In Conversation with The Yoniverse

Amani Saeed © Christy Ku

Amani Saeed
© Christy Ku

The Yoniverse is a poetry collective by South Asian women, for South Asian women. They believe in owning their narratives, in celebrating the diversity of the diaspora and identities. Most of all, they believe in being loud.

A month ago I attended the first event put on by The Yoniverse collective: Golden Tongue: Spoken Word & Music Night. It's an open mic night focused on amplifying the voices of South Asian women, giving them a space to share their stories, and gives everyone else a place to come listen, engage, and learn. I spoke to them about why and how the created this initiative.

Where were you all in your lives when The Yoniverse was created?

Afshan D'souza Lodhi © Christy Ku

Afshan D'souza Lodhi
© Christy Ku

Shagufta - "I had taken a break from writing, and was on maternity leave from my day job, so I was feeling really isolated. When I decided to get back into spoken word and writing, I felt that the barriers I faced made it difficult for me to be a creative; it made me want to reach out and start making links with a support network. It was only fitting that I wanted to hear the stories of female creatives in the spoken word scene, particularly mothers (who were juggling open mic-ing for free and arranging childcare) and what particularly interested me were the conversations I was having with South Asian women about our relationship with the arts."

Amani - "I was in my final year at university when Shagufta reached out to me. I had been doing spoken word for roughly a year at that point, and I hadn’t come across any other South Asian women doing poetry since I was down in very white male Exeter. Initially, I was perturbed—who was this other South Asian woman taking up space in MY poetic niche? Thankfully, Shagufta dispelled the all-too prevalent mindset that there can only be one brown girl in the village dominating the narrative."

Afshan - "I was writing poetry but hadn’t given performance much thought as platforms in Manchester are few for brown women unless you’re part of the cliques. I really struggled in those scenes and that’s when The Yoniverse came about. I had been told repeatedly by people that I wasn't a poet because my style didn’t fit into the scene in Manchester. Claiming the title ‘poet’, through becoming a part of The Yoniverse became an act of resistance for me."

Shareefa - "I was working with young people on stop and search rights and putting my poetry on a backseat. When Shagufta contacted me to become a part of this collective, I was very inspired as my love for expression was reignited and remade a priority where I felt motivated and encouraged to take my art seriously again."

Sophia - "I was looking for any way to connect with my otherwise neglected South Asian side. You can imagine my excitement when that connection arose in the form of poetry. Something I’m most comfortable wearing (writing), meeting with my lifelong identity kryptonite. The Yoniverse came as a perfect mediator."

Shruti - "I had been performing poetry for roughly three years. I’d always felt a little lonely on the creative path and was so touched when Shagufta reached out to me to be a part of something bigger."

How did you guys create the collective? Who reached out to who?

Shareefa Energy © Christy Ku

Shareefa Energy
© Christy Ku

Amani - "Shagufta is the founder of the collective. She was the one who took the time to look all of us up and create a network, first through a Facebook group (of course), but eventually through real meet-ups. I’ll let her tell you her version!"

Shagufta - "So I was made aware that another South Asian spoken word poet was working from the South West region, and she was shit hot! Growing up in a world of 90s politics, I was tired of the rivalry set up by funding bodies between WOC groups, and I wanted to reach out and speak to Amani about her journey.  When we met we clicked immediately, there were so many overlaps in our journey, and what I learnt along the way, I wanted to share with Amani, in a way that I know would have benefited a younger me.  This is where the Collective began, and it is still growing and we are reaching out to new members that we find as we go along. We wanted South Asian to be represented in all its diversity; this is something which we are still working on. We love having people approach us, speak with us and build a relationship with us."

What were your first steps in creating this collective?

