MANAL YOUNUS: The narrative moving forward
Manal Younus is a powerhouse of voice and feeling. A two-time Australian Poetry Slam National finalist, Younus explores different aspects of life from perseverance, identity, travel and truth.
Manal’s voice has been heard in venues in Australia and the world, including the Sydney Opera House, the Georgetown Literary Festival in Penang, Malaysia, and the Adelaide Festival of Ideas.
Most recently the storyteller has put pen to paper, and is a contributor to new anthology Growing Up African in Australia, on a topic that will feel all too familiar to many POC.
MEET MANAL YOUNUS.
MANAL YOUNUS. I’ve been writing poetry for as long as I can remember. I didn’t necessarily know it was poetry at first, I was just writing to process my thoughts and to be able to express the things I couldn’t say.
When I was about fifteen years-old I first performed a piece, it was a pretty traumatic experience [laughs], but a couple of years later I started to do it regularly and then began to enter poetry slams. From there, I never stopped.
Your piece in the anthology Growing up African in Australia is called Ashy Knees, what is it about?
MY. It outlines a few experiences drawn from my own, written through different characters. The piece switches between first person and second person perspectives, because it’s exploring the idea of what happens to me, happens to others - and what happens to others, is what happens to me.
Through just a few key moments it explores this reinforced idea that blackness and being black is bad. Moments that keep coming back and reminding us ‘Don’t kneel, or crawl, or your knees will go black’.
When did you learn about the terminology ashy?
MY. It was at school. Before then I hadn’t used the English word for it, so it wasn’t until much later that I learned ashy-ness.
We have a word in my language khakhamushti, which is the equivalent of ash. For us though, it was just saying, ‘Your knees will go black, don’t do that!’. These were the things I would hear and it just sounded so ugly. Ashy actually sounds not so bad when compared to those words.
Ashy-ness can be a real point of shame...
MY. Yeah, absolutely. I’ve come to terms with it being something my skin does, but I’m just so aware of it and even now, I sometimes excuse myself for my ashy-ness.
Your piece is very much centred on the body, as opposed to a journey or something witnessed. Why did you choose this type of story to tell?
MY. It’s important for us to recognise that these experiences, such as the one told in Ashy Knees, have a direct impact on the body, how we treat and value our bodies, and how we use them moving forward. We need to recognise that impact.
You can still be empowered and still preach self-acceptance, but hate what you see in the mirror. We really need to recognise the damaging impact this can have throughout life and the way it directly impacts our physical bodies. That’s the bottom line.
In an interview with Growing up African in Australia author Sefakor Aku Zikpi we discuss the topic of hair and the relationship men in the African community have with their hair as opposed to women. Do you think men have a different relationship with ashy knees to women?
MY. Absolutely. This is a generalisation but I think for the most part there is a perception that women need to be well-kept. In the same way as hair, other aspects of appearance can be seen as ‘too crazy’. I’ve heard it described as looking like ‘the devil’ from black people.
For men appearance is not as disputed. Their bodies are allowed to be roughed up or seen as less than perfect, it can even add to their masculinity. These things -like ashy knees - are considered to diminish femininity.
This is your first major piece of published work since the publication of your 2015 collection Reap. What does it mean to you to see an anthology of black voices and to be included amongst them?
MY. It’s pretty amazing. Simply working with Maxine Beneba Clarke in the first place is a great honour. I’ve been reading her work and watching her interviews for some years now.
To also know that the project is steered so much by other young writers, such as Magan Magan and Ahmed Yussuf, is also pretty amazing. Not to mention some of the contributors...sometimes I’m just shook. I’m amongst these people!
The fact that it is people of African descent is powerful. Right now the story of the African diaspora in Australia does not really move beyond the dichotomies of the successful refugee or the one who became a gangster. For us to be able to paint our own narratives and for it to be a resource in schools is brilliant. It’s the step we’ve needed.
THE PIN. If you could give your younger self one piece of advice about being in the skin you’re in, what would it be?
MANAL YOUNUS. I don’t think I would give them any advice. All that I experienced made me so much stronger, I learned the things I needed to learn in due course and I’ll keep learning so there’s not really anything I’d say to the kid.
Maybe just keep going, because you’re doing alright.