Theophina Gabriel (she/her/hers) is an award-winning published poet from Slough and recent graduate from the University of Oxford where she studied Philosophy & Theology. Her writing has been commissioned by the BBC and published in the Tower Poets Anthology, The Linden Avenue Journal and various other journals and publications. When not writing, she can be found organising weekly meetings for her award-winning independent publication for Black creatives, Onyx Magazine. Having recently completed an internship at #Merky Books, she is now working on her own material and is madly in love with Black British narratives and various shades of purple.
Onyx Magazine’s website can be found here: www.onyxmagazine.co.uk.
Theophina’s Windrush poem which is discussed in our interview piece can be found here: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=p1xEVJshvvo
Tell us a little bit about yourself…
I am Theophina Gabriel, a published poet and Editor-in-Chief of Onyx Magazine, an online and annually printed magazine for Black creatives.
What inspired you to create Onyx Magazine?
I was a second year student at Oxford, and I had a vision for a magazine that was solely dedicated to Black creatives. I hadn’t really seen any printed publications that platformed poetry, short stories, think pieces, and articles solely by Black creatives. I thought that it would be great for one to exist because there are such a range of voices within the Black community and our diaspora. To have a space where we could collectively platform, amplify and express whatever it is that we wanted to express would be so liberating.
I also recently finished an internship at Penguin. I have noticed that across the publishing industry there tends to be a bit of a trend when it comes to Black creatives. Voices are often platformed when we talk about ‘the struggle’ or racism. These are obviously really important issues that we have to continue to keep talking about, but I also wanted to create a space that affirmed our identities outside of suffering, trauma and struggle. Onyx Magazine is a place where creatives can be as abstract as they want––they can talk about a beautiful flower in their poetry or the history of slavery, there are no pre-defined boxes. It is a space where we recognise the multi-dimensional facets with the narrative of Black creatives and our experiences.
What led you to become Onyx’s Editor-in-Chief?
I got onto this path by creating it myself, so I guess you could say I led myself, which is really weird and empowering and not quite as structured as people might think. People ask me “how did you become Editor-in-Chief of a magazine? Did you work your way up?” It was weird calling myself Editor-in-Chief because I was literally just a student in my bedroom with an idea for a publication. Initially it was just me, and then I had a team around me consisting of two other young Black undergraduates. Together, we tried to figure out how this process would work and how we could actually create the finished product we had inside of our heads.
I started comparing my vision for Onyx with the structures of other publications, and noticed that the work I was doing was what an Editor-in-Chief at other organisations would be responsible for. There was tentativeness on my part to stand up and own that title, which I definitely think stemmed from preconceptions around women in leadership positions and taking ownership of titles. It is definitely a role that I have grown into and I’m very proud of owning now, but I was anxious at the beginning to be considered the “boss”. Now I’m very proud to state that I’m Editor-in-Chief of an independent Black publication, but it took a while to get here!
With your work as an Oxford student and the Editor-In-Chief, how do you make time for yourself and mental well-being?
I’ve graduated now, but I know that there is definitely a culture where the work ethic of students is sometimes to completely disregard and overlook boundaries, and knowing what is healthy. We live in a society that is always telling us to go. For me, it has been really important to maintain my boundaries by listening to myself. I am extremely lucky in that I have a brilliant team around me, and the way I maintain boundaries is by reminding myself that I do not have to do everything.
I would say that open and honest communication around mental health helps. Sometimes we often feel as though we have to carry everything ourselves, and that we cannot speak up when things are getting too much, but I am really lucky that other people in my team are willing to share the work and work on everything collaboratively. It is also easy to maintain boundaries when you recognise where they actually are and you don’t push above them because you know that you can lean on other people for a bit of help.
How are you able to keep Onyx magazine and its team members engaged in the middle of a global pandemic?
It was really difficult because we lost the advantage of being together in person. We had to really re-evaluate our purpose and when you remind yourself of the “why” behind what you are doing, it is very easy to feel encouraged and motivated with the tasks you are doing to fulfil that purpose and that vision.
One of the things we did was to have an extra and open honest communication about how we would communicate during this pandemic. We also try to remind ourselves that this is not the be-all-end-all in that tasks are not inflexible, and we can share the workload if people are feeling overwhelmed.
A lot of the boost in morale and togetherness came from being together over Zoom, laughing and joking (albeit virtually!) and reminding ourselves that our purpose is providing a space for Black voices and creatives––those things don’t just go away in the middle of the pandemic. If anything, it becomes more important especially when we saw a spike of online awareness around the Black Lives Matter movement.
It became really informative and encouraging to know that the work we are doing took on an extra special meaning during this time where we could provide a sense of togetherness when we are so far apart.
How do you navigate these artistic spaces that have been historically white?
