Small Talk: Be Better


Sep 15, 2019


Illustration by Shreyaa Krritika Das

Me – Sit down, I have to talk to you.

Niece – Did you get in trouble?

Me – Why would I get in trouble?

Niece – Maybe because you said bum.

Me – When did–? I did not say bum. And don’t use that as an excuse to say bum when you’re not supposed to.

Niece – You just said bum, though.

Me – Would you stop saying bum, please?

Niece – You only keep saying bum.

Me – Just– Okay, listen, that’s not what I wanted to talk to you about. I need you to listen to me very carefully.

Niece – When?

Me – Right now.

Niece – Tomorrow.

Me – Not tomorrow.

Niece – I can listen tomorrow.

Me – Dude, put your hand over your mouth and don’t say anything until I tell you.

Niece – Okay.

Me – Now, tomorrow you are going to meet a friend of mine. And maybe you might think that this friend looks a little different.

Niece – Different than what.

Me – Well … like maybe you might think, “Oh this person looks like a man.” And then maybe you might think, “Oh if they look like a man, then they can’t wear lipstick.”

Niece – Why not.

Me – Well, because that’s what a lot of people might think: that someone who looks like a man can’t wear lipstick.

Niece – Who people.

Me – Like … society.

Niece -Your friend can wear my lipstick, I don’t mind.

Me – You don’t have any lipstick.

Niece – You can buy me one.

Me – Okay, this conversation has gotten away from me. Back to my friend.

Niece – Your friend wears lipstick.

Me – Well, yes. They like to wear lipstick.

Niece – Okay.

Me – They also have long hair.

Niece – Okay.

Me – I don’t think you’re getting what I’m saying.

Niece – Your friend has long hair and a lipstick.

Me – Do you … get what that means?

Niece – Ya.

Me – Okay.

Niece – I have to go play now.

Me – What does it mean exactly? About my friend?

Niece – Your friend has long hair and a lipstick.

Me – So, that means they are …

Niece – They are your friend.

Me – But … like, do you think they are a boy or a girl?

Niece – Okay.

Me – Because my friend isn’t a boy and he isn’t a girl. They. They aren’t a boy or a girl.

Niece – What are they then?

Me – They are non-binary.

Niece – Means what.

Me – Means you refer to them as ‘they,’ not he or she.

Niece – Okay.

Me – And … I’m not totally sure what else.

Niece – Why?

Me – Because it’s all very confusing for me.

Niece – But they’re your friend.

Me – Yeah, but it’s confusing. It’s difficult to keep track of all this sometimes.

Niece – All what?

Me – All the pronouns. The ‘they’ stuff.

Niece – Why is ‘they’ confusing but.

Me – No, I mean it’s complicated. He told me all about it– they told me, they. But it’s all just so complicated.

Niece – Why?

Me – You wouldn’t get it. You’re too small.

Niece – You say that when you don’t know what to say.

Me – This is not like that.

Niece – You should remember when your friend tells you something.

Me – Well it’s … not like that.

Niece – You’re not being nice to your friend.

Me – It’s– actually, you know what? You’re right.

Niece – You should find out what no-library is.

Me – Non-binary. Yeah, I should.

Niece – Look on the phone, maybe it’s there.

Me – I should have probably done that before.

Niece – Ya. Because it’s your friend.

Me – Yeah.

Niece – Let’s look now.

Me – You’re going to help me?

Niece – Ya. I’m good at helping.


Me – So it says here that non-binary is when you aren’t a girl and you aren’t a boy.

Niece – What are you then?

Me – Well, you can be something in-between. Or none of these things. Or a mixture of them. Or sometimes you can be one and sometimes the other.

Niece – You can do that?

Me – Yeah, you can.

Niece – How?

Me – I guess it depends on how you feel.

Niece – Like when I don’t feel like a girl.

Me – Really? You don’t feel like a girl sometimes?

Niece – Ya.

Me – So what do you feel like then?

Niece – I feel like me.

Me – Hmmm. You know, I think it gets confusing when you insist on using the words you want for people instead of listening to what words they would like you to use for them. No?

Niece – Ya. And you should listen to what your friend says also.

Me – And I think instead of whining about how confusing it all is, I should just try to learn and understand. And listen better. And stop being a bum.

Niece – Ya. Because they are your friend.

Me – Yeah.

Niece – Also you said bum.

Me – It’s fine, it was a figure of speech.

Niece – You said bum.

Me – Forget about it, it’s fine. And stop saying bum.

Niece – Bum.

Me – Dude, you’re going to get me in trouble.

Niece – Bum.

Me – Stop saying bum, and I’ll give you a … an onion.

Niece – Two onion.

Me – Deal.

Small Talk chronicles conversations between the author and her niece that could, in an alternate universe or in this one, be real.


Written By Kuzhali Manickavel

Kuzhali Manickavel’s collections “Things We Found During the Autopsy,” “Insects Are Just like You and Me except Some of Them Have Wings,” and chapbooks “The Lucy Temerlin Institute for Broken Shapeshifters Guide to Starving Boys” and “Eating Sugar, Telling Lies” are available from Blaft Publications, Chennai. Her work has also appeared in Granta, Strange Horizons, Agni, Subtropics, Michigan Quarterly Review and DIAGRAM. She used to blog at http://thirdworldghettovampire.blogspot.com/.

  1. https://compositionpolitics.tumblr.com/

    Some genuinely nice stuff on this website, I it.


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