Read time: 48 mins

Genuine Human Hair

by Sharma Taylor
13 September 2021

‘Genuine Human Hair’ was shortlisted for the 2021 Commonwealth Short Story Prize.

 

I introduce myself and tell her it’s my job to translate her words for an article on a human rights NGO’s website. She sits, saying nothing for a while. After a deep breath, she tells me her real name; but let’s call her ‘Flower’the meaning of her name in the Uyghur language. 

       She’s a refugee from China’s far northwest Xinjiang region. Xinjiang’s desert has pockets of oasis towns. She lived in grassland plains. Closing her eyes, she says she doesn’t see this grey room in Australia anymore, but wild flowerssheets of lavender and goldspread across valleys.  

Like other Muslim young women, Flower covered her hair with a headscarf. As a child, her papa allowed her to go unveiled. Her mother died young. Her father, Kussaiyn, was the best naan baker in their village. He told her she had beautiful hair, like her mother’s. Her parents had met and fallenn love in Kazakhstan. She often imagined her mother’s long hair blowing in the breeze, like the yellow blossoms of wild cole flowers caught by a March wind.  

In March 2017, two days after Papa’s return from visiting an uncle in Afghanistan, the authorities came and took them to the camp, and she never saw the wild flowers of her valley again. 

 

* 

Me name Petal. That’s mi nickname ‘cause the man dem say mi pretty like flowers…like the one we have in Jamaica name ‘hibiscus.’ Well, mi pretty except fi mi picky-picky hair. Mi nah tell nuh lie. Mi head tough. It bruk comb. 

When mi did likkle, mi used to get plenty chop wid comb in mi head on Saturdays after Granny wash mi hair. Mi used to siddung between har knees on the bottom step, mi hair shrink-up like elastic and dripping water on the ground. She used to dry mi hair in a rough towel then rub it up wid green Dax Pomade or black castor oil. Every time, she would say, ‘Puppa Jeezas! Chile, how yuh head so tough?’ and strain to part mi hair so she could twist it into Chiney bumps. All the time, she kissing har teeth ‘cause she tired to deal wid ‘dis bushy-head gyal wid ole negar hair that look like bird nest.’  

Mi never say nothing. Mi was ‘fraid to get chop. 

‘Why me though, Faada Gad?!’ Granny used to say to the sky, and if mi shift just one time, is a lick with the comb in mi head. But I feel she talking to God not just ‘cause of mi hair but ‘cause mi mummy and daddy lef’ har to raise this tough-head pickney and gone ‘bout dem business. 

Well, is a good thing God invent weave. Mi wear all kinda straight wig and weave now. Mi hair smooth-smooth and long down to my batty. Mi canerow mi own hair under the wig dem and when I step out, yuh should see mi! 

 

* 

Sometimes, Flower dreams of her papa and how it all started. 

One day, her father was baking bread and herding sheep, and the next, alarms were blaring in the streets three times a day. At the sound, Han Chinese shopkeepers and residents of Kashgar, the Silk Road city, would rush out of their stores swinging government-issued clubs at imaginary knife-wielding attackers. Police supervised these anti-terror drills. 

The police set up security check points. Local authorities banned the sale of knives made by Uyghur blacksmiths. Uyghur, Kazakhs, Dungans, Uzbeks and all the ethnic minorities who used to live together as neighbours had now become the enemy. 

The authorities offered rewards for reporting young men with long beards. They published lists detailing the ‘signs of extremism’ and ‘illegal religious activities.’ They included praying, fasting, avoidance of alcohol, possessing articles about Islam and growing a long beard like Papa’s. They had to meet a detainee quota. After a while, the list no longer mattered. 

Then there came news that Uyghurs had attacked a local government office, the train station and the open-air market. 

 She was frying carrots and mutton with onions in hot oil when the crackdown came. The rice and the water were still in their bowls by the stove 

At the camp, they took away cell phones and passports. They split up families. Flower never saw her papa again. She replayed images of him in her head: his lopsided smile, his noisy laugh as if he were choking on air. He walked with a bounce, like he owned the world. As a little girl, he used to say to her: ‘Be proud to be Uyghur. Nobody can take that away from you.’  

