Publication Updates!

Pleased to announce two forthcoming publications, one in the Canadian Journal of Undergraduate Research (CJUR) and the other in Prarie Fire Magazine! Blurbs follow.

Coulton, Marisa. “What My Children Will Not Know” (forthcoming). Prairie Fire Magazine.

There is something to be said for the seaside childhood.

Before I moved to Canada at age seven, weekends were for ‘Beach Moves.’ Very early on, I learned how to pack a beach bag with all the essentials: beach shoes to protect my feet from sharp rocks and crabs, pails, shovels, and an ingenious beach towel that converted into a bag for wet things.

My family and I would sit at a plastic table and chairs, eating fried fish caught from the ocean just minutes ago. They still had eyes and appeared to look up at us, imploring. The wind would rush our feast, carrying paper plates and napkins off beyond our reach and blowing sand into our food. It seemed, even then, like the sea was playing hard to get.

There is something to be said for the fried dumpling, or ‘festival’, as it’s called, that left a swath of grease along our lips. Ting soda so strong it seared our tongues.

We baked in the sunshine—greedily, hungrily—until we were so brown that we were unrecognizable. Beach Moves. This is just one of the things my children, though not yet born, may never know.

Coulton, Marisa.Bangladesh’s Unlikely Attainment of the 4th Millennium Development Goal(forthcoming). The Canadian Journal of Undergraduate Research (CJUR).

ABSTRACT: This essay centers on the 2015 “Millennium Development Goals,” (MDGs) a historic United Nations (UN) initiative aimed at bridging the world’s inequalities. Since its conclusion, the success of the project has been hotly debated, as progress at the international level was markedly uneven. In order to ensure the success of future initiatives, it is necessary to determine why these goals failed so decisively in some contexts but succeeded in others. Given the innumerable nations involved in the project, the scope of the essay was narrowed to focus on a single country and MDG goal. This paper centers on the improbable attainment of the fourth development goal (pertaining to neonatal and newborn health) in Bangladesh, one of the world’s poorest countries. Using official UN documents, seminal literature, and consultation with crucial UN actor Uzma Syed herself, this essay demonstrates that Bangladesh’s success was a result of efficient programming, data acquisition, and transnational, individual, and domestic cooperation. This allowed a small nation like Bangladesh to significantly reduce its under-five and infant mortality rates, illustrating that it is, in fact, possible to enact meaningful change in difficult circumstances. Following the conclusion of the initiative, the country has decided to maintain child survival as a government health priority, as inequalities between populations persist. According to former secretary general Ban Ki-Moon, a continued, strategic focus on under-fives is imperative, with a particular emphasis on the structural and social determinants of health. Looking, now, toward the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), Bangladesh’s triumph can be used to build a framework for continued progress in the realms of child and neonatal health.

From the Edge of Elation

In grade ten, I was friends with two boys who, for the purposes of this essay, I will call Roy and Kamran. Every so often, they would make an offensive comment about our teacher or our classmates that would give me pause. They particularly liked racial stereotypes. I tried to ignore their little comments and crass sense of humour. I had a small crush on Kamran, so this was easy to do.

Roy once complained about not being able to understand a math concept.

“I can help,” I offered, eager to please. I understood the material pretty well by that point.

“You?” Kamran asked. He looked at Roy and laughed. I stared back blankly; I didn’t get the joke.

“Black people don’t know anything about math,” Roy explained. “If I wanted help, I’d ask an Asian.”

My world crumpled like newspaper. I asked the teacher to go to the washroom, where I eyed myself in the mirror. I was humiliated. They had stripped away everything that made me special, reducing me to just some black girl.

My face hardened. I never wanted my intelligence questioned again. From that moment on, I decided I would work so hard that my capabilities would be unmistakable.

I had always worked hard, driven by a love of learning. Now, I had something to prove.


When I was sixteen, my family took a road trip to Boston, Massachusetts. It rained for the entire week, which seemed to wash out all the colour of the city, reducing it to grey monochrome. Somehow, my parents were still full of energy—they loved exploring new places and impromptu road trips.

We toured an old naval ship, the USS Constitution. I was bored all throughout and dragged my feet, tightening the strings of my hood to protect my hair from the rain and damp.

Later we toured the Harvard University campus. This part of the trip piqued my interest immediately. The best students in the world went there, I had heard. These students probably never had their intelligence called into question, like I had in math class. Why would they?

We toured the red-brick grounds and green, pristine lawns: Cambridge Common, Harvard Yard, and Harvard Square.

I caught a glimpse of myself in one of the windows of the buildings and did a double-take. My pink hood was tightened around my head, making me look bald, and the face that looked back at me was pimply and acne-scarred. My skin seemed pale from the overcast clouds. I took stock: flat chest, clunky running shoes, jeans. Like most teenagers, I didn’t find myself beautiful. In fact, I thought myself grotesque in the window’s reflection, the lovely Harvard grounds splayed out behind me like a joke.

But you didn’t need to be beautiful to go to Harvard. You needed to be smart.

“I’m going to go here,” I told my parents. I bought a Harvard shirt and decided I would wear it once admitted.

“We’ll be proud of you wherever you go,” they said. I am blessed with parents whose only requirement was that I try my best. The rest was up to me.

But I wouldn’t be proud of me, I thought. I had begun to set the bar high, and when I reached the bar, I would simply nudge it higher; a cruel game I played only with myself.

When at last it came time to apply to university in December of my grade twelve year, I broached the subject of Ivy league schools to my parents. They dodged the topic, until finally they recommended that I apply local.

I lashed out. “Why? You don’t think I can get in?”

“We think you can get in,” they assured me. “We just can’t afford to send you.”

Again, I was holding myself, and now everyone around me, to an impossibly high standard. I balled up the Harvard T-shirt and shoved it to the bottom of my drawer, ashamed.

I raised my concerns to a family friend, Mr. Hall, a former university professor. “Marisa,” he said in his booming baritone. “Everyone needs a bachelor’s degree, so go somewhere you can afford. For your master’s you can go anywhere.”

