Craft Episode 7: Suhaiymah Manzoor-Khan
Welcome to Craft. Each month, we bring you one international writer talking about one of their works for about thirty minutes. This month, author, educator, and performer Suhaiymah Manzoor-Khan discusses her poetry collection, Postcolonial Banter. Writing the book required Suhaiymah to bring her performance poetry to the page for the first time. In this episode, she speaks candidly about the challenges of that transition, her slowly emerging writing process, and her visibility, and responsibilities, as a Muslim woman writer in the public eye.
Give me a second to have a think. So, I’m going to read a poem from my collection that is called ‘Voices roll over the charpai’. It’s a poem that I wrote for Allajaway who is a woman from Pakistan who has now passed away. I wrote it whilst I was living in Pakistan for about three months in 2018, I believe, and it’s a poem that I don’t really get a lot of chance to read. So yeah, I’m gonna take this opportunity to read it. It’s actually been a long time.
The only people I want to fall in love with me
are old women
not the kind that say I should wear more dresses
but the kind with cracked fingertips and black heels
the kind who can crouch between their legs and be at home
Her naked calves in my naked hands
she looks to the window and says
tannu milkar sanu barri khushee hoi
The shy offering urges me to take the plunge
and the plunge feels more like floating
so I reach into it
squeezing the flesh of her right lower leg
I say, mei aap ko boht pyaar karti hu
adamantly focusing my eyes on her shin
mei bee tannu barri pyaar karti
like an exhale
her words clasped mine
in a way that makes the walls sigh
I keep kneading below her knees
feeling both our lungs lighten
time sits up straight
every bird cranes ears through the window
the smell of coconut oil on my hands cocoons us
and the room is full of silence by a more delicate name
I do not need the love of anyone but old women
want only the secret glances and two-eyed winks of old women
only ache for the touch of hands with translucent skin
with only their laughter and half-toothed smiles
In the morning, Nani revels in the sounds of the streets
reminds me that in England there is no ronak like this
no ronak like crushing peanuts in your palms by the roadside
no ronak like the type that emanates from her jawline
I remind her that in England there is no sitting like this either
with traffic watching over you like lullabies
with onions and sun cream engrained in your fingers.
I do not need the love of anyone but old women
want only their affirmations and to bask in their brown
want only their strange remedies and fond shrugging nods.
Voices roll over the charpai
like brown hands making roti
I understand like traces
and if I close my eyes I see orange
three echoes of brown feet crouch in the weaves
we are the sunlight on the roof
birds circle making handi of the sky
and laughter washes over us like wudhu
I do not need the love of anyone but old women
want only their eyes on me when I kick my legs up to the sky
want only their eyes on me as the adhaan dances through pink
edges of the air
when I leave I cry all the way home
I cry in the silence of a taxi ride
our six legs pressed together for a last time
I cry in the darkness of the plane
sat between two old women who aren’t them
I watch her embrace me a thousand times
the flight of her kiss on my head never quite the same
I feel the tears rise again
we stand apart in silence again
she wipes her eyes with her shawl again
and we drive to the airport in silence again
sunlight shakes my hand through the plane window for a last time.
aaja shaam honi ayee
I cry into my diary for a last time
mausam ne le ungrai
something about me is smaller
tho kis baath kee hai larayee
a piece left behind
a breaking heart is a beautiful price to pay though
to get to leave a piece behind
chal, mei ayee
the only people I want to fall in love with me
are old women
Writing poetry was definitely not something that I had always wanted to do, necessarily, I think partly because it wasn’t something I even realised was something that you could aspire to want to do. And I think, secondly, I just wasn’t that interested in poetry. I thought it was something really boring at school that you had to study and you had to do it. I really enjoyed English, like as a subject, but I found poetry the most boring part for sure. And I made a distinction in my head completely between that, what was called poetry, and then what I did really enjoy, which was like, on YouTube, watching slam poetry and Button Poetry and being influenced, I suppose, by like, the hip hop and rap that my uncle in particular was really into. And I found that stuff really, like, cool and interesting. And there’s like wordplay going on. And there’s performance. And there’s people refuting and resisting narratives about themselves through language, through words.