When he put her on his shoulders, she would grab his hair or his thick beard for balance, and it felt like she was sitting on top of a mountain with her head hitting the sky. She and the wind were one, and she became the laughter ringing out across the valley. 

‘Papa was wrong,’ she tells me now. ‘They can sever your roots. Freedom is cut as easily as hair.’ 

 

* 

When yuh not a browning, ghetto life can feel like yuh in a prison. People tell mi all the time: ‘Petal, yuh pretty fi a black girl’ or ‘You skin dark but soft and smooth.’ Like dem don’t expect yuh to be beautiful ‘cause yuh don’t have light-brown skin and yuh lip dem thick, nose broad and cheek dem high.  

That’s why mi did start bleach mi face wid blue soap and wear red or blonde wig, but mi don’t like the plastic wig so much. That’s why mi put on this long black wig that the label say is ‘Genuine human hair. Made in China,’ and I wonder ‘bout dem Chiney girls walking around wid no hair, wid dem whole head of hair shave off and paste on mi head this hot Kingston morning. 

What kinda life dem live? Life must sweet when you have long hair that so pretty. 

 

 

* 

Flower tells me entering the camp in Urumqi that first day was like ‘walking into an invisible world in which nearly one million of my people had disappeared,’ where the government forced them to renounce their Turkic language, their culture and religion. They were not allowed to pray and fast. The soldiers seized their sacred books. They detained young and old from the towns and countryside. Officials held them without charge and without access to lawyers. They had no way of protesting. 

The authorities called the camps centres for vocational education and training programs. There were 7,000 of us. I shared the cell I stayed in with 59 other women. It was suffocating and damp. We slept in turns. Cameras watched us even in the bathroom. 

The first week they interrogated me for four days straight, without sleep, in a blindingly white room. 

Under the glare of a light that hurt her eyes, they accused her of supporting Middle Eastern Islamic extremist militias. They wanted to know if she was a member of the East Turkestan Islamic Movement. Uyghurs wanted to form their own country, they said; she wasn’t a loyal Chinese. If she were loyal, she would hate terrorist activities and believe in ethnic unity. ‘I didn’t know what they thought I was hiding, so I didn’t know what answer to give.’  

For three weeks, she and the others were shackled and spent most of the day with a hood over their heads. They were made to stand in one position for 12 hours. ‘I saw a man, who looked Papa’s age, attached to an iron bar. They’d spread his arms apart and fixed his body so that he couldn’t bend. 

They were forced to sing political songs and study Communist Party speeches. They were not a separate nation, they were told. They couldn’t talk to each other, and before every meal (which was never halal) they had to chant, ‘Long live President Xi Jinping.’  

They were told they’d be held for as long as it took to be re-educated. They were forced to learn 200 Mandarin Chinese characters every day. When they protested that they already had their own language, they were beaten more. Food was withheld; detainees were put into solitary confinement and beaten. Their heads were filled with Chinese laws and more Communist Party speeches, and they had to write essays every day about the meaning of patriotism. They had to listen to the government radio news every evening. 

They were taken to factories where they were forced to make clothes and sportswear for American brands. Flower says she’d sit at the sewing machine until her eyes blurred. 

One evening, chili paste was rubbed on their private parts. Doctors conducted medical tests on them, dividing them into groups. Some were forced to swallow yellow, white and red pills that made them dizzy. Once, a pill Flower took made her faint. When she revived, she was nauseous and dehydrated. She was staring into the face of a doctor with hard eyes and cold hands. He was writing something down in a chart. A woman in Flower’s cell with lovely green eyes and a kind face told her she had to drink a white liquid that caused her to bleed for a month. Another woman said she drank something that made her never menstruate again. 

