I don’t support Substack’s decision to platform Jesse Singal and Glenn Greenwald, among other prominent losers, so I’m dipping after I publish one last newsletter. Thank you to everyone who has supported me since I began writing here. Zine, podcast and more on the way. Much love. 💗

Twitter/Insta: @safyhallanfarah

On Cardigans

(Photo: Zoë Kravitz as Big Little Lies’ Bonnie Carlson doing her finest cardigan acting.)

In the last couple of months, a cardigan I used to wear when I was eighteen has been haunting me. It was school bus-yellow and made of a cotton and wool blend. It was cropped at the elbows and had fat buttons down the middle. It’s neckline was v-shaped but nothing too crazy, and it hugged on my waist a bit without looking too tight. My cardigan was hip and stylish and feminine. It looked like something you could pull from the wardrobe department of any of the hundreds of young adult shows airing at the time. Nowadays, however, only middle-aged white women—portrayed by Cameron Diaz or Reese Witherspoon in the movies—wear cardigans. And they wear them under specific conditions: while walking on the beach on a particularly blustery morning, pensively gazing at the crashing waves as they shiver in a way that suggests an underactive thyroid gland or low iron levels. The conditions for cardigan acting aren’t too far from reality. White women of a certain age seem to be keeping the cardigan industry alive. Everyone else—save for the Brandy Melville or High Fashion Twitter girls who wear fitted beige and pastel cardigans (and sometimes the chunky, shapeless kind) with dainty 14K gold necklaces—has abandoned the cardigan.

Cardigans used to be a staple of my wardrobe. I liked them because they could take a pair of skinny jeans and a band t-shirt to a neutrally feminine zone of style that’s not too girly, but does the opposite of communicating “I’m one of the guys” the way that hoodies often do. I never wanted to be one of the guys, but I still wanted the option, as I didn’t have that choice in high school when I wore a hijab. For me, the hijab restricted the presentation and performance of my womanhood to a similarly “feminine zone of style,” albeit a more claustrophobic one I couldn’t see myself out of.

At my current size, cardigans make me look like a frumpy, matronly librarian or school secretary, which maybe they made me look like before, but I have no way of knowing now, as I didn’t document much of my existence back then. I also might have been more willing to portray myself that way fifty pounds ago, back when I used to dream of having cleavage and couldn’t yet push my boobs together to highlight a split between them. I was at peace with it all because I wasn’t ready to be a woman yet, anyway. Now, I’m so conspicuously Woman (be careful what you wish for!)—with conspicuous jugs where my A cups used to be—and the body of the girl I once was is only preserved in memories that come rushing back to me whenever I put a cardigan on.

Cardigans feel uniquely nostalgic in a way no other item of clothing does. In a cardigan, you can be a girl again. I think that’s why Taylor Swift, who is a year older than me, uses it as a motif in her recent songwriting and visuals. Baked into the cardigan is the aesthetics of adolescence, and specifically, the feelings we felt as young girls forging our styles and sharpening our ideas about the world.

I find it curious that the cardigan hasn’t found its way into the recent fake cultural brouhaha around side parts and skinny jeans. I guess to the crowd of millennial women who wield the aesthetics of their bygone youth as a cudgel against children this isn’t worthy of feigned contention. These women should observe and participate in current trends without making a fuss or awkwardly clinging to their past. If the “avant-basic” discourse proved anything, it’s not cool to squabble over the ephemera of fashion and aesthetics.

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The first two Ethiopian girls I ever knew—both students at the elementary school I attended from grades 1 to 3—were, on a surface level at least, my cultural doppelgängers. They both had brown complexions and, like me, their curls hung down their backs one day, and tight braids the next day. But that was the extent of our similarities. Their otherness didn’t waft off of them like the scent of exhaust fumes the way it did for me, the only black Muslim Somali girl at school. Their obvious Christian faith like all of the white kids, the multi-colored beads they wore in their hair like all the black female celebrities I idolized, and the fact that their moms dressed way less conservatively than my mom were dead giveaways that they were Western, and thus nothing like me despite our shared geography, and phenotype. 

Years later, I still observe this cultural distance between Horn of Africa women, but it’s been replaced with a desire to superficially consolidate our narratives and identities in North America. Fiction like The Parking Lot Attendant by Nafkote Tamirat is often the only respite from this trend. Tamirat’s disorienting debut novel narrated by an unnamed Ethiopian teenager doesn’t mirror my Somali-American experience. Even better, it’s a singular story about a teenage girl’s singular experience: arriving with her father to a remote, utopian, ginger-scented island colony called B, where they live communally among people who are similarly in-between Boston and Africa, after fleeing the states for less than clear reasons. Where I can relate to Tamarit’s narrator is the meta-comment on the isolation of being an immigrant daughter, which is more than isolation from community or country; it’s often an estrangement from the self, causing unforetold rifts in a young woman’s hyphenated experience between two cultures. It’s not far-fetched that the narrator gets attached to a cult leader to deal with the absence of her parents, neither is it improbable that this cult leader would give the narrator a sense of purpose and meaning so lacking in her waking life. Tragically, I relate to all of these things, and to see it in allegory, with the writing often reflecting the same jumbled and befuddling nature of the experience itself, is equal parts clever and transformational. 

