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Hanna Flint: “When you're insecure in your own identity, you don't need people trying to define you”
The film critic on being caught in the centre, accurate representation and breaking the identity seal
Hi, welcome back to Mixed Messages! This week I’m speaking to film critic and author Hanna Flint, who is of mixed Tunisian and white British heritage. Hanna’s debut book, Strong Female Character, is a reflection on how cinema has been key to understanding herself and the world around her, including her mixed heritage. I’ve been a fan of Hanna’s writing for a long time, so I was excited to dive into Hanna’s world with her. Read her story here.
What’s your background, and what words do you use to talk about yourself?
I’m half-Tunisian. My name on my birth certificate is Hanna Zammel. I wanted to assimilate, I didn’t want anything that made me look foreign. Then it became more about my surname – Flint is my mum’s name, and I’m proud of what she’s done with it. I don’t have a connection to my biological father.
My parents met when my mum went on holiday to Sousse in 1985. They had a romance that didn’t work out and he ended up being quite acrimoniously deported back to Tunisia once they split up. I didn’t hear from him for 20 years.
Reading Natalie Morris’s book Mixed/Other, one thing that resonated with me was her decision to use ‘mixed’ rather than ‘mixed-race.’ I think you’re in a really weird position being mixed in that you're caught in the centre.
Did your sense of self shift over time?
I was living in London in a very multicultural school with lots of mixed kids. When we moved to Doncaster, my brother Karim and I were one of three ethnic minorities in the whole school. That’s when I first noticed a difference and being mixed became more pronounced. When I went on holiday I used to hate coming back really dark and having mad, bushy, curly hair. I wanted to straighten the ethnic out of me. Then the moustache… I think every mixed girl, especially if you’re desi or Arab, has that.
To pretty much all white people, I’ve always been a person of colour. It’s people who aren’t white who think maybe I’m something else. It can be a frustrating situation when you feel insecure in your own identity, you don't need people on the outside trying to tell you things. It feels like sometimes you can’t claim an identity. I’ve been called white and that upset me because that’s not been my experience. Who are you to tell me who I am? That’s what frustrates me.
From my experience, non-white mono-ethnic minorities often seem more dismissive of mixed people than the other way round. It’s that intersectional privilege, isn’t it? I recognise the privileges that I have, but there have been situations where being mixed, or not being white, has had an adverse effect on the way I see myself and the way I want to – or am allowed to – navigate the world.
What made you want to get back in touch with your Tunisian heritage, and how did you go about it?
I’ve wanted to for ages. I knew I was half-Tunisian but I didn’t know what that meant. My mum and my step dad never took [my brother and I] to Tunisia – anything to do with my Tunisian identity was in a fancy dress box or a dusty photo album.
At university, I felt like a bit of a coconut in that I didn’t have a connection [to my heritage.] So that’s when I slowly but surely started to learn more. I’m a bit of a procrastinator. I had a lot of mixed feelings about going there and what it would mean. My family, being able to afford it, the pandemic… Then my ex and I broke up and a friend of mine said “ just go.” Three weeks later, I was on the plane.
It was so important going on my own – I thought, “I need to have this for myself and allow myself to process the emotions I go through.” It was somewhat bittersweet, I kind of mourned the childhood I never got. I’ve had to work through a lot of resentment of not being allowed [to visit Tunisia on holidays] because adults couldn’t get on, basically.
It was lovely feeling so welcome and at home. Nobody’s like “where are you from” – no, “you’re Tunisian.” It was nice to feel like that first stage was done, I’d broken the seal. Now, I can go back every year to hopefully fill in the gaps in my identity even more so.
I’ve been trying to learn Arabic, but Tunisia is an anomaly. The language is a mix between Arabic, French, Italian and a bit of the indigenous language. Sometimes when I’m trying to speak the language I feel nervous. You feel a bit like a tourist.
Have you ever spoken to your family about your mixed identity?
My brother and I talk about a lot of things, especially more as adults. With my mum, there’s been tension there. All mums hate the idea of being a bad parent, but two things can be true. I can still think you’re a good parent but be annoyed by certain circumstances. I feel very strongly that that was robbed from me. What she’s doing now is slowly but surely being more supportive in me finding my identity. It’s not been easy, her relationship to Tunisia has been very different to mine. I want to respect that, but I also have to do things for myself.
I don’t need my parents’ blessing, but I’m glad they’re supportive for me to explore it. We’ve been able to have better conversations.
Do you think your mixedness impacts your work as a film critic?
We all do, we don’t watch cinema in a vacuum. That’s why I think people of colour are better at reviewing films because we’ve had to become accustomed to the homogenous group, we know white people better than they know themselves. Then we also know the other side of it.
I care about representation a lot in my work, especially the Middle East and North Africa. I wanted to come from a position where I was no longer excluded from the culture, and at 34 I was only excluding myself. I needed to get there. I just did an interview with a director whose film is set in Tunisia and I could say that I knew that mosque and had seen these places.
A lot of ethnically ambiguous mixed people on screen are either stripped of any sort of identity or there’s tokenism. It’s always white and Black, or white and ‘other’. But what about someone like Yara Shahidi who is Iranian and Black, or Salma Hayek who is Lebanese and Latino? So how do we present mixedness that's beyond this black and white binary?
I do appreciate in Miss Marvel that for the character of Nakia, who is played by Yasmeen Fletcher who is mixed Lebanese and white, they made her more, they colour consciously cast her. They changed her background, which some people were upset about because they wanted her to be Turkish, and I get that. I’m glad they tried to make this character’s mixedness part of it
It’s a lot about the exotic other. It’s like there’s something unknowable and sexy. For the book, I got a quote from a casting director that says “there’s something quite sensuous about seeing a mixed person because you don’t know where they’re from” – it’s that otherness. It’s not white, so you don’t quite fit in. You’re never the lead, the friend or the side character unless you’re a tragic person.
We often talk about the negative, but what’s one of the best things about being mixed for you?
Being mixed is having a connection to more than one culture. I feel very British and I love it – I don’t say English because when I did a DNA test it said Scottish and Irish. I love fish and chips. I also love the fact that I have this connection to the ancient world. Tunisia has such an amazing heritage, and having all these things that I can claim as mine is so beautiful.
Aesthetically speaking, I just love my mix and I’ve really grown to love how I look. I love my skin, I love my hair, I love my curves, I love my nose. All these things that used to make me scared because of the dark side of my mix made me feel ugly. Now I think it’s what makes me the most beautiful.
Can you sum up your mixed identity in a word?
Evolving. It keeps on changing, we constantly grow as human beings and my relationship with it constantly changes the more I take in and learn about my cultures and about myself.
Hanna’s book, Strong Female Character, is out now. Next week we’ll be taking a break to focus on something behind-the-scenes 👀 Subscribe to get Mixed Messages in your inbox when we’re back with poet Sophia Thakur on Monday 7th November.
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Mixed Messages is a weekly exploration of the mixed-race experience, from me, Isabella Silvers. My mom is Punjabi (by way of East Africa) and my dad is white British, but finding my place between these two cultures hasn’t always been easy. That’s why I started Mixed Messages, where each week I’ll speak to a prominent mixed voice to delve into what it really feels like to be mixed.