Safia Elhillo: Interview

by Gaamangwe Mogami

Safia Elhillo is Sudanese by way of Washington, DC. She received a BA from NYU’s Gallatin School of Individualized Study and an MFA in poetry at the New School. Safia is a Pushcart Prize nominee, co-winner of the 2015 Brunel University African Poetry Prize, and winner of the 2016 Sillerman First Book Prize for African Poets. She has received fellowships from Cave Canem, The Conversation, and Crescendo Literary and The Poetry Foundation’s Poetry Incubator. In addition to appearing in several journals and anthologies including The BreakBeat Poets: New American Poetry in the Age of Hip-Hop, her work has been translated into Arabic and Greek. Her manuscript Asmarani has been selected for the 2016 New Generation African Poets chapbook box set. With Fatimah Asghar, she is co-editor of the anthology Halal If You Hear Me.

Safia has performed at venues such as TEDxNewYork, the South African State Theatre, the New Amsterdam Theater on Broadway, and TV1’s Verses & Flow. She was a founding member of Slam NYU, the 2012 and 2013 national collegiate championship team, and was a three-time member and former coach of the DC Youth Slam Poetry team. She is currently a teaching artist with Split This Rock. Safia’s first full-length collection, The January Children, is forthcoming from University of Nebraska Press in 2017.

This conversation happened between the sunny city of Gaborone, Botswana and ecclectic city of Washington, DC by Skype. It originally appeared on Africans in Dialogue, December 2016

Gaamangwe Mogami: Safia, you said “I believe that naming is a claiming act – that in giving something a name, or choosing the word(s) through which we will continue to identify this thing, it becomes ours in this way”.

And you proceeded to talk about how poetry has been a way for naming and renaming things that you have lost, which I think is powerful and quite revolutionary. The idea that we can use poetry as alchemy; a way for us to bring back the people and the lives and the stories we have been and lived to the present.

I want us to start here, on the importance of poetry and its role in the naming and ownership of our stories, losses, traumas, and our healing.
Safia Elhillo: I think the process of turning experiences into stories is a very powerful act of agency, because it switches around the power—especially if we are thinking about trauma. Instead of it being “something that happened to me,” it then turns into an experience that belongs to me, that I get to talk about in whatever way that I see fit. So I think that—that process of reclamation—is really important for our own personal narratives and a part of how we envision ourselves. If we consistently think of ourselves as people that things happen to then I think the sense of agency that we have as we move through the world starts to diminish over time. But if we are to think of everything that happens to us as an experience that belongs to us then that process of reclamation can give us more agency and active power over our own lives.

Gaamangwe: That’s powerful. As a poet and an individual, what are the things that are important for you to name?
Safia: It’s very important for me to name my people. That could be my family, my countrymen, and really of anyone who has had sort of a third-culture upbringing. I think that’s important because I didn’t come across a lot of that when I was a young reader, and it almost convinced me that I didn’t exist. If no one in literature was having the sort of experiences that I was having in my life, then it was hard to figure out if the experiences I was having in my life were real or valid or deserving of poetry or literature. So now, as a writer, I think it’s very important for me to specify; yes Sudan, yes hyphenated identity, yes immigration.

I spent so much of my younger life convinced that I was not real. So now I am trying to do the best that I can to sort of mark my place. I am sort of still in the process of convincing myself that I do exist and that I did happen.

Gaamangwe: I resonate a lot with that because I also didn’t think that people like me exist. There was always only one narrative about Africans that I read and I often felt that, that’s part of the reality I have seen and experiences but not entirely the reality that I am in. But work like yours are doing great in shifting a lot of us.

Still on naming things, you said;

“I believe that a poem is an extended naming, a reversed synthesis that takes all of these pieces that have, for eternity, been lashed together and deemed “love” or “sadness” or “trauma” and spills out everything that has been locked behind their one-word name. A one-word name is a means of codification; a multi-word name is a poem.

It got me thinking that often these lose identities of “black”, “woman”, “Arabaphone” can be thought of one-word name. And the entirety of Safia Elhillo, a poem. So if we were to think of you as a poem, looking at all these identities that you are, what kind of a poem will you be?
Safia: It’s very hard for me to answer this without projecting what I like in a poem. But in a perfect world, if I could be a poem that I like, then that poem would be short, it would be a maybe more experimental poem, it would be in more than one language using more than one alphabet, and probably a lot of people would think it didn’t make sense. I don’t know, actually, if I am describing the poem I want to be or the poem I am trying to write.

