At home with Amani Haydar

Amani Haydar is an artist, lawyer and advocate for women's health and safety. Her devastating and yet hopeful debut is The Mother Wound.

Amani experienced the unimaginable when she lost her mother in a brutal act of domestic violence perpetrated by her father. Writing with grace and beauty in The Mother Wound, Amani shares the stories of her mother and grandmother to help other survivors find their voices.

Amani was a finalist in the 2018 Archibald Prize, and she uses visual art and writing to explore the personal and political dimensions of abuse, loss, identity and resilience.

At home with Amani Haydar


ASTRID: Amani Haydar, welcome to The Garret.

AMANI: Hi, Astrid. Thank you for having me. I'm really excited to be here.

ASTRID: I don't really know where to start this interview. I finished The Mother Wound last night and I dreamt about this book, and I can't quite place it in all of the reading and all of my knowledge about the world. You have written something that is profound, something that is, I think needed in Australia, but around the world and something that I really hope will change what we do in Australia. Congratulations.

AMANI: Thank you. That means a lot. It means a lot to hear that from people once you've kind of finished that really arduous writing process.

ASTRID: So you in The Mother Wound reflecting on your mum and what your mum would think of this work, but also everything else that you have done and continue to do. And you write that sometimes people say that your mum would be proud of you. I am so glad people say that to you. I think your mum would, but I also wanted to start this podcast by saying, I think everybody in Australia should be proud of you. I think that women and girls and young people should be proud of you because this has for so long, been swept under the carpet for centuries, for generations. And it only changes when we all know and we all act and we all change. So can you start with telling us about The Mother Wound, that is the title of your book, but it also refers to a very specific psychological theory. So, can we start there?

AMANI: So, the psychological theory, and I first came across these kind of just scrolling through Instagram and the healing and recovery zone of Instagram. Basically, ‘the mother wound’ refers to the wounds, the trauma, the loss, and the grief that is passed down through families in the maternal line, and that women experience because of living in a violent patriarchal world. Sometimes that can be things that are unconsciously projected onto the next generation. There's a writer called Bethany Webster who really expands on this concept in her work. And I wanted to kind of tease out the idea in a more creative direction and look at it in the context of my own life. I had an art exhibition in 2019 that I titled, The Mother Wound. And I played around with this idea of trauma and the ways in which it's passed on intergenerationally and whether we can also pass on resilience intergenerationally, and whether we can work to heal those traumas or whether we're perpetually stuck in those cycles. And I knew once I started working on the book and getting into it that, that would be a recurring theme and that needed to be the title.

ASTRID: It is a fantastic title. It also refers to your own experience. You do explore the loss of your mum who was murdered by your father when you were five months pregnant and also the historical trauma and intergenerational trauma of your family. Your grandmother died in the 2006 Lebanon war. But in addition to your family story and your story, this work explores domestic abuse and domestic violence, but it is your take on intersectional feminism and your critique on our justice system and what contemporary justice can and should look like and of family relations and the intimate people around us who are supposed to look after us. Can you start by explaining why you wanted to write a book? And it obviously, I think words are the most important thing. Your mum's story was already public, and I'm interested in how you have chosen to tell your mum's story in your words.

AMANI: When I lost my grandmother in 2006, the incident in which she was killed was so violent. And even though I knew about war and I knew about my family's heritage and their migration story in a sort of abstract way, I'd never experienced a direct loss as a result of it. So when my grandmother was killed in a drone strike by an Israeli drone and it became public and it was all over the news, I was only 17 going on 18. I was in my final year of school, and I don't think I ever received proper acknowledgement for how that grief affected me, nor did I ever properly acknowledge it for my mum, or realise how profound it was. I knew consciously how awful it was, but I didn't really give it the adequate attention or concern or work on healing it, it was just this thing that happened that was out of our control.

