Yassmin Abdel-Magied on identity and growing as a writer.

PEN Transmissions is English PEN’s magazine for international and translated voices. PEN’s members are the backbone of our work, helping us to support international literature, campaign for writers at risk, and advocate for the freedom to write and read. If you are able, please consider becoming an English PEN member and joining our community of over 1,000 readers and writers. Join now.

Hi Yassmin – thank you for speaking with me. I want first to say how much I enjoyed Talking About a Revolution, your latest book. What was your motivation for collecting these essays together?

I have always been enamoured by the essay form. Essay collections were my gateway into new worlds of political thought and literary brilliance; the thought of being able to put together a collection myself seemed the height of writerly sophistication. Beyond the dream, however, I have been writing essays since the beginning of my publishing career and so I wanted to draw together a body of work that reflected my personal evolution as well as my political one. In one place, I felt like they could speak to one another, and to a self that is so often misunderstood. Talking About a Revolution includes work from 2013 all the way to 2022. It is the coda to my tumultuous twenties, and the work I am proudest of to date (Alhamdulillah!). 

The collection is memoir-like, in many ways, and feels as though it celebrates how you’ve evolved over the last ten years – changing professions; moving countries; your urgency for change, and your weariness because of the lack of it. Each essay is deeply personal. Did curating the book prompt new reflections or realisation, for you?

I was surprised how much had changed, and how much I hadn’t. Some part of me had believed that, since I had gone through personal and public upheaval, I must also have undergone some sort of complete political transformation, becoming so much sager and wiser than I ever had been. But going back and reading my early pieces, seeing them placed alongside more recent work, I was struck by the realisation that the soul of the writer felt unchanged. Sure, my later work reflects a writer who is better read, more confident in held positions, as well as somewhat cynical, world-weary, and emotionally battered. But there was a thread throughout that connected the young 22-year-old Yassmin to the 30-year-old me that I hadn’t expected. I might not have had the language for it, but I was always attuned to justice, fighting for political change, interested in the human dynamics of the world I moved through. In a way, the consistency was comforting.

In the essay ‘What are they so afraid of? I’m just speaking my mind’, I was intrigued when you said ‘the response wasn’t about me but about what I represent. I am still not sure what that means. Or perhaps I do, but I do not want to accept it’. It made me think about to whom freedom of expression is afforded, and the fine line people of colour are made to tread when it comes to exercising this freedom. Do you feel that things have changed since writing this essay – for better, or for worse?

I believe people quite often have a keen sense of who is ‘allowed’ to speak and who isn’t, even if they are not consciously articulating it. There are powerful social norms in whatever society we are in, although I believe many of us agree these norms are not based on any sense of fairness, equity or justice. Do I think things have changed since writing that particular essay? I’m not sure. In Australia, I certainly think my public silencing is often used as an example of what shouldn’t be allowed in public discourse, and there is some value to being able to point to a case and say ‘no, this is a line in the sand, it cannot happen like this again’. Whether the existence of that line prevents people crossing it is another matter. So perhaps there is more awareness – a raising of consciousness if you will – about how ‘freedom of expression’ is one of the many freedoms that isn’t distributed equally or afforded to all. There is so much noise in the figurative town square at the moment, but it feels difficult to draw any conclusions as to whether things have substantially improved or not. There might be more people speaking out, but we live in the era of the vicious and unforgiving backlash. It is treacherous territory for the underprepared.

I was also struck by the following in ‘Leaving. For Good’, in which you speak to the betrayal you felt post-2017: ‘What do you do when that country is home? Do you make home elsewhere? Or do you just make peace with what home has become?’  The uncertainties migrants and their descendants face prompt us to question what ‘home’ really is. As someone whose home has changed several times over the last decade, what does ‘home’ mean to you now?

I no longer place much stock by the idea of ‘home’. I intellectually understand it is important, and appreciate it is a comforting idea for so many, but, somehow, the desire to call a place ‘home’ has lost its edge. In my most honest moments I suspect this is a reaction borne of fear: calling a place ‘home’ invites rejection; I have little sense of a birth right and even less energy left to fight for belonging in a place that cares little for my life or dignity. Instead, I feel more like a permanent member of the diaspora, a piece of floating coral, untethered and unclaimed, but committed to growing wherever I land.

Faith underpins much of what you write about in this book – from its role in your identity, both perceived and personal, to its weaponisation. As a Muslim woman who is a social activist, in what ways do you feel faith informs your work?

Faith forms the foundation of my personhood. It operates far beyond a political identity and instead is a thread woven into the very fabric of my being. My faith fuels me, grounds me, provides perspective and hope in what can feel – at times – like a hopeless world. I believe in God as justice, and so my activism is tied to the practice of my faith, an expression of my belief. Alhamdulilah, always!

You explore these themes in your YA fiction, too. In what ways has writing through the perspective of a younger protagonist shaped how – and what – you write?

It is deeply important to me that my work remains accessible to as many people as possible. As a young child I read voraciously, but my book preferences were not formed by what was the most ‘literary’, ‘prizewinning’ or lauded by the publishing industry. I was drawn to what spoke to me, made sense to me, helped me understand the world. As an author today, especially one coming from the non-traditional background of mechanical engineering, it can be easy to be distracted by external markers of success, by how you want to be perceived by your industry and peers, by the never-ending race for status. But writing for younger audiences cuts through all that for me. It reminds me of the younger reader I once was, and what I looked for in books: clarity, guidance, story, escape. Writing for younger audiences, through the eyes of teenage protagonists, never fails to ground me, or keep me humble. Because kids will truly tell you what they think!

Finally, if there’s one thing you hope readers will take away from Talking About A Revolution, what is it?

I want people to think about the world they want to live in – challenge the very core assumptions we have about the world around us and truly, deeply, imagine something different. What could it look like? How can we get there? Then, talk to a friend about it. Get into all its complexity and difficulty and feel yourself moved and changed by the discourse. Because if we can’t even talk about revolution, how will we achieve it?

Yassmin Abdel-Magied is a Sudanese born writer and award-winning social advocate. The ‘recovering’ mechanical engineer has published four books, including essay collection Talking About A Revolution and award-winning teen novel, Listen Layla, which she is now adapting for screen. In 2020, Yassmin co-wrote the sold-out immersive theatre production at London’s Kensington Palace, United Queendom, and is currently developing a slate of projects for the stage and screen. 

Interview by Nadia Saeed, Co-editor.

Photo credit: Leanne Dixon.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s