“No woman is an island,” Michaela Coel shared in an exclusive conversation with EBONY discussing her first book, Misfits: A Personal Manifesto, prior to her Emmy win for Outstanding Writing for a Limited or Anthology Series or Movie for her limited series I May Destroy You. In true Michaela Coel fashion, her own personal glory in winning or even becoming the first Black woman to conquer this category was unimportant. In what has become typical fashion for her, she took the opportunity to inspire other creators.
In recognition of I May Destroy You being sparked by her being a survivor of sexual assault, she dedicated her win to “every single survivor of sexual assault” before going on to encourage other creators. “Write the tale that scares you, that makes you feel uncertain, that isn’t comfortable,” she pushed. And Misfits, her first book released earlier this month, is a guide of sorts for exactly that. While her source material for Misfits came prior to I May Destroy You when she delivered the MacTaggart Lecture at the Edinburgh International Television Festival in 2018, its truths remain relevant. At that time, her first and then only series Chewing Gum had been included the year before but there was no doubt that her voice would ever be silenced.
In her intro to Misfits, Coel admits to not even knowing the significance of the MacTaggart Lecture prior to delivering it and following through with it more out of obligation than honor. “I have no idea what I might write about or whether I am truly qualified to offer a lecture to anyone, and find the idea of speaking behind a podium for an hour to be very unattractive,” she writes. “However, I am told this sort of opportunity isn’t the kind you turn down, so with naïveté and palpitations, I accept.”
Being brand new to creating television at the time did not intimidate Coel enough not to speak her truth and share her experiences. Throughout that lecture, she spoke of “otherness” in these spaces not as a sense of wanting to belong or even caring to be acknowledged by others. Most keenly, she did not frame her existence as a problem. Instead, what emerged is a validation of self and encouragement to others to not be afraid to be who they are and speak up.
“For me, what I like is that the book is constantly telling you to not be afraid to say the thing [that terrifies you.]. And I think so often, we are afraid to say the thing. It's good to have that there. Page after page is kind of just telling you to dare to say the things that you're terrified to say. And I think right now, especially [with] social media, I'm reading people are terrified to even figure out how to frame the tweet that they want to tweet. So they're backspacing and freaking out, like, we're so scared to use the thing that we're born with, that I think now is a great time to have something like that.”
That thing, our will, our freedom of speech, our essence is what continues to resonate in Misfits. For Coel, who likes to create new work, as with both Chewing Gum and I May Destroy You, putting out something she has already done is a bit uncomfortable. She, however, seems to understand why people are interested in having the lecture in book form, especially as an accessible and convenient pocketbook edition.
“I have been meeting people who, even this year, had watched the lecture on YouTube,” she shared. “I sort of already knew it had some sort of relevance. Also, I know a lot of writers who have since watching the lecture have fought to become exec producers on their show, fought to make their voices heard in what they were doing. And, so, it kind of felt important to try and get that on a bigger megaphone, which is what the book is—to get it into the hands of more writers.”
Being a living example of exercising one’s own personal power has made Coel goals for many. But it is not easy. “I'm trying to be myself within the framework of an industry that kind of doesn't want you to be yourself, which is a challenge that I think I am more successful in in TV. I'm good at it in TV in not caring about the framework that I have to operate [within],” she explained. “Project by project, I am definitely trying to not regard the way that I am expected to do it. I'm more thinking about the reality around me, the reality that I've lived. What are the lives that I do not see on TV? And how can I portray those lives and report those lives to the audience so that we can see what's really happening in the world rather than the world that TV is often sort of making you think exists, which isn't often real.”
In Misfits, she speaks of using her power of “no,” even when others perceived her as powerless on her first show Chewing Gum. Speaking with EBONY, she shared the reward of not being swayed by opportunities promising bigger homes and other perks not crucial to her soul as an artist with this powerful reminder: “If you say ‘no’ to one thing, I'm sure you've heard this before, that it leaves you space to take the thing that is supposed to be for you.”