I liked the idea and decided to hold him to it.


I attended Western University in London, ON, and spent my third year abroad in France. While there, I visited a friend in Paris. She was wrapping up a master’s degree at Sciences Po, a school in France renowned for its instruction in political science and the humanities.

I was happy to visit. Her residence—the Cité Universitaire de Paris—was beautiful, with sprawling, manicured gardens and stately limestone buildings, or “houses.” The Canadian house, the Italian house, the Belgian house, and so on.

I, myself, lived in a similar Cité Universitaire in France, but in the south, in a little city called Aix-en-Provence, just outside of Marseille. I was studying French with the intention of mastering it, although at the time I had no idea what I would do with the language. I figured I would carry it around in my pockets like loose change and dispense it at my leisure.

We entered the Canada house, and my friend introduced me to a rag-tag group of international students, a Belgian, a girl from Lebanon, a guy from Canada, all of whom were enrolled at Sciences Po. We sat in the residence lounge around a bottle of red wine, which we drank serenely from plastic cups. I was impressed by these students, whose drive and talent had taken them all the way to Sciences Po.

I was speaking with the Belgian, apologizing periodically from my French.

He waved away my anxieties and took a sip of his wine. He eyed me curiously. “What are you planning to do?”


“After school.”

“I’m not sure. Graduate school, maybe.”

“But which one? Where?”

I smiled. “I don’t know.”

He leaned back in his seat. “London School of Economics? Sciences Po Paris? NYU? Columbia?”

The fact that he assumed I’d be going to one of those schools—the best schools in the world— flattered me. Made me giddy. I hadn’t given much thought to graduate school in recent years. He had planted a seed. I considered the options he had laid out.

Columbia, I considered, turning the word over in my mind. Columbia.


In August 2018, I was back in Canada from my exchange. I knew it was time to think about graduate school. The question was: what to go to school for?

It might seem backwards that I had decided to go to graduate school without knowing what for. But I always knew I needed more school. My undergraduate degree in international relations left me aching for something creative, a way to incorporate what I had learned in a format that was better suited to my skills. Writing.

I settled on the Creative Writing MSt at the University of Oxford, the MA in Prose Fiction from the University of East Anglia (UEA), which had produced two of my favourite fiction writers, the University of British Columbia MFA, and two Columbia programs requiring three separate applications – the School of the Arts, and the dual Master’s in Journalism and International Public Affairs. Deep down, I knew I wanted to go to Columbia. It was so close to home I could drive there, and was in the art and writing capital of the world. Truthfully, I had chosen three programs there because I didn’t think I would get into any. And if I didn’t get into any, I would be crushed.

Journalism and Creative Writing battled for prominence in my mind. I weighed their pros and cons all day. As I woke up, ate my breakfast, sat in my lectures. Should I apply to both? One or the other? Neither? Which was more lucrative? Which was more me? Was this whole thing a mistake?

There was, as always, the question of paying for a journalism degree in a world where the media landscape was unpredictable, changing rapidly day to day. I tried to spin this on its head. Should journalism be spontaneously extinguished, maybe I would be one of the last journalists to ever exist, my writing career brief and intense, like a firework.


Columbia’s International Affairs program required the GRE, or Graduate Record Examination, a four-and-a-half-hour nightmare with a math section—which I hadn’t done since high school.

For a while, I lived at the library, running 3-hour GRE self-practice tests and squinting at the screen because I didn’t yet know that I needed glasses. With my eyes (as with my graduation school applications) I had overestimated my capabilities, figuring that anything was possible, and that all limitations were self-imposed.

I would soon learn that women are not machines.

Writing the GRE took it out of me. The math was impossible to master, and the cost of the test, books, and online prep course actually bankrupted me. I had never seen my bank account so low.

But I was doing it for a higher purpose, I told myelf. I hoped it would be worth it.


“Would you call yourself an optimist or a pessimist?” my roommate Maggie once asked the house.

“Realist,” I said, of myself.

“I’d say you’re an optimist.”


“If you weren’t an optimist, you wouldn’t have applied for these schools. You wouldn’t have applied to Columbia.”

I liked this idea. That deep down, amid all the self-criticism, I was actually a closeted optimist.


University application deadlines always fall in late December to January, coinciding with biannual family trips to Jamaica for Christmas. As it so happened, I filled out my undergraduate applications in Jamaica, and completed my graduate school applications there, too.

I wrote my essays at my grandmother’s dining room table and filmed a video essay in my mother’s old bedroom. Croaking lizards crooned in the background. Sunshine streamed through the curtains. I warred with the internet, which had random dead-zones throughout the bungalow.

“What are you doing?” my young cousin asked.

“I’m writing a reading response,” I said, barely looking up from the screen. The Columbia MFA application was hefty – a 1000-word reading response on a piece written within the last 10 years. There was also a personal essay and a 25-page sample of fiction.

“You swore,” he said, pointing at my laptop screen. I had written the word ‘fuck.’

“Yes. Sometimes it’s okay to swear if you’re quoting a piece that swears.” My response was focused on the use of vulgar language in André Alexis’ Fifteen Dogs, winner of the 2015 Scotiabank Giller prize.

I returned to the Western campus for my final semester. I paid the graduate school application fees out-of-pocket and, soon after, phoned my father, desperate for money. I didn’t have anything left for groceries. Sometimes my ambition scared me: I was willing to starve to achieve.

I was hungry, for sure. Just not for food.


Over Christmas and the month of January, I read over my applications until I had practically memorized them. I hit the ‘submit’ button and withdrew into myself.


People say that you are your harshest critic. If this is so, then my personal critic does not only criticize; she curses. She hurls biting insults. She minimizes her accomplishments, grinding them into insignificance like chalk into powder.

My critic lived on my shoulder throughout the month of February. I was perpetually on edge, jumping at every ping of my email, which would carry with it either an acceptance or rejection, a success or a heartbreak. Confirming my worth or negating it.

