This article by poet, essayist and independent researcher Momtaza Mehri is part of the Spread the Word series, commissioned for the SLG’s Convergence programme.
Please note, this text refers to sexual violence.
The sea invites epiphanies. In Federico Fellini’s 1953 classic I vitelloni, five unemployed layabouts spend a deserted Sunday ambling along its inching edge. Aimless melancholy saturates their post-war seaside lives. I May Destroy You, a critically acclaimed BBC and HBO co-production, follows another meandering twenty-something submerged in Ostia’s waters. The show stars its creator Michaela Coel as Arabella, a flailing writer grappling with the aftermath of sexual assault. Initially, we witness Arabella struggling to meet a looming deadline after a brief stint in Italy visiting a noncommittal, drug-dealing lover. A Twitter personality and author of the PDF-friendly self-published sensation Chronicles of a Fed-Up Millennial, Arabella has a lot to live up to. One episode in, we are plunged into the clamour of performance anxiety and fevered procrastination. Arabella spends more time avoiding writing than actually writing, a bitterly accurate portrait of fidgety self-sabotage. Faced with the terror of the blank page, she distracts herself by partying with her friend Simon (Aml Ameen) at a bar duly named Ego Death. There, the rest of the night melts into a haze of drugs and friendly strangers. Arabella’s drink is spiked. She wakes to foggy recollections of being violated in a dirty toilet cubicle, a depressingly familiar scenario.
I May Destroy You unspools this assault’s gnawing consequences, portraying Arabella’s quest to determine — and potentially reconcile with — what has occurred. Her closest friends, Terry (Weruche Opia) and Kwame (Paapa Essiedu), support her while hesitantly testing their own boundaries. In their world, consent is a murky terrain of anguished complexity, retroactive clarity and presentist shibboleths that characters attempt to hack a path through in their own frustratingly human ways. I have been unable to stop thinking about this show and how deftly it exceeds the cacophonic focus on the neon-emblazoned Big Issues it wears on its sleeve. Yes, violence is its tenor. Violences in their multiplicities. How can an individual attempt to heal when their very professional life depends upon the cannibalisation of their pain? How do you begin to move on when self-promotion relies on the incessant prodding and baring of your wounds?
These contradictions haunt Arabella’s creative life, making the show a difficult watch in less obvious ways. We know this ambivalence as the writer’s predicament, or at least the predicament of a certain kind of writer. A kind who fits within an evolving taxonomy that is tricky to define, unless you are stiflingly defined by it. Arabella is trying to be more than this kind of writer, except when she is forced to be this kind of writer in order to survive. Less of a simplistic archetype, hers is an authorial voice of amalgamations; attitudinal trends shared within peer groups, half-baked ideological commitments, marketing savvy, behavioural tics and the unchecked impulses of digital natives. Perhaps more than any other television offering since Lena Dunham’s gloriously excruciating Girls, I May Destroy You picks at the scabrous surface of the ‘millennial’ authorial self. Disclaimer: I am not a believer in generational pseudoscience. Generational cohorts often hold as much analytical weight as blood type theory or, even worse, neo-Jungian typology. I do, however, recognize the utility of ‘millennial’ as clunky shorthand for the kind of lifestyle precarity currently overrepresented within a cultural landscape that can imagine all manner of horrors and dismantled taboos except for the conventional plight of writers who remains broke and unfulfilled long past the age of thirty-five, after which point what was once aspirationally bohemian quickly becomes embarrassing.
