You Can’t Escape Grief: Interview with Magan Magan

It’s a grizzly Melbourne morning. You know the sort – neither convincingly rainy nor dry… the kind of weather that merely dampens concrete and irritates pigeons. I’m sitting at a café preparing to interview Magan Magan, a poet who is currently working on a collection of poems centered around grief and this meteorologically meepy morning feels fitting… I’m wrong. There is no meepiness in the man who greets and sits before me. Magan exudes calm and strength and I am bathed in a sense of warmth as we settle in to talk…

There’s a quote from Shakespeare’s Macbeth that reads:

“Give sorrow words; the grief that does not speak knits up the o-er wrought heart and bids it break.”

Is that a fair statement in relation to how you came to write a collection around grief? What was the genesis?

It is.

I came to Australia when I was four and before Australia, I was living with my family in Malta. I’m originally from Somalia but born in Yemen. After Yemen we went to Malta as there was a civil war back in Somalia and my parents were travelling when the war broke out and couldn’t go back. So, they left their families; had no contact with their families or anything like that. I remember from the age of three carrying a heavy load of life; a sadness. A feeling of being unsettled. Once we were granted permission to come to Australia, I remember mum telling me that we’d made it. That we were going to a different country that was settled. That it’s going to be peaceful and we are going to build our lives – and everything’s going to change. But we came to Australia and that feeling didn’t leave me. I still didn’t feel settled.

That’s a great weight for a four-year-old and this sense of grief; of loss and displacement sounds to be absolutely part of the fabric of your identity.

Yeah. So, since then I’ve been looking for a place to belong and I’ve started realising that belonging isn’t specific to a physical place and that I was just missing something within myself. It was something I had to rebuild. Rather, build – because I didn’t feel like I ever had it.

So, as a child unsure of your place in space, how did you manage this sense? What were your tools?

I had a big imagination as a kid, so I daydreamed all the time. It was really the only place that I felt at home. I was always in my head.

What was your journey from imagination to page?

It was a difficult one in terms of reading and writing… My father died when I was fifteen and my parents divorced when I was four, so I didn’t really know my father and grew up with a single parent. My mother couldn’t read or write English when we arrived in Australia so for me reading and writing wasn’t easy – it was a thing that I had to essentially teach myself. I was behind in my literacy skills growing up.

Yet, you’re now studying literature and working on your first book. That’s remarkable. What was your turning point?

Thank you, I’m quite proud of that. I love writing and reading. Growing up I really admired people who wrote and read well but I didn’t think that was my place because of my circumstance. My year 11 English teacher told me that I had something, that I had a way of writing but at that particular time I didn’t really believe in myself and I just thought she was being nice.

My turning point was on my 25th birthday (I’m 30 now). I remember that particular day… I remember not feeling young anymore. I just stopped feeling young. The feeling came overnight; my sense of youth disappeared and it’s not come back. That was the start of my journey. I was connecting to myself and I had a sense of unease. I knew I had a mask, I was always smiling, always chirpy and whatnot but I came to the realisation that it was a façade. I continued feeling that something was missing within myself.

In an interview with the Melbourne Writers Festival last year you were quoted as saying: “I want to connect with people, in particular the fading parts of themselves because I know intimately, the weight of shrinking.”. In this quote are you referring to that particular point in your life and your decision to shake things up?

I am.

I needed to find out what my sense of discomfort was is about. I knew I couldn’t go on feeling the way I did. My body was not allowing me, my mind was not allowing me… Things weren’t the same anymore…

It was at this time I decided to start sharing my poetry. It was a big deal for me as up until then I’d never shared anything that I’d written. I didn’t really think my stuff was good or worthy.

I started off at a poetry workshop that was run back then at the city library. It was for poets who were just beginning in their journey and I thought that might be a good place to start. It was a supportive experience and from there I started going to Slamalamadingdong and competing in slams.

How did you do in the slams?

I did quite well actually. I remember winning one slam. It was good! Up to that point I hadn’t really won anything, so it was welcome encouragement.

After that I was performing around, mostly at open mics like Passionate Tongues and The Dan O’Connell. I was figuring out where I fit in the poetry scene. During that time my work started to evolve and after a while my focus shifted to the page as I felt my writing was more suited to being read than performed.

Scroll forward to today and that’s where I’ve found my place in the poetry / spoken word world – it’s on the page; in writing. These days I prefer to read my stuff as opposed to perform my stuff.

In 2015 you commenced working on a chapbook which you intended to title Writing Shame Away. How did that come about?

I started writing the chapbook in 2015 which was the same time I decided to make a commitment to get rid of all the masks that I felt I had built around my life. I made a concerted effort at that time as I just found clashes between who I wanted to be and who I was.

