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Gay Times May 08 - Issue 356

Counter Culture - Mem Morrison

Artist Mem Morrison tells GT about growing up above his Turkish-Cypriot family’s London greasy spoon.

My parents are Turkish-Cypriot, and they moved to London in 1959. We’re sort of close – my mum is a real character and I tell her a lot of things, though I suppose growing up with my family and being second generation, there was always this language barrier. My first language is Turkish, even though I was born in London and have lived here all my life. At that time, they weren’t speaking much English. In many ways, you can never communicate how you feel truly about something in the way that you feel you can. It’s quite surface. My parents express themselves much deeper in Turkish; me, more so in English.
So as a family we’ve all gone and done our separate things. Strangely enough, all my siblings are working in catering – they’re all running food businesses. They’re all 16 months apart. Then there was this five-year gap, then I was born. I was the big mistake! I ended up doing something entirely different, but I don’t know where I get it from. Growing up bilingual was always interesting because I didn’t feel as if I fitted in with either. The things that I enjoyed doing, the way that I looked at things, was very much from an English perspective, the British music scene, fashion and art.
A lot of my work comes from a personal place. It’s not strictly autobiographical, although you could say it is. I don’t like to describe it that way. It’s the idea of creating from the ‘self’. Through my work I tend to show my parents how I really feel about things, stuff that we don’t feel comfortable talking about. I would, but they wouldn’t really understand because my Turkish isn’t as good as my English. My parents are very loving and caring, but also quite cold. I don’t remember getting any hugs, or being told, “I love you.” It was about survival; “We have to work, we have to get food on the table, we haven’t got time for all that silly affection.”
I grew up in a greasy spoon cafe. There wasn’t a separate front door; you had to walk through the cafe to go up to the flat above it. In the first few years, the business was the most important thing, and I remember as a child being resentful because the customers got more attention than me.
When they sold the business I was eight, and we had a house for the first time and a garden. I went to a new school – that’s when all the bullying started. I kept a lot of that quiet for many years, but there’d be times I’d come home and my shirt would be ripped or I’d have a cut or visual signs that I couldn’t hide. I’d lie, but eventually my mum cottoned on. On one occasion when a group of eight boys jumped me, she went down the school and lined up all the boys and the headmaster. “Don’t touch my son! I break all your arms!” – she really shouted at them, and it was really embarrassing.
When I told my mum I was gay, I thought it was going to be like reminding her, “Don’t forget to switch the light off.” I always thought she knew. I came out in my mid-30s, and a few months before that I’d met my partner, who’s Turkish-Cypriot as well and has the same name as me. Freaky, I know.
We both came out to our parents at the same time. It was a crazy thing to do. Mum was going, “To have a wife and children, that’s what life is about!” I was trying to find the words without having to say, “I’M GAY, MUM!” And eventually this energy shot through me and I said it. She was doing the dishes, and was like, “Oh, don’t be silly.” She kept busying herself. I repeated it about three times. “You’ve always known. I’m not getting married; I don’t feel that way about women,” and she stopped what she was doing. She had a sponge in her hand – I always remember that; my mum washes the dishes before she puts them in the dishwasher. She stopped, and just said, “…Don’t tell your dad.”
A week later, she was in complete denial. She didn’t really want to know. The first couple of months she went a bit crazy and started creating these stories that my partner was probably a drug dealer, using men. Or a convict. She created these ridiculous scenarios, and my sister would ring me and update me on what she’d said. Though it was really upsetting at the time, we were just laughing. It was so ridiculous. You couldn’t have written a better soap that my mum’s stories. My mum then went into this whole thing; “Aaaah, all men sleep with men back in Cyprus. Oh yeah, they all do it.” I was more interested and intrigued for other reasons. “Yeah, yeah but then they get married. You and Mem, just do what you’ve got to do for a couple of years, and then I’ll find wives for both of you.” I was like, “Mum! It doesn’t work like that!”

For details of Mem Morrison’s tour, Leftovers, check

Words: Bob Henderson

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