Siara Illing-Ahmed is a Storyteller and PhD candidate at York St John University, she makes performances that use food and conversation to explore questions of identity and heritage.
‘I was told as a child I was too Pakistani to be in Annie (the musical), they meant brown. I was told as a teenager I wasn’t Pakistani enough to audition for East is East (the film), they meant brown. I have had this throughout my life. As a researcher my racial identity has been questioned but also celebrated, has it been this way for you?
In late Spring 2021, the Institute for Social Justice commissioned Siara to create an audio performance featuring the voices and stories of Black and Minority Ethnic researchers from York St John University. Siara said that she entered the process keen to exchange experiences with a view to contributing to greater awareness and positive change, but aware of the challenges of discussing matters of race and identity
‘I am by nature ‘a feeder’, I find my inherited need to feed, a great way to break through introductions. I also use food in my practise as a PhD researcher. Usually when we break bread we are with friends and family where we often speak freely. I find offering food seems to bring out that freedom as we bond over our shared love of different edibles.’
Everybody has a story we should share, but those of BAME researchers can get lost. Debates about diversity and decolonisation are vital and perhaps sometimes they need to be confrontational and assertive. At other times, however, what we need is something more dialogical, something over tea or food that accesses the lived and human experience of being a researcher of the global majority in a still predominantly white academic system. Armed with sweet and savoury treats, plenty of tea and juice, Siara reached out over video call to Black, Asian and Minority Ethnic researchers at York St John.
‘Because of the pandemic we were unable to go out and meet people or have guests round to my home, so all the conversations had to been held over zoom which makes breaking bread a little harder, but to encourage that same feeling I sent out small letterbox packages to participants who were happy to receive them. These letterbox parcels had sweets, chocolate, biscuits, tea bags and a small note encouraging participants to enjoy them during our chat. Other participants were encouraged to bring a cuppa and a biscuit, I even baked cakes and cookies while chatting to some.’
The result is this audio performance, a soundscape of voices and experiences that will invite you to sit down and take your time to think about the lived experiences of other people within your academic community. We would like to thank everyone who contributed their stories and experiences.
To find out more about Siara’s work, visit www.siaraiammixed.com