The following is the edited transcript of a conversation with writer and co-founder of Where I’m Coming From, Durre Shahwar. This podcast would not exist had I not met Durre in 2016. There weren’t many artists from minority communities back then, and there aren’t really that many now either. But working with a successful artist from a similar background inspired me to challenge myself and change the way that I worked. It led me into a rabbit hole that I’m still tumbling down today, and it’s why you’re able to read this right now. Inspiration and representation come up quite a lot in this really interesting conversation, which was recorded in August 2019, but Durre brings up so many other important topics.
If you’d like to listen to the episode, click here.
Welcome to Episode Three of Critically Speaking.
Jafar Iqbal: When did you start calling yourself a writer?
Durre Shahwar: About a year or two ago.
DS: And I’ve actually been writing for longer than that.
JI: Did you just wake up one day and be like, I’m a writer? Or did something happen?
DS: When I was changing my Twitter bio one time… (starts laughing)
JI: That’s a horrible reason!
DS: Well, no, actually, because, otherwise you put some sort of self-mimicry word in front of ‘writer’. Or ‘aspiring writer’, or ‘nearly there writer’, you know? Some people do that. And to be able to just be ‘writer’, fullstop…obviously, it wasn’t like I woke up one day and was like, ‘today, I will now just be a writer’. It took time to get used to. But I think, as I was growing in the number of publications I was having, I think that helped. Yeah, publications and good magazines. And then I think, most of it was when I got accepted to do my PhD, because my PhD is in Creative Writing.
DS: So I was like, ‘okay, people actually like my writing enough to fund me to do a PhD’. So it was funded as well so, then I was like, ‘yeah!’
JI: See, that’s the interesting thing. You’ve achieved so much, yet you still have this imposter syndrome.
DS: Yeah…I think it’s because I haven’t achieved everything that I want to achieve yet.
DS: Because the main priority is to publish a book. I think, especially as a writer, it’s that whole ‘I’m not a writer until I’ve published a book’. I mean, I am a writer, but you know? I can actually say to people, ‘yes, I’ve got a book too!’. So right now, I’m published in books, but not my own book… (laughs)
JI: So what were you calling yourself beforehand?
DS: I can’t remember. I think it was…or I don’t think it was writer as such, it was ‘I like to write’. Which is slightly different because it’s like saying ‘I like to read’. I think it’s a shame to need that external validation, and especially validation by people who are gatekeepers. Because no matter how much we do, there’s always gonna be gatekeepers. But I think that’s a big part of it, really.
JI: Do you think it’s easier for you now, with gatekeepers?
DS: No. (laughs) I thought it was becoming easier but I feel like, actually, in some ways it gets harder too. Especially this year, I’ve had difficult situations with gatekeepers which you know of which we won’t mention. But I think as you grow more confident as a writer, and more confident in what your voice is and what kind of image you want to put out, you then don’t let gatekeepers compromise that image either by putting yourself in that position. Not many gatekeepers like that, so then that builds some friction. So in some ways it gets easier, in some ways it doesn’t.
JI: What do you think of the gatekeeper issue in Wales? Do you think it’s still a big issue? Do you think it’s still quite difficult to move ahead?
DS: I think people are trying. I think gatekeepers are trying and I think it’s getting a bit better. I think people’s hearts are in the right places, but I don’t know if the actions are always there. I think people are more aware of it now, I think they’re trying to do better.
JI: Do you know of anyone who is doing it well? Who would you turn to and go, ‘yep, that person, that organisation is really trying’?
DS: I think that Literature Wales are really trying their best.
JI: In what way?
DS: For example, their funding schemes, they recently put out a funding scheme. Because I feel like that’s another thing. There’s one thing having your heart in the right place, and it’s one thing making actions to follow that up with. They recently put out a funding scheme to platform underrepresented writers and, for that funding scheme, they even had consultations with different BAME creatives in Wales, and it was the first time that I’ve ever come across a paid consultation. Did they ask you to do one?
JI: No. Thanks for letting me know about it though! (Durre laughs) It’s fine…!
DS: Well, the funding scheme is still open, so you can still apply.
JI: I’ll give them a call later!
DS: But I know a lot of people disguise consultations, especially in Wales, as ‘lets go for a coffee and a chat’. It took me a long time to get used to, and to realise that that’s basically you giving free advice to someone. Which is sometimes okay and sometimes not okay. But yeah, for them, they were really clear about the fact that it was a paid consultation, this is the funding scheme we want you to give your views on. And for them to be able to put out a funding scheme aimed at underrepresented writers, which was created with the help of underrepresented writers, they had an input in it, I think that’s a big thing.
