Get to know… Nazrene Hanif

Writing is often seen as a solitary experience when really it is a team effort. From Virginia Woolf to Ocean Vuong, bell hooks to Maggie Nelson, I am indebted to those who came before me. Without these ‘many-gendered mothers of my heart’, I would not be a writer, I would not believe there was a space for my writing. The same is true of the Writing Room community: here, I feel inspired to write in a way that represents my existence at the intersection of cultures, gender roles, language and class.

I came to Giovanna Iozzi’s Memoir Workshop (and have taken the class multiple times), having previously studied under her tutorship as part of the MA Creative & Life Writing at Goldsmiths, University of London. Each person offers unique insights and a wealth of experience. I have had the privilege and pleasure of reading about different generations, families from around the world, Black-British identity and lyrical reflections on decolonising land, seeing our stories develop with Giovanna’s guidance and through group feedback.

The connections I have made continue to support and encourage me to share my work. In 2019, my lyric essay OUT OF THE BLUE was published by ACHE magazine, and in 2021, I received special mention in the Spread The World Life Writing Prize. I am interested in exploring ideas of belonging—not to one place, another person, but to our bodies, our plural identities.

The below is from a series of fragments examining different forms of grief. My heritage language, Malay, is sometimes called the language of the present because its verbs are not transformed into past or future tense; instead, time is denoted by indicators such as sudah (already) or belum (not yet). This informed the piece’s structure, recreating the non-linear experience of migration, memory and loss.

Extract from ALREADY / NOT YET

Do you remember my first word? I ask. No, you reply. We are communicating over WhatsApp. I have learned to deflect your curt responses, to ignore the space between what is said and unsaid, to react by choosing my words carefully. Not that you would notice. You are a chorus of capital letters and triple exclamation marks, as though to be understood requires emphasis, not empathy. You change the subject. Our conversation becomes one-sided—this screen, this distance between us, the only way we can keep in touch now.

Inside the womb, touch is the first sense to form; receptors begin to develop at around eight weeks. The body’s largest sensory organ, the skin starts to take shape, fingerprints become permanent by nineteen weeks, a signature written in ridges of tissue. After thirty weeks, a full range of sensations, including pain, can be appreciated in every part—perhaps this is why we try to find the easiest way out. Not without risk: in 1988, your 34-year-old body was torn, my head distorted by delivery, our first moments together, made less traumatic through skin-to-skin contact. The wounds heal, the soft skull hardens. How long does it take to forget?

The last time we saw each other, I cooked a ready meal from frozen, which we shared, in silence, while watching the television on opposite sides of the room. You said you would be afraid to travel back so late, you told me I always leave things too late. You live in a house of glass, but never wonder who might be looking in. I booked my Uber, promised to see you soon. You said not to worry. Inside the car, I watched you, a single figure framed by the floor-to-ceiling window, how small you seemed, watched you become smaller and smaller, as I moved further and further away.

To think, my entire hand could only hold your little finger. Your face, out of focus, your body only recognisable to me by its smell and the sound that still resonates from within. You did not need to raise your voice to tell me who you were. You are what comes before your sentences; I am what follows.

A week before Christmas Eve, my brother’s birthday, you told us both not to come home. You said we hadn’t bothered before, so why bother now, why is this year different?

Some memories are just images. They exist before language, before I knew how to fit the words together, how to form some kind of meaning. I am told this is why I cannot describe certain feelings. One in particular stands out: the light flickering through a revolving door, I look for you, your voice—there is no sound, though I sense that someone is screaming. My body plunged in water. Like ice on scalded skin.