Outside, Inside, Both
Under-the-kitchen-table kids. The kids who see what they’re not meant to. They are outside of the main frame, alone at the ground. What is learned through unpermitted observation is often a lorry load, a weight that is hard to move. Insider knowledge is not meant for everyone.
In a lecture once, the uncanny was described to me as someone sitting at a desk who might look out of a window and see their own reflection standing outside – they look away, look back, and the figure is gone… Was it in their minds? Often it’s ‘sameness’, the uncanny recognition and duplication, that gives people the brush of a moth at their neck. Something else always stuck with me about the metaphor though, for years I have been thinking of the ‘outside’ aspect of it. The way that the prevention of access to a space alienates two points of view:
One. There is someone outside and we don’t know why they want to come in, or why they’re not allowed in.
Two. The person sitting at the desk and looking out is wondering… what is in here that they want? What does being inside mean?
In The Strays (dir. Nathaniel Martello-White), we chance upon characters desperately craving entry to a home, and the multi-genre exploration of this tension. It’s gripping. It’s surreal. Why do they want to come inside?
I am both inside and outside my ends. My work looks at the role of the outsider, the person who experiences life but at a distance – it is the space between the world moving along and the people out of breath with it that I am artistically drawn to. A catch-up feeling where you want to grasp at a coat jacket slipping out of sight, but you’re often too late, and you have to close your eyes really tightly to remember their outline.
Some of this is in relation to queerness, and some with people who live at risk due to their proximity with criminality. My novel, Keeping the House, looks at the north London heroin trade from the perspective of a queer femme character, and also at the way people can feel isolated from their communities. Writer and editor, Will Forrester, who works at English PEN, a charity that ‘protects freedom of expression whenever it is under attack’, spoke to me once about the power of writing glances – of looking in and catching people at things. A die is cast and the child under the table hears the rattle.
I remember hearing ‘Adolescence’ by folkloric Tottenham legend Castrosaint (CASisDEAD, CAS, Castro, C from T) and being zapped with uncanny recognition when he spat the bars, ‘I sat next to one Turk in class / He was always on about B – he showed me how to work it fast’. It’s in a song now so it’s real. Self chronicling is an act of catching. The ‘one Turk’ in ‘Adolescence’ is a local universal statement, it’s bus chat, nothing new where I come from. There’s a privilege in positionality when contending with what’s being hidden and what’s being implied – we have a responsibility to our subject.
Margo Jefferson gave a talk once about how when chronicling, the buck stops with you, it’s a process of ‘opening yourself up to learning and entering a world with its own reasons to be secret’. Spaces shaped by secrets are delicate. Being part of the world means accepting that your secrets can sometimes be flayed to prevent departure. You’re not stuck, but leaving needs to be done with care. Shoes might have to be left behind.
In Keeping the House there’s a line, ‘it’s funny how we’re watching things change, but from the outside’. Karin Lock in Haringey Community Press writes, ‘Being “outside” is a vantage position. Being “out” is to be detached, a place from where you can observe, analyse, reflect. But being “in” is where the action is: you belong, you have a role, a part to play in the unfolding drama.’ To be ‘in’ is a tremulous task if you don’t want to be part of the unfolding drama.
In Goblins, Jen Calleja writes, ‘Like Fearnot [of The Storyteller] who went out into the world because he had never experienced terror, I left a haunted home at eighteen to learn how to live a little.’ I often think about these contradictions. The way that the midpoint, your mind, can retract from the push and pull of a place, or type of community. There are different layers of protection in this life we live. Going outside can make us vulnerable, a repeated knock at the window, looking back in and wondering at the life you left behind. Leaving the haunted home means evaluating the haunting too.
There’s a sequence in Shy by Max Porter that references the parody of ITV murder dramas, ‘Scared people running through bracken and brambles, trying to get to the safety of the big house but the big house isn’t safe’. The big house image is subverted to suggest Last Chance, a home for ‘very disturbed young men’. More than a house to be escaped from, or a house to run towards – it is instead time that Shy runs from, ‘something to get wasted and escape from. Bullied by time’. Regrets about the past, things to say sorry for, are the hauntings that Shy has to deal with. Time and layers of history abound to make it difficult to work out exactly whether it is better to be inside a timeline, or outside it, to cut yourself adrift totally.
