Yassmin Abdel-Magied is a Sudanese Australian writer and award-winning social advocate. She has published two middle grade novels (You Must Be Layla and the award-winning Listen, Layla), as well as her memoir Yassmin's Story. Talking About A Revolution is her 2022 anthology, which combines new and old works.
Yassmin has spoken in over twenty-five countries on social justice and inclusive leadership. She founded her first organisation, Youth Without Borders, at the age of sixteen, leading it for nine years before co-founding two other organisations focused on serving women of colour. Her TED talk ‘What does my headscarf mean to you?’ has been viewed over 2.5 million times and was selected as one of TED’s top 10 ideas.
Yassmin has appeared on The Garret before. In her previous interview she discussed writing YA fiction and who she approaches giving speeches (and preparing for her TED Talk).
ASTRID: Yassmin, welcome back to The Garret. I am incredibly excited to be talking to you again. You are no stranger to putting words on the page, both fiction and nonfiction. With your new collection, Talking About A Revolution, what were your goals?
YASSMIN: Thank you so much for having me back on The Garret, firstly. It's lovely to be back one of my fav podcasts, if I may say so.
I think for me, there was kind of two things that I really wanted to get out of putting this collection together. The first was, I really wanted to really, as the word would imply collect some of my work and have it all in one place, because I think I have now been writing for almost a decade sort of publishing formally for almost a decade and I wanted not only to be able to have a bunch of that work in one place, but also in a sense chart the evolution, my own personal kind of evolution. And it's quite an interesting and humbling in some ways process because you're like, ‘Oh wow, this piece that I was really proud of, so proud of it but gosh, have I grown since then’, and having that for readers to see.
I do think is a nice thing because it can also show new readers and new writers that people don't, well, certainly I didn't just like emerge out of the womb, like a consumate writer. I have been working at this for a while and you can kind of see the craft change over time and my own thinking and politics change over time. I think the other thing as well is I really wanted to have this space to think and share and analyse and reflect on, I would say, the last five years, because I haven't really, over the last five years, I haven't really published major kind of non-fiction pieces. I've written a couple of fiction books and explored ideas and fiction but sitting down and really thinking about challenges facing progressive politics or progressive society, the kind of the topics that, whether it's the murder of George Floyd and the supposed British reckoning post that, and the conversations around prison abolition that came out. Or whether it's this real sort of shift in the social media space and then quote the cultural space and how language is used in the public space and how that relates to in a personal way to how we think about ourselves and so on. There were lots of things that I'd been thinking about for the last five years that I really wanted the opportunity to sit down, to distil, to analyse, to share.
In a way, this book, it's the coder to my twenties. It's hopefully the beginning of a big body of nonfiction work and inshallah, but it's a reflection of, what I call it, my tumult two was 20s, a decade or so of a lot of change and growth and evolution.
ASTRID: I love that the coder to your 20s, and I really enjoy your writing Yassmin and that makes me want to read the coder to your 30s that you might put out in about a decade.
ASTRID: Now you mentioned the culture walls, and that is actually my first question. In your first essay, in this new collection, you have an essay called ‘Words mean things’, and to quote a sentence from that essay you write, ‘If the culture wall is a battle of narrative, then language itself is the frontline’. For our listeners who haven't yet read this new collection, can you kind of articulate the way you think about power and specifically language and words as powerful, meaningful things in our society and our lives and how language changes? And also, how you can see that in your own writing over the last 10 years, by putting it all together in one book?
YASSMIN: It's been such an interesting time to live in, hasn't it? Because I think the public discourse has... Let me back up a little bit. I think part of the reason I wanted to write this essay, but also begin with this essay was because I think that we're sort of living in a world where we are surrounded by information and content and words all the time. But I think to be glib there's perhaps we run the risk constantly of not understanding each other, of talking past each other and of having all of this noise, but not necessarily a clearer sense of what is actually being discussed.
And that's, I guess, the starting point. For me was one of the starting points for this essay. Why is it that it feels so difficult to be able to sit down with somebody and have a conversation about the same things and how is it that there are these terms that get used that signal things? But I'm about that are so disconnected from their original meaning from their origin, and I list, whether it's woke or whether it's freedom of speech or whether it's cultural appropriation, there are all these terms that get flung about that are signaling to certain groups, certain things that are so divorced from what we are trying to achieve with these words.
