Cina Aissa is a Tunisian/French multi disciplinary artist and storyteller passionate about social inclusion, democratising education and grassroots activism. She writes about the use of trauma maps.
I’ve lived in Kentish Town since 2004 and as a foreign, disabled and neurodivergent single mother of colour, I have been bullied and ostracised all around, from headteachers to neighbours and other local parents. In 2014, as another rockbottom in the form of a nervous breakdown loomed, I made a conscious decision to give myself ‘exposure therapy’ as I could see that years of closing down on myself had achieved nothing but alienate my daughters and myself into an ever smaller tight container. It was only us who couldn’t breathe. Our oppressors seemed to have no problems going out as we’d regularly see them hanging out casually with their mates on Kentish town road.
Going out and making myself visible was absolutely exhausting and was only possible after elaborate OCD practices designed to keep me safe. My body ached at every new exposure and I felt like I would soon be in a wheelchair with the pain of it. Cold sweats, uncontrollable shakes, a dry throat and palpitations were my body’s way to scream its distress each time I ventured out. On each occasion, it burnt like acid on open wounds and after a while, I became curious as to what and where these wounds laid in my body and relation to exact spots within the neighbourhood.
At the time, I was attending an art studio for people with mental health problems and after discussing it with other disabled artists, I decided to make a trauma map.
I want to write about these trauma maps, what they represent and how I would like to use them to free myself from the bondage of historical trauma associated with a place I lived in and ultimately seek to heal myself from. Over the years, I have been shocked to see how there was no space for my story to be told as I am only being offered the lowly seat of a victim, which I insist is not my place. I am a survivor and I am claiming my space and my voice by putting my story out.
But first a little bit about Kentish Town if you’ve never been. As the cool big sister to worldwide famous Camden, Kentish Town is a sailor, a gregarious pub landlady, a rough and ready daring chick with the gift of the gob, a (yet) undefeated loudmouth who has many friends. Geographically speaking, Kentish Town itself is a relatively small area, with much bigger gravitas, stories and mystique than the half a mile it really occupies. Kentish Town is very tribal and it doesn’t take long to spot the different cliques roaming the streets in packs. Somatic abdominal pains pierce me just from thinking about standing on those cool pavements, to be someone, to have friends, to be going somewhere, to have people care for you and to have a place in the community.
That same abdomen, on my map, was the short stretch of the high street. I added limbs to each extremity, north and south. Two sets of forks frame the finite space with twin roads branching out, turning their backs on from each other. To the north, I envisaged an arm for Fortess Road and another for Highgate road, topped by a screaming face and a head as foreign and wide as the awkward triangular space separating these divergent paths. To the south, Kentish town road and Royal College Street parted as angry sisters, my rebellious legs taking me in different directions, in constant conflict.
With a full body map visually representing Kentish Town as my body, I then proceeded to mark the spaces that triggered intense trauma and body pains. This was quite straightforward but also painful at first, remembering what happened, each shameful incident, playing that tape, classifying it, placing it on the map, putting it in its box, like an item from a cabinet of curiosities. I quickly learnt to detach and mark the spaces out forensically, coldly putting numbers and basic information for stab wounds, like a faceless FBI agent in a white suit collecting individual hairs with tweezers and a torch.
Looking at the map as a whole showed me how precarious my existence had been, surviving on these mean streets as ‘other’ for two long decades. Each traumatic experience became part of a whole, losing its ‘isolated incident’ status to become a tragic tableau of systemic, institutional and societal exclusion. All the ‘are you sure?’/’maybe you’re being too sensitive’/ ‘Kentish is supposed to be a lovely area….’ that had ever added to my feelings of having dreamt the whole thing or even attracted those negative occurrences on myself and my family via bad luck/karma/evil eye etc…vanished to make space to the certitude of what I had seen, heard, felt and lived through.
Sure, I’d gotten lost into the tribal system, estate vigilantes, playground politics and Iceland (the shop, not the country) glares but visualising the map planted my feet firmly on the ground. The whole world could gaslight me now, I was believing me and standing by me. Now that this physical battlefield has been made visual, my body still aches, reminding me that I need to tend to my wounds.
I am not preoccupied by going back to face those who tormented me and my family, I understand that it is not my job to train anybody in acquiring the rudiments of basic human kindness, in teaching them why they shouldn’t ostracise those who look different from them and why they shouldn’t weaponise their children’s young age or learning differences into attacking my girls ,or ostracising them, leaving them out, like forever.
The truth is that it is going to take a lot of work to come to terms with what happened. It can never be unseen, undone, unfelt but hopefully, it can be healed and can lead to some kind of reconciliation. I hope to use these trauma maps to bring healing to Kentish Town, release my pressure points and holistically cleanse the trauma-associated locations using rituals of walking, talking, making, taking space and meditating. Collectively.
That pain can however be alleviated by a communal healing effort to restore justice, peace and balance. These rituals will be an open invitation to all migrants, queers, single mothers, people of colour, disabled people, trans, all the ‘others’, all the lonely people, all the ‘strays’ as they used to say in the 80’s to come out and occupy the streets of Kentish Town.
I have no doubt I am not the only person who has been othered in Kentish town, so I would like to invite us all to meet, talk and walk through the neighbourhood to reclaim our space and our right to be here. I also doubt bullying and ostracism only happens in Kentish Town but I suspect it has malignantly spead over the British Isles, as a popular response to a decade of brutal Tories ideology. I hope that this trauma map can be the starting point for many other mappings and actions facilitating restorative justice and reconciliation across this fragmented land and its inhabitants in desperate need for unity and collective healing.