Very Fine Day #11: Yassmin Abdel-Magied
Yassmin Abdel-Magied is a Sudanese-Australian writer, engineer and award-winning social advocate. As a teenager and into her early ‘20s, she worked on oil and gas rigs around Australia before becoming a writer and broadcaster in 2016. Yassmin has spoken in over 20 countries on unconscious bias and inclusive leadership, and is working on two books right now as an artist in residence at the Keesing Studio in Paris. We spoke about the futility of tech algorithms, what blackness means across the globe, and what it feels like when people have an entitlement to an intense moment in your life, among many other topics.
VFD: You're in Paris right now, yeah?
Yassmin Abdel-Magied: Yeah, yeah. I mean, what you see is my entire space.
VFD: Studio apartment?
Yassmin Abdel-Magied: Yeah – there's my bed. My couch. That's pretty much it. But it's kind of quite funny, actually. It's like a residents space. So it's full of artists, but it's kind of like student accommodation in a way. And I've not really lived in student accommodation… ever. So it's… an experience.
VFD: What was the residency again? Like, why are you in Paris?
Yassmin Abdel-Magied: So the Australia Council has a bunch of studios that you can apply for a certain amount of time at, anywhere in the world. They’ve got some in Rome, I think the US and other parts of the world as well, and you kind of apply with a project. So I pitched a particular book that I want to be writing. And I was like: this is the reason I want to be in this particular space and this is why I want to be in Paris. And they give you the space for six months.
VFD: And what was the reason you gave? Were you just like: Paris fucking rules.
Yassmin Abdel-Magied: I mean, partly. It’s funny, because France… not huge fans of Muslims.
VFD: Yeah. Especially recently…
Yassmin Abdel-Magied: Yeah, yeah. But the funny thing is, when I was 18, my first trip overseas by myself was to Paris. I did this nerdy summer engineering camp. And I had this enchanted summer in Paris and I was like: I'm gonna come live here one day. And, y’know, I went back to Brisbane and was like: I'm moving to Paris. And my family and friends were like: Bitch, please.
I remember I went back to the engineering building, and people were like, how was it? And I was like: Oh, oui oui… And everyone's like: shut the fuck up.
But yeah, in the back of my mind I was like: it'd be amazing to learn French, live in Paris, and kind of have my James Baldwin-type experience. And also, I've never really had “artist” time. Like, I didn't study art. I've always kind of written on the side of doing other things. And I just thought it'd be a sick opportunity. I applied for a good 30 different residencies not really knowing whether or not I had scored.
VFD: That was what I wanted to ask you: would you call yourself a writer now? Is that your main thing?
Yassmin Abdel-Magied: I think so, yeah. This year is probably the first year where I'm like: this is kind of my full time thing. In fact, I've kind of cleared the decks. I said to my agent: please don't book me for partnerships, or speaking, or workshops or anything. I was just like: what would it look like for me to only write?
And I mean, that's not sustainable for that long because this shit does not pay. But I saved up a tonne of money. I lost most of my work in the first six to seven months of COVID and then work started coming back and I was like: Alright, let's go hard. Let's bust ass for six months and save up money so that I can buy myself this time off. So yeah, I feel a bit imposter syndrome-y about calling myself an artist. But I think I can swing it as a writer. I’m working on my fifth book.
VFD: So walk me through the premise of the latest one. Do you have a premise yet? Or is it figured out yet?
Yassmin Abdel-Magied: So the one that I'm almost finished writing, which hasn't really been announced yet, is an anti-racism book for kids. It’s a history of where racism comes from, and trying to get to kids early so they don't have to unlearn all of this shit when they're like 25… or 50. And so that could be a really beautiful illustrated book. I finished the first draft of that. That's happening.
The one that I have a contract for is an essay collection called “Talking About A Revolution.” I’m excited and also nervous about that. It’s is a collection of a bunch of essays I have already written. Think of it like: Jia Tolentino’s “Trick Mirror”, but like, from a black Muslim woman who grew up in Australia.
VFD: Yeah, OK.
VFD: That sounds good.
Yassmin Abdel-Magied: Kind of, yeah. I mean, it's a high bar. Not sure I'm gonna hit it, but that's what I pitched.
