On closure and crime

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This is an exclusive essay published by The Indigo Press

On closure and crime

When did you first realise you have white privilege? 

Elizabeth Chakrabarty

Twice in my life, when I’ve least expected it — relaxed in a bar with acquaintances, a glass of wine in my hand — someone has asked me this question: ‘When did you realise you’re not white?’ Some of you will have experienced this too, and reading it, re-experiencing it again, will have set your heart beating fast. Other readers will have asked that question of someone like us, without thought, or perhaps others still will have guessed exactly how it might feel, and said it to put us in our place: subordinate to them. I hope most readers will understand, or come to understand, why that is one of the worst questions to ask another human being, if you want them to feel you see them as an equal, not just an absence: what that ‘not’ means. The question separates those of us who have experienced racism from those who haven’t. For those of us who have, who do, and who will always experience racism, let me make it clear that it is a racist question because it assumes that white is the default; it emerges from the crime of white privilege. Yes, white privilege is a crime — perhaps the crime of the twenty-first century, as we’ve seen from Trump, Brexit and the recent tragic, ongoing social and health inequalities highlighted by the COVID-19 pandemic.   

I never thought I would write about crime. In my creative writing I explore love, and loss, and life in between — and in my critical writing, disaster, race and sexuality. Then I moved to a new job (as academics and artists do, we move to the work), and I became the victim of a series of hate crimes. 

The longer the series of serious racial harassment incidents went on, the more frightening it became — and, as the culprit was anonymous, and even now I’ve left there and it’s years later, I am still spooked by the unfinished nature of the crime, not knowing who, and why: what they wanted to do to me. I read back over that last sentence: the stops and starts, the erratic mixture of punctuation, as if I am still running away, looking back over my shoulder, just in case… and I see I have written it in the past tense. Not knowing the ending, it should be in the present. Putting it into the past tense is my mind’s way of willing closure: I want it to be over. The crime and its aftermath, its continuity in my mind, the what ifs (if that person or persons are nearby now, what if it happens again?), are the stuff of nightmares — and also crime fiction.  

During my years in that job I retreated to London every weekend, and often in the week, too, when things were bad. At the station, if there was time before catching my train, along with a chai latte from the tea kiosk I’d buy a paperback from the newsagents. Usually there would be just a handful of books: true crime, fantasy and romance, besides what I’d find myself picking up: a crime novel. When you’re in the middle of something awful happening to you, I suppose you either read escapist fantasy, or you’re drawn to reading novels that might reflect the terror you’re experiencing, to lose yourself in the satisfaction of closure, albeit for fictional characters.  

When I think about that word, I think of it as ‘closure’. I have read Freud and others’ psychoanalytical works: what’s happened is always there, in our memories and nightmares, and surfaces in our reactions when triggered later. The concept of ‘closure’ is convenient for others around us, but for anyone who has been a victim of crime it is difficult to achieve. Especially if there never was any real-life closure, if the police never closed the case file — as happened to me — it’s active; it could happen again. 

During that time, during the day-in-day-out nature of going to work and being worried what I might face, I always knew I would write about this experience, though I wasn’t sure exactly what. The crime novels I read on my train journeys, and (ironically, I realise now) at night when I couldn’t sleep (reinforcing my insomnia), were great in the sense that I enjoyed following detectives working out who did it, and eventually being able to close a book and turn off the light, knowing the culprit was brought to justice. But in the morning when I set off to work, fearing what I’d face, reading about crime in a novel felt very much like what it was: like fiction. The popular novels I picked up in the station never encompassed what I was immersed in: what it is like to live through hate crime, after a life of experiencing day-to-day racism, and how that affects how you see the world, and those around you — because even just talking about it with friends and family provoked other questions: like what are the limits of empathy in those who do not experience racism, even those who love you? 

I knew I wouldn’t write directly about my specific experience, partly because it was ongoing and unfinished, but I still wanted to address what concerned me: how to live on, and even love, despite racism? Starting to think about writing a novel on living through hate crime, I wanted to find a way to highlight the fiction of ‘closure’; that perhaps it would be something in-between fiction and non-fiction, a hybrid novel. But where to start? 

Then one day, the idea came to me when I was waiting for a date, and she was late. She texted sorry, she’d probably be another fifteen minutes. I went and sat on a bench by the water as I was on the coast, outside the place where we were supposed to be meeting, as I didn’t have the key — though funnily enough this memory became the key to unlocking the door between fiction and non-fiction within my novel. Fifteen minutes became almost an hour, and the sunny afternoon turned slowly into a murky evening in a deserted place I didn’t know. Increasingly anxious, I texted to check on her, but my messages remained unsent, there was little coverage. Had something awful happened to her? Then my mind jumped: what if I had to go and rescue her — could I remember how to get to her house, what would I find? My body tensed, my anxiety spiralled straight to disaster: I would have to go and save her, like a character in a crime novel — 

Then a car drove up and stopped, and she got out; it was OK, she was alive. Later, calmer, chilling out over a couple of martinis, I admitted how worried I had been, and she asked me, ‘Why?’ It turned out she had texted me again that she would be even later, but I hadn’t received the message — there was little coverage. Despite knowing she had tried to contact me, and even though she was actually there with me by then, I still felt that fear of what if? 