I understand the impulse Ethiopians and Somalis have to consolidate their identities. We’re two groups that aren’t allowed to inhabit the space of blackness full-time. I don’t think that’s the reason why we cling to each other, though. I think we cling to mooch on each other’s shiny qualities: Somalis have enviable visibility in the diaspora that can’t quit, and Ethiopians have the Judeo-Christian it-factor and vegan cuisine Somalis desperately need a piece of if we ever want to be an assimilated darling of the diaspora like they are. Also, it doesn’t help that, at the beginning of the 2010s, many mainstream rappers, including Drake, were rapping about a generic “East African” girl, so everyone wanted their chance to be that girl. For some, their entire self-concept got subsumed by that rapper fantasy. These are the conditions that led to me publishing a piece on I deeply regret writing with an Ethiopian writer. In the piece, we spoke of a universal experience among our girls and women that simply isn’t real, at least not in the way we over-simplified it. The narrative we created was incoherent, and, until this day, I feel as though I’ve truly dishonored the legacy of my ancestors by the psychic terrorism of ever publishing that piece. But it’s one of those things I’ve had to charge to the game. I was young, dumb, and apparently, “East African.” That impulse to write broadly and speak to experiences and identities outside of my own doesn’t go away, as there’s a dearth of shared raw material within our collective experiences, especially the collective immigrant girl experience, to excavate. This is why writers like Rupi Kaur and Fariha Roisin have branded themselves as emissaries of a certain amorphous immigrant girl/diaspora girl experience. Sometimes it just clicks, and other times, it can come off a bit forced, but I think that’s the awkwardness of consolidating your identity in general. It gets even more awkward the more it’s incentivized with money or visibility. It’s a uniquely millennial enterprise, too, as previous generations of writers hadn’t worked so hard at crafting accompanying visual identities, whether it’s their digital presentation and aesthetic, or their style of dress. 

The works by these young immigrant women aren’t meant to be consumed in the same way that, say, Zadie Smith’s White Teeth, is. In White Teeth, specifically, there’s a certain mainstreaming and flattening of the immigrant and first-generation experience where the characters are neither explicitly post-race nor fixated on each other’s differences. They simply exist while cultural events like the rise of pre-9/11 Islamic fundamentalism or the release of Salman Rushdie’s The Satanic Verses are happening in the background. Whereas the young immigrant women writing on/for the internet today have defined themselves against that background noise, zeroing in on their differences with forensic precision. At the core of their work is a belief that their difference has shaped and marked them. If Smith’s White Teeth is “middlebrow” for combining a very high level of critical intelligence with accessible yet literary language, these girls are no-brow. They’re combining critical feeling with a language that’s only accessible to a few girls like them. Smith’s work may mine the same themes of culture, diaspora, etc. (what most so-called ‘diaspora’ literature covers), but it’s not the same. These girls, unlike Smith, will never get to write with an authority that is attained by conforming to a white and male standard that’s stylized after literary canon figures because they rejected it from the beginning, writing instead to an audience of young, working-class girls like them.

I often think about whether I belong to this burgeoning category of online immigrant/diaspora girl writing. I do write broadly to women I am tenuously connected to by the ways colonialism has touched our lives, but I’d be lying if I said they’re the buyer persona or reader I’ve envisioned for this newsletter. They’re simply not. My readership feels much wider than that.

Maybe it’s a little simplistic, and Feminism 101 of me, but all girls, starting from childhood, are conditioned to get used to pain. We’ve grown up with phrases like “you’ll have to kiss a bunch of frogs until you find your prince” and “beauty is pain” that set us up to feel like we must pay a painful toll to get to where and what we want in life. Part of this pain is a limitation: be as pretty as a woman in a magazine or be as smart as a woman in a history book (whose achievements were overlooked during her lifetime). The absence of choice leaves us with few options, as we navigate life, romance, and career, so we perpetually feel like we’re never good, beautiful, or smart enough— but that we’re also too much. Our worth is calculated crudely, so when we do measure up we’re overflowing at the brim, excessive, taking up too much space. I feel like I am writing to that “too much” girl exclusively, regardless of whether she’s Somali, Ethiopian, Pakistani, or Jewish. I’m writing to the thick girls. The girls who wear too much color. The immigrant girl who runs a Depop empire. All of the girls.

