The Naming of Things: A Dialogue with Safia Elhillo

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.

Gaamangwe: 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: 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’sTed 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 four 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 to act on their ugliest, scariest impulses, which, before had been sort of set back by the court of public opinion; and now we’ve found out, because a lot of people voted for this guy, I think it revealed that public opinion was always more on their side than we all thought to be.

Gaamangwe: I can imagine, it sounds absolutely scary, but I am here so I really am aware of how far my imagination can take me. I wonder what it’s like for you especially if we speak of Sudan and your relationship with Sudan, which is where your parents are from originally, right? Actually, did you live in Sudan?

Safia; No, I have never lived in Sudan. I have visited roughly once a year since I was born but I have never been enrolled in school in Sudan. I have never actually even been there for more than three months at a time, so I can’t say I’ve lived there. And that was something that I started to think about, because that’s another layer to what makes it hurt so much about the state of this country here, that this is the country where so many people came to be safe—and obviously it had its issues before, but there is something extra blatant and glaring about it this time around. Where, I think for the first time for some of us, the question has become, would we have been better off back home? And I let that thought cross my mind but also Sudan is no walk in the park right now either and there’s a lot of stuff going on that has not been getting a lot of media coverage because generally that is the deal with Sudan. I think it’s very easy for me to romanticize Sudan as an idea, and as sort of this mythical homeland, but the sort of concrete 2016 reality of Sudan is that it also is a very troubled country and I think that Sudan is going through enough without me sort of assigning it my existential shit. So, basically both of the countries I belong to are sort of a mess, which is why I don’t believe in countries anymore.

Gaamangwe: Wow, that’s really overwhelming.

Safia: It’s a weird time.

Gaamangwe: I am a contrast of you. I am from Botswana, and have lived my whole life in Botswana, and as far as we are talking about peace and war, we are up there as one of the most peaceful countries in Africa and the world. So really nothing much happens here so I wonder what it’s like to belong and also not belong to a country that has a long history of war and everything that is painful and unbearable and horrible? And now being in America and having that sense of “do I really belong here or did I ever belong here?”

Safia: I think also with both these countries—I’ve thought about this more in terms of Sudan, but I think the same statement can be made with the US—because there is so much trauma wrapped up in the history of these countries, there are a lot of moments of rupture, where something really awful happened and a new version of the country emerged from that. Sort like Russian nesting dolls. But one of the results is that across generations, none of us have the same version of, let’s say Sudan in mind, when we talk about Sudan. So when my grandparents talk about Sudan it’s one thing, when my mother talks of the Sudan of her youth it’s another thing, and it sounds absolutely beautiful, but all I have of the Sudan that I have seen and experienced is the Sudan of today, which is not in such a great shape. And I do understand that it is sort of easy to fall into nostalgia and romanticize the past version of a country, especially a version we didn’t experience firsthand, but hearing about the sorts of freedoms that where afforded my mother’s generation as young people in Sudan, and the exchanges of ideas, art music, culture, that they were able to experience as young people there—that is a beautiful version of Sudan that I can only imagine, But part of what brings up this existential crisis for me is that, that is the Sudan that I long for, but it is one that I have actually never experienced, so I feel this patriotism for a place that no longer exists and hasn’t existed in my lifetime. I think we all have our versions of nostalgia, we all have versions of the past that we think are better than the moment we live in today and it just so happens that my version of the past is wrapped into a sense of national identity.

Gaamangwe: I don’t think I have ever been nostalgic about my country. But perhaps if I was to be nostalgic, I will be nostalgic of my Botswana before HIV/AIDS, because that has been our war. That Botswana sounds lighter to me.

Now let’s shift to Asmarani, what were you naming here? 