It's split between thinking about the person and the public. So like: as an individual, and also as systems in society.
It’s like: from our relationship to digital, and our relationship to the idea of privacy, and how for 20 years most of our conversations were private and now most of our conversations are public, or at least at the risk of being public, and how that changes our relationship with things. And then it’s also about my love of really obscure hobbies and my determination to never monetize them, and how I share those hobbies and that kind of thing.
Like, what does it mean to maintain a hobby that isn't commercialised? Because I think there is this real draw to commercialise every part of who we are. And what does it mean to stay amateur and be OK? And then, at the other end of things, thinking about what it means to be someone who is anti-Imperial, and also thinking about what “blackness” means.
Blackness means so many different things. I'm somebody who was born in Sudan. That means one thing in Africa, that means another thing in Australia, that means another thing in the UK, that means another thing in the US. How does that conception of race operate at a global level?
Stuart Hall talks about race as a floating signifier – it's something that really got its meaning from the context. And so for someone like me, who has moved in lots of different contexts, is there an essential version of who I am?
So I’m exploring these ideas. And that's due in June. That's fucking “chop-chop” kind of vibes.
VFD: Is the draft done?
Yassmin Abdel-Magied: Noooo, no, it's not. That is on my calendar as: please start!
VFD: Oh, we’ll say it’s done. We can just say it’s done.
Yassmin Abdel-Magied: Yeah, we’ll say it’s done. Just, y’know, the publishers don't need to know shit.
But the book that I pitched to do on this residency is actually a book about technology, culture, and politics. This is the book that I've been trying to fucking sell for the last three years, and everyone's like: hmmmm…
And I'm like: I'm gonna fucking write this book.
VFD: Why do you think they weren't into it?
Yassmin Abdel-Magied: I think that partly people have wanted books from academics and experts, in a particular way, which is fine. The book that I pitched was “Surveillance Capitalism”, but I didn't have the fucking chops to write “Surveillance “Capitalism”. So you need people with those chops. And I accept that's not what I have.
However, I do think that the stuff that's in books like “Surveillance Capitalism” is really important for lots of people to read. But most people aren't going to pick up “Surveillance Capitalism”, right? Most people aren’t picking up “Algorithms of Oppression” and “Race After Technology”, books that I love that have really interesting concepts, but they're not… Like, my mother in law, my neighbour, they're not picking up those books. Right?
So what is that? How do we move these conversations into a popular context. But I also think that's something that's really important to me. I feel like people, especially the engineers and the folks that are very close to tech, like to act like this shit is more complicated than it actually is. Algorithms are not actually that complicated. Most of the maths behind them is actually not that complicated. It's quite basic, quite often first-year university maths.
VFD: You say that but I’m like: first year university maths… that sounds hard…
Yassmin Abdel-Magied: Yeah but I reckon Brad, if I sat down and explained… They give them big names, they make them sound complicated, they don't really explain it that clearly. And everyone's like: Oh my god, it's magic, I'm never gonna be able to understand this. And the stories and the myths that we have around technology mean that everyone just gives up their agency. And they're like: Oh, I can't do anything about it.
I mean, the analogy might be car engines, right? And us being like: Oh, well, I don't know what's going on with this engine. So I'm just gonna give it to my mechanic and my mechanic may charge me $50,000 for something. And he's just changed a spark plug. But I wouldn't know, right? That's happening at a global scale. And we don't realise that there are alternatives.
So the question that I ask is: what would Facebook look like if my Sudanese grandmother had designed it? If my Sudanese grandmother had designed it, she would have very different priorities. She wouldn't care about who your friends are. The things that she would care about are very different to the fundamentals of the design and it’d be so different. And so the question I want to ask is: how do we peel back all the stories that we have about technology, the way we use technology, the way it’s built, all these sorts of things? And then how do we think about different versions of what's possible? And I don't necessarily have the answers, but I feel like it's very interesting. Those questions are super interesting.
VFD: How did you get onto those questions? How did you go from teenage mechanical engineer to the position you are now, overlooking the dissection of race and tech and platforms and algorithms in the real world?
Yassmin Abdel-Magied: So I think that I've always been interested in technology. But between you and me, and everyone else who is going to read this: I was never going to be *the* person.
