Speaking to Mspiration before her appearance as part of the Aspire 2 Inspire Conference, acclaimed spoken word poet Alia Gabres recalls how she discovered the art form and how it gave her a sense of belonging.
I was born in Saudi Arabia. I came to Australia when I was very young – about four years old. I was probably around 9 years old when I started writing. I did the whole journal thing and I always wrote for myself. I was also a big reader from early on. My medium has always been words but my main drive early on wasn’t to be creative. It was more towards understanding things.
A lot of the stuff that I was reading at that early stage wasn’t very age appropriate. I was reading a lot of novels that my aunt used to read. Historical fiction became my favourite genre and there was a point where my favourite author was Jane Austen. There was something about living that way of life and Austen’s writing that struck a nerve with me. Actually thinking about it more, I come from a culturally traditional background. So there are some similarities between Austen’s world and mine.
I remember going to school where most of the children were migrants. I would go in the library and read books that the librarians would not recommend for me. I distinctly remember times where a librarian told me not to burrow certain books but I would burrow them anyway. I was like “I can read this! Why can’t I read Madame Bovary” but then I would take it home and I would be like Oh, okay. But you know, that was a challenge for me. A lot of times I felt like I didn’t want to be a stereotype. I pushed myself to become familiar with different texts and narratives from a very early age. It developed into a really big love.
The short stories came first. They were absolutely shocking and very basic. I would write what I was seeing around me. The funny thing though, that continued even from back then, was my interest in people. That has never changed. My focus is people and understanding situations. If anything, I write because I have no social skills and I need to sit down with a pen and paper to figure out what is going on around me.
My favourite activity is people watching. You are sitting down and you notice interesting conversations others are having and you go wow, I will file that away to use for another time. Or someone does something and you think, that is an interesting quirk. I remember taking the train to high-school and I would people watch and write it down. Actually, I had this game I used to play. I would sit on a train and I would see people and I would make them into characters and when they get off the train I would imagine what kind of life they would go home to. I would then write that out. I always wanted to know what makes people tick.
All my personal writing stopped when I actually studied writing in university. That course sucked my creativity dry from all the assignments and writing tasks. I remembered I was looking for a spark. Something to make me again write for me. Then I came across spoken word online – this was around 2009 – I was absolutely obsessed with it. The early videos were of poets like Sunni Patterson and Anis Mojgani. At those early stages I didn’t see that performance element. It was the sheer power of the words and the message behind it. The rawness of it really struck me. I hadn’t experienced a lot of poetry at this stage and this was a different form for me. Some of the poetry style was very similar to rap and soul music – styles i already had a lot of respect for. It seemed so earthy and organic to me. That inspired me to write again. I was writing constantly for days and days. Then when I finished and look at it I realised there were rhythmic patterns and poetic devices that were coming through in my own writing style. At this point I hadn’t been to live performances yet and that seemed like the next step.
My main hurdle at those early stages was to find spoken word venues that weren’t in pubs or bars. Eventually I found a workshop run in the Footscray Arts Center. There was a performance at the end of the night and I got up on that stage for the first time. I was scared. There was also an interesting dynamic in the workshop as well. To be honest with you, I didn’t really click with the workshop. Now I don’t know if this was my own fear manifesting itself but I felt like I was being judged again because of my background and I was like fine, I am going to show you that I am going to do this. That was my drive. I was going to make a point even if I never performed again. The poem was probably a lot of rubbish but I did it anyway, I felt it and I got off stage and people started asking where else I perform and things like that. I remembered feeling that this seemed impossible but I did it. I enjoyed it
Alhamdulilah, I got successful and exposure very quickly in the performance circuit. But I felt that there was this sense of novelty at the beginning. Initially I had a lot of trouble with that. You know, this feeling that I was this black migrant girl. Eventually I developed a different mindset about it. I was like fine, I am different, I am a migrant and I look differently than what most performers. I accept it. I felt that element of novelty will eventually wear out. People are only going to ask you to do things for so long before they find out that you are not actually good at what you are doing. I decided that I am going to excel at this with merit and integrity. That type of thinking saved my sanity early on.
The theme that I am trying to understand now is of attachments. This is the main theme of an album that I am working on. InshaAllah it will be released later in the year. This is a different process for me because normally when I need to write I just write rather than it being dictated to me. Now my reflection and reading is centred around this theme and this focus helps. I now have a deadline and I need to get this done and it helps sometimes not to have the luxury of time. I also now teach, curate and facilitate arts projects. I’ve had to quickly come to an understanding about the ethics, methodology and sustainability of my practice. This is crucial especially when you are in a position of mentoring and teaching emerging artists within the community arts genre.
There is this long running theme in my life and that is of looking for belonging. Being a woman, a migrant, black and a muslim – obviously growing up I had a lot of challenges. But it also gave me the drive to succeed. Whenever I felt like I was posed a challenge I always responded with, well, I am going to show you. You know, at the back of my head I always remembered that librarian at school who told me I couldn’t read those books. Truth be told, once we cleared those obstacles we eventually became very good friends.
Alia Gabres will, inshaAllah, appear as part of the Aspire to Inspire Conference on April 6 at Union House Theatre, University of Melbourne, Australia. Tickets begin from $10 and available here
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