© Pippa Dean.
1st February 2021
Words by Gemma Doswell. Illustration by Pippa Dean.
We are pleased, proud, excited, thrilled (insert other synonym here) to kick off Black History Month with a short novel by Writer Gemma Doswell for Dear Noah. In this novel called 'Dear Rapunzel', Gemma recreates a world where Rapunzel has afro hair.
One more time for the people in the back, representation matters.
Her novel was illustrated by young and talented Illustrator Pippa Dean.
The Tower, 20th November, 2020
You’re wasting your time spending hours on end pressing your natural coils straight. I know it’s difficult to hear but your afro locks can’t be straightened with willpower and heat. Like the classic fairytale paradox, the more you clamp your neverending curls in your steaming wide-plate straighteners, the less straight and silky it’s getting.
It’s breaking, Rapunzel. You let those wide-plates spark in your hair - a naked flame that could set the whole thing ablaze. And it’s because of your jojoba oil. That gorgeous, thick and greasy serum that your hair so desperately needs for sustenance. It clogs the plates, damaging them irreparably. Does it not strike you as strange that the two things that you need can’t exist together? Without your oils, your hair is too dry to flatten straight; without your straighteners, you’re powerless to the intent of the coils.
You’re frying it, Rapunzel. It’s being petrified to breakage. Don’t ignore it when you stand in the shower and clumps fall at your feet. Those are clumps of you and your history and your power. Don’t ignore it when you look in the mirror when it’s wet and you think it looks beautiful. It is. You’re right. And not only for those few minutes when it’s drenched and “under control”, as you describe it to your European-haired friends. If that’s what you think control is, you’re existing submerged. Drowned by the weight of false expectation.
One day, Rapunzel, your afro will be your proudest and most valuable asset. It will give you the confidence that you think it withholds. Your pouring locks represent you - but each strand you tug like cane from rich Grenadian soils; each split end veers away from another like railway tracks diverted from their natural path.
Think of the women that blossom your family tree, Rapunzel. They didn’t fight for you to singe your heritage with heat and chemicals.
Two grandmothers: one white, one black. Both fierce and resilient. Their soft curls and powerful coils wove your soul tight. They tangled together into mighty plaits, clutching you firm and hard and strong. Then your mum and your aunt, towering tall at just 5ft 2’. And a half.
Rapunzel, look at your tower. Your tiny window to the world is of your own making. If you don’t open your eyes wider, you’ll be your own and biggest oppressor. You form allies with people blind and let their ignorance become yours.
But one day, Rapunzel, you’ll have a turning point. It will be on a day that you look tired and raggedy in your paint-splattered charity jumper that you refuse to throw away. A friend will tell you, “You don’t have to worry about not looking good. You have great hair.”
It will be a surprise and confusing because firstly, he’s male. A rarity. Secondly you’ll not have considered any of your natural features as attractive outside black girl fetish. You’ll have thought them niche and inferior, and a truth that you’ll spend your life working around.
But just like that, in that small affirmation, your tiny tower window will start to crumble at the sill. It will let in a spec of light that will be narrow, but bright.
Rapunzel, there’s so much of the world that you don’t understand. The walls of your tower muffle what’s outside it. People are chanting but you miss it every time.
“No justice, no peace.”
I say this Rapunzel because you need to wake up. It might seem a lifetime away but one day, history will unravel on the streets around you. And you’ll be too blinded by the shocking ivory of your tower to realise. You’ll lean from your window to see outside, but reality will be so far below that you won’t distinguish its detail. It won’t be until something happens to you that your eyes will be forced open. You won’t see it coming, but understand when I say that it will come from all angles. Like a gust of wind, all the stones that protect you and the high floors that ground you and the glass that you hide behind will be pulled from around you. It will come like a storm, and you’ll be defenceless to fight it. Your walls are not as hardy as you think.
Put down the straighteners Rapunzel. The heat and smoke is choking you, and you’ve not even noticed. It restricts your airways but you’re so used to limited oxygen that you’ve forgotten what it means to breathe. Maybe you’ve never known. But you will. Your hair is your power and your history and your weapon. And burning it straight is getting you nowhere.
Rapunzel, stand in the shower. Use water as your elixir. Let it spring your curls back to life and then feed them with oils and greases and sprays. Watch it grow, rising like the sun being pulled from the horizon. Then when it dries, nourished and strong, plait it as tight as you can. Secure it at the window then climb, twist by twist.
You’ve waited all these years to be rescued from your tower but your escape route was part of you all along. Those same roots that trapped you in your tiny room will coil to propel you from the shadows.
Your repenting captor.
Gemma Doswell is a mixed-race writer from Birmingham based in London. She has written regularly about racism and equality for Restless Network, and currently volunteers for World Afro Day, an organisation fighting to end afro hair discrimination in schools. Her writing has also been featured in The Curiosity Club and Vestal Review, and she is currently working on her debut novel for young adults.
Pippa Dean is an Illustration Animation student studying at Kingston University in London. She won the sustainability award on her Foundation Diploma at Leeds Arts University in 2018.