I went to uni with people who were incredibly brilliant, right? And the way that they thought about math and numbers, I didn't have that kind of brain. I can work hard, and I can understand stuff. But I wasn't like the real, real, brilliant people. The geniuses. But the thing is: the geniuses quite often weren't the people that ended up building Facebook. They usually ended up getting some niche job in some big corporate where they solve a very specific problem.
Yassmin Abdel-Magied: The people that went on to have blockbuster lives tended to be people who had a decent handle on the tech, but were just very good at selling things. And so I think I've known the kind of person that's in these companies, and in these spaces, all my life. I've known them and I've never been – this is gonna sound really arrogant – but I don't find them that scary or impressive or intimidating.
And so I find it funny that everyone's like: Oh, my God, we have to listen to everything that person says, or: they're so brilliant, or: they're going to come up with the solutions to everything. And I'm like: No, they're not worlds above us. They're just very good at selling us an idea and something that's a story. And we've bought into that story.
And I think what I've realised is actually, for ages, I was trying to come at it from a technical point of view. A real nuts and bolts point of view. But what I've realised is the way that I can have more impact is coming at it from a story perspective. And coming at it like: what is the story we're telling about the technical stuff? Because if we can tackle that, then that is the space to do the technical stuff. Does that make sense?
VFD: Yeah, no, it does. I think it's very interesting. And I want to… it’s the kind of thing where I want to sit quietly and think about it. Obviously we’re currently talking so I can’t do that. But I’ll read the book!
Yassmin Abdel-Magied: Yeah, I mean it's scary because I have been obsessed with this idea for three or four years. And I don't usually stick to ideas. If something doesn't work I tend to move on fairly quickly. And in fact, I almost did leave this behind. I pitched this book for for two years and then my agent was like: Look, I don't think we can sell it. And then I left it and started working on a completely different idea, almost ended up selling that, and then essentially had a little tantrum at home after watching “The Social Dilemma”. I had a tantrum and was like: I can do a better job. And all these people, they don't know what they're talking about. And my partner was just like: Just fucking write the book!
VFD: Yeah they’re like: Give me a break, please. You need to go.
Yassmin Abdel-Magied: Literally. They were like: we've been on lockdown for a year together and all I've heard is this fucking idea, please just go write the thing. Get it out of your system. I don't care if nobody publishes it, just write it.
VFD: There's worse ways to live your life than that. So you were in the UK? Before Paris? For two years? Three years?
Yassmin Abdel-Magied: Oh, like three and a half maybe.
VFD: Yeah. What was that like? Have you been to the UK before?
Yassmin Abdel-Magied: So my dad had lived in the UK in the late ‘70s, early ‘80s and he did his PhD there. But like, being an African man in London in the ‘70s and ‘80s… Not a great time. So he hated it. And so when I moved to London, my dad was like: What are you doing? Why are you going to London? It's a terrible place. But for me, London has always felt like a place where anything was possible. And I think, y’know, I'm a child of empire, right? I grew up with books set in England, bloody Enid Blyton and blah, blah, blah.
So I think I'd always felt like London has been a place that I've felt like – this might sound strange – but I felt that I had a right to. The Brits colonised Sudan, they colonised Australia… my ancestors have all been colonised. So y’know, I am a fucking British subject for generations. Like: London is mine as much as it is anybody elses. And so I always felt like this is the place that I have the right to be.
And you can be and do anything you want to do. And yes, it's different I think for somebody coming into it. I think it's different if you grew up there, it's not the easiest place to grow up. But certainly coming in as an adult, especially having grown up in Brisbane, coming in and meeting loads of other black Brits and cool Muslim kids who'd grown up in London and had this completely different kind of diaspora third-culture-kids situation going. It just fed my soul. I love London. And I know it's shitty and grey, and people are sad and depressive and all of this stuff. But there's also something delightful about it, because in the two days of sunshine that they get a year everyone's the happiest they've ever been.
My first summer in London was the summer of 2018. It was hot. There was the World Cup. I'd made a bunch of new friends. I didn't have a job. And I did not grow up partying, but I went to drag parties and queer parties and… I didn't even know what was going on. Like, my little Muslim self was like: wow, what is this?
VFD: Why do you think it took London to unlock that in you?