At that point I thought I was experiencing it by myself and it was really lonely. Those around me were saying “You’re changing, you’re changing. What’s happening?”. That ‘You’re changing’ made me feel like I was not who I was supposed to be, not being the person that I should be and that was a battle.

What aspects of your identity did you feel were inauthentic?

For one thing, I grew up Muslim, from a very religious family and I didn’t feel like a lot of what I was taught meshed well with who I was. So, that was a big struggle for me because I was essentially letting down my family, my community, the people I knew and grew up with; breaking down the norm that was my life.

In interrogating my faith I felt I was betraying who I was. It was “Who am I? How do I fit into being Muslim? What does that mean for me now and where do I place myself?”. So that was when I started the chapbook. I was writing poems and during that experience I felt a lot of shame. It was a continuation of my persistent sense of always feeling like I was in the middle somewhere; not enough Muslim but not typically Australian. That conundrum has been the story of my life. Today I still identify as Muslim but my faith is more spiritual than dogmatic.

So, you were writing about shame of questioning your faith and identity within that faith?

Yeah, that and the broader sense of not belonging anywhere. You’re told you belong somewhere but really it’s about fitting into a specific mould and if you don’t fit into that mould then you’re essentially in exile. I found throughout writing the book and talking to people that everyone experiences this sense of sitting on the fence of exile and not exile. We’re always outside but don’t want to be outside and so we push ourselves and make ourselves shrink so that we can become a part of what everyone else is part of.

During the process of writing, your chapbook evolved into a meatier book, a collection of poems on the subject of grief titled From Grains to Gold. How did this come about?

When I started penning Writing Shame Away I was focussing on shame however I realised during the course of writing that the thing I was carrying after experiencing shame was grief. I thought grief and its colours were a much richer topic than shame as it encompassed shame but permitted extension to the five stages of grief: denial, anger, bargaining, depression and acceptance.

I understand that the stages of grief aren’t linear, but to be able to write… are you mostly inhabiting a state of acceptance or are you reliving and reopening wounds?

The latter! I feel like I’m going through the whole cycle however a part of me has gone through a big stage of acceptance; I’ve accepted a big part of myself and my story which is amazing.

And what part is that?

Just who I am as a person and not feeling like I need more than that which I carry within me. Also, my idea of community and belonging has changed from needing one specific physical place to finding belonging within myself.

I would never have been able to say that in the past, be able to say that I comfortably do belong. My outside world hasn’t changed that much so to speak. I still live with my family, I’m still studying and outwardly things appear the same, but my internal world is just so different. I’m in a better place than before.

I believe that who we are meets at some point with who we are meant to be. We’re always transforming and evolving and, in that process of traversing identities there is grief. I’ve learned that you can’t escape grief or loss or any of those things that I tried so desperately to control. Indeed, the denial of avoiding and masking doesn’t help at all – if anything it escalates problems.

For a long time I thought I was the only one that wore masks. I felt like I was the only one that was pretending or hiding; not allowing people to see who I was. Through this process I’ve been slowly learning that I’m not the only one – we all do it.

So, your perspective on grief has come from your personal journey of discovery via a detour of shame. These senses are both personal and universal. What do you feel your book will give to the reader?

I know a lot of people who are struggling with their personal environment and not feeling like the people around them understand or get them. Perhaps they even face others actively trying to stop them from evolving. One of the things I want to give is acknowledgement that when things aren’t ok, it’s ok not to be ok. It’s not bad that you acknowledge your problems. It’s not bad for you to make the powerful choice of changing your life or environment. I know the world is going to tell people that they shouldn’t, that it’s not good, it’s not okay; that if you decide to cut people out who are toxic for you, those people are going to be like “No, that’s not okay”. Whoever or whatever you feel is holding you back… It’s ok to question and make changes. That’s really what I want to communicate.

I read that your lens on grief is one of strength and empowerment. Also, that it’s normalising our human sense of displacement and fear; acknowledging that tough emotions have their place and that’s ok. Is that a fair summary?


Magan Magan will be reading selected works from his upcoming poetry collection From Grains to Gold at La Mama Poetica on Tuesday, May 22 as part of the Melbourne Spoken Word and Poetry Festival.

About Magan Magan:
Magan Magan is a writer currently undertaking a Bachelor of Arts (Writing and Literary Studies) at Victoria University. He has read his work at the National Gallery of Victoria, the National Young Writers Festival and the Emerging Writers Festival. His work has been published in Hyde magazine, literary arts journal ‘Offset’, Cordite Poetry Review and anthologies ‘Shots From The Chamber’ and ‘Hunter Anthology of Contemporary Australian Feminist Poetry’. He is presently working on his first book titled From Grains to Gold – a collection of poems exploring the subject of grief.

Ivana Dash
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