Updated: Apr 2
Dear Mr. Elephant,
I have been informed by my father that he has been in regular contact with you even after he left the UK, and his e-mail correspondence would often include my upbringing as a case study for his arguments about accessibility and migration.
I am writing to you to alert you that my explicit consent was not given in his letters and was only notified about them after they were sent. Please note that any mention of my experiences and upbringing in his letters does not represent my full perspective.
Since my father lives overseas and has resigned himself from parental responsibilities, my Mother and I do not actively engage in any correspondence with him, or his writing.
Therefore, his letters to you are written from an individual perspective and are not mutually agreed upon by the people he mentions, including my mother and me.
Best wishes, Hannah
My Dad wielded the letter as a weapon against the world. Unfortunately, the consequence of my adolescence in a Karen-adjacent household was being his proofreader on a zero-hours contract, especially on night shifts.
“Hannah?” Oh no…
“Hannah..” Not again!
“Hannah, are you awake?” I wish I wasn’t.
I would debate with myself whether or not to say yes, or to rhythmically raise my breathing in an attempt to make it sound like I was asleep, the latter of which was mostly unsuccessful. Oozing out of my bed sheets like a morose puddle of insomnia, I would pull my limbs past my need for warmth and amble out of the bedroom to the living room, an enclosed space draped in dim sepia lighting.
To the left of the entrance to the living room was Dad’s castle or office cluster: a printer, desk, and computer. The pull-out keyboard shelf accommodated a slew of tea-stained rings and small ecosystems of dust. Hunched over the screen during these late hours would be my Dad and his black-rimmed reading glasses. The cold emission of light from the screen would bleach the high planes of his scornful gaze.
“I’ve written something and I need you to check if it makes sense”. In other words, Dad wanted me to read through his five-page letters to check that the content of his writing was clear, even though it was a school night. Under no circumstance was I to check the grammar if I were to be like mum and get an earful about how proofreading English for clarity had nothing to do with grammar—even though it usually did.
I was only chosen as the unwilling reading participant because I liked reading books, but my grammar was a small improvement to his since I was still a developing child. Mum was technically more qualified, but Dad didn’t care for her correcting him. On my Mum’s behalf, I just waited to do it when his attention shifted to the news he recorded rather than me sitting at his desk.
Although I was doing well in school and loved English lessons, I was not enthralled with proofreading letters about political topics I did not understand to politicians I did not care about—especially when I was drudging past my hazy focus and half-open eyelids pulling me towards darkness. Carefully brushing the mouse’s scroll wheel, the Calibri Sans would fade in and out of clarity from clean and precise lettering to a mild fog of sterile office grays.
Whilst Dad stood in the middle of the living room to listen to music or watch more news, I would silence the brutish force I would press into each key with the similar soft clack of a wooden chime to avoid any audible suggestion that I was changing any grammar errors he may have made, or misplacements of a colon instead of a full-stop, or any minor thing I could notice Dad would scold me about for being ‘picky’ or ‘just like my mother’. That latter phrase is a swift knife into anyone’s esteem and worth, so the most tactical strategy when interacting with the house lion was to avoid alarm.
The late-night proofreading sessions weren’t constant but occurred enough to be a distinct and haunting memory. Seven years later when I visited my Dad in Malaysia, I was reminded of those late nights when he asked me to sit down at his marble table, blanketed with a thin sheet of dust, to proofread a letter he wanted to send to the local MP (Member of Parliament) of my original hometown. It was five pages long. Five…Pages. Frankly, this was a vastly concise documentation of my Dad’s ramblings, when I would often watch the steam fall from his initially hot drink during the 30-60 minute bursts of him monologuing. Dad calls it a ‘conversation’ but it was no different from a villain detailing his big plot and motivations without prompt.
The harsh emission of bright pixels washed out my complexion again and I scrunched my nose side-to-side to dance away any particles that may set off my dust allergies. With rusty muscle memory, I prayed to any God on duty in the middle of the night to help me stay motivated and complete the task.
So much had changed in the six to seven years of Dad’s absence from my life, but he still had the same typing habits I discreetly corrected as he plodded back and forth in the living room with a stained cup of tea and a handful of Bombay mix shuffling in his palm like a sifter to his mouth. A quietly domestic parallel to his life before moving to England at 19 years old when he worked at a tin mine, laboriously sifting to find the metal.
Although my memories of those late-night shifts at the computer are shrouded with a lingering languish, they were valuable as a reminder of the persisting hours my Dad had spent communicating with politicians in their language, dusty and detached formal written correspondence. The wait to receive notifications and receipts of correspondence, alerting you to a response within ‘7 to 10 working days’ without active solutions. Hours of time for migrants to communicate their concerns to be rewarded with week-long delays and passive sympathy.
Being raised in a mixed-race, low-income, and disabled family in a Conservative region of England subconsciously equated to a one-sided confrontation to be acknowledged, listened to, supported, and helped. We just wanted help, and letter writing was our tool to incite action, our only hope to be heard. Pleas only mattered to Englishmen with blue or yellow ties if they were formal, measured, grammatically correct, and documented.
I can imagine there being a broader barrier for non-native English speakers or migrants to write to decision-makers that expect eloquence as an everyday standard. My Dad’s experiences as a migrant father were not taken seriously unless his criticisms were proofread by his pre-adult daughter, the first native English speaker of his immediate and extended family. Marginalization was not taken seriously unless presented in proximity to the conservative middle class’s silver tongue, the way a mouse may be saved by snakes if they hid and hissed. We just wanted help.
Writing letters for political and social action is valuable and necessary. I value the effort Dad made to try and improve our circumstances, which makes it more bittersweet that Mum and I have outgrown Dad’s role as the unprompted letter-writer to MPs in districts none of us live in anymore. Of course, that doesn’t stop him from continuing to write letters with increasingly trivial topics, forwarding them to Mum and me which only amplified our stress and grief instead of soothing it. His insistence to insert his voice can be as grating as the Karen lexicon; the more he ‘spoke to the manager’, the less I wished to co-sign it. It became less about demanding improvements and more about fabricating points.
As time stretched between conversations with Dad, my sanctuary strengthened. Peace was protecting myself, talking to him meant replacing my commas with full stops. It meant replacing ‘I love you too’ with ‘speak to you soon’, then ‘take care’, and maybe ‘my regards’. It meant embracing the language of cold email receipts like a cloying warm hug. No record, video, diary, or height, has represented my family experience better than the letter—sincerely bothersome.
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Editors: Danielle C., Lang D., Joyce P., Erika Y.