I was like, what do we do when the words we use, the very tools of communication, no longer serve their purpose? How has that happened? How has it happened that we are at this point, and it's not necessarily a new thing, but it did sort of lead me down the path of thinking about, well, how does language operate? And within that, how does power operate in relation to language? Right? And that's like a long-winded way of kind of saying what I then started to think about and look at was some of the philosophy behind language and these philosophers who talked about, well, language gets its meaning from context. And if the context then is controlled by folks with more sort of hard power, we might be able to say, or political power, electoral power, financial power, whatever.
Then we find ourselves in a situation where perhaps they have more control over or are able to change the rules of the game, even halfway through the debate. There's this bait and switch that's constantly happening with the words we use, with the way we communicate. All of this to say, I'm really interested then in what we do about that, like how do we rest control back? How do we have these conversations on our own terms? I mean, so much of my life has been personally interrupted by people taking my words out of context. People deciding that my meaning is not actually what it is. I mull over and try to kind of think about what it is to use language on our own terms. Then I do my own kind of switch in this particular essay because I then think about bringing it back to the very personal and asking, well, okay, what about the words we used to define ourselves? Like, let me start from the very individual, let me start from the self.
I talk about the concept of being black and how the context for that has changed and shifted so much for me personally over time and how then my relationship with that word has changed. I suppose, the conclusion that I come to is one that maybe not all readers will come to, I'm really, I'm really, really curious about how readers will respond to this essay and so if you're listening and you get a chance to read some of these essays, please like message me and tell me what you think, because I'm very, very curious. It's about sort of becoming comfortable with A, deciding for ourselves what something means and then B thinking about, well, how do I then communicate what that meaning means without trying to get caught up in somebody else's game as it were, does that make sense?
ASTRID: It does make sense. And, as a reader who has just read this collection covered a cover, I started my questions with your first essay ‘Words mean things’, but I found this essay resonated with me a great deal when I got closer to the end of the collection. And you include the previously written essay on freedom of speech, which I think was written, I think in 2018, 2019, but just the order of the pieces and how you took me through the thinking, look, it worked for me Yassmin.
YASSMIN: That's great. That's great to know. It's so lovely.
ASTRID: Now I want to ask you a question I have never asked on The Garret before, and I want to ask you about faith and how that dialogue operates or doesn't operate in publishing and the contemporary discourse that you are a part of. I guess, I spend so much time talking to writers and writers are my favourite people in the world, Yassmin. In Australia, there is a lot of dialogue around race, colonisation, gender, disability, and increasingly but not as much to date, a dialogue around class. And yet with a few exceptions, there is not a prominent dialogue about faith, any faith actually. And so, as a Muslim woman, what are your thoughts on where the publishing sector, the literary sector kind of do with faith and viewpoints that are grounded in belief?
YASSMIN: I find it as somebody who's grown up of faith and steeped in a faith community or many faith communities and who has made the faith their own, I've made this, my religion and the faith that I follow, something that is very dear to me. And you cannot understand me without understanding my faith, I think. I'm always so fascinated by how alert people are really to the discussions around faith to a genuine engagement with the spiritual. I often connect that to this sort of post-Enlightenment period where thinkers and philosophers, which in itself, I think is a bit of a fallacy because many thinkers and philosophers and writers and so on during the Enlightenment period themselves were people of faith, right? But we've taken from that, something very different. Even I find it fascinating having lived in France for a year, they're very all about laicite, which roughly trying to secularism, but the French themselves are very sort of deeply Catholic still and a lot of their cultural norms are influenced by faith.
I think that generally, what I would say, the sort of like Western European / Anglo influenced world has a really complicated and almost anaemic relationship with faith generally with their own Christian history. It translates to its engagement with any faith system to its detriment, I think, because I do think that any human society wants something to believe in, needs to believe in something bigger than itself. What that looks like is up to each society, but to say that we don't need that, to pretend that we can completely divorce ourselves from thinking there are concepts bigger than our own sort of individual selves or something sort of spiritual, I think it does a disservice to people. And look, obviously I would say that as a person of faith, but I think that everyone believes in something, it just, it sort of turns out in different ways.
Now to the publishing industry, I mean, this to me is such an interesting question because obviously it is very... I think people find it challenging to engage with conversations about faith and religion that is not about it as a political identity. I think people are comfortable talking about being Muslim as a political identity, as a cultural identity... That's not what I'm interested in. I'm interested in the philosophy of it. I'm interested in how it informs our thinking. I think certainly in the Islamic context, there are hundreds of years like the golden age and the Islamic era.