Eventually I turned off my email notifications, checking only once a day. But I remained in a state of perpetual crisis.

“I can’t live like this,” I cried, flinging myself onto the couch. I flipped on my then-series of choice, New York Times Retro Reports, a series of depressing but informative clips about the top news stories of the 20th century.

“You’re always in crisis,” Maggie teased. She was standing by the kitchen island, chopping oversize blocks of cheese onto crackers. “This is like, your third crisis today.”

I held a cushion over my face and pretended to smother myself.

Dramatics aside, I knew couldn’t continue. I was a ball of nerves. Somewhere along the line, I had bound my worth firmly to university acceptances.

What I needed was an unshakeable confidence that could withstand any rejection, residing deep within me, like the dense inner core of a planet. An understanding that I was worthy and capable and beautiful, regardless of what people might say. I told myself that, regardless of whether or not I got into my preferred programs, my capabilities would not change.

And if in the end I was accepted but unable to pay, I would not fight it, but take it as a sign it was not yet my time. This would be a limitation that, for once, I would simply have to accept.


I received a decision email from Columbia in mid-March. I left it unopened for the entire morning as I got ready for class. I decided not to touch it until I had reached the bus stop down the street—I didn’t want the contents of the letter to send me into a spiral, derailing the day and making me late for class.

Accepted to the School of International Public Affairs.

Tinny music auto-played as I opened the letter—“New York, New York,” by Frank Sinatra. I sat on a bench and cried quietly, relieved. I didn’t realize how desperate I was for the acceptance until I received it. I cried on the bus, and cried on my way to class. It wasn’t even my first-choice program, and there was no funding involved. But I was overjoyed by the confirmation that I was capable.

A few days later, I found out I was wait-listed for the School of the Arts. I didn’t know what to make of it. I wore a look of general puzzlement on my face for three days.

“It’s not a rejection,” said my roommate Cassandra, when I told her.

Finally, I received an acceptance from the School of Journalism. Three for three! I thought. I skimmed the letter for any mention of funding and saw none.

So that was it, then. No funding meant I couldn’t go.


Cassandra and I sat down for dinner. Her heavy red hair was spooled in a donut on her head, fastened into place by a comically tiny clip. “I knew you could do it,” she said.

We had an hour-long conversation about the nature of attending school in the U.S. without funding. The pay-back period would be ten years, at least. She mentioned the wait-listed program and how it might result in funding.

“Wait-listed applicants are bottom of the list for scholarships,” I pointed out. She looked at me sadly.

“Maybe I can defer the Journalism School offer and work for a year,” I said. Maybe this, maybe that. I paced around the kitchen. Without funding, my family would be engulfed by school fees like wildfire, and I would be the one to strike the match. I had always said that attendance was contingent on funding, but now, with the offer in my hand, my perspective became warped like cheap plastic. I wanted to go.

If elation were a cliff one could climb, I had reached the top. But now, I stared down its face into reality. I had applied for a prohibitively expensive school and I had to face the consequences.


I called my sister Katya and told her the news over FaceTime.

“I knew you could do it,” she said.

“No funding though.” My email pinged, as if on cue. “Wait. Another email.”

“From who?”

“Columbia Journalism. They say they’ve calculated my funding.” A full hour after the initial acceptance!

I struggled to log into the webpage provided and was locked out for a half hour. I gritted my teeth in anticipation. “I hope it’s enough,” I said, as I waited for the link to reset, clicking repeatedly.

I opened the link and reviewed my funding—my sister and I screamed. It was enough.


I accepted my offer to the Columbia Journalism School in May. Cassandra and I flew to New York City a few weeks later and stayed in a hostel near the campus.

We toured Columbia. The buildings bore elements of Greco-Roman architecture—domed rooves and imposing columns. Red-paved pathways led to parks, hidden alcoves, and finally, out into the roar of New York City.

I looked around, saying little. I had the old, familiar urge to set the bar ever higher, to minimize the accomplishment. My acceptance was just a fluke, I thought. Maybe there weren’t as many applicants as previous years. Maybe they needed people.

“This is incredible,” Cassandra breathed.

The critical voice in my head quieted. I considered how almost everyone had known this was possible, except me. I considered how warped my perspective had become over the years. How hard I was on myself on a daily basis.

“It is, isn’t it?” I said, welling with pride. I decided I would allow myself this one thing. Look at what you’ve done.


Later on in the trip, Cassandra slept in at the hostel and I toured a bit on my own. I tracked down the residence where I would be staying – The International House of New York, for international graduate students. Without even realizing it, I had applied to a residence within the same network as the Cité Universitaire of Paris, which I had visited years earlier. It’s funny how things come full circle like that.

I explored the residence dining room and lounge areas, which I felt matched, if not surpassed the grandeur of the Columbia campus. I was overwhelmed. It was too much. I jumped on a subway train heading back to the hostel.

So, I would be attending Columbia and residing at The International House. Things had gone well. But, I reminded myself, even if it had gone the other way, and I had been rejected from all the programs I had applied to, this same reality would still have been possible. I would have always been capable, whether admissions saw it or not.

I thought of all it had taken to get here, all the people who had contributed. I was grateful to the people who hadn’t believed in me as the people who had, because they made me work harder. I became so overwhelmed with gratitude there on the train—to myself, to everyone—that my eyes welled with tears. I blinked the tears out of my eyes and looked around. It was okay. No one had noticed.


The Girl on the Gurney

I pull on the shapeless blue gown. High fashion, I tell the outpatient receptionist at the hospital, haute couture. She smiles.

I sit on a gurney and wait for the doctor with my father, who is sitting in a nearby chair. I don’t like this thing in my hand, I say to him, gesturing to the IV. I try to rest it on my lap in a way that it won’t hurt, but any way I position it, it aches.

Don’t worry about it, says my father.

It hurts. How do they know they’ve even put it in a vein, and not somewhere else?

