Writing Britain Now: Suhaiymah Manzoor-Khan
Suhaiymah Manzoor-Khan’s debut poetry collection, Postcolonial Banter, was published by Verve Poetry Press in 2019. It features some of her most well-known and widely performed poems as well as some never-seen-before material. Her words are a disruption of comfort, a call to action, a redistribution of knowledge and an outpouring of dissent. Postcolonial Banter ranges from critiquing racism, systemic Islamophobia, the function of the nation-state and rejecting secularist visions of identity, to reflecting on the difficulty of writing and penning responses to conversations she wishes she’d had. For our series, we interviewed Suhaiymah, who also introduces and reads from her collection.
The question of Britishness, or what Britain is, or where Britain is, or who, or when, or why it is, is one that I both loathe and love. I loathe it because it is a question about race that masquerades as a question of nation. Britishness cannot define itself beyond whiteness and this has been made repeatedly clear through political rhetoric: the desperate attachment to specific historic narratives that evade colonialism, genocide and slavery; policy which cannot define British values in any sincere way beyond a suspicion that people of ethnic heritages that are minoritised may not have them; and the physical removal of people of colour from this country either through deportations and extraditions, or through social death: imprisonment, indefinite detention, poverty, negligence, dehumanisation etc. The statistics and the policy documents are out there, I won’t cite them. But it is exactly because the question of Britain is a question of race masquerading as nation that I love it, too. I love it because as soon as we can stop pretending Britishness has any solid, static meaning we get to ask not ‘what or where is Britishness’, but, why is ‘Britain’ a frame or lens that we assume we must acknowledge or grapple with? To me it is this question that leads us beyond the distraction Toni Morrison warned us about (that the very serious function of racism is distraction), and instead to the work that will help us to begin to construct safe futures in which we exist on our own terms and beyond the inherently violent structure of the nation-state.
I situate my collection, Postcolonial Banter, in that second set of answers. I am less interested in ‘writing Britain’, than I am in unravelling it, deconstructing it and exposing it as a superficial entity that attempts to displace the questions I really ought to be asking. Most of my poems are therefore provocations that try to move beyond an ‘unease’ or ‘exploration’ of identity, but instead ask what it is about me that means my writing would be assumed ‘to deal with’ identity and belonging. Moreover, why are ‘identity’ and ‘belonging’ positioned as apolitical terms in the realm of ‘culture’ – which of course we always consider as essential and depoliticised – rather than inherently political categories? Postcolonial Banter tries to evade as many questions as it asks. For every gaze that I know is upon me and all the questions I am watched through as a Muslim woman of Pakistani heritage in Britain, I try to ask my own. What is the function of me trying to prove I ‘belong’ anywhere? Who benefits from that? Why is my material safety premised upon something posited as an apolitical question? Why should I adhere to a violent premise in order to access humanity? What is the purpose of offering me a conditional promise of belonging – if I integrate/work hard/do or don’t do xyz – when the conditions are ones I will never be believed to have fully fulfilled?
I do not write to prove anything or display anything; I write in the hope of asking these questions that might take us beyond the conversations we are often forced to have and thus I see Postcolonial Banter as an attempt at a new conversation, or set of new conversations, that inherently politicises or exposes the power and function of our current conversations. As my debut collection, it tries to do this through a range of writings – and by being both personal and intimate – as well as trying to evade making myself fully vulnerable to ever being categorised or captured as ‘known’.
Suhaiymah Manzoor-Khan reads ‘A Story for ourselves this time’, ‘Straddling the/line’ and ‘Didn’t you know’ from Postcolonial Banter, pub. by Verve Poetry Press.
Sana Goyal for Wasafiri: How would you describe Postcolonial Banter to someone who doesn’t know the work?
Suhaiymah Manzoor-Khan: Postcolonial Banter is my debut collection of poetry. To me, it’s really an amalgamation of my learning and growing over the past five or more years—both intellectually and emotionally. As someone who is more familiar with and rooted in spoken-word and slam poetry, the collection is both a record of those works, and an attempt to disseminate them in a new way, but also an attempt to share another side of myself: a more softly spoken, introspective self. I’d like to think that in that sense Postcolonial Banter is a multitude of things. It has personal free form poems and reflections that reveal my rootedness to my family, but it also has big fast-paced rhyming poems and alliterative bars sparked by political outrage. It’s inherently political – as the title would suggest – but as the title also suggests, it isn’t obvious—or so I hope. By that I mean that being a visibly Muslim woman I know there are certain gazes upon me and my work that make it easy to fall into boring tropes of writing myself into specific identities and narratives. Instead, I’ve tried to write about the gaze itself and the difficulty of writing under it. For example, many of my poems are quite meta and I’ve found that I write a lot about writing in this collection.
