Agnes Török smiles a lot – even whilst uttering the words ‘tell me my labour is not worth paying for’ in her YouTube video ‘Worthless’, which now has an impressive 212,000 views. Perhaps it is the combination of this smile with her confrontational words in her poetry which leaves such an impact; which reminds us that we may have to spend our futures being ground down, whilst being told to keep the corners of our mouths tucked firmly upwards in a gruesome spoof of happiness.
As soon as we start to speak, despite the distance of 10,849 miles, she has made me smile within the space of about 3 seconds. We talk about happiness, although she focuses more on gaining happiness as an attainable reality.
Agnes: The biggest thing that I learnt is that happiness is something that we have to work at everyday – it’s not about the big occasions or celebrations. It’s about getting into habits and prioritising little things that make us feel good.
The singular most important thing is our social relationships. It’s having close friendships, taking care of the relationships with our families. When you move away from your family you realise how much you depend on those people who ask you how you are, or make you cups of tea. As simple as that, but it can make all the difference in the world that day.
She has spent a year focusing on and researching the topic of happiness, which has resulted in an hour long show – to be released online soon. After her Ted Talk entitled ‘What I’ve Learnt from Studying Happiness’, I’m excited to hear what more she has to say on the subject.
A: It wasn’t focused on being an advice book at all, it was very much stuff that I came across and if it’s relevant for you then feel free to bring some of that home with you. A lot of the focus was on talking about the aspects of happiness and mental health that we don’t talk about – we often talk about the two as if they’re opposite to each other when really they’re simultaneous experiences.
A lot that I talk about in that show is just how much happiness is political, how much it can be a political act. If we took happiness and mental health seriously then that would have big political implications – things like austerity have a measurable impact on mental ill-health. If we took mental health seriously it would really mean that we would have to prioritise the way our political and economic systems work.
Agnes speaks frequently about politics and happiness as interlinked. She soon reveals that she travelled to Cape Town for a year, which is where she discovered spoken word poetry as a political act.
A: They have a spoken word scene which is very political there, and that became a starting point for me to start exploring the ways spoken word could be used as a political tool and a symbol of resistance, and I saw an amazing dialogue about topics like apartheid, which only ended in ’94 – most of the people writing, remember. Spoken word became an amazing tool for people to negotiate these differences and for people to talk about apartheid across racial and ethnic boundaries in ways which were really beautiful and inspiring to me. So I started writing in English and more politically there, about what was going on.
She then moved to Edinburgh to study, and it is clear that the importance of politics within spoken word has remained central for her since leaving South Africa. She quickly turns to the topic of the UK and highlights a very recent event which demonstrates the need for change.
A: It was only a few days ago that they cut disability benefits in the UK by £30 a week, which is going to have a really measurable impact for those people. It’s really hard to talk about mental health and disability as separate from the environment that we live in. That’s isolating the individual as if we were lab rats, which we’re not. There are things that we can do for humans in general to be happier, and that’s helped if we’re not constantly worrying about how to make ends meet, we’re able to fulfil our creative potential, we’re not afraid to pursue the things we want to pursue, not afraid of taking risks and trying new projects because if we fail we’re not sure we’ll lose our house or whether our safety net’s in place. I think taking mental health seriously can be a really radical political act.
I’m intrigued by her emphasis on the relationship between spoken word and politics; to what extent can creative pursuits really make the government take notice, and trigger change? Agnes’ response is, once again, a balance between optimism and awareness of reality.
A: I think art has a role in talking about alternatives and because art is about imagination it’s about imagining these alternatives. But I think realistically if we want to see those alternatives in place, we also have to lobby for them, we have to do other forms of political work as well. It’s great to make spoken word about these things, to start more conversations, but to start political change, we need to do more than that. I think spoken word can be struggle songs, they can be resistance anthems of the alternatives that we’d like to see, but to change things we need to go beyond that.
We speak about past examples of people who have been both creative and political – Agnes more specifically speaks of Maya Angelou as her role model.
A: The ultimate idol is Maya Angelou who had the most insane, fantastic, crazy, absurd life in which she did everything from write some of the singularly most beautiful poems that have ever existed to being part of the Civil Rights movement in the US and starting the Harlem renaissance. That’s a legacy a lot of young people want to see in the world.
We turn from role models of the past to the young people of today, as well as expectations for the future and difficulties of the present.
A: A lot of us are lacking in hope, are lacking in that feeling that the things we do matter and have an effect. We’re brought into a generation where most of our opportunities have been sold off and privatised – the things that our parents’ generation had access to are not available to us, things like full time work is often not accessible, a stable housing situation – and that’s regardless, up to a point, of how much privilege we have.
There’s a political discourse, a way of talking which suggests there’s no role for new ideas, or room for new changes, which I think is really disheartening and disempowering to a lot of young people.
Although we’ve spoken about a lack of hope, when I ask her about her plans for the future, the movement she describes very quickly exemplifies to me the goodness of people – in particular, from her home country.
A: I’m planning to be part of a movement in Sweden that’s spoken word and writing workshops which are focused on making sure there’s a welcoming community for the newly arrived refugees. Sweden’s taking in 120,000 refugees in the last 6 months which for a country of 9 million is a lot. So there’s a big focus on making sure these new Swedes don’t become isolated, or struggle to learn Swedish – which is notoriously difficult. There’s a movement for using spoken word to help people learn the language in creative and interesting ways, and making sure there’s a community which enables people to tell the difficult stories they may have.
Interview by Alex Howlett