Living Newspaper Clippings: Transcript of Emteaz Hussain and Jasmine Lee-Jones in conversation

This is the transcript of the recorded conversation between writers Emteaz Hussain and Jasmine Lee-Jones, recorded as part of the Royal Court Living Newspaper Clippings series. This conversation was recorded in February 2021. 

Emteaz Hussain: Hi, I’m Emteaz Hussain, I wrote a piece for obituaries in Edition #2.

Jasmine Lee-Jones: Hi, I’m Jasmine Lee-Jones, and I wrote a piece for obituaries in Edition #1.

Emteaz: Yeah I was just asking that you did different bits then, and I remember being an audience member for Edition #1 and seeing your piece in the obituary section as well, and being quite moved by that.

Jasmine: Oh thank you. I actually think I only did an obituary as well, because originally I was going to be part of the Living Newspaper on a fuller capacity, and then things got shut down. And then I was working on another project and it sort of clashed. So I had to sort of prioritise that. But the reason why I thought I did more than one is because I did a recording. So I recorded Chris Thorpe’s piece, and I obviously recorded my piece as well. So yeah, I thought I did more than I did, but I actually only did an obituary, very similarly to you.

Emteaz: Did you record your piece? Wow, okay, I’m glad I didn’t have to do that! I’m not an actor, I know you’re an actor as well, is that right?

Jasmine: Yeah. Yeah, it’s funny. It wasn’t part of the plan. I think Lucy asked if I wanted to, becasue my piece was about my grandmother, and also kind of in my voice, of course it was because I wrote it in the first person. And it was from my perspective, so it did make sense that I did it, but I never imagined that I’d be recorded doing it, funnily enough. Yeah, it was funny. It was funny, because I’ve also had the experience relatively recently. So grandma passed away as that was happening, when we were literally having the meetings about Living Newspaper. And then, before that, the last piece I did at the theatre was not even autofiction, it was autobiographical, but I wasn’t reading it, I had an actor reading it, and this was at the Young Vic, Paapa Essiedu was reading it. And that was also interesting. So to do two where one of them I was reading out loud, and then he was speaking in my voice: it’s interesting, it creates a different effect. I like both for different reasons. But yeah, its weird because to actually record it I had to separate myself from it a bit. Just to sort of see it as a piece that needed to have beats and stuff like that. I’m so sorry, I haven’t got to listen to your piece yet, but I know what it’s about.

Emteaz: That’s okay, don’t worry about that because the thing is, as well, a lot of people, because it was over the Christmas period Edition #2 came out, so a lot of people are very busy. And obviously we went into proper lockdown so right at the last minute it shut down. You know, people couldn’t attend the audience, live into the theatre. So it was a very busy and strange time because of the lockdown and because of Christmas and New Year. But it’s a rolling thing, isn’t it? There’s gonna be a few more so, you know, it’s just great, it’s supposed to be sort of like this fast rolling moving new way so…

Jasmine: Did Edition #2 get shut down as well, i.e., was it stopped midway?

Emteaz: I think it was about to go into production, live with audience, and then I think, I can’t remember because it just seems – where are we know? it’s February! A lot has happened since then, since way back then. But yeah, I think it was a few days before it was gonna go live that it, oh yeah, and then they had to record it. Don’t quote me on this, but that’s, that’s how I remember it. So yeah, it was close to the wire, and then it wasn’t going to happen, so it went into recording it and livestreaming.

Jasmine: Yeah, that I remember now. So your piece was about (it’s fascinating, I can’t wait to listen to it) about a white girl who had to leave a hostel in order to accommodate an Asian family, is that correct?

Emteaz: Yeah, well it was a young white woman who had to leave a refuge to accommodate a, it wasn’t to accommodate, there was just no refuge spaces in this refuge, and she had to leave and be accommodated in a flat so that a young family could come in and use that room. I didn’t know that she got, so they got her a flat, but she was just alone. Wow, wow…  Yeah, and it was based on a truth. You know, it’s based on a real incident that I was aware of. And I just wanted, I mean, but it wasn’t personal, I didn’t know anybody, I didn’t know anyone personally, I created the characters, and it was total fiction other than that premise, that someone has to leave a room, a flat, in order to accommodate a family because they’re single and the children have family and there’s not enough refuge spaces. That’s the truth. And the rest I did with it was fiction. So, you know, the character was created. And I just felt from the perspective of a mother who’s got to move into that refuge: how would you feel? Because what happened subsequently was that young woman killed herself. So how would you feel? So I wrote it from that perspective, and also, really, as a commentary on housing. You know, the housing crisis, and in a pandemic, when we talk about, “we’re all locked down in our homes”, but what does “home” mean? To some people, you know, home can be a very fragile space for a lot of people, and I didn’t really actually think about it too much. I just thought, “oh my God, that’s what I’m going to write, and that’s what I want to write, and let’s see how we go.” And it was one of them moments where it just flowed.

