Amirah Al Wassif is an Egyptian poet and writer. She is the author of five books in Arabic and two in English, including a poetry collection titled For Those Who Don’t Know Chocolate and The Cocoa Boy and Other Stories. Amirah has her works widely published in various magazines and journals worldwide.
BY SA’ID SA’AD
This conversation took place via Messenger, in a freezing radio broadcasting studio under the scorching sun at Maiduguri, Nigeria and a fine space in the small province of Damietta, Egypt.
Sa’id: The African literary space is taking a new dimension now, especially with the growing number of talented, emerging poets and writers with diverse styles of art crisscrossing the continent. Amidst this uproar and many more, in just two years, the space unnoticeably cast a glance at your swift emergence as a promising writer. This has left many with the question, who is Amirah Al Wassif? So, tell us more beyond the name of Amirah Al Wassif.
Amirah: I am one of those women writers who belong to the minority. Every morning I wake up feeling suffocated. Every evening I go to my bed with a huge sense of pain. Every moment I ask myself, “What is the problem with being a woman? Does God create women to be slaves?” I am that woman who chooses to write rather than sitting helplessly, thinking how to obey the men’s societal commands. I love being free. I believe that God makes us all free. But the question is, why do so many people hate the idea of us being free?
I am a writer from a remote and humble province called Damietta (a port city, and capital of the Damietta Governorate in Egypt) who believes in writing power. I began my writing journey in the Arabic language, but then I felt there was an immense desire to write in English hidden inside me. There were many feelings and issues which I felt hungry to express and talk about in a language without borders. Without limits. I wanted to expand my language. I hoped to find a wide space for my thoughts and my imagination. I have struggled many times while writing in Arabic, because I wrote about issues that seemed forbidden. I love the Arabic language; I love its music, but I adore the English.
I am not that girl who studied at languages schools or at international universities, I studied at public school and got my Bachelor of Arts from a public university. I felt fond of the English language. I fell in love with English and American literature. I just dreamt that I could write in this amazing language which knows no borders.
Sa’id: You have talked about having the dream to write in a language without borders, like English. However, it is surprising how quick you were not only to embrace writing in the English language—despite Arabic being your first language—but to also be able to make a fantastic move with it in just two years. This requires great passion. I mean, what was the motivation behind that? And can we say that this is a complete shift from writing in Arabic to English?
Amirah: My motivation to write in English is scratching the walls which stand between me and myself. The very first time I caught the sight of words shaped in English, I felt like a shiver touched my body and soul. I know that many, many people who are native in English, will laugh and wonder, saying to themselves loudly, “Don’t you think that’s overkill?”
I know that the native language speakers may not figure out how beautiful their language is. I love to discover this language. I love to write like a child. I love to hear some people laughing at me and my writing style. Writing is the most interesting discovery journey. My motivation to write in English is that beauty and the delicious which I found in tasting its letters, words and phrases. I love to eat the words through my eyes, not just to read them.
“My motivation to write in English is scratching the walls which stand between me and myself. The very first time I caught the sight of words shaped in English, I felt like a shiver touched my body and soul.“
Sa’id: A lot of readers have found your poetry to be empathetic and sometimes emphatic. Mostly speaking about the poor, the refugees, marginalized people and children. Looking back into your first English poetry collection, For Those Who Don’t Know Chocolate, this can be clearly seen. And it is very obvious how you were able to put yourself so much into the art at times it makes readers lost into deep thoughts about humanity and especially purpose. Do you have any personal connection with these subjects? Maybe in the past or so.
Amirah: Actually, I don’t have a direct connection with the poverty issues. But, I truly believe that honest writers and artists must have the ability and the courage to write about the poor, the orphans and the street children and the homeless. Actually, when I was fifteen years old I had a dream to write about those people around the world and to help them widely. My big dream is to help all the needy people around the globe one day, when I make it through my writing career. Those people matter. And we’re here on the planet to support each other. This is the greatest purpose.
Sa’id: You have written some books in Arabic and English language as well. For example in English we have seen For Those Who Don’t Know Chocolate which came first and then later The Cocoa Boy and Other Stories followed. So, how many books do you have to your name right now, in both languages? How has the publication process been so far, especially looking at how you break barriers to shift into the English literature?
