I’m Nina and I’m mixed race. I was born in Whitehaven, Cumbria to a white Jewish teenage mother and (absent) Jamaican father, and went on to have a somewhat transient life living in the Cotswolds, Midlands, Bristol and south Devon. The majority of my life, however, has been spent living in Torbay.
My mum remarried a local fisherman when I was 6. He was extremely traditional, almost from a different era. His nickname for me was ‘squashy’, because of my flat nose. His passion for the sea and teaching me to fish, dragging me out on day hauls (trawling) started my love of the outdoors. Our household was frequented by domestic violence, mainly at weekends after the pubs had closed – both my parents were heavy drinkers. Whenever I found things difficult at home, I would climb out of my bedroom window and weave my way along the south west coastal path to walk or run until my mind settled. Often, ideas for poems came to me while I ran. When I was a teenager, I wrote a poem after my mum told me a story about my real dad, who I’ve never met, which included these lines:
Who came to Britain on a boat full of song,/Heart Filled with expectations/Meeting unexpected exploitation….Echoes from ancestors weighed at his back
I always knew I was “different.” Growing up in a rural area, prejudice, especially towards children can be overt – name calling and meanness – but often it was more subtle. A friend’s dad once told me he didn’t mind me, but if lots of “my type” moved down here houses wouldn’t be worth anything. I didn’t understand what he meant as I was only about 12, but it made me feel uncomfortable. I didn’t go to their house again and I’ve never forgotten it.
In the town I lived in there were a few black families, but having a white family, including white half-siblings, meant that visually, I never fitted in with my own. People would often question if I was related to other people with brown skin, and I frequently felt the need to explain where I was from and who I belonged to.
I had a short Afro and was often mistaken for a boy, until I began to grow my hair at secondary school. My mum didn’t know how to look after it. It was only when a friend from London taught me how to braid that I began to care for my hair myself and shunned the hairdresser.
At school I wasn’t held back educationally specifically, but I struggled with how I was perceived; at Grammar school, for instance, I was streamed into bottom set for everything despite being in top sets in my school prior to this one. This certainly helped me dig deep for resolve and the need to work harder than my peers in order to prove myself grew from there. One altercation with the headteacher when I wore my afro out resulted in me being put on report for having “ridiculous” hair. I was asked not to stay on to do my A-levels as the school felt I wasn’t bright enough and I would affect their funding. They told me I would “amount to nothing in life”, leaving me wondering if there was any point in trying. I realised that day that some people will see your colour first, intellect later. I’d love to tell the school’s deputy head how wrong he was, and that perhaps he was in the wrong career – he shouldn’t be helping to shape young minds with his attitude.
In my late teens I sought to immerse myself in culture that was anything other than what I had experienced in Devon. I moved first to Easton in Bristol, where I had my first child and attended university, then to Smethwick, in Sandwell. I loved the vibrancy and friendliness of the city and the fact I felt instantly at home – no-one stared at me or went quiet when I walked into a pub. I found myself and flourished professionally.
My parents died quite close together some years ago, my mum of alcoholism, my dad of cancer. They were never big talkers so there are many unanswered questions regarding my heritage. There is one side of me I’ll never know about, an unfinished history. Although I don’t know who my real father is, I have created my own connection to black/Caribbean culture. I know that home is definitely where the heart is. I am certainly a wandering soul, having grown up with the sea in my blood.
There was always a need to go back to Devon even though I never thought I would. When in the city I would seek out the most remote parts of the Midlands I could find, the Malvern hills, the Wenlock edge, and run for hours to order my thoughts, although nothing beats being near or in the water. So here I am, back in Devon, where now I fully know myself, where I feel most at home.
© Nina Jefferies 2020