Interview by Rosie Long Decter
In September 2016, I went to see a friend perform at a poetry night in Outremont. The event was at Jardins Cra-Terre; I’d never been before, and found myself wandering outside for a while thinking I was in the wrong place. When I finally arrived, I found a clearing lined with benches, where a full audience sat watching the stage with care. Throughout the evening, the crowd cheered on and lifted up the performers, all women of colour, and in a break between sets, friends gathered to eat dinner in the open air. More than just a welcome reprieve from white-male dominated arts scenes, the night felt like an entirely different kind of literary event; the warmth was infectious.
In the two years since that first event, SistersInMotion (SiM) has become a fixture in Montreal, continuing their performance nights and expanding into workshops. This summer they’ve held a series of workshops, concluding this weekend with When Trauma Speaks The Bones, led by Kai Cheng Thom. I spoke with SiM’s founders, Malek Yalaoui and Dona La Luna, about that first event, the relationship between art and community, and how SiM continues to build its sisterhood.
Rosie Long Decter (RLD): Can you tell me a bit about the origins of SistersInMotion? How did this organization come together?
Malek Yalaoui (MY): Dona and I met at another writing workshop for racialized women and girls called Unravelling in Rhymes in – I wanna say – 2015/16. Anytime women and femmes of colour gather I feel like it’s just so magic. So [I] came out of Unravelling in Rhymes wanting to do a show.
I actually have a background in spoken word and specifically slam poetry, competitive poetry. And what I found competing again and again is that women and, in particular, women of colour were being judged quite harshly. You know, you do a poem and the audience gives you a score from 1 to 10 and, depending on how well you do, there’s all sorts of travel and career opportunities that open up. So on one side there was really harsh judging and high standards and then on the other hand I would see cute white guys get up there and mention feminism once or twice and nines and tens would be given out.
That was really disheartening for me – the idea behind slam poetry really is poetry of the people, it’s supposed to be more accessible, more equal. And yet we found that all of the biases that play up in larger society – you can’t keep them out of slam. So I’ve had this desire for a long time to do a show where the stage would be closed to the work of women of colour, so that the audience wouldn’t get a chance to let their unconscious, implicit bias play out and would be forced to reckon with the work on its own terms.
When I went to Unravelling in Rhymes, that idea came back. And at the same time Dona had contacted me – she was organizing a poetry show on a beautiful piece of urban farmland in Outremont and asked if I’d like to perform. My response was yes, I would, and by the way would you like to perform in the show I’m trying to organize! We realized this should really be the same show.
Dona La Luna (DLL): I started volunteering and helping out at Jardins Cra-Terre, which is where our actual show on September 8th is. It’s a beautiful piece of urban farmland that lies in between Outremont and Parc Ex that was bought by U de M to extend their campus, essentially. So it is a part of the gentrifying story of that particular section of land, but they’re converting it into community gardens; there’s a lot of community initiatives there.
However, a lot of it can still be very white. Even though we [were] in the Parc Ex quartier, I felt as though people who were given money to do projects there were primarily from backgrounds that had a pretty stable sense of security, like residents of Outremont, for example. My background actually [comes] from working with the land in a regenerative and healing way and returning to the original mother, in a sense. Looking around, [I wanted] to organize something that involved only people of colour on this land that I thought was so beautiful and so well tended; it felt like there was an aspect missing with the people I saw around me.
RLD: It sounds like it was a kind of magical coming together for the two of you, bringing together your different visions and realizing you wanted the same thing.
MY: Two years ago we had the first show and it came together in a month or less.
RLD: How did you go from doing this show into starting to do workshops?
DLL: We just felt like it made a lot of sense to continue to gather. The annual show is like a celebration, a harvest, of all that we put towards ourselves and each other and the community throughout the rest of the year, which are kind of the workshops. If I’m going to make it all a nature metaphor, workshops are essentially the fertilizer. We’re getting the nutrients, the good stuff for our fruits and for our bodies, so that we can keep growing and growing and growing and get to the stage where we can produce fruit, which can be a metaphor for so many different things – [the ability] to create legacies and to hold onto memory, to contain memory, to be born into something new. Creation.
RLD: And they give people the tools to then be able to come to the performance night and show these skills.
MY: One of the great perspectives that Dona has brought has been a lot of the linkages between biodiversity and how good we know that is for our ecosystems, and social diversity and how good that is for our societies. A big part of the vision behind SistersInMotion is really that as sisters we want to be in movement and we need space to do that and there just aren’t enough healing, life-giving spaces. The show is a huge space for that, to bring our entire community together, no matter what your background is – if you support sisters in movement we welcome you. The idea with our workshops too is to do smaller, more intimate spaces where it’s not just displaying what we’ve created but actually the space to create.
RLD: How was your latest workshop?
DLL: It was amazing!
MY: One of the things we realized as we’ve been doing this; we started [SiM] with the basis of performance and writing – as I said I come from spoken word. As more people have joined SistersInMotion and have become part of our core group, it’s expanding to reflect more and more people. So we’re realizing that, while writing and poetry will always be the basis, it’s also so much bigger than that, and it’s really about gathering together in community to connect to ourselves, to connect to one another, and to connect to nature through creativity and community.
The workshop this past weekend was really a reflection of that. We brought two incredible astrologers [Mars Gradiva and Aquila Moon] and were really looking at the science of energy, what different cosmic energies and energies within us can tell us about how we relate to ourselves and each other and the broader world. Mars was able to really break down some of our creation myths, whether Judeo-Christian or otherwise, and deconstructed some of the patriarchal notions behind that, [asking] what are some different ways to look at these stories we’re all familiar with. And then we took all of that and spent some time reflecting and writing.
RLD: So it’s astrology as a form of story-telling and meaning-making.
DL: Yes, but also astrology as a form of understanding who we are. Understanding what the sun and moon signs are all about, the planet and the constellations, the different houses. We learned about the elements and what they all mean; essentially astrology and the stars are very queer. It’s gendered in the sense that there’s masculine and feminine but it’s not gendered in the way that it is in this society; each of us contain masculine and feminine aspects and we’re all essentially queer because of that. We all have all four elements in us. The need to eat, the need to drink, the need to love; all these things are are associated to different elements and every human being on this planet needs those kinds of things.
We wrote about what we felt and learned about ourselves, which was a great way to digest that information after. Every one of our workshops is a fam jam, it’s not like you go in and out and wave goodbye – we eat together, we have time to chat and digest, literally and figuratively; we spend a day together because we want to get to know each other. It’s very much about connecting. We’re breaking down each other’s walls and our own walls as a collective, so there’s no reason to be fearful of saying hi and actually connecting with each other; we’re working on that together to have a sisterhood.
RLD: So it’s really about building a community of people who are creating together. Looking forward, you have one more workshop this summer and the biannual SistersInMotion night in September-
DL: It’s a day!
RLD: A day!
MY: Yeah, it started as a show but it’s really not just a show anymore, it’s really a community gathering. This one, for example, similar to our workshops, will start at noon. We serve lunch by donation. We have a show which will have elements of poetry, music, writing, theatre, performance and then-
DLL: We won’t give everything away now, though!
MY: The performances take us to about five and then we serve dinner by donation and have dancing in this beautiful outdoor garden. It’s really a community gathering and celebration; multiple communities that exist in Montreal, gathering, all of us together across divisions to unite in celebration.
This interview has been edited for clarity and length.
SistersInMotion is a Vallum outreach partner. For more information about SiM, visit their website or Facebook page. When Trauma Speaks The Bones takes places August 11. SistersInMotion IV takes places September 8.
For more information about Vallum‘s outreach program, visit our website.