Two months later, Flower found herself strapped to a table, legs in stirrups, with the same doctor with ice hands and icier eyes. He had the guards hold her legs apart while she struggled. Then he injected her in her back, and the lower half of her body went almost numb, but she felt something inserted inside her.  

After three months, 11 women from Flower’s cell died. 

A pregnant woman slammed her head very hard against the wall and fainted. Later, they aborted her child. They were trying to break our will,’ Flower says. ‘So we would follow orders.’ 

 

* 

Mi glad is four bwoy-pickney mi have, so mi nuh have to comb nobody hair. Mi just send them to barber to get it shave. And all dem do inna the morning is brush dem own hair and oil it before dem go school. 

Mi used to wonder what mi do fi Granny to hate mi hair so much. Mi did wonder where mi hair come from. Mi wish mi could go back in time and find the people dem responsible fi making mi hair so tough and box dem. 

When mi was 6, Granny say mi not to talk to the Rasta girl named Keba in school. ‘Rasta dem dutty,’ Granny say. ‘Mi nuh like dem.’ Then har mouth open and story jump out. She say she don’t even know why har one girl-chile go and have pickney fi a no-good Rastaman and lef’ her wid baby to raise in har old age. So at school mi start pull Keba locks and pretend mi finger dem full of the roach, lizard and forty-leg that mi tell everybody was living in her hair. Keba used to cry, but she never tell Teacher is mi trouble har. Mi used to get the other pickney dem to laugh when mi was pretending to scorn mi own hand after it touch har locks. 

When mi was 10, Granny hot-comb mi hair on Saturday evenings to get it straight for church on Sunday morning. Mi would sit and watch the hot-comb. It glow to almost red after she plug it in. Mi would sit on the chair swinging mi leg dem, preparing miself for what to come. Granny hand never steady, so sometime she burn mi ears and neck. Mi never like the black marks and scars the burns left on mi skin or the smell of mi hair burning.  

Last week, somebody in the tenement yard where mi live, a woman, throw acid on a next woman ‘cause dem was fighting over a man. The acid dowse the woman head and run down har face. When it did catch her hair, the hair just drop out so; it fall on the ground like black cotton. And the smell remind me of when mi used to hot-comb mi hair. The thing wid hot-comb though is that the straightness never last. After a couple days, yuh hair shrink up like before, worse if likkle rain or dew touch it. 

When mi turn 17, Granny finally allow me to cream mi hair. Mi sit in front the mirror while Pinky do it, and it look like Pinky spreading mayonnaise on mi head. The cream did have a strong, funny smell that make mi eye dem water. Next thing, mi feel mi scalp on fire! The burning so hot, mi try jump outta the chair to go wash out the cream, but Pinky hold me down, grabbing mi shoulder dem. ‘Petal, is not even five minutes that the cream inna yuh hair. It haffi stay in fi another 25 minutes.’ 

Man, is like somebody peeling off mi head-top wid a rusty knife. Mi see stars fi the next few minutes ‘til me couldn’t take it nuh more. My leg dem start tremble. My foot dem shake. 

‘Do Pinky!’ mi beg. ‘Wash it out!’ 

Then Pinky bend mi over the sink ‘round de back of the house and pour a pan of cold water over mi head. After that mi didn’t see nuh more stars. She put some big yellow and green plastic rollers in mi hair and blow-dry it. When mi hair dry, Pinky comb it out and give me a mirror to hold and look at miself. 

I couldn’t believe mi eyes. 

It was my face still, but instead of this forest of kinky hair, mi have straight hair like the Barbie dolly mi used to have as pickney. Mi look like the woman on the front of the cream container. Or the high-colour browning in dem commercials fi hair products. Mi was just like dem smiling woman on TV. Mi was a movie star. 

‘Rahtid!! Is me this?’ mi say into the mirror. ‘Is me, fi real?’ 

Pinky nod and smile. I touch mi hair. The scalp tender still, but mi decide mi never mind the pain after all. Mi never mind anything that give mi tall hair reaching past mi shoulder. 

