Suhaiymah Manzoor-Khan: 

A Conversation

with Rianna Price and Amy Louise Smith | Lancaster University
Issue 02 - December 2020
Suhaiymah Manzoor Khan
A Conversation with Suhaiymah Manzoor-KhanEPOCH
00:00 / 19:35
Suhaiymah Manzoor-Khan Postcolonial Banter

R

    ianna Price

Hello everyone and welcome to this interview for EPOCH magazine. Our guest today is Suhaiymah Manzoor-Khan, spoken word poet, writer and educator. In the last year she has released her book of spoken-word poetry, Postcolonial Banter, and she is here with us today to talk about all things poetic and political. Thank you for joining us Suhaiymah. First of all, I suppose, how are you? How have you been doing in lockdown?

 

Suhaiymah MK

Thank you. To be honest, I guess I'm fairly blessed in that I'm self-employed. Economically, I haven't sort of been having a lot of the worries that a lot of people have. I moved back home to be with family, it just feels like a time to be with family - if there's going to be a time. I'm okay. I'm just very despondent about the government's response to this and kind of just, I think constantly knowing that it could have been dealt with in a much more humane way - if we didn't prioritise profit over people but - that not being the situation I have been thinking a lot about how do we move forward? You know, what kind of infrastructures and organising do we need in the UK to be able to respond to something like this. But yeah, how are you guys? Have you been okay?

 

Rianna Price

Yeah. It's a little bit difficult. I can't really complain. But again, you know, I'm not particularly pleased with the way this has played out.

Amy?

Amy Louise Smith

Yeah, I’m the same really, I've been quite fortunate I stayed with my parents for a bit, I'm quite grateful for how it's been for me.

 

Rianna Price

Yeah.

And I think, for a lot of people it's given [an] opportunity for things to be done online, for us to have these sorts of conversations - to take the time, especially with everything that's been happening with Black Lives Matter and decolonisation in the UK, we've kind of come to this position where we're all sat, we actually have time to think and do.

 

Suhaiymah MK

That's true. There's been a lot of conversations, I've been able to have a part in and I wouldn't I guess in other circumstances just because of logistics. You can't necessarily have a conversation between someone in Indonesia and someone in the UK. And that is good. And I think what you just said is really interesting about time to think and something I have been thinking about a lot is the way in which there is a deprivation of imagination in terms of responding to the world that we're in. And often that's because we have to live in such a reactionary way where it's just like, bad things happening, put out the fire. Imagining what a future could look like, that isn't unjust, that is safe for everybody - that demands really intensive work.  

And I think conversations around abolition have been really interesting in that sense. And all these corporations and institutions that are institutionally racist, being able to make statements based on the kinds of conversations they're seeing online, to kind of, you know, profess that they too care about these things with or they too are anti-racist or black lives matter but without changing, I guess, structurally. So I think it's this precarious moment where there is this potential for us to use and think about the value of imagining, of creative thinking, of connecting between structural thinking and artistic thinking. But then on the other hand, I think there's a chance for that to be very easily mutated - and that just again reinforces, the hierarchy of tyranny and capitalism and white supremacy. It is a precarious balance.

 

Rianna Price

Obviously top supermarket brand, saying we're going to support Black Lives Matter, and we're going to put posters in our shops, and we're going to commit to inclusivity. A lot of people are seeing that as something that's a little bit more like virtue signalling [SMK: Exactly] rather than actually participating in an effort to change the structural imbalances that we have in the UK. [Exactly.] I think this summer for a lot of people has been a wakeup call. You know, you have to explain to people that colonialism was a bad thing. And the YouGov poll that says 59% of young people think colonialism was a universal good. And trying to get that narrative back to historical [fact].

 

Suhaiymah MK

Well it’s ironic, isn't it? Because Britain is the Metropole and all of that Empire, and if that Empire is racist, then where do you think they got it from? But I think it's interesting what you just said as well about these kind of attitudes and opinions and surveys, because I think sometimes even the way they're presented to us is often in this way, where it's like, oh, my goodness, like, what a surprise, but it really isn't surprising. I'm sure you're not surprised, either, when we hear those statistics, because it’s like, what do you expect from an education system that is rooted in kind of upholding these notions of British exceptionalism and advancement and civilization? But yeah, I absolutely agree. I think everything you're saying is spot on.

 

Amy Louise Smith

In terms of trying to re-educate people do you think that's a lot of where the poetry came from?

