Yasmin Joseph, Playwright, Sahar Speaks: Voices of Women from Afghanistan
Continuing our introductions of our team for Sahar Speaks; we met up with Yasmin Joseph, Playwright and one of the current Theatre 503 Five to talk about her play “The Place of Shining Light” which is part of Sahar Speaks: Voices of Women from Afghanistan and how it deals with everything from pursuit of personal goals, gender constructs and ‘politics of the family’.
“I was drawn to the project’s focus on empowering Afghan women to occupy space in a male dominated industry, voicing their experiences on their own terms.” Yasmin Joseph, Playwright
What drew you to be part of this project as a playwright?
I believe in marginalised people being orators of their own histories. For this reason I was drawn to the project’s focus on empowering Afghan women to occupy space in a male dominated industry, voicing their experiences on their own terms. I also felt that the project had the potential for an amazing legacy: equipping women with skills in journalism that can be passed down and shared.
What is your play called and which of the stories does your play focus on?
My play is called ‘The Place of Shining Light’ and is inspired by the story ‘I Dressed Like a Boy So I Could Go to School’.
What excites you most about telling this story?
I was compelled by the story’s many layers, after the first read I developed a sense of its dramatic possibilities. Zahra essentially presents two realms of politics: the backdrop of the Taliban regime and its tangible effects for the people of Afghanistan, and the politics of family and the domestic sphere. I was particularly interested in how these concepts had been internalised by the protagonist and how experience had matured her beyond Western measures. At the age of five it took a great deal of bravery and conviction to decide on becoming a boy in order to get an education, for me this tapped into an interesting dialogue about the autonomy of young women in today’s world and also the idea of gender as a construct.
Is there any resonance with any personal experience for you in the story?
I personally connected to Zahra’s tireless pursuit of her education and the idea of dreaming beyond the limits of her immediate surroundings. Sometimes stepping into your purpose, pursuing personal goals, growth of any kind, can mean becoming a person that friends or even family no longer understand. Someone that’s harder to work out, or box in. This often causes people to project their own fears and limitations on your dreams. I thought it would be powerful to portray Zahra pushing back and resisting the doubts of others.
Have you ever written a play using verbatim text before?
My first experience of using verbatim text was at school during my GCSE’s. With my two best friends, I devised a very political piece of drama focusing on war and morality; in it we used snippets and extracts from various news articles. Another piece of work that greatly inspired me was ‘Guantanamo – Honour Bound to Defend Freedom’ by Victoria Brittain and Gilian Slovo, I read this at university and developed an immense understanding of how verbatim text can be woven and arranged for dramatic effect.
Has the sensitivity of the subject matter and the adaptation of a living person’s story in any way changed your process of writing?
Writing this piece, I found myself constantly aware of the responsibility in retelling someone’s lived experience. For this reason, despite the aspects that have been imagined and fictionalised, I endeavoured to stay very true to the text.
Zahra tells her story delicately, and the message is sincere. It was important that the characters within my play felt whole and recognisable, as I wanted to retain the heart of her work.
Before writing I listened to Zahra’s interview with the BBC to get a sense of her personality and tone. I then went back to the story and broke it into units of action. As a starting exercise I wrote short scenes imagining conversations between characters at each of those given moments and ultimately became most interested in the relationship between Zahra and her mother. I also began to focus on the need to ‘keep her emotions at bay’ in order to adapt to an all male environment at school.
Throughout the process I tried to revisit findings from my research, facts about Bamyan Province where the story is set, and also accounts from women on life under the Taliban regime. I then had to decide what would be conveyed using subtext and what ideas would find themselves explicitly in the narrative.
The over-arching theme of all of the stories of the women who have written them is the curtailment or complete embargo on their freedom of speech. Do you have any observations to make on this process/opportunity?
Given the current political climate, I think this is an incredibly powerful time to drown out the noise and listen to the people that society is constantly silencing or speaking over. With that in mind, my role in this project feels more like that of a translator than a storyteller. I’m excited to explore this narrative using a new medium and also to be bridging the gap between two cultures, giving a local audience an insight into Zahra’s life and the lives of women like her in Afghanistan.
What are you most looking forward to about the production/your play being staged?
Without giving too much away, my piece will explore gender and form. I’m excited to see how this will be conveyed in the actor’s physicality and movement. It will also be interesting to see how a diverse audience will react to this subject matter. I hope it will be possible for the original story-teller to see the show, or to hear her feedback on the script. I’m really grateful to her, Palindrome and Sahar Speaks for sharing this incredible story with me.
Has working on this play changed your world view in any way? If so how?
I wouldn’t say that this experience has changed my world view as such, but it has definitely provided me with a fresh perspective on the politics of Afghanistan and the cultural landscape of the country. It has also sharpened my focus on the importance of women’s voices globally, and the power of language as tool for creative expression.