But it never last. Scabs from the burn come up all over mi scalp, and mi hair fall out likkle by likkle. It get thinner and thinner every month it cream until Pinky had to take a scissors and cut off everything. The day she do it, she let out this big breath of air, and mi make sure give har back the mirror, so mi never have to see the hair when she cutting it off. 

Every time some of it fall inna mi lap or on the ground mi feel like mi was losing a piece of miself. 

When Pinky done, mi hair was a low-low afro. Like a boy. My lips and forehead look extra big, mi nose look wider than ever and mi cheek bone dem extra high. Mi never look like nuh movie star on TV.  

‘Gimme a cap,’ mi say. 

Not long after that, Granny dead from heart attack. Mi did love Granny but mi neva cry. Granny used to wear her hair in four fat plaits, but mi never touch har hair til she was in a casket. Mi stroke it when mi was standing next to the open coffin at the funeral.  Har hair was coarse like my own. After the funeral, mi braid mi hair wid false hair, so it look like mi have plenty likkle plaits on mi head. 

But now, I just wear wig and weave. No braids. Sometime, the weave make mi scalp itch, and when the sweat running down mi face, it blur mi vision.  

Pretty looks nuh last though. Every flower eventually dry up. Mi is nearly 30 now and dem teenage girl come in like force-ripe mango, pushing up themselves on every man. People hardly looking at me nuh more. Mi soon can’t compete wid dem young girls.  

One morning last week, when mi was passing a group of dem in the lane, one of dem say loud-loud in my direction: 

‘Look ‘pon de dry-foot ole woman.’  

And mi know she only say it ‘cause my last babyfadda, the one who drive the bus, leave mi to take up with this same 16-year-old pickney, who should be in school studying har book. 

‘Likkle girl, mi nuh old,’ mi say. ‘Watch yuh mouth! Who yuh really tink yuh talking to?’ 

She say, ‘Mi chatting to yuh! What kinda wig dat yuh wearing ‘pon yuh head?! Is horsehair? Look how it look tough like yuh face!’ 

And she and har dutty friend dem start laugh. 

Is ‘cause mi trying not to get miself in problem with police again why mi nuh grab har up by har collar and haul har up. Last time mi fight somebody, mi ex-fren who was trying to take away mi third babyfadda, dem lock me up two days. 

When mi reach work, mi spend time looking at mi face in my compact mirror. Mi ask miself: mi really look old, fi true? Some lines deh pon mi face: in the crease of mi mouth when mi smile or mi forehead when mi frown. But that look normal. The evening before, mi did see two grey hair in mi nose, and mi did take mi tweezer and pick dem out same time. Mi close the compact mirror quick before mi boss catch me.  

Mi have a likkle job working in a wholesale downtown fi some Chiney people. The Chiney woman who is mi boss have long hair, but she always have it in a ponytail and har pickney dem have dem hair in a bowl cut. If mi had pretty hair like that, it would be loose out across mi shoulder all the time. 

Dem don’t understand patois. So plenty time, the workers talking ’bout dem right in front of dem face, and dem don’t know what we saying, things like how awful the Chiney pickney bowl cut look. 

The Chiney dem don’t speak English, but dem know the language of money. Dem watch wi like dem think all of dem Jamaican workers tief. Dem love search wi. Well, some people try hide things under dem clothes. Last week, dem nearly catch mi wid three pack of panty that mi stuff down inna mi own panty. But what dem expect? The pay small and hair expensive. We haffi hustle. 

 

 

* 

Flower says the guards used to watch them all the time. ‘We couldn’t hug. We couldn’t laugh. We couldn’t touch. They wanted us to stop feeling human. Sometimes I felt like a ghost of myself. Like that other life, the one that had been full of colour, was the thing that was fake, and the blackness now was, and always had been, real.’ 

