Gina Yashere, CACK-HANDED

Gina Yashere, CACK-HANDED

Although Gina Yashere’s path to comedy wasn’t easy, writing her memoir, Cack-Handed, in her own voice allowed her to work through some things she thought she had left behind. Now a legend in the comedy world, with a CBS sitcom that she created and stars in, Gina is reflecting on how she got to where she is. She shares what growing up as the daughter of two Nigerian immigrants in the U.K. was like in the 1980s, why she turned to comedy as a way to mitigate some of the racialized violence she experienced, and how writing this book helped her understand her mother in a brand-new way.


Zibby Owens: Welcome, Gina. Thank you so much for coming on “Moms Don’t Have Time to Read Books” to discuss Cack-Handed: A Memoir.

Gina Yashere: Thank you. Thanks for having me.

Zibby: Of course. Would you mind telling listeners a little bit about your memoir and why you even decided to write one?

Gina: The memoir is basically, it covers the history of my parents. It slightly covers the history of Nigeria, where my parents came from, and then their journey to England where they met. They had me. It covers the first, I’m going to say, twenty-five years of my life growing up in London, England, in the seventies being chased by skinheads. Racism was super at the forefront of everything at the time. My experience through school, then becoming an engineer. I worked for Otis, who make elevators. I was repairing and building elevators as an engineer. I was their first woman engineer in their hundred-year history in the UK. My experiences on that job as a woman, and a black woman on that, you can just about imagine what that was like. Then my foray into comedy and my experiences in comedy. Basically, it’s humorous memoir, but it also covers pretty dark subjects as well. It’s a bit of both.

The reason why the book is called Cack-Handed is because I’m left-handed, which is an Old English word for left-handed. In many cultures, African culture, Indian, Middle Eastern, the left hand is the unclean hand. It’s the hand that’s supposed to be used to wipe your bum when you go for a poo. Cack, cacka is another word for poo. Hence, cack-handed. Also, it’s a metaphor for how my life and career has gone. Cack-handed also means awkward and clumsy. I don’t think we are awkward and clumsy. I just think it’s because we live in a right-handed world. If I’m next to you at a bar and I’m talking and I’m gesticulating with my left hand, I’m probably going to knock over your drink because you put it on your dominant side, which is your right side. Because ninety percent of the world or whatever is right-handed, we’re the ones seen as awkward and clumsy. That’s the meaning of the world. Cack-handed is kind of a metaphor for the route that my life has taken, my career. It’s never been a straight line. I have had to circumvent loads of obstacles, jump over obstacles, get under obstacles, dig around them. That’s why I called the book that.

Zibby: Wow, excellent. I will never look at a left-handed person the same way again, basically.

Gina: Exactly, .

Zibby: You’re rebranding all the left-handed people everywhere, maybe not in such a positive light, I’ll have you know, but that’s okay. One scene that really stood out to me was when the girl in one of the classrooms leaned out of the window and started just saying racist, awful stuff to you. You decided to run right up there, the teacher turned a blind eye, and just beat the living daylights out of this girl.

Gina: I did.

Zibby: And then almost got arrested and had your life take a completely different tack. Then you end up trying to sort of kill yourself, and then having to pretend that you were unconscious even to the paramedics, oh, my gosh. Wait, tell me more about that whole situation.

Gina: That incident was a combination of years of abuse at school, years of being called names because my parents were African, and very visibly African. My name was African. It was years of abuse at school. I’d spent my years fighting people at school. It was either fight or be bullied. I was one of those kids that I was like, I’m going to be the crazy scrapper because that way I won’t get bullied. If anybody even said anything to me, I’d immediately launch myself at them. Then that stopped me being bullied because people go, oh, no, don’t mess with her. She’s crazy. They’d laugh at me and call me names, but I’m like, whatever. They were like, don’t mess with her. She’ll attack you. She’s crazy. Then as I got older, I switched that tactic and started switching more towards humor and using my humor to keep — I was like, people are laughing at me. If I’m making them laugh, at least they’re not abusing me. That’s how my humor developed. This was pretty much the last day of school. I was doing my exams. It was just before the summer holiday, summer vacation. I was feeling good. I was doing my exams. I wasn’t in school uniform because coming to do exams, you didn’t have to wear your school uniform. I picked out a cool outfit I put together. I’d finished, just done an exam. I know I passed it. I was feeling good. I was walking through the playground on my way home.

