I am a writer and academic who teaches in the Sociology Department at Goldsmiths College. I'm interested in understanding life's threshold moments and transitions. As well as my academic writing and blogging, I write the occasional poem. Some of my previous publications include, ‘Researching Race and Ethnicity’ (Sage, 2003) and a jointly edited collection with David Oliviere, ‘Narratives and Stories in Health Care’ (Oxford University Press, 2009). My latest book ‘Death and the Migrant’ (2013, Bloomsbury Academic) brings together my interest in stories with my sociological research on transnational dying and intercultural care.
I remember sun
crowning my head
in my grandmother’s garden when I was five.
Rusty earth on slow-bake, a mongrel on a long chain asleep on the veranda twitching, drooling.
Mynah birds, kattusas, dancing butterflies.
Calls of Bombai Mutai lyrical in the distance.
New Year lanterns brazen in a guava tree
Caught up in excitement I did not know
I was leaving
My whole hand would not sink again into
left on a window ledge to melt.
My mother would stop dancing.
No more dreaming for me
in two languages
A bejewelled tusker in the room
whipped and diminished by the day.
Adornment, elaborate subterfuge.
A child’s heart senses confused fear
behind his painted eye.
Powerless, ashamed, you watch him disappear.
I forget. I forgot. Almost everything.
Still he lingers. Lumbers somewhere, processing
to the beat of the two-faced Thammattama.
I would return
an orphaned stranger, kalu-suddha
to gaze at my grandmother’s divided house
through a wire fence.
To feel first love suspended timeless
in fat sounds and tacky rhythms of words
so familiar, now hollow.
Gliding head down through tepid water
in an English swimming pool much later
it floats past me. Out of the blue.
Word for stuttering word it comes,
the language I am struggling to learn
This vocabulary does not lie
waiting anxiously for my return
to be memorised, immortalised,
frescoed into rock.
As Sanskrit’s straight lines tore the Ola leaf
Sinhala script branching away
had to bend and curve with its taut terrain.
Somewhere deep within one day,
not trying, just bending, curving,
It comes to me.
Elephant Pass – gateway to the Jaffna peninsula and the site of much bloodshed
kattusa – small garden lizard, bombai mutai – spun sugar, 'hari lassanai' – very beautiful
Thammattama – two small connected membranophone drums
kalu-suddha – a derogatory Sinhala term for Westernization; a wog
I love this article by Charlotte Mendelson on her relationships with her grandparents and the Hungarian language
When people ask me about my research they often assume that this is a relentlessly depressing area to work in. There is of course sadness and loss. There is also so much more - wisdom, humour, inventiveness, delight, subterfuge, reinvention. I have learnt many new ways of thinking about and moving through life.
Morris lived on the 13th floor of a grey, inner city tower block. Sharp blind corners, graffiti, narrow corridors, studded with doors and secret lives. Each floor seemed to be an exact replica of the other. Morris had felt so lucky when his family were moved into the flat. They had made it.
Listening to Morris and in no time at all, his high-rise stories of Jamaica have pulled me through the windows of his home. The grey sky turns into green, red and gold. Morris is talking about wanting to be buried in Jamaica so that he can breathe, really breath. He will fly above the mango and the apple trees, over the rivers and the sea, he tells me.
These fanciful dreams and yearning move under his front door and seep into the spaces of the tower block, changing it on the way. As I walk down thirteen flights of concrete stairs after the interview, I can see hundreds of small lives twinkling in the early evening landscape of the city. I feel lucky. And, for a moment, I am sure I can smell mangoes.
Death and the Migrant
I spent most of my twenties caring for my father and then my mother, both migrants from Sri Lanka. My father was brain damaged during (or after) heart by-pass surgery and my mother had pancreatic cancer. They died within six months of each other. Life became a very serious business after their deaths. It was the first time that I began to think consciously about belonging and loss - and this part of migration trajectories that is so often neglected. As well as wanting to improve end of life care, I have wanted to bring these neglected experiences into the cultural imagination.
My book Death and the Migrant is a book of sociological stories, bringing together my work on migration, illness and death that began in the mid-1990s.
You can think of the book as a compilation of short stories about migrant lives and end of life care, where there is an interweaving of oral history and contextual detail. Some of the stories might resonate with your own experiences or at least stir points of contrast. You can also read the book as a fleshy account of geo-social politics from below. A different way of approaching scholarly concerns and debates about global markets, borders, transnational networks and multicultural hospitality. If you are a care practitioner I hope that the book will have relevance to your everyday work and dilemmas, adding other perspectives to policy, pedagogical and clinical initiatives that aim to improve care.
Here are some themes from the book.
Hospitality - I go back to the story of the contemporary hospice movement and the professional chameleon, Cicely Saunders, (philosopher/nurse/social worker/doctor), who is regarded as inspiring modern hospices. Cicely credits her ideas about hospice care to her relationship, in 1948, with a dying Polish Jew and refugee David Tasma. Saunders’ idealised vision for the first modern hospice - St Christopher’s in South London - sounds so apt for our global multicultures ‘A working community of the unalike’.
At the time when Cicely and David met, the National Health Service was in its formative years, recruiting migrant care professionals and other care workers to supplement post-war labour deficiencies. This ‘perverse subsidy’ has continued and to the detriment of the economies and households from which migrants come.
Our care services are indebted to migrants. These are debts and gifts are easily forgotten in the present, even with Danny Boyle's tribute to the NHS, in the Olympics opening ceremony in 2012. The care workers who tended to the birth and infancy of the National Health Service are now ageing. For the first time as patients some of them will walk through the main entrance of the places in which they have laboured. They will be looked in the face. They will be addressed by their names. Some will occupy the waiting rooms, wards and beds that they have cleaned and serviced. The child that they have nurtured will in turn care for them.
What will happen now that the roles are reversing?
Debility - Several of the chapters in the book are about the multisensory experience of disability and disease at the end of life and how migration and cultural and language differences can affect dying. Inspired by feminist, queer and disability studies, I have been interested in thinking about the experience and symbolism of debilitated migrant bodies and how social pain and suffering can become entangled with physical pain at the end of life.
Care - In Death and the Migrant, I am interested in what good care is and in what it might be. I work very much from within the existing terms and philosophies of palliative care and its utopian philosophy of ‘total pain’ that recognizes pain as being physical, psychological, social and spiritual. Within the domains of total pain, the bodily suffering caused by a tumour pressing on the spinal cord and the emotional loss of legs that can no longer dance, are ideally both recognized as pain. The thinking and aspirations of palliative care and total pain have shaped and inspired the methods, writing and stories in Death and the Migrant.