But again, I didn’t think that was something that I could do. And I didn’t really think of that within the same ballpark as poetry, which obviously is just because of how we hierarchise and think about authenticity when it comes to poetry. But my journey was really just that when I was at university, I was struggling with my mental health — so this was during my second year of studying at Cambridge University — and, I think I had managed to get through a lot of first year with this idea that it’s only three years, I don’t need to talk to anyone. It’s okay if it feels isolating, three years is not long time. And then I think I entered second year, feeling like One year was a really long time, I don’t know, if I can just continue like this. And I think the feeling was just – it’s really hard to put yourself in your own shoes sometimes, isn’t it? – but I think it was a feeling of hyper-visibility mixed with invisibility, and just that contradiction of being so aware of myself and my presence in this very white, very elite space, but also feeling very unseen. And so, I was depressed. And my college counsellor suggested that I do something that I have always wanted to do, but that I maybe thought that I couldn’t do.
She was probably the first person that I mentioned to that I love watching these videos on YouTube, but I don’t think I could ever do that. And she signed me up to an open mic night, which I had never heard of before; I didn’t know what an open mic night was. She said that I should go and I didn’t need to tell anybody but I had to read a poem. And I didn’t have any poems, so— I was, ‘Okay, let me …’ I suppose what felt important to write in that moment. And I think trying to copy the style of lots of these videos, like I said, that I had seen and I think, in a way, that felt to me more natural than had somebody been like, you need to write a poem for the page only I think there’s some natural kind of maybe rhythm, or pattern to speech or orality that feels much easier and more accessible to me.
I went and I performed, and I loved it and it was received really well. And there was just this kind of, this feeling I didn’t expect to have of the dialogue, I suppose, between—I think I didn’t expect it to feel like a two-way thing. I thought it would just be you perform, and it’s consumed. But I think what I really – and I still to this day really enjoy about performing your own words with poetry – is that it does feel like a dialogue. And it really varies depending on who’s in the room and the body language and the speaking and the pacing and the breathing. I mean, it’s just interesting to think about what I chose to write as well, because what I chose to write for that very first open mic was, looking back, it’s like super cringy. But for me at that time, it obviously meant a lot and it was just, you know, those very basic ideas around the signifiers that I understand my body is attached to when I’m seen through the gaze of others, and that’s not who I am. I think, you know, articulating that meant a lot to me at that time, because it was basically a way I think of engaging in my own autonomy and creating a narrative for myself, which I suppose there’s always been something that’s important in all of my poetry, but that I wouldn’t have been able to articulate like that at that time.
And I think that did help, in terms of my mental health, because there’s that element of ownership, and there’s that element of seeing myself for myself rather than and regardless of having to bend to the gazes of others, or explain myself to those gazes or shrink myself to them. And so, it probably did [help]. And I think as any form of self expression usually helps people when we’re struggling with any kind of mental health issues. I think it was just an outlet to express. And from then on, I took part in more open mic nights, I became part of the university slam team. And then I took part in the National Roundhouse Poetry Slam in 2017. And it was from there really that poetry became a kind of option, in the sense that my poem went viral in a way that I could never have anticipated.
On the back of that, people assumed that I had more poems, and that I did this regularly. And this was something that I could do. And I just kind of went along with that momentum. And even so I don’t think I would have anticipated writing a collection. And so that was also a weird step that really came about because I actually have another piece of work that I had been working on that I wanted to publish. And that was a collection of essays with women of colour, who I was at university with, A Fly Girl’s Guide to University, and that was about our experiences at Cambridge. And we were looking for a publisher, basically, that was grassroots that wouldn’t, you know, force us to edit the collection and that kind of thing. And we found this poetry press in Birmingham, Verve Poetry Press, who were quite willing to be flexible and open with us and collaboratively publish. So it was only on the back of that, that, you know, they said, ‘Oh, you know, we’ve seen your work as well and would you be interested in writing a collection’ and I think that was really the first time that it occurred to me that that’s something I could do. And I did feel nervous about it. Because I think I still maintained this distinction between a written collection and the performance of poetry. I think that there’s something around the ownership of it, that it felt much safer when it’s in my voice, in my hands, through my speech, through my body language. And that’s something I’m always so aware of that poetry, I think, as an oral culture always feels different to me than as a written and read thing. I don’t know why I agreed to do it in the end, I guess it just, it seems like it would be silly not to.