When my mum was murdered in 2015, I really had a strong sense of reliving that previous grief and also suddenly realising what my mum's grief must have looked like at that time when my grandmother was killed. It just became this inseparable thing for me and in my writing and in my art, I think that comes through because the two stories are so intertwined and the grief is so to twined, it would not make sense to speak only of the violence that was inflicted on my mum and not talk about that other violence. Even though the language that we have and the language that's available can be quite different, I think there's such a strong link, and we need to think about that if we really want to improve things for women across the world.

When I made the choice to start speaking publicly about what had happened to my mum, I wanted to retain some control over how my narrative was used. I wanted it to be authentic. I wanted it to be something that heals the loss of control and the loss of power that I experienced during the legal process, rather than me reliving this experience again and again, in a harmful way. And it became quite clear to me that the best way to do that is to use my own writing and my own art to do it, rather than to have to sort of always navigate the media and figuring out what to do. And that became quite an empowering process.

So, from giving my victim impact statement at trial, to becoming a writer and writing a whole book about my mum's life, that has been a process of sort of reclaiming that story and my agency and making sure that all the complexities and nuances in my mum's life are not just glossed over by headlines and short opinion pieces and things like that.

ASTRID: I'm sure opinion piece can't capture anything that you have experienced. You have said the words, trauma and grief several times now, but you have also referred to healing and resilience. And I think you have found the words that I have been struggling to since I finished your book last night. The Mother Wound, your book, does give both to the reader. I also want to go back to the word that you said, finding your own agency. You are a trained lawyer, you know how the legal system works, you know how courts operate and you know what the very complicated patriarchal system does. For you to have not had agency in that situation suggests that most of us will never have agency if we ever find ourselves anywhere near the legal or justice or court system. In The Mother Wound, you include some of your diary entries from 2015. That tells me that you were journaling back in 2015. What was it like for you to go back and read what you wrote in the months after your mother's death?

AMANI: The entire writing process involved a few different confronting moments. I was really grateful actually to my younger self and my previous versions of myself for having documented so many things in so much detail. That I think really, really was such an important part of my writing process. Being able to go back and revisit those things. Journaling happened at the time because my first counsel out from the homicide victims support group put a journal in my hand and said, ‘I'm going to really encourage you to write anything that comes to your mind, things that you might've wanted to say to your mum, things that you can't say to the people that you're mad at, et cetera’.

So, I started doing that and I found it really, really helpful, but it also became this great record of what was making me angry on any particular day, how I was feeling at the time. The dreams, the nightmares, the psychological effect of what I was trying to process in real time. To be honest, revisiting it while I was writing my book. I was like, okay, ‘I'm a better writer now. Do I really want to include these old journal entries?’ And I was very self-conscious about having them in there, but I think it's important to sort of see that progression, to see something from that time that's really raw and not really... was never written to be seen by anybody else. I think that adds to the book and actually illustrates some of the feelings that I associate with that period, because between the murder and the eventual trial, there were two years and they were lived in survival mode and I have huge gaps in my memory from that time. Having those journal entries helps me fill some of those gaps. And yeah, I wouldn't have been able to flesh out that period properly in my writing if I hadn't done that.

ASTRID: Shut me down if what I say next is inappropriate, but I read a lot of memoirs. And so often people essentially publish kind of what they should have maybe been journaling when they haven't quite got through many of the phases that they will eventually go through. And often they don't feel very good after they have shared that part of their story with the world. My observation of you is you have done so much thinking, you have done so much writing, you have done so much creating in your art and processing that The Mother Wound is so very strong. I think this book will stand for 10, 20 years as a testament to your mum and grandma and yourself, but also to Australia because you have done the work. It is such a beautiful book.

We just talked about your journaling and you have this record of your thoughts and feelings, and that fills in some of the gaps that you have, but writing a book is a substantial time-consuming task. It involves editors and publishes and pitching and a lot of time alone. How did you take the legal documents, take the experiences of your sisters and your husband and your broader family and squish it all into a narrative that stands up so well?

