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Introducing Readers on Writers – the series where our shadow judging panel interview the shortlisted authors for the Sunday Times Charlotte Aitken Young Writer of the Year Award. In this interview, shadow judge Taslima Khatun speaks to Momtaza Mehri about her shortlisted debut poetry collection, Bad Diaspora Poems. They discuss identity, creating art as a Black poet and as a young writer in Britain as well as poetry as a universal language. Read more of their discussion below.

Question 1: Congratulations on your shortlist for The Sunday Times Charlotte Aitken Young Writer of the Year Award 2023 with Bad Diaspora Poems. This is a singular piece of work about identity, race, and creating art as a Black poet. There is an awareness in your writing which really cleaves the Empire, forcing readers to acknowledge what is often ignored. And there is also an abundance of joy. I’ve held these poems close to my heart, or really these poems have held me. Being short-listed is a sheer, unexpected joy. Representing poetry on such a strong list is not something I take lightly, and is its own honour.

Being shortlisted is a sheer, unexpected joy. Representing poetry on such a strong list is not something I take lightly, and is its own honour.

Question 2. In Bad Diaspora Poems you shift between languages – Somali, Arabic, English and a little Italian – as well as borders and seas. There is almost a reluctancy to settle and I think that gives way to a palpable tension between yourself and the land. So what I want to ask is, what does it mean to be working as a young writer specifically in Britain today?

What I wanted to do with the polyphony of voices, languages, and locales, was to reflect an ingrained, awkward transnationalism. We have this idea of the cosmopolitan subject as somebody who is well-off, mobile, and formally educated. For me, the paradigmatic transnational subject has always been the refugee, the migrant, the exile. In my poems, I wanted to consider the gutsy resourcefulness required to survive these realities, the tenacity of starting a new life while sifting through the wreckage of an old one.

At times, I have felt quite ideologically and creatively pinned down as a writer in Britain. This might be due to the constraints of the Anglophone imagination at large, and not just particularly British flavours of provincialism. It took some distancing to figure out what kind of writer I wanted to be, and I’ve never been interested in mining my hyphenated identity for all its worth. I’ve never been a fan of how categorisation and demarcation feed into each other, hardening and bordering thought. I’m always writing towards freedom, even if it remains an elusive concept.

Question 3. A writing space is important to women writers whether it is a room of one’s own or quite simply a desk in the corner of a bedroom. At the beginning of Bad Diaspora Poems you say that this collection was written within sight of the Mediterranean Sea. Can you speak a little about how the sea inspires you?

The Mediterranean is a graveyard. It’s a playground. A site of cultural cross-fertilisation and possibility. An incubator of tragedy. Over the years, I’ve been drawn to it for various, often inexplicable reasons, but mostly because of how much havoc it wreaks on my thinking and writing. The sea has a destabilising effect. For me, the Mediterranean has helped me grapple with notions of escape and abandonment. I wrote and rewrote much of Bad Diaspora Poems with the sea in view, within touching distance, from a balcony, a bench, or just over the horizon. I wanted it to seep in, to alter the text in some indelible way

Question 4. Following on from this idea of space – how does a literary space like the Young Writer’s Award reflect your perception of yourself as a writer working in this industry? What does it mean to you to be recognised for your work?

Growing up, I had quite a romantic view of the writer’s life. I thought poets were born to be dishevelled, impoverished geniuses. If your poetry ended up outliving you, then I didn’t think it was such a terrible thing to toil away in irrelevance in the present. The lives of the poets I was exposed to as a youngster coloured my views. Even the widely celebrated ‘national’ poets of Africa and Arab canons had wrestled with imprisonment, exile, political repression, and poverty. I don’t idealise suffering any more, but I do think reading and learning from these poets really sharpened my sense of perspective. Or maybe it just kept my expectations low. You don’t exactly turn to poetry for financial and social reward.

Having said that, being nominated for an award like this is not something I take for granted. I’m tremendously grateful, and being recognised at such a level is a vital push, the kind that keeps a writer plodding along. It’s an incentive to keep challenging and surprising myself.

Questions 5. When is a poet a poet? When they are writing poetry, or when they are getting recognised for their work?

Every poet’s trajectory is different. I cut my teeth participating in zine culture, local arts initiatives, and youth programmes. As the Young People’s Laureate of London, I was constantly awed by the malleability of poetry, how it could stir and nurture floods of creativity in everyone from boisterous schoolkids to recent refugees. That breadth of experience was rewarding. Poetry should be actively represented in the environments where it’s most needed, where its transformative effects can flourish. It should be an open invitation. That’s how I found it as a young person, and I’m committed to keeping that door open for others.

Question 6. How does the idea of community inspire your work?

Community is a much-abused word. At its core, it’s a tussle between responsibility and risk. Bad Diaspora Poems is enamoured with the difficulty of community. I am interested in how far we can go, and how much we sacrifice in order to maintain the illusions and conformities of community. What do we owe each other? Can we forgive one another for our failures ? I don’t think community can exist without forgiveness. My collection wouldn’t exist without a preoccupation with the limits of forgiveness.

Question 7. What came first – forgiveness or violence?

Violence is a constitutive element of community. It keeps people together as much as it keeps them apart. In our literary culture, however, we tend to emphasise spectacular acts of violence, the cruelties which send people fleeing rather than those that bind them together. You can’t divorce community from both internally and externally imposed violence. It’s not a question of what comes first, but rather, how forgiveness and violence thrive alongside each other, in tandem and tumult.

Question 8. Can you speak a little about the conflict between art and class? Certainly, in the UK, art is afforded to those who are white and middle class more readily than it is to a working-class writer from an ethnic minority background. From your own experiences, how can we confront this, and what would you say to young writers who are struggling to bridge this gap between art and class?

I owe a lot to the rich vein of autodidacticism that has shaped working class culture in Britain. It’s a tradition that’s been slowly degraded across the arts, and the field of possibility for working class artists has drastically narrowed. There’s a crisis of low expectations, and writers from such backgrounds are demeaned by having to perform and play up to their assigned roles. You have to resist any kind of categorical enclosure, because that leads to creative and personal stasis. Cultural gatekeepers want to ‘amplify’ marginalised voices, but they carry their own assumptions about what you can write about, the kind of writer you are, and the kind of writer you can grow into. It’s like giving someone the keys to the house but relegating them to a single room. Working class writers and artists are really diminished by the reductive visions of their industries. It’s a climate that discourages risk, spontaneity, and provocation.

I’m a contrarian at heart, admittedly. I want to peek into every room and disturb the furniture. Everything is ours. I really believe that.

Young Writer Award @YoungWriterYear

Follow us on twitter. The Young Writer of the Year Award is a prize of £10,000 for a writer under 35.

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