Tell me about you, as an artist. How do you define art? What art do you make?
Whenever people ask me what I do, I always instinctively reply “I’m a poet” but even getting to that point took years. I’m starting to feel like more of a ‘storyteller’ – that sounds pretentious but essentially, I feel like what I do is I get to play around with different ways to tell stories. I guess I’d say for me, art is an attempt to seek and understand truth. My poetry is very personal, I write to reclaim an inner power that I misplaced or gave away. It’s mostly feeling. Writing and performing have been survival.
Performance is a really cathartic experience, I have a really complicated relationship with it as every time I perform it feels like I’m opening my soul and demanding it to be seen, telling people things about myself I wouldn’t usually tell them, it’s not the idea of judgement that scares me, it’s a fear of being open.
There’s a lot of trauma in the world and there’s been a lot of repression in my mind, my work is an attempt to work through these things. This year I’ve been thinking a lot about the phrase “In order to survive, we were taught to forget” which I saw filmmaker and director Campbell X write on social media and I really felt it. That’s popped into my mind a lot while I’ve been writing this year. I’m terrified of one day forgetting my life, but there’s so many events that I push as far back as I can in order to just about survive, so I suppose it makes sense that my work has always had a confessional aspect, even a poem like ‘to the Slaughter’ which is so grotesque and seems so far away from reality where my body is being chopped away, takes me back to a very specific, very real moment.
You’ve recently been co-commissioned by Commonword and Journeys Festival to produce a piece of work in response to our Displaced Words brief. What was your initial inspiration for the piece Letters to our Mothers and Fathers? What do you hope audiences will gain from experiencing this work?
There was something I wanted to say, I didn’t know what it was but I knew I wanted to say it. I have a bit of a weird relationship with my parents. I was raised by my grandmother; my dad’s mum and I haven’t seen my mum since I moved to England as a child. My dad’s always vaguely been around but I think because he didn’t raise me, there’s a distance between us. I think we don’t really know how to talk to each other. My mum feels more like a new friend and not so much a mother figure. I wanted to explore that, to communicate with both of my parents. I started writing letters to them about a year ago, letters I’m never going to send, sometimes I keep them, sometimes I don’t. There’s a lot of things we don’t say in my family. Family dynamics are often complicated, I’m obsessed with trying to figure them out.
I wanted to see what this experience feels like for others who, like me, are far from their home countries. I wanted to try and bring to the surface a snippet of what that feels like, to be trying to stay connected to people who are so far away, who you haven’t seen for years, maybe even decades, when you can’t just…make the trip to see them.
You are the curator of Queer Contact: Outspoken. How did you get into curating? How do you feel curating compliments your work as a writer?
I was on the National Student Pride committee when I was at university and I think I caught the curating bug when I was there, for two years I saw the festival start as vague ideas and then I got to watch and be a part of its becoming.
During Temporary Monument, Permanent Protest – a project myself, Nasima Begum, Ali Wilson and Isaac Rose produced for Contact to celebrate the 30th anniversary of the Section 28 protests in Manchester, I got the chance to work with young LGBTQ poets. I facilitated poetry workshops with them and worked with Nasima to curate their performance at an event at the old Free Trade Hall to launch an image we’d commissioned by Manuel Vason. We also commissioned new works from local artists Louise Wallwein and Leo Hermitt. We’d been inspired by the Never Going Underground exhibition at the People’s History Museum when we’d come together for Re:Con, we couldn’t miss the chance to celebrate this beautiful moment in Manchester’s history where 25,000 people had marched across the city in anger at the government’s anti-gay proposed laws.
I was over the moon when Contact asked me to work with them to curate Queer Contact’s Outspoken! I think being a writer can feel very isolating at times, so I always jump at the chance to collaborate and showcase the brilliant work happening in Manchester right now, particularly by queer artists. I love that you don’t have to look very hard to find someone in this city who’s doing something fantastic, I regularly go to see performances so the Outspoken line up was performers whose work I’d been admiring over the past few years.
You’re a seasoned spoken word performer, what do you enjoy most about the spoken word scene? What advice would you give to first time performers?
I love the support from other poets, particularly in Manchester. It really does help to have a community of creatives otherwise you’d just be practicing your craft alone in your room (in my case anyway). To have friends like Nasima Begum who demand to see drafts of your new ideas, to regularly have a show or a performance or exhibition to support a friend in is really important in just keeping me going.
