Mona Arshi is a poet, author, and former human rights lawyer powerhouse. Her debut poetry collection, Small Hands won the Forward Prize for Best First Collection in 2015. Arshi has conquered another first with her debut fiction novel, Somebody Loves You.
Somebody Loves You tells the story of Ruby, a young girl who stops talking one day at school and chooses to stay mute for years. Arshi illustrates the importance of representation, mental health, and sisterhood through Ruby and her sister’s coming-of-age experience. Her poetic roots effortlessly weave through the pages, transcending the novel and inviting readers to new levels of impact as she highlights vulnerable aspects of Ruby’s world. Somebody Loves You is a reminder of the power both our stories and our silence can hold.
In this edition of li Voices, Arshi gets real about how decades of human rights work in the legal system affects her writing career, the contrast between putting together a poetry collection versus writing a novel and above all—how humanity inspires her at the center. Get to know the voice behind the novel, Mona Arshi.
“Connect with words and language every day so if you’re not writing then read something. Don’t be hard on yourself, good writing takes a long time.”
– Mona Arshi
little infinite: When did you know writing would be the creative outlet for you? Introduce readers to your journey in poetry and how you got to where you are currently.
Mona Arshi: Quite unusually, I had a previous background as a lawyer. In fact, I was a human rights lawyer for several years. When I was pregnant with my daughters, my twins, I started reading quite a lot of poems. A friend of mine sent me an anthology of women’s poetry which gathered writers such as Alice Oswald, Mimi Khalvati and Moniza Alvi and I was hooked. I then attended some creative writing courses and deepened my reading and decided to pursue a course in creative writing.
little infinite: Your debut novel Somebody Loves You was published in November of 2021. Congratulations! What can readers expect from this novel? If you were to describe your book Somebody Loves You in three words, what would those words be?
Mona Arshi: Thank you. That’s quite a difficult task can I have a sentence instead? In which case it would be ‘… doing… something… different.’
little infinite: Somebody Loves You is a striking title. What inspired the title of this book and what does it mean to you?
Mona Arshi: Quite simply it comes from an Elizabeth Bishop poem called ‘The filling station’. There’s a wonderful last line in that poem ‘Somebody loves us all’. Bishop’s poem does that thing that really good poems can. They start with something small and scratch away until something much bigger is revealed. In this case, it’s the beauty and care and love amongst the dingy dirty and oily conditions of a petrol station.
little infinite: Your debut poetry collection, Small Hands won the Forward Prize for best first collection of 2015. How did your creative process of writing a novel differ from writing a poetry collection? What was the most surprising aspect of putting a novel together?
Mona Arshi: Writing a novel is the opposite of writing poetry. There’s that wonderful phrase by Anne Carson where she says, “if prose is a house, poetry is a man on fire running quite fast through it.” I love that. I would extend that further and say that writing prose and a novel is like something you can do in your central vision. But poetry that comes from the peripheral. Poems come sideways on. That’s what it feels like to me, anyway.
“But poetry that comes from the peripheral. Poems come sideways on.”
– Mona Arshi
little infinite: In addition to completing your Masters in poetry in 2011, you previously practiced as a human rights lawyer. Accomplishing such meaningful work like representing women fleeing violence and refugees is admirable. How has your past in human rights law affected your profession in writing?
Mona Arshi: This is a question I’m asked a lot and to be honest with you, there’s no real easy answer. In some ways, I think I’m a very good reader. I literally inhale books. I’m also a very good editor of my own work, which is really important. I guess it’s also had an impact on the themes I’m interested in, dignity and centering the human part of us. Poetry helps us to empathise with the universal.
little infinite: What artists or poets influenced you most throughout your writing journey? How did they inspire you?
Mona Arshi: So many poets and novelists have shaped me as a writer. Toni Morrison, Maya Angelou Marquez, Sylvia Plath, Agha Shahid Ali, Seamus Heaney, Virginia Woolf, I could go on. I think that these writers leave a sort of imprint or sometimes stand like whispy ghosts in our writing rooms, our reading really does make us who we are as writers.
little infinite: Congratulations on your success! From being an award-winning writer to being featured in publications like The Times, The Guardian, London Underground and more. If you could give a new writer one piece of advice, what would it be? Why does this piece of advice personally stand out to you?
Mona Arshi: Yes, read and read and practice writing. Use the writing muscle, or else it can atrophy. Connect with words and language every day so if you’re not writing then read something. Don’t be hard on yourself, good writing takes a long time.
little infinite: Okay, for fun, what is your favorite genre to read?
Mona Arshi: I used to really like comics now, I love reading anything actually.
little infinite: What is next on your creative bucket list? Where do you hope to see your writing and influence going in the community?
Mona Arshi: I don’t know -sometimes it’s good not having it all planned out or to plan to arrive at a destination and letting creative accidents happen. Poetry is the thing I can’t live without and I get twitchy and grouchy when I am not writing but I am quite interdisciplinary and often the walls I am writing in are quite porous.
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