One of the brilliant things about words is how they shine a light on other people’s worlds. On the pages and in the ears exist lenses and windows, portals into a place we might never go. How You Might Know Me is a poetic exploration of four women’s lives, connected through their experience in different areas of the UK’s growing sex industry. It’s not written by women in the industry but does feature their voices, the characters of Sylvia, Tali, Sharifa and Darina, created after Sabrina Mahfouz ran creative writing workshops and worked in strip-clubs to fund her degree.
An eclectic range of styles, traditional forms, rolling free verse, the collection represents a broad range of backgrounds, ethnicities, ages and political convictions through the short vignettes to whole lives that are ignored. Sex work is still something of a taboo, hidden under the veil of social norms, gender politics and embarrassment.
Here there’s no judgement, but also it’s not romanticised. These women might work in the sex industry, but they are not only sex workers – workers, mothers, realists, feminists, victims, dreamers, saviours and healers.
But of course others judge, compartmentalising women into one part of their lives. They are shunned at the school gates while the ‘dad that picked you up like milk’ retains his role as family man says Darina in for the regular last Friday who asked what i want. Desire features heavily, as does violence. Sharifa is and was ‘abused…misused…amused…confused…refused’ she explains in give us a reason. Sylvia becomes desperate, taking vouchers to buy a new argos lamp broken by her last client.
There’s also hope. Some of this comes through a sense of solidarity and sisterhood. In olympic dreams 2012 Sharifa speaks of why she is here, reflecting that ‘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. Daily life goes on. Tali works in a bakery, and in sunday is able to practise yoga and feel ‘ my body is mine tonight / lungs exude your touch.’
Through these distinctive and authoritative voices articulated in beautiful poetry, How You Might Know Me sheds some light on the exploitative and hypocritical industry worked by women with lives, loves and passions. It asks us to leave perceptions behind, and enter another world. But it also highlights that this world might be closer to us than we realise.