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Why Exeter University FemSoc's Women of Colour Poetry Night was important


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Exeter University students held a third Women of Colour Poetry Night in early March, a project that was a result of collaboration between the Feminist Society, Creative Writing Society and African-Caribbean Society.

Candace Bansair reading from Morgan Parker. Image: Chelsea Lee Photography.

The event, a student led project by Exeter University's Feminist society, became the subject of heated controversy, as the university's anonymous opinion Facebook page, Exehonestly, blew up with comments criticising both the event and FemSoc for excluding other voices - particularly those that were white and male. 

Whilst many rallied in support of WOC Poetry Night, some individuals felt that the evening represented exclusivity and hostility, and openly expressed their disapproval.  

Within the wider context of the University, these comments are not an isolated occurrence. Exeter University’s Debating Society recently invited Katie Hopkins to a panel debate despite widespread disapproval of her public sexism, racism and Islamophobia. Exeter University’s Bracton Law Society, now disbanded, was under national scrutiny for racist and sexist remarks made by committee members in 2018.

FemSoc underlined that the event was open to all audiences and encouraged diverse attendance. As an under-represented minority, particularly within the English Literature canon, women of colour offer a unique, intersectional perspective of the world and its challenges. There was resounding support for these experiences; the night was fully-booked. The experiences shared were transnational, diverse and most importantly, spoke the truth of the pains as well as the pride of identifying as a woman of colour.

Performers explored the difficulties of being caught between cultures, countries and religions. They explored the multiplicities of their ethnicity, of feeling a bone-deep connection to a heritage that feels far away or one that is meant to be theirs, but doesn’t feel like it. Lisa Vaz’s performance navigated the struggle of answering the question women of colour hate to be asked: “where are you really from?”

Performers reclaimed their identities and their bodies, which often felt like they weren’t their own. Lumba Phiri detailed the slurs she’d received and instances where strangers would touch her hair and remark upon her skin colour. She articulated the strangeness of seeing aspects of her history in museums outside of her home country. Bash Harry shared her experiences of being a part of the Muslim faith and how that shaped her identity. Precious Chipato’s performance was a moving story of an abusive relationship, how it left her feeling like a “sinner” and a “damned woman”. Aparna Mchiyaria dedicated a quietly triumphant poem to Virginia Woolf, having finally found “a room of her own”, finally free from the pressure of “taking up too much space”.

Performers talked about love, food, and the things that connect us deeply to our sense of home, our families of origin and the wider world. They explored climate change and Islamophobia, refugees, language and war. Georgina Bolam reflected with pride on the resilience and strength of her mother and Bajan heritage. Recently elected Student Guild VP of Education Penny Dinh spoke about becoming vegan, of being dedicated to a political cause, and what that meant for her identity. She asked the audience, was it worth it, given the change it would make to her relationship with her mother and Asian culture. Sira Charbel shared her experiences of Beirut, its politics and her connection to her mother tongue. Candace Bansair shared the words of another poet, Morgan Parker: “There are more beautiful things than Beyoncé”.

One of the most poignant performances was delivered by Dani Tosin-Talabi, who expressed the simultaneously and multiply pressured position a woman of colour occupies, with haunting affirmations of “I am enough, I am beautiful.”

Women of Colour Poetry Night offered a platform to share, to create community and to learn. Co-organisers of the event Mubanga Mweemba, President of Creative Writing Society, and Almaz Akainyah, FemSoc BAME representative, stated that they “couldn’t be happier with the performers and how the event turned out.”

It’s a shame, given the deep well of experience that was shared during the Women of Colour Poetry Night, that some individuals within the student body – one of the most privileged groups in the country – would choose to see it as a personal attack, rather than as a rare opportunity to actively uplift minorities and learn from experiences that are different from their own.

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