I have a lot of poems and they were so disorganised. Notes on my phone, scraps of paper here and there. Like a random notebook that I started, my laptop, and it was about selection. Is there an overarching theme to the collection? Is it just, these are all my poems that I’ve ever written? What am I going to include in it? And what am I not? And where do I begin? Where do I end? And how do I include those poems that really feel like performance pieces more than written pieces? And is there a way on the page that I can show where I would breathe, where I would pause, those kinds of things. With some of my poems, I have such an embodied memory of it, you know it’s like I know exactly where I’m going to raise my hand; I know exactly where I’m going to read or pause, because I’d performed it that many times and I think it was really weird to think about, what would that look like on a page and how do I convey that. If you’re trying to convey, like, a crescendo, or you’re trying to build up that momentum and that pace that you would have in a room with people I think it ends up just looking like a list. I end up just doing loads of lists. And so I think that was a bit challenging, particularly with some of the bigger poems.
And in a way, then sometimes you end up with just these blocks of text, which again, don’t really reflect what happens when you’re giving it the pacing and the rhythm. I think there were edits that I did make specifically for the sake of them being written, and it’s hard for me to remember what they were because, with some of my poems, they’ve kind of evolved with the performance, so you know you cut words because actually that doesn’t fit the internal rhyme scheme or like, that just doesn’t work, that feels a bit weird. And I think even actually and sometimes now, when I perform a poem, if I read at the same time, it really throws me off because I think there are some kind of lines and some words and stuff and phrasings that I’ve included in the written version that actually isn’t in my remembered spoken versions.
I even struggled then with grammar and punctuation and italicising and all of these things which you don’t have to really think about in the same way if the writing process is also like a speaking process. I think previously, I had edited through my own practising speaking. That, I found way more helpful than putting it on the page, which I in a way I found difficult. And then I, I think in a way, there was like an impostor syndrome there as well, in terms of, oh, what’s the right thing to do? Like, should I have punctuation? What’s the correct way of writing poetry on the page? And also, I think I use a lot of like, irony, sarcasm to some degree. And I think maybe I wanted to over emphasise that in the writing, just to make it clear. So questions about okay, do I use quotation marks around certain words? Do I italicize them? Do I put a full stop? And so I think that was actually a bit tricky. And I don’t know if I got that quite right. But I think it’s bound up with my own kind of insecurities and vulnerabilities around like, am I authentically a poet? Which I think you know, raises all sorts of other questions around those distinctions and hierarchies.
I think it’s only in recent years that I’ve gone ‘Oh, this is my process’. I’ve listened to authors, and I’ve listened to writers who, you know, they wake up at six a.m., and they write, and then they do this thing, and then they have chamomile tea, and you know, it’s like …. —I think I thought for a long time that ‘this is what process is’, but I think, if anything, my process is – not just with poetry, but with any form of writing – I overwrite like that’s first and foremost, that is what I’m good at is, like, over telling, over saying. I would say, with nearly everything, I probably write double the amount. And I I don’t want to psychoanalyse myself, but I think there’s something in there about the fear of the point not getting through and being really so keen to tell and to show and to be sure that you have really been understood.
And so I’d say the biggest part of my process is actually just cutting down. And this is why the speaking helps. And so even with my prose, when I write, everything that I write, I read aloud to myself, and that is actually where I do the editing, because I think when we hear others speak, that’s when certain lines land with us or certain ideas become clearer to us. So, I would stand in front of the mirror, and I kind of have the bones of the poem, but then it’s like where I can feel a crescendo coming, I would be like, ‘Actually here I should, you know, add a lot more stuff’. Or ‘Here. I’ve basically said that three different times, and there’s no need for that’. Or: ‘Actually, it feels like there’s a word missing here?’ And again, I think there’s some level of inauthenticity that you can feel about that because it’s like, is that a real process? Or is that just, like, me messing around?
And it’s interesting, because only recently, and I can’t remember who it was, it was like a poet that I was listening to in a workshop. And it was really interesting, because I think in my head, I had kind of put them on this pedestal of like, real poet, and they were talking about their editing process, and they were just saying, like, you know, I have a really natural sense of rhythm. And that’s how I edit my work—I’ll just read it back to myself figure out like, does that feel right? Does that not? And it’s just interesting, isn’t it? ‘Cos I think when you hear someone else say something, it suddenly validates and professionalises your process which previously you haven’t necessarily articulated. Yeah. Now, I’m not so scared when I write something for the first time and it’s thousands of words, I’m like, ‘Oh no this is just what I do, this is fine. It will come down.’