She tells me it’s funny what you miss when you are locked away. Like chirping birds and the sound, like electricity sparking, when a bird in a tree flaps its wings hard among the leafiest branches. The smell of freshly baked naan. Singing in your language. The casual chat about everything and nothing at your neighbour’s house. Lying on your back and staring at blue sky. Butterflies resting on a flower or floating in the air. Once, she watched a guard crush a yellow butterfly under his boot while he and other guards sat playing cards.  

Every morning, the guards shuttled them to work at the factory. The factory building had a sign reading ‘Honin Hair Products and Accessories’ in giant red letters and was surrounded by a rusty barbed wire fence. There were surveillance cameras. Police wearing helmets stood at the entrance. An educational facility across the road had large signs with slogans saying, ‘the country has power’ and commanding people to obey the Communist Party. 

They were taken back to the internment camp at night.  

The guards shaved off the women’s hair and the men’s beards. The first time they did it to Flower, the air was cold on her scalp, and she felt a million tiny pinpricks. She found out later that 13 tons of Uyghur hair made a shipment worth US$800,000. 

 

* 

When Pinky tell me how much the latest weave cost, mi nearly choke! Mi had to stagger back. Where dem expect poor people to find that money? She say is ‘cause it just come straight from the head of some real Chiney people. It natural. Unprocessed. But mi can’t afford it, ‘cause mi got mi pickney dem to feed and not a man to stand beside mi, since the babyfadda dem all run wey.  

But mi seeing a new man now, and when mi tell him mi need the weave, all him say was: ‘Come fi de money, Petal.’ Mi don’t mind that him married. Him is not nuh fenky-fenky man. Is a big man wid grandpickney. Him is a mechanic. Own him own garage and mechanic shop. Him love when mi have on the long black wig. Him grip some of the hair in each hand when mi on top of him. 

 

* 

Flower was a virgin when she went into the camp until that night when three Han Chinese guards came, put a bag on her head and took her from the cell to one of the tables in the kitchen. They returned her the next morning. She was glad Papa was not there. ‘They would have killed him because he wouldn’t have allowed them to touch me.’  

 ‘Sometimes, at the detention camp they’d put a helmet on my head,’ she said, ‘and the electricity surging from the helmet made me feel like my skin was melting, though my blood was freezing. It was like thorns moving through my veins. I was bucking my head and body like a wild horse. I saw black and white dots when I blinked. Every time I was electrocuted, my whole body shook so terribly I would feel the pain in my veins. I foamed at the mouth and lost consciousness.’ 

 

* 

Yeah, of course, the married man box mi up sometime, but is man and woman business that. Is just how dem things work. Him do it ‘cause him never like when mi late to meet him or mi nuh answer mi cellphone that him buy mi on the first two ring or if him hear that mi chatting to a next man. Is normal things that. Him say him was going help mi pickney dem wid money fi school and food and that him will make sure mi look good in the dance. Him say him love show mi off, and mi must tell the other man dem that Petal belong to him. 

One day him ask mi what mi would want to do wid mi life. I tell him mi want to go far-far away from the ghetto. Mi want to live in one of dem farin country, and mi want to look after mi pickney dem the right and proper way. Mi tired of the hand-to-mouth living. That is nuh life. Mi want to be a better mother than that. 

Him rub mi hair and say, ‘Petal, yuh can do anything yuh want in life.’ Him offer to give mi a job in the garage. 

Then, next thing, him lef’ mi cause him say him wife find out ‘bout wi. Mi say to him: ‘Mi think yuh did love me.’ Him don’t say nothing. And mi realize how small a man him really is. 

The first thing mi think ‘bout was how mi was going manage wid the pickney dem. The next thing was how mi going to find money fi hair. The Chiney people did fire mi last week ‘cause dem find four brassiere and a bleaching cream in mi handbag wid the price tag dem still on. Jeezam! 

Mi start fret. Mi head start hurt mi same time. Mi never did too good in school. Mi head did too hard fi book learning. It rough fi get job when you never finish school. 