The nurse made you hold your hand in a fist and hit your hand until the vein showed up, remember? That’s how she knows.

Yes, I say, but how would she know she had gone in the vein and not under? It’s hard to see. I gesture around my hand, bewildered.

My father shrugs. I guess that’s why it takes training.

My father returns to the book he was reading, “Becoming,” by Michelle Obama. I liked the biography so much that I had bought it for my family, signing it, To everyone, from Marisa. Feb 2019.

I say: My roommates were trying to convince me to go to class even with the bandages on, after this is all over.

My father lowers the book a bit reluctantly, but listens.

They argued with me for like, an hour on it. They said ‘Marisa your education is more important than how you look’ and I refused, I said, ‘I know people on campus, and I’m too vain to go on campus with a bandage on my face. Besides, everyone is going to ask me questions.’ And they said ‘so what,’ and I said ‘what if they think I got a nose job?’ And they said, ‘Then you tell them no, I had sinus surgery, and now I can breathe clearly.’ And I scrunched up my face because it’s so unsavoury, isn’t it? Sinus surgery. Not exactly a glamorous topic. But they fought me.

My father nods, lifts his book.

That’s how you know they’re good people, I say. My father lowers the book, closes it. Sets it on the side table near the gurney.

And you know they’re right, I continue, You know they care. They’re so smart. I can talk to them about literally anything and I can trust what they say. Maggie has mastered two languages—French and Spanish. She’s wants to teach abroad next year. Cassandra impressed this one Genetics prof so much that the prof gave her a work placement and scholarship, then invited her to a conference, then got her a job for the summer. She’s going to do a half-law-half-bioethics degree at McGill to work on gene patent law, can you believe that? And Jasia is planning on going to teacher’s college. I read her application and it’s incredible. They can’t not let her in.

Talking about my roommates has made me a little less tense. My thoughts turn to my younger sister, Katya.

I guess Katya had a lot of these, huh? I ask.

What? My father stares longingly at the book.


Of course, he says.

Where was I, in all of that?

We left you at home, he says.


You were young, he says. Katya was young. I remember, once, they gave her an IV, just like the one you have there, but because she was a child they had to wrap her entire wrist with tape. Her hand had started to change colour, it was so tight. I had to ask them to loosen it.

She probably had an itty-bitty hand, too, I say.

It was an itty-bitty hand, he affirms.

Sitting in the gown, I have a new appreciation for all that. Throughout her childhood, my younger sister Katya had multiple surgeries and had many IVs put in—not just one. And here I was, at 21, agonizing about a single surgery when she had had at least three before the age of five. Growing up, I was fiercely protective of my sister and quick to pounce on anyone who stared a beat too long at her scars. But there was no need. I had wrongfully assumed she was vulnerable and in need of my protection.

When she frequented SickKids, the Hospital for Sick Children, hospital staff awarded her a “Bravery Bead” for every blood withdrawal, surgery, etc. Each of the beads corresponded with a different treatment. By the time it was over, Katya had upgraded from a bracelet to necklace, which jangled with multicoloured beads that I would stare at, uncomprehending.

John Steinbeck once said, “I wonder how many people I’ve looked at all my life and never seen.” My sister has probably stockpiled bravery from her childhood, like a pile of matches you can set fire to when you need warmth or light.

For the surgery today, I would receive no beads. I was too old for that and not nearly brave enough. In place of beads I had inspirational young women. My roommates. My sister.

My father retrieves the book and opens it.

What part are you at? I ask.

He sighs. Chapter 1, page 1.

I’m sorry, I say, laughing. I’ll let you read.

My face changes when I remember why I am at the hospital, and what I am about to undergo.

He looks at the book, then looks back up. Sets it down. You’ll be fine, you know?

I know, I say.

You’ll be fine.



Image credit: Woman in the Hospital by Gyula Szabó.


Small Stories Everywhere

It starts off as hail. By the time I get home, fat white flakes billow down.

“Isn’t it nice?” my roommate says. “I just love the beginning of winter.” She dances around the kitchen, singing a rendition of It’s Beginning to Look at Lot Like Christmas.

I make chai tea on the stove, boiling water and milk and whisking in cinnamon, sugar, and ginger. It’s a recipe I learned from some Indian family friends with whom my sister and I grew up in Scarborough.

My eyes droop with fatigue. I think of the assignments I should be doing, the standardized test I have elected to take for grad school, the too-many extracurriculars I have taken on.

I look out the window and drink my tea. It’s been a year and a half since I saw snow like this. “Nous ne sommes plus au Sud de la France,” I think. We are no longer in the South of France.

The snow slows the city to a crawl. It takes one of my roommates an hour to get to campus, while the other one gives up waiting for the bus and leaves, choosing instead to walk home. Needless to say, it’s a bad day for travel.

I board a greyhound bus bound for Toronto that takes four hours instead of the usual two. I cycle through my playlists, my taste growing stranger and more eclectic as time winds on. I listen to indie, then ABBA, then classic rock, then movie soundtracks, then Disney ballads, then movie soundtracks again. The condensation on my window blurs the light from the streetlamps, haloing them in yellow and orange like watercolour paint.

All around me, small stories take place. The girls in the row ahead of me are discussing their boyfriends. The woman in the aisle across from mine says, “Hey Bonnie, it’s Sharon, I guess you called me, so I thought I’d call you, so you can call me back.”

I arrive at the train station and wait forty minutes for another train home. This one will take an hour. I buy a tuna sandwich cut into two halves. While I eat, I watch.

Not far from me, a woman asks a man, maybe her boyfriend, what she’s “supposed to do.” She looks a little concerned, out of place. He moves away from her, lips moving, and she holds his gaze. Maybe he’s saying he’ll be right back. A man across from me in a suit runs a hand down his face, hangs his head. Distracted by these people in this train station and by my own thoughts, I drop one half of my tuna sandwich on the floor.