Exit, by Scottish writer Laura Waddell, explores exclusion through canals of game glitches and missed motorway exits. Her thoughts are that to ‘exit’, to be excluded from the plasma and amniotic goo of the middle, forces upon us the impulse to be a baby new in this world – you are wondering ‘how to live in this world’. For those who are cast out, persecuted, and Othered, they move from their ordinary through a portal towards another sense of life – ‘the feeling that home, and peace of mind, is always somewhere else, with a door closed to re-entering’. If the door is closed to re-entering, then we have the opportunity to consider the door. Never before have we noticed the way that the door has mould at its edges, never before have we seen the chips of paint. You need to change your vantage point to see the details sometimes. We can consider moving outside as a reset. Korean feminist poet Lee Hyemi once told me, ‘surrealism is newness’. There is a tentative opportunity with the newness of an exit to pick up your perspective and pop it into a different simulation.
In one of my favourite novels, Magician by Raymond E. Feist, there are portals/rifts that separate the protagonist from his fate. Moving through these rifts or portals are the makers of chaos and order. With the necessity of a journey, people have work to do. There are structures at work that are moving their place in the world, inviting a need to reconnect with it and deploy care.
Prevention of access is the sharpest way to unclothe bias. Empathy and healing divisions are oxygen to gasp away from that anthrax of cruelty. There is a power to being outside and inside – an institution buying its way inside, such as Granger PLC, the developer who tried to buy up Latin Village in Seven Sisters. The voices of those who are historically marginalised – working class communities and those from the Global Majority – are not heard enough within these conversations about access. In Small Worlds by Caleb Azumah Nelson, there is a crescendo as the gentrification tearing through Peckham fragments too much that is precious, ‘But what of the people? What of those, away from home, trying to build something here; what of their wants and needs? What of Uncle and his aviators and his Guinness?’ There are outsiders who should never come in. The ones who will never hear the music of dominoes, laughter from a BMX bike through pedestrian traffic, and understand the rhythms. It is an act of care to be heard, to be asked for access. We have to be careful about who comes inside.
There are areas that resist you as the inhabitant, and also areas that resist the ones who don’t know, the people without the code to a place. In ‘Northside Story’ by Rxlls, he raps about the way he courses through North London; given access, codes and permissions through the status he carries, family ties and his own sense of self, ‘Council come knocking, like sorry to trouble you. Another location with another view. How many times we gotta move?’ Despite the constant displacement from the state, North London is still his, he proclaims, ‘don’t know how the rest feel. The narrator is at once separate and part of the drama that unfolds at the end of the song, caught up in a car chase at Great Cambridge Roundabout – he isn’t ‘inside’ the workings that lead to risk, but he is not outside either, proximate enough to be pulled in. A sprained ankle from jumping from the ‘first floor of the red flats’ becomes more. It’s hard to feel part of something, without being inside.
‘Inside and outside: Infrastructures of Critique’, a set of conversations between different art practitioners in a series called Diversity of Aesthetics, explores the various hands that feed alienation and discontent amongst a liberal society. Stevphen Shukaitis, in conversation, talks about negotiating outsider-ness. He suggests that ‘perhaps we aren’t necessarily inside or outside so much as we are constantly negotiating a set of ambivalent relationships with different institutions and their networks’. I read this to mean that there is an extent to which, when we think about our own place in the world, we can take or leave things based on the deep character relationships that we invite. For example, you aren’t allowed to go into a particular bar on a particular road – it could be a vampire-only bar – but the negotiations that follow in that site of risk are where the rawest drama takes place. We should be laying bare the nuances of those conversations, the things that take you from being an outsider looking in, to being an outsider who is inside. You’re in the bar now, and you are describing things through your eyes, you don’t desire the same drinks (a pint of blood, maybe), and now we are imagining along with you – why don’t you want to drink the same thing? I believe that these negotiations are the hearthstone of empathy.
Annie Ernaux writes of the strangeness of being an outsider in a place in Exteriors:
To find myself in a place suddenly sprung up from nowhere, a place bereft of memories, where the buildings are scattered over a huge area, a place with undefined boundaries, proved to be an overwhelming experience. I was seized with a feeling of strangeness.
