As part of an ongoing series of interviews with contemporary female writers, CF speaks to London-based poetry collective 4 BROWN GIRLS WHO WRITE in A Way With Words.
4 BROWN GIRLS WHO WRITE are four poets and friends Roshni Goyate, Sharan Hunjan, Sheena Patel, and Sunnah Khan. Since publishing their first book of poetry in 2018, they have taken a sell-out show to Edinburgh Fringe Festival and published a new collection of solo works divided into four pamphlets. Here, they discuss their creative collaboration, influences and inspirations.
How, when and why did the collective begin?
Sheena: My best mate moved onto a boat on the Thames and I suggested she have a housewarming and immediately hijacked it and turned it into a reading. There was a BBQ and booze and about 20 people came. I know Sharan and Rosh from uni, but we had lost touch, and Suns was a friend of a friend. After we had all read, I said we needed to stay in touch, so I created a WhatsApp group and flippantly called it 4 BROWN GIRLS WHO WRITE. All I think we knew was that, if no one wanted to hear us, we wanted to hear us, we’d be the audience and the critic, the cheerleader, the friend, the muse, the champion… that’s primarily why we started. It was a space to share and be heard.
How would you describe your dynamic as a group? Do you find yourselves playing specific roles?
Sheena: We have two groups on WhatsApp, one is a friend group and one is a business group and the way we communicate on both are vastly different. One is playful, for podcasts and poems we love, for news, support, advice, and laughter, and the other is much more logistical, in the description of the group we have a list of upcoming events or things we have to do or decide. We confer, debate, argue our side, compromise – which hasn’t yet felt like a loss. I trust their creative minds completely and it all is enhanced with the 4 of us at play. As for playing a specific role, I think our collective goes beyond role playing and tries to access something of ourselves beyond what we’ve been told to be. I see the magnificence of their insides and their awe-inspiring outsides and I hope they each see that in me too. Our friendship is a circle where we can reclaim with joy and grief all the things we banished in order to be accepted by wider society and come into wholeness, so it’s a constantly evolving space and relationship.
Are you always honest in your feedback to each other?
Sunnah: I think with creating anything there’s a vulnerability in that initial sharing but there’s a real tenderness with the group in holding that. We’re here to encourage each other to grow in creative confidence and that of course requires lots of kindness. At the same time, we are the guardians of each other’s work and generous with our suggestions. Knowing that deep respect and reverence for each other, and of each other’s words, is the foundation of our friendship and gives us room to not only be honest but to really trust in the intention of that honesty. It’s really special.
What’s your earliest memory of encountering poetry?
Sharan: I still have a poetry book from Primary School (which I stole – hopefully my teacher isn’t reading this!) and it was the first time poems really stuck with me. I couldn’t stop reading it and just had to have it! In some of my poems I give life to language, personifying letters and words (like I do to Punjabi in my ‘Mother Tongue’ poem in my pamphlet) and recently I’ve realised that in this first poetry book there was a poem I was obsessed with in which the poet personifies each letter of the alphabet in a way that was so fun and playful for me as a child. Clearly it had a long-lasting influence on me! I found poetry magical and mysterious and alive. I, also, during this same period in Primary, created my first poetry book, which I still have, and entered my first poetry competition and won. I remember I loved creating rhymes. This enjoyment of language, of throwing words in the air and seeing what comes down, of fiddling around with them in my head, grew and has stayed with me ever since. I’m not sure how much Primary Schools explore poetry writing anymore, but certainly I hope they do, as it can have a profound effect.
How important is the performance of poetry? Do you enjoy reading to an audience?
Roshni: The importance of the performance really depends on the poem – and there’s definitely a difference between reciting a poem (reading it out loud) and performing it! I love performing poetry that’s written to be performed. I think about our Edinburgh Fringe run, where we were reading the same poems for five or six nights in a row, and it really gave me the chance to embody the poems. My memory of the Fringe performances is a very physical one, I can remember how my body swayed as I read.
Are there any poets or writers who have been particularly influential on your work?
Roshni: My favourite anthology of poetry is The Bloodaxe Book of Contemporary Indian Poets, edited by Jeet Thayil. I think something really shifted in me and my writing when that book entered my life, around my early 20s – it’s one of the first times I really felt seen in poetry. It’s a gorgeous, diverse anthology of Indian poets writing in English and although I have no specific favourite poets in it, it’s absolutely my go-to whenever I need some inspiration and hope. Other than that, Sharan, Sheena, and Sunnah are also major influences on my work. They are my heroes and my soulmates in creativity.
Where do you find your inspiration?
Sunnah: Anything that moves me or makes me think can be inspiration. I think poetry is the act of paying attention whether that is to the real, imagined, or remembered, and in that sense the scope for inspiration is endless. The tricky bit is having the space and time in life to not only tune in to paying attention but to follow that inspiration when it comes. You have to catch it and then let it lead you where it wants to go. You have to write things down.
What’s next on your reading list?
Sunnah: Hour of the Star by Clarice Lispector.
Sharan: Whatever’s on the Pages of Hackney weekly list.
Sheena: Motherhood by Sheila Heti.
Roshni: Untold Day and Night by Bae Suah, translated by Deborah Smith.
A poet you think everyone should read?
Sunnah: Hanif Abdurraqib, Naomi Shibab Nye, Mary Oliver.
Sharan: Daljit Nagra and Sharon Oldes.
Sheena: Danez Smith and Hieu Ming Nguyen.
Roshni: Lemn Sissay.
What’s currently inspiring you?
Sunnah: At the moment, in this static time, I’ve been on the marshes watching the birds in flight while listening to ragas (bansuri and tabla) or learning astonishing facts about the natural world.
Sharan: Like Rosh’s title, in the ‘Shadow Work’ of life. The moments in between the chaos and noise.
Sheena: Staring out my bedroom window or in the crush of people, it’s all grist for the mill.
Roshni: Nature, books, experiencing art, listening to jazz.
The last poem (or book of poetry) to blow you away?
Sharan: A poem called Little Children by Caroline Bird.
Sheena: I’m reading nonfiction at the moment so, Minor Feelings by Cathy Park Hong.
Roshni: Shazzy gifted me Caleb Femi’s Poor and it is truly epic.
Sunnah: Will Harris’s debut collection Rendang and hearing the poem Sharan recommended!
Ideal writing set up?
Sharan: My little desk, quiet, a closed door and a window.
Sheena: My little desk, plants, a window, silence, my laptop, a notepad, a candle burning.
Roshni: My future writing shed tucked away in the back of my future massive garden with no kids’ toys under my feet.
Sunnah Khan: Exactly what Rosh said! One day! But currently, at the old oak table in my kitchen with a view to the sky and most likely a hot water bottle on my lap. Or in bed first thing on a sunny nowhere-to-be morning.
4 BROWN GIRLS WHO WRITE is available now from Rough Trade Books, £19.99