This year, Yusuf Misdaq’s new book “Narayan” was short-listed for the best novel award at the Muslim Writers Awards. In addition to writing 10 books of both fiction and poetry, he is also a musician and filmmaker. His album, ‘Maghreb, Isha & Space,’ released in 2010, is the latest of three LPs. His last documentary film, ‘[No Title]‘ was also shown at the 2010 World Islamic Economic Forum in Kuala Lumpur. We asked Yusuf some questions about his life as a cross-platform artist, his philosophies, and advice for emerging artists.
Q: When did you realize you were an artist?
Early on in life, well before I ever heard the word artist. It was round about that time I found myself preferring to be on my own, making things speak. First it was toys, and then later imaginary characters, then soon it became drums and instruments, film footage, you know.
Q: What inspired your book ‘Pieces of a Paki?’
Losing out in love, travelling; wanting to write a book, not wanting to fail at that.
Q: At a young age, from 2002 to 2007, you founded and operated the online forum Nefisa.co.uk for artists. What was its specific purpose?
I’m really happy it happened. Looking back now, like most things we do at a younger age, it was unconsciously self-serving, but the structure and mission, intention etc. were altruistic and righteous, i.e. to help those artists who were ignored by the mainstream because they were inspired by things considered more strange… It was also pretty special in that it was a pre-cursor to myspace and facebook, each artist I featured would have their own profiles, one photograph only; they listed their influences and such, but crucially, they also had their own galleries of ongoing work… So that gave certain artists the feeling that their creative output had a potential audience, and this in itself was a meaning-giver for a lot of those artists, crucial to a few of them. So, you could say it was a committedly non-commercial variant of a social network, with deeper social implications. If all of today’s trendy technologies truly encouraged people’s innate creativity, instead of just talking like they do, then that would be great.
Q: You grew up in Brighton and recently moved to the East Coast of the US, what’s the difference between living in the US and the UK for a young artist?
My experience is subjective, but in the US there isn’t quite as much negative energy in the streets. People tend to think bigger, so you get the feeling they probably won’t start tearing you down until you get really big; in England you have to struggle more with people tearing you down at the street-level, not to mention if you start to [become famous]. Of course the struggle is important, but you just have to be mindful that you don’t struggle so much that once you make it you’ve become damaged goods. Conversely though, on much of the busy East Coast, there also seems to be a lot less time for being still and reflecting, which I could always do more easily in England with its cool air, especially back home in Brighton.
Q: What is your new book about?
Presently I’m trying to spread the word far and wide about my new poetry series. I’m planning a US book-tour actually, in February of 2012, so any bookstores out there that want to be included should get in touch! As for the books, they’ve already been getting a lot of amazing feedback from readers, and a pretty big recommendation from Khaled Hosseini (author of The Kite Runner) but more than any of the other releases, music or otherwise, this is really something for the people, from hip-hop heads to aspiring creative heads to academics, as long as you’re not scared of sincerity, then these short books of poems and short-stories and illustrations are really geared for all the people. I’m really happy about them. They make me feel like saying ‘insha’Allah’.
Secondly, there’s the novel ‘Narayan’ which was actually finished in 2008 but should be coming out in 2012. It’s about a Sikh man who works in Hounslow train station in London. It’s something that’s really unlike any novel that’s been written before, and something that I dare the readers to pick up and read. It’s especially important to people in England. I’m really in love with the main character and anyone who reads it will be too, he is a beautiful person, but it’s also a little bit sad.
Q: You recently wrote a book during the month of Ramadan, what are other ways that Islam has inspired your work?
Islam is just life, explained. But because it’s explained in ways both direct and mystical, it’s capacity to creatively guide and inspire is endless. Islam is like the full moon, or the full-Earth when you see it from the full-moon. I hope it’s in everything that I make. That’s certainly my intention.
Q: Many people write poetry but don’t read it. What’s your opinion on this phenomena?
It’s good if you can write! That’s hard enough for a lot of people. But the great ones have always made time to read as well. So my opinion is that it’s great to try and be great. It’s harder for people to listen well than it is for them to speak.
Q: You’re a poet, writer, artist, film-maker, and musician, which of these titles do you use primarily and why?
If we lived in a more beautiful world, I wouldn’t have to use any of them. I don’t like the sound of them, especially when they’re used to refer to me. We play the game largely because we have to get paid- that’s why so many great artists retreat a little from the public eye once they’ve achieved a measure of stability. Nonetheless, the title I most prefer these days is ‘bird.’
Q: What advice do you usually give to other young artists?
Make time and space in your life for the thing you want to express. Do something actual. If you think you need to do something crazy like take a holiday in the middle of a busy work period, make a good excuse and go, take it. If that sounds like risky or irresponsible advice then that’s because it comes from someone who’s sometimes taken risks and knows they’re an important part of being alive and creative. The point is, if you don’t do what you want to do right now, if you don’t make a humble start, even, then you’re never going do it. I know a lot of people who talk, have talked, and will still be talking in the future. It’s fear. Have faith that your life won’t crash if you follow your heart. Faith beats fear. Be crazy. Be like Michael Jackson was, and don’t think twice about the world, just colour things in, and don’t give up.