“The artist then is the voice of the people, but she is also the people,” writes the Pulitzer-winning novelist, Alice Walker, in her seminal work In Search of Our Mothers’ Gardens. This quote, and the crux of this work, interlace the creative freedom and the simultaneous lack of a recognisable, sophisticated channel to express that creativity for black women. Michaela Coel’s I May Destroy You – a British comedy-drama series – acquires its brilliance at this critical nexus, for it is an autobiographical dramatisation of her own sexual abuse, exploring this conflict of coping with individual trauma while partaking in a larger community – of womankind.
The initiation into the series is like walking into an Agatha Christie story – you want to know what happened on that unfortunate night, put together the old clue-puzzle, and emerge a smug audience if you suspect the right culprit. Bit by bit, scene by scene, episode by episode – Coel and her fictional alter-ego, Arabella (played by Coel herself), rupture this genre-illusion you have been seduced into. There is a bigger picture here – on consent and denial and the blurred lines in between, on race and feminism and the gap that doubly marginalised communities struggle to reconcile, on fiction and imagination and the negotiation the artist makes, on memory and catharsis and the documentation of trauma.
From bell hooks to Toni Morrison, the contention with the feminist movement has been its affiliation with bourgeois, white demands and way of life. The tenet of forging solidarities in feminism, which may emerge as a safe space for sexual abuse and rape survivors, is a foreign practice for Arabella. Her relationship with Terry (Weruche Opia) and Kwame (Paapa Essiedu) is indeed her safe space, but it is a race-based community and childhood friendship (she says, “I was busy being black and poor”), not a sanctum based on everyday womanly experience. So, when Arabella finds herself in a place her friends try to understand but have not lived through, the search she didn’t know she is on takes her to a “tribe called women”.
Also read: ‘Unbelievable’ and the Aftermath of Trauma
Coel’s writing is strengthened by these layers of subjectivity that are celebratory in their admission – feminism isn’t a given allegiance. Since Arabella is a millennial icon for her Tweet-based book, Chronicles of a Fed-up Millennial, and Coel is creating this show in a post-MeToo era, it would be far more convenient to assume that there will be binaries and clear-cut sides when it comes to feminism, but it would also be a gross misrepresentation of black feminist struggle and, more relatably, of flesh-and-blood, lived experiences.
This is a deliberate attempt at foregrounding the fallacy of impulsive absolutes – a white woman (Theo, played by Harriet Webb) is seen capitalising on false rape stories and starts a support group, while a black gay man is denied the social and legal validation for his sexual trauma. In creating these parallel stories with equal conviction as that of Arabella, Coel plays hopscotch with notions of marginalisation, narrativisation, and privilege. Kwame is dry-humped against his will at a casual date gone wrong and neither his friend (who is a rape survivor herself), nor the policing system (which was accommodating and supportive of Arabella’s struggle), truly grasp the psychological harm it has caused him. But Kwame’s act of keeping his gay identity from a woman he has sex with (who is a racist herself) puts him at loggerheads with Arabella, who claims to be in a no-nonsense mode when it comes to male entitlement and consent violation.
The juxtaposition of the victim-perpetrator selves in all these characters is also to be interpreted as a commentary on the cancel culture of the contemporary age. If there is a single momentous and rather difficult-to-stomach development in I May Destroy You, it is in the turn of the dynamic between Zain Tareen (played by Karan Gill) and Arabella. When Zain – a fellow writer from Henny Publishing – removes a condom and proceeds to have sex with her without her knowledge of it, Arabella calls him out as a rapist on a public forum and gains social media momentum overnight for her fierce honesty in saying of Zain that he is “not rape-adjacent, or a bit rapey: he’s a rapist”.
But Coel doesn’t want to be a broken record and reiterate that sexual abuse comes in a variety of packages or that sexual predators are acquainted to us more often than we would like to believe. She brings him back to help Arabella write her story, and he thus becomes an instrumental part of her quest for closure, literally and metaphorically. “I thought you were writing about consent,” he wonders in the process, and she has finally understood the entangled threads running between the identities she performs, the realities she partakes, and the memories that shape her psyche, in saying, “So did I.”
The finale is the culmination of these multiple fragmentations. Giving us three versions of the ending, Coel enjoins the aforementioned artist and person Walker spoke of. Memory and lived experience shape each other, are ripe with subjectivity, and there is catharsis when Arabella, the woman who survived rape, reconciles with Arabella, the woman-writer. She chooses to not go back to the site of her trauma and decides to spend a pleasant day with her roommate. This is Arabella’s fiction and her reality, and it is a liberating, moving portrayal where she reclaims the agency and power the act of rape confiscates from the survivor. Coel’s own struggle lies somewhere in this intersection of writing and remembering, so she weaves a world for Arabella where documentation and creation of lived trauma and fiction transform into cathartic empowerment.
Anushree Joshi is an over-thinker who studies English literature at Lady Shri Ram College who has strong opinions on why your #IAmHumanistNotFeminist attitude is a problem and why Manto should be taught in schools and colleges across the country.