JI: What’s your experience been like with Literature Wales in the past? Has it always been this way or do you think there was a change?
DS: I think it’s always been this way. I mean, I’m gonna sound biased because I used to work for them, but that was many years ago. And I think actually, at that time, I did feel like they could do with more. They could do with specifically targeting more underrepresented groups. But I think at the time, this was many years ago, I wasn’t as confident as I am now. Nor was I aware of anyone in the community, I mean I hadn’t even started Where I’m Coming From at the time. I’d just finished my Masters, I was new to the arts scene in Wales, so I wasn’t even aware of other creatives of colour in Wales. So to be able to want to speak out in a predominantly middle class white environment as someone who’s come from a working class background, migrant BAME background, I wasn’t very confident. But I remember feeling this at the time and not saying anything about it. There has definitely been a shift now in the last couple of years as opposed to three, four years ago.
JI: Where has the confidence come from? Where does the outspokenness come from?
DS: I think finding more people like me in Wales, and actually being asked to give opinions on things and realising that I do actually have something to say. Because if you have a thought and keep it to yourself and nobody else asks you for an opinion on it, then you don’t ever think it’s a valid thought, if that makes sense. But I think starting Where I’m Coming From, that’s been the biggest boost for me. Because I know it was created as much to boost underrepresented writers, but it’s been as much of a growth for me.
JI: How has it been a growth for you?
DS: I think just…creating the community, where I have other people that I can bounce ideas off of, and knowing that other people around me, in the same position as me, are out there. It kind of pushes you to take on some sort of leadership role. Not so much a leadership role, but we do lead Where I’m Coming From. So I think that just naturally pushes you to be more confident, because if I wasn’t confident, then Where I’m Coming From wouldn’t grow, if I wasn’t brave.
JI: Did you know those communities existed? Because you get a good crowd every month…
JI: …and it’s growing, it does seem like it grows every month, and it always seems like you get new people every month. Did you know those people were there?
JI: Where were they?
DS: (laughing) I don’t know!
JI: Haven’t you asked them?
DS: ‘Where were you all this time?!’ I dunno…I think I had an idea for ages. I think when The Good Immigrant started, and I always refer back to it, because that was one of my biggest inspirations, because Good Immigrant I saw as a book of writers of colour coming together and creating something, and then there seemed to be this whole network in London of writers of colour, supporting each other. And I just wanted something like that in Wales. And so I had the idea for ages, that maybe I should do a callout and see what other writers of colour are out there. I even did a blog post about it, actually, on my personal blog. I was like, I want to discover more BAME writers in Wales. And then I guess I did start discovering them. And eventually, the spider web of networks grew, and I realised there was scope for more.
JI: Are you surprised at the success?
DS: Yeah! I’m surprised every month when people turn up, and it’s been two years!
JI: It has been quite a long time now.
DS: Yeah. And not just surprised that people turn up – surprised that new people turn up. And I shouldn’t admit this but we don’t actually change that much in terms of our outreach strategy, except putting it out on social media. But I guess word of mouth as well.
JI: A lot of what you do is about having a safe space. What was the safe space before Where I’m Coming From?
DS: I don’t think there was one.
JI: Where did you go?
DS: I’m going to sound cocky saying that, but yeah…
JI: No, if it’s the truth, it’s the truth.
DS: I think…I think, in a way – okay, this is gonna sound so corny – but for writers, just being in a literary environment is sometimes a safe space. And yeah, I just used to attend all open mics and I never had a bad experience. I was vaguely aware that something was missing, that I didn’t feel quite like I fitted in. I think that’s when the imposter syndrome was highest for me because, yeah, I just felt different. But I never had an awful experience.
JI: Are you seeing people like yourself now, coming through every month at Where I’m Coming From? Do you see yourself back in 2015?
DS: Yeah…kind of. I definitely see, like…for example, when we get young people. So recently, a young person actually got in touch with me through my website online, and she was from a South Asian background too. She was like, ‘I never knew people like you existed’. It was a really humbling moment, that someone could find out about me and look up to me in that way. I think she looks up to me.
JI: Maybe she’s short…
DS: (laughs) Yeah, maybe, it’s literally looking up to me! But yeah, I see myself in that, writing as a young person and not knowing that there were people like me around, that I was literally the only person. And obviously, I didn’t have Where I’m Coming From.
