'Community feels like home': An Interview with Aminatou Sow, by Ava A

Photo by Helena Price, Dagmar Studios

As a writer, cultural critic, co-host of podcast Call Your Girlfriend and co-founder of Techlady Mafia, Aminatou Sow’s ideas cut across different mediums of expression effortlessly and inspirationally. Sow’s work is essential reading and listening for a nuanced understanding of our world.

Ava A spoke with Aminatou Sow at Sydney Writer’s Festival 2018 where Sow was a panellist, speaker and chair.

Let’s begin with a culture round-up. What writing and media have you been enjoying recently?
It’s funny, I’m coming off a stint of being sick. I was diagnosed with endometrial cancer at the end of last year and I’m in remission so everything is great. But during that time the two things I consumed the most was allot of fiction, which for me is actually very strange. I mostly read non-fiction, which I think is because I’m afraid of my own imagination. I watched allot of very old television and it made me feel so much better. There was something very tangible about reading the novels that I did and watching things like MASH which is... you know.

Aren’t there like 60 seasons of it?
Exactly! There’s 13, I had never watched MASH before. There was something very comforting about reading and watching things that had been around for a long time, I felt nostalgic for a time I was not alive for. It really took my mind off of allot of things. There was someting about knowing that people have been making creative work for a long time, not that the 60’s or the 70’s is a long time ago. These forms have been here and they’re very consistent, we’re not really inventing anything new.

So you’ve been in a Twitter exchange with our mayor about how Sydney’s lock-out laws limit the cities capacity to be ‘truly global’.
I know, your mayor tweeted back at me this morning! It was very exciting.

With your experiences of Sydney in mind, what do you think it takes to become a truly global city?
This is the first time in a long time that I’m falling in love with a new city, there’s something really thrilling about that. What I’ve been struck by here is that on a Friday night when trying to find a meal and somewhere to sit down in the CBD, the place felt like a ghost town. As a Black woman in Australia I’m very aware that I’m Black. I’m very aware that I’m African, and there was something so lonely and ghostly about walking through what was supposed to be a big city at 11pm. Not seeing another soul did not make me feel safe, which I understand is the aim of the lock out laws. The ethos of limiting enjoyment and entertainment impacts community for people, it is so small minded.

I’ve only been here for a couple of days, and I knew that Sydney is bigger and more capable than that. It’s a real failure of the people who put the policies into place right? Where people who do not live in our spaces get to decide how we live. That is something in the US we’re very aware of and I felt that on a visceral level here.

‘Community’ is a strong theme across all your work. What does community feel like to you?
It feels safe. It’s a place where you can be your truest self, the place where you’re not ashamed to experiment with new thoughts, ideas and visions for yourself. It feels like home.

When you’re in an unfamiliar place, how do you know that you’ve found community?
It feels very nebulous. I do a thing that a lot of Black people do when I’m not at home, wherever home is: You come to places like Australia where you count the other Black people. Day one and two here, there was zero. And yesterday I had the distinct experience of seeing Black people that I didn’t know; they just nodded at me and I felt at home. They were happy for me, they hollered and we had this weird moment when a stranger hugged me and I hugged him back. It felt safe and familiar, it felt thrilling. I’m not sure that you’ve found community until you feel it. I think you can share a lot of affinities with people wether its race, class or the weird podcast t-shirt that you’re both wearing. Sometimes it's something as quiet as a nod that somebody gives you, or a laugh that you share. Or it’s something as profound as hugging a stranger and feeling at home in their arms.

I’d like to talk about your writing practise and career. Our world is increasingly comfortable with the idea of near-constant connection via the internet. What do you think that has done to writing?
I can’t speak to how it’s changed writing, but I can speak to how it’s changed my writing. I see that there’s something more frenetic at work because there’s a need to keep up with a pace that is ultimately a little destructive. Things have also changed for good in the sense that I have more access to other people’s writing than I’ve ever had in my own tiny history. French is my first language and for a long time I was not reading in French; allot of my life now happens in English and in a very American context. Through the power of technology I’ve started writing in French again, engaging with more French work and thoughts. And so I always want to caution the idea of blaming technology for any problems, I think that instinct is very human and that change is fine.

