SOPHIA THAKUR

INTERVIEW BY SAMUEL ENI & PEDRIN EDU
PHOTOS BY BALINT MARJAI

From acclaimed spoken word artists Sophia Thakur comes a powerful new collection of poems about what it means to be a woman, intergenerational relationships, finding your voice and learning to speak out.We sat down with her to dive deeper into the ideas and concepts she’s exploring in her new book.

How would you compare ‘Wearing My Mother's Heart’ to your first book?

I think with my first book I had a lot of feelings and ideas about the things I wish I could get off my chest and I threw that one into one book, but I think with the new one, I had such a clear story in mind.I knew what I wanted to say. I knew that I wanted to tell the story of my grandma. I wanted to tell the story of my mom. I wanted to tell the story of my generation and I wanted it to be a conversation. I think, although I had maybe270 poems or something, ridiculous, and I had to bring it down to 70. They were all part of the same world.

Was the process of writing your first book and getting to know the logistic of it very difficult compared to this one?

"I had no idea back then. I didn't know anything about the publishing industry. I didn't know about writing a poetry collection. I didn't know. I'm on stage all the time, so if I want to emphasise something, I could just raise my voice. IfI wanted to express something, I can move my arm. You can't move your arm on the page and you can't shout on the page. I was learning, that there are poems that I perform and they're so powerful on stage that when I write them down and read them, I was like: “Oh, this is a bit flat.” I realised 80% of it was performance, it was tone, it was all of these things. I learned that in my first book I didn't get it completely right. But I think in the second book, I've been a lot more intentional with finding the right language that raises a voice on the page, finding the right language that changes tone on the page, finding the right line breaks that would show a dramatic pause. I think I've gotten better at that and I'm still learning. I felt like, not an adult, but I felt more mature in the writing process than I did with this one.

How have your personal growth and experiences influenced your writing over these years?

"I think that, I know less now than I did a few years ago. I think when I was writing my first book, I was a teenager basically. At that age, you kind of think you know exactly what you want to say and you're kind of like: ‘This is exactly how I want to say it and what I want to say.’ But I think in these years I've read more poetry, I've spoken to more people, I've realised that not everything is black and white. I've realised there's so much nuance. Yeah, so much. I realised I don't know that much. I think it's made me a humbler writer.I think being a humbler writer makes you a more compassionate one too. I think personally, I've just become more compassionate and open to the idea and accepting of the idea that I don't have all the answers. I know what I know, but I can't be sure of what I know because I don't know everything, you know? I think I know less now, but that's perhaps the best thing that can happen to a writer to know less because it keeps you curious. My best writing comes from a place of curiosity, which is a good thing."

Your poems open doors to conversation. What kind of conversations are you wanting people to have when they read your new book?

I hope that people ask their elders questions. I think one thing that I really wanted to do with this book is opening up conversation.I found that political correctness is just going so far to the point where you kind of can't say anything. Not anything but there's a lot of things you can't say. It's silenced a whole generation of tradition and culture and religion.For example, I'm half Asian, half African, so it's Hindus, Muslims andChristians and none of them can kind of say anything anymore. They're all quite old school tradition-wise. Progress and change is necessary as that is how the world evolves, but I think if we're calling free speech, free speech, someone's free speech shouldn't silence someone else’s. There are many things that as a society we are now taught to frown upon or not to celebrate or whisper about, because it's seen as old or old tradition but actually these things are still part o four culture. Actually, some of these traditions and beliefs are okay, it's still okay to be Muslim, it's still okay to be Christian. It's still okay to beJewish. It's okay to talk about it.

It's still okay to have faith.

"Yeah. It's still okay. It's still okay to want a family. It's still okay to want to marry before getting a good job. It's still okay to do all of these things and it's also okay to not want those things, you know? But the two exist together. What I hope in this book, is that in telling the stories of what our grandparents went through and what love was to them once upon a time and what marriage was to them, and what religion was to them, what it had to be to them when they were moving country. People will come to realise they don't believe what they believe and we don't believe what we believe just because we want to be problematic. This is how everyone survives and they survived because of religion because they were in a foreign country, they needed God. They survived off marriage because they were a team that had to come. You know what I mean?"

Absolutely!

