For this edition of GRL Talk, our Editor Sara spoke to 4 BROWN GIRLS WHO WRITE, a UK based poetry collective who tackle everything from displacement, heartbreak, friendships and growing up in their spoken word performances.
Hi girls! For some of our readers who may not know about 4 BROWN GIRLS WHO WRITE, could you explain who each of you are and what you guys do together?
Sheena: 4 BROWN GIRLS WHO WRITE are a London based poetry collective made up of Roshni Goyate, Sunnah Khan, Sharan Hunjan and myself, Sheena Patel.
How did 4 BROWN GIRLS WHO WRITE come to be? Can you tell us a little bit about meeting and starting your amazing collective?
Sheena: The designer of our book and my best friend, BK, had moved onto a boat on the Thames in 2017. Proposed as a house-warming, I suggested that we gather our friends together and read things we had written to one another. I was becoming fascinated by the strength in vulnerability. About 15-20 of our pals turned up — the sun was shining, the prosecco was flowing, we read to each other and it was magical. We were all sitting on these sofas on this boat on the River, rocking with the tide and I remember seeing their peaceful faces when it struck me that we needed to be together in some way. I suggested that we should make it ~ a thing ~ and I called the WhatsApp group 4 BROWN GIRLS WHO WRITE as a placeholder name. It was all very natural with no expectations, and it was just for us. Rosh, Sharan and I have known each other since we were 18 but we met Sunnah that night. It all clicked, there was something that united us.
Sunnah: My flatmate, Patrick, is good friends with Sheena and so I tagged along to their gathering of friends because I was curious about the idea of coming together to share your creative practice with your friends. I had no intention of reading anything out loud (I’ve been writing in secret since I was a teenager and quite stubbornly so) but hearing the girls encouraged me.
Sharan: After hearing Sunnah’s, Rosh’s and Sheena’s poetry on the boat, their sense of vulnerability and openness in poetry really stuck with me. When we talked as a four afterwards and made this creative space for sharing our writing it felt like a relief; it was something that was really refreshing and something, although I hadn’t realised it, I had wanted for a really long time. Forming the collective as four creative women felt very natural and necessary. Everyone is so different but the difference is inspiring and is an exciting space to be part of.
Roshni: Meeting up in person was absolutely vital to our beginnings, but the digital space, our WhatsApp group, has also been a constant source of love and support. It took the pressure of always having to coordinate diaries, so we just had a constant stream of sharing, kind, honest creative feedback, which I hadn’t felt before.
What’s the best thing for each of you about performing as a collective?
Sheena: Standing with these goddesses on stage, cheering them on, encouraging them and being encouraged. We all write separately but perform together and I think the audience seeing one person perform while three are listening heightens the listening process.
Sunnah: I feel like the act of standing alone and speaking is the ultimate act of exposure, but there’s something so beautiful in doing that together – allowing space for your own vulnerability whilst simultaneously holding space for the vulnerability of others. I feel like when we perform we embody the essence of what creative community and friendship means to us – listening, speaking, holding each other in vulnerability and celebrating one another. There’s a lot a love on the stage and I think it’s infectious. Vulnerability really can be this beautiful positive shared experience.
Sharan: You’ve got a crew with you! Being on stage together at a time when things can seem very individualistic gives us strength when we perform. I love seeing the others perform and seeing what they creatively do with their poetry and voices as it makes me consider what I’m doing, and allows growth. The love, vibes and sisterhood on stage make it a really exciting place to be.
Roshni: Through my pregnancy I learned about the power of oxytocin, a happy but shy chemical that is induced by loving physical skin-to-skin contact. I feel like when we perform on stage together, the oxytocin is free-flowing. To have the other three there as a support system is a perfect remedy to any anxiety or stress. We show up for each other. In today’s world I feel like that is quite a radical act.
How do you support each other before and during performances?
Sheena: We confer beforehand about what we’ll read, we’ll decide who’ll start and who will close and fill in the gaps. Our style of performing is one will step forward and the other three stand back holding one another, which again, as a style came very organically. We tell each other to take time, the space is ours, we deserve to take up attention – which is also why our name is in capital letters – we say to each other, slow down, let people hear the words, let them reverberate around the room.
Sunnah: Before a big performance I’m usually telling the others to breathe or stretch, do things to get yourself really grounded in your body and out of your head that day. Personally, yoga really helps me with becoming present in that kind of space.
Sharan: Before our launch I gave Roshni some chevra to eat and her mouth swelled up just before our performance because of a nut allergy – but that was just a one off! On the whole we all see what the energy is like on that day and ask each other questions on what we think is right to perform and which poems would lead off on one another best.
Roshni: Haha, Sharan!
You published a poetry collective with FEM Press in November, can you tell us how that came about and what the process was like? How was it seeing your collective work written down?
