Saturday 10 October 2009

When Dan met Sabina

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.


  1. Great post. :) Sounds like a fun day out! I love it when you meet people and instantly connect with them.

  2. So just to get this clear - you like her and you like her work yes? Because it was a leetle bit negative this post...

    NOT!!!! LOL

    I have to admit I am overawed and rather intimidated by Sabina - but I admire her hugely. Hope she thrives.

  3. Thanks, Anna - and you really should go and see the play as you're in London - it's extraordinary good :-)

    Michele, a lot of people are intimdated by Sabina, but she's the least intimdatin person you could possibly meet. She's a shy, very humble, rather fragile person, who just happens to have been born with a ridiculously large talent and a passion for life.

  4. Having met Sabina a couple times in Washington, DC, I love this post. I first 'met' her on authonomy, and loved her work, her brashness, her 'rude and crude'-ness, because it didn't come across as mean, but raw and natural. Normally I might have avoided someone online who seemed bent on offending people, but somehow she said the same things with a touch of innocence and naivete, like "why would that offend someone?"

    When we met in person, I found this genuinely sweet, sensitive, intelligent and very talented young woman. Shhh. Don't tell anyone - I don't think she wants them to know she's actually nice. Ha. I've read many of her short stories and scripts and the part of her novel Brown Trash that was posted on authonomy. She has a unique, ironic take on things. If one misses the irony in her work, it might be misinterpreted as offensive, yet it contains an insight into human nature, and the human spirit, that is both brutally biting and hopeful.

    Just like Sabina. Cheers! And I'm sure she's blushing after reading your post, Dan.

  5. hahahah NIIIIICE!!!! btw, those are real sexy pix of me ;-)

    the only thing you got wrong in the article is that I have been Deaf since I was 14. Not sure where you heard that, but I've been Deaf as a baby.

    It was a real pleasure hanging out with you in Chinatown. thanks for the soup !!

  6. You're right, Robb - I think she just doesn't get why people would be offended - it's sad but rather ironic that people take that part of her naure as ironic, but fail to see the irony in her work.

    My reading of her is that there's a whole levle of introspectiev BS she is somehow hardwired to avoid. That's how she's like Tracey Emin - the filters are down, and she's able to connect with the world with an absolute directness, which means she can pour herself straight out without having to analyse (which, in actual fact, means there's more time for her to think about what matters and gives her work extra depth). The downside for people like that is there's no filter with what comes in - whatever the world shoves at her goes straight to the raw - be that praise or criticism. Of the people I know in the writing world, the person most like her is Oli, but it's EminI always come back to. And Kurt Cobain. People who are intelligent, articulate, open, and strangely innocent. And above all else genuine.

  7. Sorry, Sabina - I got that from Richard's blog - shows me I should do my research properly! D'you want me 2 send you the pix?

  8. Changed the inaccuracy :)

    And I worked out what makes the pix so sexy - it's the way you accessorise - that Wiatrosse bag does it every time :p

  9. Great Article. Sabina, her work always cracks me up. She's a very talented writer, like most of the commenters have mentioned already.

    I love how she comes off like an obnoxious cunt, I guess we all do the same at times.

    I laugh hysterically each time she posts how some supposed feminist or supposed muslim gets offended at what she writes/comments. People need to relax and stop being so narcissitic and thinking this one person talks so much shit about their "groups/beliefs"

    BTW those are some great pics!

  10. hey, plastic shopping bags DO make great accessories!!! Don't you forget it ;-)

  11. @Pady, yeah there's a huge amount of self-importance implied when someone assumes a general remark was aimed at them - like their ideas are that hot they need me to get worried by them

    If the bag hadn't made a staement I'd never have remembered it was Waitrose :p

  12. A big thanks for turning me onto her work. I am so jealous that you spent so much time with her, I am totally in love with her.