The rest of the school was in class. They were in class. This girl leaned out the window and just started screaming abuse at me. I’m like, I’m here in my outfit that I spent hours picking out. I’m feeling good. I passed my exams. I’m feeling positive. I’m about to go into a new journey in my life. This girl is dragging me back to the gutter. I kind of just lost my temper. She’d been one of the main proponents of the abuse over the years. I was like, all right, I’m done. I’m not taking this anymore. I went up into her classroom. We got into a fight. The fury that I unleashed on her, she stood no chance. She was in a maths class, I believe, at the time. The teacher did nothing. I think he was Moroccan. He was an African teacher, too. I’m sure that he’d also been subjected to some of that anti-African abuse that she’d lobbed at me. I got the feeling that he — he pretended, “Oh, Gina, stop,” but he did nothing to stop me. He just stood by and let it happen. Afterwards, he was like, “Okay, off you go.” He still reported me at the end, which really annoyed me. I was like, you let me do what I do. You could’ve at least kept quiet about it. I suppose he had to keep his job. That’s what happened. That was just before my exams.

I was supposed to be coming back to that school as a — the year setup is different between England and America. I was coming back to do my advanced levels, which were exams that you study that get you into college. The first set of exams are just to get to see whether you’re going to go to work or go to college and go and do vocational qualifications. I was coming back to do my advanced levels, which would’ve got me into college. I was supposed to be doing it at that same school. After that fight, I got called into the head’s office. They told me, “You can’t come back to do your A levels here. You’re pretty much expelled.” I was told to leave the school. Deep down, I didn’t care because I hated that school. I’d spent five years being abused every day at that school. I wanted to go to another school to do my A levels, but my mother wasn’t having it. She was like, “No, this is a good school. Just stay in here.” It was like the universe was saying, now you’re going to go somewhere else. You’re going to start a new life. My mother didn’t see it that way. She was furious and lambasted me for hours. I was like, you know what, I’m done with this. This whole exam thing, I don’t want to do any of this. This is all because you’re forcing me to do this. I’m done with this life. After my mom screamed at me a few hours, I went up to my room. I went to the medicine cabinet in our bathroom, and I took a bunch of aspirins. I don’t know what they’re called here. Was it Advil? No, Advil is ibuprofen.

Zibby: Aspirin’s a thing.

Gina: I took a tub of aspirin. I just chugged them all back with a can of Coke. I was like, I’m done with this life. I’m going to die and hopefully float around and watch you guys crying over me. You’re going to feel bad. It was all anger. It was less about wanting to end my life, but more about revenge and going, you’re going to see what you’ve been doing to me all these years. It was more about that. It was more of a cry for help, really, than me wanting to die. Then the only way I could get these things that I wanted was to die. I took a tub of aspirin. In the movies, you see all these people take tablets. They swallow them. They lie down. They go into a deep unconsciousness and die peacefully in their sleep, or choking on their own vomit, one of the two. I was hoping that I would be the prior where I’d just fall asleep and die peacefully and then float around and watch my mother scream in agony and grief, but aspirins don’t do that to you. I didn’t know that. I took them and then lay waiting to be unconscious. I was like, when is this stuff going to kick in? I need to be unconscious soon because in a few minutes, I know my mom is going to call me to do something. I laid there for twenty, twenty-five minutes. I’m like, oh, my god, this is not happening. I’m just going to lay here, close my eyes, and fake it until I make it. I just closed my eyes and laid there as if I was unconscious.