JI: Who did you look up to? Was there anyone in Wales you were like, ‘hey, I like this person’?
DS: Not in Wales, no. Though…my Masters supervisor Kate North was always really inspirational to me.
JI: How big a problem is that? That there’s nobody in Wales you could look up to?
DS: It’s a big problem. And especially because when writers of colour do get to that stage, they normally leave Wales. Which I do understand, because Wales can be frustrating at times, to say the least. And I think it’s good for any writer, regardless of their background, to grow outside all over the UK, as opposed to just being comfortable in Wales. Yeah, I do think it’s a big problem. It’s also maybe to do with education as well. I mean, I didn’t study any South Asian writers in university, so I think that in itself is an issue, a totally other topic about how diverse is academia, how representative it is, whichever cool word we’re going with now.
JI: Which cool word are you going with?
DS: Representation, I guess. But diversity as well, still. They’re both problematic. Which one are you going with now?
JI: I go with representation.
DS: Yeah, or underrepresented.
JI: Yeah…underrepresented has quite a negative connotation, whereas representation doesn’t. Representation is a bit more…neutral. Because not all representation is bad…
DS: I see.
JI: …so if you say underrepresented, that’s just an offshoot of representation.
DS: Right, okay.
JI: Does that make sense?
DS: Kind of.
JI: It doesn’t look like it does…!
DS: (laughs) Well, yeah. I see where you’re coming from. When I say representation, I imagine being representative of society. Whereas underrepresented still feels like a marginalisation in its way. Yeah, it’s tricky.
JI: This is gonna sound really negative, but I don’t think we’ll ever stop…we’ll never not be underrepresented.
DS: Us, you mean, as BAME writers?
JI: Not even us, but isn’t that just how the world works? There always has to be a minority?
DS: Why though?
JI: Why, why? Because that’s the world, isn’t it?
DS: Because, why? Well, I don’t believe in it, I don’t like hierarchies so fuck them. You’ll have to edit that out.
JI: No, you can swear as much as you want.
DS: Yeah, so I don’t like hierarchy.
JI: But do you think you don’t like hierarchy because it’s always historically undermined people who look like you?
DS: Yes. And I mean, why must there always be like someone who is oppressed? I just don’t think it’s fair. I think there’s room for everyone, and there’s room for everyone to be equal. Respecting everyone doesn’t cost much. You know, you’re not asking for much.
JI: Do you think a book like The Good Immigrant could be written in Wales?
JI: Do you think there are enough people of colour in Wales to…
DS: Yes! They could! They definitely could. I mean, okay, Parthian’s anthology that I’m currently editing, that’s just not about race. That kind of includes everyone, all marginalised writers…
JI: It’s basically my podcast in book form! Thank you for doing that.
DS: You’re welcome! Yeah, it’s just not about race and ethnicity and heritage, it’s about neurodivergent people, sexuality, all of those marginalisations. But I think there could definitely be scope to do another book that was just focused on race and ethnicity. And even another book that just focuses on sexuality, because there is definitely scope for all of it, and we shouldn’t tar everyone under the same brush. Yeah, I think people just need to get on with it.
JI: What has that experience been like, of editing this work from marginalised writers?
DS: Stressful! But also really, really…stressful and rewarding at the same time.
JI: Rewarding how?
DS: Rewarding as in, we’re reading such amazing essays, and there’s so many good voices in there.
JI: Were these voices that you’d heard before?
DS: No. Some of them, yes, but some of them, no. And some of them, like…one of the writers we have on board, she’s recently been shortlisted or longlisted for the 4th Estate Guardian BAME Short Story Prize. So it’s, like, amazing! And she’s probably always been there, but that’s the amazing thing with writers like this, that you discover them. The pool gets bigger.
JI: Why was The Good Immigrant so inspirational?
DS: I think it’s because it was one of the first of its kind. Or maybe there were more before it, but I found that. And I think it came out just after Brexit, or just during Brexit, around that time, and it was just so needed. And it was just bold and outspoken and, yeah, really needed. And I think it paved the way for a lot of things that came after. A lot of people created projects and anthologies, zines and community initiatives.
JI: What do you think of the communities that are in Wales now, and the work that they’re doing? Not just yourself but others? Things like Lumin [Press], things like Gentle/Radical…was that there a few years ago?