The millennial authorial self eschews categorisation even as it proliferates across streaming platforms, indie filmmaking, novels, memoirs, treatises, Web 2.0, polling discourse, and other popular arenas of cultural mystification. How to define the peculiar condition of such a peculiar creature? It is a voice, an author-function, inherently bogged down with gendered trappings. It isn’t restricted to women’s writing, but it is a label that sticks most adhesively to women. It is aggressively hip, Left-leaning, and is often a grouping elastic enough to include all those confined within its feminised register of confessional relatability. The millennial authorial self inspires, drafting writers into a variety of alternating roles; soothsayer, activist, content-churner, influencer, tastemaker, clotheshorse, lifestyle coach, interlocutor. Above all, this kind of writer is a survivor with an enthusiastic readership animated by their sheer transparency. Their pain is incandescently translucent. Stare at it for too long and you’ll flinch. Look away and you’ll miss the action. You could say this pain has an irresistibly centripetal force of its own. Likeability can be another gendered trap of articulation. Men who write, even men who indulge their authorial selves, do not have to bear the indignities of being likeable. Foucault’s Western man may be a confessional animal, but at least he doesn’t have to be kookily relatable. Likeability hinges on the erection and maintenance of pedestals, and pedestals are unforgiving balancing acts. To climb up is to always risk being pulled down.
This is the gordian knot I May Destroy You refuses to untangle in its portrayal of a creative precariat who exploit and are exploited by a regime of relatability. Arabella’s universe is one where trauma is fossilised, adorned in the language of resilience, and sold at a premium rate to an ever-expanding community of committed readers and voyeuristic onlookers. There are books to be pumped out, advances to be frittered away, lists to top, connections to be made. Cixous’s Medusa laughs all the way to the bank. This time, she’s a Black woman wandering the streets of London. The show represents the type of micro-celebrity this breeds as a Faustian bargain. Passersby are just as likely to gushingly quote Arabella’s words back at her as they are to mock her declined debit card. Others compulsively disclose their deepest traumas to her at the drop of a hat. This is the group therapy of the fanbase, the romance of autofictive kinship, the endless feedback loop of relatability.
The traumatological turn mimics capitalistic models of extraction and fetishisation. I am reminded of this passage from Patricia Yaeger’s essay Consuming Trauma; or, The Pleasures of Merely Circulating, a provocation that reflects on, amongst other concerns, Biko, Bobby Sands, and Billie Holiday’s estranged fruit.
‘Differently positioned (not only not incarcerated, but at relative leisure to pursue polymorphous political passions), liberal academics also reproduce for themselves and their students stories of trauma, structural violence, systematic injustice, slaughter, inequality. These painful stories — about deterritorialization, decolonization, people pushed past the margins, bodies brutalized, children victimized, populations dying, in exile — suggest a world of subsemantic history that demands the weight of political speech. At the same time (or within the same heterodox space but under another name), we inhabit an academic world that is busy consuming trauma — busy eating, swallowing, perusing, consuming, exchanging, circulating, creating professional connections — through its stories about the dead. We are obsessed with stories that must be passed on, that must not be passed over. But aren’t we also drawn to these stories from within an elite culture driven by its own economies: by the pains and pleasures of needing to publish, by salaries and promotions that are themselves driven by acts of publication, by, among other forces, the pleasures of merely circulating?’
Arabella’s generational relatability as a writer is both threatened and bolstered when she reveals her struggles with her audience. Troubled by the sterile professionalization of a publishing industry run by fancy ‘business people’, she leans into a strategy of confessional activism. From exposing a stealther at a writing summit to chronic Instagram oversharing, Coel scratches beneath Arabella’s righteous political fury to explore the relationship between going postal and going viral. The late-night substance-induced social media spiral sublimates trauma into meme material. For Arabella, relatability becomes both a coping mechanism and marketing tool. We are left unsure as to who it serves and who it profits.