It is difficult to navigate those spaces when they have a history of whiteness surrounding them, and it was hard at first for me especially while trying to handle impostor syndrome and thinking: “I don’t belong here. I can’t see anything else that is reminding me that this is a place for me as well.” It is very intimidating at the beginning, but it is also a reminder that somebody needs to claim that space for groups that historically have not been represented in these spaces.
Essentially, I put my brave boots on and decided: even if this is the first publication that has existed in this space of this type, this is needed.. We saw this confirmed in the overwhelming support for Onyx’s formation. For example, we got £900 worth of funding and over £2,000 worth in grants and sponsorship, which just showed us, if you are willing to go out there and make a stake in a landscape or industry that has not typically represented Black people, you will most likely be claiming space for Black people who have craved it. The confirmation is when you see how the community backs your vision and just hasn’t yet had a chance to. It is really important to just be brave and remind yourself of your worth, and just go for it!
However, I would also say that it is important to look after yourself, and to know that if a space is going to be irrevocably damaging for you, it’s okay to step back and take care of yourself first.
What career path would you like to pursue?
This sounds strange but I am very much against the idea of a “career path”. As a multi-disciplinary artist, I am exploring my career in a multi-faceted way. I have had my poetry published, I’ve interned at Penguin, I am part of a spoken word collective, I’m on a journey with Onyx Magazine, and I’m working on some film projects. Therefore for me, the idea of a singular “career path” is reductive. I feel like I am on the route to doing several different things, and that’s what makes me happiest––getting involved with projects that excite me. I have this really crazy looking Excel spreadsheet full of creative deadlines. It is hard to pinpoint where I will be in the next few years, so for me it is important to follow what I feel like I have been called to do, which isn’t one singular thing, I love being an Editor-In-Chief, scriptwriter, poet and writer!
Some people do feel strongly called to one path, and that is totally okay! But I feel as though we often look down on people who are on different routes. I personally find flexibility creatively refreshing and I’m lucky enough to be able to pursue that. As long as new opportunities present themselves, I find it liberating to take them up, as varied as they might be. My growth as a creative involves not putting myself in one box and limiting myself.
What advice would you give people who are interested in the arts space?
The main advice I would give is to find and recognise your creative voice. Your voice is unique to you and will help you identify communities and collectives that will provide a home for that voice. If you are a poet, it is important to know what your writing style is, what your themes are, and what you feel most comfortable writing. For example, are you a short form writer, an epic poetry writer, or are you into haikus? Once you recognise what your voice is, what it sounds like, and where the power is behind it, you can start to find spaces that accommodate that, as well as look at how you can grow.
Without knowing your voice, you can find yourself being defined by external forces a lot, and sometimes this can be quite dangerous. It is important to have a solid idea of your voice.
Who is your biggest inspiration?
I would say Audre Lorde. As a poet, she inspires me so much. Her reclamation of poetry as a political, powerful, and active tool is something that I really aspire to. For example, as a Caribbean creative I thought it was really important to speak on some of the experiences of Black Carribean people in England, and so I wrote a poem about the Windrush scandal. It got picked up by the BBC and turned into a film. It is really important to reclaim art and artistic expression as a tool for activism. In this respect, Lorde is my biggest inspiration. Her creative voice is also just so emotive, powerful, yet gentle. I could go on about her forever!
Can you tell us more about the poem you wrote for the Windrush scandal?
It actually started off as a Facebook rant! The news was reporting the scandal and I had a lot of very pressing emotions about it, and I was going to comment on the Facebook post. It was really short, but eventually the lines got longer and longer, and the images got more creative––and then I realised that it was a poem. I started editing it in the comments bit on Facebook, and I eventually posted it.
I got approached on Facebook by someone from the BBC who told me that they wanted to publish it and turn it into a short film. I was so glad that the poem got a bigger platform because it resonated with a lot of people and amplified the issues of Black British Caribbean people.
My poem talks about the battles to make a place your home. I have lines in there saying that we made our homes out of “No Black” signs, speaking to the way in which when Black Carribean people came over here, they couldn’t find renting spaces but still somehow managed to build a place of belonging in the face of so much adversity. At the end of the poem, I talk about the cruelty of empire and the cruelty of telling people that they don’t belong here after the history of colonialism which has driven them to seek better opportunities in this country. It talks about giving your labour to your country for 70 years and still being told that you don’t belong. There are a lot of different messages that came to the fore in that poem, but the main idea of it was: look how much you can give and still not be acknowledged. That’s the nature of empire, expected servitude with no acknowledgement, gratitude or respect.
What TV shows/music/movies/books have been getting you through quarantine?
Just for context, I studied Philosophy and Theology and I love sci-fi and anything high-concept. Recently I’ve been loving “Dark” on Netflix which is a German philosophical time-bending show…think ‘Stranger Things’ but a German philosophical version. There’s a pretzel-like time loop and this little town is stuck and repeating itself in dark ways over and over again.
I’ve also re-read Zami by Audre Lorde and Girl, Woman, Other by Bernardine Evaristo, which won the Booker Prize last year.