When is your fantasy not fully your own?
by Jennifer T.
[I originally tried to peddle this story to an online magazine for teenage girls, ergo my old-lady-with-hindsight advice at the end. I probably should change it, and likely will at some point. I'll admit being a little bitter that the magazine didn't print my story. But I now realize it was incredibly naive of me to interpret their solicitation of readers' work as a welcoming of any reader's work. The problem is that I'm not a very specific kind of reader: a previously published author (of this sort, anyway; I've had official by-lines in public affairs/policy writing) or someone with literary connections. Looking over the written material that the magazine has published, ALL the pieces (save for a tiny, experimental handful in the magazine's first few issues) that were written by non-staff writers note the authors' previously published works or other claim to very public fame. I would love to start a magazine of anonymous writing (maybe with names to be disclosed months after publication), because only when writing is anonymous can its merits be judged fairly on content rather than connection or name, and good writers who don't do this kind of writing full-time nonetheless often have good stories to tell and insights to share. Democratize and crowd-source!]
NOTE:This is a true story, but the names of non-famous people have been changed.
She came back to the big screen some years after I was born and she is the first beautiful thing I remember. She was so beautiful that she could befriend woodland creatures who would help her do housework. She was so beautiful that it was possible only for her to be good. I would later receive a jigsaw puzzle with my favorite Disney scene of her singing to the woodland creatures. I loved to piece her together again and again, trying to figure out what made her so lovely and how I could be her. She has short black hair…and a red ribbon…I have short black hair! I can wear a red ribbon! But it takes a lot more to be Snow White, I soon learned. “Someday my prince will come,” I sang on the playground at recess. “Ok, we’ll get Jamal,” joked the other girls, referring to the only dark-skinned boy in the class. I scowled.
My mom, who is white, did things to help me appreciate the Asian Indian heritage I had ended up with, courtesy of my dad. For example, once in a while she would stir a spoonful of curry powder into a pan of rice for a flavor of the country we would, for some reason, never visit as little kids. She acquired a book of Rudyard Kipling’s stories about India, and for years I thought that “Rudyard Kipling” was an Indian name, and how lucky he was to have gotten a last name two syllables shorter and way less weird than my own. Mom gave me the Frances Hodgson Burnett books, The Secret Garden and A Little Princess. “The little girls are from India,” she said proudly of the books’ protagonists, as though I could identify with them all the more. But as I scrutinized Tasha Tudor’s full-color illustrations I was confused. Mary Lennox was definitely blonde, there was no doubt about that. And Sara Crewe, well, she did have dark hair, but I really couldn’t see any evidence of brown in her complexion like I had. White girls came from India? How was that possible? (And, more shamefully, how was that fair?) I think my questions were finally answered when I watched a public television documentary about something called THE BRITISH EMPIRE, but it didn’t matter much because I had decided that Sara Crewe was someone I wanted to be, should be, but couldn’t be. A Little Princess. Another Snow White.
There was a real live Snow White at the girls’ boarding school, a year ahead of me. Linda had the bobbed black hair and marble skin, the wide-set eyes and a beautiful pillow-lipped mouth that she painted fuchsia on Valentine’s Day even though she was just going to class. She was also National Velvet because she rode horses. I remember taking a walk across campus very early one morning and there she was, jumping a horse around the misty lacrosse field instead of in the riding arena. Beautiful girls did mysterious things like that.
Linda was kind of a bad girl, too—and that was good, because Snow White and National Velvet couldn’t be sweet all the time (that would be unrealistic). She taunted the shy math teacher for his “turtle life.” For her senior project she went to a poor country to help out the poor people and stuff and in the slideshow at her presentation there was a photo of her with her arms flopped around the shoulders of little black kids, a cigarette (a cigarette!) dangling from her fingers. For graduation when all the other girls wore demure white dresses, she obeyed the virginal color code but wore a crisp, sexy skirt suit and heels like she just stepped out of Vogue (this was entirely possible because she was a model, too). For her yearbook page, where other girls had meaningful poetry or inside jokes to accompany their pictures, Linda had only a breathtakingly beautiful photo of herself—no doubt from a professional photo shoot—above her name and her hometown, which was New York City. Yes, Snow White had moved to the Big Apple and could handle its poison.
For a while this school had a famous illustrator of children’s books residing on campus. At some point he decorated the stairwell of one of the dorms with his signature fantastical things we knew from his books—owls and alligators and castles. He died before my time at the school but I learned that in years past it was an annual spring tradition for him to choose a girl from the student body to be photographed riding a horse tricked out with a horn on its forehead. I remember seeing one of those photographs in a yearbook, in black and white: a lovely blonde looking every bit the fairytale princess astride her unicorn. I imagined that if Linda had been a student while he was still around, she would have been that girl on the magical steed.
There were other people living year-round on campus—the photography instructor and her scrappy-cute kids, the elderly philosopher and his floppy old dogs. There was also an Ethiopian family who helped maintain the grounds. They moved quietly about their work on campus. This was Makeda’s family, but she was also a high school student here. She lived in the dorms. And sometimes she modeled for the school’s drawing and painting classes.