Yassmin Abdel-Magied: I mean, I had been a good Muslim girl for as long as I can remember in Australia. I started Youth Without Borders when I was 16. So I was always responsible and I had responsibilities.
VFD: Could you give a bit of context on Youth Without Borders?
Yassmin Abdel-Magied: Yeah, no worries.
So when my family moved to Brisbane we were like the second Sudanese family in Brisbane. And the next one didn't come ‘til 10 years later. But my family was always like: we need to contribute to the community. And so when I was a kid, I was always involved in community grassroots stuff. But the story goes that I saw all these organisations doing things, but they weren't ever really working together. And I wanted to create a youth-led, youth-focused organisation that was about getting people to work together on projects. So we got nine different organisations to work together to set up mobile libraries in Indonesia, we ran an engineering camp for kids from disadvantaged backgrounds, that kind of thing. And really, we were a bunch of teenagers. And it sounds normal now because you've got like Greta Thunberg, and kids on social media running campaigns and stuff. But in 2007 we did not have any of that. We barely had Facebook. And so it was very, very grassroots. But I started that when I was 16 and so it meant that I was running an organisation and I ran that until I was 25. So for nine years I was just doing daily organisation stuff and organising meetings and writing minutes. I got involved in lots and lots of things. When I left Australia I resigned from, I think, nine different boards and councils.
VFD: Wow. That’s a lot. Did you feel like you were spreading yourself too thin, looking back?
Yassmin Abdel-Magied: To be honest, maybe? But I also didn't know anything else. And also, I felt like I needed to because there was such a need for… I think I had a bit more energy. And also, remember, I worked on the rigs, which meant that when I was back home, I was really on holiday.
So when I was on the rigs, I was working, but then when I was off the rigs, it was time off. So I had actually quite a lot more time.
VFD: On the rigs meaning being an engineer, helping out as a… what? 18, 19, 20 year old?
Yassmin Abdel-Magied: Yeah, I was just really earnest.
VFD: OK, so I've never been on a rig. But I imagine that there is quite a contrast between the day-to-day running of a rig and a young, black, Muslim, teenager who is like: I am ready and willing to do some engineering!
Yassmin Abdel-Magied: It's so funny looking back, because at the time I thought it was the most normal thing in the world.
Actually, this is slightly embarrassing: My first job ever, apart from the newspaper round, was on a coal mine. I was 17 and I got a job in Moranbah in a coal mine. And so I was this fresh-faced Muslim girl who rocked up to this coal mining town.
I was like: heeey everyone!
And they were like: what the… fuck…. like, what the fuckkk?
As you can imagine, right? And also my bark was way worse than my bite.
I remember on the second day, or the first day we were there, the students got together and were going to the one restaurant in town, which is next to the one pub in town. And we’re walking past the pub and it has this kind of open area at the front where everyone's drinking, and then somebody yells some racist shit at me, right? And I turned around and I’m like: Who said that? And the whole place just goes quiet.
And all these other university students are with me and they're bricking it. And then I turned around again and then somebody else said some more shit. And I turn around – there's a good 50 miners just all sitting and drinking – and I walk into the middle of the fucking garden and I'm like: if anyone's got a fucking problem, they can come and say it to my face.
And everyone’s just looking at me. And I just walked off. Everyone was like: what the fuck just happened? But also, I would definitely not have known what to do if somebody did come up to me. But yeah, most of the time people were just like: so did you just come out of prison? Like, is that why you're here?
VFD: Oh my God…
Yassmin Abdel-Magied: Oh, I didn't have any kind of rubric. I just thought the whole thing was hilarious. I was like: well, this is my life. I think because I was so young, right? I think now, because I'm much older and much more cynical, it would be so much harder for me to just accept everything. But I think at the time, I was just like: yeah, you know, it's fine.
VFD: So what was the moment that took you from mechanical engineer to media figure, writer, journalist? Was it your first book?
Yassmin Abdel-Magied: Yeah, so this is part of the story that I don't talk about that much. I had been working on the rigs for a while and one of the women that I knew, who I rate highly – her name is Julianne Schultz – she's the editor of a publication called the Griffith Review.
