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Michaela Coel has established herself as the most distinguished British writer-actor of her generation. Not yet 35, she is the creator of two acclaimed television programmes - Chewing Gum and I May Destroy You - which explore religious fundamentalism, sexual awakening, emotional manipulation, shame, intoxication, and sexual assault. The overriding element in her work is the tension between the desire to fit in and the need to be true to yourself. Her first book, Misfits, is aptly titled.
Misfits is based on the James MacTaggart lecture that Coel gave in 2018. It is a very slim book which can be read in one sitting. Before we get into the lecture, which forms the main body of the text, Coel offers us a short introduction in which she explains her fascination with moths: they constitute a symbol of death and desire in many cultures; and they are mainly nocturnal creatures but often circle around light. In drafting her lecture, Coel, like moths, wants to likewise retain a degree of mystery.
The lecture itself is framed as a narrative. This is the story of a woman who grew up in a council estate in the City of London. The vagaries of displacement and erasure evident in her work can be seen here - her immediate low-income environment enmeshed within the financial centre of Britain. She writes of the estate that she grew up in that, “even now, there may be someone rushing past it for the hundredth time, briefcase in hand, with no idea this council estate exists”. She adds that she grew up directly opposite the Royal Bank of Scotland and felt “other”. But what made her feel “other” was not the Scottish bit. It was the Bank bit.
The word ‘misfits’ derives specifically from the name she gives to the group of mainly black friends she met at her girls’ secondary school: “My friends were all misfits: a huge gang of commercially unattractive, beautiful misfits, who found the mainstream world unattractive”.
Coel is at times a misfit in a charming sense. She left University, after two years of only attending one lecture, to go to Drama school. She was an English Literature student at university; but the only lecture she attended was for Law.
At other times Coel is a misfit because of racism and misogyny. She describes, for instance, the racist abuse she received in Drama school. Later on, she recounts the sexual assault she experienced when working for a television company. This latter experience would provide some inspiration for I May Destroy You.
After closing the book, I found myself thinking: what is the point of this book? You can find Coel’s original lecture on YouTube - and it is captivating, funny, and moving, expertly told in Coel’s richly wise voice. It is a lecture which, at times, has the frisson of a dramatic performance. This book adds nothing worthwhile. There are no new revelations, no deeper reflections.
If Coel used the lecture as a springboard for a fully-fleshed memoir, that would have been more promising. Her life is sufficiently interesting to warrant one. She briefly describes what it was like to grow up as a child of an immigrant Ghanaian mother who worked on weekends whilst studying during the week; but she doesn’t stop and turn it over. We see only glimpses of Coel’s schooling, career, and life.
She emphasises the importance of transparency in the creative industries, yet she doesn’t tell us that the Drama school she attended was Guildhall, or that the company that offered her $1 million dollars in exchange for copyright ownership over I May Destroy You was Netflix - facts which are not particularly sensitive.
Of course, no one should be obliged to disclose anything. And the length of a text is not the measure of its quality. Although Coel wants greater transparency in creative industries, she states in the introduction of this book that when she was writing the lecture she was not aiming for transparency: “I am choosing language that lacks transparency, choosing to remain on this bench, in the dark, and inviting each listener to meet me here instead”. Her television work is animated by people concealing or suppressing their desires and traumas.
But translating a one-hour lecture into a book is nevertheless disappointing. Her lecture works on the screen; as a book it is too flighty. The example of the moth that Coel brings up in her introduction is instructive on the book as a whole. Like a moth, the book flits from point to point in a way that doesn’t justify itself. It instead provokes one to ask: what is at stake here? Why am I reading this? Watch the lecture instead.
Misfits: A Personal Manifesto by Michaela Coel (Ebury, £9.99)