An Interview with 4 BROWN GIRLS WHO WRITE
Poetical talks to 4 BROWN GIRLS WHO WRITE – Roshni Goyate, Sharan Hunjan, Sunnah Khan, and Sheena Patel – about how they met, what they mean to each other, and why being on the margins is a productive, creative space to be.
4 BROWN GIRLS WHO WRITE met on a boat in Summer 2017. With Tower Bridge on one side and Canary Wharf on the other, views of London provided the backdrop to the first evening that poetry brought them together. Sheena organised a get-together on the boat, inviting some friends who she knew wrote privately, but never (or rarely) performed their work. That night about 15 people read out their poetry to one another. (And also got quite drunk on prosecco.)
Sharan: “That night was amazing.”
Sheena: “The power of the human voice is amazing. Almost everyone read a poem aloud that they’d written, and most of them had never performed in front of other people before. Another friend read a really heart-breaking poem about love. People exposed their vulnerabilities. It creates a real connection.”
Sharan: “Sharing your own work aloud makes it different even for yourself – it takes a new shape when you’ve read it to other people. You react to other people’s reactions.”
Sheena, Sharan and Roshni went to university together, and all wrote on a regular basis, with only Roshni having performed before. Sunnah, who came to the poetry evening through a mutual friend, was also writing in secret.
Sheena: “After that night I felt so much closer to all of my friends.”
There was something particularly special between the four of them though.
Sunnah: “It was amazing hearing these British South Asian voices that were so distinct and unapologetic in and of themselves, but also resonated deeply with me in some shared sense of lived experience. I’d never felt myself reflected back like that before, it was incredible.
“I felt like I hadn’t been able to say some of these things out loud before. Being brought up as Pakistani, as well as Muslim, British, and Scottish – I felt like I was always having to negotiate my identity, and the separation between private space and public space.”
Sharan: “We heard each other saying things that we might have wanted to say but hadn’t yet. When we started sharing things about growing up it was all really… familiar.”
That familiarity connected them and brought them together. They started to talk regularly over WhatsApp and share their work, and when the opportunity came to perform their poetry together, they took it up.
It’s a whole other experience seeing and hearing 4 BROWN GIRLS WHO WRITE perform. They are four sisters standing together, each of them taking turns to step forward to perform their poems while the other three listen encouragingly, holding each other in “a safe little harbour” as Sheena describes it.
Roshni: “When one of us is not at the front the other three are at the back holding each other – it’s very physical and tactile. There is a lot to be said about that as well. Something I’ve learnt from pregnancy and from labour is that touch gets the oxytocin hormone going, which is the happy hormone. So we all leave on a natural high.”
Sunnah: “There was definitely something about us standing together that felt important.
“It’s about always having thought that you don’t have a voice, or a voice that people don’t want to hear, and us doing this together – the four of us – is quite empowering. We are here listening, and we want to hear each other.”
Roshni: “When I recollect performances that we’ve done together, I don’t remember reading at the mic, I remember standing back and listening together, and the girls’ hands on my back – it’s really physical.”
This stance, the harbour of support, arms around each other, wasn’t planned or talked about. It just happened organically.
Sheena: “You don’t really have people standing together any more. Even girl bands or boy bands aren’t as much of a thing – it’s ‘Adele’ or ‘Beyoncé’ – I think we’ve gone into a more individualistic world.”
There was of course a facetious tongue-in-cheekiness to their collective name 4 BROWN GIRLS WHO WRITE. Flipping the stereotype that they are all the same “when really we couldn’t be more different” Sharan laughs. It’s loud, capitalised, and challenging.
Sheena: “We’re taking up space with it. And I still don’t really think that I can take up space comfortably. I’m struggling with the idea that I should take my time up there on stage. That I shouldn’t just read as quickly as possible. I feel like I don’t deserve to be up there sometimes.”
The beautiful thing about the 4 BROWN GIRLS WHO WRITE is how inspired they all are by each other. How their creativity is fuelled by one another, acting as a sounding board for ideas and encouragement.
Sheena: “It’s like having a support group.”
