ABE NOUK: No Title Necessary
Despite learning to read and just write three years ago, Abe Nouk’s mastery of the English language is indisputably empowering. His inquisitive nature is evident and extremely witty. Before we start the interview he has already sussed out all the buttons on our recording device, and is ready to hit us up with questions we’re so willing to ask people yet are unable to answer ourselves:
“So tell me, what is it like being black women living in Australia?”
“...I don’t know, Lucie?”
“...Yeah, I don’t know how to answer that either.”
While we flounder about trying to work out a better answer to that question,
MEET ABE NOUK.
THE PIN. You grew up in what is now known as South Sudan and moved to Australia in 2004. Can I ask what lead to your family’s migration to Australia?
ABE NOUK. It sounds so simple when it is put into the context of “you moved to Australia in 2004”. Of course, there were difficulties and complexities in Sudan. Sudan was literally running out of people to fight; it was an honourable thing for people to dismiss their children into the army. That was one reason [we left]. The second reason was because my mum imagined a future that she would rather see her kids have. Looking back on it now it’s like, how did a woman, who had no formal education, think up the audacity to come this far - for us to live here?
For me, 2004 was the year that changed my life and 8 of my siblings, in a nutshell.
Were you at risk of being a child soldier at the time your mother decided to take you out of Sudan?
A. Was I at risk? Absolutely. This thing is not happening in the past, it’s still proceeding now - to arm children and go “this tribe has got to go because they’ve killed such and such”.
Did you grow up with the understanding of the possibility of becoming a child soldier or is it something kids don’t realise until they’re of the age when people are seeking them to join?
A. It’s scary. You realise the possibility of death early on. It’s something that becomes quite the norm and it doesn’t surprise people anymore. How is that normal in any society? The less serious people start to take their own lives, the more you start to realise you are not protected if you become a child soldier or even if you don’t become a child soldier. The destiny is the same. You’re either dead or you kill someone.
In Australia, do you think of race because other people are pushing it on you or is it something you just think about yourself?
A. When the media identifies ‘young african gangs’, one of the things they don’t realise is that it creates a stigma. Right now, anytime I’m walking down the street at night, people have that instant reaction. They instantly think that I am violent or I’m not a person that is easily approachable. The consequences of this will take a whole generation in order to have a fresh perspective - an approachable perspective.
In a YouTube video (We’ve watched A LOT of your videos) you said, “As a refugee we’ve made it, but what will we make of it?”. Can I ask, what did becoming a refugee mean to you?
A. It’s still the same. Being at home in Sudan, to being a refugee, and to finally having 24 hours of freedom. Not having to look over your shoulder because you’re free is something is that most people don’t understand. Then again, not having complacency of living is something that you can get easily sucked into. You don't want to do much because of what you went through. What it boils down to is: are we capable of becoming bigger than who we were and actually be able to impact change?
Would you say that the idea of being a refugee is part of your identity?
A. I think that is something that will last for a lifetime. A lifetime.
In that same talk you say, “Storytelling is the only common ground that makes us realise we are all characters in this cycle of a story called life”. How old were you when you were able to read and write?
A. Three years ago, I learned to read and write. I think illiteracy is a nightmare no child should ever experience. Life is so fleeting; you can have all the ideas you want but you can not remember them. You can have all the ambitions you want but you can’t remember them. You can’t rely on others to remind you about the things you want to do. Being able to write is being accountable to the life that you want to be able to have. To read is to experience liberation.
Reading and writing has given me, I think, the potential to live the life I have only dreamt of.
How has spoken word, literature and rap culture helped to shape your identity?
A. They’ve allowed me to become who I want to be. If I don’t ever get to go back to Sudan, I think I’ll be able to deal with it. I will be able to live in any part of the world at any time. I’m at a point where I think if I didn’t have this art form and everything that came with it, I don’t think I would have forgiven our past for what it was. I have forgiven my past. I have forgiven the fact that I didn’t have a childhood that allowed me the luxuries kids would normally have. I have invented who I am through my own expressions.
Is there a particular piece of literature or music or something that has really spoken to you and helped you in your journey?
A. Maya Angelou - I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings.
When you start to read that you realise, regardless of what happens to you, you can not blame the world. Everyone is terrified, everyone is scared, everyone is fumbling, and you realise all in all, we are temporary. We just need to be lovely, be gentle, be kind and be present.
Do you have young African-Australian kids and kids from other backgrounds reaching out to you to let you know that you’ve influenced them?
A. You realise the neglect that a lot of the youth are going through. I went through the same thing. Nowadays, there is a huge disconnect. It’s good to hear young people identifying with me, saying “we look up to you,” but it doesn’t do justice to them that they’re missing out on what their elders can impart. The adults that surround them are the real heroes. The people who make up the community, the elders and so forth, are the ones who usually step in because they have experienced life for what it is. Mothers, fathers, aunts and uncles. These are the people they should be looking up to but these same individuals are neglecting them.
You’re an Australian citizen, you have an Australian passport and have travelled the world and performed at the Edinburgh Fringe Festival. From your experience, when does a person (if ever) stop being a refugee and start being an Australian?
A. I don’t think a person will ever be an Australian. One, because the question is: who and what makes an Australian? That’s not been identified yet. Two, I hadn’t met an Indigenous person up until I went to Alice Springs.
In ‘My Apology’ you say, “I, myself am an intruder. Invaded the land without knowing, still showing disrespect to the owners of this land, calling it home”. What was your view of Australia after discovering its true history and relationship with Aboriginal people?
A. It’s a burden in itself and something people are not aware of before they come here. I had to find out about Indigenous people through Indigenous people. Throughout the readings you start to realise where the Australian guilt stems from. My Apology I did out of the sin of guilt. Am I on the side of the oppressing forces? How do I ensure that I am not contributing? If the apology Kevin Rudd made is authentic, then drastic changes need to happen.
Do you identify with Alphonse Mulumba, Chairman of the Multicultural Council of Tasmania’s idea of belonging to a “Third Space”? As in, being between two countries: the country of your birth and the country you now feel is your home?
A. Do I feel this is home? That’s tough to say. In our minds this was meant to be temporary, yet so far, it seems to be permanent. Here in Australia I don’t feel welcomed because I’m not acknowledged outside of being a refugee. Then again, when I got so good with English I lost my mother’s native tongue. So will I be forgiven if I do go back to Sudan or will I be considered a traitor? All of these conflicting emotions are not being put at ease.
THE PIN. Finally...If you could give your younger self one piece of advice about being in the skin you’re in, what would it be?
ABE NOUK. Don’t fall under the category of a title. Individually, you have to allow yourself to be free. Don’t identify with anything. Especially when it comes to titles. Just be you. Be unpredictable. That’s the only way creativity flourishes when you don’t know where you're going.
- This interview has been edited and condensed
Photo credit: Lucie Cutting