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Edition #2
Networks and Labyrinths
Anja Radonjic
Edited by Shanti Lara Giovannetti-Singh

It’s a pleasure to be here: tumultuous twenties and the waning belief in the promise of “our bright future”

    My father was always the one who drove me around, even after I got my driver’s license. Even when he no longer had the strength to do so. During a late August drive, as we began one of our last descents down the slithering, twisting road to Kotor, I had to tell him I planned to stay in the UK indefinitely. As I nervously twisted the rings on my fingers, I arranged in my mind each sentence into a perfect, soft and unemotional sequence. Each sentence could cause a reaction from him. Twelfth bend. I calmly declared I intended to apply to universities in the UK.

    “So, then” he said slowly, “you’ve decided to stay there.” I listened for the silences in between those words. I listed my plan: Oxford, UCL, York; scholarship programmes, accommodation available, excellent programmes in History and Politics. Sharp turn on the tenth bend. I waited for his reply. With a father like him, no conversation was ever meaningless, and words never simply filled the air. Without taking his eyes off the road, he stated: “You know, with that you will never be able to find work here.” Is this the best he had? “That’s fine,” I blurted, “I do not intend to work or return here anyway.”

    The rest of the journey was silent, orange-tiled houses grew closer together as our car reached the end of the road. The reason he gave up on that argument still bothers me. It also fuelled my efforts to stay abroad in the last years. My stubborn and fearful father admitted defeat and believed in a bright future for his only child. The pessimist had hope. It’s been five years since his passing. I no longer remember his voice, nor to my despair, much of his face. Today, I wonder whether I would have been able to convince him so easily. I still have hope, but these uncertain days—the beginning of my twenties—would have terrified that inexperienced girl on the road to Kotor, not alive long enough to have comprehended what lies ahead.

    A person is a microcosm of their time, the love and loss of their era. I couldn’t tell you what the essence of youth is, but perhaps it is contained in those vivid memories which you not only see, but can distinctly smell and taste. Lunch breaks on the steps of Portico. Peach-coloured sunsets by Southbank. Pushing past the tourists around Camden High Street. The purple beam of BT Tower, with its far-reaching message – “Good morning, London”. As with all first loves,  I look back at my time in London through a thick haze of idealisation. London would never be less filled with hot summer air, or the soft rain that couldn’t disturb my fast-paced, determined stride. In a city of countless strangers, I belonged. I smiled a bit wider there always, even during those days of grieving my father.

    In London, your ambitions grow as high as the Shard. I worked two tutoring jobs, and as a student officer at my university. In the screeching tube, I met many weary eyes. We were the same, indistinguishable clogs of London’s unbreakable machinery. The city does not permit slowing down. You would lose the precious working hours. You lose your rent. You lose your pride. Potentially, also your happiness. The city does not allow failure. Once, the mother of a child I had tutored for weeks took my hand, and rolled up my fingers around a fifty-pound tip. I skipped down the street, clutching onto the bills as the first proof of acknowledged hard work. Several hours later, my boss called up to tell me I was fired. “Fired for your lack of a moral compass, you do not ever take tips.” I should have known better. I was nineteen.

    For our last lunch in  Gordon’s Square, the girls laid out a summer feast for a hundred. I proudly looked at each of them, memorising each of their smiles, noticing the flashes of concern across their faces. All at the beginning of our twenties, yet all filled with an inexplicable sense of age. We had grown accustomed to dealing with the dodgy landlords of our shoe-box flats. We negotiated with the menace known as the Camden Borough Council. Yet, still, we had the comfort of eating cold cereal at noon, the freedom of going about our lives without anyone yelling “muuum” in our directions. The most unpredictable decade of our lives lie ahead. None of us dared to make long-term career plans, or daydream about what our ideal house or wedding would look like. The dreams formed in London, I safely keep, but hide them away for the time being. Once survival becomes guaranteed, once I won’t have to worry – then I will create, then I will try. The twenties are perhaps the first time our lives are not pre-determined, defined lives from one academic year to the next. It is a time when all those moral lessons bestowed throughout childhood and school are the only guide through the series of decisions awaiting. I wonder now about the Jack and the beanstalk story, would Jack still trade a cow these days, his only source of food and income. Would a flicker of faith and daring to risk make him forsake stability? My generation would keep the cow.