If you’re thinking about performing or have just started, show people your work – especially if the thing doesn’t feel finished (will it ever feel finished?), do it! Performance doesn’t just happen on the stage. Ask for advice, ask for help, find your community.
Over the summer you’ve been working at Edinburgh Fringe and you’ve previously participated in the Royal Exchange’s Writers of Colour group. What are your plans for delving further into theatre land?
I’ve always thought of myself as being in a long-term relationship with words, and I’m really excited by theatre and spectacle. Before Fringe, I was working at Manchester International Festival so working amongst two brilliant festivals for showcasing theatre and art, seeing shows back to back throughout the summer, it just made sense to look into writing about theatre. I applied for the Greater Manchester Critics Scheme as soon as I got back from Edinburgh and was really pleased to get accepted! There are some great programmes in and around Manchester this Autumn/Winter at theatres like Contact, the Royal Exchange, HOME and the Octagon and I’m really excited to dive into theatre reviewing and learning from some top names in the field.
What have been the key milestones in your development as a writer?
I joined Young Identity when I first moved to Manchester and I’m really thankful for those workshops and the amount of support I gained from being part of the performance collective. I’ll always love YI. Standing on the Shoulders of Giants was a stunning show to be part of, three generations of artists came together at Contact – Speakeasy, Inna Voice and Young Identity, that was a great moment.
Shadowing Keisha Thompson and watching her spectacular show Man on the Moon bloom and grow. That was really special, to be invited by Keisha into the space and watch a show become.
Performing on Nima Séne’s Beige Bitch with Contact at Stun. Nima really encouraged me to take control of the poem I performed, to play around with its presentation. To take up space.
Chatting to, laughing with, getting words of wisdom from one of my favourite playwrights ever – Debbie Tucker-Green during a Writers of Colour workshop(!!!!)
Chronologically, it’s interesting to see how my choices and opportunities over the past few years have kind of been leading me into making theatre.
What’s next for you in your writing career?
I used to find solo shows so terrifying and always thought I’d never have the nerve to do one. When I was shadowing Keisha,I remember thinking I’d never want to get on stage, as myself in a solo show and tell people things about my life as they happened. I always thought I would just write plays and have nothing to do with the performance. I guess there’s been some growth somewhere down the line as I’m now trying to learn as much as I can about how to do just that. There’s a story I want to tell and obviously there’s poetry involved but I want to see how much further I can push it. Until this year, I had only told a handful of friends in my whole life that I’m a refugee. I’ve always shared that I wasn’t born here, but I wouldn’t go out of my way to correct people when they’d assume that I had British Citizenship. Sometimes things would happen and I’d just keep them quiet instead of telling the story and having to answer the inevitable questions. I’m picking apart that shame, while trying to figure out if there is such a thing as ‘becoming British’. This story is more than three minutes long. I’m terrified. I’m excited.
I pitched the idea to Mother’s Bloomers and I’ll be workshopping a ten-minute part of the script at their next event at the Royal Exchange on the 16th of November with Lisa and Tim’s support. It’s a completely different performance to anything I’ve ever done before.
Where can we find out more about you and your work?
Later this year in December, a small collection of some of my poems –Slaughter –is being published in the new anthology from Lungs Project. The anthology’s called New Landscapes and is now available to pre-order at lungsproject.org!
You can follow also me on Twitter – @mandla_rae – I post all my upcoming gigs and news there.
I had a chat with Nuria López de la Oliva, curator and Journeys Festival Assistant Producer for the Journeys Roots to Fruits Podcast where we talked about Manchester and I shared a monologue from the solo show I’m currently working on developing. That will be on the Journeys Festival website in October.
Also happening in October are the Letters to our Mothers and Fathers performances. The first will be at Longsight Library on the 5th of October and the second will be at Cathedral Gardens on the 12th. I’ll be part of the festival’s activities on those days too, you can come and write a letter with me so please do!
But I’d say the best way to find out about my work is to come and see me or book me to perform! I’m performing quite a bit in October actually, at the Journeys Festival Launch, Creatures of Catharsis and the Devils Dykes Network Festival in Brighton.
Sum up your experience thus far in one word.