Culture& interview with Danusia Samal

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Image Credit: Danusia Samal

Danusia Samal is an actress, writer and singer from London. Among her writing credits are Out of Sorts, winner of Theatre503 International Playwriting Award; Busking It, inspired by Danusia’s experience as a London Underground busker and Decolonising History, in collaboration with SOAS and Tamasha Theatre. Danusia is currently working together on various projects with UK production companies, writing her first TV drama as part of the BBC’s TV Drama Writers Programme in 2019 and is currently commissioned by Soho Theatre as one of their 2020 Soho Six playwrights.

Tell us more about you and your artistic passions?

I started as an actress but writing has always propelled my acting.  Maybe it is a naïve way of thinking but I believe that theatre and film work has the power to reach someone and change their mind, so I want to be part of projects that do that; that reach new audiences.  I started writing because sometimes I was in shows where that wasn’t happening and I wanted more autonomy to create the work I wasn’t seeing in UK theatre.

Fortunately, that has started to change in the last few years. We are beginning to see a range of cultural experiences in the theatre now.  As someone who is of mixed heritage, I am always interested in the grey areas of class, race and gender. But I still sometimes find the way it is treated in theatre quite frustrating and polarising. Diversity is a huge buzzword now and used as code language to describe someone who is an ethnic minority. That puts so much responsibility on the individual. It is a contradiction in terms. One person cannot be ‘diversity’. Real diversity is different; a range of experiences, cultures and classes and London at its best has that.  I still think it’s crazy that you never see the range of people you’d see in your tube carriage in a theatre production.

Tell us why you thought it was important to write The Museum as part of your SOAS residency on Decolonising History?

I went to lot of lectures at SOAS and felt a bit overwhelmed after such an onslaught of information.  One of my most interesting discoveries was that the process of academia is a bit colonial; British academics categorising history and artefacts from other countries.  I thought about what I could do that was ‘decolonising’ in my residency and in my script.  I mainly thought about artefacts and wrote a fairy story in effect, which rewrote the narrative about someone taking their own things back – a bit like Indiana Jones in reverse. It was hard to do in a 20 minute piece! Perhaps one day I’ll write a longer one.  The concept of decolonisation is also about changing the stories we have inherited because stories influence the way we think – we grow up reading stories about princes rescuing princesses and at some point you have to dismantle that idea and I wanted to do that with Decolonising History.

What has been the reaction to that? 

A willingness to talk about the issue from academic staff.  Amongst the students I interviewed, there was anger and frustrated at the lack of action.  People really wanted to talk about it. But as a massive issue, just discussing it can feel frustrating, especially when the process of studying can feel quite colonial – students are being told about their cultural history by someone European. Colonialism even features in how academic writing is graded. It was an issue students felts strongly about. That said, outside of that small pocket, lots of people in Britain’s wider population don’t know what decolonisation means. I didn’t before I started the project! Actually the act of decolonising would be a huge undertaking, with a complete overhaul in education needed, starting from a young age and in the art history narratives that would have to be retold. It’s interesting that it wasn’t part of our project to take action, we were just asked to write about decolonising history.  But a lot of us decided to engage with the students, to hear from them rather than just going to lectures.

What do you understand by the term ‘decolonisation’ in relation to the arts and/or heritage?

I don’t yet fully understand the broader context of that discussion but I think there is a technical version; of a colonial force withdrawing from a colonised country, which is what I originally thought it meant. Now I realise that it is also about getting rid of cultural legacies.  To me, the most interesting part art can play is challenging the legacy that colonisation has left on people’s sense of self and maybe changing that. Of course, a large scale solution on a governmental level would be instrumental to changing the talk about decolonisation into action, but I’m interested in self because I still think that through TV, film, art, theatre and music, individuals can be touched by a story. And when it is subverted it can cause you to reflect and change your mind.

I grew up with my mum always flipping the gender of characters in fairy stories. By hearing that, I understood that there was another way of seeing yourself and an alternative to the commonly told story.  One of the legacies of colonialism is the view of skin colour and hair and the consideration of certain types of features as beautiful or ugly, which spans most of the world.  When you present people with a different version of beauty you can invert that and make people see differently. Even if it only changes things on a small scale.

How do you think that the UK responds to the decolonisation debate?