 

Suhaiymah MK 

I think it's twofold. I think the primary kind of intimate value of that is that it validates your experience. So part of writing for me is like, rather than it being about anyone else, I think almost selfishly, it is about me, and it's like I need to give name to these things, I need to kind of voice these things to remind myself that they're real, but also to help myself kind of navigate them and think about the embodied and structural effects of these things. Because the kind of violence we see in the world is, it does affect us in such intimate ways. So I think that's the first thing and what I noticed, I guess was that while this is also being deemed as explanatory or as sharing of knowledge, sharing your experience that is educational, so I think I do then as a secondary thing, value and see poetry in that way. And you know, as you would have seen in the collection itself, I do kind of state at the beginning that I hope this can be educational in that sense, and I hope people can take something from it and I guess education I mean in an in a non-traditional sense in a sense of more kind of like a broad pedagogy. That we all do have knowledge that we all can share with one another. And I hope that through, you know, poetry, which I think really carries a way of sharing experiences that other mediums can’t - it also allows a type of education that other mediums can't give you. I think the reactions that the collection has had also reinforces that to me, and I think it's really beautiful that through just me sharing some of my feelings, my thoughts, reflections on the world I live in, in a very embodied way - others are able to take something from that. So, yeah, education is definitely in there. And I think that's also how I've learned about the world, you know, from hearing and listening and reflecting on how other people experience it, because we can never know how other people experience it until we listen. But once we know about these things, perhaps we're able to produce tools to dismantle, we're able to kind of mobilise together. So, yeah, I think I am an optimist in that sense.

 

Amy Louise Smith

Spoken word: it's so emotive. I suppose the other part of it is, it's phonoaesthetic, you know, the way it sounds is so essential to how successful it is. I mean, my own research, I work with protest music. For me it's a human experience, isn't it? The need to say things out loud.

 

Suhaiymah MK

 

Poetry is, as you just said, the language of protest, of revolution of, you know, even prison poetry and you think about like revolutionaries during the Civil Rights Movement and black feminists. Even the fact it’s rooted in oral culture. Like you said music, and then lots of what is poetry today is what was song before, or what was known in all these other ways. I think, yeah, there is something that I feel like [is] inherently almost revolutionary about poetry.

 

Amy Louise Smith 

That emotion when you're delivering it, did you find that quite a struggle to then put into print?

 

Suhaiymah MK

 

Yes, because I hadn't shared my poetry in a way where it was written down before. And I acknowledge that in the in the collection. So, I kind of say, look, I do feel funny about this, like, I'm very used to being the person who delivers my own work. And in that sense, it's imbued with the meaning I want to give it, the emotions that I will convey through my voice, through my body language - you know you're watching me on a stage is a very specific type of sharing experience, but I think when you write something down, it is so different. And it's also so reified, it's just there, you know, you can't necessarily take it back, people can read it, you know, wherever they want to, they can be on the bus, they can be on the loo, they I can't control where they're making meaning. But I think that is also exciting. So I kind of had to wait, I guess, in the end, like, the excitement of that outweighed the fear of that. And I think there is more possibility in it. Because at the end of the day, you can't control the meaning. That is like a classic part of studying texts isn’t it - once the text is out there it’s up to other people how they will interpret. And I think that is exciting. So, I did worry that maybe the emotions wouldn't be conveyed in the same way. But I guess from the responses that I've had, they've been conveyed in a way. And I don't know if it's the same, but it is a way. And I think the other thing is that I was more reserved about sharing sort of more personal poems, so I suppose things to do with my grandparents or just family and those kinds of things. And I wasn't sure, because they're not things that I had performed out loud before or spoken, because they’re not really performance type poems. But then the responses that I've had to those poems are that actually, you know, people appreciate vulnerability. People appreciate sincerity and other people. And when we see that I think it connects us no matter whether that's our experience or not. So I've been, I guess I also learned something about sharing emotions through that journey, because okay, there is actually value in sharing vulnerability in ways that I couldn't have done it through spoken word or through voice necessarily, but in the words themselves, there is something that people are taking in and it's conveying a very human relationship. So it's a different medium, but it's the one where emotion is. So obviously, you know, people have read and written for years. That did almost surprise me in a naive way that it was still such a powerful medium.

 

Rianna Price

Sharing your poetry is like giving us a part of your soul. We can validate you by just reading you, and kind of trying to understand who you are as a person and how you feel and how you've worked within these structures of power. And I think that's something really unique about not only poetry, but like literature in general.

