After the success of her HBO TV series I May Destroy You, which explored issues of sexual assault, consent, and their intersection with race, British actress and screenwriter Michaela Coel is continuing her work on these very important topics. This past September 7th she released her first book, Misfits: A Personal Manifesto. From her experience with racism at a very young age to the traumas of sexual assault, Misfits is a touching look at Michaela Coel’s life and work as a “misfist”.
Shiny purple and orange moths cover the inside of the hardcover. The small nocturnal insect doesn’t seem to have much to do with the British actress, but as the introduction begins, she explains that the widely hated bug is nothing less than a metaphor for her own identity: a being who doesn’t fit in society. “My friends were all misfits: a huge gang of commercially unattractive, beautiful misfits,” she writes.
Although the book covers most of her life, from the age of seven to present day, the narration begins at the 2018 MacTaggart Lecture, which she was invited to give at the Edinburgh TV Festival. Coel was the fifth woman, and only the first Black woman, to be given this honor. “At the time [I was invited], I’d never heard of the MacTaggart Lecture. Then again, back then I’d also never heard of Depeche Mode or Sarajevo,” she quips. For the most part, this book is a transcription of that almost hour-long lecture, with the addition of an Introduction and Epilogue, which includes the moth metaphor.
If you’ve watched I May Destroy You, the scene of Coel standing at a podium in front of an esteemed audience might remind you of a key point in the series where her character does the same, using the opportunity to call out a colleague as a rapist. And, indeed, her lecture has strong parallels to that scene—although it also includes more about her experiences of racism along with those of sexual assault.
In the speech, Coel explains how, as a student at a Catholic Elementary School for girls, she learned the intricacies of young girls' relationships where gossiping and webpages were at the center of everything. At 23 she was the first Black girl in five years to be accepted at her drama school. Along with those experiences, she relates the long and sinuous road that it was to write and then produce her first play, Chewing Gum Dreams, which was then adapted as a 2-season TV series. Her experience on set was the same as while attending drama school: marred by racist incidents and sexism. Right after winning a British Academy Television Award for her performance on Chewing Gum, a producer introduced himself at the after-party, exclaiming, “Do you know how much I want to fuck you right now ?” She also reveals that, later on, she was the victim of sexual assault while suffering from a total black out during a night out with friends. (It was this experience that formed the basis of I May Destroy You.)
At only 102 pages, the book can be read in an afternoon, and isn’t very different from her keynote. For those who prefer watching to reading, it might be beneficial to go directly to the Youtube video. In the book’s Epilogue, however, Coel has a chance to reflect on the reverberations of giving her brave speech. “I learned that staying silent for fear of losing safety doesn’t compare to the feeling of safety I found within myself from choosing to be fearless to question the house, to question the very identity of the house and from choosing to question myself.” By interrogating her own place within society, drawing from her past experiences both as a young Black girl in a predominantly white neighborhood, and as an award-winning actress and screenwriter in a world lead by straight white males, she came to understand that the one most impacted by all that was herself, and that she would never reach real comfort as long as she wasn’t honest with herself.
Photo by Jeaneen Lund
Valentine Fabre is a Fashion Journalism student currently based in London.