Once on the train, I open my laptop to try and get some work done, and immediately freeze. There is a female voice, crying, somewhere in the train car. I catch only snippets of her garbled voice. “And I, I just don’t, understand.” I look around but can’t find the person in distress. The crying continues, coming from everywhere and nowhere at once.

I don’t worry for this faceless girl on the train. There’s a strength, I think, in being able to cry on public transit. To really cry. (It’s the ones who want to cry, but do not, who I worry for.)

I close my laptop. I don’t know how anyone can get any work done with small stories happening everywhere.


On the Passage of Time

I move to clip up the lock of hair that normally escapes when I tie my curls into a bun. I am left grasping at empty air. The hair has grown and is now caught by the hair tie. I set the bobby pin down on the desk before me.

This is how time passes. (Subtly, while you are not watching.)

On the first day of my internship this summer, they took my photo for my key card. I looked down at the picture and hardly recognized myself. My face, settling into adulthood, with all these features I never noticed!

This is how time passes.

At 21, time is chopped into neat segments. University, internship, university, internship, and so on. Things are constantly starting and ending.

And at the end, I always find myself back in my father’s car. Back in my childhood bedroom, where my bookshelf towers over me like a record of my life. Here, I will briefly recover until I am ready to launch myself, inevitably, back into the beginnings and ends of things, back into the world.

Image credit: “City Morning” by Rimantas Virbickas.

“If your hair is nappy, they’re not happy.” What it means to grow up with black hair in a white neighbourhood

“If your hair is relaxed, white people are relaxed. If your hair is nappy, they’re not happy.” —Paul Mooney


In business class one day, one of my closest high school friends eyed me strangely. “I just don’t really like the texture,” she said.

She was talking about my hair. It was the kind of jab that I never saw coming.

“What do you expect me to do about that?” I asked. My hair had just been straightened. I clamped my hands down on my head self-consciously, trying to smooth it. What more could I have done?

“I don’t know,” she said, shrugging, and turned back to the work the teacher had assigned.


I. Introduction

Throughout my adolescence, everyone seemed to have an opinion on my hair, and it was almost always negative.

Owing to slavery and a complex history of oppression and marginalisation of blacks, black hair has always been seen as unkempt and unusual. Society’s aversion to black hair goes far beyond the scope of this essay. But comprehensive studies are not necessary to see the effects of these social norms. Stop a little black girl on the street and ask what kind of hair she wants. (Please don’t, but I think you know where I am going with this.) I will bet you any money that she will tell you: straight hair.

“Your hair is nappy,” our many stylists would tell myself and my sister. “It’s hard hair. Thick. Difficult to comb.”

“Do you wash your hair?” our friends at school would ask. This was humiliating. Of course we did, but why did we constantly need to affirm it?

“Why does it do that? It’s so strange.” Exhausted and embarrassed, I would tell them that my hair was very curly and this was how curly hair acted.

“Can it grow?”

“It’s so different, your hair.”

“Why don’t you just wear it out? I don’t think I’ve ever seen your hair down.”

“Can I touch it?

“Your hair is just like velcro,” said a girl on my street.

There was a game we used to play outside, with two velcro paddles and a felt ball, which you would throw to try to get it to stick to the paddle. What she had said was not a compliment, and it chafed me that she found my hair so strange, even at 9 years old.

She said, “What if I—?”

She approached me and I took a step back, but I was too slow, and the velcro paddle came down, fast, onto my braids. Just as she had expected, the paddle stuck to my strands, and she tore it off with a sharp, ripping noise. “Cool,” she said.

“Ow,” I said, my eyes filling with tears.


II. Change

When I was a child living in the Caribbean, my hair was coaxed into neat braids by the many nannies or “helpers”—as we say in Jamaica—that doted on my sister and I throughout our childhood. Cornrows or twists in elaborate designs. We cried every time we got them done, because they were so tight, but we quickly learned that this was necessary to look presentable. The image of a young black girl sitting between an older lady’s legs, rubbing her eyes, is not unusual, and is actually depicted in a lot of black artwork. “Beauty is pain” has always been the resounding lesson.

For myself and my sister, moving to Canada at ages 7 and 5 meant leaving our beloved helpers, more like aunties to us by then, behind. For the first time, it was my mother who sat us between her legs and attempted to plait our hair. She really did try, but taking care of black hair is complicated, and her hair, like that of many black women, had been relaxed since she was in her late teens. Young girls always believe their mothers are the most beautiful women in the world, and of course, we want nothing more than to look like them. I wanted nothing more than to look like my mother. And her hair was relaxed straight.

With society reinforcing this standard of beauty, there is no reason for young black girls to think their hair is beautiful. Think about it: when was the last time you saw a black hair product advertised in mainstream media? When was the last time you flicked through a magazine and saw a model with natural hair? Where are the black hair how-to’s in magazines like Cosmopolitan, as they have for white hair?

My mother quickly passed us off to professional stylists. We got our hair braided by a woman in Toronto, and would smile tearfully into the mirror when it was all over. We could ask for anything and Aleisha would do it with flair: zigzag patterns, twisting swirls, braided or twisted ponytails.

We dutifully wrapped our hair in satin scarves to preserve the shine. My parents paid inordinate sums for these styles, and wherever our stylist moved we followed her, no matter how far she relocated to in the city, no matter where she moved to—even once getting our hair done in a pretty dangerous part of Toronto—owing to the lack of women who could do our hair.


Once, our hairstylist did something a bit outlandish with my sister’s braids. The result was strange. “It looks…” my mother said.

“I was trying something different.”

My mother was not amused. We were paying a lot for the style.

“Should I do it over?”

My mother bit her lip. My sister’s face was twisted in indignation. She was what stylists would call “tender-headed,” which meant she would cry easily at the tightness of the braids. And I could see that her scalp was already red and sore. I watched the standoff closely, feeling horrible for her but feeling—cruelly—relieved that it wasn’t me. I couldn’t imagine sitting in that chair twice in one evening, having the whole thing done again.

“She can’t wear it outside like that,” my mother said.

“Beauty is pain,” Aleisha said, and started all over again. My sister bawled.