Jasmine: Oh yeah.

Emteaz: Because it doesn’t happen all the time, unfortunately, as writers will testify, but in this instance, it really flowed, because I just had that premise from speaking from a mother to another mother. It was a letter, a non written and an unsaid letter to another mother about her daughter, sort of dying and killing herself over this, sort of just…well, why? You know, and it just flowed really. And for me, I wanted to really comment on the idea of “home” and what that means to people, and within a pandemic. Because we’re all sort of shut down and locked down in homes. And home can be a difficult space for a lot of people, a lot of people, and what that notion of home is, and that’s quite a common theme in a lot of my work anyway. So I’m not surprised I ended up there, under pressure to produce something!

Jasmine: As in “home” is a common theme in your work?

Emteaz: Yeah, home and what does that mean? And the fragility of home.

Jasmine: Yeah, I was going to ask, one because I’m very ignorant on this topic, and indeed I still am, to a degree, very ignorant on the topic of homelessness and also the housing crisis. And then this year, well, last year actually (but the project culminated this year) I did a project with the Young Vic and a homelessness charity, and then just through things that we’ve seen and things that I’ve seen and experienced through this pandemic, I’ve sort of engaged with the issue in a completely different way, but I know that the topic of refuges is very specific. And it’s something that I don’t know about at all but, was the young woman leaving a group refuge to go to a flat by herself?

Emteaz: Yeah.

Jasmine: Wow.

Emteaz: I mean, in the refuge that I imagined they have their own flats, but it is like a hostel. So… it’s difficult, people are having to make these difficult decisions. And there’s a lot more to it, obviously. And I just wanted to get to the heart of that really, just what that world is like.

Jasmine: Yeah. You know I’m really sort of moved, shocked and saddened by that, because what I didn’t realise is that there’s something…I think, although I haven’t engaged with the topic of sort of homelessness in a practical sense, I’ve always, I think, in my work as well, and in just what I’m interested in my life, the sense of displacement, and why I was sort of shocked to find that what I just found out is, you can have somewhere to live, because I thought, when I spoke to Lucy Morrison about it, and about your piece, I thought it was because she was cut out, because she didn’t have anywhere to go, but there’s something about having to leave a sort of community behind, and the isolation of that, that is so stifling, and it’s something I can really relate to and I think, in a different way, but it’s why I think also, of course, lockdown is a spiritual crisis. But there’s something about it that has reminded me and reminded all of us, that it’s money, however much money we have (and I’m not dismissing the importance of money and how it can enable certain living conditions and enable certain things) but it can’t buy you that sort of spiritual and psychological well-being. And I think that we’re becoming aware of that as a world in a whole different way due to these circumstances.  Yeah. And so how do you – one thing that I’m really interested in is, and I’ve had to think about it, like I’m working on, I tend to write very late at night, and I was writing a bit. I stopped earlier yesterday, because I knew we had this conversation, but just writing things where the subject matter is quite traumatic, or even I suppose sometimes even the form of something can be traumatic, and how do you…well, maybe you didn’t find it traumatic in this piece, but how do you, when you’re working on this piece, but I’m curious about how you monitor your well-being? And also just go about looking after yourself, when you’re writing a piece like this, or something that has an emotional toll. It’s something I’m really interested in, and I used to think “oh well, I’ll just do it [dot dot dot dot dot]” and I think, having been to drama school, that was very much the attitude, I didn’t really have a sense of cleanliness, “okay, I’m leaving this behind now”. There was a lot of blurred lines. But yeah, if you have an approach to that, that would be interesting.

Emteaz: Yeah.  That’s a really interesting point, Jas, and I think a really important point and it’s something I’m really meditating on as well, because what I find really interesting about that is, I have had personal experience of being in a refuge a long time ago, a long, long time ago. So I have had the vulnerable houses situation, and it’s something that never leaves you, you know. I’ve also definitely had the experience of having to leave a community behind. And so all of that in reality is quite traumatic. So it’s when I’m writing about it I kind of left it, it’s like when you were saying as well, you know, you have to detach to act, it’s a similar approach I would say. I have to really do a lot of self-care and well-being has to come first. But, you know, I really want to write about it, so I don’t think it’s trauma. I just think the reality was trauma. This is my work. This is art, this is the process.