Of course, in any given situation, two people will experience it differently, but there was something about that question of anxiety: why some of us think the worst might have happened, while others don’t. Living through a series of hate crimes, to me it made sense to be worried — whereas for someone who hasn’t experienced that kind of trauma, immediately thinking of something dreadful happening seems odd. Why didn’t I think she was probably delayed by something at home as she was leaving, or by slow traffic while in transit, stuck behind a tractor on a narrow country road? There was something about how my mind worked that afternoon which helped me establish how to tell my story by looking at it the other way round, and through a fictional character. It would be easier to explore what happened to me and the anxiety of trauma, if it were happening to someone else. And if it was a genre novel, as the writer I could save that character, and there might even be a happy ending — and closure. 

The idea of the crime being closed and finite lingered. Yes, fictional characters, live victims, and readers desire closure, but, like the question at the beginning of this article, the closure issue returned me to who is reading, and who is writing: it was a question of voice, or voices. How would I show that closure is a fictional concept, especially for the crime of racism: how each act of racism triggers all the past ones, how racism works; how white privilege is reinforced? 

Starting to work with elements of crime fiction, I imagined the protagonist trying to get on with her life despite hate crime, and an antagonist, the criminal writing his Lessons on how to commit crime. There was something missing though: how could I get across to readers the lived experience of racism and its lack of closure, despite the fiction? 

Then one day, scrolling through photos on my phone looking for something else, I came across one I’d taken that afternoon when I waited by the water: it’s twilight, on the rather muddy water at low tide, there’s a boat, and there’s no one around. There was something sinister, not beautiful about that scene; I remembered my fear: what if? That feeling, even just thinking of that day, brought back other times I’ve felt like that: difficult things that happened to me as a child, and as an adult too. It also reminded me of what I’ve written about in the past, in my academic work on disaster and preparedness. My jumping to what if was an extreme kind of preparedness, but it was normal for me, based on my life experience. Perhaps, although it wasn’t directly about my experience, I could be a character in this book who never gets closure. As the author, I was there anyway, behind the scenes. What if I made my presence clear, meta-fictionally — I had done it before in my academic work, although then it was called auto-ethnography. 

When I was what’s known as an active researcher I was involved in ethnographic study of the UK’s preparedness for disaster, exploring how race functions when institutions are anticipating ecological and other disasters. I observed a number of government and commercial disaster exercises, and what was interesting to me was that the ethnographic research turned gradually into auto-ethnographic research. My research became about being raced within the practice of being a researcher, as I was almost always the only ethnic minority person present. I wrote about being asked where I came from, and questions about my name, to the experience of being escorted through airports and government buildings, or as I sat observing and writing notes, never being left alone to get on with my work. I always had a minder by my side. I was, I am — because of my ethnicity, and my foreign and political parentage — seen as a researcher who should be under surveillance, not surveying. One participant told me I’d never get security clearance for access to a terror exercise, and as a preparedness terror exercise was exactly what I wanted to observe to see how race plays out, I knew I might as well give up. That experience pushed me to focus on fiction — if I wasn’t going to be allowed to research what I was interested in, I would write about it through fiction instead. Fiction became the answer, until I reached its limits: the fiction of ‘closure’ — and realised once again that to make sense of the world I was exploring, I would have to write myself into it. The question was, in what form?      

I started to write a short autobiography, noting the main stages of my life experience through race and racism, leading to the final step: the series of hate crimes. With the urgency of that memory, I carried on writing what became an essay by thinking how I might write about my trauma, reflecting on reading contemporary fiction and its portrayal of ethnic minority characters, besides that lack of closure. Then I returned to writing the fiction, but my authorial voice kept popping up, wanting to say actually it wasn’t like this, or that it was, but … and then the writing flowed. These Author’s Notes — as they became when my editors at Indigo came on board — both allowed the reader into the mechanics of creative construction, classic meta-fiction, but also made clear how fictive my fairy tale ending of the crime fiction is. While giving the fleeting satisfaction of a crime ending, I would, I decided, actually end with reality in the form of an Author’s Note: to say that in my case there was no closure, and all the specific hate crimes in the novel happened to me, but that writing fiction, rewriting the ending within the crime genre, gave me a kind of closure. 

Though, to respond to the question at the beginning of this article: the wrong questions from people you know, and who you’re usually relaxed with — like race hate crime — tell you how those people unconsciously, or not, see themselves: their white supremacy. As I witnessed in my research, and imagined in my novel, white people are often not aware of their white privilege as the world they live in is centred on privileging whiteness, but this is rarely acknowledged. It’s why closure is limited when racism is the crime; it is committed again and again, sometimes by people you know — sometimes by criminals who also get away with it. Racism is a crime easily committed and rarely punished — while closure on racism, or the closing down of racism is craved by those of us who should perhaps turn that question the other way round. When did you first realise you have white privilege? 

Elizabeth Chakrabarty’s debut novel, Lessons In Love and Other Crimes, is out now.

About the author

Elizabeth Chakrabarty is an interdisciplinary artist who uses creative and critical writing, besides performance, to explore themes of race, gender and sexuality. Her story Eurovision was short-listed for the Asian Writer Short Story Prize, published in Dividing Lines (Dahlia Publishing, 2017).

Her shorter creative-critical work has appeared in English and in translation in New Writing DundeeWomen and the ArtsGlänta, and Espace Lesbien Rencontres et Revue d’Etudes Lesbiennes. She is a contributor to the anthology edited by Kirsty Gunn, Imagined Spaces, published in 2020 (Saraband). She lives in London.

You can buy her book Lessons In Love and Other Crimes here.

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