REVIEW: Belonging with Musa Okwonga and Anita Sethi
Review by Julia McGee-Russell
Belonging and unbelonging are powerful experiences. Where you come from and where home is influence how you define yourself. One of Them and I Belong Here: a Journey Along the Backbone of Britain both examine race, class, identity, and what it means to belong somewhere. Musa Okwonga’s One of Them is a memoir of his life at Eton College as one of very few black students, and Anita Sethi’s I Belong Here journeys through the landscapes of the North in reclamation after Anita’s experience of a race-hate crime. Aided by chairperson Désirée Reynolds, this event was an exploration of the political being personal, and the journey back to yourself.
How do you encourage a feeling of belonging within yourself, when others want to push you out? The unifying answer from both authors is simply: you show up. Reclaiming space by walking it is something both authors share, from Musa’s determination to go shopping in areas of Berlin where there might be a ‘Nazi bar’ or ‘far-right pub’, to Anita’s journey throughout the countryside, along ‘the backbone of England’. “This is my town as much as theirs… This is also my oxygen, and you can’t suffocate me,” Musa says.
In Anita’s excerpt from her prologue of I Belong Here, nature metaphors abound. The bird, the fish, the bulb, all clearly belong in their skins and in their places in nature. But where does Anita belong? “This is where I’m from. I’m from the North,” she reads. Following the racist attack, claustrophobia and anxiety cause Anita to turn to nature, to greenness. She studies maps of the Pennines, and there, she finds it. A place called Hope. She starts her journey, walking through Hope Valley, into the non-judgemental world of nature.
I Belong Here explores what it means for Anita to belong in her own body, what it means to feel at home in herself, to inhabit herself. The barriers to this are not only a deeply internalised sense of unbelonging, but also mental health stigma, and the inter-generational trauma of migration and colonialism. She speaks about how people of colour shouldn’t have to let the toxic idea that black and brown people are not “as English, or British, as white people” define how they move through the world.
Both authors speak about their resistance to being confined or defined by race, or their writing on it. Musa’s life experience at Eton “define a period of my life, but it doesn’t define me”, because he says, “part of identity is also shedding the skin”.
“That’s the irony of the book,” Anita says about I Belong Here, “because it is about skin colour, because it starts off with a racist incident, but it’s also a desperate plea to let me be free of that. Let me write about other things, let me please not be defined by this one thing, because I’m also a human being.”