South Asian Heritage Month Spotlight Series: Nasima Begum
Nasima Begum (aka Nasima Bee on stage) is a performance poet, producer and creative practitioner. She’s a trustee for Manchester’s Young Identity, an advocate for Contact Theatre, and is the Youth Coordinator at Ananna.
Nasima’s most notable performances include Manchester Literature Festival, British Council’s BritLitBerlin conference and BBC’s Contains Strong Language. Nasima’s most recent residency was Belgium’s Museum Nacht, where she spent 24 hours with 14 artists making performance work. She has taught poetry with young people nationally and internationally through various projects.
Nasima was 1 of 5 Greater Manchester recipients of the Jerwood Creative Fellowship with Manchester International Festival in which she observed ANU Productions ‘The Anvil’ and was also commissioned to write and record poetry for an installation piece as part of this. Currently she’s working on an audio commission with New Creatives North entitled ‘Salt’. This work is funded by BBC Arts and Arts Council England.
1. How would you describe your writing for someone who has never come across your work before?
I would say that my writing is from a very personal lens, thematically drawing on identity, belonging and feminism. I try to draw on the intersections of these things and explore the way words sound whilst stretching definitions. I implore my readers to think outside the box as my art is often written to activate and make change. I love language and how it binds us, and I guess my work aims to gather this love a little by transcending boundaries of what we believe traditional literature and poetry to be.
2. Who are your favourite writers of South Asian heritage and why?
This is a hard question as the South Asian subcontinent has a wide breadth of rich literature and poetry heritage. Growing up, one of the first books I discovered from a South Asian writer was probably Arundhati Roy’s The God of Small Things. I loved this book as she touches on the political history of India that stems from some of the caste systems and cultural tensions and also hits some of the misogyny that still exists in India, and other South Asian countries.
I really love Suhaimiyah Manzoor Khan’s work too. Her debut collection Post Colonial Banter was very defining for many young people that come from a diaspora background. It’s a discomfort in some ways because it captures so much of every day life and interrogates the things we don’t question and sometimes are afraid to speak out on when it comes to the hypocrisy of power. It is beautiful, educational and unapologetic. A call to action, even. Her work was first brought to my attention when I discovered ‘This is not a Humanising Poem’ that went viral online after her Roundhouse Slam performance in 2017 and rightly so. I’d definitely recommend her work!
I was recently introduced to Bhanu Kapil through a friend of mine and bought the Vertical Interrogation of Strangers. I haven’t managed to read any of it yet but it looks like it’ll be some gorgeous reading.
3. If you could only recommend one book, whether novel, poetry collection or non-fiction, from a writer of South Asian heritage, what would it be?
Definitely Post Colonial Banter by Suhaimiyah Manzoor Khan which I have already mentioned above. Would also recommend some of Rabindranath Tagore’s work. He was a Bengali poet, but also a painter and musician. When I was a child, my mother and father would tell me some of his stories and I was very fond of ‘Thakur’s Kicha’ - Tagore’s Stories. There would always be references of them and he is a much loved artist in Bangladesh. There is currently a Netflix series looking at some of his stories that I’d definitely recommend! I was given a copy of Gitanjali, one of his collections and often come back to it for inspiration. I love the way his writing is prosaic but of course have only read it in translations and hope to read it when I finish learning how to read in Bangla!
4. What are you reading at the moment?
I am away from home at the moment, but I bought with me Citizen by Claudia Rankine. I also copped Manchester poet Afshan D’souza-Lodhi’s debut collection [re:desire] - the cover art is gorgeous!
5. Could you tell us about the role of literature in your upbringing?
My parents are originally from Bangladesh but have lived and worked here for most of their lives. My culture and language is poetic in itself. We have a history of telling our stories orally and folk tales are something I grew up with in my household all the time. My mum would make up things, and rhyme Bangla words when she’d tell them to me and I loved listening to them. She would always tell me scary ones that were passed down from her parents because apparently I used to love them! My dad used to always tell me Islamic stories, from the Quran and a lot about the life of the Prophet Muhammad. They wouldn’t read to me often, but they would always tell them from memory. I loved the way that this would be more interactive than cosying up with a book at bedtime, and I think it’s partly why I love performing.
I’d say writing in other languages other than English really allows me to invite my readers and audiences on my journeys with language and stories.
- Nasima Begum
6. When did you realise you had a passion/skill for writing?
I’ve been writing and making up stories ever since I was little. It was a passion to make up performances for my siblings and parents at home. I grew out of it when I hit my teens and school sort of took over. When I was in college, I joined a slam with other colleges. My teacher at the time recommended it as her colleague Mr Perry used to organise it. The slam was called Wordsmith’s and was run by Manchester’s Young Identity. I’d been writing loads and had performed on and off, usually at charity gigs or for friends events.
I remember seeing Young Identity do their thing and being terrified and wowed at the same time. I’d never seen anything like that on stage made by young people from Manchester like me. I was encouraged to join by my friend Nicole May who was a part of the collective and used to go to the same college as me. I never took it seriously really and after the slam things just died down with my interest in performing, but I was still sharing work on my blog.
Fast forward to my time at university in my final year I was studying a module called Writers at work. In this module, I was asked to find a placement to work in for a 3 month period. A lot of my course mates were going for publishing houses but that kind of bored me a little. I didn’t want to see writing in action, and my dissertation mentor mentioned Young Identity. Of course, I already knew about them, so it was the perfect opportunity for me to get in touch and see if they’d take me on. I got in contact and was welcomed with so much warmth by Shirley May, Reece Williams and my friend Nicole May.
In my first week working with YI I was tasked with putting together some of the Wordsmith packs for workshop leaders for the following year, and later was leading some of these workshops too. I’d say my real passion and skill began at Young Identity, where I learnt how to bring my words to life. I am now a very proud trustee of the charity, alongside Mr Perry himself!
7. Do you write in other languages? If so, which languages do you write in and what are the differences you feel in writing in another language as well as English?
I have only very recently been exploring with other languages in my work. I’ve found it difficult to explore with Bangla, as I cannot read it or write it, and can only just about speak it. Recently though, I’ve been using phrases and words in my pieces. It’s hard translating feelings through a language which is mine, but is hard to communicate with others. This stems from nervousness, and also being afraid to bring a part of myself that I am still exploring as a second generation Bangladeshi Brit. I am not so fluent in Arabic anymore, but I learnt it in high school. It’s a beautiful language, and I try to use Arabic too.
I’d say writing in other languages other than English really allows me to invite my readers and audiences on my journeys with language and stories in a way that I can probably make them feel instead of literally understand at times. It’s a gift to be able to do as a writer and I’m grateful for it.
8. What advice do you have for emerging writers of South Asian heritage?
Read! No matter what, read as much as you can when you have time. Read anything, read essays, journals, poetry, autobiographies, fiction and non-fiction. Fill yourself with words and ideas to inspire you. It’ll help you create in the long run. Also, write. Exercise your muscles. Try to write for at least 10 minutes a day, and give yourself time to come back to these pieces of writing to help you formulate your ideas. There is a huge writing community online, meet people, join a book club and be active. One of my regrets is not getting active with my writing earlier. I didn’t make time for it until I joined Young Identity on my placement at uni but if I could go back, I’d definitely make myself pursue it at a younger age!
Manchester City of Literature would like to say a huge thank you to Nasima for taking part in our South Asian Heritage Month Spotlight Series. Be sure to keep up to date with her work over on Twitter, Instagram and Facebook.