AMANI: Thank you. It's probably came together piece by piece. I did take a lot of time to think, and there is a temptation when you've been wronged and when an immense injustice has been committed against you to use writing as a venting tool, to kind of post your journal entries on Facebook. I had to exercise so much restraint in the lead up to my father's child, not to do that. And it takes so much practise as well to find the right spaces, the safe spaces to share that story. And you can't heal if you're doing it in an erratic manner, all over the place. And that's involved work behind the scenes like counselling over and over again. Every time you think you're done, you're like, ‘Actually I think I've got some new stuff coming up. I've got to go work on that and process it’.

It involved reading what other women were writing and understanding where my work sits within the current context with things like #MeToo, with discussions that are taking place in the DV sector. It involved learning and having mentors and thinking of writing, not just as a way to vent or rant or the way that... I mean, I was a lawyer, so I was writing, but I was writing letters and everything had to be proven and provable. So even unlearning some of that stuff helped along the way. So it was a huge process to start even thinking like a writer so that it had that sense of narrative to it. And I knew that you could access transcripts through the court. So I made sure to get all of those. I read through them and that was...

I was at one point questioning whether it was a mistake to have read through them, but it felt really important that I also process that information before I write about it. And I wanted to sit with... The judgement for my dad's trial is 75 pages long on its own. So that information is in the public's sphere, but that's not the story that I'm telling. The story that I'm telling is my experience of that process. And I wanted to make sure I had everything there so that I could distil it into what was useful, so that I could get across the things I've learned along the way, the questions that I haven't been able to answer because I don't know everything. You don't reach a finite position on every issue, especially when you're talking about concepts like justice and gender-based violence and global issues. So I really wanted to sit with each thing and give it the proper attention it deserved.

I hate feeling any kind of regret. So there's no way I would've been able to do it when I was still processing. I think it's so important for anyone who wants to write or speak from lived experience to have the access to the appropriate support to feel empowered. Each time you do it, that should be an empowering experience. It shouldn't be something that is leaving you at a deficit.

ASTRID: So well said. A moment ago, you've actually preempted one of the questions I wanted to ask you where you place The Mother Wound in contemporary Australian literature. Towards the end, you do start mentioning some recent publications. There is Bri Lee's Eggshell Skull. There is Jess Hill's See What You Made Me Do. They're both nonfiction works of a different style than yours. Where were you placing The Mother Wound in this burgeoning and beautiful and done needed space in Australian publishing?

AMANI: I think it sort of straddles an intersection of things. I think we're seeing this, like you said, beautiful growth of literature by women who are testifying about their experiences and reflecting on them and pushing for change at the same time. I think we're also seeing an amazing moment with our Australian writers contributing to the literary landscape and adding our voices that are underrepresented in publishing to what's available for people to read and engage with. So I'm excited about the idea of where those two things meet. And for me, that's really what's kind of happened with my writing. I have been involved for a short time with the Sweatshop Literacy Movement... Actually not even a short time, probably about a year of being part of the women's movement, actually, not even a short time, probably about a year of being part of the women's collective there. And that's been really empowering in terms of getting in touch with my authentic writing style and being part of a group where we can bounce ideas back and forth in a safe space. And that has also influenced the way that I kind of framed my story and where I wanted it to go. So I think we talk a lot these days about intersectional feminism and intersectionality and it's a bit of a catch phrase and I want to put in practise what that means and to tell my story in that way and to do my advocacy in that way. And that for me was really paramount. So I've tried to think about lots of different angles and perspectives in telling my story and making sure that it's considered and contributes to the existing conversations in that way.

ASTRID: When this goes to air, the previous episode will actually be with the Founder of Sweatshop Literacy Movement. Michael Mohammed Ahmad. I wanted to ask you... Well, I think I know the answer to this question, but I feel I would like to hear your thinking behind it. Having just read The Mother Wound, I think it's fairly apparent that your mum's side of the family is going to react in a different way than your father's side of your family. How have you prepared for that?