 

Suhaiymah MK

Yeah, I think stories in general do that. Right. Like as human beings, why do we love stories? I think it is because of what you said like it produces empathy innately. To be honest, like, I think there is something specific about writing and reading that I kind of feel like that we can't detach from a politic, you know, if we want to kind of think about resistance and struggle and organising. Yes, we have to do the groundwork. But the groundwork I think, includes telling stories that connect people and I, yeah, I remain a believer in that, even if it's kind of cliché. But I think there is something really radical in that it's not simply about empathy. The more people I've read, I don't know these people, but they can change your life. A book can change your life. So yeah, I appreciate hearing that. It's really interesting.

 

Amy Louise Smith

I’m thinking about when I was first exposed to spoken word poetry, it was an expression of something that is very personal, but with the expectation that - I need to have this shared. I mean, do you think that is something that is more about spoken word poetry even than it is for others?

 

Suhaiymah MK

So I always question this distinction between spoken word and written poetry, even though I myself just talked about it. But in the sense that, you know, throughout the majority of history and time, a majority of people have not been able to access, you know, writing and reading. And so how we've shared our stories, our histories, our cultures, our literature - it's been through talking and collective kind of recitation, or whatever it is of different ways of storytelling. In that sense, it's kind of like, poetry is just a form of speech. Poetry should be read aloud. And you know, even if it is written down, I think there's something that the voice does to it that makes it alive. And so spoken word is in that tradition of slam of hip hop, and it is I think particularly politicised in that sense that it feels to me that it's always been bound up with talking about injustice, and then exposing - as you say, through the person or exposing all those political things that shape our realities. And I think I was always so inspired by slam poetry that I saw: [poems] about your mother that is actually a story about misogyny in society, about racism in society about -  familial dynamics that are really echoes of a kind of greater history. And it's like, that's amazing to me that those really intimate stories are never just intimate stories.

 

Rianna Price  

Creating that space must be really hard to do. But obviously, you do it really well. And I was just kind of wondering, do you feel like your personal political comes out in your spoken word poetry?

 

Suhaiymah MK

The medium itself is inherently political, it kind of defies and says, Well, I'm not gonna stand here and prove to you that misogyny exists in the world -  by simply telling you this is how I walk home, carrying my keys in my hand in this this way, I'm giving you a look into what it means to live in the world I live in. And you will have to name that as misogyny because it's very clear what this is. And it's very clear what needs to happen to change it.

   It will be political, you don't need to have an intent, I think for a poem to be political, when it is spoken in a certain way, or has a certain intention. What I'm always very aware of is that I am standing for people as a visibly Muslim woman of colour. And I know that in that sense, there's a certain set of ideas, or set of presumptions, that an audience may hold, and even if they don't hold, they'll know of that set so sort of, is there whether or not we want it to be and I think that means that even if I didn't speak about politics in any, overt way all, my poetry would always sort of be, I suppose, in conversation with those assumptions with those categories. And so  I choose rather than ignoring that to then try and take into my own hands to kind of decide where I want to disrupt, or where I want to reveal, where I want to kind of shed light on what's going on that we're not naming in that room. So I think for all those reasons, the visual, the audio, the kind of lived experience of performing it is political – it has to be.

 

Rianna Price 

I think that your poetry, even though you know, it's emotive and it's giving us your lived experience, which at times is frustrated and angry with the system. I think that there's a lot of optimism. I mean, you've said in this interview yourself that you know, you're an optimist, so I kind of want to ask you when you think about these conversations about power and decolonizing, the curriculum or decolonizing just generally - what are your hopes for the future?

 

Suhaiymah MK

When we think about hope, sometimes I feel like it requires us to look beyond our own lifetimes, because it's very hard in this moment to believe, you know, that age old thing of like, I think it will get worse before it gets better. Doesn't mean I don't think it will get better. But I don't know if, if I'll see it in my lifetime. The kind of word I always have in mind is, or two words, is one is safety is like, you know, I remember doing this really visual exercise. When I was doing my masters, and I was on a course where you're just thinking, I guess, about all the different structures that shape our world. One of the questions we did it was just free writing exercise, but it was close your eyes and imagine that you wake up and the world has been transformed in all the ways you want it to be. Just write, about a day in that life or a day in that world. And what overwhelmingly, everyone's day looked like was nothing extraordinary. Nothing had changed in a way that, you know, no one was kind of doing anything absurd. But what it was, was that everybody felt safe. Many of the violences that we see today, so whether that is the violence of the border, the hostile environment, whether it's kind of the violence of structural racism in its many guises, whether that's through policing, whether that's through education, whether that's through healthcare system - wherever and however it looks, whether it's class, whether it's gender, all these different structures, I guess what brings me hope is that - a lot of these things were constructed in the very recent past. So, whether that's the idea of the nation, state and borders, whether that's the idea of prisons and policing. And so, I think having that kind of historical fact, in mind, does give me hope, because to know that something is made means, you know, it can be unmade. And I am also very, very much of the belief that there is no way that we cannot think of an alternative to the current system. You cannot tell me that there is no alternative system that requires death and requires, state sanctioned violence and harm to people. And so, in that sense, I do feel hope.