If it feels strange to go somewhere ‘bereft of memories’ and feel an outsider, imagine the vastness of the disorientation when a place you’ve always known elicits that. In Keeping the House, there’s a character called William who boards a bus through ends, he takes the bus through Manor House and misses all of his stops, ending up in Freezy Water. These places that he rolls through on the bus are not bereft of memories but, in fact, the inundation of memories that trigger his PTSD, lead to his unboundaried autopilot. The local is overwhelmed by what they know, seeing it at once as an unwilling map maker and a fly on the wall. The strangeness of being an outsider in your ends. I wrote a song about this experience called ‘Cold Roads/A10’:
Back on the move, each stop’s blurring by
Sound bites sticking in your head
Music playing on and on
Memories running through your mind
You don’t live the life
Do you live the life?
Constant questioning. Do you live the life? The ones who do are too busy within it, to fully know. A frenzy of detachment.
There is a neutrality in feeling detached from a community, even as much as the community is yours. Sichuanese poet Yu Yoyo writes about her own city, but as a spectator would, an area resistant to her. In ‘Empty Town’, translated by Dave Haysom, I often return to a particular moment:
you’re like a pier
wrapped in sounds
of arrival and departure
the people on TV
violating one another
while you remain just intact
and a little bored
The ‘you’ figure here is positioned as a pier. This expanse of wood or steel that stretches itself over the water that people arrive on. The ‘you’ figure is then positioned as a TV viewer, watching society around them in a state of disinterest and apathy.
I ask this often.
What does it mean to be divorced from a place?
To face a wall you stuck gum on and know that your gum left no saliva. There is no social isolation more painful than one that comes despite a whole life being lived that should have left its mark.
Sometimes interpersonal relationships can sew seeds of unfamiliarity in a previously reliable space. In the novel Permafrost by Eva Baltasar, translated by Julia Sanches, the main character talks about how her sensual pianist girlfriend has moved into her place and has made a better impression than she expected upon her neighbours:
The neighbour across the hall lent her an upright piano. I was stunned. Contrary to every expectation, the neighbours loved to hear her practise. They’d fallen for her, for the roundness of her body and for her personality, charming and formidable like a Burmese pagoda. I felt smaller and smaller by the day, next to her nothing but a frilly kitchen curtain… I felt disoriented as a war veteran struggling to adapt to civilian life. Like my life had been waylaid in a space that rippled with emptiness, and I had to keep in constant motion.
The motion that the narrator speaks about is there because if someone else enters your space and makes a better impression, have they automatically won your space from you? Sound brings us along on the journey of disorientation, we are hearing the keys being played, and our reaction becomes predicated on whether we side with the narrator, or the neighbour. Are we inside, or outside? Perhaps we would choose to hum along to the sound of the piano.
We have fears. We can be frightened that we are not a 3D presence in a room, that we can be like someone who leaves and returns to find that their favourite chair has been replaced. We can go through a portal that creates a time paradox and find that we don’t even exist anymore. I think that this insecurity is one of the biggest agonies of outsider-ness. The pain of having been somewhere but not having left a mark. The narrator of Permafrost is not necessarily likeable as they work through these feelings of isolation and disorientation. As Amber Husain says in her essay ‘Replace Me’, our obsession with replacement can have a real toll on our actions: ‘The awareness of one’s own replaceability that is raised by an imagined threat can arc into a cruelly optimistic identification with the irreplaceable – a figure who exists entirely for the preservation of himself.’ This preservation against falling into the outsider role is a trope that we see in characters like Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde and The Talented Mr Ripley, it’s the desperate scramble to sleep away from reality before bed covers are yanked away.
‘Everything is going to break & I must get home before it does, or doesn’t yet, or buckles’, writes Victoria Adukwei Bulley in her poem ‘Lost Belonging’. The sun is in limerence.
I can walk through Tottenham and know all the bricks. I can know which local MCs are chasing producers for stems. I can gauge the best place to buy a lamb leg. These are my measurements of being inside. At the same time, if I dress a certain way or hold hands with a certain partner, ends will be at odds with me. But I still want to hold that hand. I am just close enough.
Tice Cin is an interdisciplinary artist from North London. Her novel, Keeping the House, is set in and around the north London heroin trade. She is a recent recipient of a Society of Authors Somerset Maugham Prize, and was shortlisted for Book of the Year at the British Book Awards. She has been commissioned by the likes of Cartier and Edinburgh International Book Festival. A DJ and music producer, she is preparing to release an accompanying album for Keeping the House, featuring music from members of creative house, Fwrdmtn, such as Kareem Parkins-Brown and Latekid. She recently produced, self-funded and directed her first music video. Her collective, Design Yourself, is based at Barbican Centre, exploring what it means to be human when technology is changing everything.
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Outside|Inside photo by Eric Aydin-Barberini