Poet and trans activist Kai-Isaiah Jamal shares ‘Geum’, a poem he wrote about the pressures of the beauty industry, suffering and self-care – for World Mental Health Day
My name is Kai-Isaiah Jamal and I am a spoken word poet and performer, writer, model and trans visibility activist. I live with my girlfriend in our love-nest in Leeds (though London still has my heart). Most of my work centres around gender, race and mental health. I have used my writing as a way to accept unapologetically all the things I tried to bury for a long time. I'm a black, queer, trans man who lives and survives with mental health conditions, so really, I guess I'm a superhero.
‘Geum’ is what I now call my survival song. It was written 24 hours after experiencing a huge mental health relapse and crisis. It was the first thing I had written in a week or so (which for me is a sign that my mental state isn’t where I need to it be). After the crisis I sat alone with my thoughts feeling emptier than ever and I thought of a way of turning this situation into something that good can come from. It was here that I remembered the work of the artist Yeesookyung. I first discovered her work when I was a teenager trying to find some beauty in a world I wasn’t sure how to exist in. Her work resonated with me because of her practice, the way she gathers discarded pieces of porcelain and sticks them back together by fusing them with gold leaf. She created something beautiful out of something that could be forgotten because of its imperfections, repurposed something broken to make it something just as beautiful, if not more.
"The master potter was trying to create the perfect piece each time, and he would discard even the ones with the slightest flaw. So I chose to create new forms from them, because perhaps, I don’t believe completely in that kind of perfection. To me, a piece of broken ceramic finds another piece, and they come to rely on one another" — Yeesookyung
The pressure to be ‘beautiful’ in today's climate sometimes feels super engulfing and at so many times, completely crushing. The beauty standards profilerated by the media don’t always cater for people that have your face and if they do you are cast, highlighted or elevated because you are ‘fashionably ugly/unconventional’ and not because you are simply a different version of beauty.
As a trans person of colour, there are so many times I just want to look like any other man, to be able to pass and not have the constant labour of confirming my gender or answering ‘why I am too pretty to be a boy’. I used to think maybe somewhere in there was a compliment, but I soon realised the toxicity of the statement. I was too pretty to be a boy, which meant that pretty and masculine shouldn’t be paired together, which made my visual aesthetic – a large part of my identity and my place of comfort – something that felt ‘incorrect’. It meant I wasn’t being given a compliment, I was being questioned for not fitting a social ‘norm’. It also soon dawned on me that I was this year's trend, I was the new wave of tokenism and I wasn’t fitting into beauty standards so I was being championed as the rebellion against them. I felt like a tool, I guess, some new marketing scheme on how to look inclusive but really only being pushed to feel more outcasted than I have ever felt before.
When you suffer with various mental health conditions, this only heightens the detrimental element of comparison and leaves you feeling on the outside of what is deemed to be attractive or beautiful. I suffer with depressive periods and moments of mania and paranoia. It means I am in almost constant conversation with the voice of my subconscious, which as we all know can be the voice that is most self-critical. This self-critique often comes down to a reflection in the mirror, knowing that not only do I not feel right for myself, but also in how the world sees me.
‘Geam’ means both ‘crack’ and ‘gold’ and I love it. I want it to become my mantra, a reminder that you don’t have to pick beauty over self care, or to be beautiful and not suffering. That all of this can coexist inside you at the same time and there is no shame in that. There is no shame in suffering, because it gives you purpose and drive. Personally, it helps me dismantle the eurocentric, cishet and normative industry that makes no room for me. It gives me poetry. It makes me unlearn so many ideas. Being broken just means having pieces that all are fragments of experiences that give you scope, that give you vision and remind you of the resilience you possess, your ability to put yourself back together. So why not lace your glue in gold, for that is what you are.
There is an artist, named Yeesookyung.
She creates new sculptures by assembling old pieces of disregarded porcelain together,
sticking them better than before with gold leaf.
Creating these sky high imperfectly perfect visions.
You see in Korea,
the word for ‘crack’ is the same word for ‘gold’-
and isn’t that glorious?
To exist as both the beautiful and the broken, in holy matrimony.
Because isn’t that me?
Finding anything that shimmers and catches the light to hold me back together.
To make me feel in so many pieces and still whole.
Yeesookyung says in an interview that she is attracted to ‘failed or broken things’,
and my eyes start to sing beckoning the waves of tears to my lashes.
someone is saying the same thing about me.
That they can see the beauty within the lines, and even more so when it spills and runs over.
Like these thoughts run over every corner of my mind.
Tries to find its way into every poem I write,
and to fight them only means more breaking.
More breaking of this goddamn body.
Like bread, or something.
And smashing, is just a way to finally say goodbye to something.
To call it only something and no longer what it actually is,
to no longer have to treat it like it exists.
Which is to say,
I have been treating this body like it does not exist from the moment my mind started to believe its own lies.
Or the cocktails of hate the media disguise as trends. So for this season,
Black and trans is beautiful but equally still dying.
Or crying out to be fixed when being broken only means being open enough for them to see your inside.
And there’s nothing ugly there.
Broken will always mean damaged,
until we realised some of us were just born inside out.
or upside down,
with gold leaf holding us like the parents we don’t have.
Like the support system that we deserve,
Like the health care systems that run out of glue for people like me.
For the wounds that we don’t deserve.
Yeesookyung calls this series ‘translated vase’,
as if to say repurpose is just speaking from another part of your tongue.
Unlearn what you have been told is ugly or worth throwing away.
So today, I am finding new life and language for everything in my room including myself.
My shelves, no longer shelves instead shrines to all of those who paved the way and open the pages for me to write.
My bed, not bed, instead a teleportation system that only needs two closed eyes and a blanket. This vinyl, not just a vinyl now a full string quartet playing the sound of the sun.
This duvet, these pillows transformed into a hug.
These walls no longer something to only press foreheads and tears against,
Instead something to ground myself within, to put my hand against and remember what’s real.
These plants, oxygen tanks when anxiety sits on my chest with a weight I cannot stand.
This mind, not ugly just intricate enough for not every eye to see pattern.
This body not worth throwing away, just in preparation for the day we make adjustments that spell freedom.
This beauty, not meaning unbroken or too fragile, just meaning evolved past straight lines and faces we’ve seen before.
You see the difference between broken and fighting is only who you see winning the fight. So today I chose life, I chose to stay alive.
I chose nothing battered, for this mind felt too bruised already, like softening old fruit.
I chose green, but not to inhale instead to chew beneath molars that show how strong the human mouth can be.
Today I didn’t watch male models flex honed chests under bright lights. Today I turned off the video of the black body bleeding.
I’ve seen enough blood.
So today I shaved my face, I buttered my sweet bread,
I hung pictures, I cut mangoes,
I put my belts away, I took a single tablet,
I bled nowhere and I put castor oil all over these broken lines,
I laid for a short amount of time in the sun that found its way through my sky light.
Repurposed the knife, the loops, the glass of water.
I felt the breeze and I looked down to see these golden lines holding all of me together.
I didn’t silence the voices,
I put on my favourite John Coltrane song and made them sing instead,
I made this body move, a slow sway that started at the ankles and found its way to every curl on my head.
Repurposing means believing one word can have two meanings or one thing can forget who it was in order to become something better.
Today I swapped the word ‘crack’ for ‘gold’-
and all the old parts of me I had buried, discarded and thrown as deep as the sea, came flying back to me.
I sewed them up with gold thread.
And I existed, both broken and beautiful all at once.