“I came to feminism quite late, in my early 20s,” British Egyptian writer, poet and playwright Sabrina Mahfouz tells me. “I was learning feminist theory at university, but I wasn’t applying it to my everyday.” Sabrina’s everyday was waitressing at London strip clubs to pay for her studies at SOAS: “For the first couple of years it was fun, but I began to really dislike the set-up.” This experience formed Sabrina’s awakening, both politically and artistically. “Everything that I’d read up to that point had a lot of holes, it seemed like a narrow world view. The advice is ‘start with what you know’. I knew strip clubs, so that’s what I wrote about. It was a comfortable but vulnerable place – it’s scary to reveal all of that to people.” Many of Sabrina’s friends went from club work into other types of sex work and, having done creative writing workshops with women across the industry, her 2016 work How You Might Know Me was born. A poetic exploration of the lives of four women who experience various facets of the UK’s sex industry, the book embodies sisterhood, fights stereotypes and gives a voice to an often violated and maligned group.
Sabrina set out to look at the sex industry “from different perspectives, not making a judgement on which one of those perspectives was morally correct. I wanted to allow the characters to just exist as equal, rather than as vehicles for other people’s political agendas”. Was the writing process cathartic – a healthy way to comb through everything she saw, heard and experienced at the clubs? “I thought that once I’d written that, maybe I’d just move on, but no: I’m still there. It’s such a huge subject, and so many of my formative years were spent in that world. I don't think I’ll ever actually come out of it, my storytelling will always lead me to set characters there.” In fact, the writer’s most recent project was an adaptation of Nawal El Saadawi's 1975 novel Woman at Point Zero for the Royal Opera House. “At first, it didn’t strike me that it was a similar subject to the area that I usually work in, because I already knew the novel so well.” For those unfamiliar, the semi-fictional work centres on a prisoner who, sentenced to death for killing her pimp, wants to tell her life story before she dies. “She talks us through the abuse that she’s suffered, becoming a prostitute, killing her pimp and finding freedom in the fact that she’s going to die. So it’s all very happy, as operas generally are...”
While the mood seems fitting for an opera, the plot isn’t one you’d typically see on a stage accustomed to rosy cheeks and tall white wigs. “I’m not sure that the Royal Opera House had ever done anything like that before – the team was mostly female and mixed heritage, from the choreographer and composer to director and librettist.” Even the process of adapting the book didn’t follow tradition, with improvised notes being made along the way. “I think that was quite a scary process for them, but when you’re trying to tell a layered, nuanced female story, can it really fit into the archetypal form that is used to tell stories from a male perspective?” Sabrina’s work often tells stories from different perspectives, but they are only ‘different’ in that the worlds of publishing, theatre and poetry are hostile to voices that stray from the canon. “Representation is always important. There’s just too much talk. I get it, because industries are based on talk, but debates, panels and presentations don’t mean anything because logistically nothing has moved on; we’re still in such a rubbish place with representation.” How do we make real change, moving away from tokenism and diversity internships that often lead to nothing? “People just need to not be lazy. Instead of saying, 'Well this is a person I know', find people that you don’t know who maybe don’t have the same experience. There’s a reason they don’t have the same experience, so give it to them and help make it a fairer world, basically.”
Another writer speaking out about this issue in publishing is Nikesh Shukla, editor of The Good Immigrant. The collection of essays, written by 15 emerging British BAME writers including Riz Ahmed and Reni Eddo Lodge, tackles the polarising and damaging notions of a 'good' and 'bad' immigrant. Sabrina's contribution is a discussion of using fashion as a way to explore immigrant identity. The Good Immigrant received critical acclaim, beating The Girl on the Train and Harry Potter and the Cursed Child to the Readers’ Choice Award at last year's Books Are My Bag Readers Awards. Post-Brexit, the crowd-funded book took on a new significance, with a rise in documented racism opening people’s eyes to the importance of hearing these voices. “People suddenly thought about addressing their own prejudices, they seemed to want to know more about other people's experiences, which, in general, is a positive thing," says Sabrina. "For me, the great thing has been finding other people who your experience resonated with. A lot of mixed Middle Eastern people have contacted me, talking about their renewed interest in looking at their heritage and thinking more deeply about why they haven’t connected with it.”
Sabrina's own anthology, The Things I Would Tell You, brings together British Muslim women in a fierce, multifaceted collection of essays. What sets both The Good Immigrant and The Things I Would Tell You apart is that they allow their writers to define themselves, free of stereotypes and preconceptions. While religion or ethnicity may unite them, their stories and experiences are varied, intricate and individual. This may be obvious to you and me, but in an industry run by white men, these books are vital platforms: “One of the biggest challenges for writers of colour is being able to write about what you want. Not censoring yourself, or being censored, for the publisher’s audience. Just being considered a writer, rather than a writer of colour there to write about colour. While most do want to write about their experiences, it shouldn’t be what is expected of them, or the only pieces that are offered.”
With game-changing groups like gal-dem and Octavia Poetry providing that space for writers of colour to express themselves without the traditional constraints of the publishing industry, is Sabrina hopeful for the future? “I don’t know – I’m quite cynical about the future. When I work in schools, it feels utterly depressing: there are hardly any arts, everything is instruction-led, and kids don’t have a clue because it’s rogue learning,” she explains. “But then I’ll have a discussion with certain groups, and 13-year-olds are coming out with sophisticated intersectional theories most people don’t learn until their 20s. The problem is, these kids are usually working class, and unless the structures at the top change, will these voices be heard? I hope so.”
“Look at grassroots activism, though – change comes from the bottom, and out of awful periods comes important art” I offer, maybe trying to convince myself as well as Sabrina. “Yeah, you’re right, the level of activism in young people is amazing. That is where you find the hope – you go out and find young people and know the future is going to be worthwhile.”