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Mashnun Munir is a Bengali-American poet and artist from Orlando, Florida. His work examines different aspects of his identity: Muslimness, growing up in a low-income community, grief, and the first-generation American experience. Munir’s debut poetry collection is Headspun (2021), an independently published work available on Amazon. When he isn’t busy writing, you can find him painting, creating digital content, and co-hosting the podcast Difficult-ish, which explores South Asian narratives from a non-traditional perspective.
Shaiful Alam: Why did you name the book Headspun?
Mashnun Munir: When I turned 21, there was this really cool bar that opened in downtown Orlando called “The Robinson.” It was super cool, the playlists were dope, and the lighting was really dim. Inside it had open brick: it looked like a New York city apartment in downtown Orlando. It was super low-key at the time, and now it’s a hotshot bar, but I used to go a lot after I was 21. I was working at a coffee shop, reselling shit, and interning at a marketing agency—just doing whatever I could do to make ends meet.
So I never really had too much money to spend, but there was this one drink called “the Headspun” and there was something about that name. I was like, “Yo, I dig that,” and I would order it every single time I went.
I used to write a lot at home then, but I couldn’t really get too deep because my life at home was just like a hurricane, so I sought shelter outside at places like The Robinson. An old friend of mine from high school subtweeted me and he was like: “Muslim kids be writing poetry books named after cocktails, with like crying emojis and like, yeah, it’s funny.”
Alam: There’s a poetic element to you naming the book after a drink and it being so much about your life experiences as a Muslim. In Islamic poetry, there is a long history of using the state of intoxication as a metaphor for being drunk on God’s love.
Munir: Yeah, it was a joke, but I understood that he didn’t understand that context. Yes, I am a Muslim kid. I’m very devout and obedient, but I won’t censor my writing about my past life. It has gotten me to where I am: writing this book that is heavily based on just my past experience with Islam and how Islam is incorporated in my life today. And just like the dichotomy between naming a book after a cocktail, but the book is just so much about Islam. It’s something that really correlated with me.
Alam: How did writing Headspun help you reconcile the different parts of your identity?
Munir: In high school, I was really into writing. I was really into coffee. I was really into fashion. I was really into all this and no one else was. I used to practice my writing even though it was very generic. It was based on love and flowers and the sky and just very typical adolescent stuff.
At the time, I had a lot of bullshit going on. My parents were fighting all the time, and when I turned 18, my dad left our family, went back to Bangladesh. So it was just me and my mom, and I was really only able to kind of explain what was going on in my life through my writing. I couldn’t say what I wanted to, but for some reason, I was able to kind of write this stuff out and it really helped me bridge a lot of the gaps between me and my community, my mother, my sister.
And I think I didn’t know how to speak for a long time. I grew up a very deprived, yet faithful brown-skinned boy from a low-income community in Orlando, Florida. When you’re growing up in this tough environment, it’s difficult to speak. You kind of lose your voice.
Alam: So, what was writing this book like for you? Was it a steady stream of thoughts that kind of like poured onto a page? Or did you have to take breaks?
Munir: I feel like people who write happy stuff enjoy the process. If I’m being honest, I really don’t like to write because a lot of my inspiration comes from my past.
I’ve been writing this book on and off since I was 17 years old. And even when I got all of the poems together, I didn’t want to bite the bullet and actually make it into a book because I knew that all of this information about me would now be out there in the world, and I grew up not ever telling anybody about myself at all.
I’m also really bad at talking to people who are not like me. I’ve gotten a lot better, but it’s really hard for me to really connect with people who didn’t grow up like me, you know? So I kind of use these poems and these paintings as helping hands, like, “Here, this is a little bit about me.”
Alam: So, what did you learn about yourself by putting this book together?
Munir: As I said, growing up as a Bengali Muslim kid, I found it hard to explain my life to anybody who did not share my identity. Like, you can talk about how your parents were so strict about this and that and they’ll be like, “Yeah, I get it.” They don’t really get it.