Safia: So when I talk about obsession, that is a project that was entirely born of obsession and I sort of pieces together the intellectual aspects afterwards. Asmarani happened because one day I woke up and I texted my friend Aziza saying “I think I want to write a book about Abdelhalim Hafez.” I don’t know when all these things about blackness, brownness and Arabness came through but they sort of came later on while in the process of writing the book. And so those first few months after making the decision that I wanted to write this book about this person, it was just a lot of research—more research than I have ever done for a project—where I figured that I had to learn as much as I could about Abdelhalim Hafez to figure out what my entry point was. And I found it in this word that ended up becoming the title. Asmarani is a term of endearment in Arabic for a brown-skinned or dark-skinned person. In his love songs, Abdelhalim Hafez would sing almost exclusively to this asmarani, and it opened up a lot of questions for me about my place in the Arab world, which has always been a big question mark, where I don’t know how Arab I ever felt. We speak Arabic in my family, in the part of Sudan where my family is from, but I don’t know how much I ever thought of myself as an Arab. I had a lot of experiences in the Arab world where it was clear that a lot of Arabs were not reading me as Arab either—a lot of microaggressions where someone would say something like “I didn’t know you spoke Arabic in Sudan”, or “You speak Arabic so well, where did you learn that?” And I lived in Egypt when I was younger and I think that’s where, a lot of those microaggressions happened, that I internalized but never really examined because I was young and didn’t think too much about them. And so, in starting this project, exploring my Arabophone, Blackness or Arabized Africanness—I used to say my Black Arabness, but I don’t know if that term feels right anymore—it made me think a lot about how radical it is for this  widely adored pop singer heartthrob famous person  to specify the darker girl every time he sings a love song. So that was my entry point: as the darker girl in this Arabic speaking world, what do I have to say? And that sort of started the project. But there is also a lot of family stuff, a lot of things about my parents, my childhood, because on the more sentimental and less political side, I just listened to a lot of Arabic music growing up, so a lot of those songs trigger a lot of memories for me, being a little kid and hearing my grandmother singing in the kitchen, so that’s another central element.

Gaamangwe: That’s amazing. A lot of your work is very personal and vulnerable and intentional, which is really refreshing. It’s interesting the way you share and bring yourself to the world as a writer. To say I am going to write about Abdelhalim Hafez, and have that be an intentional thing and actually create a chapbook is powerful. This is the book that won you the Sillerman Poetry Award, right?

Safia: That’s where the confusion happens: Asmarani was a chapbook, and at the time of submitting to the Sillerman Prize it was the title I gave my full-length manuscript—which contains the chapbook, but which is also almost double the length of that. So we’ve changed that title of that book to The January Children, to sort of avoid confusion, where people look for the chapbook and they get the full length, and vice versa.

Gaamangwe: So Asmarani is completely different from The January Children?

Safia: Yes, Asmarani is the chapbook and it’s already out, and The January Children comes out March next year. All of the Abdelhalim Hafez poems are contained in The January Children, but I think the frame is different. While I think Asmarani was much like a zoomed-in project that was, for the most part, only concerned with the parts of my life that applied to that Abdelhalim Hafez obsession. And The January Children zooms out a little bit more, and it’s a little bit more Sudanese, I would say. “The January Children,” first of all is what they called my grandfather’s generation who were born under colonial rule, so what they would do so that they could assign them official birth certificates is that they would go to each village and they would line the children up by height and would assign them a birth year based on height—so the taller you were, the older they would assume you would be, and then they gave everyone the birth date of January 1st.  With my grandfather we were able to calculate his real birthday because he knew his birthday on the Islamic calendar, but for a lot of people of that generation, the only birthday they had was January 1st, and it may be real or not real, so they call that whole generation the January Children. And this book is more of exploration of my family, more of Sudan then verses the Sudan now. There is a series in there called “talking with an accent about home,” which is a series of erasures whose source text is interviews that I conducted with Sudanese people and members of the Sudanese diaspora, that opened with the two questions “where are you from?” and “where do you consider home?” And the conversation that sort of came out of that was from the differences between those two answers. So there is a lot more of this mystical, mythical Sudan in that book, and a lot more of exploration of my Sudaneseness in that book, and—sort of scratching the surface where I wanted to get more into this but it was towards the end of writing the book—but a lot of exploration about Nubian identity and Nubianness, where even the Arabness of my Sudanese is sort of not entirely indigenous to my people. So there are a lot of thoughts on Africanness and Arabness and Blackness and my family.

Gaamangwe: I read the poem about the January children to my sister and she was like even as Africans sometimes we also have misconceptions about other African countries especially if you have never been there, and also because the narrative that we get about ourselves are really half of the truths. But we often have similar histories because the concept of the January children also applies to my grandmother’s generation. So thank you for naming things because this is how we are also learning of ourselves and quite possibly reclaiming ourselves.

So how do you envision the exploration and naming of the multi-poem that is Safia Elhillo?

Safia; I am honestly making that up as I go along , I have never been much good at planning things in advance, so everything in my life has been in the moment, making each decision as it comes, and that how I’ve gotten to the next moment. So far the only plan I have towards the future is to keep writing and keep reading, because I do love books and there are so many in the world that I have read and I am trying to get to them all, and to keep taking care of my plants, and to maybe start taking vitamins.

Gaamangwe: That’s amazing. This was wonderful. Thank you.

 Photo credit: Ahmed Aladdin Abushakeema

Gaamangwe Mogami is a poet, filmmaker and founder of Africa in Dialogue.


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