.S.A., the U.K., India and New Zealand. Dabydeen was appointed Poet Laureate of Ottawa from 1985 to 1987. He worked for many years in the areas of human rights and race relations, and later taught English at Algonquin College in Ottawa. He now teaches creative writing at the University of Ottawa, and lives in the nation’s capital.

Dabydeen has been associated with the idea of multiculturalism, both for his writing and for his work in race relations and human rights as a consultant and an expert on Canadian diversity. Like many Canadian writers, artists and cultural workers with roots in or links to minority communities, Dabydeen’s position on multiculturalism seems to have evolved over time. While he has been critical of multiculturalism in the past, he and others have contributed, through their art and cultural work, to the evolution of multiculturalism away from essentialism or a focus on “origins.”

One could perhaps argue that the focus on culture of origin that was at the root of the ideal of multiculturalism also contributed to the sense that Canadians did not have a common identity. Our collective identity was characterized as a “mosaic” of communities, each defined by the state, using perceived distinguishing and immutable characteristics, seen as exclusive to each community. While superficially celebrating difference, this approach inevitably resulted in the creation of static cultural or racial profiles that simply perpetuated a sense of dislocation and erected systemic barriers to the evolution of mutual understanding and exchange across and between communities and larger Canadian society.

Over time, with the efforts of writers like Dabydeen, as well as aware artists and cultural workers from minority communities, we can see a shift happening towards a more dynamic understanding of multiculturalism as a reflection of Canadian society as it exists and evolves as a whole, and the recognition of the cultural diversity that exists and evolves therein.

In My Undiscovered Country, Dabydeen continues this journey of discovery with a series of short stories that explore the question of who is a Canadian and what it means to be a Canadian.

Dabydeen is very much at ease with characters and identities that are complex and multi-layered. This collection includes stories that juxtapose motifs from life in Guyana with those of life in a big city in Canada. He eschews the need to deconstruct or analyze with a heavy hand, but rather lets his characters be. They are living, breathing individuals who interact with each other and with the state. It is through their sharing memories, regrets, pains, hopes and dreams that we get to know them and understand their realities. It is also through this process that Dabydeen communicates his vision of a multiculturalism that is more dynamic and inclusive and allows for cultural values and identities that are fluid and adaptive to the realities of a culturally and racially diverse society.

His vision also moves us away from a superficial sense of “this” or “that” – the binary duality – towards a deeper sense of the interconnectedness of individuals across Canadian society. While recognizing individual differences, the focus is shifted to places where we interact with each other and share experiences, good or bad, and to how these exchanges affect our evolution as a society, and ultimately our humanity.

Undiscovered Country,” the story that shares its title with the book, is a first-person narrated look at “Dacana,” a country, part imagination, part reality, where Dabydeen explores notions of belonging in a country with which he is engaged in an ongoing process of discovery.

Let me tell you straight, Dacanians are not an insecure people; and, they’re tolerant of others. They’re often generous to newcomers, what’s deep in their spirit. But from time to time you hear on the TV and radio talk-shows people railing against…who?

Terrorists?

Dacanians like newcomers to express gratitude for being here, for it makes them feel good about themselves, especially with the great big maw to the south still opening up. In the harsh winter months with the cold in my bones, I will say thank-you! Oh yes, “always work hard,” said the immigration officer handing me the official papers.

I will.

The stories in the collection touch on a variety of themes. The societal impact on collective understanding of minority identities based on static cultural profiling, including the emergence of a movement of intolerance and the undercurrent of racism, is explored in “Being Canadian.” In “Life with Ming, he appears as himself in a dialogue or interview of sorts with one of his created characters, Ming, a Chinese woman, who was once an English teacher in China and now works as a clerk in a government department. In addition to sharing their respective histories, Ming is curious about being a writer. This device allows Dabydeen to reveal aspects of his identity and his vision. The story also explores the paradox for him of writing in English, the language of the colonizer.

“The Committee” is perhaps the story that deals most explicitly with multiculturalism and the debate surrounding its perceived strengths and shortcomings. While the social and cultural analysis is engaging in and of itself, the depth of the story and the insight that it presents to the reader come from the skill with which Dabydeen communicates the discomfort that members of cultural minorities can experience working within state structures.

The remaining stories explore related themes with narratives drawn from Dabydeen’s personal and professional experiences as a writer and a teacher. With each story, whether through the narrative or the dialogues between characters, Dabydeen shares his reflections about Canadian society and the social and cultural dynamics it harbors. His is a style that is lyrical, engaging and insightful. My Undiscovered Country is a must read for anyone interested in the evolution of multiculturalism in Canada!