Jasmine: That’s interesting.

Emteaz: You know what I mean? And I have to somehow have that level of self-care detachment, but we need to talk about, you know what? This is what I want to illuminate and I do feel there’s something, you know when the Royal Court approached and they said “You could do horoscopes”, all these different areas of the Living Newspaper, there was horoscopes and the advice and obituaries, and because I knew of that story I immediately went “yeah I’ll do the obituaries!” I didn’t even question it. And I just thought it’s really interesting because I don’t know what theatre’s for if we can’t examine important issues. And some of them could be viewed as, of course, don’t we all have trauma, and don’t we all have to process that? And don’t we all have to use theatre as a means and a tool to explore, but in a very balanced way and it’s a really interesting, big, big subject that I can’t, you know, I can’t just…But what I don’t like is, though, we, you know, and I’ve heard this is: “as people of colour, don’t write trauma”…and I just think, well, I need to be able to be standing my truth, and I need to be able to have my freedom to speak.

Jasmine: As in, are you talking about when people are like, don’t, sort of, exploit your trauma? Like trauma porn, I hate that term but –

Emteaz: Yes, yes, exactly. So it’s kind of like, don’t silence, but find, but create a piece of work, a piece of work, you know, that’s, that’s resonant, and uses craft. And, you know, it’s a bigger conversation actually.

Jasmine: Interesting. Yeah it’s something I think about a lot, and just this sort of respectability politics. Like that is not always respectability politics, necessarily, but what I’m really interested when, and by the way, just so I sort of give my two pence on where I stand sort of doing work in, I think what I’ve also had to realise, I don’t know if you’ve gone through this as well, is that the work itself is (it’s kind of what you were saying, actually) the work itself is not tantamount to any type of, I’m loath to say this, but “therapy” or any type of…

Emteaz: Yeah sure.

Jasmine: In and of itself it’s not tantamount to any sort of transformation or even healing. I think it can be part of the healing process. And I always say, because, one of the things that got me through this period, and indeed, the past…but 2020 and 2021 have been very difficult periods for me personally, I know they’ve been for the world as well. And so the thing that’s gotten me through is actually writing in both senses, writing professionally, and writing just, I write three (I didn’t this morning, actually) but most mornings, and then if not, I do it later in the day, or sometimes I miss a day, I write three pages of the things that are in my head, and it’s almost like cleanliness. It’s like brushing my teeth, or showering or anything like that. Because there’s something for me about the transfiguration of feeling into language where you can name something, and I think other people have it in different ways. I think some people might have a physical way to connect to what they feel, but for me, it’s really always been writing, and it has saved me, and there’s something about that, both of those acts, and then professionally, you know, when I’ve really not wanted to get up, but because I like my work, and I’m fortunate enough to be in a position where that’s what I do full time, it gives me that sense of purpose. So in a way, there’s a sort of healing there, and there’s a sort of…but in and of itself, it’s not…It can be cathartic, but you know, I’ve had a couple of experiences, (I’ve had two now) I did a show when I was at Guildhall and actually I’m working on a full length version of it now, and that I wrote, that was very personal, my first sort of piece of autofictional autobiography, and then I did the show, and it was really great, and it was really fun and then it finished and I was like, “Oh, shit, I still have these issues”. And the same with that, The Young Vic monologue, I still have these issues, it doesn’t necessarily solve it, and I think theatre and obviously art can be very powerful, but it’s very important that we know what it actually is and the purpose that it serves. To mirror, but a mirror can’t really transform you, in and of itself.

Emteaz: Yeah, sure – well it illuminates.

Jasmine: Yeah, exactly.

Emteaz: It illuminates and it reflects. And so I think that’s really important, but the well-being question is really important and not really flinching from what we want to do, but then it’s craft and then it’s writing. We need to also be there for each other, I would say. That’s the nice way to end this conversation, maybe!

Jasmine: Yes, no, I agree. And I think that’s another healing aspect of theatre doing something in community, and yeah, someone might watch on the other side and connect to it and feel less alone.

Emteaz: That’s really important. Well, lovely, Jasmine, that’s really nice to touch base with you here and have a chat. I hope we meet and hope we can have more chats.

Jasmine: Yeah, likewise, I really enjoyed our chat. I’m like, “oh my God, where did the time go?” But I should never forget I can talk for days! So yeah, and agreed, I hope we get to meet. I’m very optimistic at the moment, I think it’s going to be sooner than later, but maybe I should be wary!