Sareeta Domingo & Maxine Beneba Clarke

As part of The Stories We Tell Ourselves, we invited six pairs of emerging and established writers, from the UK and Australia, to each pen a letter to their past or future self. Across a series of six videos, these writers respond to the theme ‘Who are we now?’ by speaking directly to versions of themselves that are still familiar, curiously anticipated or completely mysterious.

Here, author of The Three of Us and If I Don’t Have You Sareeta Domingo and award-winning author of Foreign Soil, The Hate Race and the recently released How Decent Folk Behave Maxine Beneba Clarke take turns reading each other’s letters aloud and then discuss the points of connection and difference in their responses. 

You can watch the video, and read along with their letters, below.

The Stories We Tell Ourselves: Sareeta Domingo & Maxine Beneba Clarke

From Sareeta Domingo

Dear Sareeta,

You are embarking on a path of artistry and storytelling with no pretension. Indeed, with no real consideration other than the desire to put forth the narrative that swirls inside your mind. I envy you in so many ways – you are free of the burden of expectation, from others or for yourself. You have both the confidence of knowing that your skill is at a level that will get your story heard by someone, somewhere, and the naivety of not knowing the limitations you may face. On the first point you are right – a few queries will net you an agent, a few more and you’ll have found a publisher, at an imprint of one of the biggest publishing companies in the world. 

This is not a metric for success for you, though – and it still is not. What you do not know, what you’re only truly beginning to learn five years later, is the extent to which the world is eager to put you in a box. The world of literature is eager to contain you, too – to contain all writers, but especially those inhabiting an identity deemed marginal. ‘A romantic story must cater to a certain audience, in a certain way’. Cling to the knowledge that they are all wrong. Four sides cannot contain you, and categorisation may be a useful marketing tool but it has nothing to do with creativity. 

Cling to the knowledge that they are all wrong. Four sides cannot contain you, and categorisation may be a useful marketing tool but it has nothing to do with creativity.

They will want to know what it means to be Black, to be British, to be a woman, and to be loved. To write about love. You will think about it and you will tell them, but the stories you tell will continue to be about the truth of the narrative, not the words Must, or Should, or Must Not. This will be tough – drowning out the noise and seeking the kernel of truth at the heart of a matter always is and always will be.

Something will happen to you in these years from your first novel. Something that will clarify what you truly want from life and what is important to your future, diaphanous though it may be to see your way to. And that will be to tell your stories. To get all of them out, no matter what. 

You’ve only just begun.

From Maxine Beneba Clarke

Dear smart, determined, kind, 12-year-old Black girl. 

I’m writing to say, keep your head up, to remind you that you know the way.

I’m not writing to say, don’t be scared. That is a cliché that doesn’t belong in your story. There are good reasons to be afraid. Don’t let anyone minimise the struggles you’ll face, the hatred you’ll encounter. How you face that fear will be the making of you.

I know these things, because I was you. You know these things because you became me.

I know things are difficult for you right now, there on stolen Gadigal country, just beginning to understand what it means to be a child of Afro-Caribbean descent and Black British legacy, born and living in so-called Australia, at this particular moment in history. 

In just over 20 years, your story will live on bookshelves and in hearts around the country. In 30, your story will be on the grade 12 school syllabus in your home state. Your memoir The Hate Race will remain the most challenging of all the books you’ve written – now numbering over 10. Yeah, you made it. Though your ancestors learnt to read at risk of whipping, at risk of death. That saying: I am my ancestors’ wildest dreams? You were. You are. You are Black Girl Magic. Your latest work is a picture book: When We Say Black Lives Matter.

Black Lives Matter is a global Black civil rights movement, founded by three African American women, and is what some of that energy fighting against racial injustice over centuries has culminated in. I won’t lie to you: existing as a Black girl – woman, in the world is still exhausting, but Black joy is real too, and you will always find your way back Home to it.

Dear Beautiful, some change did arrive – in your life and the world. The United States has seen its first Black president, and vice president. Bookshelves started to diversify. Same-sex marriage was legalised in Australia. Some things, unfortunately, became worse.

I write in the midst of a global pandemic, from a burning world, from the edge of inequality. The seasons are shifting. Bushfires, hurricanes and tsunamis have become more common. On Fridays, kids your age all around the world skip school to protest climate change.

War is not a thing of the past. Nor violence against women. Nor genocide. Nor police brutality. For around every 103 people in the world, one is an internally displaced person, asylum seeker, or refugee. The gap between the rich and the poor is ever-increasing. Sometimes things seem as hopeless as they ever were.

There are so many other things I’d like to explain to you. iPhones. Beyonce. E-books. The two beautiful children you’ve raised; the strong Black woman you grew into. 

There are so many things I want to tell you: Floss every night. Don’t straighten your hair in eighth grade. Pop Tarts are not real food. You’ll eventually have your first kiss behind the Baulkham Hills Pizza Hut. His breath will smell like pepperoni; it will be shockingly underwhelming.

There are so many things I want to tell you: Floss every night. Don’t straighten your hair in eighth grade. Pop Tarts are not real food.

But really, what I want to say is this: despite the chaos of the world that is, you are proof of progress – of fairer lawmaking, of greater racial understanding, of how education opens doors, of years of campaigning for women’s rights, of a changing world. Your life was gifted to you by the struggles, persistence and vision of those who came before you.

This is how we’ll get there: gathering good people around us, and stepping, one foot in front of the other, towards everything that is right, and fair, and kind, and humane and decent.

Dear smart, determined, kind, 12-year-old Black girl. 

Your one job, on the page or outside of it, is to just keep trying to make the world a better place.

I know you know that, because I know it too.