I realized that I have the ability to put these thoughts into words and phrases for people in a way they might understand. And even if they don’t get it to the fullest, I know that this book, combined with my words, will help. And I was also motivated to write the book because I know a lot of kids like me, brown kids that grew up the way that I did.
Alam: You’re writing what you know, which is contrary to what a lot of people do nowadays. A lot of people are invested in talking about things that they have no idea about.
Munir: It’s funny that you say that, because I think one thing that a lot of Muslims hear is so much stupid shit about Muslims in America as we are growing up. And a lot of it is just based on the different wars and proxy wars and conflicts in the Middle East. I don’t want to speak for you, but there are a lot of Muslims who don’t even know the origins of these conflicts in the Middle East. That was me. There was Osama Bin Laden, 9-11, some war in Afghanistan, in Iraq, Saudi Arabia has oil money that’s all I knew.
And I feel like that’s what many Muslims in America know, but like you said, it’s so important to know where these things come from. I’ve been spending so much of my time learning. I can yell for the rest of my life, Islam is about peace, Muslims are about peace, but I need to back it up with an understanding of how these problems arise. I urge all Muslims to learn about our history.
Alam: As first-gen Muslim kids, I think that we center so much of our identity around the pain or the trauma attached to our identity that we never really fully get the opportunity to understand who we are.
Alam: In a lot of ways, we have to end up putting self-discovery on the back burner in order to survive.
Munir: It’s so important to understand what the basis of Islam is, and what our connection towards the identity is, but we’re often too busy just yelling at people whose opinions are never going to change.
Alam: Why did you decide to self-publish?
Munir: One of my biggest influences in life is Nipsey Hussle. He was a rapper from Los Angeles who was tragically gunned down a few years ago. When he was coming up in the 1980s and 1990s, he didn’t have money for studio sessions, and he was heavily involved in gang activity. He made a bunch of T-shirts, sold them on the side of Crenshaw Boulevard and Slauson Avenue, and saved enough money to rent a retail spot with his brother on that corner to sell the T-shirts.
In the back of the store, they’re doing nonsense drug-related stuff just to make more money. The police find out about it. They crack it open. They arrest both of them, and they go to jail. After going in and out of jail three times, they’re still selling T-shirts and CDs out of his trunk in the parking lot of that same retail space. He’s doing this for years, over a decade, and when he starts getting hits, when he starts getting notoriety, labels start coming to him, but Nipsey Hussle stayed independent his whole life.
Something about that has just always inspired me so much. When I wrote the manuscript for my book, I sent it to a few publishers and got some offers, but it got to a point where I was like, I put so much work into this book. I have the world’s strongest intuition in that, I know whatever the timeline is, my work is really going to take off because my work ethic is unreal. Nobody could work harder than me at all. Nobody could outwork me.
And when it came to this book, I was like, I don’t want to give this to anybody, bro. Like, this is mine. It’s going to be fine and I’m going to keep everything my own. So yeah.
Alam: You have to have a lot of faith in yourself to be able to do that, and just trust whatever’s going to happen is going to happen. Tell us more about who inspires you.
Munir: Nipsey Hussle: my work ethic and my intuition and my inspiration behind that come from him. Not necessarily the content of the writing, but just like the overall persona and the way I go about life.
The second is the poet Mustafa. That’s where I get the content, the material, the substance, the writing subjects. His work is a lot about grief, not happy stories, but real-life stories. It’s about growing up in lower income neighborhoods, what life is like there, and how to maneuver through that. And his ability to say so much with so little in poetry—a lot of my inspiration comes from him.
My third inspiration is battle rap: the rhyme schemes and different delivery. Just saying so much, with so many layers and such depth.
Other than that? Friends and family. I love my mom. My mom is my everything. The only other one is just God—like, all praise is due to Allah. Everything that is inside me right now, the intuition, everything like that, I’ve always had it, and I always wondered where I got it from.
Then I stopped trying to guess and gave credit to the one who gave it to me.
Shaiful Alam is an MA candidate in Historical Studies at the New School for Social Research. Find him on social media at @hotboyshaif.