Essentially the Enlightenment was predicated on the work of so many Islamic thinkers, like so much wouldn't have been able to happen without those thinkers and philosophers and scientists and so on. It feels almost ridiculous to me to be enable or unable or uninterested in, or afraid of deeply engaging with this work, perhaps because people are afraid, perhaps because they think, well, these religions, what people will often say is religion is the source of so much oppression and very rightly so, people are very entitled to saying all these terrible things have been done in the name of religion. And all these terrible things have been done in the name of many things but that doesn't mean that we shouldn't engage with it. I think that people lack that it... They lack the skillset to be able, and it's not a very difficult one per se. Like, I think people are afraid to, oh, I don't know. Look, I'm making sweeping statements now and sort of speculating. I don't know why people are afraid or allergic to engaging, I hope that it is.
I write quite a lot about my faith in this collection and I write about it in a way that I don't pretend that it's about faith. I don't make it about anything else. This is, it is theology, it is philosophy, it is engaging with this in a very particular way. I am going to talk about God. I am going to talk about like, I'm not making anyone feel... I'm not sort of copying super accommodating for somebody who perhaps isn't of faith or perhaps would be find this stuff difficult to talk about. I'm like, this is how I see the world. And, welcome to the conversation.
ASTRID: I found that you really made me think now I am a person who… I have no problem talking about faith, but reading, talking about revolution made me think I never see this, this is not something that... I have a bookshelf behind me, full of books about race, and gender, and disability and war and philosophy, and most of it is contemporary Australian literature. And I guess I don't see faith in there. And it's just a broad question, you don't have the whole answer, but I've never asked anyone before and now I'm going to start asking lots of people.
YASSMIN: Yeah. I guess that's like something that's quite exciting for me as well, because when people ask me like, publishers will sort of say like, ‘What's different about your book?’ Or ‘What do you bring to the conversation that's different?’ And like, it feels glib sometimes, but I'm like, ‘How many books by Muslims who talk about their faith have you read?’ You know, people are happy to read about race and they are happy to read about gender and as you say, lots of people are writing about this. I write about it because it's something that I'm so desperate for, I want to see how other people of faith or not of faith, but like engaging with the topics of faith, think about it. And so hopefully it begins a conversation that, or it restarts a conversation that is also respectful. Like, I understand a lot of people have had harm caused to them by different faith systems that has to be part of the conversation as well but there is also so much on offer there.
ASTRID: Yeah. I mean, it's so interesting that you even felt the need to say that because yes, people have experienced harm because of different faith systems, but people have also experienced harm because of the way society structures itself around gender or around race or around age and so many other different classifications that we have put on ourselves. And religion and faith, which is different to religion, this is becoming a philosophical discussion that I am not actually trip to have, Yassmin. But I really appreciate your thoughts and thank you for making me think. I'm going to wildly change topics now and ask you a random question. This new book, this collection is broadly in two parts and at the end of the first part, you actually include a poem and I didn't know you wrote poetry, do you? And is this the first poem you've published?
YASSMIN: Neither did I. Probably the first poem that I probably wrote was actually in 2021 for the Red Room who was sort of like a poetry, I guess, organisation. And they asked me to be a poetry ambassador and I was like, that is very kind, but I think you've got the wrong person. And I was like, it was one of those moments where I was like, do these people see something in me that I don't because how has this happened? But I wrote the poem and this particular poem sort of like, it sounds so romantic. It came to me in the night, and I had to like stumble out of bed and like type it without my glasses and when I woke up, it was barely legible.
You know, that I think that I have a really funny relationship with poetry because in some ways, like I have a lot of friends who are poets, many, many friends who are poets. And sometimes I feel like I understand it and sometimes I feel like I don't. I feel very hesitant to engage in poetry because I'm like, I have no idea what's good. Like, I find it very difficult to have a sense of what's good when it comes to poetry. When it comes to fiction and nonfiction, I've been reading that since I could read but poetry is a new thing for me, especially like poetry on the page. I think I'm much more accustomed to the oral tradition of poetry in Arabic and so on. But I just thought, why not? Why not try? It's the poem question is connected to the themes that I write about, but also, it may or may not be very good, I'm not very sure, but I think that I was like, I just want to give it a shot.