AMANI: I don't know if I have. Look, I think this is something that I've already had to come to terms with. And I say in there that there's immense pressure on victims of crime to behave a particular way and to be sort of heroic in their circumstances and diplomatic and forgiving. And I unpick all those different pressures. And my father's side is an example of those pressures and it's particularly amplified because I'm speaking from the perspective of someone who grew up in quite a close knit community with certain cultural and religious contexts that I also unpick in the book. It's important to me that we can have these conversations and be quite frank about the way that Muslim women experience abuse and violence. And at the same time, to have stories that are complex enough, that they show that they don't necessarily feed straight into existing stereotypes. And I think for me, that was one of the things that I was conscious of while I was writing the book.

AMANI: And you mentioned Michael Mohammed Ahmad's book, The Other Half of You. And at his launch, he actually acknowledge the complicated relationships that can exist between children and their fathers. And I think there's an interest... I've started reading his book and I think there's an interesting dialogue happening between our work in relation to masculinities and how interpersonal violence affects relationships, how we navigate those relationships, and I think it's such a timely conversation, I'm really looking forward reading the rest of his book.

But one of the things that I really wanted to do with my work was not just feed into existing stereotypes, but build on the conversations that are happening and provide a new space where we can have more productive conversations that actually open the way for other women to tell their stories and create a language that is more accessible to women who share my background and women who don't, who might just relate in other ways, to be able to participate. Because I don't think we want feminism or even conversations about domestic abuse to be exclusive to particular groups or to whoever can navigate them the best or whoever has the language or the other social currency that makes them able to slip easily into that conversation.

I think we need to broaden that work and make sure it reaches the most marginalised, the most vulnerable, and the fact that I have already lost those key relationships gives me the opportunity, funnily enough, to be able to talk about it without worrying that I'm going to lose a partner or a father or a sibling or whatever. So in a way, I've kind of freed myself from that pressure and written with as much openness as I can bring to the text in order to sort of tell that story without worrying too much about a full-out.

ASTRID: One of the most beautiful passages kind of towards the end of the book is where you are describing your relationship with your sisters and how there is nothing between you, how you can be angry with each other in one second and completely happy and laughing in the next, that the closest of bonds with sisters. I was interested in how you have talked about or shared or thought about this work with them? What are their thoughts?

AMANI: So they've just read it, they've both finished reading it. Nour actually finished reading it yesterday and called me to tell me. Ola read it a little while ago. And they've both been so supportive. I'm so grateful because it's terrifying to sit there writing and wondering how people that actually know you going to perceive save your work. Nour actually said that, for her, it was perfect and that it's her favourite book now so that was very validating because she can be quite a harsh critic. And Ola said something that I think was really important to hear as a writer, which is that she felt that I captured things that she hadn't even talked to me about in a way that really resonated with her.

So that was validating in the sense that sometimes you kind of in your own little bubble, you're writing away. You're like, ‘Is this just me, or is it embellished or is it what actually happened or is it relatable?’ And to hear that from her was so validating because her experience was so extreme and so unique that I wasn't even lying to myself that I would be able to capture what she'd been through. So to have her say that was really valuable.

ASTRID: That is such high praise from your sister. You are not only a writer, you are advocate and you are an artist. And I was fascinated by this passage I found in The Mother Wound and I'm going to quote you here. ‘Making art is a language that comes more naturally than anything, more naturally than writing, more naturally than mothering’. You was shortlisted for the Archibald prize, and that portrait, that self portrait with your mother and grandmother appears in the back of the back page of The Mother Wound. How does your art further your advocacy and your self-expression?

AMANI: I think art gave me a way of beginning a conversation with the public that felt really safe for me. I wasn't ready to put in black and white on the page exactly how I was feeling. And like we mentioned earlier, I prefer to be able to process my experiences before articulating them and sharing them with the outside world. That portrait was really such an important milestone for me because it actually allowed me to say what I wanted to say with just enough of that ambiguity to be able to do it without it being arduous or a fight or more conflict or more trauma for me. And I painted that in the beginning of 2018, so that we were only about eight months from my father's trial by that point, not even a year had passed.

