I’ve read that trauma disrupts time. That violent events are recorded differently in the brain.
this is ours
When I was little, I decided to become a writer so that I could put all of these stories down on paper. So that we could say, forever after, we have records, too. I’d sit with my grandparents in the hot afternoons after school with an exam pad, taking furious notes. In my classes, I always got marked down for going over my word limit on essays, but I had a strange anxiety about cutting anything out. I felt we needed all we could get.
My husband, a white man, can trace his family back to the fourteenth century, including to some of the shareholders of the Dutch East India Company, who enslaved my ancestors and erased our histories. Sometimes, in Cape Town, we walk past the old Slave Lodge, now painted a sunny yellow, and history seems a living thing you have to wade through.
And so when this white German kid called me a “g*psy,” it seemed one of the tamest things a white person had called me, before I understood that the word came from hatred that fueled the almost complete annihilation of the Romani during the Holocaust, after a long history of enslavement, pogroms, and entrenched racism.
I don’t think that kid meant it in the disparaging way, though throughout my time at that school there was that aspect, too. As a Coloured girl, we were the ones often blamed for being “disruptive.” Offensive jokes abound, even now, about Coloured people being violent, lazy, shiftless, prone to substance abuse and casual criminality. You know the ring of a word when a white person uses it for you. You know the tensions at work in it—of fascination and disgust, of fetishization and disparagement.
One time, a drunk man at the school fete put his hand around me, saying I looked “exotic,” asking where I was from, could he take me home. I was fourteen. There was the time boys used that word, “g*psy” as a way of describing me, meant to be a synonym for “sexy.” Maybe they thought it was a compliment. I hope they know better now.
Another time, a friend and I counted over seventy swastikas around the school. They were scribbled on pillars, scratched into desks, in the margins of the secondhand books we scholarship kids—we non-German, mostly not-white kids—got from the German kids who could afford to buy them new and unmarked.
All of this seemed to raise the stakes for me—it made me want something to hold onto with certainty, to understand what I was in relation to a world that found so many ways to name me but never allowed me to name myself. But my family history shifted and faded every time I tried to pin it down. Asking my grandparents for a clear history was sometimes like consulting a medium—hearing the same stories embellished to myth over and over. In response, I found myself thinking of the steady shuffle and ritual of the cards, how a reading was always born out of such unease, and how, though the world was no less mysterious, there was at least a vocabulary, a poetry, for such mystery.
So after school, I practiced with the cards. I read about the history of the Tarot and saved my earnings to buy a proper deck. In those still hours, after a day that had ground me down in ways I couldn’t yet articulate, I turned to a ritual that was steady, that acknowledged that the future terrifies us, that the world demands answers.
I delighted in learning how to read people; how to read their desires and fears in their faces, help them parse out the unknowable into symbols that made sense, in the deep, fairy-tale understandings that are alive when you’re young.
And when I was alone with the cards, in my romantic, adolescent way, I felt like I was talking to the invisible people that had become present but unknown to me. It was play and prayer.
Now, I know that associating Romani people with fortune telling is another racist myth. I also know that some Romani used that racist mythology to earn money when they needed it. I know, too, that my claiming of it, when I had only the smallest bit of Romani heritage, if any, was deeply appropriative and harmful. But I was a kid, then. And I was tired of silences, clumsy in my trying to fill them.
I’ve read that trauma disrupts time. That violent events are recorded differently in the brain. With a family history born from the legacies of slavery, of colonialism and displacement, trauma made itself felt in ways I couldn’t understand yet.
There was a feeling of sickening inevitability to it, when, the same year I began to trace my family history and to turn to mysticism for coherence, I was raped by a white man. He said, “You’re not like the others,” and he said, “Girls in your culture, they mature faster.” He mentioned how Newclare, where I grew up, was known for its high rates of teen pregnancy. “It’s just something about you people.”
I’ve read that trauma disrupts time. That violent events are recorded differently in the brain.
When it happened, I went into myself. There were days I wouldn’t talk at all. I would sometimes have panic attacks that would have me catatonic or convulsing. I walked around with long, deep cuts on my arms that I blamed on our cat.
My family thought I was “beset” by evil djinn or spirits. One of my relatives took me to be “cleansed” by an imam, in a shadowy room behind a laundromat. My supposed haunting was blamed on any number of things: Maybe it was that I’d tried to tell my mother that I had a crush on my best friend, a girl. Or the panic attacks. Or the marks on my arms. Or my dabbling in Tarot. They tried to help me in the way they best knew how. In a panic, I threw out every one of my Tarot decks. I tried to keep my head down; to not seek anything beyond me. But I needed something I could reach a hand to. I needed to know something, someone, was there.