My mom had a bell in the house that she pressed which rang upstairs when she wanted the kids. We were Downton Abbey before Downton Abbey. She rang a bell. I heard the bell. I laid there. I was like, quick, unconscious. Come on, come to me now. Come on. Come to me, oblivion. Nothing. My older sister comes up the stairs and goes, “Did you not hear Mom calling you? She wants you downstairs.” I’m lying there pretending to be unconscious. My sister’s like, “What’s getting on?” She comes over. She sees the empty tub of aspirins and an angry note that I’d written. She starts shaking me and slapping me trying to wake me up. She slapped me hard. In normal life, I’d have been, ouch, ow, what are you doing? I was method acting at this point. I stayed fake unconscious. She runs downstairs, calls my younger brother, who’s kind of the mediator in the family, goes, “Gina’s taken an overdose. I’m going to call an ambulance,” blah, blah, blah. They call an ambulance. They go tell my mom. My mom collapses on the floor screaming, so she’s no use to anybody at this point. The ambulance comes. Paramedics come upstairs. They run up. I hear the footsteps. Obviously, I am conscious the entire time. Paramedics run in. They’re looking at me. They’re looking down my throat. They’re looking at my eyes. They’re opening my eyes, all that kind of stuff, dilating my pupils or whatever. Then they say to my sister, “What did she take?” My sister goes, “There’s an empty tub of aspirin here, so she took all of these.” Then the paramedic is like, “Hmm.”

Then he kind of leans in to me and goes, “Okay, we know you’re not unconscious, love. Why don’t you just open your eyes? We’ll walk down to the ambulance. We’ll have a chat on the way to the hospital. It’ll be good.” In my head, I’m like, I don’t know how he knows this, but I am method. I am not waking up. I refused. I played unconscious until the end. In the end, these poor paramedics — my bedroom was on the top floor of a four-story house. They had to carry my limp body down four flights of stairs into the ambulance. I played unconscious all the way to the hospital until it got to the moment where they got me into a surgical room. I heard the doctor say, “Gastric lavage.” I’m like, what is that? I need to know what that is. I pretended to come out of unconsciousness. “Oh, what’s happening?” I woke up just in time to have a vacuum cleaner pipe shoved down my throat. If anybody’s taken an overdose and had their stomach pumped, they’ll know exactly what I’m talking about. A gastric lavage is a stomach pump. They clamp your mouth open and, in some cases, which with me because I was fighting it, they clamped my arms down and shoved the equivalent of a vacuum cleaner pipe down my throat into my stomach and basically vacuumed my insides out like a wet carpet. That was my one and only experience of attempting suicide. I was like, if I ever do this again, I’m going to make sure it’s something that you can’t come back from because I never want to go through that stomach pumping experience again.

Zibby: Oh, my gosh. You said in the book there was no anesthetic or anything either.

Gina: No anesthetic. They do it while you’re awake.

Zibby: Oh, my gosh. I feel like you should be the poster child for why teenagers should not commit suicide. You should be like, you know what guys, it’s even worse than whatever’s going on. This is terrible. I don’t mean to joke about it. It’s obviously extremely serious.

Gina: It’s a serious subject. It was a very dark time in my life. I feel like the stomach pump was made as a deterrent. This is what happens if you try and commit suicide and you survive. This is what we’re going to put you through, so go back and tell all your friends.

Zibby: We just watched this 30 for 30 documentary. I don’t know if you saw it. There was a baseball player who tried to kill himself. He shot himself and somehow missed his brain and only got his eye and had to lie there. I don’t even know why I’m saying this, but if you want an even worse story. I don’t know why I’m drawn to all these, but whatever. I’m delighted that everything worked out okay, obviously, and that you came on the other side somehow. I have to say, reading the beginning of your story, you wouldn’t necessarily think that the character in this book is going to end up producing a CBS primetime sitcom. I’m like, how did we get from here to there? It was such a fascinating journey that you had, oh, my gosh, really amazing. By the way, the show, I watched the preview and everything about . Now I have to go watch the show. Your Netflix special, too, I watched with my kids for part of it. You were so funny. You’re like, I’m not afraid of flying; I’m afraid of flying and then suddenly not flying at all.

Gina: That’s the truth.