Yassmin Abdel-Magied: And I was serving on the council with her. And I had just come off one of the rigs and we were in a meeting and I was like: Oh, y’know, this guy said this shit to me. She was like: you should really write about this experience. And I was like: nobody's gonna be interested. Like, I kept a little blog called “Crazy Rig Conversations”.
VFD: That’s such a mid 2000s kind of thing. Like: Crazy “x” Conversations.
Yassmin Abdel-Magied: It's just so of that time. But I was kind of writing, anyway. And she was like: No, you really should write an essay. And so I wrote an essay about working on the rigs and that came out in the 40th edition, and it just so happened to come out in the edition where everyone was talking about Julia Gillard and being a woman in Parliament. And that particular edition of the Griffith Review got reviewed a lot in papers. And off the back of that I got offered a book deal, right? And I was like: No. I’m not gonna write a fucking book.
And my mom… my mom was the one who convinced me. My mom was like: Yassmin, some people wait all their lives to get a book deal. Take the book deal. I was like: really?
But y’know, I was 23. When they offered it I was so young and was just like: What on earth could I possibly write? People are gonna laugh at me. And she was like: Listen, why don't you think about it as an opportunity to write about all the other women in your life, like your grandma, and your Aunties. So it's not just about you.
I wrote the book and the company that I was working for, I had told them that I was writing a book. But they were not huge fans of me... I was doing really well and actually had just been given a double promotion to go run my own rig, so I was literally just about to go run my own rig. And the senior people called me three days before I was meant to leave and... let’s just say it didn't work out.
Yassmin Abdel-Magied: When the shit hit the fan in the press about a year later, articles started appear talking shit about my ability as an engineer as well. That was actually the one of the worst things out of all of it.
VFD: Yeah - I didn't want to talk about that heaps…
Yassmin Abdel-Magied: Yeah, I would prefer not to get into it. But that's the one reference that I'll make to it.
VFD: Yeah, there was one thing – and you don’t have to talk about it more – but I wanted to say that you're responsible for me seeing the saddest thing I've seen, I think all year. No, I mean, you’re not responsible. That’s not what I mean. But it was so devastating.
Someone tweeted at you and was like: bet you wish you were in Australia during this whole COVID thing, we’re at the beach.
And you just quote-tweeted them like: no, I would much rather be in the UK, or Europe, then back in Australia. And I was like: That's such a bummer. It’s a bummer for me and I can't imagine what a bummer it is for you.
Yassmin Abdel-Magied: I mean, Yeah. It's funny because I think a lot of people and a lot of my friends in the UK, they don't know, really, what it was like for me before I moved. They met me afterwards, right? They met me as a writer in London.
I remember talking to one of my friends and he was like: Yeah, you're like a writer who lives in East London. Like: that's how I think of you. And I was like: that is hilarious to me. Because that is not how I think of myself.
But it's great that's the vibe that I give off. I was chatting to my friends and they were like: oh, haven't you thought about going back? And I just thought: my relationship with Australia is so complicated that I think even people who know me well and love me a lot don't always fully understand that it was never even something I considered.
My dad, bless him. My dad is like, Australia's biggest ad-man. He will tell anyone how amazing Australia is. Every time we get on the phone he's like: do you know how many cases we have today? None. None! How many do you have in London? How many? He's like: look at the sunshine. Look at how beautiful the sunshine is! And my dad is super tight but he’s like: I've put aside some money for your flight. Bless him. But yeah, I think it's quite funny to have that access and to not want it.
Yassmin Abdel-Magied: I don't know.
VFD: I mean, it's funny. It's also just so… Like I said, I don't want to talk about it a lot. And I can't say anything more than how sad it is that you were kind of just pushed out of the country.
Yassmin Abdel-Magied: Yeah.
VFD: But I mean, it's well documented. We don't have to spend our time talking about it.
Yassmin Abdel-Magied: Yeah, it’s still out there for people. I will say it's also something that's, like, still very alive. It's not history yet. The other thing is that I get people asking me on a regular basis, people want to do documentaries on it. People want to do sketches. And the kind of entitlement that people have over the story. One thing I've realised is, as much as I have a relationship to what happened, everyone else has a relationship to what happened as well.
Yassmin Abdel-Magied: And I don't actually own everybody else's relationship to it. Which is a really important thing – because it's about me.