When I started writing poetry, specifically, I found myself constantly inspired and I think I was always inspired by anger. A lot of my well-received poems, or the ones that I enjoy performing the most, are ones that almost the impetus for it was, this is what I wish I’d said in that conversation and whatever. I feel like as time has gone by, I find it harder and harder to feel inspired to write those kinds of poems. And maybe that’s just because of, I don’t know, my thought process is different now or whatever. But yeah, I kind of went from finding commissions really difficult to now actually find it useful almost to have a discrete remit of the poem like it has to speak to these things. Just like having a boundary; I feel a lot more meandering than kind of where I used to write these very pointed, deliberate, this is the purpose of this poem; this is the thing I want to direct it towards; this is the anger I’m feeling.
You know, it’s this irony, I don’t know if you’ll agree with this, but I feel that the less experience you have, and the less information, maybe, the easier is to make quite bold and brave claims and easier it is to be courageous, maybe. And I think the more that you see and learn and witness and watch and grow, unfortunately – maybe it is fear; maybe it’s just grey area is always so much bigger and expanding – and I think my poetry is nuanced, I don’t think it’s simplistic, but I do also feel like I find it harder and harder to express the kind of full nuances of everything I would like to say, in the same way that I once was able to. And so, you know maybe that’s actually a form of growth and maybe that’s fine, but I sometimes do reflect on, ‘Wow, I don’t think I could just write one of these kinds of performance pieces so quickly as I used to write’ and with so much kind of fervour and energy.
Something that people have asked me about is why I included the footnotes [in the book]. And why my own bio in the book is the length that it is. I feel like I’ve been so aware of my visibility as a Muslim woman, the things that I say, and things that I do, but particularly publicly, and I think, maybe it’s palpable now when I read it back, but it felt to me, it really mattered exactly and specifically how I said the things that I said in this book, and being misread and misunderstood was something I was really wanting to make impossible, almost, because I think misrecognition is like a form of violence that we face as racialised people all the time. When I perform a set, you go up and first you’re introduced, who is the person that we’re listening to, like, who is coming onto the stage now? And then it’s, ‘Okay, so you know, the reason I wrote this poem, I was sitting in a café, and then this thing happened, and that thing happened.’ And I feel like, my whole experience of poetry was those spaces where, in fact, sometimes in a poet’s set, like the poems can make up a very small part of it, and a lot of is like, dialogue and conversation and anecdote, ‘I’m going to tell you a bit about my mum. And now I’m going to read the poem…’
And it’s interesting, because I’m just wondering how much of that fit into my imagining of, like, when I want the poetry to kick in and what I need you to know first. I suppose through all of that is my desire to control the terms upon which I’m read. And so, giving, like this long bio is to contextualise like these poems are a manifestation of knowledge that I have gathered through all these experiences, which may be deemed not forms of knowledge or not as places where knowledge is gained, but actually to me they are, and I named myself [in my bio] first as an educator, and last as a poet, because I think also, for me, what I wanted this collection to do was quite clearly political. And I didn’t want to shy away from that. And I wanted to lay claim to that and say that this is, to me, like an educative, and I hope not didactic, but educative tool, or at least providing people with an articulation of something that they might already know to be true. And I think the … especially the boxes, or the footnotes, or whatever you want to call them, that I’ve included, some of them include reading lists, right? as like materials that you might want to further study. And I think that’s also partly because I think there’s a kind of honesty to that, in a sense that, especially when I was studying my Masters, a lot of the poems that I was writing, were almost like, reflections and synopses on the things that I was studying, and the articles and the books that I was reading, and poetry was like a … my way of expressing and manifesting those things. And so it was like I want other people to have access to those things.
And the other thing I think, was that in my own experience I didn’t grow up reading poetry collections. I didn’t want anybody to approach the collection feeling that it was inaccessible in the way that I might had, had I picked up a poetry collection. And that was really important to me. It’s interesting because I’ve had a couple of people in feedback say to me that ‘Initially I was a bit dubious about, why have you included so much information about your poems? Isn’t the part of the fun that we guess and figure it out? But then seeing upon reflection, actually, it’s not that you’re explaining so much about your intentions, or why you wrote it, but that you’re trying to give context that actually does make it more accessible.’ And I hope that’s true. And I hope that has felt true. And sometimes I just include a really small box that’s more just like this is what I would have said had I had the chance to introduce the poem to you.
