Interview with Sanah Ahsan: poet, presenter, and trainee clinical psychologist

Sanah talks about her latest experience in the BBC's ‘Performance Live: The Way Out’, her doctorate on whiteness in clinical psychology, and how spoken word can be used to help mental health

Sanah Ahsan has her fingers in a whole range of pies, and I was lucky enough to get the chance to discuss just a few of the exciting projects and performances she has been a part of. Her upcoming appearance in ‘Performance Live: The Way Out’ features some of the stunning poetry she is known for, whilst her doctoral research on whiteness in clinical psychology lends a fascinating insight into the current Covid-19 pandemic. Learn about it all from Sanah herself!

This interview has been edited for length and clarity

Could you introduce yourself to the reader?

Of course! My name is Sanah Ahsan. I’m a trainee clinical psychologist, a poet, a reporter, and I’ve also done lots of different bits of community work and media work, including presenting for Channel 4. And I’m a queer Pakistani Muslim womxn. I think that about summarises it!

You’re appearing in ‘Performance Live: The Way Out’, which will be aired on BBC Four on Sunday 17th May – what was that like?

It was just a really incredible thing to be a part of. I was one of the performances that the main character finds on this journey of self-discovery she goes on through the Battersea Arts Centre – which is a really beautiful building – and just performing in that space was such a privilege, plus one of my friends was the pianist that was accompanying my piece. It was all very new to me because the whole thing was filmed in one shot, which is kind of crazy, so you just have to get it right. There was a lot of pressure on it, but it was also just really fun and a really beautiful thing to be a part of. 

I think Suri did a really great job with taking on such a massive task creatively, to film so many different performers in one go. The piece that I did was called ‘Come As You Are’, which is one of my poems really rooted in the importance of self-acceptance and self-compassion and self-love, which are key things that I'm thinking about and speak to a lot in my poetry.

cf37b4bd1df95a6d384abc3a04b058ce6d176b4a.jpgSanah Ahsan in 'Performance Live: The Way Out', Arts Council England

You said you had a pianist accompany you; what do you think the connection is between music and spoken word?

That’s a big question! I think Sam [the pianist] really brings the piece alive, and, for me, in terms of the emotive undertone, the music in itself carries a completely different message than language. I think combined with what I’m offering in terms of spoken word, and the emotions that are carried through in the musicality behind it, it brings something beyond what I can deliver in just words. Sam is incredibly talented, and actually how we did that piece was completely improvised; I literally just shared the poem and Sam responded to it initially as he was hearing everything.

What was it like working with other artists such as Omid Djalili and Caleb Femi?

Pretty surreal and really cool! As a young person I watched Omid Djalili’s stand-up, so the whole thing was a bit mad really, because obviously I’m performing and he just walks through - it kind of threw me! I was a bit starstruck in the middle of the piece. He's a very down-to-earth, lovely guy. We both got talking about TedTalks because we both did one last year, so we were just reflecting on what that experience was like. That was really cool.

Just being with Caleb and working with a poet that I admire deeply is a privilege, and I feel like even just being around him, hearing his poetry and watching him do his thing, I’m learning. He’s an incredible artist and has a lot of wisdom to share in terms of his experiences, so I love talking to him and I love learning from him.

e0457e1a9cd4ea0a1e61de7f53471b4b54151a0a.jpgOmid Djalili in 'Performance Live: The Way Out', Arts Council England

Your TedTalk last year was on your journey to self-love – what inspired you to create and deliver it?

I would encourage people to go and actually watch that TedTalk because I feel like there’s different concepts that I try to communicate in it, but specifically I think I was trying to share how meaningful poetry has been for me as a form of action in demonstrating self-love to myself. I was trying to communicate, as a womxn of colour, as a Pakistani womxn on receipt of a lot of shameful narratives, how significant poetry has been for me in shifting those narratives, so that you’re not speaking to yourself with this self-critical voice that we often adopt from people that project those onto us. I wanted to communicate how many challenges are faced specifically for women of colour, in that we’re being constantly told that our bodies aren’t valued in the same ways as our white counterparts, and I think cultivating and practising that message of self-love takes significantly more work. Poetry has been really key in that journey for me. I share a few poems in that talk as well to try and demonstrate what that process has been like for me.

One of those poems is ‘My Dua is Love’, which you won the Outspoken Prize 2019 for.

