“If no one else wants to listen to us, we’ll listen to each other.” An Interview with 4 BROWN GIRLS
By Amy Baxter, Editor
“Sunnah doesn’t like it when people say that we’re like a band, because we are, but we’re not.” Sheena Patel, one-quarter of 4 BROWN GIRLS WHO WRITE, nods at me wide-eyed through my laptop screen. She’s right that the band metaphor is the wrong one to use. 4 BROWN GIRLS WHO WRITE isn’t a band; there’s no lead singer, no drummer steady and repetitive in the background. They are a collective, in the purest sense of the word, and together, they create.
I am speaking to the group as they prepare for the release of their second 'book', or rather, collection of pamphlets, with Rough Trade Books (perhaps the coolest indie press currently making books). The copy for the collection describes them as a 'collaborative force', and that is at the forefront of both the collection and their way of speaking about themselves. But, practically speaking, the collection of pamphlets is not a “collective force”. It’s not unified by a theme, or the number of poems, or rhyme scheme. It is four very distinct pamphlets, bound up as one collection, and, I admit to the women, not necessarily four pamphlets I would link together myself. 4 BROWN GIRLS WHO WRITE was intended as an ironic table, a nod to the people who would group them together homogeneously regardless of their distinct voices. So, why then produce a work as a collective?
It was Sunnah’s idea to create individual pamphlets, tied together in one collection, unlike their previous book published with Fem Zine, where poems by all four were divided by common themes. Upon opening Sunnah’s pamphlet, it becomes clear that she not only deserves this space all to herself but that her poetry needs it. We move through her parents’ marriage, her relationship with her father, her relationship with coworkers. She dissects the exquisite title I Don’t Know How To Forgive You When You Make No Apology For This Haunting again and again. As becomes apparent when reading all four pamphlets, it feels crass to reduce it to just themes. I feel so much about her relationship with her parents, I am so moved that I have to take pauses between them just to feel out where my emotions start and hers end. Intertwining the contents of all four pamphlets would understandably be a pointless exercise. 4 BROWN GIRLS SHOULD WRITE SEPARATELY IN SOME CASES.
But the collective aspect of their work is what makes it so brilliant. Each pamphlet has a dedication, and in each pamphlet, the women have dedicated the pamphlet to each other, something both Sharan and Sheena tell me happily was unintentional. Their love for each other flows off the page; Sheena’s dedication reads 'none of this would be possible without your support, your love & your voices whispering in my heart'. When I speak to her about the formation of the group, she beams. “I’ve known Rosh and Sharan since I was about 18,” she says. “We went to uni together.” They met Sunnah, another mutual friend, at a boat party. “There were fifteen or twenty people there, and there were boys there too. But we were sitting on our own on the boat, and I remember thinking that we needed to do something together. There’s energy between us.” She nods at me, seemingly encouraging me to acknowledge this visceral energy that she felt then and that all four of them have articulated now. “I think I hadn’t had brown women friends until then. I remember thinking that this could be a space where people get me.”
There is something disarmingly charming about the fact that the collective took its first form in a WhatsApp group after that very night. They performed together for the first time only a few months later, in the garden of Lewisham Arthouse in 2017, and for some of them, it was their first-ever live performance. They’ve gone on to do bigger and better things - two books, a week at the Edinburgh Fringe, but always together. Sharan seems genuinely surprised at their success when reminiscing. “That’s what’s been really nice about it,” she says. “It’s always been such a surprise. It was a WhatsApp group where we shared poetry, and then it was a performance group, and then the book, and then the Fringe. Each thing has been a massive surprise, and in that way, it makes everything more exciting because you don’t know what’s going to happen next.” And it seems incredible in hindsight that all of this did happen, due to one meeting on a boat party. Sharan admits that she’s always written poetry, but that without the group, she wouldn’t be sharing it. “Before this,” she says, “Even though you have close friends and family, it’s not the same thing. You can’t just send them poetry. There's something really important about having that space in the collective to be free to talk about stuff like poetry or reading, to be able to share what you’re writing without it being fully formed, for them to be able to give feedback. I never knew I needed it until we became it.”
The idea of a collective wasn’t a new one for all of them. Roshni Goyate is the co-founder of The Other Box, an award-winning diversity and inclusion company educating businesses on bias, which also functions as a collective for over three and a half thousand people who consider themselves 'Other'. I myself have found support from that collective, both for Bad Form, and for my own working life, and am grateful to Roshni and the spaces she’s helped create. Sharan and I discuss the concept of collectives, and Sharan tells me frankly that it wasn’t something she’d really considered before she found herself in one. “It wasn’t until after we did the Fringe, after we did it together. That was what made me realise how much strength there is in being one. Beautiful things happen as a collective that couldn't happen with one individual.” 4 BROWN GIRLS WHO WRITE is one of a small number of collectives of women and non-binary people from marginalised communities coming to the fore. She praises the work of those such as Octavia, and its leader Rachel Long, recent author of My Darling From the Lions. “Especially in the world of writing, or even the world right now, it’s all very individualistic. You always have to succeed as an individual. I don’t like it when people say that they preferred mine, or they preferred Sheena’s. You’re missing the point of it. People force that on us.”
“The thing that is special about us is that we give each other permission. The reason why we started is that no one was ready to listen to people like us, or at least that’s how it felt,” Sheena says. “If no one else wants to listen to us, we’ll listen to each other.” 4 BROWN GIRLS WHO WRITE isn’t merely a space to push representation. It is a space for these poets to hone their craft in a space that is specifically catered to them. It is clear that they are writing for each other, and representation is not an intended consequence. I do relate to bits of them. Roshni’s poem 'Coconut Oil' remembers my past embarrassment. Sharan’s 'Chittia Chunnia' I read to my Mum and watch her eyes close as she remembers. But that’s not the point, and bringing up the 'power of representation' to discuss their poetry is beside the point. They are a collective of poets who write for each other because they had to and we’re happily able to see the results.
Though it becomes clear, in one case in particular, that other people seeing the results of this pamphlet writing was not necessarily a foregone conclusion. Sheena laughs so much she makes me laugh. “I didn't actually think that people I didn’t know would read this,” she giggles. We’re laughing, but This Is What Love Is, her pamphlet, is such a personal exploration that I almost feel bad bringing it up. And she’s clearly nervous about the prospect of people reading it. We spend almost all of our call together smiling, but on this she pauses. “I didn’t really think about it because I was writing it for me, my girls, for Nina, for my best friends. I didn’t really anticipate that. I needed to write it, I needed to figure out why the fuck things happened. It felt like I needed to,” she sighs, another pause. “Like I needed to honour the pain of it, and, and make sense of it really. It was just very, very tough.'“ And then she smiles again. “I mean, a good growing experience really!”
All four have been incredibly open in this work. Almost every relationship of the human experience is uncovered, discussed, reviewed between the four pamphlets. To life, to death, to new life, to parents, to friends, to coworkers, to work, to love. And that’s what binds them together. Not a theme or a rhyme scheme, just these 4 women and their love for each other, and for their work. 4 BROWN GIRLS WHO WRITE, write for each other, and in doing so have created something truly wonderful.