Zibby: I know, but that’s what everybody means but never says, which is, of course, the genius of comedy. I also wanted to talk about your relationship with your mom. That is such a huge part of this book, is how you navigated her and her moods and dictates and how she raised you and how that you affected you going forward and everything. Did you see any of this coming? What do you think now? Now that you’ve especially gone through the exercise of writing this whole book, what do you make of the whole thing?

Gina: Writing the book was pretty cathartic because going back, a lot of feelings came out when I was writing the book. There was one chapter where I talked about a party that was across the street from my house.

Zibby: That was so sad.

Gina: All my school friends were going. My mom wouldn’t let me go to that party. I was like, you could reach across from your couch and drag me out of the party without even leaving the house if you wanted to. That’s how close this party was. She still wouldn’t let me go. All my friends were knocking on the door as they went to the party.

Zibby: It’s crazy. I don’t know why she did that. I was so mad at her on your behalf.

Gina: Exactly. I was a good kid. It’s not like I was running around doing — I was a good kid. Writing that chapter, as I wrote it, that anger and resentment was still there. It came flowing out of me as I wrote that chapter. That was pretty cathartic. Looking back now, I can see why my mom was the way she was. She was abandoned in England by my father who went back to Nigeria who was like, “I cannot be a lawyer in England because this country’s too racist. They won’t let us follow the careers that we’re qualified for. Let’s go back to Nigeria where we can live the life that we’re supposed to have.” My mom was like, “No, my children are British. I want them to have these opportunities that being British entails. I’m staying here.” So they broke up. My father went back to Nigeria and became a lawyer and had a great life and married somebody else and had a bunch of other kids. My mom was abandoned in London with no friends, no family, two toddlers, pregnant with a third. She was alone. She had to put me and my next brother into foster care temporarily while she went into hospital to have my younger brother because she had nobody. She had no support system in England at the time to help her look after her kids.

Me and my brother were in foster care for — it felt like forever. When you’re three years old, it feels like forever. It was probably a couple of months at most or something. We went into foster care while my mom went into hospital in seventies England, which was super racist, and still is. The hospital system, if you look at the statistics in England now, black women are several times more likely to die in hospitals and medical care than white women because they’re treated differently. The bias and racism has spread its tentacles throughout the healthcare system. My mother is in hospital in England in the seventies where the racism is outward having a baby by herself, abandoned by her husband. That fear permeated everything she did when she was raising us, the fear of, if something happened to one of her kids, she’d be blamed because she had no husband. It’s just her. That fear permeated everything. That’s why she was so overprotective of us, basically never letting us out of her sight. Looking back, even though it was a horrible time for me as a child — oh, god, I can’t have friends over. I can’t go to friends’ house. I can’t go to parties. I can’t go on school trips. I can’t learn to swim. Are you serious? Looking back, I can see why she was the way she was.

Zibby: You even said somewhere that now you have a dog, and so you understand.

Gina: I don’t have kids, but I have a puppy. I kind of understand. Every ten minutes, I’m like, where’s — I live in area where there’s a lot of nature, coyotes, bobcats, bears. You can’t leave her outside on her own. Bring her in the house. Put her on the teether. Something will grab her. That’s how I am all the time. The dog must be looking at me like, I’m a dog, let me run. I can understand to a very much smaller extent. Obviously, a dog in no way is equivalent to a child, but I can understand to a small extent, that fear of something happening to something or somebody you love.

Zibby: I feel like there’s so much value in understanding and putting yourself in someone’s shoes and all of that, but it still can’t make up for everything else. When you understand people, does it really make the hurt go away? I don’t know.

