This month our Spotlight On featured author is poet and creative artist Sara Saleh.
Sara is an Arab-Australian human rights law and refugee advocate and grassroots activist with a decade-long career working with NGOs like Amnesty International Australia. She has also performed her poetry locally and internationally. She recently published her first poetry collection, Wasting the Milk in the Summer, which focuses on family, identity and displacement.
A 2015 Australian Poetry Slam NSW State Finalist, Sara is currently working on her social enterprise, ReBOOKS, a program dedicated to improving refugee literacy, and is a Board Member of GetUp and WestWords, a Western Sydney based organisation that fosters art and skills among young people. Some members may remember Sara from our recent Talking Writing event Who’s Writing Who?, where panelists discussed the challenges and experiences of non Anglo-European writers in Australia.
To promote the self publication of her first collection of poetry, and to acknowledge her advocacy work in the writing community, our membership intern Reilly asked Sara to tell us about her journey as a writer, spoken word poet and activist.
Tell us about your book of poems Wasting the Milk in the Summer.
I view Wasting the Milk in the Summer as a tribute to heritage and to home, to identity and resistance in the face of displacement (displacement of self, of community, of country).
In some of my poems, confronting as they are subtle, I felt as though I was moving between worlds, carrying the weight of women, mothers, migrants, women of colour, across generations … women who are told to be smaller to make others comfortable with our existence, women who are altogether exiled from their existence.
To me, this book is where sorrow and celebration intersect, where the personal is always political. And ultimately, it’s about the spaces in between this, the nuances in the universal experience of love and loss, hurt and healing that we can all identify with as human beings.
How long have you been writing poetry and what attracted you to it initially?
I can’t remember a time when I was not writing, all sorts of fiction and songs mainly. My grandfather was a journalist and writer, my father embodied this in his activism. Storytelling is a defining part of our culture, and has long been a part of my upbringing in what I would call a ‘bustling migrant family’.
But it wasn’t really until 3 years ago that I started writing poetry.
I was hitting what I thought was a creative ‘dry spell’ and I needed a change, so I began trying different art forms – from painting to poetry, and the Western Sydney poetry slam scene happened to present itself at the perfect time.
Funnily enough, poetry was only ever meant to be temporary – another artistic outlet to challenge me, to bring out different ideas through other processes and people. But, one thing led to another, and next thing you know, here we are, still going strong.
When did you first perform your poems? Was this something you had always intended to do?
Growing up, I was always very much into performing but did not actually do so frequently, save a random open mic night with friends every now and then (or karaoke – my favourite thing to do!).
I certainly did not have the courage to perform the poetry I was writing, until I met the Bankstown Poetry Slam family (aka slam-ily – who doesn’t love a good pun?).
Although it’s an incredibly safe space, I was extremely nervous my first time on stage. I never expected to win the slam that night, let alone to write my own poetry book three years later. These achievements are largely thanks to the support from communities like the Bankstown Poetry Slam.
Tell us about your new project ReBOOKS. This seems to combine two of your passions into one very rewarding endeavour.
ReBOOKS started because of six friends who grew up with a shared love of reading books. Our dream has always been to start something that helps others achieve their own dreams, and education and capacity building is a very powerful way to do this.
In recent times, Australian schools have been receiving an increasing number of students who, arriving from countries of conflict, have experienced interrupted schooling, and may also be experiencing trauma.
Through this initiative, we want to use the power and value of the collective to provide existing Australian NGOs with the necessary funds to continue to run programs that improve refugee literacy and help ease resettlement issues for these young people. So ReBOOKS was born with a simple premise: every time you buy a book, you help positively impact the education of a newly arrived refugee in Australia.
What is the best piece of writing advice you’ve been given?
From a technical point of view, writers shouldn’t wait for inspiration to come. All we need to do is just show up, and get to work, and be consistent in that. And there’s a certain liberation, even maturity, that comes with the realisation that you don’t need to sit around waiting for motivation, or even rely on it at all. You don’t wait for motivation or inspiration to brush your teeth. This isn’t any different. The work should come second nature.
Further, as an Arab writer, I have learnt that writing is about preserving memories, but also disrupting the status quo. I was told writing is political. The personal is always political.
Do you have any advice for emerging writers?
I believe authentic writing, good writing comes from a place of both fearlessness and vulnerability. As writers, we must be ready to expose our wounds, but allow writing to heal.
Your writing is your truth, so tell it. Let a piece of writing happen to you.
What are you reading at the moment?
Currently rotating between Malcolm X’s autobiography, The Alchemist (again) and Nizar Qabbani’s poetry.
In your opinion, who/what is the most inspiring…
Warsan Shire – my go-to poet for the past 3 years. I will never tire of her writing.
Arundhati Roy – one of the most critical and disruptive thinkers of our time.
I enjoy allegorical tales mostly, including Animal Farm, The Little Prince, or Harry Potter (childhood defining!).
Sometimes sunshine, and sometimes rain. Better when both.
Time of day?
I am a nocturnal creature so late evenings. There is something magical about being up when you think the rest of the world around you is sleeping.
This changes quite a bit. At the moment, I’m listening to a mix of the Arabic old (Fairouz) and the English new (Frank Ocean, Bon Iver and Solange).
Anywhere by the water. Anywhere that is holding people you love.
you who have chosen to hold the ocean
and so we met.
i knew that moment, like i knew
all lashes and brown skin
full with the world
washed hands of adolescence and
awake with the pride
of all the men
you keep in your chest
a Damascene marketplace call to prayers meet
Turkish coffee in the morning mixed
with forgotten pasts,
shopkeepers sell hospitality and half an ideology.
loss comes before
that there is winter before
there is spring
you carry the rooftops
of cities you have never been
and the memory of
and bodies rising
whatever happened to your crop?
do you know if it still feeds the animals
if the ancient tree branches shake
with sounds of children’s play
have they too migrated
with the western winds?
they have been losing again,
they are forever losing
will you ever let go of
the language packaged in
that you hide beneath your
take her off
for you cannot rest
if she is always, if she is always
reminding you of there
i can help
expose yourself to
i can help
make sense of your alone
carry it on our foreheads
like every anniversary
and old wrinkles
i can help
hold the ocean…
i am made of it.