Life Stories: Amani Saeed – Spoken Word Artist, Barbican Young Poet
Updated: Nov 11, 2019
I’d seen Amani perform a couple of times; her words are searing and there seems to be an old soul that sits behind her work, a way of looking at the world with unflinching honesty and wisdom. I saw a completely different side to her at the launch of her event The Hen-nah Party, a twist on the traditional mehndi night that is part of South Asian wedding celebrations which are rooted in gender binaries. Here, everyone was welcome. I loved the creativity, but Amani’s kindness and joy stood out and I knew I wanted to feature her for colourfull – and it didn’t disappoint.
24, cisgender female, mixed race (Indian-Iraqi), queer
Life Right Now
From a writing perspective, I’m really excited about two upcoming projects. The first is I’ve been approached by a producer to write a play. Bearing in mind that poetry is my jam, this is huge - and frightening. I’m so grateful that they have seen my work, value what I do and want to nurture it. The second I can’t say too much about yet, except that I’ve been commissioned to write a script for a short film. Both projects are undoubtedly wild and will take my writing career in a new direction – which is both scary and exciting. And apart from that, I’m going to Cuba in a couple of weeks for all the rum, all the salsa.
I can’t say there was a definite moment, except that I just knew I was also attracted to womxn and, as I’ve understood myself, to any person regardless of sex and/or gender identity. I think it was at High School (I grew up in New Jersey) that people began to talk more about sexuality in general. But anything to do with political queerness wasn’t spoken about. I remember a girl at school who was out as bisexual being called a whore, and that she was greedy for everyone. A narrative for the type of person I was didn’t exist, and I didn’t hear about people being attracted to other people of multiple genders.
I read a lot about people like me online, through forums. There was a real sense from other women that bi-curious women were problematic and their queerness was often questioned. This shaped the way I explored my sexuality, which was to sleep with multiple women to confirm my experience and identity. It’s a real shame that anything beyond the binary becomes focused on the sexual act when our broader identities are so much richer. As I haven’t spoken about my sexual preferences until recently, even my queerness has been called into question – but I know myself.
My Family & Culture
My family are not particularly traditional and my upbringing was both liberal and relaxed. I grew up in a Muslim household (although my Dad no longer practices) and my Mum has always been more spiritual with how she practices Islam. In reality, this meant nothing was enforced or pushed upon us. I’ve grown up in a very matriarchal family (my Nanijan (grandmother) divorced my grandfather when she was 22 and became a single mother to 3 kids. Although she couldn’t speak English and was new to London, she got herself a job, studied English at the local college, and raised her children up to be good people whilst also providing for them. The strong women in my life shape the way I interact with my culture and expand what I believe is possible for me.
I can’t cook the food or speak the language, and I only get a handful of Bollywood references. However, there are certain values associated with Indian culture that have stayed with me, such as hospitality, generosity and valuing community. They underpin my actions and I consider them to be direct cultural influences. Even little things like calling older Asian people ‘aunty’ or ‘uncle’. It’s ingrained.
I remember telling my Mum – she was genuinely shocked and had no idea it was coming. The circumstances were slightly absurd. She’d rejected a shaadi proposal for me without me knowing and jokingly asked me if I had any secrets. And that was the moment I told her. I remember asking her ‘hadn’t you known all the time?’ but she said she didn’t. Whilst she didn’t probe it, and I think is still slightly uncomfortable with it, she accepted it and doesn’t treat me any differently. My brother on the other hand was not bothered at all, it was more like ‘oh ok, I love you, bye’.
Extended family are a different kettle of fish (like most brown families). I’d shot some pictures depicting queer love for Alia Romagnoli and HuqThat which were beautiful, and I had a feeling they would go viral. They did. I had a family member not so subtly try to tell me it was wrong, but I had a frank conversation with my Mum to say yes this could affect others in the family (the infamous log kya henge?), but I’d also be denying myself by removing the pictures from social media. The person whose reaction I most worried about most was my Nanijan’s. When I’d worked up the courage, I called her – her first words were, ‘Everyone needs to chill out. I know what you’ve been through, and all that matters to me is that you are a good person’. That was all I needed.
