by Yasmin Ali
Melissa Galvin-Cundill is a woman who wears her heart on her sleeve and says it how it is. We spoke to her about her journey to Islam, mental health and her raw, captivating ability to tell her story through poetry…
Tell us a bit about yourself…
I’m 22, I recently graduated with a degree in social work. I’m passionate about poetry and I am a white Muslim revert, something that informs a lot of my work.
There are a lot of themes in your poetry and motifs of a battle with the self often occur. Could you talk a little bit about that?
I always feel weird talking about my poetry in the sense of what it means. I pick up so many different styles from my favourite poets and I’m just beginning to understand my own poetry now. If you asked me last year, I wouldn’t have been able to tell you. My poetry has many themes, battle with the self definitely being one of them. It’s also about my faith, identity, being a care leaver and mental health- not just my own but my mum’s too. When I first started writing poetry it was focused around Islam but I wanted it to be universal. It still has some elements of Islam but I wanted everyone to be able to relate so my style has changed dramatically.
Do you have any muses, thematically or stylistically ?
I look up to so many female poets. I love Key Ballah, Rupi Kaur, Upile Chisel and so many others.
Is poetry something you’d like to pursue professionally like those poets?
It started off as a hobby- actually ‘hobby’ isn’t the right word. It brought me ease. I can’t really explain it.
Like a form of therapy?
Yeah, definitely. As individuals we are always going through something and poetry has just been a constant for me when other things have changed. I always wanted to pursue social work as a profession but when I think of what I want to do regardless of income, it’s just poetry. I have seen people on social media who have pursued poetry and now they are publishing books. I want to do that and I have little mental notes on how I’d do it but I’d need to be financially stable first. I’d love to do it in the long-term but I don’t know if that is just a dream in my head. (Laughs)
Well, if you go for it you never know what will happen!
You use social media, notably Instagram, to share your work and your views. What are the sort of responses you get?
I sometimes get messages and people say things like “your poetry is really powerful, you have so much courage for putting yourself out there.” I don’t think of it like that. A friend told me it was good to put my poetry out there but then some people write and find comfort in just keeping it to themselves. I think you should experience both sides. I don’t rely on the response but I write so much so I share a lot- sometimes to the point where I feel empty. Rupi Kaur talks about that feeling of emptiness and taking time out to recharge. She’s right, poetry is your own and when you depend on other people’s responses, that’s when it gets a bit draining.
So you’ve mentioned that you reverted to Islam. Do you mind telling us how that came about?
Not at all. I always say my experiences are my qualifications. I had a lot of close friends that were Muslim and observing Ramadan. At first I thought that fasting for so long was ridiculous. But I think the power is in watching people perform or practice. You can think whatever you want but when you witness it there is a beauty in it. I used to eat with them when they broke their fasts and then I started looking into it more, very privately. It was the hijab that attracted me to Islam though. I was in awe of it, I thought it was beautiful and I knew there was more to it so I looked into that as well. I bought a Quran and hijabs but I didn’t tell anybody. Within that year, I knew I wanted to revert to Islam eventually.
I read a short biography about Prophet Muhammad (pbuh) and I started crying on the bus. There was something about it that I didn’t find in Christianity. I reverted a week before Ramadan 2013. I was so scared about what people would think and especially people close to me, they wouldn’t understand it. A month before I reverted I was going through a tough time and I was mentally unwell, just really panicky and anxious. I think it was because of the pressures of living this double life- I wanted to be Muslim, couldn’t be Muslim or I was Muslim but couldn’t tell anyone. After going through that I realised I don’t really care what people think and I took my shahadah on the bus. I don’t know why but buses seem to be really significant! (Laughs) I put the hijab on and it really brought me back to myself. People might say this is over the top but, I really believe Islam saved my life. I’ve always struggled with my mental health. I believe that if I didn’t have Islam during that month… I don’t know what would have happened. Something was really wrong, I was really ill. Islam has just brought me peace that I have never felt before.
What do you think about the stigma surrounding mental health, particularly in Muslim communities?
As a new Muslim, I felt that if I was struggling it meant I was away from faith and a lot of people still feel the same way. I soon realised that wasn’t the case and today there are loads of people who are discussing mental health as an illness which is great.
How do you deal with any negativity towards you or your poetry?
Someone once commented something like “you like all the attention”. Negativity does affect me but I am quite a feisty person so if I feel that somebody is being rude I will respond, online and face-to-face. I think it’s best to say your piece, leave and then find your own peace.
If someone walked up to you and asked for advice what would you say?
If I have learnt anything from being a revert Muslim and struggling with who I am, it is to never try to fit in a box. If you try to describe me and try to put me in a box, then you’ve already failed. Be yourself, believe in what you want to believe in, don’t let anything define you and if you’re good at something, put it out there and be unapologetic about it.
Thank you so much, it’s been lovely talking to you!
Thank you! ♦