* * *
The first step in an oil painting is the underpainting—a monochrome sketch in something dark and rich like burnt sienna or raw umber. I poised my loaded brush above the canvas and looked up to study Makeda’s face. Her drowsy-lidded eyes lent her an otherworldly serenity, like a Renaissance Madonna. She certainly looked the part now, hair smoothed close to her head with a thin headband, her small figure draped in a sheet sitting perfectly still in a chair on the table. Yet those same eyes also assisted the deadliest deadpan delivery that made the funny things she said hilarious. And Makeda said lots of funny things. Once she read a short story she had written at a school assembly, something about a teenage girl and her nagging mom. Makeda’s voice was small and her words measured and monotone in their non-native tongue. When she read the lines of the mom character, “’…and take down that poster of Ice-T or Lemonade or whatever his name is,’” the audience roared with laughter. Laughing with her. Here was our own Andy Kaufman, and she was good.
I carefully traced the shape of her head, the high, thin brows, and those drowsy-lidded eyes onto the canvas, holding my breath and biting my lip as I usually did in those first few minutes of a drawing when I was determined to prove my rendering skills. As I was shading in the cherub mouth that said the things that made us laugh I could finally breathe, because it was unmistakably Makeda, even down to the umber skin tone. Like a little kid I gleefully showed my art teacher. She narrowed her eyes and nodded, smiling.
I slowly worked on the underpainting during that first session. Then something happened. I found myself going to the empty art studio outside of class to work on the painting. Light dimmed. The figure on the canvas shifted and turned away from me. Layers of color built up and spread in hues of fairytale dread. And in no time she was completely unrecognizable, bearing no resemblance at all to the Ethiopian Madonna comedian that was Makeda.
There are good reasons why real artists use real models, no matter what the artistic style: a grounding in reality makes the work—even fantasy—much more believable. Things conjured wholly from the mind rarely speak much truth. And so, with the careful underpainting now completely ignored and obscured, this painting could only be the worst I had ever done. It was flat and painfully amateur. A pale girl with black hair, seated in profile, in a vaguely naturalistic setting of washy strokes of blue and green. A grayish-purple smudge for the eye. A claw-like hand awkwardly clutching something that tried to be flowers. Uninspired, lifeless, dull.
(JT / MSoB)
My art teacher eyed the finished product coolly. “Well, we’ll make a slide of it in case we need it,” she said, referring to the high-volume portfolio of work required for the A.P. art course I was enrolled in at the time. I knew then that she was displeased with the quality of the painting. Only years later would I realize she was even more dismayed over how I betrayed my subject. But it couldn’t have been worse than what I eventually felt.
* * *
“You are more authentic the more you resemble what you've dreamed of being.” I had to pause the movie when I saw this translation appear in the subtitles of Pedro Almodóvar’s All About My Mother to type it into my file of GREAT QUOTES. They’re the words of Agrado, a transsexual and perhaps the most grounded and sympathetic character in the film, as Spanish speakers might be able to guess from her name. In my twenties as I took steps to become who I thought I wanted to be I sought validation in Agrado’s words, and still do today (they ring beautifully, don’t they?). But as I found myself choosing again and again the hairstyle that never seemed just right, the eyebrows that made me look mean, the music I felt I should love, the relationships that made me unhappy, I experienced some creeping wonderings: are our fantasies ever wholly our own? When does it matter? And what is the toll of indulging them?
* * *
Always read your favorite authors again at different points in your life; it’s astonishing how often they have new messages for you. A couple summers ago I re-read Oscar Wilde’s The Picture of Dorian Gray, an old favorite, and found this scrap of something like redemption for my sin against Makeda—which, frankly, had been haunting me for years. Says the character Basil Hallward, the painter in the story:
"Every portrait that is painted with feeling is a portrait of the artist, not of the sitter. The sitter is merely the accident, the occasion. It is not he who is revealed by the painter; it is rather the painter who, on the coloured canvas, reveals himself."
So my painting wasn’t personal—with regard to Makeda, anyway. But what did it reveal about me? That I was a self-hating racist-of-color? Trapped in a stale fairytale? A really crappy painter? Yes, all these things, as much as I don’t want to admit them. But it is also honest of me to recognize that I am very much a product of my experiences, the earliest (and perhaps most influential) of which I did not really choose for myself. I suspect that is true for most of us.
That portrait of nobody was, in fact, of everything that shaped my sense of what is beautiful and worthy. It’s the protagonists of A Little Princess and The Secret Garden who whispered from the pages, “we’re from India, why can’t you look like us.” It’s the conversations our family never had, the questions I could never ask, the confusion I lived with for so long. It’s the pink-skinned, black-haired dolls lined up on my cedar chest trading blank stares with Renoir’s A Girl with a Watering Can presiding over my bed. It’s the absence of my Indian relatives throughout my childhood. It’s whatever instinct told me not to bring home the biography of Harriet Tubman that I won in fourth grade. It’s the ways in which people treated my more delicately-featured, less south-Indian-looking sisters. It’s Snow White, with her red ribbon around my head, then around my eyes, then tightening around my neck.
* * *
I want to tell Makeda I’m sorry. But maybe she knew it, even before I did. At the end of the school year Makeda did something I didn’t understand: she asked for the painting. I gave it to her. She was far too smart to think the finished portrait was of her—or that it said anything about her, really. I like to think that she somehow scraped off the layers of paint, in a sort of reverse Dorian Gray, to reveal my original sketch of her, its dark monochrome so much more real and honest than the ghost girl of my fantasy-addled past that covered her up.
My senior year of high school I failed to create a beautiful piece of art and celebrate a funny, beautiful girl. I sacrificed my skill to a warped and hollow ideal. Try not to let something like that happen to you. Try to think about where your desires and impulses really come from. Dance with your fantasies but know that embracing reality often can be even more fantastic, giving you—and others around you—a chance to shine like nothing else.