III. Assimilation

We eventually outgrew the braids and, like most black girls, we relaxed our hair—me at age 12, and my sister at age 10. My sister’s hair texture was looser than mine, and so her relaxed hair was straighter. I looked at my own tresses in the mirror, still quite curly, and started to cry. I wanted my hair as straight as hers. I felt less beautiful.

I started to come to school with my new straightened, relaxed hair. “Your hair looks great,” people would say.

“I like your hair better that way,” people would say, meaning, ‘straight.’ They did not know that the harsh lye could sometimes cause the scalp to ooze pus and scab if it was left on too long. It made it hard to sleep, the first night after.

To give myself a break, I tried occasionally to wear my curls, but the relaxer had stretched them into strange shapes that were not uniform.

“It’s interesting,” people would say at my attempt.

My processed hair was limp and couldn’t grow past my shoulders, and was so weak it would break off. When we went swimming, people liked to comment on how strange it looked wet. But the relaxed hair could be easily straightened, and when it was straight it was beautiful. Everyone said so.


For years, my sister and I would hand our stylists as much as $150 at a time to relax our roots. We did this for picture day, school dances, special events. Just before I relaxed my hair, I would run my fingers over curly roots and think they felt sort of nice. Soft, but strong. Shiny. Healthy. I wondered vaguely what they would look like all over my head. And then I would go to the salon and relax them into submission, the curls disappearing as quickly as they appeared.

Beauty was straight hair.

When my hair was straightened I felt a satisfaction I cannot explain to you. I looked in the mirror and felt, at once, older, more attractive. I stood out a little less. (This was in high school, you know, before we realized that the things that made us different were the things that made us interesting.) Relaxing was $70 every time, and periodic hair straightenings were $35. We have never calculated our hair expenditure but I will do that here, now. $3500 between my mother, sister, and I, every year.

But we paid the money, as so many black families do.

In high school, I tried everything to blend in, trying desperately to brush my hair flat and sometimes retreating to the washroom in the middle of class to make sure the style held. Somehow my beauty was in constant flux, prone to sudden decrease depending on how my hair decided to act that day, sticking up in ways my white friends weren’t used to (but that black hair tends to.) I would flat twist the front of my hair and try to coax it into styles that my hair did not want to be in—ponytails, for example—styles that were not meant for black people. I figured out how to tie a neat bun and wore my hair this way for much of my adolescence. My hair began to take up disproportionate space in my mind. I was constantly worried people were looking, or that my hair had freed itself from my very deliberate bun.

Like many, in the tumult of adolescence, I would sometimes find myself unhappy for reasons I could not explain. So, if I was feeling low, I would try to trace back the emotion to the root source, and this worked swimmingly, making me more self-aware over time, and more conscious of the things bothered me most. Sometimes, I could trace my unease back to something someone had said earlier on in the day, but most often my mood was directly correlated with how my hair looked that day.

If it was straight, I was upbeat, and felt beautiful. If it wasn’t, the day seemed gloomier, and I was unhappy. This was what it came down to.


As high school went on, it became annoying to try to outline the fundamentals of kinky hair to my friends on a daily basis; everyone seemed very underexposed and I was embarrassed on their behalf, yet I still felt like I was the one doing something wrong somehow. (There were so few black kids in my high school that it was very easy to feel like the odd one out.)

“My hair is so frizzy today, it looks like an afro,” my non-black friends would say, frowning into the mirror in the washroom. Or: “With this humidity my hair puffs up like an afro.” The word afro always had a negative connotation, and I wondered if they realized that’s what my hair was: afro-textured. I thought their complaints ridiculous, and felt a mild resentment and jealousy that they could roll out of bed and wear their hair as it was.

At sleepovers with our friends, my sister, and I always faced a dilemma with regard to our satin scarves. It was a cultural norm tying them on at night, and we felt strange without them. Tying your hair with satin not only maintains whatever style you’re trying to wear but also prevents harsh rubbing and breakage from cotton pillowcases. But at sleepovers, we didn’t want to make our white friends uncomfortable. So, sometimes we wore our scarves, but most times we didn’t.


IV. Realization

Owing to the racial make-up of our neighbourhood, my sister and I had very few black friends growing up, so the people we talked to the most about our hair was our family. At family gatherings, we would quickly start in on hair talk. What we were doing, what products we were using. Trading ideas. Some family friends would complain they suspected they had been passed over for jobs because of their hairstyles, and vowed never to enter the interview room with their natural hair again. This is not a new thing.

But I soon grew tired of the straight look. I tried everything, from roller sets to rod sets to braid-outs and twist-outs. I tried to curl it like my white friends did, which just did not work. To educate myself about my hair, I watched YouTube videos and bought reams of black hair products, which, in my predominantly white town, were expensive and hard to come by. Black hair products are much more expensive than white hair products and are scarce; we would sometimes crisscross the city in search of them.

My mother was on the receiving end of many of my anxieties. “I can’t do anything with my hair!” I cried, brandishing my flatiron and comb like weapons. “I just need one style! One style I can wear!”

She would shrug. “Oh, Marisa.”

“Why don’t you just embrace the natural look?” my father would say.

“It’s just not that simple,” I would hiss. But then again, what was simpler than wearing your hair the way it grew out of your scalp?


Someone—I can’t remember who—recommended I watch the music video for “I Am Not My Hair,” by India.Arie, and was instantly struck by the lyrics.

Hey (hey)
I am not my hair
I am not this skin
I am not your expectations, no (hey)
I am not my hair
I am not this skin
I am the soul that lives within


Does the way I wear my hair make me a better person?
(Whoa, whoa, whoa)
Does the way I wear my hair make me a better friend? Oh
(Whoa, whoa, whoa)
Does the way I wear my hair determine my integrity?
(Whoa, whoa, whoa)
I am expressing my creativity
(Whoa, whoa, whoa)

This, to me, was a new concept. For the first time, I considered my hair as an entity separate from myself—a simple accessory, rather than a sign of my worth. I had radical ideas, then, about individuality and inherent value. Who was I without my hair? What if my hair was short? Or gone? Would I still consider myself a woman? Would I still consider myself beautiful?

