How You Might Know Me is a result of years of creative writing workshops with women from the UK’s growing sex industry and Sabrina Mahfouz’s own experiences of working in strip-clubs. It is told through four characters: Sylvia, Tali, Sharifa and Darina, who each use the poetic form to tell their stories, be it through a traditional verse, or a more contemporary, free verse with punchy lines.
The collection examines “taboos, surprising sexual encounters, the politics of desire, the vastly differing viewpoints on sex work and most prominently, the status of women’s equality in the UK today.” What the collection also is, is inclusive and representative of women from different backgrounds and cultures.
How You Might Know Me is also a lot about healing, about self-love amidst society’s marginalisation of “fallen women” and turning those views and perceptions upside down. Each of the narrators has a story to tell and a distinctive, authoritative voice to tell it with. There is a strong feeling of ownership: they own what happens to them, the decisions they make and how they tell their story, and the title strongly reflects that.
The title is direct, evocative, and ironic:
How You Might Know Me = You don’t know me at all.
How you think you might know me.
How You Might Know Me, is not the only way to know me.
It is clever and confrontational. The title presents the reader with different interpretations upon the alternating emphasis of the words in it. At the same time, it seems to be a cautionary message, encouraging the reader to leave those perceptions of what you think this collection might be about behind when you pick up this book. And the visual design of the cover portrays that with its silhouetted faces of women with their faces turned upwards. They are not women to be pitied or to be looked down on.
The depth of such a seemingly simple and everyday phrase is shown in ‘one day when I worked at the bakery (tali)’, in which the narrator fantasises playing different roles as a woman to a man she is attracted to at the bakery. The poem ends with,
“that’s £1.25 I said and you paid, no change needed.
Our fingers touched once, I almost saw we were married
but you threw me a smile that said I know you and I thought
Many of the poems play with words and ambiguity in this way while others such as ‘in the garage with a good client (sylvia)’, ‘dropped home by a hitman (tali)’ depict bizarre encounters in a normative, grounded way.
The hard hitting truths of working in an exploitative and hypocritical industry come in the form of ‘taking vouchers (sylvia)’ and ‘items to sell in a stripclub toilet (darina)’. In the latter, an old lady sells items from a suitcase:
“Soft pouches of absorbent white tissues
nobody likes a red nose, or smudged eyes, keep it clean.
Plasters positioned shape by shape
after a bit you won’t need these but at first, it’ll hurt.”
Poems like these are gritty and gut wrenching, while poems such as ‘giving evidence (sharifa)’ and ‘olympic dreams 2012 (sharifa)’ are fierce, fiery and eloquently written:
“He would be thrown into a state of long-term confusion to hear
me philosophise how the work I do is a form of healing for
humanity, how I must travel to the places where I am most
needed. That I traffick myself in an attempt to restore
harmony to the damaged species we are. That by spending
time with him, a man as undeserving as every other man I
have ever spent my time with, I allow him to heal and by
giving him this gift, those in his life benefit and the world is a
slightly better place.
But mostly, if I do this work, then it means at least one less girl
is being taken against her will to have a body part put inside
her as she cries for her passport, her mother, her child.”
There is also a strong sense of sisterhood, of womanhood and support that runs through the collection, from reflections on lessons given by mothers or through an ‘ode to viola davis (tali)’. The poems are vignettes to whole lives. They convey oceans of feelings and experiences in such a short form in a concise and well-crafted way. Sabrina Mahfouz uses word play, wit and often dry humour to poke fun at the people the narrators encounter and their naivety. As though the narrators see through them and their artificial high grounds. There are some very acute observations to be found of their clients, of friends and society as a whole, showing how observation is easier when you’re on the outskirts, often being overlooked, dismissed or undermined.
How You Might Know Me is a fierce, inclusive and evocative collection that tackles topics that are often ‘hush hushed’ away due to taboo. Sabrina Mahfouz is one of the finest and most talented writers that I have come across this year and this collection is definitely a must-read.
Really grateful to Outspoken Press for my copy, which, in the space of just a few weeks has become a bit worn at the edges from the amount of times I’ve reread and flicked through it and carried around in my bag as a saviour.