Gina: No. When I wrote the book, it all came out of me. I didn’t realize I’d been holding onto a lot of the resentment, especially when I wrote the chapter about my step-bastard. I call him step-bastard. He was my stepfather. He was a horrible, horrible man. When I was writing that chapter, all the anger and hatred came out of me. I was like, oh, my gosh, I’ve been holding onto this stuff since I was a teenager. I’m nearly fifty years old now. I’ve been holding onto this stuff. It was great to write the book and have it all just come out. It was cleansing. Him, I don’t forgive at all. If there is a hell, I hope he’s in it. I hope he’s burning, if there is. I don’t know if there is, but I hope he’s getting some kind of — I hope he comes back as a cockroach. I believe in reincarnation. I hope he comes back as a cockroach and gets splattered immediately and keeping coming back as a cockroach. There is forgiveness. With my mom, I know it was out of love. It was out of love. I can look back and I can forgive her for that because I know that she didn’t know any other way. She had no support system. She knew no other way. She did the best that she could with the skill set that she had. Writing this book has definitely been very helpful in processing all those feelings.

Zibby: It’s amazing. Maybe therapists don’t want people to know how great it is to write a book because they’d all be out of business. Just skip fifty years of therapy. Go straight to the memoir, and call me in a few weeks. Having gotten through this huge emotional and intellectual project, what advice would you have for other people who are trying to write a book or accomplish something similar?

Gina: Just do it. I didn’t know if I could write a book. I didn’t know. It all started from Throwback Thursday hashtags on Instagram where you post an old picture. That’s how it started. I’d post an old picture and tell the story behind the picture. People were like, oh, my god, this is so interesting. I didn’t know this about you. Please, write a book. Write a book. Then I was like, oh, okay, there might an interest there. I started collecting these posts and just putting them in a folder. I never really thought about seriously writing a book. This is how the universe works. At the same time, a lit agent contacted me and HarperCollins publishers contacted my agent and were like, “Do you think Gina would be interested in writing a book?” That’s how the universe works. I didn’t think I’d be able to write it, to be fair. I got the book deal. Then I got the TV show. The TV took over my life, Bob Hearts Abishola, because I’m a co-exec producer, writer, and actor on the show. It took over my every waking hour. I thought, I don’t think I’m going to be able to write this book. lots of other people who have written books, and they go off to islands or go in and sit in a room for months and just write.

I was like, I haven’t got time to do that. I spoke to somebody who was going to be my ghostwriter. I got a ghostwriter originally. I spoke to her. I was like, “I’ll tell you the stories. I’ll record everything. You write it.” When she came back with what she’d written, I was like, oh, no, this is not me at all. This is not going to work. I had to fire her and start again from scratch. I don’t think you’re ever going to hear this from anybody else, but luckily for me, COVID hit. It’s a horrible way to say it. Because we were in quarantine for over a year, I was like, this is the universe telling me to buckle down and get my shit together. I wrote this book during quarantine. What my advice would be to people is, you may not think you can do it, but you will somehow find that time, find the strength to do it. You’ll find that skill set. You don’t realize whether you can do something until you actually do it. I never knew I had a book in me. Once I sat down and started writing, it just poured out of me. Give yourself the opportunity to try it and learn. If it works, great. If it doesn’t, at least you tried it. That would be my advice.

Zibby: I love that. I know, per your earlier comment about reincarnation, that you believe that there was a lot of spirit of your grandmother in you. Your birthmark is in line with where she got poisoned or whatever happened. I feel like you have taken all of her strength and used all of the skills and made such a difference. Bravo to you. That’s awesome. Congratulations.

Gina: Thank you. Thank you.

Zibby: Best of luck, Gina. I’ll be now watching your show and watching all your comedy and laughing like crazy. I’m so glad I got to know you.

Gina: Thank you so much. Thank you. Thanks for reading the book. I hope all the mothers out there who haven’t got time to read books read this book because I think you’ll find you’ll get through it pretty quickly. I keep it fast-paced.

Zibby: You do. It did. It went very quickly. It was super entertaining and emotional and great. It’s always great learning about somebody else’s experience. That’s how we all grow as people, is something not similar to our lives, necessarily. There you go.

Gina: Exactly.

Zibby: Bye, Gina.

Gina: Thank you very much. Thank you. Take care.

Zibby: Take care. Buh-bye.

Gina Yashere, CACK-HANDED

CACK-HANDED by Gina Yashere

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