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‘I was anonymous and I spent my time exploring.’

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Feature by Ben Rylan

It was the search for a vibrant creative community and a promising fresh start that took Sudanese-Australian writer and award-winning social advocate Yassmin Abdel-Magied from her home city of Brisbane to London. 

Since her move to London, Yassmin’s already burgeoning career has bloomed. She’s continued her work as a fierce activist for social justice around race, gender and faith, traveling to 24 countries to speak with governments, corporate bodies and the public. Creatively, Yassmin has published another three books, including her first foray into fiction titled Listen Layla, co-written the sold-out theater show United Queendom, which showed at Kensington Palace in 2020, and was named as one of the 2020 LinkedIn Changemakers. We spoke to Yassmin about how travel informs her writing, finding her community in London and the culinary pull of Brick Lane.

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On finding independence overseas

I was in my mid-20s when I touched down in London. I had lived in Sudan for about six months, but that was with my family. I hadn’t lived by myself overseas. It was a wild idea but it just felt like the perfect decision. I had spent such a long time grappling with this big question of what next. Then I made the call, and it was peaceful. But it was an incredibly cold winter, they called it “the beast from the east”. I didn’t even know what thermals were! So there was a lot of adjustment and I spent a lot of time recovering. But I just loved it. I was anonymous, and I spent my time exploring, meeting new people, and finding new worlds.

On becoming a London local

I spent a lot of time when I first arrived getting to know QPOC: the queer people of color community, because that didn’t really exist in the same way where I grew up. Suddenly I was living in this thriving culture of queer events. I was also interested in politics and became really involved in the local tenants’ and residents’ association. I even yelled at the mayor about what he wasn't doing for the community and helped change the car park regulations. I gained a new appreciation for how things operate so differently here, too. I find the history of politics and how the different parties have evolved over time really interesting.

On moving away from Australia

I was having a tough time in the Australian media which meant that the door to my engineering career had been effectively closed against my will. It also meant that a lot of my work opportunities dried up. I had no idea what I was going to do next. There were a lot of people advising me to stay quiet, that if I didn’t speak up then things would have gotten better. But that advice came with the suggestion that what happened to me was OK. So I was really looking for a way to move forward on my own terms. I was invited to the Dalkey Book Festival in Ireland and, during a stopover in London, I was at an event with some Muslim women. When I told them about what was happening back in Australia, one of the sisters looked at me and said, ‘Why are you staying there? What’s happening to you in Australia would never happen here.’

Yassmin Abdel-Magied arrived in London in her mid-twenties, and got to know the city through its people. Surrounding herself in the plethora of diverse and inclusive communities, Yassmin found peace with the decision to emigrate. In order of appearance, images courtesy of David Henderson, Yassmin Abdel-Magied, Alfie Chapman, Yassmin Abdel-Magied and Robert Stump.

On your early writing

My first memory of writing would be keeping a diary as a kid. Funnily enough, when I was writing my memoir [at age 24] I went back to those diaries, and they're hilarious. They’re so logical and rational about how I approached everything. There was a story about how I needed to decide who to have a crush on, so I’d drawn a table and ranked everyone by a certain set of criteria, which I just thought was so funny.

‘I spent a lot of time when I first arrived getting to know QPOC: the queer people of color community. Suddenly I was living in this thriving culture of queer events.’

On the lasting impact of words

I started an organization called Youth Without Borders when I was 16, and as part of that I would often speak to classrooms full of high school students. One day, a teacher approached me after one of my talks and said ‘You’re an incredible speaker, which is fantastic, but you need to learn to write.’ I was like, what do you mean? She said, ‘Your words will impact the people in this room, but that’s as far as they will go. But if you write, your words will reach people in ways that you will never know. They’ll transcend location and technology.’ I remember feeling slightly offended because, at that point, I loved speaking and I thought that’s what I wanted to continue doing. But she planted a seed, and that advice is something that I’ve often come back to, especially during the many times where I’ve found it difficult to determine the value of writing. But you just never know the impact your words are having.

On how life informs creativity

I kept a blog when I lived in Sudan in early 2012 and the first attempts of the revolution there were happening. Then when I started working on the oil rigs, I wrote about that. Partly just for me, but I also wrote so that I had something to share with others. And it was through that process of reflection that I started to see how my words could create space for stories and meaning. 

At the time of publication, Yassmin had published four books and written two plays, with a number of projects in development for the screen. A celebrated and educated voice, Yassmin has the unique capacity to take complex narratives and make them accessible for all, touching on society, systems and equality. Images courtesy of Yassmin Abdel-Magied.

On your past life as an engineer

I guess training to be an engineer, that kind of very systematic process thinking, is in some ways similar to philosophy in that you approach a problem very logically. So, for me, writing is a process. I need the correct ingredients and in order for me to be better, I have to learn my craft and sharpen my skills. I approach it in quite a mechanical manner, which might sound a bit unromantic. I might think, ‘Oh god, I'm not poetic enough because real writers are those poetic, creative, ephemeral types’. But it does mean that I have more of a growth mindset than I may have otherwise had. I see writing as a skill that one acquires as opposed to something with which you’re born.

