with Sarra Culleno
Q1: When did you start writing and first influences?
Sarra: I’ve always written short stories and poems. My mother’s garage in Wembley is choc-full to the rafters with old notebooks and scribbles on scrap paper, going right back to primary school. She is quite the hoarder. I started submitting pieces for publishing in the last two or three years. One of the best things about writing is that you can dip in and out, as infrequently as you like, at any level and at any age.
As a child I loved Dahl, Enid Blyton and The Worst Witch. Lots of the stories and poems I wrote as a child in those old scrap books feature an element of the absurd, mythological, and surreal, which has followed me through to how I write today. Later on, I became a little obsessed with Sylvia Plath and I still see some structural similarities emerging in my poems from time to time.
Q2: Who are your influences today?
Sarra: I’m an English and Media teacher, so it’s often very hard not to be influenced by what I’m teaching at the time! When I’m teaching three different Shakespeare plays simultaneously, sometimes I spontaneously write quotes or paraphrases of them into my WIPs. Right now, I love Kate Clanchy’s work and in using her teaching resources for poetry I have tidied up many of my own poems. For my hybrid prose poems featured in Fevers of the Mind, I experimented with a similar structure to Inua Ellams’ The Actual, as I wanted to emphasise a more fluid, stream-of-consciousness feel to the narratives. I’ve read recently, Elena Ferrante, Zoe Glibert, Alison Bechdel, and Bernadine Evaristo novels – each one resonated with me, and I’m struck by how many of us are telling similar stories from different approaches and perspectives.
Q3: Where did you grow up and how did that influence your writing? Have any travels influenced your work/describe?
Sarra: I grew up in Wembley, North London. In the 80’s and 90s, it was a very special place. I feel incredibly privileged to have experienced a completely cocooned, melting-pot bubble of normalised multiculturalism as a child. My best friends were Polish-Venezuelan and Scottish-Philippino, and West Indian-Welsh. Every family on our street and in our schools was of some mixed heritage or another, including ours. All the kids were a varying shade of tan, and only our hair texture might give a clue as to which continents may be in our DNA. I feel like London has always been this way – the Romans founded it after all. It’s not even a British city – it’s Italian! So, it’s exactly where we belonged, and actually we could never really belong anywhere else. I remember visiting our ‘white’ cousins in Hampshire and feeling “I could never belong here unless I pretended to be an English Rose”, but I never felt that way in London. So many race poets lament a dislocated self, displacement, and prejudice. Wembley was a safe, secure, wonderful place to grow-up as a mixed-race person, so much so, that when I left London as an adult it was a saddening shock. I’ve written many times in gratitude.
My father is Irish, and he dutifully imparted plenty of Heaney, folklore and myth on to us, and of course, plenty of rants about the Colonial injustices of the British Empire! Ties to the land, and descriptions of landscapes, manifesting in giants and selkies and banshees, reoccur as motifs in much of my writing. My mother is Persian, which is a culture seeped in poetry – the tombs of their poets are enormous tourist attractions. I remember her stories about how they would travel miles just to touch the shrines of Hafez or Saadi. I have internalised many of the humanist teachings of the Persian poets, and sometimes I realise their messages at the core of my own work. The Zoroastrian mythology from Ferdowsi’s Shanameh never fails to enthral me; the ancient rock reliefs depicting its heroes are breath-taking and are the inspiration for my work in progress.
Q4: Which of your work is most meaningful to you to date?
Sarra: I am most sentimental about my novella, Machina Ex Deus. At the time I wrote it, I was teaching my A Level class about Afrofurturism as a subgenre of Sci-Fi, reading about the abominations carried out in America’s ICE centres, and listening to Climate-Fiction podcasts from Alternative Stories. Together in my mind, these came to form Taima City – a post-apocalyptic Abu Dhabi one hundred years from now. The overall theme is of mother-child attachments, which is something of a recurring topic for me.
Q5: Was there a pivotal moment when you knew you wanted to be a writer?
Sarra: A few years ago, I attended That’s What She Said, in Manchester, hosted by the formidable Jane Bradley. I’d been to poetry nights before, but this one is captivating. Jane’s kind encouragement meant I signed up for a five-minute slot and later started submitting work to publishers. Lockdown gave me time and focus, so that I could do this in earnest for the first time.
Q6: What are your favorite activities?
Sarra: Lockdown suited me very nicely… reading, cooking, sewing, painting, nature walks, music, yoga, yoga and more yoga! In more sociable times, I sometimes sing in an Irish band.
Q7: Do you have any recent or forthcoming projects you’d like to promote?
Sarra: My first book is out in November 2021, entitled Bonds: A Short Story Collection, with Caab Publishing. The book includes three short stories and a novella, exploring universal ties, cords, and attachments, examining what it means to be bonded as parent to child. I’ve often heard the advice ‘write what you want to read’. I’ve never found the important theme of infant/maternal bonding to be represented enough in my favourite genres, I hope I have filled a hole.
Q9: Who has helped you most with writing?
(insta handles for the following heroes) Jane Bradley @janeclairebradley from That’s What She Said, AndyN Poet @andynpoet from Speak Easy, Chris Gregory @stories.alt from Alternative Stories and Fake Realities, and of course, the marvellous David O’Nan @DavidLONan1 from @FeversOf As a teacher, I realise your encouragement and belief in a writers’ words, is the catalyst to them sharing it.