HOW HUSSAIN MANAWER FOUND POWER IN WORDS AND USED IT TO SHINE A LIGHT ON MENTAL HEALTH
by ASJAD NAZIR
AN EXTRAORDINARY rise has seen London born poet Hussain Manawer get global acclaim for his work and powerful live performances on big stages, including Glastonbury Festival, Soccer Aid and Royal Albert Hall.
He has shared a platform with globally renowned names like Kofi Annan, Meghan Markle and prime minister of Canada Justin Trudeau, but also remained connected to his roots and been a leading campaigner for mental health.
The success has resulted in a rapidly growing fan base, regular TV appearances and academic accolades, including a Doctorate of Arts at Oxford Brookes University. His interesting forthcoming projects include an acting stint alongside Riz Ahmed in a movie and high-profile collaborations that will see him take his poetry across more frontiers. The incredible momentum is such that it seems like just the beginning for even greater things to come.
Eastern Eye caught up with master of words Hussain Manawer during the Covid-19 lockdown to talk about mental health, his remarkable rise, forthcoming film, emotion-filled performances and future hopes.
How are you handling the coronavirus lockdown and what have you been doing?
I have been running six miles everyday. That takes me about an hour and 10 minutes. I can do that because I live next to a forest, which is always empty, and it enables me to keep fit. I am also spending a lot of time with my dad. I think it is very important right now that I can spend as much time as I can with him. So, I have been doing loads of dad and son things.
Like, he made me watch a film called Jinnah, which is the story of Pakistan and quite nice. We are making a family tree as well. So, we are doing loads of bonding.
What was the first thing that connected you to the power of words?
The first thing that connected me to poetry was probably when I heard (patriotic song) Jeevay Jeevay Pakistan. The way that was chanted was always done with so much passion. That always stuck in my head and I always thought, who came up with that? From there, I was introduced to poetry at school, along with poets like Michael Rosen, Rudyard Kipling and William Shakespeare. So yes, I was always fascinated by how powerful words can be. I was also excited by words, and English was always a favourite subject. But it was more just the things people would say that captivated my mind.
But did you imagine being successful, so quickly, and have you had a chance to look at your rapid rise?
Thank you, that is really kind of you Asjad. To me, I am just kind of doing what I am doing if you know what I mean and don’t get a chance to see outside of that, which is quite good and bad. I think it is good because it keeps me very grounded, but sometimes it can be bad because I can often be too hard on myself. I did look back on some of my work the other day, while sitting in isolation. I am never going to take performing live for granted again, not that I did, but just being able to perform and feel that human connection, work with other people, be in public spaces, I do miss it. No, I never thought I would be where I am today.
You have done some incredible performances at major venues and high profile events, but which was the most special?
There was definitely a moment when I performed at Glastonbury. That was really special because I feel as an artist your dream is to perform at Glastonbury and I got asked to do it last year. It’s a shame and a sad thing it is not happening this year. When I got asked to do it, I thought, ‘oh my days, what do I do after I have done Glastonbury’. You know what I mean? That was a really beautiful moment for me as an artist, to get on that stage. I had done Glastonbury and was so happy.
The greatest aspect of your live performances is the raw emotion you generate, where does that come from?
I feel like I am living the work I am speaking. So no word I am speaking is a lie. Sometimes when I get to a performance I will say to myself, ‘I’m not sure it is fair for me to do this to an audience, and start talking about death and grief because they look like they are here for a good time’. I have to remind myself this is why you are here. I guess when you are really living what you are saying your heart is just on your sleeve. It does put you in a very vulnerable place, but that enables you to connect to people. We can all see what is fake and what is being put on for the sake of it. Once you connect and feel someone’s vulnerability, it creates a connection that can’t be manufactured by anything else.
Why do you think poetry has enjoyed such a remarkable resurgence in recent years?
Yes I know, right? I am definitely happy that I am alive during this time. There has definitely been a wave of resurgence. I think the internet has played a really beautiful part and the fact we are able to digest small amounts of poems daily on social media, which has normalised people listening, reading and taking in poetry, whereas before, it seemed to be a middle class thing. It’s not like that.
What do you mean?
If you look into the history of many places, including India and Pakistan,poetry is embedded in so many cultures. It is just that these storytellers were never showcased. But now you have got platforms out there that are showcasing live voices you would not normally hear from and people are loving it. They are buzzing over it.
A big part of your poetry and work has been raising awareness about mental health. What advice would you give those who are going through a difficult time, including during the Covid-19 lockdown?
I would say, now more than ever, you need to be able to speak to people and should reach out. That doesn’t show any signs of weakness – it just shows signs of being human. I think we are all so isolated, that we can get lost in ourselves, and even more so right now. We may think nobody cares about us, and it’s important that you take care of yourself. Be kind to yourself and reach out to close friends and family, and let them know exactly how you are feeling because right now everyone is feeling similar things.
Tell us more…
If we don’t communicate – coming out of it, the post-traumatic stress because of it will be high as well. Will we be able to get back to the normal functioning society we were, I don’t know. What I do know is that you have to take advantage of the situation and really put yourself first. That means saying exactly how you are feeling to people that are closest to you.
You have helped many with your work, but how much has it helped you?
It helps me a lot. Immensely! Sometimes I never understand why I write certain pieces until a couple of years later. I was reading back some of the work I had once written, and couldn’t actually believe I was in that headspace when I wrote that, because right now I am not there, so it helps. I think it helps more in a literal term in the form of like a good journal or a diary because I can look back on something I wrote three or four years ago and think, wow, I have come a long way since then. That writing doesn’t speak to me anymore and because of that it makes me feel good. So yes, I have definitely found a lot of healing in my own work.
You have a lot of interesting projects on the way, including acting in forthcoming film Mogul Mowgli with Riz Ahmed. What was the experience of working on that like?
Mogul Mowgli was amazing. I am a big fan of Riz Ahmed and have been for a long time. So, to be in a movie with him was very good. We recently came back from the Berlin Film Festival (where it premiered). It was nice and we got to spend good time together. It’s an interesting film with an amazing cast of performers. Kiran Sonia Sawar, who plays my sister, was incredible to work with. The actor who plays my uncle and Riz’s dad in the film, Alyy Khan, was lovely to work with. It was a great experience and felt like a family vibe. The director was incredible. When people watch it they are going to take a lot from it.
Today, what inspires you?
What actually inspires me is the fact that we might not be here tomorrow. So whatever your dreams are, go and get them now. So, just get up and do it. Now is the time.