Much of the writing I do is based on identity, which touches on culture, religion, etc. Identity is complex in that it’s shaped my subject matter but, it’s not like I approach poetry with a background in Urdu and its poetic tradition which is a shame as the language has such richness that I lose out on. I firmly believe that the first person you write for is yourself. If you’re going to get a truth out, you can’t care what someone else is going to think, who agrees or disagrees. When you publish your work, you do it to connect with other people – be that sharing the words or the experience you describe.
Representation is so important, I think it’s important that others see a woman of colour who is queer doing this. It makes others believe they can do it too; we can be beacons for one another. However, representation isn’t the be-all-end-all. I have no desire to be the first queer Muslim mixed-race anything, and would be arrogant to assume that my story is the first of its kind. I just want to speak a truth, and if it’s one that’s been stifled or spoken quietly for a long time, then I’m glad to help bring it further into the open.
Love, Dating & Relationships
If I think about the role models I had around me, they had fraught relationships and divorce was a part of this. So, it means I know what I don’t want or how I don’t want my relationships to look. But it means that I can struggle with knowing what good looks like; I’ve just seen so many variations of bad.
I was in an abusive relationship (with a man) early on and so this compounded that. Afterward, I went to therapy and read blogs like @lizlistens to educate myself about what I should expect from a good relationship. Rational thinking flies out of the window when it comes to relationships, but I’ve learnt that they require work, and the biggest bedrock for their success is respect. Once you lose respect for your partner, you lose the relationship. I think my willingness to work for a relationship comes from my upbringing, which is what marriage was predicated on. It’s so much easier to give up on a relationship with all the apps that exist today, as you think there are more options out there, but there’s something to be said for working on what you already have - within reason.
When I think of our community, I think of events like UK Black Pride. You just feel safe and that you belong in these spaces. When you move into subsets of our community e.g. South Asian lesbians, it’s a small community. Generally, you’re got no more than 1 to 2 degrees of separation from everyone in the community, which has its pros and cons.
As a queer person of colour, because you don’t have the same access to or trust existing state systems of justice, we often turn to our inner circle/community to work through our issues and seek validation. You feel that you’re understood innately without having to explain everything which provides a degree of comfort, a sense of safety. However, this can also be extremely damaging when people turn against each other, which can split a community in half. I don’t tend to socialise in White queer spaces. When you have a community that fulfils your needs, why would you go to one that doesn’t?
To accelerate progress, we need to learn to value differences instead of simply tolerating them. We often define things based on how they relate to our world, but it’s important to understand how people exist in their own worlds. There is a richness in our difference. I fiercely want that to be accepted and celebrated. Only when we learn to do this will we create change and make real progress.
Josh Lee (writer at The Guardian) who is just a wonderful human being and so articulate and his boyfriend, Leo Kalyan (Singer/Musician). Anjali Kumar. Sabira Haque. Natalie Armitage. Travis Alabanza. Raheem Mir. Shiva Raichandani. Simran Uppal. My god, the list goes on.
Words of Wisdom
Do what’s safe and right for you at the time. For example, coming out – you can see your peers doing it, sometimes in glittery ways, but you need to consider your personal safety and mental health before deciding what’s right for you.
Be honest. By that I mean with yourself but also with others, so people know how to treat you. If you project a version of yourself that’s not you, then you’ll be treated according to that persona everyone sees. The impact is that you won’t feel seen, and it can make you resentful.
If your Mum* knows who you are, then fuck what everyone else thinks. If someone you are close to, who loves you and that you respect is fine with it, then it’s OK, do your thing. If they aren’t, then think twice – not necessarily to stop, but to reflect and consider a different perspective.
*Instead of your Mum, this could be a mentor, close friend, relative, whoever’s opinions matters to you the most
We’d long finished our (delicious) iced teas by the time we stopped talking. And her beau was waiting for her with a home cooked dinner. Who was I to stand between that? Time had flown by and I really enjoyed myself, the conversation veered between the serious and the fun. Amani’s warmth in real life lived up to expectations, she made me feel like an old friend and is just so generous with her time and expression. I can’t wait to see all the exciting things she has coming up!
Follow her on Instagram and Twitter @amanithepoet