Amani - "Meet-ups, whether that was over phone, Skype, or in person. We had a lot of initial conversations about what the collective should look like and what its goals should be. These first steps were really important for us to establish the ethos of the group, namely one that was as diverse as possible and didn’t just showcase fair-skinned, North Indian, Muslim and Hindu women. This was also the time where we shared our own poetry with each other to see what we were working with, what our different styles and subject matter were, and how we differed and intersected. It then only made sense that with the support of Apples and Snakes we put a funding bid into the Arts Council. The bid was successful and allowed us access to a creative development path that really brought the group together."

You held the Golden Tongue event – how did you put it together? Were there any obstacles and how did you overcome them?

Shruti Chauhan © Christy Ku

Shruti Chauhan
© Christy Ku

Amani - "After Shagufta successfully secured us Arts Council funding, we decided that I would take care of the events management because I had some experience running nights at university. As a group, we brainstormed a shortlist of some of the biggest South Asian female poets we could think of, and still use that to pick our headliners for coming events. We decided to be bold and just ask for what we wanted, no matter how big the headliner or the venue. We asked Richmix for a space to hold the night, which they provided after hearing about the quirky night we had in mind (we’re planning on being even bolder and asking for the Main Space next time because the launch was so successful!). In a way, it was surprising that there weren’t more obstacles to our success--people really do want South Asian women to shine and will provide us with a platform when they hear about what we’re up to. Plus, we know how to throw a good party! In all seriousness, the biggest obstacle we had was when one of our headliners dropped out of the event on the day. In a way, it was fortuitous because I had all of the members of the collective perform instead—and while 1 brown woman on a stage is good, 4 brown women on a stage is even better."

Should we expect more events like the Golden Tongue? 

Amani - "Absolutely. We are in the process of finding a permanent home for Golden Tongue and once we do, events will become regular. We think that poetry + samosas + music will be regular aspects of the night. We are also still running our writing groups, which are taking place on the 9th May and 13 June 2018. Have a look at our Facebook page to book a space on Eventbrite."

What else should we expect from each of you?

Shagufta Iqbal © Christy Ku

Shagufta Iqbal
© Christy Ku

Amani - "Collectively, expect more banging nights (if we do say so ourselves) like Golden Tongue. We have a lot planned creatively—think dhol players, rock musicians, DJs, as well as some extremely talented poets who are changing the game all gracing the stage together. As mentioned, we’re also planning a reboot of our monthly writing workshops, led by Anjali Barot and Shagufta Iqbal and kindly hosted by Apples and Snakes. We have one big secret project in the works, but you’re going to have to stay connected with us on our socials if you want to find out more about it! My first collection of poetry, Split, is out with Burning Eye at the end of May. I’ll be holding a launch party mid-June—keep an eye out on my socials for further details."

Afshan - "My debut poetry collection ‘on desire’ is coming out with Eyewear Publishing in July 2018. I will be performing at Edinburgh Festival with She Grrrowls this summer, along with Amani and Shagufta."

Shagufta - "I'm currently working on her second poetry collection as well as a novel. Also I regularly runs writers' retreats in the Brecon Beacons for budding writers."

Shruti - "My pamphlet is out with Burning Eye in late 2018. I'm also working on her debut solo show, The Sky Diaries, and on a BBC documentary, so look out for updates on my social media." 

Anjali - "My first booklet Trump Erasure is due to be released soon with Dizzy Ink and Hotdog Magazine. I also works with the Octavia collective as well as the Living Free art collective, which regularly runs exhibitions."

Sophia - "I'm mixing poetry and sports with Nike, and poetry and music with my festival line-up for summer—which includes the likes of Lovebox. I've also recorded my live EP with Lyrix Organix. Look forward to new videos and campaigns from me within the next few months."

Shareefa  - "I have released spoken word visuals, 'Home' produced by DJ Illanois based in Chicago. This explores feelings of seeking for peace and grounding in another land. I've also released Rebirth, a collaboration with violinist Leila Jallane and will be releasing the video for my poem Perserverance Personified on Vice, about a beloved friend from my local community still in a hotel from the walkways near Grenfell Tower."