Sunnah: “A cathartic space to make sense of your emotions.”
“It’s given me a space to be heard. You know how to get your vulnerability out and on to paper, but is that something that anyone else wants to hear?” Sunnah says. “It quietens the critical mind where you always think you’re not good enough. We’ve created a space of love, where we all support each other, and in that space of love it’s allowed us to be more open, to take up space and say things out loud. We tell each other that we deserve to be here.”
Roshni: “I’ve been writing for more than 10 years, and I’d performed a little bit on my own, but I’ve always had the voices of doubt in my head. For me the sense of imposter syndrome has always been really strong. But the collective are my cheerleaders, they are the response to the voices of doubt and they come in three times as loudly because there are three of them – so it’s been a real game changer for me.”
Sunnah: “It’s a safe space. When I met the other girls, I felt like I started writing for an audience that I could speak to, who could relate to different cultures and ways of being, in a way that I didn’t when I was growing up.”
Sheena: “There just aren’t enough South Asian women being reflected back at us in popular culture. You just don’t see it enough even now, and certainly not when we were growing up.”
Sunnah: “You need diversity of voices. And the voices that we learnt from when we were growing up were of a certain education, a certain whiteness, a certain framing.”
Sharan is an English teacher and set up the first BAME group at her school for her teenage students. She talks about structural racism with them, reading passages from Reni Eddo Lodge’s book Why I’m No Longer Talking to White People About Race.
Sharan: “It was only in my second year of uni that I started reading books by Indian people – that’s like 20 years of your life without reading literature written from an Indian perspective. So many years of reading books written only by white people or learning history from a white perspective. You don’t question it until you get older.”
Roshni is co-founder of The Other Box – an award-winning platform celebrating people of colour and other minorities within the creative industries. Their mantra is making sure everyone’s voice is heard – especially the most underrepresented – by improving visibility and representation.
Roshni: “I was sick of feeling invisible in the industry that I am in – advertising and marketing – and I had been talking about the lack of diversity, visibility and representation for years. But it was only once I met Leyya (co-founder of The Other Box) that we were able to set it up together. In the spirit of 4 BROWN GIRLS WHO WRITE, it’s about that community – we power each other up and support each other.
“Even though I had been writing poetry on my own for years, and talking about diversity on my own for years, it was only once I paired up with other people who could relate that I was able to take it to the next level.”
Sheena: “This being an outsider, being on the edge and the margins – it’s not a bad thing really. It’s a very creative space, to be on the outside and not part of the mainstream. It doesn’t matter whether you’re rich or poor – everybody likes to claim they are an underdog. But genuinely being on the margins is a really fertile place I think. Really productive.”
Sharan: “It is – on the periphery.”
Sunnah: “Exactly, being able to step back because you’re not so immersed in it all – or consumed by one thing or the other.”
Sheena: “Or just never questioning your place in the world. You don’t. When you’re female, brown black, disabled, gay, trans – you have an understanding of society because you experience how it treats its weakest. You actually see society for what it is. It might be a hard place to be, but it’s a good place to be.
Roshni: “We give each other validity and truth. Especially when you are a woman of colour and when you write within the margins, that validity is really important. To have this collective, and to have this sisterhood, has just been so supportive.”
Sheena: “I think that’s why the group is so great – because we get to be in that place together. We give each other permission to be on the outside together.”
Follow 4 BROWN GIRLS WHO WRITE @4browngirlswhowrite
The debut poetry collection from 4 BROWN GIRLS WHO WRITE is published by FEM Press on Friday 9 November 2018. You can pre-order copies of the book from the Fem Zine website.
The launch party will be at Stour Space in Hackney on Friday 9 November 2018. Not to be missed! Buy tickets from Eventbrite.
FEM Press is FEM Zine's new independent publisher. The Yoniverse is a poetry collective who work to amplify the voices of South Asian women across the diaspora. They organise poetry nights regularly in London.
Visit The Other Box – an award-winning platform, enlightening and empowering people to work and live more inclusively through workshops, events and creative consultancy.