Gaamangwe: I often think that we are the stories that we write or there is a lot of ourselves in the stories or the poetry that we write. Maybe we are purging the humans inside us in all the works that we are writing.
Safia: I think so. I was talking to someone the other day about writing and how I think I have been trying to write just this one same poem my whole life, and every new poem is one draft closer to this sort of Ultimate Poem that lives in my brain that I am trying to do justice on paper. Every new poem is one step closer to what this Ultimate Poem is but I still haven’t managed to fully extract it.

Gaamangwe: Wow, that’s powerful. I agree, I think at some level that is what we are all trying to do.
Safia: Although maybe I don’t actually think we want to get to that Ultimate Poem because once we write it then there is probably nothing left to write after that.

Gaamangwe: Perhaps maybe our life’s work is basically the Ultimate Poem. So when it ends that’s when our lives ends. What are the elements of this Ultimate Poem that you find yourself gravitating towards?
Safia: Some of the elements that I have identified so far are bilingualism—or, actually, multilingualism because I think they are many Englishes and many Arabics that I speak in and exist in and write in. I think strangeness, like, weird syntax, is sort of what I feel most married to in my work. A lot of the syntax that I gravitate towards in my writing is sort of directly taken from the syntax I hear when people who do not think in English speak in English. So a lot of the sentences are maybe not in what would traditionally be considered the “correct” syntax, and I love that. I think it sounds prettier that way, and I try to write that way. To sort of do justice to the way that I heard English spoken when I was growing up. But other than that, I am still trying to figure out the other parts. I know there is an element of obsession but I think there’s still a question of what the obsession is with.

Gaamangwe: Have you figured what the obsession is?
Safia: No—I am obsessed with a lot of things. I am just trying to find the through-line between them because then I think it will help me figure out what my one big obsession is.

Gaamangwe: This question came to me because a friend of mine recently asked “what are you trying to do with your poetry?” And I said other than the purging of the Gaamangwes, the humans in me, I think I am obsessed with the idea of truths and mistruths. I am always trying to navigate that world. I am obsessed with asking, what if your truth is actually a mistruth? And your mistruth is a truth? So this is what I am always trying to do and no matter how I try to run away from this obsession, even if I seat down to write a poem with the intention of running away from this truth, but really often most of the time its about truths and mistruths.
Safia: I don’t know if my obsession is specific like that but I do love that though, truth and mistruths. I am still figuring out specifically what my obsession is but I do know that in terms of language, diction and syntax, my project is to make English sound as less-English and maybe more-Arabic as possible. Or, I don’t know if I am necessarily trying to make it sound Arabic, really—but I am trying to make it sound less like the English I was taught in school.

Gaamangwe: That’s powerful. I am now reminded of Taiye Selasi’s Ted Talk titled “Don’t ask where I am from, ask where I’m a local?” and basically she says that we belong to physical spaces as long as we can navigate them as a local, it doesn’t have to be fully but as long as one can navigate that space then they belong to these two or three or f our spaces in that way.
Safia: I love that. That relates to a lot of my thoughts floating around since the shitshow of the election we just had here in the US. And I think to use the language of the question you just asked, I am sort of re-examining what it means to be a local of a country and what a country even means as a construct, because ultimately, even if we are just thinking about Africa, all our countries were made because some white guy got a pen and drew some lines on a map. So, before colonialism those borders were not necessarily the ways that we naturally would have identified ourselves, and would have naturally identified what we claimed as home and where we felt local to. And I’m thinking about that now where many of my questions of my crises around identity are so wrapped up in this idea of a country, when ultimately a country is not a real thing—it’s a thing that some guy made up and I am basing so much of my identity around it. Now I am thinking about what it would like to be a local of a space that I make or space that is made by my community, by my loved ones, by my family. So—what if we were local to only, like, our communities? What if I am only a local of my group of friends? What if I am only a local of my family? Instead of basing that sense of home and nationality and belonging on a country, because country are fallible as hell. Oftentimes, no government actually has the best interest of its people at heart. So if a government is not interested in me, then why am still interested in a government as a way of naming myself and claiming my space?

Gaamangwe: That is interesting, you wrote a poem called Allegiance, and it’s somewhere around the lines of what you are saying right now. I thought the poem was profound especially with everything that is happening in America. What is actually happening there?
Safia: Politically, not much has started to happen because technically he is not a president yet until January, but he has made a lot of terrifying appointments of the people that he is going to hire to surround him and advise him during his presidency. What has been happening on a micro level, what I was afraid will begin to happen, there just been a surge of hate crimes, and there is really this sinister sort of joy behind it. I think, like, white supremacists, white nationalists, are really excited about this moment in history—they don’t see it as the end of the world or the end of a country. And I think the election results just gave a lot of scary people permission…

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