And what I have kind of come to realise is the way I was going to tell that story will be something I figure out at some point in time. But if other people want to talk about how they relate to it… I've had some somewhat strained conversations with friends, who I've become closer friends with, since it all happened. And I have kind of realised: oh the way that they relate to me through that is very different to my experience of it.
But actually, I can't really control that. And that's just kind of how it's gonna be.
Yassmin Abdel-Magied: It’s kind of abstract and long, but…
VFD: I think it's a very weird form of… almost celebrity, right? Where you can't control the narrative of your life, but instead of you getting to create a movie and the movie wins an Oscar and everyone's following you around it’s the opposite thing. Couldn't have been worse!
Yassmin Abdel-Magied: Hahaha yeah.
VFD: Like, it couldn’t be in a more southern direction from winning an Oscar to, like, being hounded by the media.
Yassmin Abdel-Magied: Literally! Yeah, haha.
VFD: Do you find people just message with their own stories? I just pictured that you must have a lot of emotional labour, I guess, of people who have been through similar things, even on a micro level. I guess that was what you were talking about in terms of how they read your experience compared to how your experience actually was.
Yassmin Abdel-Magied: So what's interesting is I have, for better or for worse, I've made myself quite inaccessible. I have tonnes of agents, an assistant, I don't really reply to my DMs, I have 10 different email addresses. Many I don't reply to.
So like, I've changed my phone number a good five times. So even my own friends are often like: bitch, where are you? Like, how do I contact you? And I did that, I think, because I did have a lot of people, especially early on, reach out. And I couldn't handle it. And I found that I needed to kind of cocoon myself a little bit. And to be honest, it took me about two years to even properly start talking to my friends and family again who lived in Australia, because I just couldn't function going back into that space. So I feel bad sometimes. Because I feel like people really want me to be the person that they speak to about these things. They want something from me, but I don't… I don't give that to them that much anymore. And I think I used to feel like I had to. But it got so bad that I don't feel like I have to anymore.
VFD: Yeah. Do you write an essay about that? Because that's very interesting. I’d read an essay on that.
Yassmin Abdel-Magied: Oh yeah! Let me write that down because I need to write a whole bunch of essays actually. What do you think is interesting about that?
VFD: I think it's both an opportunity that you are turning down for probably the right reasons. There's that side of it. Then there's the side of it of people in similar situations, and the fact that there's some, I'm assuming, that also have been through things like you have, and how it’s unfair of culture and society and of all of us to expect an individual, like yourself, to be the kind of Shepherd for these people who have been through a similar situation.
And I'm sure there are instances – I cant think off the top of my head – of people in other countries who have taken up that mantle, but I bet if you talk to them they probably would be like: it wasn't fun. And I probably wouldn't do it again. Right?
Yassmin Abdel-Magied: So like, even someone like Grace Tame is somebody who took up a mantle and and decided that was going to be her cause. And I mean, I think about this all the time – I even said to my partner the other day, I was like: did I do the wrong thing by opting out and not like “fighting the good fight”. And I know the answer is “no”. I did the right thing for myself. But it’s interesting to me to think about all the other activists and change makers that I admire and be like: Oh… Did I, in preserving myself, have I chosen a less honourable path?
VFD: Right, well…
Yassmin Abdel-Magied: I mean,
VFD: I want to reach through this screen and give you a hug. And I also think it’s quite a unique situation, right? For many reasons, but at the very top of it just the layout of the Australian media sphere and the incredible concentration of it. There's not many other countries like that.
Yassmin Abdel-Magied: It’s so concentrated, yeah. And most people don't get that. Most people… I tried to explain it in London, people will be like: weren't there other outlets? And I was like: not really. Like it's actually so concentrated in Australia. And everybody knows everybody else. It's such a small pond.
VFD: Yeah. It's rough. Well, let's pivot. Unless you want to talk about that more.
Yassmin Abdel-Magied: Ha, no, I’m very happy to pivot.
VFD: So what's the future then? Other than writing books and living in Paris?
Yassmin Abdel-Magied: I’m actually super excited, because I'm working on a play and the TV adaptation for my novel. So I'm really excited to be working on stuff with actors.