    My story is not unique, but rather an entirely predictable trope. A young, well-educated woman, stepping across different cities and homes, slightly lost whilst seeking to find safety and security. As I write this, many of my friends and peers are posting pictures of themselves in caps and gowns. They have finally made it. Exhausted and exhilaratingly happy, they clutch onto the diploma in their hands, as a safekeep for the passage of our twenties. The diploma is a reminder of the all-nighters, of the countless hungover seminars; a reminder the times of silent loneliness and the stabbing feelings of inadequacy have ceased, for now. I think of our twenties as the great unknown, a degree or education merely a semblance of some sense of stability. I don’t think any recent graduate believes in an overnight success, too humbled to say that something is owed to us. It’s also a difficult time to experience any type of rejection or failure, as we barely have time to process, brush off our ego, and try again. Next payment of bills awaits. Family eagerly awaits. We ourselves are rushing. But there is a sentence repeated, often enough, an outcry, a silent wish. We simply want to be enough.

    There is somewhat of a cross-generational perception of the twenties as the true formative years of an individual. This is when we are finally settling into our own skin a bit more, and, where a lot of big firsts happen. First time you clean your own hoover (only then you are an adult, trust me). First time you find those like-minded people who are similar to you. First time you experience great love and liberation  in learning to be alone. However, there are many other firsts external to our daily lives. Unprecedented times create an unprecedented generation. Absurdly enough, it’s a generation of resolute and opinionated youth, and a generation seeking constant validation. I  tend to think of us as insta(nt) generation. Even if not all of us might be socially and politically active, there is a deeper awareness of socio-economic, ecological, racial, post-colonial issues at hand. The entire world is at your fingertips. In certain circles I talk about the money saving schemes with Tesco meal deals and the latest episodes of “Love is Blind”. In others, I learn about the prison-industrial complex. I learned that many friends and acquaintances were sexually harassed, or assaulted. Often over a few pints, someone raised the issue of climate justice. Black lives matter. Trans-rights and non-binary rights matter. Stop Asian hate. I did not know anything about  dyslexia, dyspraxia, anxiety and depression few years ago. And I won’t even mention the p-word that the historians will write and argue about how we’ve handled it. It’s all a lot to process and digest. When did we transition from faces worried about grades and school crushes to faces worried about the entire world around us?

    And I don’t want you, as the reader, to despair. I am immensely proud of you. There is so much personal growth waiting to happen, so much disappointment and joy to occur along the way. Our generation takes each careful and calculated step forward, hoping to finally find that widely-talked about prosperity in adulthood. Uncertainty may intoxicate us with cynicism, that nothing of our dreams will ever come about. A sceptic cannot get heartbroken twice. But living in these insane, fiction-like times, taught me to weave the pattern of my life only according to my measures, since doing it for anyone else is simply- pointless.

    I finally have more sympathy towards my father’s fearfulness and unwavering bitterness. Expectations of family and friends reigned in his ambition, but ultimately, many life decisions were entirely his. It was not my masterful presentation during the last drive that circumvented another dispute, but it was his kindness – he did not stand in the way of my own path. And I know how special it is to even have the option of a choice, to be in possession of your own agency. Many had their agency taken away, even before they learned to walk or could understand the social system and institutionalised structures of marginalisation. I hope our generation will find it in their heart and mind the collective effort to bring that change.

    My father’s silence wasn’t about a bright future, in London or Kotor, or anywhere. Each twist and bend of this unforeseen road into the twenties, for all its joys and disappointments, is completely mine.

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