ASTRID: Why not? And I can say it was a delightful surprise. I want to ask you, you are really good at writing essays and I want to thank you. And I want to ask you like how you structure an essay? Is it kind of a natural form for you? How do you guarantee a payoff for the reader? And I'm going to give you one example from this collection, there are many, but I picked ‘To all the cars I've loved before’, which is an essay on cars and racing and petrol and so many things Yassmin that you understand and I do not. I'm kind of reading this – this young Yassmin – you're telling me about falling in love with cars and petrol, and then suddenly at the end of the essay, you're like, and you're very young, ‘I'm probably going to be the last of the last generation of mechanical engineers, because all of this is bad for the climate and everyone's going to be an electrical engineer now’. And I live with climate angst and I was not expecting you to take your essay there. That is my example saying, how did you do that to me? You surprised me.
YASSMIN: Oh, thank you. That essay is actually, I have many favourites, but that particular one has a special place in my heart. I think because it is a bit of a surprise to people. I think it's a different style to the other essays, but also is quite honest and mournful in a way for something that I don't feel like there is this space to, I have not felt there's this space to necessarily mourn, as I say in the essay, like my love is kind of defunct now. And not because I've changed, because cars have changed, petrol cars, but because the world around us has changed and we have to recognise that but that can still be sad.
I will say that I do not write in any chronological order at all. Like for me, when I start writing an essay, I will sort of place a first thought down and then start placing another thought down and there'll be like paragraphs all over the shop and it won't necessarily be structured in any particular way. But I will almost in the first draught be like working towards figuring out what that particular essay is about. I will start with an idea, so say for example, in the ‘Words mean things’ one, actually the idea I started with was what it means for me to be black changes in every context that I'm in. What is that about? Oh, that's about language. Okay. So let me start thinking about language. And then I sort of started writing about language and also simultaneously started writing about what it means to be black and then kind of, they found their way towards each other on the page.
Similarly, with the borders, I was like, I wanted to write an essay about my ambivalence to my Australia citizenship. Okay. Let me start with that thought. And then where does that take me? Oh, that takes me to questioning citizenship and the idea of the nation state completely. So let me kind of, so it's kind of following my train of thoughts. So quite often what you're seeing is how my brain works, which is kind of all over the shop, right. It's really like, and for me, ‘To all the cars I've loved before’, I have often felt this real existential tension between things that I've loved and a moral reality. Like people often ask me about going back to engineering. I'm like, I would love to. It feels very transgressive, but I really enjoyed working on big platforms in the middle of the ocean, working with this giant equipment. It's just, it's very bad for the world. What am I supposed to do with that? I can't go back to that.
I find myself and I think I make the comparison, I'm like a builder who loves it as best as like, I guess maybe I become a chef. Like there's no way for me to take this. And I'll be honest, it takes a number like every writer will say that your first draught is rubbish. I would say that my first draught is me just putting all my thoughts down on the page. And then, the second, third and subsequent are all about being like, what is the thread moving through this and how will I bring it out? Are there ideas or connections missing? And so on.
ASTRID: I want to talk about knitting.
ASTRID: I also recently, and by recently, I mean, in the last couple of years, rediscovered my childhood hobby of knitting. I discovered mine in lockdown, in Melbourne. There was a particular stressing overlay, but nevertheless, you knit, I've seen some of your knitting, I was very impressed with some gloves that you put on Instagram a while ago. But in all serious, this is linked to writing. You have written an essay in defence of hobbies and the hobby that you are talking about is knitting. It's a powerful and relatable essay, like you used knitting to offer an insight into capitalism and neoliberal values and the value we are forced to place on our time. And that made me think about the art's scene, probably all over the world where the majority, if not everybody is underpaid or finds it hard to be paid. Do you have any, you just written an essay on kind of the value of our time, but how do you as a freelancer choose where you put your paid time? How do you balance it, I guess is the question I'm trying to get to?
YASSMIN: Oh, it's such a tough question. And I find this particular sort of discussion it's still very live, it's like I often say to people, I might talk about race, but it doesn't and racism. And sometimes when you sort of present it in a particular way, people can think you kind of sit outside it, you're not actually affected by it, but it's still your kind of lived experience. I think similarly with this kind of like with the world that we live in, that is in the clutches of late stage neoliberal capitalism, whatever, very much still in the clutches of having to constantly grapple with, what is it to not see myself as an asset to be constantly optimised as a piece of capital.