Sheena: Sunnah was asked to be FEM Zine’s poet in residence and we performed at their launch in January 2018. Through that connection, Georgia asked us to publish a book with them as they wanted to move into publishing. We submitted poems to her, she saw the themes that united them which is how the four chapters of Silk, Smoke, Saffron and Temples came about. I did the raw print for the cover and BK designed the entire book and made it into an actual legitimate thing. She did such a great job and is so talented, we were lucky she was a part of the whole process. I’m lucky I know her to be honest.
The first time I held the book I was moved to tears, sobbing from pure joy. It’s been a lifelong dream to be published in a book and to have done it this way, with your friends in such an active way was a dream beyond dreams. The reaction has been overwhelming – to have connected with so many people has been a pinch yourself feeling. Our launch at Stour Space was honestly what I imagine getting married is like, except I was with my friends and it was for a book! One of the most dreamy, magical nights of my life, the crowd was exceptional and we all had a big party afterwards.
Sunnah: Every time I see our work in print I swell with pride and disbelief, particularly in reading these beautiful women and their distinctive voices sitting next to mine, I feel really honoured. We’ve had such a positive response since the book launched in November last year. We’ve already sold out of first edition and our second edition is just about to go to print. Growing up I struggled to find voices in public spaces that resonated with my own intersections of identity as Scottish, Pakistani, Muslim from an incredibly multicultural family. When someone comes up and says they feel inspired to write or that they resonate with your experiences and it made them feel less alone, that’s magical. It’s what I always wished someone would make me feel growing up.
Sharan: I had a very delayed reaction to seeing our work in print and having it in my hands. I think I feel it more now than I did back then. I’m immensely proud of us and I love seeing our poems interwoven in the book with its beautiful ochre cover and with the lovely Bex’s and Georgia’s imprint all over it. There’s something very empowering knowing we have created this collectively. Having our four different voices coming together but still being so distinctive gives it a particular energy. The launch was incredible and I definitely felt like I was on a high after the performance because it felt like we – 4BGWW, the audience and the supporting poets – were all in something together. You could feel it in the room, it was amazing!
Roshni: I was in the middle of having a baby so the whole process was really surreal for me, for so many reasons! To pick my pieces, I had to go through about a decade of my own work, rediscovering poems I had discarded thinking they were rubbish (turns out they weren’t!) and parts of my life I had long forgotten. I described it at the time as seeing a ghost – not in a scary way, but seeing a once familiar face after a very long time. In that process I also inadvertently discovered I had written loads of poetry about my dad, which I found surprising as I consciously focus a lot on the female relationships in my life.
What’s next for 4 BROWN GIRLS WHO WRITE?
Sunnah: To keep performing, retreat to creatively charge ourselves up, connect with other creatives and keep encouraging and supporting each other to write.
Sheena: To carry on writing, to perform more, to branch out as individuals – it’s been a great way of gaining confidence. We have performances with Molejoy, at their album launch in March, a talk at Housman’s bookshop in May and at Stokey Lit Fest in June. We’re also discussing an event with Burley Fisher, another one with Reform the Funk and Camberwell and we’re going to do a talk at a grammar school in South London. We’re also thinking of hosting another event so we’re a platform for other voices that deserve to be heard. We got plans!
Finally, a question we ask everyone we interview for our GRL Talk feature is: if you could go back and tell your 16-year-old self anything, what would it be?
Sunnah: That one day you will stand backstage watching your favourite band (Oasis) in your 30’s! You will realise that there are things you couldn’t ever have imagined that are waiting in your future for you. Never stop dreaming, creating and rebelling. These are the things that will fuel your life. Also all those parts of yourself you try to hide, that you wish were more normal and suburban, you’ll miss those parts of your life the most one day. Try to appreciate it, especially the people that raised you. P.S. your chin is so not as big as you think it is. Also big hair and big brows will come back into fashion one day and it will be such a good look for you so try not to pluck and straighten so much.
Roshni: I would say ‘believe in yourself’ and remind myself that just because my experiences and voice are not reflected in mainstream narratives doesn’t mean they are not valid. I would also like to say to 16-year old Sheena that when she gets to uni, someone called Roshni will be in awe of her confidence and sense of style and intelligence and feel too shy to say so in person.
Sheena: What you’re thinking and feeling and doing is OK even though it feels weird right now. You are everything and more, stop wishing to be someone else, someone white. Your heart on your sleeve is the best thing about you and is the key to your life. (Also you WILL grow into your nose so stop staring at yourself in the mirror!)
Sharan: Write! Read and write every damn day!
We’d like to say a huge thank you to 4 BROWN GIRLS WHO WRITE for chatting to us. We’ve seen them do their stuff and they’re incredible – if you get the chance, do go and support them.
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