For me, the title really encapsulates the collection. It is something self-aware and a reflection of my reality where my work, talking and writing are all bound up and rooted in conversations about race, racism, gender, Islamophobia, colonialism and state violence. Nonetheless, my reality is also shared with many others for whom these violences are the normative set of references we share from the margin we are in and which even become our modes of recognising one another, knowing one another, bonding and having in-jokes. I think there is something subversive about writing in the face of such violence and writing both to expose that violence as we see it, but also writing for one another, to see one another and to create space to acknowledge our reality that is often silenced and dismissed. If a readers’ response is surprise and horror at the poems that reflect my reality, then that is really a mark of the privilege and bubble they’ve been living in. For the rest of us, it’s so normal we might even dare be glib about it. But in that glibness we also shine a light on the way that ‘banter’ – often associated with white privately-educated men in inaccessible institutions – is not just that. One person’s jibe is another person’s life. Postcolonial Banter is my experience on my terms, and if you feel locked out that ‘banter’, just imagine how we feel.
Can you share the process of compiling – and publishing – this collection? It’s in six sections and features previously-performed work alongside never-before-seen work. This is your debut collection. What’s different, if anything, about ‘page poetry’?
Putting this collection together was a much more difficult journey than I anticipated. I am so much more familiar and comfortable with performing my poems on a mic and therefore I’d only previously ever considered ‘compiling’ to the extent of what would work as a fifteen minute set on stage or in a slam. Having the remit of a whole collection meant I could take an audience on a different sort of journey. It also meant exposing more parts of myself than I usually would on stage and leaving those parts up for exploration in people’s own time, in their own ways. For me that was the scariest part – usually the words I read are heard in exactly the context I mean them, with exactly the intonation I intend – in the hands of readers who can pick up the collection on any page, in any location, there is a change in power dynamic and control. Considering what to include whilst bearing that in mind was important for me, and for instance it is why the first poem of the collection is called ‘This Poem Is Not For You’. It was important to me to still mark the relationship between myself and the reader and I wanted to take them on a journey that would enable me to become more complicated and vulnerable throughout the collection to reflect the multifaceted nature of my experiences and reality in a context where there are so many lenses I am seen through: be they gendered, racialised, colonial, etc. Because of that, there are broad themes that each of the six sections are held together by in my head, but those themes are not translated to the paper and instead they are six unnamed sections for a reader to move through and take note.
Tell us about the paratexts to your poetry collection: the cover and the ‘content boxes’ you provide the reader with.
A lot of people have asked about the cover of the collection. The image is actually a collage I made while doing my History degree at university. I was just going through that process of discovering the depth of what I had internalised from the world in terms of white supremacist norms; ideas about the hierarchy of different forms of knowledge; Eurocentric histories and narrations of history, etc. The collage represented me vomiting up those versions of reality that I had so far accepted, and in doing so, being able to also bring up my own narrative and stories about myself, my experiences, my history and my world. I felt the collage was a fitting cover for the collection since it reflects both the personal and political that I am so bound up within as well as paying homage to the journey I have been on and the way the poems are both a rebuttal at times and brand new creation at others.
The ‘content boxes’ in the collection are really just extended footnotes that I have included at the end of some poems. I included these not to analyse my own poetry or explain it in a didactic way, but to bring contexts to my writing that I think matter. Often these are quite political contexts that I know are often deliberately hidden from most people’s experiences or are never fully explained. I include them because my poems are trying to shed lights on these bigger contexts that require naming and because naming and explaining them makes the work accessible. I am not particularly interested in poetry that is difficult to comprehend, and as someone who never really enjoyed page poetry myself at school or university I am keen to make the collection something that is self-aware and accessible to people no matter how politically or poetically fluent they may be. For me, poetry is always just a means to an end. I see it as one of several tools that I use to educate and equip marginalised communities with the understanding and knowledge of the world that helps us to denaturalise the status quo and bolsters us to collectivise and resist through realising that our experiences are shared not due to coincidence, but due to structures and histories that shape our world.
