Writer and performer, Emina Ashman, brings her very personal work Make Me A Houri to La Mama Courthouse later this month. A journey of discovery and expression, Make Me A Houri,  is the result of Ashman’s need to express how she felt about religious dogma, the patriarchal moral polic-ing in Malaysia, and her own detachment from the Islamic cultural upbringing she was born into.

Ashman admits to having been inspired by so many experiences that have led to the creation of this particular work, but she attests that the earliest catalyst would have been back in 2012.

“I was recommended to read a book by a practitioner whose workshop I attended as part of the Alexander Technique and the Performing Arts Conference Australia held in Melbourne that year,” she explains. “The book is called Spell of the Sensuous by David Abrams. It explores how language affects our perception and relationship to the natural world, and covered topics like phenomenology, synesthesia, shamanism and imagination.

I was engrossed and started underlining terms on every second page and wrote down a list of metaphysical questions and provocations at the back of the book. The last sentence I jotted down at the back of the book was “Is there a sensual heaven?” This line sparked a range of other questions and I found myself writing profusely around this provocation in my diary.

Exploring the concept of Houris in Paradise, according to certain transliterations of Islamic text that I had been exposed to growing up, allowed me to reflect upon my relationship between ideology and bodily experiences. Houris are sometimes referred to as beings that act as rewards for terrorists in the afterlife. I’m not pursuing that narrative. I’m interested in how the symbolism of Houris can affect a woman’s own sense of purity, morality and mortality.”

Ashman uses her writing to counterpoint and transcend the binary and the black and white. She doesn’t like dictating or prescribing to audiences how they should experience her work, instead she loves posing provocations and keeping things as open to interpretation as possible.

“One person’s idea of heaven, could be another person’s idea of hell and I find that fascinating,” she says. ” I write from a very personal, introspective space and avoid speaking to a perspective that isn’t mine.

Some themes that this work explores include mortality, spirituality, femininity, religion and inter-faith dialogue. These topics are important to share because our broader community is becoming increasingly diverse and cross-cultural. I feel that it’s important for performative spaces to act as platforms for people to invite this type of discourse in. Not every Melbourne theatre-goer or playwright is an existentialist, and it’s nice if our theatres could reflect this a little bit more. “

A Malaysian Princess, Ashman was born and raised in Kuala Lumpur and moved to Melbourne for drama school in 2012.  It is her father’s side of the family that is connected to one of the royal families of Malaysia. Her father, RAJA Kecil Sulong of Perak Datuk Seri Raja Ashman Shah Sultan Azlan Shah, unexpectedly died of an asthma attack four weeks after she arrived.

With a late grandfather for a Sultan, who also acted as Head of Islam for his state, Ashman often felt contended with her desire to exercise her sensuality in the light of judgment and expectations that society and her younger self had placed upon her.

“This heritage of mine is something I no longer hide away or apologise for, and instead try to celebrate and embrace,” she says.  I also see my positionality as a provocation. Princesses, like Houris, are both paradoxical tropes in literature. They can be symbols of duality, representing the virginal and unattainable in one moment, and the mysterious femme-fatale in the next.”

As a creative, VCA graduate, Ashman, likes to tell stories that are translucent, rather than transparent. She admits to being fascinated by ambiguity in text. “I love independent theatre that’s poetic, visceral, emotive and rarely prescriptive,” she says. “I like characters that make you reflect on your own experiences. I love it when characters provoke, trigger, caress, harass and play with an audience’s psyche.

The work is a celebration of feminine embodiment, telling a woman’s story from a female perspective.  Ashman believes the continuation of female stories necessary and believes that while our stages have seen many female oriented and devised works, there can be so many more.

“Many stories from female perspectives have been birthed and are ready to be worked on, but the opportunities to share and present them are still few and far between us,” she says. “I think sometimes theatre companies are still seeking certain type of stories, carrying a particular agenda, that follow a certain trend or revolve around a particular buzzword.

People get caught up in the semantic field around a female storyteller, the labels they have imposed upon her and forget and even forego at times, what she actually has to say.”

Make Me A Houri is potent and multi -layered in its themes and posses some challenging questions that some may consider taboo. The importance of truthful story telling, and who tells it, are vital foundations for Ashman who believes that too many works and ideas are stifled according to politics, gender and race.

“My topic of interest in this work is one that sparked a bit of debate, and has been polarising with panels when it came to pitching it,” she says. “I think there’s a potent awareness of political correctness, to the point where a woman of colour writer like myself has felt stunted while trying to validate her own authentic truth.

The process of filtering can prematurely override the process of generating. You start feeling like you have to do years of theoretical research around the story that already lives inside you, get a sample of opinions around the topic of interest you’re expressing, be politically correct, diplomatic with your dialogue, show both sides to every argument and rigorously interrogate your positionality. And you start thinking, writing and pitching your material from a place of defense because you’re working out of fear, and not the sheer love for your project.

Maybe you don’t always need to be given a recommended fellow *insert same-faith/same-race* artist of colour here for cultural consultation or dramaturgical feedback on your story either. I feel there needs to be more trust. Trust in the writer’s words. The writer’s story. The writer’s world. The writer’s work.”

So, if you’re intrigued, come to the courthouse and cast your own judgments.

Is there a sensual heaven? You be the judge!

Ashman describes the work as toeing the line between mystifying and demystifying outlooks on life in relation to religious indoctrination, the point of existence and human connection.

“The play is set in the afterlife, so you may leave your nihilism at the door, or not, we welcome it too,” says Ashman. ” If you’re wanting to hear a fresh perspective from an inquisitive woman and you’re keen to experience something provocative, poetic and playful, come through.

We’ve also got a Q and A session after our show on the 31st of July that might interest you. Some of the anecdotes featured here are humorous and harrowing. I invite you to witness how through this work I’ve turned my grief into gratitude, my loss into light and my fears into faith.”

A culmination of four years of creative development, with dramaturgical feedback from female artists and friends from diverse cultural backgrounds spanning Australia, South-East Asia, the Middle East and France, Make Me A Houri blends poetry, stylised physicality and unusual anecdotes to explore the relationship between the realms of the mystical and the material. It promises to be a powerful debut season for Emina Ashman, as both writer and performer of her own work.

July 25 – August 4

 Bookings: 03 9347 6948 or online at www.lamama.com.au

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