I used to work in a luxury flooring showroom in a fairly affluent part of the country, so I've met a fair few people who are allegedly "celebs" but I can honestly say I've never been starstruck - or not until last week. I was really rather nervous as I skipped down the steps beneath a twenty foot tall plastic Freddie Mercury and into Tottenham Court Road tube station, because I was about to meet the best writer I've ever come across. Like, ever.
Sabina England is better know to some of us by her online monikers lie DeafBrownTrashPunk (authonomy) Deaf Indian Muslim Anarchist (blogger) and DeafMuslim (twitter). It was on Authonomy I first found her, and her coruscating novel, a brutal, brilliant twist on the post-slacker 'burbs, Brown Trash. Online she's blunt, in your face, pretty much as brutal as her writing if she thinks you're an idiot, and (which some people have been unable to get their head around) hyper-sensitive and insecure about her work. She's also known for her mohawk hair.
Which is why the first thing I remember thinking was "What happened to your hair?" Rather embarrassingly, instead of "hello" or "how's the play going?" (she was in England for a fortnight, promoting the iopening of her play, How the Rapist was Born, at the Tristan Bates Theatre in Covent Garden - running till October 17), I think that was the first thing I said as well.
"I died my hair so many colours it started falling out," she said. "So I cut it all off." She made a sweeping, cutting action with her arms. When Sabina talks, she does it with her whole body. She does everything like that. Tiny, nuanced details just aren't part of the way she works - she puts every bit of her body and soul into everything she does. Only I soon realised the nuances ARE there. Her mind, like her body, is never still. It's always rushing ten steps ahead, playing tricks, branching off and waiting for the world to catch up. The result is I felt like I'd spent a week with her, talking and hanging out and exploring and getting to know her. But in reality it was just an hour and a quarter.
We started with coffee. Standing outside Starbucks at the start of new Oxford Street, I suggested we go in.
"Fuck Starbucks!" she said, turning and giivng the finger to the building. So we went for a great little place under Centrepoint called "First Out", where Sabina enthused about the walls filled with stsr portraits painted in glitter.
We sat outside, me drinking an espresso, she smoking and taking in ("Am I drinking the soup?" she asked, slurping from the spoon, "Or am I eating it?", taking a great gulp) a broccoli and stilton soup with lashings of cress ("What the fuck's this? It's gree, so I guess it must be healthy"). She told me about her week. About her session watching the cast rehearse - eyeballing them through the whole play until they were terrified from what I can gather (although she then broke into one of her wonderful, toothy, expansive smiles that melt her features entirely, and told me "I was so happy with them". It felt like the experience had meant the world to her - everything seems to mean the world to her. Which is why her work's so brilliant; and why she's such an exciting person to be around. And why she comes across as so vulnerable); about her afternoon in a school encouraging young Muslim girls to be creative - "they kept looking at me and asking 'are you a Muslim?' 'Yeah I'm a Muslim;'" about the Americans who started texting their mates druing a performance "theat's so rude!" she says. She looks genuinely hurt, and I realise the Sabina who took people's criticism and, it has to be said, utter rudeness to heart on Authonomy, is 100% genuine. "It's my play!" she continues. "MY PLAY. How dare they?" And for the first, but not the last, time, I'm reminded of Tracey Emin, and I find myself thinking I hope the world's nice to her and she's OK.
Then we walk up Charing Cross Road. We head into Foyle's where I learn she loves graphic novels, and her favourite author is Aravind Adiga. She picks books off shelves and opens them all with a sense of delight - "have you read this one?" she asks. "And this one?" "What about this one?" We head into a guitar shop on the corner of Tin Pan Alley, and dive into the labyrinth of Covent Garden, where she takes me to the Tristan Bates Theatre and shows me the posters for her play. I ask her to sign a flyer and she goes bright red.
We turn off Shaftesbury Avenue (she hates the anodyne, imported musicals. I ask her why she doesn't stand outside teh doors and shove flyers for How the Rapist Was Born into people's hands "Yeah!" she says, and her eyes light up), and she tells me anecdotes from her time in London. There's one about the famous playwright who came to see the play, and how she didn't know who he was till someone told her afterwards. "I was so RUDE to him," she says. "I wrote him an e-mail saying how sorry I was. I wasn't meaning to be rude but I get so nervous when I'm with lots of people." There's the story of a cabbie who wound down his window and shouted abuse at her. "I didn't know what he said" (Sabina has been deaf since she was a baby) "so I turned to the woman standing next to me and she said 'he said open your legs and I'll give you some pleasure - that's disgusting' but I didn't mind because he was hot" - people ahve problems coming to terms with Sabina's sexual frankness; it's something else that reminds me of Tracey Emin. Bloody hell, I think, when she tells me about the people who take offence at her play, have we really amde so little progress we still find it scary when a woman says what she thinks.
And she tells me about the lovely old Christian lady she's staying with she found on Craigslist. I picture their evenings together and I think it would make a lovely scene in a film. It reminds me of the scenes between Dot and Mary in Eastenders back in the mid 80s.
We head into Chinatown, where she stops and closes her eyes and takes in the smells. As we walk, her head is never still. "I love London," she says, and she gives the impression she's stuffing as many memories into her head as she can before she goes back to midtown, USA. We end up in an amusement arcade, where she plays a rally game and tells me how she used to hang out in the malls playing games as a teenager.
Finally we say goodbye. She smiles and says thank you for coming to see her, and I sense she's genuinely as grateful for every tiny compliment someone pays her as she is upset at every criticism.
I descedn into the underground at Picadilly Circus just 75 minutes after I sank myself into Tottenham Court Road, but I get on the train feeling changed. There are very few people you meet, and come away feeling life's different from how it was before you met. Sabina is a bright, traffic-stoppingly beautiful, brutal, brilliant person, the kind of person whose talent changes the world rather than being changed by it. It's certainly changed me.