"I hope that people turn around to their elders and they ask them questions. Why do you think what you think? Not just you shouldn't believe what you believe. You shouldn't say what you say, you know? I think if we can get to the root of things, hopefully there's less judgment and there's more compassion. "

Do you think it’s easy to talk to our elders? And I'm saying this from a personal standpoint because sometimes I struggle to speak to my elders, even to my parents and not because I think they are close-minded. It’s because sometimes I think that they won't get it. But not in a dismissive way. For example, I tried to have conversations with my mom about mental health and getting frustrated by her not getting it as they grew up in a different time.

"No, I don't think it's easy, but I think it's worth the effort. But also when I have this conversation with my brother, my oldest brother, he doesn't bother with the conversations anymore because he has more peace in not trying to fight who they are and just everyone working around each other.

"We have a generational progression in our DNA that is so inherent sometimes. But I think because they don't have the language to use, they don't apply it. I think what I try to do when I'm speaking to my parents, my elders, I removed the language and we just have a conversation about that time when they first came to London and everything was just gray and glum but they just had to go on with things. What was that like for you? Or that time when you just had a baby and you felt really low about the fact that you were a mum and that feeling itself ate away at you? I know it now as postpartum depression. There wasn't name for it in your time, but you know the feeling, you know.I think sometimes it’s about removing the terms that we know and we've learned and we taught ourselves and actually just talking about the feeling, which is the power of language and words. If you open it up, everyone gets it. If we close it up, only people that know get it. That's why story telling is so important as well. Because I might not be able to say to you, I'm going through anxiety, but let me tell you a story about the first time I went to public speak. You might relate to that. I might not be able to tell you about bipolar, but let me tell you the story of when I had my first, whenI first realised that I had it, when I first realised something was off, maybe you'd understand that, you know? And that's what I hope to do in the book. Just open up those conversations, remove the labels. There's nothing to do with like...there's no specific terminology in the book at all because it's in the voice of my grandma, it's in the voice of my mom. They don't speak like that, you know?

Thank you. I'll take that as an advice, I really appreciate it.
Wearing your mother's heart, what does that feel like?

"I feel I'll never not know the right thing to do in a situation when she was here or not. And I hope she's here for a very longtime, but I'll never not know because she has never spared us a lecture. She's never spared giving us a lesson or a wisdom or a proverb, she doesn't have an off day where she doesn't want to do that. She's a teacher so she's always teaching us. I think for me even if I do the wrong thing, I know what she would've said to do and because her whole compass is love and her whole compass is God, I know it would've been the right thing as well. So, I think it's safety. I think Wearing My Mom's Heart makes me feel very safe."

If you could sum up your book in three words, what would those three words be?

"I think it's honest. It’s soft. I think as a concept, it's quite revolutionary. It can be."

Can you elaborate on that last one?

"Ithink you hear so many different approaches to political correctness and peoplesay sometimes if you go too far it's bad. Bu's life, you know, that's people, that's belief, right? It's always goingto have yes and a no. But I think what I want the book to do is, I'm not sayinganyone's correct, I'm not saying anyone's wrong. I'm just saying what the storyis, and I think if you can just do more of that, we can understand that two thingscan exist at the same time. I don't need to agree with you and you don't needto agree with me, you know?There are situations where I get people need aconclusion. On the topic of race, in the worst-case scenario, you need a wrongor a right. On the topic of gender, worst case scenario, you need a wrong or aright. But I think where there is space for nuances, there's always going to benuances because there's actually no wrong or right. To me murder is so wrong,for someone of a whole different religion there's grounds for it, you know? Howcan I say my God says it's right and you say your God says it's wrong or viceversa and then we expect to meet on moral ground? It’s impossible. But what wemust learn is to respect each other. And I think the book is revolutionary, inthat it puts love and respect at the front of the conversation, which I thinkis what’s needed."

You don’t want to be controversial. You just want people to communicate their feelings and ideas without judgment or hate.

"I haven't really got a desire to be controversial or provocative. I actually want to be as gentle as possible and bring as many people into the conversation as possible. My main thing is I never want to offend, I don't want to shout at anyone. And I was talking to my nan and she used to write a lot. We were chatting, and chatting, and chatting, and chatting and she was one thing to always remember in you writing was always seek to explain and teach, never offend. And I was speaking to her and I was just like,I got this from you. My dad got it from you and I got it from my dad."

Your dad is a writer as well?

"Everyone in my house writes.."

Wow!

"My parents used to write love poems to each other when they first started dating so everyone's got it in them. But yeah, my nan she writes, my dad's dad was a writer too. He's got loads of books.