There is a willingness to discuss it but there is a slight resistance to taking responsibility for it. ‘Colonisation’ is ignored as a wrong of the past. But we need to teach the young about that wrong instead of leaving it to them to discover outside of the education system.  It is not about just apologising but saying outright that we will make amends.  It’s about engaging the whole population in the decolonisation idea. Unfortunately, on the whole, people who are invited to these discussions are already interested in decolonisation rather than the wider populous who don’t know what that means.

How do you get other people to experience those stories?

Instead of telling American stories of racism, we should tell stories about Britain’s part in the slave trade. We should programme historical dramas about Britain’s colonial history with a Downton Abbey level of budget and star power. They need to be ugly and truthful and remove the white saviour narrative.  If there was a long-running series about the Windrush Generation which had famous actors and directors involved, it would be interesting to see how much impact that would have and whether it would become part of the cultural zeitgeist.   TV should still be a place where people learn things.  There could be a decision to make a huge show like that. I am beginning to be involved in screen writing and there is a willingness there so hopefully…

How has this affected your life working in the arts?

It was a really new idea to me before this. Researching decolonisation has made me want to educate myself further because I have realised the huge gaps in my knowledge.  I am not just interested in the British Empire.  My father is Kurdish and it has made me start reading about Kurdish people and their attitude to fighting colonisation. Britain was not the only empire and that is not the only form of colonialism.  It has made me more inquisitive and consider what my role is and what I want to do.  Even listening to the other audio plays, I have realised I didn’t know enough about Partition in India. I have realised that you may learn about your culture if you are from a minority at home but we still don’t learn about other minority groups. In the arts, a lack of stories about different cultures means many writers end up telling their own stories and not those of others.

What do you think is most misunderstood by ‘decolonisation’?

I think the biggest misunderstanding is that it means a coloniser leaving a colonised country.  We take it for its literal meaning.  I came to the idea pretty late so my understanding was rudimentary initially.  I honestly don’t think this features enough in people’s lives unless they come across it in art or academia. There are so many facets to it! Outside of the UK, the Middle Eastern perception of colonisation is quite different. Many of the Middle East’s borders were decided by outside forces so their divides and conflicts have been created by that.  In Kurdish politics, they talk about Turkey being colonised by European ideas and the Turkish colonising Kurds and also men colonising women.

You are an actress, singer and writer, do you find that you are often ‘othered’ in your work?

It is weird, you get othered a lot in the arts.  I’ve encountered the, ‘where are you from?’ question my whole life, and I have got that from every different racial group. But it was never my identifier until I started working in the arts.  I found it interesting that it became important in everything I did and was always mentioned and often incorrectly.  I am baffled as to why it has to be referenced in reviews or articles when I haven’t mentioned it. It’s dangerous because my heritage put there and not commented on.  I have had to use my background as capital and been asked to do jobs because of my ‘cultural credentials’ and then asked to justify that or speak for a whole minority.  Sometimes you can feel like you have to turn your background into anecdotes to educate others.

How do you respond to that in your work?

I guess I just write about it and challenge the idea.  I feel confused about this and I don’t know how I feel about it and I want to write on this theme because I don’t have answers and I don’t want to criticise the efforts being made. I use that to question whether it’s important to know where we’re from and how important our heritage is. Do we get that sense of who we are from our parents and the communities who have raised us? Or the person we choose to be as an adult.  I like to have a light touch about it and chat with people after my performances to hear their stories because everyone has a version of that experience.

How do you hope to change perceptions of race and heritage through your different creative forms of expression?

In terms of acting, I want to play parts that are a surprise, subverting the stereotype. I would love to do something that is big enough to cause a ripple.  One of my next pieces will be about music and misogyny and subverting lyrics to again change perceptions of a commonly told story.

Apart from Culture& what organisations or groups do you know who are actively seeking change in the arts sector? 

Act for Change are a group that are trying to address the treatment of performers of colour to create true diversity in the arts and calling out cases of mistreatment. Open Doors is another organisation who are trying to change who gets into drama school and support those who get to become professional actors. Before people were using that as a buzz word Clean Break always aimed for true diversity in their work.

Also, a lot of my contemporaries are writing new material and trying to challenge this.

Can you tell us an author or artist you feel inspired by when considering some of these problems?

I think that James Baldwin’s writing is still very relevant today.  I have also started reading a lot about various aspects about the Kurdish freedom movement.

Thank you Danusia!

If you would like to learn more about Danusia Samal’s work, you can find it here.  If you would like to listen to her audio drama, The Museum, you can find it here.