Amirah: I have five published books in Arabic. I have two published books in English, and a poetry collection under consideration. At the moment I am writing new work in English. Very soon, my novel in English will be out. I am working hard. Reading and writing or maybe writing and reading. I have a determination to start new works and to finish it. My passion is a great motivation that drives me to submit and to receive rejections letters with a smile. The writing process in itself is a marvelous work.
Sa’id: The subjects of your poetry have been diverse. They seem to reflect similarly to the subjects that the Egyptian poet Ahmed Fouad Negm (el-Fagommi) wrote about during his time. Is there any connection or motivation?
Amirah: I love Ahmed Fouad Negm. I have read all his works. Of course I admired his works and his message, but the most influential poets on my writings aren’t Arab poets or writers. I was fascinated by the African, English, American, German, Russian and French literature more than Arab writers and poets. Maybe the best Arab poets who had great influence on me are Mahmoud Darwish and Nizar Qabbani.
Sa’id: Talking about rejection and acceptance, we have recently seen you celebrating, on your social media handles, having received over 200 acceptance letters for publication from different journals and magazines around the world in just January to May 2020. On the contrary to most growing writers, whose bellies were filled with rejection letters. The question here is, don’t you have rejection letters? And if you do, how were you able to get your works out and accepted in such great number?
Amirah: Of course, I have many rejection letters. And every writer has rejections letters. When your piece got rejected, it doesn’t mean that you are a bad writer, the piece got rejected because it didn’t meet the publisher needs or because it didn’t match the editor’s taste. I believe that every writer must have the courage and the confidence to deal with the rejection process.
Actually, I never feel tired of submitting my works here and there. And I am grateful to the many websites that provide resources to help writers find places to submit to. I highly recommend the New Pages website for emerging writers.
Sa’id: As a woman and a writer/poet especially coming from this part of the world, how challenging has it been for you? Is there any form of obstacle(s) that you faced as a woman in your journey? And how were you able to overcome those challenges?
Amirah: As an Egyptian Muslim woman I have many and many challenges to face. One of the biggest challenges in my life is, how dare I identify myself as a writer? I still remember when I attended my first writing conference at Alexandria, and then it was my turn to talk about myself and my writing journey. I still remember how the (male) committee laughed at my existence! And how they refused being a woman who writes, and guess what? She takes her journey seriously! How dare she? I still hear that sound in my ears, one of them who shouted in the space of the confirmation saying, “How does such a simple country girl dare to come here to Alexandria to talk about her writing career and consider herself as a writer?” And again he shouted, “Who do you think you are?” So, one of the biggest challenges here in Egypt or in the Arab world is, “who do you think you are?” Here, if you want to be something, you should have many relationships with the important people. You cannot be yourself at all. And the other challenges is that I am a Muslim writer who wears a hijab and writes as feminist. So how is it possible?
The world has a bad idea about Muslim women, and maybe they don’t trust writers wearing hijab. Maybe they will trust and support her after taking her hijab off. And I insist to write on with my hijab. Because I am who I am. And the freedom requires letting everyone being himself without pressure or hate or judgment or racism. Also, here in my country, being a strong independent woman is such a stigma. You have to be an obedient woman.
Sa’id: Now that the spotlight is on your head, what should your readers expect from you next? Any new projects? Or should they expect another shift to another language? (Laughs). And lastly, what advice would you give to all growing writers and poets in this part of the world, especially now that young and growing writers become depressed due to rejection, failures and probably invalidation?
Amirah: (Laughs). I will be in love with the English language until my death. This is my passion and my eternal love and my purpose. I could promise that in the future, many strong surprises in the writing field will be found. I promise, many true and honest works will come to smash all the walls between that part of the world and the whole world. I just want to say something to those depressed young writers from that part of the world: I made it, and you can too.
Sa’id Sa’ad is a Nigerian poet, nonfiction and short story writer. He co-authored the poetry collection ReUnion. His short story, “My Narrow Escape from the Gloom”, won the 2018 Peace Panel Short Story Prize. He spends his days speaking as an on-air personality and spends his nights writing stories. In between, he sips tea, travels and receives tons of rejection letters.