It felt like more than just the poetry collection in that sense that it was this is also my contribution to discourse, I suppose. It felt like many people and thoughts had fed into that and shaped that. And in a way because the poems that are in the collection span, like a six-, seven-, eight-year period, it also felt like it was incumbent upon me to thank people who would contribute to that in all sorts of different ways. That was to kind of reflect on the mass of thought that had gone into that, specifically directly into the collection, or just into me being able to express myself in different ways or think in different ways that then fed into the poems that are in the collection. If those things weren’t a part of the collection, I think I would feel uncomfortable, I think it would feel, to me, less … safe. And I think that’s partly a reflection of my own projections of insecurity. But I think that it’s also a reflection of just not feeling like I do have much control over how I’m viewed a lot of times, and that, for me, my voice is the only place that I can lay some boundaries, some claim, some kind of guidelines into the way I want to be read and on what terms I want to be seen. And sometimes, even what I was talking about that process, like over telling, I think a lot of that is to do with just a desire to have some control in a situation where you have very little as soon as you’re an object that’s being seen and consumed.
For me, as a Muslim, like what’s always important is this idea that you are accountable; you are accountable for the things that you do. And so, with that said, being asked to write a poetry collection becomes more than just, ‘Oh, cool, awesome, I would love to show my work.’ And for me personally, at least, it becomes I’m now accountable for this. This is a responsibility upon me; it’s a trust upon me. This is an opportunity I’ve been given. And what’s the impact of it if I could almost measure that every person who reads this book, or everywhere that it goes, what kind of impact is it having, and I think that’s why a lot of the decisions I made, then, in terms of what other things I wanted people to take from it other than just the poems.
I suppose how much of what I believe to be working towards the goodness or the justice that I believe is incumbent upon me as a Muslim or directing people towards truth, or perseverance, which are like in and of themselves those are good deeds, right? like guiding others to truth, or encouraging others to truth. Sometimes when I foreground, ‘I am a Muslim,’ as the first thing that I say, it’s also actually more of a reminder to me, and I think in a way, it’s because, if I’m being very candid, I’m very blessed that people are very kind about my work often. And, I think there’s a lot of social capital that I’ve gained as a result of performance, and you, as an individual, your identity gets associated with these kind of cool things, right? Like, ‘Oh, Suhaiymah, you say brave things, you say cool things…’ And I think, in a way I say that to remind myself that any goodness in what I do, or any of the skills or gifts that I have are just blessings upon me, they’re not of my own doing. And I mean, that’s a religious tenet, right? You don’t earn the things that you have. They’re tests and blessings. So it’s like, what will you do with them? And so, in a way, I think a lot of what manifests as the process of putting the book together is also me, you know, five times a day kind of thinking to myself when I’m speaking to God, okay, when you ask me on the Day of Judgement, ‘Okay, so you had an opportunity to speak to thousands of people, you performed your poetry. Okay, so what did you say?’ And I think that that’s something that I think about a lot, the responsibility of that.
A book is something that lasts. Once it’s in print, it’s not in your hands, it’s in other people’s homes, they can read it wherever they want to read it. And I think that’s why I also put a lot of thought into exactly how I wanted to say the things I wanted to say, because you can’t take words back, as well, right? And I think, again, as a believer, as a Muslim, as someone who believes in a day of accountability, or a time of reckoning post this life, then that’s important too, because you’re gonna be accountable for what you said. So, I think because it’s such a different paradigm. I never really got the opportunity to speak about that. And I think also the sensibilities of a kind of secular, liberal, arts world, you almost have to hide those thought processes, right? It’s like they’re not even translatable.
Craft is brought to you by Wasafiri magazine and Queen Mary University of London with funding from Arts Council England. Our theme music is by Josh Winiberg. Our logo is by Alaa Alsaraji. Emma Barnaby does our production, editing, and sound design. And the interviews and the introduction were done by me, Malachi McIntosh. With this episode of Craft, we bid farewell to our administrator, Afsana Nishat who has been instrumental in the development of this show. Thank you for everything Afsana, safe travels. And everyone else, including Afsana. See you next month.