I co-wrote an immersive show, just before the pandemic, and the run got cancelled halfway through. But I just had a ball, because writing is quite an isolated activity, as I'm sure you understand. But all of a sudden when you're working with actors, and with a story, you're kind of like co-creating, I just had a great time. And I'm really, really looking forward to seeing it. I mean, you know Tania Safi – we started working on a show together a good three years ago now. And that's been in development for a while. It got picked up, it got optioned by a production company. I mean, these things are long and I don't know if it ever will see the light of day. But you know, that's been really fun. So I love TV. I love, love, love TV. I would like to crack that in the next three to five years.
VFD: How do you approach writing? Are you pen and paper? Or are you just stream of consciousness and hope it works? Or do you plan? Do you take an engineering approach?
Yassmin Abdel-Magied: I wish. With the play that I'm working on at the moment I did a whole scene breakdown. It was really detailed. And then as soon as I started writing, the whole thing went out the window. So I can be haphazard and very deadline driven. With the play I had three months. This bitch wrote it two days before the deadline, y’know? I tell myself that I'm doing all the thinking in my head beforehand. It's percolating. But I think what tends to happen is I like talking an idea through.
Yassmin Abdel-Magied: And I usually start with a character, so I'll start with a person I'm really interested in and then I'll be like: wouldn't it be really interesting if this person was in this situation? And then you kind of flesh it out from there. But embarrassingly, my novel “Listen Layla” – the most recent one that came out – the first draft was such a shambles that the editors main note was: this has no narrative core. And I was like…..
VFD: Oh that’s great feedback you want to hear.
Yassmin Abdel-Magied: Yeah there’s 50,000 words and there's no narrative. The way I was pressed. Oh my god, I was like: I'm not a writer. What am I doing with my life? This is a fail. I'm never gonna write a book. And my partner's like: just sit the fuck down. It's fine.
Yassmin Abdel-Magied: And I think because I've been through that process enough now I can be like: OK, the first draft is absolute shite. But at least I've got something to work with.
So I would say, to answer your question: stream of consciousness to begin with and I don't write chronologically, so I'll kind of start with this thought and then I'll jump to another thought and put this paragraph here. And then I'll start to push it all together.
VFD: I very much relate with the shit first draft. When I was unemployed for about eight weeks I was like: I'm going to fucking write a book. And in university I did screenwriting, so I was like: I'll just do all the dialogue. I'll do like 50,000 words of dialogue. And that's what I did. And then honestly, it is the fucking worst thing ever, and I've lost it as well. I don't know where it is. And it's my nightmare. It has my name on it. I printed it. Somebody's gonna find that one day. It's my nightmare that it’s gonna show up and someone's gonna be like: this is the worst writing ever. And it's this guy! His name's on it! And I'll be like: fuck! So, yeah, solidarity with terrible first drafts.
Yassmin Abdel-Magied: That is amazing. I didn't realise. Did you want to write films?
VFD: I think I liked films. And I think I knew I needed to go to university because I needed a job. And I wanted to make my mom happy. And like film and media was the easiest thing to get into, to be brutally honest. And I was always pretty naturally good at English. So it all kind of aligned for me, but I dropped out in the end.
Yassmin Abdel-Magied: You didn’t really enjoy it?
VFD: No, I just got a job and I was like: I'm out of here. Mom's still not happy. She's just like: you need to go back!
Yassmin Abdel-Magied: That's what parents are. Just perennially disappointed. I think that's kind of the vibe
VFD: Yeah I hope she doesn't read this.
Yassmin Abdel-Magied: People are like: your mom must be proud. My mom's like: why don't you have a PhD?
Mom I got a book contract. She's like: Great. What is the next one? Why don't you have more money?
VFD: Just tell her you're in Paris. Just get one of those Zoom green screens behind you. Just like: here I am in my gold marbled estate!
Yassmin Abdel-Magied: I'll just put the Eiffel Tower behind me. I'll be like: Look, I'm actually living right next door.
VFD: Yeah, just say it’s a weird city design. All the windows pointing at the Eiffel Tower. It's really crazy.
Yassmin Abdel-Magied: Yeah,
VFD: Well, I won’t keep you any longer because it's been a good hour. But thanks so much. Really. I appreciate it.
Yassmin Abdel-Magied: I hope you got what you were looking for. It was interesting! I sort of just rambled…