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Daily Dose — Poet Zaynab Mohammed Honoured with Emerging Writer Award

Zaynab Mohammed follows a long line of great writers to win the Richard Carver Award for Emerging Writers. — Submitted photos

Zaynab Mohammed accepted the 2022 Richard Carver Award for Emerging Writers at June’s Elephant Mountain Literary Festival.

The Carver Award recognizes an emerging writer who has published literary work in any genre.

The Nelson District Arts Council is proud to honour Carver’s contributions to the Kootenay arts scene with the support of the Carver Family.

Mohammed is a performing poet, musician and activist.

She is an Arabic woman born in Vancouver to immigrant parents who fled from war-torn countries. Inspired by the hardships her family endured, her writing engages themes of healing and creating new ways forward. Mohammed lives in the woods of the Slocan Valley with her dog.

The Nelson Daily Daily Dose writer Sarah Lord spoke with the artist to find out what winning the award means, what drives her creatively, what themes that emerge from her poetry and the projects she has on the go.

Read the Q&A with Mohammed here…

The Nelson Daily: What does it mean for you to be recognized?

Zaynab Mohammed: It is nice to be recognized by the community. I knew that a few different people nominated me, but I had no idea I would win. It was beautiful when they presented it at the Elephant Mountain Literary Festival. I’ve been intimidated by that festival since I moved to Nelson. It just seemed, maybe, beyond me. But I just found out that it’s not. I’ve been here for eight years. I’ve seen the same people and they’ve seen me around doing my work for eight years. It’s great to be seen.

Before (the ceremony), I thought, ‘Oh, I can say I’m an award-winning poet.’ And that’s pretty cool. I’ve been writing, performing, and sharing my work for almost ten years. When your peers recognize you, then it’s just another level. At the festival, I was invited to perform on the coast and since then, invited to perform at a couple more, so I think it’s going to open some doors.

TND: What was happening in your life when you realized you were a poet?

ZM: I was backpacking through Australia. I went to a spoken word workshop. I had no idea I was a poet, but I’ve written since I was a kid. I’ve always liked to write. I did the workshop and then left it behind. I put what I wrote in my purse and dismissed it as something not good. A few months later, cleaning my purse, I found this piece of paper; it was decent what I wrote, and I was shocked. I couldn’t believe I put myself down like that. So, I got a journal and started writing, and I haven’t stopped. I followed my heart leaving everything behind to travel when everybody told me not to. A lot of people told me I was throwing away my career (as a hairdresser).  

TND: What are your main projects on the go?

ZM: I’m doing a big project on listening right now. The Canada Council for the Arts has funded me, and I’m also the BC Culture Days Ambassador, which is more funding and more support. I started a big project last year at the Civic Theatre. I was an artist in residence where the criteria was to explore and process a question for an entire year and not produce anything. I knew I wanted to explore listening. I’m in that process.

TND: What is the question you’re exploring?

ZM: What is listening? I want to know what listening is. My whole life shifted and was rearranged in many ways so that I listen to myself better. I started interviewing people a couple of months ago about what listening means to them. This will inform the artworks that I will do in the future. One will be a video, and the other will be a play, a one-woman show. I’ve worked hard to get to this point.

TND: How does the Nelson literary scene support you in your craft?

ZM: Finally, all these people and organizations believe in me and support me. It’s such a blessing. I’ve been part of the Nelson poetry slam committee for years and have put on spoken word events. This (award) is my first in with the literary world in Nelson. I’ve just felt so not literary even though I’m a writer. Maybe because I’m self-made. I didn’t go to university. I’m not academic. But I realize I am part of it. Having this award is going to connect me with these people. Now people know who I am even more and will seek what I have to offer.

A huge thank you to the Nelson and District Arts Council for being such great support and a strong centre in our community. And a big thank you to Richard Carver’s family as well.

TND: What do you have underway for the next couple of years?

ZM: I’m working on this listening project for the next five years, at least I would imagine. I can just see the ripple effect. The play won’t be ready until next summer. I will write it, workshop it with a creative consultant, and practice it. I don’t know what will happen, but I’ll probably end up touring it, showcasing it. It’s kind of like giving birth, even though I’ve never given birth to a human. This idea is coming through me, and I’m going to give birth to it and then it will have a life of its own, and I will take care of it. And it’s going to live for a while. I’m putting all this time and dedication into such a profound topic. It’s about people’s voices and what people think about listening. I want to create a dialogue around listening so that maybe people are more curious and receptive to this idea.

TND: What is it about listening that speaks to you?

ZM: I’m a pretty introverted, quiet and observing kind of person, so I notice that there is a lot of talking in our world. There’s more talking than listening. And we have only one mouth and two ears, so it feels backwards. In my experience when I listen to people, it’s very healing for them. They feel relief when they’re heard. And when people hear and listen to me as I am, it’s also very healing; a weight comes off my shoulders. Listening is a very, very powerful practice. We have a hard time hearing each other, ourselves and the earth. I just see the disconnect there, and I think listening is a valuable tool to help us come back to ourselves, to each other, and the earth so that we can heal because that is what we all need on some level or another.

TND: Do you have a message for other emerging writers?

ZM: Believe in yourself. Do it for the craft, do it for the writing. I started to learn how to play music these last few years, and instead of learning how to play music, I let the music learn how to play me. So, I would say that for writing too: give yourself to it. It’s about the art, the craft.

I’ve been told many times that I can’t do what I’m doing. Like: you can’t be a poet, you can’t feed yourself, you can’t be a writer. If you’re an artist, you can’t be anything else. You’re an artist. However, that manifests and comes through you. You can do other things, but you can’t be other things. I’ve been so stubborn. I haven’t stopped because I’m an artist.

Even if I wasn’t writing for six months because something else was happening in life, it’s just who I am, and I’m so grateful because it’s given me so much. I’m so grateful that I get to be an artist and live in this beautiful place, and there are a lot of us that are artists and creatives.

It’s a real gift.

During June’s Elephant Mountain Literary Festival 2022 winner of the Richard Carver Award for Emerging Writers Zaynab Mohammed (second from right) was pictured with, from left, Lucy Carver-Brennan, Jocelyn Carver and 2014 recipient Jane Byers. — Photo courtesy Anthony Sanna