Yes, I did. It was such a surprise – I didn't expect to be shortlisted, let alone to win it. I think the reality of the creative world, but also just successful industries, is it’s a bit of a bubble and quite hard to get into, so for me just having that acknowledgement of my writing, especially of something that was so close to my heart, is a real blessing. And that piece is very much about me negotiating being a Muslim womxn but also being queer, and being able to go on a loving journey with myself but also with God through that process. 

I do feel really grateful for it and it opened certain doors for me, but at the same time there’s a side of me that wishes there was more recognition of voices that are less heard. I think there are other writers and creatives that also have important things to share – who are also Muslim, who are also women of colour – who aren’t getting that platform as much as they should be. I’m very grateful to have that but I'm also advocating for and hoping that more voices are heard and given that support and that platform.

Can you tell us a little about the work you’ve done with organisations such as Childline and Jawaab?

I’ve done work with Childline on talking about how we can use poetry, writing and creative expression more broadly as a form of healing in terms of mental health and managing our emotions and distress. I’ve also done pieces with Childline on coming out (or however you understand that to be) and the process of coming to acceptance with yourself and others around your sexuality, and what that’s been like for me specifically, managing faith and coming from a religious family. 

Jawaab is a grass roots organisation that does lots of different work around tackling xenophobia and Islamaphobia, so I’ve done lots of different things with them, from writing and poetry to facilitating and leading workshops around Islamaphobia, or how masculinity is perceived in Islam. We do lots of different things working with young Muslims. 

My main cap that I wear is working as a trainee psychologist, and doing a lot around mental health, so I’ve just recently worked with the Southbank Centre Women of the World Festival doing a sold out event on women of colour’s mental health. What underpins that is my research on deconstructing whiteness in clinical psychology – I’m doing a lot of thinking around race and mental health. 

You’ve just finished your thesis, congratulations!

Yes, literally just finished it! Thank you! It’s a massive weight off my shoulders.

Why did you choose to write it on this topic?

I think in terms of clinical psychology it’s been a real personal journey for me. I had a lot of my own experiences around what we would call ‘mental health’, and being in mental health services as a young person. Through that journey what I've experienced is being faced with a lot of white female therapists, who are the dominant demographic in clinical psychology in this country. There is an 88% white demographic and 80% female, so as a young woman of colour negotiating things around my faith, my sexuality, my mental health, I’ve often felt quite misunderstood. I’d have to almost explain a lot of things that I didn't really have the resources to offer explanations for, let alone process my own distress about, so I found that quite exhausting.

That pushed me towards the profession, and I went through my journey as a trainee understanding that demographic, which manifested not just physically, through white bodies in the profession, but also through the knowledge; what we’re taught is often by white authors and the literature we read is very Eurocentric. It is based on a western understanding of our distress. It’s sat with the scientific understanding of our pain and suffering, and the solutions are often through our brain, or by chemicals, or through individual cognitive therapies, rather than looking outside of that western framework to other spiritual understandings or different ways of making sense of our experiences. For me, I think it was the importance of holding up the mirror on how whiteness manifests in all these different ways on people that are seeking help that often aren’t white, that have very different experiences and who are often undergoing a lot of harm by the system. 

If we’re thinking about it more anecdotally, black men going through the system are significantly more likely to be over-medicated, to be sectioned under the Mental Health Act, or to be given a diagnosis of psychosis, so there’s a lot of ways that racism is playing out to black communities. I just wanted to shed light on that and to investigate a bit deeper, because there has been no research into whiteness in clinical psychology so far from the perspective of the dominant demographic, which is white females.

You’ve filmed a poem for Mental Health Awareness Week next week. What’s that poem about?

That poem is very much about embracing our madness and our distress. I wrote it about my own experiences but what I wanted to highlight underneath it – it links to a campaign I did a while back called 4in4 – is looking critically at how we understand our pain and distress. At the moment we often use language around illness and diagnosis to understand our mental health, and what I wanted to demonstrate with this poem is that there’s a way we can move away from this individualistic understanding of our pain – which locates this problem within our brain and under these labels – to a more accepting understanding of our distress. This allows us to look from a collective and community perspective at ways we can heal each other that don’t rely on services, medication and labels.