DS: It wasn’t, no. And I think that’s one of the questions, one of the homework tasks you gave to me. Who deserves a shoutout? And I wanna say Lumin, especially, deserves a shoutout because – Lumin and Lucent [Dreaming] – because they’re the two grassroots zines in Wales led by women of colour. Especially in Wales where publishing and the gatekeepers of publishing, people who are publishers, and magazines, etc. they are predominantly white. And I think, you know it’s great, and I’m working with one of them and it’s great to work with them, but I think sometimes you do need…like, they’re hopefully going to fill the gap for BAME-led publishers.
JI: Do you think there are too many white people in Wales in senior positions?
DS: Yes. And actually, I had to sigh because I just thought of National Theatre Wales when you said that. How Kully’s [Thiarai] now leaving, and that’ll be one less person of colour in a higher position in Wales, and how sad that is.
JI: What is it that NTW does that was so beneficial to you?
DS: I think…so actually, I met Kully when she came to The Good Immigrant launch. And then afterwards, she reached out to me because they were doing India Wales with the British Council and Wales Arts International. And she just reached out me as a creative, as an artist, to see if I was interested, and hell yeah I was interested in it, because I’d never heard of a national company doing a project like that in Wales. And not just women of colour, BAME women, specifically South Asian women, because I think that’s really significant. Like, I feel like even I’m guilty of it, tarring all women of colour under the same brush, whereas our experiences aren’t the same. Black women’s experiences aren’t the same as South Asian women’s experiences. And the same as South East Asian or East Asian women’s experiences, they’re not all the same. So yeah, that was really good. One of my essays was rewritten as a monologue for Sisters. It was really, really difficult, but at the same time it was really rewarding, and that’s when I also realised that there’s scope for doing more things like this in Wales. Because every woman that we spoke to, there was a desire to just tell you a story.
JI: Do you think that’s missing in Wales? Do you think we’re not reaching out to communities enough? How can we reach out to these communities?
DS: I think just create a department that’s targeted specifically to do outreach to communities, where you just go in and spend time with a community over a long period of time, without having some sort of an end goal. And that’s something I really realised working in that role because – and it really annoyed me – because I feel like there’s always an end goal for funders, for organisations. That they’ll go into a community for a certain period of time, and come away with something from the community and not necessarily always credit the community or even go back to the community. What does the community get out of it? You get to be able to put a tickbox on your funding application and go forward on your own way, but what are you leaving behind with the community? I think it’s really something simple as creating a position, of a Community Outreach Officer, that will spend time with a certain community over a long period of time, and it really doesn’t require much. Theatre is meant to be accessible, is it not? And it’s meant to be dynamic and changing. We really can’t can’t keep making old traditional theatre. And yeah, that has its place and that is important, but that was the reason why theatre was so accessible for someone like me, because NTW made it accessible. Without them, I would not even have dipped my toes into theatre. Especially coming from a working class background, I would’ve thought it’s this high, prestigious thing that is not for me, whereas that’s not the case.
JI: Do you think it was Kully that gave you that motivation to get involved?
DS: Yeah. 100%. Because, actually, seeing her in that position was inspirational for me.
JI: In what way?
DS: Well, seeing a South Asian woman lead a national theatre organisation in Wales – like, that’s big. That’s quite big.
JI: In the UK!
DS: In the UK, exactly. That’s big.
JI: What do you think her leaving is gonna mean to Wales?
DS: (pause) Yeah, I…I do wonder about that. I just hope…I guess Wales is just going to lose out on someone. I guess I just wonder about the direction that National Theatre Wales will take afterwards. Like, if the next person will be the same inclusive person that Kully is. Will young brown girls like me see themselves in them? Probably not.
JI: Should not the Artistic Director be for everyone, though? It can’t just be for young brown girls.
DS: Yeah, it should be for everyone, but I feel like it’s not usually for everyone.
JI: The thing that I always grapple with, and I keep going back and forth on it, is whether, because historically the lack of opportunities people from minority groups get, people from South Asian backgrounds get, we should be welcoming specific opportunities for South Asian people. But then I think, well, am I actually getting an opportunity because I’m good or because I’m South Asian?
JI: And so, going back to that idea of the imposter syndrome, that’s where my imposter syndrome comes from, it’s not knowing whether I’m good or I’m South Asian.
DS: Right, yeah, and I battle with this all the time. Like, every single opportunity I get. ‘Do they just want me because I’m brown’? I think it’s a confidence thing too. I think you have to have confidence to know that you’re good. But I think sometimes you can just tell when someone’s approaching you because they just need a brown face. I think it’s just really obvious.