And the same on the other side as well. It was when I had this conversation with my nan, I was like: “We are so much of our past.” If we let ourselves remember standing on the shoulders of giants. And every time I come back from Gambia, because I've sat with my lineage and I've seen how noble it is and I've seen how hard they've worked, I come back to England with such renewed confidence and such a grounding, such a sense of self. I just think because we have the giants inside us, they worked hard for us, they dreamt of us. When my nan was in Gambia during the colonial times and they were under colonial rule, but she was still trying to be an activist. Then when my dad came to London and he was getting arrested for being an activist and protesting."

Here in London?

"They were doing that at a time where they weren't able to do what we could do. I could do what my dad did and not get arrested for it.I could do what my nan did three times and no one would bat an eyelid. And it means that the next generation will be able to do the things that I can't do, but they'll be able to get away with it. And I think realising that I have even more responsibility because they went through all of that so that I would have this space to do what I do now and how can I fumble that, you know? I think what I hope people get from the book is they really take a long hard look at what their grandparents did, what their parents did and realise whether they think they have a responsibility, even if it's just to try their best. Doesn't even need to be anything to do with activism. Be the best person you can be, be the nicest person you can be, you know."

Well said, thank you. “Grandmothers Forbidden Love” was your first poem. There's this one quote that says "And if all our love can ever be is this moment, eternity sinks into a second, pull or pulses into one." Do you feel true love is lost in this generation?

"I think if you believe in it you'll find it. I think that if you go in sceptical, you are sceptical. How true is scepticism? I think it exists. Love is God and I believe in God. So how can it then not exist in a person?"

Forbes 30 under 30. Congratulations on that milestone. What does that kind of acknowledgement do for your career and yourself-esteem?

"I've always said there's only two awards that I really care about, the Nobel Peace Prize and Forbes 30 under 30. I've said this forages because I just thought it was cool. I think it was just a really cool thing to have. I remember the morning I woke up and saw it, I had a Slack notification from Forbes and I don't use Slack, so I just thought it's probably spam. Then I got an email and I thought, Wait, hang on, what if it's not spam? What if I'm actually on the list? Then I clicked on the link and I was literally right at the very, very bottom, the last addition to it. And I was like, oh my gosh, this is it, I can retire now."

Now all you need is the Nobel Prize…

"Yeah, Nobel Peace Prize then I'm done. My final act, haha. Jokes aside this award made made me really happy because, everyone knows what Forbes is. People generally don't really know what spoken word is. So, to have brought poetry to a space where it can be recognised on such a platform, I thought that's a positive thing. It means that something's going well."

That's amazing news. As for our last question, what has been your biggest highlight this year?

"Oh, I should have thought about that. I think it’s working with with Nike (Jordan)."

What’s your relationship with basketball?

I used to play a lot. I still play sometimes, but I've got a funny knee.

So how did that Jordan collaboration come about?

"Working with Jordan was a dream come true. I've always said I want to write poetry. When I realised I wasn't going play because of my knee, I was like, I want to write poetry for Jordan or Nike and I ended up in a two-year partnership with them after all. Such a lovely full circle moment. The other day I was performing at an event and they had me in the middle of a basketball court and they had the girls team on bench waiting to play. And they were the age that I was when I was playing and someone took a picture and it was me with a microphone in the middle of the court. Then basically me as a younger person or maybe me six, seven years ago, sat down on the bench and I just thought, this is a cyclical moment. This picture's crazy."

What is the basis of this two-year partnership? What type of projects/events are you involved in?

Trying to get as many young girls into basketball as possible. Trying to empower young women. Trying to build courts in areas where they don't have basketball courts like in the Middle East and places where girls don't play. Just bring basketball culture into the forefront in different spaces.

When I first moved to the UK I was so surprised to realise that the UK doesn't really have a basketball culture.

"It's crazy. You have tiny pockets like Brixton and other local communities that play. But it didn't used to be like that. When I used to play, in Northwest, if you went to a basketball court on a Saturday, everyone was playing three on three but it's just not like that anymore. I don't, don't know what happened.  It's also because we have football. I think that's what it is. We have crazy football culture.

It’s so good to hear that you actually love basketball, but not only that, that you're actually going to push it here in the UK, especially for women and in other places all over the world. Thank you and we wish you the best of luck!

Sophia Thakur’s new book “Wearing My Mother's Heart”is available on Amazon and other major bookshops.


Find Sophia on InstagramYoutube and Twitter.

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