How can we deal with each other’s pain, however that presents itself? Whatever it is, it doesn’t need labels; we can actually turn towards each other’s pain rather than moving away from it and turning people to doctors. Yes, there is room for that and people may find healing in those ways too, but there are also ways that we can look to each other in our families and friends, in communities and schools. There’s room for us to grow that. And I also wanted to highlight how diagnosis has been used in the past in quite problematic ways, like how homosexuality used to be a disorder. That political use of diagnosis has been quite oppressive.

It would be amazing if we could talk to each other more about mental health, but I think a huge barrier to that is still the stigma around it; we need to keep raising awareness all the time.

I think that’s where I'm trying to come from with this poem – raising awareness is really important as a first step. How we‘ve tried to address the stigma so far is through the language of mental illness, likening our experiences of distress to physical illness as a way of destigmatising, and I think – although that’s very well intended – it means the only way we can talk about it is through the language of illness and labels. What I’m hoping to do through this poem and through the campaign is say yes, it is really important to destigmatise, but we need to be mindful about the language we’re using. We need to be moving away from our experiences just being located in the brain to thinking about what’s happening to people on a broader societal level that is making us feel this way, as well as looking to those places to find healing.

fc38971bd31afba9ed42a30c07057d4e177f2c97.jpgPhotography by Saima Khalid

This has particular pertinence at the moment, given the current global situation – lockdown has undoubtedly put a strain on many people’s mental health. There’s also a dialogue going on about race and the virus; how do you think ‘whiteness’, as you have studied it, has manifested itself during the pandemic?

What the virus is doing at the moment is unveiling structural and racial inequality in such a way that we can no longer hide under the myth of a post-racial society. We’ve been told that the virus doesn’t discriminate. I think this is very misleading; actually, fundamentally it’s a lie because clearly black and brown people are being significantly more affected by this. 68% of NHS staff who have died in the pandemic have been black and brown, and I don't think that's being highlighted enough. We’re hearing a lot about key workers and heroes, which is quite neutral language, and in reality it’s working-class black and brown people who have no choice but to keep going to work. Are they heroes or are they actually hostages?

The conversation around this is often about class, but the reality is labour is very much racialised and gendered; the people who are in that bracket are often black and brown, and that’s what we’re seeing in terms of the deaths. Belly Mujinga was working at Victoria Station and she was terrified of going in without any PPE. She was spat on by a man who had the virus in a racially violent attack, and she contracted Covid-19 and died, leaving an eleven-year-old daughter behind. It’s being called a tragic incident in the news, but I don’t think we should be calling this anything but a racist murder. It’s brought up to me how accustomed we are to seeing the death of black and brown people. Whose bodies do we really value? Because what it feels like now is that black and brown bodies are disposable, and that’s incredibly painful.

What the heroism narrative is doing is making us turn our heads away from what the government is actually perpetuating by not offering the financial support to make sure that people are staying at home, or that they have the equipment they need to be safe in the environments they are being forced to go into. It feels like a distraction technique from what’s really going on.

That’s definitely given me a lot to think about, and hopefully our readers, too. On a final note, what advice would you give to young people interested in spoken word, and the arts more generally?

That’s a big question! I don't want to be really cheesy about it, but I feel like what comes to me immediately is just come as you are and be true to yourself. Especially at a time where social media is so active and it’s so easy to work in this comparative mindset where you’re looking at what other people are doing, I think it’s really important to honour your own journey. Work out what it is you want to say, what you have to offer the world and where the urgency is in your message. 

What helps me is asking myself, ‘is this something that needs to be heard and needs to be said', but also, 'does this feel true to who I really am?’ For me, coming from a faith background, I also ask, ‘is this in line with my relationship with God', and I know that won’t apply to everybody, but it does help me. Just hide yourself away from all of the competitive capitalist productivity framework as much as you can, because your value is deeper than that, and more important than what you’re producing and what it looks like is staying true to who you are.

Thanks to Sanah for taking the time to do this interview! 

Find out more about Sanah's work through her website, and keep up-to-date on her Instagram.

Header Image Credit: Photography by Daniaal Khalid


Sam Nead

Sam Nead Contributor

I am a Liberal Arts and Sciences graduate preparing to go and see what the world has in store! I love reading, writing and all things theatre-related, and I'm a wannabe author who has never actually finished writing a novel...yet!

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