Natasha Brown’s powerful, deftly written debut explodes neoliberal myths of meritocratic success and reveals the stark reality faced by young Black women when attempting to make it to the top.
This is a book about myths, stories that become myths and the fictions that we tell ourselves in order to endure. ‘It’s a story. There are challenges. There’s hard work, pulling up laces, rolling up shirtsleeves, and forcing yourself’ says the protagonist of Natasha Brown’s novella, Assembly. In a tightly focused, almost claustrophobic text where it often feels difficult for both the narrator and the reader to breathe, the sun never sets on the fabled construction known as Empire, the ripple effects of which continue to underpin the lives of Black and minority ethnic people.
Brown’s main character is nameless. I wonder whether that is because she sits too closely to the writer’s own experience of working for a City monolith, or because she is synecdoche for all those outside the white male norm existing in similar situations. The narrator – a young Black woman – has imbibed the fable of the ‘good immigrant’ who forges a better life for themselves and achieves material success through sheer hard work and quiet assimilation. The hallowed neo-liberal dogma of the ‘rugged individual’ clawing their way to professional attainment and wealth is a legend continually held out towards those striving to achieve in Britain, especially those who come from elsewhere to do so. Yet this conveniently ignores the often inherited socio-economic privilege of those who run the country, not to mention the impenetrable safety of those typically white networks in which they are so lovingly cocooned. Those who preside over commerce, finance, art and literature typically form a cabal who peddle the promise of advancement to those outside their circle only to oversee the latter’s mental and emotional diminishment when they achieve it.
Assembly is a story of how these myths perpetuate themselves and how even those who infiltrate the system unwittingly become a mouthpiece for it. Brown’s protagonist gives presentations to students at schools and colleges to demonstrate that they too can achieve what she has if only they roll up their sleeves and apply themselves. Her experiences are however, bitter – micro aggressions, sexual harassment and icy polite hostility – and they all lead her to wonder why she is encouraging other young women, particularly Black women, to follow her lead: ‘How many women and young girls have I lied to?’ It seems that when you are on this particular treadmill the only option is to keep running.
When reading Assembly it is difficult not to be struck by Brown’s prose. It is tight and sharp, honed to a fine point that takes a scalpel to her lead’s environment, and the slim volume has a stifling quality that mirrors the panoptic glass-panelled office in which the character works. The office is a gilded box into which she is constantly trying to fit herself and the contortions that she performs are truly remarkable, especially considering the fact that they must be achieved without attracting attention. The goal, you see, is assimilation. The pain caused by this malformation may be horrific and leave long-lasting scars, but it is to be ignored and minimised, carefully stowed away like a suitcase on top of a wardrobe and she must continue to shapeshift to the required specifications, or: ‘Bend your bones until they splinter and crack and you fit.’ Where Brown excels however is in her description of how mentally and emotionally exhausting this compliance is and the feeling of dread that arises from having to maintain it.
We witnessed a real-life parallel to this character’s predicament in Simone Biles’ decision to withdraw from the team and individual finals – minus the beam – at this year’s Tokyo Olympic Games. The gymnast made the choice not to perform her own superhuman manoeuvres in order to prioritise her mental health and recover from the debilitating ‘twisties’: a euphemism for a mental block during which gymnasts lose their sense of spatial awareness in the middle of complex and demanding stunts. The backlash against Biles was swift and often merciless. The twenty-four-year-old was characterised as ‘selfish’ and ‘ungrateful’ and there is little doubt that her choice intersected with her identity as a Black woman to result in the erroneous and racist judgements on social media that she had failed to perform for a country who had given her so much and to whom she did not “legitimately belong”.
It is this fear of seeming ungrateful, selfish or perhaps the even more loaded term ‘difficult’ that prompts Assembly’s main character to keep performing the Biles-esque stunts that preserve her career. Her greatest fear is that her success will be snatched away from her because, owing to her race, she doesn’t really “belong” in Britain, which is a sentiment her colleagues and acquaintances constantly vocalise: ‘No, but originally. Like your parents, where they’re from. Africa, right?’ Such ignorance, although longstanding, was officially sanctioned after the Conservative government introduced the anti-immigrant ‘hostile environment’ legislation in 2012 that resulted in the Windrush Scandal. Hundreds of Commonwealth citizens who had arrived in the country as British subjects were wrongly detained, deported and denied legal rights when they were unable to provide documentation proving their right to remain in the UK after the Home Office itself had destroyed thousands of landing cards and other records. Amid this vicious maelstrom, which also included the 2016 Brexit referendum, any sense of belonging that Brown’s protagonist had is slowly eroded by the nagging and pernicious chorus that Britain exists only for the British and that, by extension, British means white.
This insidious refrain can be traced through to Brown’s use of repetition, and nowhere is it more powerful than in her continuous use of the word ‘dread’: ‘dread, dread, dread, dread … I don’t remember when I didn’t feel this’, so that her anxiety at her outsider status becomes a solid thing, making it an almost physical presence in the text and a malevolent shadow that skips alongside the protagonist. Escaping from this cycle of unease seems impossible, enmeshed as it is with factors such as home ownership, providing for her family, being an example to others and maintaining the fiction of happiness and fulfilment. The book’s leitmotif is ‘transcendence’ and that word itself is frequently spattered across it. One senses that eclipsing her circumstances has been a lifelong pursuit for the narrator. She has overcome her background and surpassed its social and physical constraints to achieve her current position, but the toll that journey has taken on her has left her wanting to push further and transcend her situation entirely so that she ceases to exist within it.
This desire to rise above her life seems to have lain within her from a young age. The description of her childhood home as being next to a cemetery where she observed the burials and mourners from an upper window is chilling, because she is now watching her own life as a detached observer, and in Brown’s deft hands this evolves into a sinister dissociative disorder. Watching her colleagues, her friends, her boyfriend and his family – a weekend with whom is the catalyst for her to re-evaluate her life – she detaches from her gruelling existence and it is this final disengagement that forms the novella’s crescendo.
The protagonist rejects the myths that she has been force-fed by a society who told her that she could belong while simultaneously repudiating her. Finally, she reaches her limit and violently refuses the physical and emotional demands under which she has been placed. Finally, she realises she has a choice. Prior to this, the constant forward motion of her career has been driven more by obligation than desire and the journey has broken her. She has ‘seen enough’ and in transcending this particular set of circumstances – simply drifting away from them – she reclaims a kind of agency. For her, doing nothing, failing to participate, is a seismic shift and although it can be read as self-destructive it prises her from the grip of the fables that have only ever disappointed her, and that is a victory in itself.