   The Zapatistas, who are an indigenous Mexican group, they have this thing, I think it's them, that they talk about in seven generations time, and that you should be kind of working in the world to change the world in seven generations time. And I do think that's useful, because, if it's taken about 500 years to build the kind of base of the colonial, capitalist system that we live in. I don't think it's going to take you know, if my life is, let's say, 50 years longer, I don't think it's going to take 50 years to unpick 500 years of work, but why do you think is that we set the seeds, because where we are working on the seeds of what was, you know, rooted maybe 50 years ago, and we're, you know, we're still our heroes are still, you know, people in civil rights struggle, anti-colonial resistors. And I think if that's the case, then who, you know, who can we be heroes for who can we set some sort of legacy for? And, yeah, I guess it will be interesting to know, in the future, what this moment meant, and if it mattered. And I know one thing that some people talk about is sometimes the work that we do is, you know, rooted in hope, because also we to set I guess a dent in the historical record, we want it to be known that not everybody did acquiesce to this. There was you know, when that’s the legacy of our poetry or music or our, you know, those kind of tangible artefacts that show no not everybody did kind of consent to the state of affairs.

 

Amy Louise Smith

 

Just say, I absolutely loved the notion of, you know, putting your poetry out there as a way to say that you're not consenting to a system is fantastic.

 

Suhaiymah MK 

 

I appreciate that.

 

Amy Louise Smith

Earlier, I was gonna ask you a slightly weird question about whether you thought writing the poetry down was a way of almost legitimising it. But I think, actually, how you’ve spoken about it now, about writing a written record is, yeah, that's powerful

 

Suhaiymah MK 

I think, yeah, I think evidence is something that I am really interested in, as somebody who's, you know, studied history and kind of became very aware of the biases of the archive, like what is the archive, what counts as a historical document, you know, who gets to go to the archive, who gets to keep the archive, what's kept in the archive? And so I do think I maybe have an obsession of some kind in terms of like, keeping a record of things. And I do think, you know, part of that whole decolonizing what evidence is, or what, you know, what is a factual historical document is also that that, you know, poetry, as I was saying earlier, has been the way that stories and histories and medicinal knowledge and scientific knowledge has been kept for many societies over history.

 

Rianna Price

And I think as well, though, like, even if, poetry does get a bad rap in that respect. I think at least you can take some kind of pleasure in the fact that you might not get to everybody politically, but you have made a personal change to people's lives, like people have responded, people have said, oh my God, I’ve read your work - you have spoken to me, you've given me a voice - whether you meant to or not.

 

Suhaiymah MK

That is really touching.

Amy Louise Smith

I think that it was goes further than that. I mean, my mom was reading your poetry while I was back, you know, she's a Christian, white woman. And she was finding connections in the experiences of just being a woman.

 

Suhaiymah MK 

Yeah, and I think there are all these connections I didn't anticipate or not anticipate about sharing poetry with the world. I think also, like, sometimes when you know what you just said there. I think it's also important because it's that reminder. There's a quote that sort of along the lines of the way that you change the world is by changing how people think about the world.  That is really something I do believe in. And so you're right. Like, it does mean a lot for even just one person to say, this has impacted me in some way. Even this conversation we're having now like, the fact that this book that I wrote has connected us in some way that we're talking about these things that we all care about this shared vision, or potentially shared vision that we have of a future and I think, those connections really probably are the best and most exciting thing that's come out the entire experience.

 

 

Rianna Price

Thank you so much for taking the time out to do this.

 

Suhaiymah MK 

Thank you for letting me be part of it.

 

Amy Smith

We’re very grateful to have you.

 

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EPOCH would like to thank Suhaiymah for joining us today. To find out more, follow the links below to her website and to her latest publication Postcolonial Banter.

Thanks for listening.