THE PROF. BARBRA NAIDU PRIZE FOR THE PERSONAL ESSAY 2021 – BREAKING AWAY

Announcing the ninth edition of The Prof. Barbra Naidu Memorial Prize for the Personal Essay. The theme for this year is Breaking Away. Here is a little something on how I understand it.

I often dream that I’m running a relay race. The audience is a stadium full of people cheering for me, and a small yawn of people rolling eyes. That’s their only job — both in my dream, and in their life. In the beginning, I ran against boys who were annoying classmates, and when it no longer thrilled me, I ran against annoying boys I was teaching. A pataki female student and I are usually up against this boy and his friend. When pataki gives me the baton, I run with grit in my teeth, calves, and veins. The boy is far ahead of me and going to win. My mind speeds this part along because a) I am not a runner and b) within seconds, I am anyway already running next to him. At this point, the audience erupts in cheers. Their faces are indignant with vengeance on my behalf. I don’t know what the yawn of people look like because nobody cares about them. My own face is part grit- part replaying every humiliating account from my teaching life. I break away from the boy in the slowest way possible and when I cross the finish line, everything goes black and I am panting a lot but mostly dying.

I didn’t know this then but what I was imagining and getting thrills from is a moment called ‘breaking away’. Like breaking away from a group you no longer believe in — or from someone you used to be held captive to — or from a pack when you are racing and getting closer to the finish line. The moment is charged with the erotics of being free.

Sometimes it’s not easy to see the things that bind us to people. We believe we are free because we seem to walk just fine when the leash is long enough. Nothing is holding us back because whatever is holding us back is following us so closely, they don’t need to hold us back, and we don’t need to feel held back.

That’s why breaking away is so glorious. Suddenly there’s more of you for yourself.

What I like most about breaking away is that there is no time to self-congratulate or self-pity. It’s an extremely short-lived moment — there now, gone next. Perhaps it’s a good thing that these moments don’t come with pause buttons. What do we expect to find there anyway?

When I first heard of breaking away, I thought it was breaking up. The difference, as I understand it now was made clear by Kate Winslet’s face in ‘The Holiday’. After being in love with a jerk for over three years, she finds gumption one evening to break away.

In the moment that I am talking about, they’ve already broken up with each other multiple times but he keeps coming back to see if she’s still there and leaves when he is convinced that she is. It’s probably because breaking up with someone still means it’s with. Breaking away, on the other hand is always from someone or something. The only way to go after breaking away is forward. Kate Winslet’s face sees this, understands this, and we get to watch it dawn on her.

When I fantasise about breaking away these days, it’s not a race anymore, it’s a happy dance and no one is around to cheer, frown or roll eyes.

What is your breaking away story?