You’re part of the Free Word Centre’s line-up for their new season – Writing Our Way Home – with a brand new performance piece, on a ‘world beyond origins’: The End of Diaspora. What can we expect?
I am currently in the process of writing The End of Diaspora so all I can tell you for now is all that I myself know. The piece is forty-ish minutes that I will write and perform to explore some of my feelings and thoughts around the notion of ‘diaspora’ and/or ‘belonging’. I feel that we are often forced to obsess over these amorphous words as people of colour in the West, as well as the questions of origins and roots and from. Whilst these may all be valid questions at some level I feel that the obsession distracts us from thinking about where we already are, and where we might go.
The End of Diaspora is really about considering the cause of that obsession, and what might happen if we were allowed to imagine ourselves forwardly rather than backwardly. I want to explore that perhaps a lot of our focus on roots – as people with heritages from Britain’s former colonies – comes from the trauma of those histories. Research in recent decades has shown that trauma has the effect of making one live in the past and relive that past over and over. Subsequently I wonder whether communal and historic traumas such as the trauma of immigration, or asylum-seeking, of upheaval, of colonialism, of genocide, of slavery, etc. means that even several generations on from those moments of trauma we are living in a state of mass PTSD. I say this because the other effect of trauma is that it makes imagining life beyond the trauma impossible—and I would argue that one thing I see very little of in our conversations as marginalised racialised communities is imagining futures for ourselves.
We are often forced to put out the fires around us – or still fight for recognition of the past we know happened – that we are spent by the time it comes to thinking about our futures. The End of Diaspora is an exploration of what might come next and of what could happen if we refuse the question of from, if we heal from the question of from and start to build futures for ourselves. What would it look like if we had the space and time to build futures for ourselves? If we had the safety to build futures for ourselves? What would that mean for us? And what would it mean for the flimsy and precarious nation-state that tries to exclude us?
Who are some contemporary poets we should all be reading or listening to?
Amina Jama. Amina is one of the most mesmerising poets I know and she writes with such homage to others and to herself that her poems feel like they stand atop mountains. Her debut collection, A Warning To The House That Holds Me, is coming out at the end of this year and is edited by Jacob Sam-La Rose and published by Flipped Eye. She’ll also be launching as part of the Home season at Free Word.
Jamal Mehmood is a poet that I deeply admire because he manages to write poems that reflect an experience of ‘British-Pakistani’ that somehow manages to deeply resonate but also avoid over-romanticism. I appreciate that a lot in the world of poetry that often valorises a problematic nostalgia. You can read his collection, Little Boy Blue (2018, Burning Eye).
Sean Mahoney. Every time I listen to Sean’s work I feel he has simultaneously bared his heart to me and poked fun at me. I just really appreciate the honesty of his writing and his storytelling that is so personal but also somehow painfully resonant. He recently released SAD Lamps which you can listen to here.
Annotate. Annotate is a poet I think we should all listen to. His writing is extremely deft and I am in constant admiration of the way he pushes himself and his craft to be increasingly complicated and lyrical. But perhaps more than anything I think we should listen to his work because it is also an example of how you build community through your writing and Annotate’s journey is one of building an entire poetic community around him as he has written – and in turn, has written to build.
SuhaiymahManzoor-Khan is an educator, writer and spoken-word poet. Her work interrogates narratives around race, gender, Islamophobia, feminism, state violence and colonialism. She studied History at Cambridge and Postcolonial Studies at SOAS. Her debut poetry collection, Postcolonial Banter, was published by Verve Poetry Press in 2019 and she is the founder and author of www.thebrownhijabi.com, and co-author of A FLY Girl’s Guide to University: Being a Woman of Colour at Cambridge and Other Institutions of Power and Elitism. She was the 2017 Runner-Up of the national Roundhouse Poetry Slam and short-listed for the 2018 Outspoken Prize for performance poetry. Her work has over two million online views, has been featured on BBC Radio stations, ITV, Sky TV, the Islam channel and more, she has written for The Guardian, The Independent and Al-Jazeera and she has performed at music festivals, universities nationally and internationally, at TEDx conventions, mosques, protests and slams.