I stole a cheap plastic rosary I found at school. I printed out a little picture of the Virgin Mary. I drew a lot. I wrote strange, meandering stories with no point, but I drew pictures that stood stark, that layered the symbols of my family’s histories known and unknown. The crescent moon rising over a desert dune. A veiled mother holding a golden child. In the absence of my old tarot deck, I found myself making a new one.
No amount of prayer or quieting would still what haunted me, except the little collection of icons, symbols, remembered cards I assembled for myself, sketched in ballpoint during a math lesson, inked on my wrist as a talisman. I started the old rituals again—the whispering shuffle, the steady placing of cards, each one turning up like a familiar face, a way of speaking without words.
The cards gave metaphor and rhythm to the questions that beset me. They offered potent symbols of fairy tales—things that stretch beyond time and border to the old ways of remembering, to the ancient shorthands and signposts. And reading them came to me as easy as play. What had started as a joke, a quick way to make cash, became something I did alone with reverence. It was a rhythm that soothed, a set of symbols that formed words, stories I could tell myself, to feel my way forward into life.
It came just in time, too. As I became an adolescent, I saw the scars that unspoken things left on my family, that made up my inheritance. I learned, too, that the stories I’d once recorded so faithfully could shatter.
Once, my grandmother was in a bad state. She had struggled for a long time with the first symptoms of Alzheimer’s that had also claimed my great-grandmother’s memories before she died. My grandmother told me how, during the worst night of her life, when she lay in a hospital bed, she opened her eyes through the haze of pain to see the Virgin Mary standing watch beside her. I was fourteen then, but I believed her with my whole heart. I had needed to. I needed to know there was something under the surface of the world, that could reach out a loving hand to us.
I don’t know what I said in response to that. It could have been anything, in those days, but I said something that upset her somehow. She burst into tears, telling me I could never understand suffering, that I was a spoiled, ungrateful child. That I didn’t know how short life was, how hard. She sobbed, and spat at me, “You know it wasn’t true, Mishka. You know the Virgin Mary doesn’t come to sit with you when you’re in pain. You know when your life falls apart, you’re in the dark, on your own.”
But I believe in the Blessed Virgin. And I believe that the Death card means a new beginning. I believe that the Tower—in the old Tarot de Marseilles called “La Maison Dieu,” the house of God—is meant to fall, for change to happen.
In Tarot, names can mean two things at once. Death and new life. A reversal can turn a good card unlucky. A cup emptied, the devil turned on his head. The name that led me to find my Romani family tie comes from the Romani word, “dickering,” a word that means to tell fortunes, which was later Anglicized into Dickinson, at least according to my family’s maybe-this-maybe-that wishful storytelling, and the tenuous, shifting records and matches on genealogy sites. But in the end, we just couldn’t be sure that that was the same family. It was a half-murmured rumor, a way for my grandmother to make the gaps in our histories make sense, to match names when there was no-one else in a portion of the record, to deduce from stories. Tell me, tell them, my grandmother would say, wanting me to speak with conviction when she couldn’t. Tell, read, say: There is a word in Arabic, “iqra,” which means all of those three, and it was the first word told to the Prophet Muhammad, peace be upon him, when the angel came to him with revelation. Tell. Read. Say. It is the beginning of all things.
Tarot taught me to dwell in the silences, between the past and future. It gave me a language for the uncertain, the not-yet, the maybe. I learned to tell stories with the cards. I learned that there are things I know but cannot say in ordinary words. That silence, too, is an inheritance, and can speak.
Today, I read the cards when I am lost, when the moon shifts, when the seasons change. I mark solstice and equinox, I burn lavender for comfort, and rosemary for remembrance. Then I shuffle the cards, I pray, I lay them out and read. And somewhere between one card and another, something takes shape. Even when I can’t write, I can read the cards.
It is an inheritance, after all—not through blood, but through a history of silence, of telling it all in metaphor. The way I practice Tarot now is with the weight of history, of words. It comes from being robbed of cohesion—from a history made by fracturing. We can only ever, it seems, tell it askew. But there is magic there, too. I have to believe it.
Mishka Hoosen is a writer and researcher from Johannesburg in South Africa. Their work has appeared on the Ploughshares Blog, and in Bare Fiction, Plume, Illuminations, Rolling Stone South Africa, The Missing Slate, and others. They write extensively on perfume, madness, and the body. They are currently working on a novel, "Through Smoke", which will examine perfume as an embodiment of desire and remembrance in the postcolonial city.