Scaachi Koul, a writer for BuzzFeed, grew up in Calgary, the daughter of Indian immigrants. (Here’s her take on how to pronounce her first name; her last name has to be “cool” because she is. Or else she’s badass. Take your pick.) In “One Day We’ll All Be Dead and None of This Will Matter,” Koul reflects on life as a brown woman in Canada. The essays dig deep at complicated topics: how to travel if you’re a worrier. Her relationship with her parents now that she’s an adult. The white man she lives with. His relationship with her parents. These topics are tangled together emotionally as the boyfriend (Koul refers to him as “Hamhock”) likes to travel. Koul frets every time a plane hits turbulence. She says she’s never been brave, and she’s inherited the habit of worrying from her parents. It can feel smothering, but also just right. As Koul writes, “Nothing bad can happen to you if you’re with your mom . . . Your mom is your blood and bone before your body even knows how to make any.”
There’s a funny riff about men on Twitter who, in contrast to women who tend to care about equal wages, abortion, catcalling, “cannot be called upon for consistent outrage.” It’s a small step from outrage to online harassment, and Koul has experienced a lot of both. “For those of us who are not in a position of power–us non-white people, those who are trans or queer or whatever it is that identifies us as inherently different — the internet means the world has a place to scream at us,” she writes. The screaming is often toxic and threatening. Instead of ignoring her interlocutors, Koul describes interacting with them. At first she responded with quotes from “Good Will Hunting;” later, genuinely curious, she asked them about themselves. Many were traumatized. Koul writes, “They were almost all very angry men – men whose wives had left, their children taken, or who had been replaced in a job by a woman or non-white person.” But even attempts to understand were not enough, and eventually Koul shut down her Twitter account
Not for Koul the abstracted generalities – women this, people that. In an essay about standards of beauty Koul writes about the very specific – a hair growing out of her nipple – and then moves on to hair on the rest of her. Puberty hits us all, but for Koul it was all about hair. She writes, “Almost overnight, I looked over the expanse of my body and noticed sharp, dark, thick hairs sprouting all over me. I was covered in hair by the sixth grade . . . My hair came in so think and unrelenting and widespread that by fourteen my mother was investing in countless implements to make removing it easier.” Which brings her to skin color and how her brown skin in Canada becomes white (or white-ish) in India. She writes that this “is maybe what it’s like to be white. People who look like me in India are assumed to be higher class, in better socio-economic standing, more educated…I and my family [are] benefiting from decades of racial advantage.”
It’s because she’s both an insider and, despite having been born in Canada, an outsider, that Koul is able to take a deep, thoughtful and penetrating look at aspects of North American culture. Like drinking. Or rape. Or drinking and rape. Koul includes a devastating analysis of a bar/club culture that we take as the way the world is, one that puts women at risk. She begins with what all women know to be true: that men watch women all the time. She writes, “Men watch women in a way we’ve long since normalized. . . Men watch women at the gym, at work, on the subway: in any space occupied by men and women, the women are being watched.” It’s not true of all men, or even all men in bars, but some may be there to pick drunk women up, and sleep with them. If a woman accepts drinks and refuses sex, well, it’s a short step to rape. Rape is not an accident, Koul writes, though it’s often described as one.
[R]ape culture doesn’t flourish by error: it’s a methodical operation so ingrained in our public consciousness that we don’t even notice when it’s happening, and we rarely call it out even when we do see it…What a coincidence that rapists so frequently seem to find women who are drunk.
Koul’s discussion of what she calls this culture of surveillance and the resulting male entitlement is an important addition to the conversation we’ve been having about around trials, like that of the Stanford rapists. Koul writes, “Rapists exist on a spectrum, and maybe this attentive version is the most dangerous type: women are so used to being watched that we don’t notice when someone’s watching us for the worst reason imaginable.” It’s a compelling and memorable description of a culture we accede to.
Transporting, insightful, and frequently hilarious, ODWABDANOTWM is a collection you won’t want to miss.
Have a book you want me to know about? Email me at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow me on Twitter @abowie917.