Be yourself, your authentic self

Photograph of Shirley May

We talked with Shirley May, our Poet in Residence, about her new poem ‘They Came With Backbone‘, written for International Women’s Day, and how it connects with our archives and her own story.

Your first collection of poems, She Wrote Her Own Eulogy, is very much based on your mother’s life – how important do you think it is to tell the unheard stories of strong women?

She Wrote Her Own Eulogy came from wanting to leave a legacy of the things I was taught by my mother, who in turn was taught by her mother so that there is a three-generational trinity going on with my self and the book. 

It was essential to write about my mother’s and my grandmother’s’ stories. The book was written as though it comes from my mother’s voice—however, it’s many women’s stories in my family. The book is deeply personal; some of the stories also came from my two oldest cousins. It’s essential to leave a legacy for your children and the space you take up on the planet, whether it be a small thing or the larger things that impact your everyday life. Everybody’s voice is valid. 

Everybody’s story is fascinating – well, I think so anyway. 

People may think that only successful people should write autobiographies or have biographies written about them because they are famous or rich. However, I think it’s essential to get the authentic voice of the people who have influenced and helped change the future. All of us are shaped by the people in our families, our guardians, our friends and our colleagues, and that’s why I wrote my book.

I wanted the book out in 2018 because it would have meant that my mother was 100 years of age, so it was a little bit of a rush to get it out there. I wanted to celebrate her life and what she meant to my family and the community she served.

 I thank my editors for seeing that it was something worthwhile. Also, I thank Wrecking Ball Press for publishing it. I remember sending them the manuscript and receiving a reply that said in one line ’We like this. We will publish this.’ and that was amazing to me.

I think it’s vital to hear unheard stories because it’s from those stories that we learn about the past, and the past always informs the future. Fundamental for real communication of history told by people you live next door to; it’s how community influences or, I should say, how individuals within the community can influence outcomes and changes within their local area. So somebody like Louise DaCocodia or Elouise Edwards and Kath Locke’s stories become essential to the ecology of how those stories represent people and their roles in all our lives. Again I believe it to be crucial to give untold stories a place to live again. It helps the next generations become aspirational and seek to support and develop the communities where they came from in the first place.

 The Ahmed Iqbal Ullah Resource Centre’s archive enabled me to paint a picture of women’s lives in our communities that made a difference, the activists and mums who made Manchester the City re-emerging a powerhouse. 

You can’t have proper regeneration without considering all the communities that help change the city, including all the migrants who left home and family behind to come to Manchester to make their lives different and help shape the city.

Strong women, like Louise DaCocodia, migrants, and women made of backbone, were significant and made a difference in our lives’ landscape. This can be seen throughout the archive. They made such a difference to the first generation born in this country. However, they had to overcome discrimination and prejudice; despite everything they faced they still went on to achieve personal goals for themselves and their children. Their ambition made me ambitious; it made me want to be a fashion designer like my sister-in-law, who designed for the singer Elkie Brooks.

“What does holding on mean?” Although your poem was inspired by a particular woman’s story, did you find that there were themes which came up in many of the stories of women in our archives?

As I listened to some of the women in the archive about their experiences of being migrants, moving into communities, and being the only Black or Asian person who lived on their street, it was inspirational in many ways. It was reflective of my own mother’s experience in moving to Tunbridge Wells near London, where she was probably one of the first Black women to be a governess in a diplomat’s house. It’s essential, I think, that local women and men’s stories should be captured and documented on how they effected change in Manchester and other parts of the country. I especially think about the matriarchs in places like Cheetham Hill and Old Trafford, and Longsight; it’s vital. It was just amazing to listen to these stories. In many ways, their stories reflect so many working-class people in the UK whose stories would not get told by the academics, historians who are self-appointed. And if that’s the case, we should tell our stories the way we see fit.

So many stories – what was your overall feeling as you searched through these stories for inspiration?

What I tried to do was think about what home is. What we learn at home, which prepares us to travel many thousands of miles away from our families, our surroundings.

I wanted people to empathise and see the value of the people who travelled thousands of miles to come to England; if you didn’t come with a partner, you found yourself isolated, you didn’t really have anybody who came from your town or village or your community to speak to.

Repeatedly people found they were seen as the alien. Some of the metaphor plays with the environments they would face coming to England. 

 I wrote the poem using the storm, and especially in hurricane season in Jamaica, which is something that you’re never going to forget: the way that you have to batten down the hatches; make sure things are tied and secured; make sure that you can find shelter even at the most difficult of times, and that might be with a neighbour or a friend; coming together with people to fight against the elements. The use of the storm as a metaphor for coming to England and standing in your power and learning everything from an actual storm was why it was put into the poem.

I also used metaphor to explore the mundanity of getting up in the mornings, always having to sweep the yard until it was pristine; however, by the time a hundred feet ran on it, there was dust everywhere, and everybody was tired.

The storm as a metaphor has been the history of many women’s lives, including the women of my mother’s generation who came to England. It’s lots of people from the Caribbean, particularly those who came from farming communities or professional posts.

Some just wanted a better life and wanted to go back home to build something that would be admired in the community.

So for me, strong women are significant, and at the heart of this poem, They came with a backbone; it really is a metaphor for all the men and the women from all over the commonwealth who came here, worked extremely hard but took the elements of a natural way to live – hence the storm – bringing all that you know about surviving to somewhere that you don’t know and does not care for your difference.

As a strong and inspiring woman, what would your message to young women be on International Women’s Day?

For me, in terms of who I am as an artist, who I am as a writer, a parent, I say all you can be is your self, your authentic self. You know, it’s easy to try and be moulded and put into different boxes that society expects you to move into. Still, if you find a way to be yourself while doing your job to the best of your ability, that’s the way forward, to be your authentic self. So I don’t make any excuses that I chat a lot, or I laugh a lot, or I feel things deeply because I accept myself. I get who I am, and that might be an offence to somebody else who doesn’t feel like me; nonetheless, my thing is finding out who you are and living with yourself and your situation.

To a young person to aspire for the very best, I would say to work hard, and through your working hard, you will achieve much. You might not achieve loads monetary-wise, but you will gain the satisfaction that is what I believe is a success. So many people equate success with the car they drive, the house they live in, the holidays they go on. All of those things, while pleasant, don’t necessarily make you a successful person. The thing that makes you a successful person is how diligent, how driven, how supportive you are to your community, your work colleagues, and your family. That’s what makes you successful. And it is essential to love without conditions and expectations. And I think the biggest thing that I’ve learned most recently that I would love to pass on to young people is that you cannot expect everybody to behave how you behave. So if you’re kind and you’re nice, and you pay it forward, just because you do that, don’t expect anybody else to do that. But it would help if you did not change yourself to be like anybody else. All you have to be is your authentic self.

Some of the stories of strong women in our achives can be found in this blog post from 2020: