In this final, harrowing episode of MALA, we meet Claude, who spent 25 years in prison for a crime she did not commit. Claude's dresser is covered in about thirty perfumes, and she wears a different perfume for the time of day, her mood at that moment. There are designer and celebrity perfumes, like Perry Ellis to Katy Perry. Scents lock themselves into our memory, and perfume is a chance for ascension of our social class, our material circumstances. After being denied perfume for decades of her life, Claude inundates every new experience with a fragrance.
Mary Bennett is a Marymount College graduate. Within minutes, we’re transported into the most emotional memory of her childhood, the unexpected death of her father. This tragic event led her to move from Charleston, South Carolina to New York City, to live with her father’s sister. Her move echoes the migration of her aunt, a former sharecropper, and the Great Migration of millions of Black Americans from the South to cities in the East, Midwest and West.
Mary’s crime is non-violent, but her path to incarceration reveals multiple traumas rooted in America’s violent, racist history. We discuss her struggles with poverty, drug addiction, being forced to grow up too fast, physical abuse and self-esteem. Mary has a deep empathy for her mother’s experience as a sharecropper, how the hardship she survived made it hard for her to show her daughters love.
Nikkie’s dresser is covered in perfumes. Like her roommates, her personal space is a bright and beautiful haven. Each woman has a room of her own, a place to express all of the creativity and color they’ve been denied for so many years. She is the daughter of Greek immigrants. She fell in love with a fellow Greek-American man who admitted his violent past just before their wedding night. They were so deeply in love she took a chance. His abuse worsened and Nikkie’s life had become a nightmare, which led to the traumatic event that would send her to prison for 23 years.
According to the Correctional Association of New York, 82% of incarcerated women are survivors of serious sexual and physical abuse before their time in prison. Domestic violence is intimate and terrifying and too often shamed and silenced.
Tasha, a welder trained at Non-Traditional Employment for Women, was raised in Runyon Heights, a predominantly black suburb in Yonkers, not too far from where I grew up in Rockland County. Tasha’s story and olfactory memory bring her back to the scent of cotton linen, fresh air, being outside, far away from the struggles and pain at home. It’s something I notice in myself, when I’m in my lab, or writing fiction. What we gravitate towards is often right at the edge of our traumas. Cleanliness and fresh air juxtapose against more painful memories.
I wanted to incorporate notes inspired by Tasha’s longing for comfort as a child with the meditative, grounded notes that speak to the woman she is today. The base is a gorgeous Mysore sandalwood and dry grass essence and musk, which blooms into a heart of natural white lotus absolute and water hyacinth. I wanted to play with base and heart as a metaphor for a lotus, a floral growing out of something fecal. If it doesn’t have a little stink, then it’s not as interesting, which is pretty much the point of this entire project.
*Please note that this episode deals with themes that may be triggering.
This season features a house of formerly incarcerated women living in Flushing, Queens. Our first guest is Sharon, a former corrections officer, who is now chef and owner of Just Soul Catering, a company she started after her release from prison. Sharon’s scent memories, as you’ll find out, connect her love of food, her West Indian heritage, the terror of the night that sent her to prison for 20 years, and her journey to freedom.
We made a fragrance based on her story, a mélange of blood cedar, seaweed, turmeric and pimento berry, allspice and amber and ocean, a liminal space between the inside and the outside. Sharon's fragrance is available as part of a sampler set of perfumes with the women who participated in this season of MALA. Proceeds from the sampler and tote bag help fund this project.
Learn more about Sharon's catering company, JUST SOUL CATERING.
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