Words by Saskia May, Books Editor
Reflecting on the colonialist, classist structure of British society, Assembly is a remarkably powerful book that takes a poetic and poignant look at Black British identity
Within the slim one hundred pages of Assembly, gifted new writer Natasha Brown has crafted a debut tale that considers the psychic marks of racism and classism in modern-day Britain, consulting the legacy of British colonialism and the post-Thatcherite Business world.
The unnamed narrator, a young British Black woman, seemingly has it all, a well-paid and blossoming career in finance, a wealthy boyfriend, private healthcare, and a flat in London. Having been invited by her upper-class boyfriend’s family to their sprawling country home for the weekend to celebrate their wedding anniversary, the narrator reflects on the insidious structures of class and race and how often, racism and classism are intertwined discourses.
In between sparse vignettes, the narrator reveals that she has been diagnosed with cancer, her doctor urging her to put a hold on her work and seek chemotherapy.
Facing a choice between the fight for survival or acceptance, her successes appear hollow to her. Brown’s narrator comes to consider her desire for survival and what that means for her, drawing us into her astute observations of the gritty, and business obsessed world around her, ‘any value my words have in this country is derived from my association with its institutions: universities, banks, governments’.
Pressing on the narrator constantly are the daily racist microaggressions that she faces from colleagues, her boyfriend’s parents, and strangers on the street. The constant pressure to ‘ascend’ carries a sense of guilt for her because ‘my parents and grandparents had no such opportunities; I could hardly waste mine’. Reflecting on how ‘the crumbling empire sent back for her colonial subjects’, Brown notes how ‘we came and built and mended and nursed; cooked and cleaned. We paid taxes, extortionate rent to the few landlords who would take us’. Those who came from the commonwealth faced hatred and violence, ‘The National Front chased, burnt, stabbed, eradicated…. New laws were drawn up; our rights revoked.’
In spite of the immense racism shown by Britain, some victims survived, the narrator remarking that ‘an ethic, a mindset, a drive was established then, that persists now. A relentless, uncompromising pursuit.’ This ‘survival’ has of course come at a cost, as the narrator’s mental health is marked by a sense of ‘dread’, tied to her professional achievements, ‘Dread. Everyday is an opportunity to fuck up. Every decision, every meeting, every report…there’s no success, only the temporary aversion of failure.’
Clinical psychologist David Smail, published in 1993 his book ‘The Origins of Unhappiness: A New Understanding of Personal Distress’. Smail urges us to take a look at the external environments of an individual’s suffering, as opposed to placing emphasis primarily on their internal state. Brown’s narrator is not simply suffering distress due to personal trauma but is an embodied product of her environment. The social structures outside of the narrator, that of the patriarchy, of institutionalised racism, and classism, are not moral or psychological structures inside her. Despite facing feelings of alienation and anxiety, such awareness of these structures enables her to understand that she should not blame herself for feeling unable to belong.
Under the pressure to conform and be obedient to a capitalist system, the narrator notes how she must give ‘inspirational’ talks to school children, pushing the hegemony that they too, must become ‘workers who were grateful and industrious and understood their role in society.’ Her wry comment, ‘who knew the limit to any ascent’, reminds us of the futile sense of ‘change’ occurring in a society complicit with racism.
With minimalist, poetic prose, Assembly consults the impossible predicament of building a coherent sense of self amidst a plethora of structural oppressions.