I came to the conclusion that I could never be truly happy if I continued to hate this part of myself.

But could I really wear my hair natural? All throughout my life, stylists had been telling me that my hair had to be relaxed. It was hard hair, tough hair, nappy hair. Impossible to handle. And after almost a decade of relaxing my hair, I had all but forgotten what my natural hair looked and felt like. I began to go through old photos to try and gauge the texture. The situation soon gained new relevance: at university, the cost of relaxing my hair along with textbooks and groceries was starting to weigh me down.

By the mid-2010s, the natural hair movement was in full force, and my friends and family were all getting swept up in the wave. One of my Aunts stopped relaxing her hair. Watching an episode of Grey’s Anatomy, I pointed out to my sister that all the black characters were wearing their satin scarves before bed.

“It’s different. Accurate,” I said to her. “I like it.”

I watched Chris Rock’s “Good Hair” documentary, outlining the ins and outs of the 700-billion-dollar industry hinged on the self-consciousness of black women. I began to realize that the black struggle for beautiful hair was symptomatic of a larger issue, and that I believed my natural hair was ugly and hard to handle not because it actually was, but that’s what society was pushing me to believe.

Now aware of these invisible, societal structures, I tried to educate people when they’d say something offensive about my hair.

“How often do you wash it anyway? Once a week?” one of the girls in my residence building had been talking to my roommate and now addressed me.

I furrowed my brow. “Actually, if I washed my hair every day as you do with yours, it would dry it out, because the oils don’t travel down curly hair shafts as quickly as they might on straight hair. So once or twice a week is good.” I even forwarded her a link to a webpage explaining this.

But even this became tiring. When, in second year, a roommate asked the same question, I merely said, “Yeah. Once or twice a week,” and retreated to my room.


V. Transition

In March of 2016, at age 19, I relaxed my hair for the last time.

At the time, I wasn’t trying to reclaim my identity or anything. I just decided I didn’t like paying almost $100 a month for it anymore. I had also begun to suspect that relaxers had to have negative health effects, and had done a bit of research. I read some unsettling articles about the links between hair relaxers and long-term illnesses such as reproductive problems, fibroids, heart disease, cognitive disorders, cancers, early puberty, altered immune systems or even blindness. It felt ridiculous to pay so much to potentially hurt myself.

“You’ll regret it,” my stylist back in Toronto said. “You have hard hair.”

“We’ll see,” I said.

Having two hair textures—relaxed and natural—is not easy. The hair is extremely weak at the “line of demarcation” (where the two textures meet) and breaks violently. I could have cut off the relaxed ends in one fell swoop but I was scared; scared of cutting my hair too short and shedding, with it, my femininity. So, I bought a pair of trimming scissors and cut the ends off slowly, struggling to blend the two hairstyles during this transition period. My family followed my hair journey with mild amusement, but also with interest.

Sometimes, in desperation, I considered relaxing my hair. And this, I suppose, is why they call it the creamy crack, likening it to the highly addictive drug.

“If you’re not going to relax your hair, neither will I,” my sister said one day.

“What? You’re serious?”

“Yeah,” she said, smiling.

And later, my mother said the same thing. The Coulton women were going natural, and I was thrilled. But how long would it last?

“Have you found a hairdresser in France?” a family friend asked repeatedly. “What are you going to do with your hair in France?”

By the time I arrived in France for my full year academic exchange in September 2017, I was almost completely natural, with only an inch of relaxed hair left. And then one day I sat in front of the mirror and cut off the remaining silky ends. I looked back at myself, at my afro, and felt actual fear. There were no curls, just frizz, just as my many stylists had warned me. I figured it was only a matter of time before I relaxed it again.

I watched a YouTube video to try and figure out what to do with my hair. The woman demonstrated how to very gently define and detangle the curls. Not many black girls are taught how to handle their natural hair like this—how to properly take care of it.

I used the technique outlined in the video and sat in front of the mirror, examining the result.

It was beautiful. I had dark ringlets that sprung back vibrantly when tugged on. When I brushed it back, my hair shone. The hair was versatile and could hold any style I attempted, straight or otherwise. I knew vaguely what my natural hair looked like but not like this—not when it had been correctly styled, the proper curl creams and oils applied.

I noticed that I had the same hair texture as an acquaintance of mine. Years ago I had longed for her hair. It was really quite perverse; I knew so little about my natural hair texture that I was jealous of someone with hair exactly like mine.

I took pictures and videos and sent them to my family.

“Do you know our hair looks like this?” I said, stunned. “Our hair is beautiful; did you know this?”


VI. Arrival

My black hair journey is not over. Societal norms can creep into my head again, insidiously, at any moment. My natural hair seems childish, and less adult, in a way. But this feeling is fading.

My sister and I still get silly questions. I was recently asked if my hair actually grows. Then, later, I was told it “wasn’t even hair” and that it had a “three-dimensional quality,” which was particularly scathing.

In her first year of university, my sister was asked in a room full of people whether she washed her hair. She decided not long after to transfer universities, citing that her peers were just too underexposed, in more ways than one. Our university is outside of Toronto, in a small town. I fully support her decision.

I am beyond thinking that black hair is just hair, now. In fact, natural hair is a political statement, and a marked deviation from social norms.

When it comes to styling our hair, the issue is a lack of knowledge transfer as well as misunderstanding on all sides. The story is almost always the same: our mothers relaxed their hair for their entire lives and therefore are limited in their ability to teach us how to handle our natural tresses. Black haircare requires a measure of technique and patience.

The prevalence of relaxer-use in the black community is not linked to relaxer brands and beauty supply stores, but rather a lack of understanding about black hair, a lack of representation of our hair in the media. But most of all, it lies in perverted beauty standard branching from a buried history. It lies in the Caucasian, Euro-centric ideal that dominates our magazines and televisions, which translates to a lack of knowledge transfer in the black community and apathy toward proper styling techniques.