‘The important thing is the message, getting the other person to see where I'm coming from, which usually requires me being able to see where they're coming from.’

On talking about racism

One of my secrets to being able to talk about serious issues around race, hate, discrimination and so on is to make sure you have somewhere safe where you can blow off some steam — whether it’s a boxing gym or a secret WhatsApp group. I say that kind of jokingly, but also slightly seriously in that I'd say a big part of what I have learnt over the years is to understand when and how to deploy different tools for optimum effectiveness. I was a Black Muslim woman wearing a hijab on an oil rig. If I expressed anger about everything that was actually making me feel angry, I would not survive! And, to be fair, I didn't even realize that speaking up against injustice was an option for me. I grew up in Brisbane in the 90s, just a few years after the end of Joh Bjelke-Petersen’s time as premier, who was very conservative. So I knew that, if I was going to talk about these difficult topics, I had to be able to communicate in a way that people would actually take without diluting what I wanted to say.

On the power of empathy

When I’m faced with opposition, I try to remember that I'm not the important thing in this conversation. The important thing is the message, getting the other person to see where I'm coming from, which usually requires me being able to see where they're coming from. So yes, I need empathy, but also I need to be secure in my own ideas so that I’m not swayed or intimidated by their pushback. I need to be grounded in where I’m coming from.

From Yassmin’s own lived experiences came a critically acclaimed collection of essays in which she wields her words to engage conversations. When shaping these words, Yassmin prefers a home away from home in Second Home, Spitalfields. In order of appearance, images courtesy of Yassmin Abdel-Magied, Iwaan Baan and Second Home.

On listening to young people

What's really interesting about now is that Generation Z has so much access to knowledge. They’ve grown up with the internet. And I think there’s a really interesting shift happening in the way young people today are engaged with social issues. You’ve got climate change, a global pandemic, numerous economic crises — this is the world they’ve inherited. And then there’s all the conversations we’re having now about gender and sexuality which is really interesting and largely driven by that generation. However, I do think there’s a push from older folk to infantilize and dismiss the concerns of Gen Z’ers because there is a pervading sense that younger people just don’t know enough yet. I see myself doing this sometimes too, but it’s important to resist that urge, as every generation has its battles and its process.

‘I need to make a special mention of Roti King, a Malaysian spot next to Euston Station. There’s usually a queue to get in, but the food is astounding and definitely worth the wait.’

On how your ideas change throughout life

As we get older, we tend to collect more life experience and we start to think about things differently. Our positions on things change, and then we look down at younger people and think, ‘Well, they haven’t seen all that I’ve seen, so how can they possibly know anything?’ But I actually think that the naivete of young people is just as vital as the world-weary wisdom of older folks. I would not have started Youth Without Borders at age 30, I’m way too cynical for that. I mean, no 30-year-old is gaining international attention for sitting outside parliament. No one would take pity on us, and we’re too worried about how we’re going to pay our rent anyway. You need a 15-year-old to do that.

On finding the best food in London

I lived near Brick Lane, which is quite famous for being a place with lots of different cuisines, especially Bengali. There are also Jewish bakeries that feel as if they’ve been there forever. I’ve frequented several of those old spots at all hours of the day and night. For nearby coffee, try Allpress — it’s a New Zealand roaster and is my local coffee spot on Redchurch Street in Shoreditch. I also need to make a special mention of Roti King, a Malaysian spot next to Euston Station. There are a lot of Malaysian students in that area and there’s usually a queue to get in, but the food is astounding and definitely worth the wait.

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You’ll likely find Yassmin zipping across East London, from the international food mecca found on Brick Lane to the quiet coffee shops tucked down side streets. Check out Yassmin’s London Travel Playbook for a taste of her favorite spots. In order of appearance, images courtesy of Joe Howard, Allpress Espresso Bar, Nick Page and Dark Sugars.

On taking friends for a day out

I’d begin with a coffee at Ozone in Shoreditch, followed by a bit of a walk towards Bethnal Green where we’d stop off at Dark Sugars, which is the first Black-owned business on Brick Lane. Then we’d make our way to Second Home, a co-working space with a fourth-floor balcony overlooking a beautiful view of East London. But I’d also want to take them to Kew Gardens. It’s got such a fascinating history, obviously rooted in colonialism with seeds brought in from all over the empire, but it’s a really interesting combination of worlds.

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Explore

‘I’d begin with a coffee at Ozone in Shoreditch, followed by a bit of a walk towards Bethnal Green where we’d stop off at Dark Sugars, the first Black-owned business on Brick Lane.’

On a window or an aisle seat

I am actually an aisle seat person because I like to have access. I don't want to be trapped!

On London in one word

The original metropole.

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