Earlier this year, actor and screenwriter Michaela Coel (I May Destroy You, Chewing Gum) announced that she was publishing her first book, Misfits: A Personal Manifesto. With humour and honesty, it immerses readers in Coel’s life, from her upbringing in East London to her discovery of theatre and love of storytelling. As well as sharing an insight into her reckoning with trauma, she uses life lessons from her work and life to invite us to reflect on the importance of transparency and self-knowledge. As the commissioning editor behind the book, we spoke to Marianne Tatepo at Ebury who talks about the transformative lessons she learned while creating this book with Coel.
1. The power of diversity of thought
I think there can be this concept of people being islands. Michaela Coel dispels that idea with her screenwriting, acting, creating: she’s the ultimate multi-hyphenate.
One thing I remembered from watching her public speaking is that she will always acknowledge and thank team members. There's her brilliant mind, and everything she brings to the table, but there's also an openness about her, and an intellectual approachability, which means that you can be very open. Just as I was informed by working with her, I hope to have informed her and opened her mind through the publishing process.
It has felt quite transformative. I’ve learned a lot about the power of bringing together lots of voices, and ultimately that is the central message of the book, ‘There are as many perspectives as there are people,’ to borrow from author Colin Wright’s words. A lot of us get sucked into our in-group, and we forget to look further afield and to reflect back on ourselves – but Michaela is constantly holding up a mirror to herself, the rest of the world and the rest of the room.
2. There are more ways to write about trauma
3. We need to re-examine the popular notion of ‘victimhood’
The idea of what a ‘survivor’ can look like is so nuanced, and not always consistent. That's the scope of the human experience, that you feel things that are in contradiction with one another. I've personally never read anyone who's managed to peel back all of the layers like this. Michaela did it in I May Destroy You with the character of Arabella, but even in the show, there's lots of different women, different people. And she also does it in the book, as she pays tribute to not just her own experiences but people of other groups, and writes this love letter to marginalised individuals.
The main thing that I keep with me from creating this book with Michaela is that if you've experienced something dramatic and life-changing you can still have inner power, whilst at the same time acknowledging your vulnerabilities. I'm talking about containing multitudes essentially, and reclaiming the narrative around so-called victimhood.
4. We all have different identities over time
Your trauma doesn't need to be productive. However, often our traumas do change us, sometimes in subtler ways than others. We're constantly reinventing ourselves and that can be the result of positive and negative events happening to us, but I think we should embrace it and be proud that we're not necessarily stuck in our ways.
I was reminded by Michaela that we should allow ourselves space to be flawed. Likewise, when things happen to us that are outside of our control, let’s give ourselves the kind of empathy and patience that we give others; acknowledge how life's really difficult events might change us, but retain openness towards others and to change. When people turn to the final few pages of the book, I hope that they will be left with a hopeful, generative state of mind that will encourage them to want to look at humanity from a place of curiosity rather than mere suspicion and pessimism.
5. Hope is the ultimate form of healing
I think it's important to keep hope alive, and that's what Michaela does really brilliantly. I was really inspired as an editor to work with an author who managed to discuss some of the trickiest topics to be writing about and end the book on a note that is humorous, but also really makes you think, and makes you feel hopeful and curious about all the good stuff around us as well.
You can never really heal a wound. But having that kind of openness to being pleasantly surprised is what gets you back to a better place. Ultimately, I think she does that, in a way I've never seen before. That's something to hold on to.