And even, I mean, even this very morning, I woke up to an email sort of discussing in the number of pre-orders or whatever on my book with my publisher and they aren't what I wanted them to be and so I found myself being quite annoyed, but then I was like, I'm also annoyed at the fact that not only do I have to think about the work and create the work, but then I have to sell the work and I only feel worthy if my work sells in a particular way that is deemed acceptable or deemed good enough by some of the pre-standard. And it's not like it's going to paint it out much anyway. And even the fact that I feel an obligation to be posting on social media and through all my sort of personal channels that I control about the work that I'm producing in order for other people to buy them, despite the fact that I don't necessarily think we should be buying more and more things, but that's kind of the bargain that we've all struck, apparently.
I think that I have had to very consciously, in order to manage all of this, I just very consciously had to introduce hobbies into my life, activities into my life that are resolutely unmonetizable and commit to that and work on because I'm not there yet, but work on my feelings that I'm wasting time, right? Because quite often, so like one of the things I decided at the beginning of this year that I wanted to learn to ride horses. I was a real horse nerd. When I was at the saddle club and thorough bread and all of a sudden the other. At the beginning of this year, I was like, all right, I'm going to take some of the savings that I've made or that I've sort of collected and put aside for a rainy day or whatever. And I'm going to use this for something that's going to bring me joy and that's going to be horse riding, and I'm going to learn how to ride a horse.
And the thing is, when you're on a horse, you don't have time to think about anything else. You can't be thinking about emails, you can't be thinking about your to-do list. You're in an arena or in a field, on a horse and if you're not paying attention, the horse will make you pay attention, right? And it takes me an hour to go out to the place in an hour to come back. At minimum, when is three hours out of my day, and that's a long time, right? And also, a long time when I'm quite busy with other things, but it's a commitment that I've made because I'm like, I've got to enjoy the life that I have. Like, I've got to be able to do things that aren't just about work.
And I think as you point out, it's even more challenging for folks in the arts I think, because the line between work and life is so blurred. I don't like, is me reading? Is that work? Or is it life? I don't know. In that kind of very murky context, finding things that are purely for joy, as I say in the essay, is like a little act of resistance because I feel like if I don't really intentionally carve that out, I will very easily find myself not having any time at all that doesn't feel like I'm obligated to be spending it in a particular way.
ASTRID: You are making me question how I took my favourite thing in the world, which is reading and turned it into a podcast, which is actually work.
YASSMIN: I'm so sorry.
ASTRID: One final question from one reader to another, in your opening essay, you include a throwaway line, meaningless student debates are last, Sally Rooney. Do you like Rooney's work?
YASSMIN: Why are you doing this to me?
ASTRID: I am doing this to you because Bri Lee asked me this in public and she's got a whole essay on it and I don't like Sally Rooney.
YASSMIN: Oh my God. I also am programmed to be at an event with her in a month, so hopefully she doesn't hear this, but I'm sure she's used to people talking about her because that is what the publishing world talks about. Do you know, I have strong feelings about Sally Rooney and her work, but I don't actually, as somebody who people have strong feelings about, I am very happy to recognise it is not actually about her at all, it is about the fact that publishing talk a very promising young white Irish woman who wrote a book that was relatable to, I think, lots of other middle class white women in Britain and Ireland and said, this was the voice of the generation, this is the great millennial novel. And I was like, excuse me, because what part of this, I think for what they are, she has done a great job at doing what she set out to achieve.
ASTRID: We can be a party of two because I also just don't get it. And it's the hype, not her herself.
YASSMIN: Right. It's the hype, it's the hype for me. It's the hype. Like I think, I read normal people because my friend was like, please read it so we can talk about it. And I was like, fine. And I read it in an evening and I was like, fine, like wealthy white girl who got hot at uni, finally gets with working class, hot guy at school who no longer feels like he's in place at university. Like, great, like very beautiful. You do all of the internal stuff really well, but I'm like fundamentally unrelatable. I literally relate to none of this and that is also fine, but I'm too old to like spend my time in the heads of people that I'm not interested in and that I actually don't feel are teaching me anything about life, which is fine, it doesn't have to relate to me, but it is. Like the fact that she is deemed the voice of a generation for me reflect so poorly on the publishing industry. But I'm not going to say anymore because I don't want to get myself in too much trouble.
ASTRID: I happen to agree with you and I asked you a completely leading question because I just thought that's what you were implying in that throw away line. But Yassmin, congratulations once again, on Talking About a Revolution, I really enjoyed it.
YASSMIN: Thank you so much. Thanks Astrid. And I hope all your readers do as well.