Listen to my ‘dj immigrant daughter’ playlist on Spotify, featuring Rina Sawayama, Blood Cultures, Layla Hendryx, Rubi Rose, and Rihanna, among others).

Codependency No More

(Image: Grey Gardens)

All over the internet are floral images superimposed with the chaotic-sounding word “Athazagoraphobia.” These images often include the definition: “The fear of being forgotten, ignored or abandoned.” I get the sense that they’re meant to be deep, but the word sounds slightly made-up. A better term for a similar phenomenon is Rejection Sensitivity Dysphoria, a key feature of ADHD. I learned recently that ADHD shares cluster symptoms with both Autism and Borderline Personality Disorder. It doesn’t surprise me that many of the people across the mood and personality spectrum experience the same raw emotions, regardless of how those emotions may manifest.

I think even more excruciating than being abandoned or ignored is not feeling fully understood, which is why I go to lengths to clarify my point in all of my interpersonal relationships. That doesn’t always go well. I have sent texts that should have been phone calls. I’ve had phone calls that could have, in all honesty, been a single concisely worded email. And oftentimes the subtext of these communications has been “don’t leave me.” Or: “If I hold your attention for one more moment, maybe you’ll understand me,” which has led me to be on the receiving and giving end of big displays of enmity and big displays of love, which I view as almost the same thing. On an unconscious level, these kinds of grand gestures are attempts at postponing or accelerating the possibility of abandonment. You don’t have to say “don’t leave me!” to send the same message to someone—all it takes is an anxious text declaring your love! Similarly, if someone feels like they’re about to get dumped, it might be toxic but why wouldn’t they want to rip off the bandaid first, beating their lover to the eventual discard? I feel like in dynamics where the man is mostly wrong and knows it, he’s trying to evade being the villain in the future narrative, so he can’t do the dumping himself, even if he really wants to. And the woman in this dynamic, more often than not, just doesn’t want to say she was left behind, so she’s more comfortable throwing dynamite on the relationship. It doesn’t change the underlying subtext, the material buzzing under the surface: she was left behind and knows it

I’m speaking in generalities to anonymize my life, but of course, I am the woman I’m talking about. For someone so astrologically anchored by the moon, I am actually the sun. I run intense and hot. This can feel burdensome if you stare too hard for too long, but on the flip side, I’m a streak of sunshine. I think people are attracted to that intensity at first, as it’s inviting energy. But it’s overpowering, and nobody—especially a man—wants to feel like they’re out of control, like their face could melt off. I’ve learned to suppress the parts of myself—and lie a lot about my innate desires in the process—that scare others, so I can be more palatable so that they’ll stick around for longer than a season and I can then be perceived as a cool girl. And somehow it always goes back to pleasing men. 

When I started dating at seventeen, all it took to pull off the scam of being a cool girl was a mauve shade of lipstick, and benign lies (“yes, I want to keep my shoes on in your house”; “haha, I’d love to watch Twin Peaks instead of Spice World”; etc.) like one does when attempting to get a job they’re sorrily unqualified for. But the lies get deeper as you go, facilitating self-betrayal. I’ve always felt like I have a high sense of self-regard, but sometimes I’m not sure if that’s true. I struggle to see myself in Joan Didion’s definitions of self-respect, as per her 1961 Vogue essay:

To have that sense of one's intrinsic worth which, for better or for worse, constitutes self-respect, is potentially to have everything: the ability to discriminate, to love and to remain indifferent. To lack it is to be locked within oneself, paradoxically incapable of either love or indifference. If we do not respect ourselves, we are on the one hand forced to despise those who have so few resources as to consort with us, so little perception as to remain blind to our fatal weaknesses. 

Would a self-respecting girl plug herself up like a broken faucet after her tears were rejected by a guy, only to cry a week later while listening to “Good Days” by SZA, a song that the immersive production of potently harnesses a pure, big love? SZA’s single-ness feels imbued with less of the frantic, anxious energy of lustful infatuation she’s known for, and I want to live inside that feeling with her, though it’s hard in the fragile project of modern dating. Bolstered by luscious instrumentals and her trademark nonlinear, layered lyrical style, she exposes that fragility: “Still wanna try, still believe in good days, good days.”

Like SZA, I want to try, too. Specifically, I want to try to understand the wounded girl inside of me who seeks closeness with men. The wounded girl wants to live in the inner world of men more than her own, drawing herself close enough to get burned more than the intensity of her sun ever could. I don’t even think it’s men I seek; but rather, the elusive idea of who they are. I think that’s why the merman in The Pisces by Melissa Broder (the first Hip to Waste book club pick coming up in a bit!) is a genius metaphor.

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