Interview with Manal Younus

Manal Younus is a freelance storyteller. As a young Muslim woman with Eritrean origins, Manal tells stories in many forms and strives to spark meaningful thought about race, identity, and community.

Manal was a South Australian State Finalist in the 2016 Australian of the Year Awards, in recognition of her work to empower diverse young Australians. Manal is part of the team that launched Soul Lounge, an inclusive monthly poetry and open mic night that prioritises the voices of people of colour. She has worked with Act Now Theatre to raise awareness amongst high school students about racism, has spoken at TEDxAdelaide, and has performed her poetry around the country.

Can you tell me a little about yourself?  

I go by the title of freelance storyteller. I’m a spoken word artist, a writer, performer, and I also work in theatre. I do whatever I need to do to tell the story. If that means using my body, working with visual artists, creating written work, or whatever else, that’s what I’ll do.

In community art space, I use art to practice what you might call decolonial community engagement, and to look at how to centre the voices and stories of people of colour. That involves creating safe spaces, working with young people to amplify their voices and to ensure that they have the tools to tell their stories.

You’ve received many accolades for your work, where did the inspiration come from for your particular brand of activism?

The work that I do has evolved over time. I always knew that I would work within the activist space in some way, and it’s changed from focusing on international aid issues, to focusing just on refugees, then to integration in Australia, and to where I am now. What I do has changed based on my experiences, and how they’ve impacted me. I’ve found that this is the place that I’m most useful, where I can use my skills, and where my identity is relevant, but not in a way that it’s only relevant to someone else’s agenda.

Has your experience of feeling like your identity is being used to forward someone else’s agenda shaped what you’re trying to achieve now?

Yes, definitely. When we grow up as people of colour, we come through a very white-centric education system, and a very white-centric society generally, so the only time that we’re seen as valuable is when we’re feeding the majority. We grow up feeling like that’s the only way to contribute to society.

I noticed through my experiences in school, and with all of the organisations I’ve worked with, that I was centring the needs, desires, and feelings of white people above my own. As long as I was doing that, I was continuing to marginalise myself.

I started working to transform my thinking, and when I did that, and encouraged other people of colour around me to do the same, I started to see change.

It’s been really significant for me to see that change, to see more positive role models emerge, and for people in the community to no longer see themselves as the Other, but to really prioritise themselves and their stories.

What kind of impact do you see Soul Lounge having on the young people who attend and participate?

For me, it’s finally created a safe space in Adelaide to talk about different things and to share poetry, [poetry] that can be quite exhausting to share in front of white audiences. The majority of the arts scene is made up of white audiences and white artists, and for a long time I found that I was definitely sticking out from the crowd, but not because of my art.

Soul Lounge gives young people of colour a place to share their stories. People who have never spoken in public come and share something that they’ve written and then come back every month. I’ve heard people say that Soul Lounge is their favourite gathering because of how varied the stories that they hear are. It’s a way of educating others, but it’s not boring!

It’s a unique space because we ensure that it caters to differences in the community. It’s held at an accessible location, it’s alcohol free, which reduces a lot of barriers, and there’s representation amongst the featured artists.

I hear from people that it has brought them together with other likeminded people who are thinking about race and gender and other things. It’s a place where they can go and talk about issues, but not necessarily in a way that is really serious or confronting.

What is it about performance that you think makes people more likely to listen and empathise?

It caters to so many of our different senses. When somebody is performing right in front of you, you can suddenly see the commonalities between you and them. It makes it more personal. You get to hear their voice, and the way they emote and express themselves, which has a lot of impact.

When you put all of that together, and put people in a safe space like Soul Lounge, it also makes it possible for other people to stand up and share their stories.

The most important thing about spaces like Soul Lounge is that minorities don’t feel like minorities there. You just feel like a person, and that’s the whole point. It normalises being a person of colour in the arts. It removes a weight that I think we often feel as people of colour  performing in mostly white spaces, because there is always a concern about who we offend, a question of whether we need to sugarcoat things, or if there is an expectation that we need to represent all black people, or all Muslims, or all Asians, or whatever. Here, you don’t have to do any of that, you’re just another person.

You can find out more about Manal’s work on her website.

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