Shaniqua speaks to writer and human rights campaigner Elizabeth Arif-Fear about her first book of poetry, ‘What If It Were You?’
Shaniqua- Elizabeth, tell us about who you are and what you do.
Elizabeth- My name’s Elizabeth and I’m a writer and human rights campaigner passionate about building bridges amongst people of different cultures and faiths. I’m Muslim of British-Italian origin and am the Founder of Voice of Salam.
S- Can you give a little more insight into Voice of Salam?
E- Voice of Salam (Voice of Peace) was founded in 2015. We work to raise awareness of a range of global issues and promote understanding of human rights, interfaith and current social and cultural issues. Our aim is to fight against all forms of prejudice such as Islamophobia, antisemitism, homophobia, transphobia and misogyny.
S- You recently released your book of poetry, ‘What If It Were You?’ Why did you decide to write this book?
E- The crisis in Syria was the inspiration behind the first poem which then led to the collection. I’d written/published pieces on the human rights abuses in Syria and the refugee crisis before, but when Eastern Ghouta was under siege I felt so shocked, so heartbroken for the people stuck there that I began to reflect more. My emotions were obviously a lot more heightened at that point and I thought: “What if it were me in that situation?” With that came the urge to write a poem – something that I’d not done for years.
That night (early morning in fact) I wrote the poem “What If It Were You?” and the reaction I got from friends and family was really positive. A close friend of mine suggested I put together an anthology and it went from there! The more I wrote, the more ideas came to mind and I realised I had found another great means of expression to highlight so many critical issues relating to human rights, gender and faith.
S- Why poetry?
E- With the first poem, poetry came as a natural medium – as a form of emotional expression to relation to the terrible situation on the ground. Poetry is such a fantastic medium to show solidarity and to call for action. It really allows you to break down so many barriers, strip away a lot of the formality around human rights and get to the raw emotion and vulnerability of those facing persecution.
S- What was the experience of writing the book like?
E- I must say it was thoroughly enjoyable, a truly empowering experience and such a joy to undertake. You’re granted so much freedom to express yourself and putting the collection together was so much fun. Putting a book together is empowering and for me it really is a dream come true. Obviously with process came the multiple revisions and proofreading, which take time, but so does any piece of writing! Seeing your creation come to life is such a wonderful feeling.
S- The poems in this book handle some heavy issues, including FGM, Islamophobia and antisemitism. Which poem did you find most difficult to write and why?
E- A poem which was initially quite challenging, not to write but to ensure that my message was clear, was #MeToo, as I became aware of potential reader bias concerning power struggles and common victim blaming narratives. Initially in fact, I started writing the poem from the perspective of an abuser to give an insight into his (unjust, skewed) thoughts and actions, but quickly realised that I only needed to share the survivor’s story (fictional in this case), as this helped to clearly place her needs and experiences at the centre.
S- A recurring theme was misogyny and control exerted over women. Why is addressing this so important to you?
E- As a woman, a feminist and a human rights campaigner, addressing these issues is a lifelong commitment of mine. Given the prevalence of misogynistic concepts of “shame” and “honour” for example, women and girls continue to be subjected to physical, emotional, sexual and psychological abuse. Let’s just think of FGM and forced marriage to name but a few examples. This has to stop. Over 200 million women and girls have been affected by FGM – a cultural practice that continues to harm and even kill our sisters. We therefore must stand up and raise awareness of these issues.
S- How did you go about getting the book published?
E– As soon as I’d decided that I’d like to build an anthology, I started beavering away. When I’d written 20 (enough for a book), I began to research relevant publishers based on literary type (poetry) and area of interest (social justice etc.). I then sent off the manuscript to those who I thought were a good fit, along with my CV and a cover letter/email and it went from there really!
The book was written and published within a year, more or less, and I found my publisher and signed the contract within a very short period of time. For a first publication, I’ve been really blessed and am really thankful for the great support provided by my friends, family and my publishers Shepheard-Walwyn.
S- If someone was working on a book or collection of poetry, what advice would you give them?
E- I’d say first of all, be you. Your authentic voice is your strength. Write about something that you’re truly passionate about and your interests, your skills and your experience will shine through in your writing.
In terms of getting published, definitely believe in yourself. Let people know who you are and what you’re about and so with that, include a CV and a letter to providing an overview of yourself, your background and how the book relates to you as a person, your experiences and your interests. Make sure you also do your research on which publishers to contact to find one that fits your “niche” so you’re both a good fit for each other. Finally but most importantly: don’t be put off by the negative stories out there. Persist, engage and sell yourself!
S- What’s next for you?
E- Well, I’m currently working on a second collection of poetry which is exciting! I’m also busy with Voice of Salam and lots of other bits and bobs with groups/organisations I’m involved with.
S- What impact do you think poetry can have on the world?
E- I think poetry has the power to change minds, hearts and societies. By connecting with the realities of the world around us and the experiences of other people, we can learn, we can empathise, we can understand and with that we can move to take action, to build bridges and to live in a more just, fairer and harmonious world.
You can order ‘What If It Were You?’ on Amazon, Shepheard-Walwyn and Foyles now. For more information on the book and how you can submit to Voice of Salam, please visit the Voice of Salam website: voiceofsalam.com