For the first time, I posted a picture of my natural hair on social media. Ironically enough, the first person to compliment my hair was the same friend from high school who, in business class one day, pointed out that she “just didn’t like the texture.”

It took some bravery to wear my curly afro out, the first time.

“Your hair is just beautiful,” a friend said immediately. “I would kill for hair like yours.”

I raised my eyebrows. My hair had a history she was not aware of, stretching back through my teenage years, to my childhood. But I accepted the compliment because she was right, it was beautiful.


VII. Forward

Recently, I was getting ready to go out with a friend. My hair had been straightened using a flat iron.

“Ready to go?” he asked.

“Yeah,” I said, looking into the mirror, feeling uneasy for some reason. “Wait a minute.”

I stepped into the shower and washed my hair, watching my curls come back to life.

“I’m ready,” I said, after smoothing my hair into curly updo. The style was easy, taking all of 10 minutes, and so, so pretty. I couldn’t believe how I looked. I wanted to go back in time and tell my younger self about this hair, about what it could do.

“I feel very… I feel like…” I couldn’t pin down this emotion.

“Yourself,” he offered.

“Right,” I said, smiling. “I feel like myself.” We left my apartment and pulled the door shut behind us, stepping out into the world.


Many Lives


At home, things are just as I remember. I take a southbound bus and find that I still have all the stops memorized. I even see faces I recognize from high school, an unlikely thing in the expansive Toronto outskirts. The sheer familiarity unnerves me; after 8 months of constant variation and challenges at every turn, my hometown seems all too predictable.

The city has remained static. I have changed.

The most obvious difference, of course, is the French language, which now flies to my tongue with relative ease. On the train one day, I speak in French with my sister to practice and she follows along, responding where she can. I read and watch movies and forget momentarily that they are not in English.

These changes in myself become even more pronounced when I spend a day back at my university campus. The last time I was here, I was a year younger and in a completely different frame of mind. It is the setting of a past life.

Looking toward the year ahead, my final year, proves daunting. I wonder: How can I do this? How can I do this without them?



It is difficult to wrap my mind around: the friends with whom I spent every waking moment of the past 8 months are now thousands of kilometres away. Yet they have expertly woven themselves into every fibre of my being. At a family BBQ I sit by the poolside in a floral swimsuit given to me by a friend, reading a book in French she has given me, as well. Earlier in the day I listened to a playlist she recommended—I cannot extract myself from our intermingled existences and I am not sure I want to.

Harry and Meghan’s royal wedding is aired on the television and upsets me for some reason. It takes me a while to realize that it is the English accents that are sending me into a spiral: these people, on the television, sound like many of the friends I have left behind.



At a lunch, a friend notes that I seem happier and lighter now. It is true; I am buoyed by the year abroad, held aloft by the memories. A waiter sweeps to our table and the service is friendly, sincere. It is one of the most distinct differences between France and here. Canada is, without a doubt, a customer-centred society. The customer is always right. (In France, the customer is more often than not, wrong.)

On Skype, I tell my friends, “Just remember that although I may not be there with you I am always there with you. I am thinking of you.”

I hope my friends find this idea reassuring. It is an idea as simple as it is revolutionary: that someone very far away in a city called Toronto cares deeply about them. Their voices fill my bedroom through the speaker of my laptop and it feels for a moment as though they are right next to me.



Sitting on the couch, despondent, with nothing within walking distance in my quiet suburb, my earlier plan to live downtown for the summer becomes not only a desire but a necessity. “I am in exile,” I tell my father. I am being dramatic and he laughs. But without a throng of friends surrounding me like a protective shield, without the thrum of the city, I am dying.

I rush to interview for jobs in Toronto. In late May it initially feels as though there are simply no relevant positions left, but I pursue a few promising leads.

While I am downtown for an interview, I message two friends who live in the area to see if they would like to get together. Both are occupied; working late. I ask another friend when she might be free and she responds: “never,” citing work, a course, and other things. Another friend says she is “booked up.” I can’t remember any friends abroad ever saying they were “booked up.” That’s four “no’s” in a row and I must refuse the urge to throw my phone at the wall.

North American society is more fast-paced, I know. People are busier. Work, regrettably, sometimes takes precedence over friendships, an issue I never faced in Europe. This is a quality of European society I have learned to appreciate. I now prioritize coffees with friends; I take time to eat. “Why don’t we sit?” I ask my sister, just as we are leaving a café with the intention of drinking our smoothies on the road. “Let’s just sit for awhile.”

I think of all the endless time spread out before me. The job I will eventually start and the school year ahead and the masters programs I will apply for, at some point. How can I do this? How can I do this without them?

At only 21 I feel I have lived many lives.



I reunite for sushi with high school friends who have not changed, save for experimental haircuts and new boyfriends. My love for them has only grown deeper with time and space. It is lovely to have friends that have spent enough time with you to notice the intricacies of your personality.

“Marisa, you’re a little scatterbrained, you know that? Always losing your keys. It’s pretty endearing actually.”

“You’re always checking a watch that isn’t there. And then you say, oh, I guess I’m not wearing my watch today! Again and again.”

“You eat so slowly. And order so slowly.”

“You are always moved by things. That’s your personality. Always touched.”

I can’t even deny this. I am moved by my friends, near and far, and how lucky I’ve been to know them. Is it selfish to want it all? To want all of these people together in the same room, gathered around a single bottle of wine? Maybe it is too much to ask, for now.

Here is my friend, sipping her soup. My friend, who has cropped her brown curls short, who has proved time and time again that she will never leave my side. Here, we pick up where we left off as though no time has passed. I have friends across three continents: Oceania and Europe and right in front of me.

I wolf down a roll of yam sushi and smile, looking at my friends talking animatedly over one another, and a Samuel Beckett quote springs to mind:

I can’t go on, I’ll go on.