Walthamstow-based Andreena Leeanne has opened up about her story as an abuse survivor, and how she’s captured her experience in her honest, emotional poetry collection, CHARRED.
She says of her journey: “Your past does not define your future, take it from me, a black lesbian poet living in London.”
Andreena, now 39, is a childhood sexual abuse survivor. She first came to Walthamstow in 1999 after being made homeless at age 18. She bounced around the borough, staying with a family member – and soon after welcomed a daughter.
“My first permanent council flat was on Vallentin Road, and we had so many happy memories there,” Andreena recalls in an email. “It was offered to us a week before Renée was born. It was completely empty, we had nothing.
“I remember having to keep [the baby’s] milk cold by keeping the bottle in a plastic container filled with water on the windowsill, as we couldn’t afford to buy a fridge for six months. We didn’t have a washing machine either, so we hand washed everything and cooked on a two-ring portable electric cooker for months.”
Flash forward 22 years later and Andreena now lives happily in a lovely Walthamstow two-bed with her girlfriend and now adult daughter.
But poetry, she says, wasn’t part of her life until just February 2014.
Her girlfriend was into art, music, culture and poetry – while Andreena was less keen – so they attended a spoken word open mic night in Hackney as a “compromise.”
She says: “As I was queueing for the toilet, this guy was like, ‘Oh, you look really creative. You know? Do you want to go on the open mic?’ and I was like, ‘No, I haven’t written a poem since I was a child. I’m just here to support my girlfriend in finding out what she likes doing.’
Though as the evening progressed, she felt inspired to contribute to the creative session.
“I was like, I feel like I want to share something. So then I said to the guy, ‘if you get me a pen and paper, I’ll write something. And if I think is good enough, then I’ll go on stage and perform it’.”
She wrote and performed her first poem that same night – and was given a massive round of applause.
“I felt really appreciated and accepted,” she says. “And it was the first time in my life that I’ve actually felt like people listened. It was just a weird feeling [during the reading] – it was like a weird silence. And all I could hear was people clapping. Which is a bit of a contradiction.”
For the rest of 2014, Andreena and her girlfriend ended up spending night after night in different London clubs, as she began to write more.
It wasn’t until 2019, though, that she decided to go deeper into her personal experience in her art – speaking publicly about her story, and the abuse she experienced as a girl.
She recalls: “It was in March 2019, International Women’s Day. I was invited to perform a poem, and the theme was protest. I didn’t have a poem about protest. So I sat down, and I was thinking about what to write. And I thought, you know what, breaking my silence about the sexual abuse, that is my protest. So I wrote a poem about that.
“That was a crazy, crazy time, because I was crying all the way through the poem and then ran out the room, ran into the men’s toilet. It felt really traumatic. That was the first time I’d ever told anyone about the abuse in 30 years.”
“Lots of people are coming up to me afterwards saying, ‘you’re really brave sharing your story, that’s happened to me, too.’ So they’ve been through abuse, as well.
“I felt, ‘Oh my gosh, this is huge’. And then when I got home, I felt vulnerable – there were about 200 people in that room – as I’d said this deeply personal thing.”
Andreena kept writing about everything she’d experienced – but in an unconnected turn of events, quit her job at the end of 2019, just as the pandemic was beginning to take hold.
Suddenly, she was faced with time to confront the traumas of her past – as well as deal with the realities of lockdown.
“My daughter and I created a birthday box project, creating 200 boxes [of gifts] for children and distributing them via food banks all around Waltham Forest, Haringey and Hackney. That’s what kept me sane during the first lockdown – but while I was doing that, I was feeling really emotional. The first six months of 2020 were hard.
“All I could think about, when lockdown happened, was the children stuck at home in abusive households, those children who find escapism in school – and they didn’t have that, because school was closed.
“I was crying myself to sleep at night, writing poems about it. But this birthday box project really saved me from going insane, or thinking too much about my own trauma.”
When money became a concern, Andreena then realised she now had the chance to make her dream of a poetry collection – a solo book – a reality.
“I contacted a publisher, Team Angelica, who had published a few of my poems in an anthology in 2018. I said, ‘I’d like to convert all my poems from my journals into a book, can you help me do that?’ And they said, ‘send them and we’ll see what we can do’.”
Though it wasn’t an easy process. Still somewhat locked down throughout the summer, Andreena had to write up her handwritten poems on her computer, reliving the emotions behind them as she typed.
“I was being retriggered by my poems that I was typing up, because we’re going back now to February 2014, when I started writing,” she admits candidly.
“I’ve been through a lot – I was typing up the poems about homelessness, I was typing up my poems about all sorts of relationship issues, things in my own beliefs.
“When I found poetry writing, it helped me because that was my way of dealing with stuff. Like if I had problems at work, I’d write about it. And then I’d never revisit those poems again. The writing helps, but then I’d leave it alone and move on.”
Her book, CHARRED, was released in October 2020 – and is available on most major book retailers websites. She continues to talk about the book and her work because, she says, she wants to help others find solace in writing poetry.
She tells the Echo: “I felt extremely vulnerable [when my book came out]. You’ll see that this is poetry is like reading my journal and it has helped me so much.
“But also I want to pass that on to somebody else. Because writing can be quite elitist, can’t it? It can be like, you know, ‘you can only write a poem if you if you got a degree in English Language and English Literature’ – whereas I don’t have any of that.
“I don’t have two GCSEs to rub together. And I’ve still been able to write how I feel in a style that feels comfortable to me. It gives people permission.”
In addition to CHARRED, Andreena also supports the LGBTQ+ community with a dedicated open mic night in East London, which she first founded in 2015.
“Over the past six years, people have been inspired to write, because they’ve seen how I write. People have set up events, or open mic nights, because they’ve seen me do it.
“Because I don’t have any experience in doing it – and I’ve done it anyway.”
CHARRED is also available in the legendary Gays The Word bookshop in Central London
To learn more about Andreena, visit her linktr.ee website