Mi start look inna miself and say, ‘Petal, is what yuh doing wid yuh life?’ Mi think about Granny, mi parents, mi babyfadda dem, the mechanic…everybody that let me down. Then mi tell miself: ‘Girl, yuh still here. Yuh can do better than this.’ Is only me can change mi life. Mi is mi own big woman. Time to stand on mi own two foot. 

 

 

* 

Flower says she became a woman in the camp. Some days, anger and fear wrestled inside her. She grew tough, but she preserved her softness, no matter how hard the guards tried to stomp it out. She rehearsed in her head the sounds of birds, the colours of flowers, the feeling of wind. She tells me that once, when they came to beat a young girl for some alleged act of insurrection, she shielded the girl’s body with hers. 

After 18 months inside the camp, Flower was taken into a room.  

They gave her back her personal belongings, except for her head covering, made her sign something that she wasn’t allowed to read and then ushered her outside. They said they were letting her go. Just like that. They’d decided she was ‘reformed.’ 

When Flower was walking through the gate, she thought it was a new level of torture. She expected them to shut the gate on her and laugh in her face. But that didn’t happen, and she nearly sank to her knees in the dirt. She didn’t get to say goodbye to the women she shared a cell with. They had become sisters, mothers, grandmother and aunts. She could hear them wailing. When she looked back, she saw that they’d pushed their hands through the barred windows, calling. They were weeping loudly. She surmised there were cries of joy mixed with longing.  

Flower’s hair had started to regrow from the last time they’d chopped it off the month before she left the camp. Black wispy hair brushed the nape of her neck. It had been closer to dark brown before, but each time it was shaved, it grew back darker. On the walk out of the camp, the air on her head felt soothing. Like a father’s hand on her head. With every step she was walking into nothingness because she knew she couldn’t go home. And the rhythm of that nothingness pounded the dry earth and her heart with each step. It kicked sharp dust into her eyes, but it was her chest that stung. 

As soon as she could, she got a beautiful scarf and covered her hair the way she used to. She looked into the mirror, staring at the strange-looking woman she hadn’t seen in a long time.  

Flower re-connected with her mother’s relatives, who got her to Australia. Now she is telling the world what is happening to her people. ‘Now I use what they tried to take from me: my voice,’ she tells me. ‘They wanted to erase me.’  

Flower tells me that in the camp, although detainees couldn’t sing Uyghur songs, at night in their cells they would mouth the words and hear the music in their heads. The first time she heard a Uyghur woman sing again, there was a beauty in the song she cannot describe. Before I switch off the recorder, she says, ‘There’s beauty too in the broken bones and marks on my body. Beauty in the fact that I survived. I am bigger than my suffering.’ 

 

 

* 

Pinky give mi a idea. Pinky say people who can’t afford to buy hair will rent it, and since mi nuh have nuh job, mi can start that as mi business. Renting out wig to go dance, wedding, funeral, birthday party or graduation. I never think hair could make mi money before. Pinky say mi have plenty wig already, and she will tell har customers and other hairdressers ‘bout mi.  

And likkle by likkle, business start come in. And it look like things going get better. The boys help me tack on some zinc and board at the side of the house that we use as a salon for people to come try on and fit the wigs. 

Business so busy now, sometimes all mi wigs rent out. That mean mi wear mi own hair. It softer than mi did realize, and I shine and oil it and when the light hit it a certain way, mi hair have a look that nuh bad. And mi nuh feel like a weight on top of mi head nuhmore. 

And mi not vex that mi can’t grow long, straight hair. One time, mi dream that mi grow mi own hair down to mi toes, like a road that make from silk, and mi would make a rope wid it. And mi could send that rope to the other side of the world.  

Like a bridge mi could cross over.  


Image Nina Hill

About the Author

Sharma Taylor

A lawyer by profession, a writer by passion, Sharma was the inaugural winner of the 2019 Johnson and Amoy Achong Caribbean Writers Prize (for fiction) for emerging writers, administered by the Bocas Lit Fest in Trinidad and Tobago and Arvon in the UK. She was also the winner of the 22nd annual Frank Collymore Literary […]

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