So it was also very fresh to me and the fear that I felt at the end of his trial and the paranoia and the just being really conscious of criticism and conflict was still there. So yeah, that painting actually wasn't a massive step into, ‘Okay, I think I'm ready to switch gears and start speaking about what happened and being creative and telling that story in my own way’. And the painting's caught in sort of a headline here. So it was also like reclaiming that story from the headlines and telling it in my own way.

ASTRID: Did you design the cover of The Mother Wound?

AMANI: No, I didn't. The cover was designed by [Akiko Chan 00:24:04].

ASTRID: Perfect. I just thought I would check, given you have an exhibition coming up.

AMANI: Yes, I do.

ASTRID: Can you tell us about it? And please tell me that it's in Melbourne, because otherwise I-

AMANI: It's Melbourne.

ASTRID: Yes! Tell me.

AMANI: It's in Melbourne. So I have an exhibition coming up in Melbourne at MARS Gallery. It starts on the 29th of July. If COVID restrictions permit, we'll be having an event on the 7th of July to launch the exhibition and also have a little chat about The Mother Wound. And I'm really excited, because I haven't had an exhibition in Melbourne before, and all the work will be available. And it's all new, and it's about to get shipped there today, so I'm looking forward to sharing this new stuff.

ASTRID: That is absolutely wonderful news. I think Melbourne, after the year Melbourne has had, needs a bit of happiness, and your exhibition might just be it. You, earlier in this interview, were talking about developing a language for women around domestic abuse and all of the implications and outcomes and stories that can come from that. Your art feels like part of that new language. It just feels like you are giving people different mediums within which to feel and see and find a different way of being or a different way of thinking.

AMANI: Yeah, I think art and writing has a profound capacity to make connections. Sometimes I say I can't keep up with the ideas that I have sometimes for a painting, because I think these stories are just limitless and endless, and there are so many opportunities and ways that we can reimagine our society. And I don't want anyone to ever read my work as being a single issue form of activism, or a single issue form of writing. I want to think holistically about big ideas like justice and violence against women. I want to think about how those wounds kind of cross over the planet, and how every form of injustice is linked to another, and I feel that art and writing kind of provides that opportunity. And the more creative we get, I think the more that we can imagine solutions to our problems. I think through a visual language or written language, you can create new space.

You can create new conversations, and then people will find that more accessible and they're able to participate. And I've had people come along to art exhibitions, women who are in the later stages of their lives, and have never been able to talk about experiences of abuse or explore their own creativity, and say to me things like, ‘I used to love to draw, but my dad disapproved of that. I would've loved to be creative, but my husband needs me to work in this other thing’, or, ‘I need to do something else for my children’. So I think if we kind of build the momentum around this type of work, then people will be able to reclaim that. And everybody's creative and everybody's got a story to tell, and I don't think there's any limit to that, and art gives us that space to imagine and explore and get really whimsical and creative with our lives.

ASTRID: Do you think you'll ever write another long-form book?

AMANI: Yes. I think I want to write fiction next, though.

ASTRID: That is very exciting.

AMANI: I would like to do that. I really enjoyed the creative parts of the process, and I feel like there are more stories that I want to tell. And in some ways, The Mother Wound was like this burden that I had to make sure was done and documented, put on the shelf, and that the stories were there and preserved. But I feel that that process has actually opened up more ideas for me, has given me more creative ways of thinking about writing, and I'd be interested to push myself more in that direction.

ASTRID: Amani, I hope you do. I hope that The Mother Wound is available forever in all good bookstores and libraries around Australia, because I think that you have written something that needs to be read and witnessed and kept. But I also want you to write a fiction, because I cannot wait to see what you created. Thank you for joining me today. It has been an honour.

AMANI: Thank you so much, Astrid. It's been a delight chatting to you. Thanks for having me.