JI: And you’ve been quite outspoken about that.
JI: You’re ‘the Brexit girl’!
DS: I’m the Brexit person. Which has stopped now, thank god. My being outspoken might have helped.
JI: Was it good at first?
DS: What was?
JI: Being approached.
DS: No, it was never good!
JI: Were you always adverse to it?
DS: I was always adverse to it. Maybe because, partly, I’m an introvert too. So doing things like appearing on the news isn’t really something I would jump at, and still don’t jump at.
JI: What do you think makes a safe space?
DS: I think it depends on the community that you’re targeting. So I think, for us, it was, to begin with, specifically BAME writers and new writers. So we really wanted to platform writers who maybe didn’t have a book yet, or maybe hadn’t even been published in a magazine yet. Writers who had maybe just started writing, and giving them the same amount of respect that you would give a published writer. And even featuring them, and not being like ‘your work isn’t good enough’ because we really don’t judge on quality. We just wanted to be a space where people come and share words and just go away feeling better, hopefully.
JI: You had that one experience I was at where a short story was read out and it caused a bit of a stir. How important is that, having those sorts of discussions? Do you think that was there before?
DS: No, actually no, because that was the reason why Hanan [Issa, co-founder of Where I’m Coming From] joined me in starting this, because she had attended an open mic night in Wales where one of the writers – I’ll not say who because people will already know…that one writer performed something that used the N-word and the P-word. Used it for shock effect and actually said those words as a white writer. And it was just not cool. To have to have that conversation, to be able to say that you can’t actually say that, to educate people, to have to educate people on why that is wrong in today’s day and age is just… (groans) … it’s problematic and it’s exhausting in itself! Like, where do you live? We don’t live in a cave, we have access to the Internet, these conversations are happening more than ever.
JI: You’re quite vocal about when you get approached about rubbish things, things you don’t want to talk about, and you’re quite public about your own health, things like that. How do you…cope is the wrong word, but how do you cope when that stress hits you? What’s your way of dealing with it?
DS: Shutting down! (laughs) Yeah, because I get stressed regularly, I just shut down. I just log off, take time off.
JI: Why do you think it’s so important to be vocal about that sort of stuff? Because you say you’re n introvert…
JI: …but you are really public about this stuff.
DS: Yeah, I know. And I think people are surprised that I’m public about it, because I don’t think it’s still cool to be public about it. I think some people still don’t feel comfortable being public about their mental health, I guess, and I don’t know why I am. I think it’s because I grew up around mental health, and I think the silence is what’s worse about it. Like, it actually makes it worse. You’re already dealing with something, and then to have to keep it silent is adding another layer of pressure on to it. Especially because I grew up in a South Asian environment, and also religious environment, where mental health really isn’t taken seriously. You probably know.
JI: I do know!
DS: Yeah! For me, it was suffocating and I think, for me, it was a way of lashing out against that. Not even lashing out, but challenging that, challenging why that’s the case and, hopefully, to make life easier for other people who are in the same position as me.
JI: Is it cathartic?
DS: It is cathartic. Then sometimes I am, like, I don’t really want to tweet about, ‘sorry guys, upped my meds today so I’m a bit of a zombie’. I wouldn’t tweet about things like that. But yeah, everyone suffers. But now, today’s day and age, everyone suffers with bad mental health, don’t they?. Fucking Brexit and Trump…
JI: How can you not be depressed?
JI: Boris Johnson…
DS: Boris Johnson!
JI: This is gonna put you on the spot slightly, but what do you think of your position in Wales right now, as an artist?
DS: I don’t think about it that much. Though recently, I’ve started to.
JI: Do you not think you have to? Because of the kind of brand you’re creating in Where I’m Coming From?
DS: Yeah, and I think, because there’s a lot of politicking that goes on in Wales, especially this year, and it has made me start thinking about my position in Wales. Not so much in Wales, but as an artist, fullstop. And there’s a lot of politicking and a lot of Chinese whispering and this and that, and I think…for me, I’m a solver. So if I see an issue, I try and solve it. I can’t let it be. And for me, I think, as long as I’m doing good, as long as I’m a – okay, this is going to sound so cliche, but as long as I am a good person, calling out the right things and challenging the right things, and actually just frickin’ writing and getting work out there, that’s what’s important to me. And continuing with Where I’m Coming From, making sure other people have the same platform that I did.
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