By submitting to this new way of communicating new forms of writing are emerging that were only possible because of the internet, and new voices are emerging whose importance is bolstered by the internet. But at the same time it’s ok to shut off the computer and write the thing and put it in the drawer. I think these are all individual choices that we have to make for ourselves and we have to live with their consequences.

You’ve worked at the intersection of technology and democratic process in the past. Can you speak to that point of tension: How do you see technology and democratic process intersecting?
Technology can amplify democracy in a way that is just undeniable. In the US we have states where certain people work very hard so that others do not have access to fair elections or to the information that they need to represent themselves at the poll. These are things that we feel all the time. These issues are things that technology is very effective at combatting right? You don’t have to go into an office, you don’t have to depend on people for information and when done right the technology can really be impartial. It’s not about propping up one party of the other, it is bolstering the whole process. It is providing access to people who wouldn’t have it otherwise.

I think that a lot of the tension comes from capitalism. It is a wild idea to profit off of tools for democracy. It is also dangerous when companies who don’t have an ethic that is clear and honourable step into this space, because we’re truly asking people to put their their livelihoods and the future of their countries into the hands of big technology companies. There are undestandably many reasons to not want to do that.

People can often face difficulties scaling their interpersonal and community building ethics in a workplace. How have you gone about trying to scale these ethics in your professional career?
I don’t know that I’ve scaled them yet and that’s a very vulnerable thing to say, I am still trying to figure that out. I think one very definite way I’ve done that is I’ve taken myself out of corporate office culture. I know that for the kind of work I do, and for the kind of community I want to build, sitting in an office is not helpful. My personality and interests are not suited to it, the rigidity does not work. And so I’m really lucky in that by being self employed I get to be around people who can really sharpen my ideas and strengths about what I believe community is. We can choose to make a new kind of work culture for ourselves. We’re all still trying to figure it out, I don’t know that anybody has fully scaled their personal ethics to a workplace. But I know that I’m changed by my work and how my chosen colleagues choose to experience me.

Could you talk a bit about the process of moving from that corporate office culture into your current career?
It really is a privilege, it’s something I want to be really careful to talk about. At least in the US, not everybody has the option to not work in corporate culture. Allot of our health care for example is given out by office work. Benefits, saving for retirement, all of those structures exist within the confines of office culture. And I’ve found allot of success doing that kind of work: I worked at Google, prestigious non profits and great PR agencies. But I was never happy. I was not happy with the work that I was doing because I was working in the service of somebody else. Simple things like office politics or the way that team work is supposed to be performed in the office are things that I really chafed at. Little by little they ate away at me, and the thought of spending sixty hours a week working for somebody else when I could be doing that kind of grind for myself was a no brainer for me. But I deeply acknowledge that my career change was from a place of privilege, I worked in offices for over a decade before I could be trusted to be self-employed. I think that speaks to who has access to the necessary knowledge, contacts and capital to really start off for themselves.

I’d love to conclude our chat with podcasting. Why did you want to pursue that type of media?
I’m a very curiosity driven person. I did not know how to make audio, and I wanted to learn. It seemed very hard, foreign and outside of my comfort zone. When our podcast producer and now dear friend Gina Delvac made me feel like I could do it, it changed my thinking around it. Having somebody who is a very successful and knowledgable podcast producer say ’you can do this too’ was very generous and big of her. My work has always centred around telling stories and you can do that in many different ways. One of the distinct advantages of podcasts or audio is how intimate it is. You are literally in somebodies ear and they hear you and every weird breath you take and how you pop your P’s and B’s. They get to hear your exasperated sighs exactly as you meant them. The kind of work I do is largely around telling stories of women and making other women feel that the things they care about are not frivolous but political, important, groundbreaking and revolutionary. Getting inside somebodies ears for that work is so important. I think what makes allot of really good audio is a rapport with the listener that comes in many different forms. There is something powerful about hearing somebody you can’t see.

I want to keep learning new things and having done this for four years now, there’s still so much I have to learn. It sounds so simple and frankly kind of juvenile but I love making things, and for someone like me who studied liberal arts and was so focused on words, reading and reason... there is something cathartic about taking all of that and saying ‘here is the thing I made that pushes these ideas further’. That’s really why I fell in love with audio.

Ava A is a writer and performer near you. He’s interested in what happens when different creative disciplines meet each-other. He’s on instagram @alumied.