‘So we have easy access to exotic cuisine from every corner of the globe; we”re overwhelmed by nutritional advice and information; spoilt for choice. Why should this affluence cause us to over-eat or under-eat? Why should it make us so dissatisfied with our own bodies, and create an obsession with thin? It has, I think caused a crisis of confidence. When everything is available, nothing is ever enough.’
– Emma Woolf, The Ministry of Thin
It is 2013 and modern Britain has merged with the painted world of Lucian Freud. The focus, always, is on the body. Mounds of soft flesh and protruding hip bones are equally politicised and scrutinised in endless discussions of obesity, anorexia, wealth and vanity. Some, like Emma Woolf, posit that our obsession with weight is linked to affluence and an excess of choice, whilst others think we simply live the wrong lifestyle, a lifestyle too far detached from raucous cross country lessons and solid-grub lunches.
The voices say we are inundated with images that make schoolgirls stop eating and start plucking, tanning, dying and cutting instead. But if there is one thing more prevalent than these oft-discussed Images, then it is probably the voices themselves. My body, once too bulbous to fit in hand-me-down uniform, is no longer just a thing for my mother to despair over, but is also a topic to be discussed in parliament; a sandwich board advertising my views to the world. If the hair is undercut but the armpits are waxed, where does that place the body on the continuum of Feminism, closer to bad or closer to good?
We talk, often without conclusion and if we do pinpoint a reason for why bodies have gone wrong, we are at a loss as to what to do with that reason. If, for instance, affluence is the problem, then is the adoption of Franciscan poverty the answer? Of course not, because we’d never be able to sell anything that way.
Spoken word poet Vanessa Kisuule does not waste time trying to fathom why we are as we are – fat or skinny, old or young, female or male, black or white – she just takes up the subject, wiggles inside it and then, only then, starts smashing it into pieces. I spend a few hours with her in a coffee shop and quickly realise she is the best company I have had in ages. Especially during the summer months, I deliberately avoid talking to females about bodies, out of fear of getting drawn into the usual self-loathing dross about bikinis and bottoms. Vanessa, however, is not only far more interesting and perceptive than most females, but most humans in general. We take a seat on the sofa and I ask her to tell me about Flesh, the work she most recently performed at the Smoke and Mirrors in Bristol.
This is a poem about flesh. About being in it and wanting to be out of it. How we try and fail to crawl our way out of our own and push our way into other people’s. What we put in our flesh and what exudes, protrudes, pulses, sings and sighs from our flesh. This is a show about the secrets bubbling under someone’s skin. This is a poem about my flesh and your flesh. Our flesh. One big, messy, bleeding mass of the stuff.
The short stories that form the narrative of this fleshly poem are not made of the typical characters that make up the debates on body image or weight. There is no over-sexualized child or fast food-chomping male on the dole. Instead the characters are much quieter, much more nuanced. They are the sympathetic people you actually know, but whose voices, somehow, never make it into any newspaper or journal article. So we have a two prepubescent best friends obliviously wrestling on the living room floor, until the first bloody stain on M&S panties and the views of the school bullies bang up a horrible wall between them. The mother trying in vein to prevent her black skinned daughter from ever feeling the need to relax her hair and lighten her skin with bleaches sold by specters. And the rotund son – always a son, despite now being an adult – working sad shifts in a care home, where the residents exist through memories of their youth whilst his congeals.
The characters ‘wander into my brain’ says Vanessa, and then she simply tires to make them ‘say the things they might say if they were a bit braver’.
Speaking up is a re-occurring theme to our conversation and to the creation of the poem. British people, she thinks, do not talk enough about bodies or even enough about anything else. ‘There is a lot of complaining through the corners of our lips. A lot of harrumph, harrumph.’
And whilst she loves the British and their inability to take themselves seriously, this in-articulation can feed into a culture of shame. ‘If you do not talk, that is where shame comes from’. Not all is gloomy though, as she feels we are getting somewhere with shows like Embarrassing Bodies which normalise the un-airbrushed form and, more importantly, the discussion of it.
Vanessa’s own words, both on-stage and off, come pouring out in enviably eloquent streams. When I saw her stand on stage reading Flesh, I had that unsettling feeling of wishing I had written it myself whilst knowing it would have been far less good if I had. She seems like someone on the verge of being a star, the woman who – not least for having supported her – you could go tabloid and label ‘the next Kate Tempest’, and yet you also wouldn’t because she seems, if not entirely uninterested in fame, then simply interested in too many different things to focus her attention just on being the most famous spoken word poet.
Aside from continuing to write, she also has plans to stage workshops in girls’ schools and work with the pupils on deconstructing the model of female aesthetics that is ‘making a generation of women mentally ill’. The aim, however, will not be ‘to Dove them’ and to patronise them from a pedestal position, but ‘to go on that journey with them’ and to encourage them to ‘fucking think for themselves’.
A singular spell in hospital left Vanessa not only appreciating ‘20 years of dancing and moving’ but also conscious of how ‘incredible’ it is that ‘your body fights for you’. If, perhaps, we ‘rip the whole thing to shreds and start again’, it might enable us to value ‘a body that looks like it functions and does what it is supposed to do’, instead of only valuing plasticised constructions of aesthetics.
The themes that run through Flesh are also at work in One Last Thing, the play Vanessa and friends are taking to the Edinburg Fringe this summer. Written by Vanessa, One Last Thing is an episodic piece which focus on vocalising ‘the things people are too scared to say’. It will be performed every day for two weeks of the festival – an exhausting but truly exciting prospect.
It will be her first big attempt at writing a play, after getting into spoken word poetry at around age 15. An older Canadian cousin introduced her to the form via YouTube videos when they were both visiting family in Uganda. The cousin was ‘really into slam poetry’ and although she was unsure at first, she ended up spending whole days watching poetry performances on the internet. This culminated in writing and performing one of her own which, when greeted by enthusiasm from friends, she concluded was ‘not completely shit’. Since then, she has become a very well-received face on the spoken word poetry scene, winning the Saboteur award for best spoken word poet in May 2013 and supporting Tempest in April – all whilst completing an English Literature degree at Bristol University.
As a black female, the pressure to write poetry directly addressing these two factors is certainly there. However, although the issue is something she ‘can’t run from’, there is much more of a desire to ‘come at something from being a human’, rather than as a black female. ‘I can’t represent a denomination or a race…I can only speak for myself, and I am constantly changing’, she say, before unnecessarily apologising for another ‘really long answer’.
Her desire to place being a human before being a certain colour and sex sits well with the way the body is approached in Flesh. Instead of getting a discussion of the body which really talks about gender and race and age, we get the voiced experience of actually having a body – a surprisingly absent thing in Britain right now.