In a digital terrain of chaotically disaggregated publics, public intellectuals with mass appeal increasingly seem like an endangered species. Everyone’s an expert, which means no one really is. Timeline deconstructionists and thought leaders are the best primed to flip virality into book deals. This has been especially transformative for those who would have never benefited from, or been invited into, the halls of power where intellectuals of yore were anointed. These halls are crumbling now, and along with them the attendant fantasies of illustrious, well-compensated careers in media, print journalism, and academia. You will never trade witticisms in front of Charlie Rose’s trademark black backdrop, but you can still have the extremely online masses eating out of your hand. I May Destroy You is a disorientating critique of the newly-minted strata of literary fame Arabella inhabits. Arabella’s shrewd publishers and agents salivate at the prospect of her commodifiable, relatable trauma. They know mastering its performance can catapult careers. The millennial authorial self has the ability to shift copies and conversations while the writers themselves have little control over how their personas are moulded. But this is hardly an original plight. What’s noteworthy is how little kicking against the cage there seems to be amongst a milieu that prides itself on its transgressive values and politicised idiosyncrasy,
Financial precarity remains a niggling constant. Advances bleed away and housemates with real jobs become lifelines. Arabella’s situation reflects working-class writers who enjoy name recognition and a thriving readership while still surviving paycheck to paycheck. Sexual violence is as banally quotidian as the exploitative dynamics within creative industries which parasitically ascribe moral value to suffering. To invoke the poet Doris Davenport, one must graciously accept the rewards of suffering. They want ‘poems about suffering, and inspiration to keep suffering and being a sucker to inspiration and that the rewards of suffering are inspirational and spiritual’. Amidst London’s pressure cooker of sky-high living costs and palpable class rage, Arabella and her friends are disempowered across bedrooms and workplaces. Terry is a jobbing actor and Kwame is a personal trainer, two professions where an unsparing ethic of self-reliance dominates. Self-care takes the form of mantras the group scavenge from the empowerment playbook, a kind of cultural scripting they religiously repeat to themselves in support groups and police station waiting rooms. These are their daily acts of self-authorisation, the meaning they try to make within a culture with countless options and very little real choice. Theirs is an authorial self that is as striving as it is immiserated. It is an ugly metamodernist vision of a powerlessness many of us recognise. It deeply unsettled me, which is ultimately all I ever want from art.
Still, I May Destroy You is also funny, even as Arabella oscillates between spiralling, sleuthing and surviving. Interestingly enough, it stands alongside a recent flurry of shows featuring women labouring under the pressures of cultivated personas. Dramas such as I Hate Suzie and Adult Material do not expect us to entirely relate to public breakdowns and agonising PR nightmares, but they assume that many of us increasingly understand what it means to be beholden to terms of employment which demand our pieties, on and off the clock. Like I May Destroy You, these shows are a testament to the pitfalls of having to be liked to make a living. How does an individual who doesn’t particularly like themselves manage that? It’s hard to tackle such a question when the authorial voice, millennial and otherwise, can operate much like a genre. Genres have a nasty habit of turning into cages. In the final episode, Arabella seeks closure through creative self-determination. She chooses her own ending. For writers contending with impositions on and within the authorial selves they embody, with the authorial self as both category and currency, with the twin scams of authenticity and relatability, breaking free may look a lot like swimming against the tide. You may have to do it alone.
Momtaza Mehri is a poet, essayist and independent researcher. Her work has been widely anthologised and has appeared in Granta, Artforum, The Guardian, BOMB and Real Life Mag. She is the former Young People’s Laureate for London and columnist-in-residence at the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art’s Open Space. She is the winner of the Manchester Poetry Prize and the Brunel International African Poetry Prize. Her pamphlet, Doing the Most with the Least, was published in 2019 by Goldsmiths Press.
Spread the Word is London’s writer development agency, a charity and a National Portfolio client of Arts Council England. It is funded to help London’s writers make their mark on the page, the screen and in the world and build strategic partnerships to foster a literature ecology which reflects the cultural diversity of contemporary Britain. Spread the Word has a national and international reputation for initiating change-making research and developing programmes for writers that have equity and social justice at their heart. In 2020 it launched Rethinking ‘Diversity’ in Publishing by Dr Anamik Saha and Dr Sandra van Lente, Goldsmiths, University of London, in partnership with The Bookseller and Words of Colour. Spread the Word’s programmes include: the Young People’s Laureate for London, the London Writers Awards and the national Life Writing Prize.
Convergence is an ongoing series of critical conversations, screenings and written commissions, facilitated by the SLG and curated and hosted by invited guests.
With Art Fund support