Brunel International African Poetry Prize: A Dialogue With Sahro Ali
Sahro Ali is a Somali-Australian hybrid. Her work explores ghosts of the diaspora, memories and trauma. She is a managing editor at Kerosene Magazine, a fledgling literary magazine created by and for marginalized artists. Her work is forthcoming in an anthology of anti-Trump work called CONTRA, which will be published by Kerosene. She is inspired by the women in her life who encourage and cultivate radical writing. She hopes one day to make them proud. She tweets @sahroaIi.
This conversation took place in the cold, sweetspot of Gaborone, Botswana and the vibrant Victoria in Melbourne, Australia by Email.
Gaamangwe: Sahro, congratulations on being shortlisted for the Brunel International African Poetry Prize. What does it mean for you to be shortlisted?
Sahro: Thank you! I’m still trying to wrap my head around it, there were so many amazing and talented poets who entered. I didn’t really think I’d make the cut. The literary community is huge and it’s easy to get overwhelmed and feel like you’re not really a poet / writer if you’re not churning out something every day. For me it’s acknowledging that I am actually a writer. It’s easy to get lost in your own head sometimes.
Gaamangwe: It’s really exciting to read all of these works. What inspires your poetry?
Sahro: I’m in that early-stage of being a writer where all I can write about is my past experiences and trauma. Which results in crude imagery and language, and I feel like it’s jarring in certain poems. I have a lot of ugly truths to write about and that’s what inspires me to write most of the time. Things that people tend to shy away from and/or are tentative when approaching them. Using soft language to talk about something that’s inherently evil and harrowing is powerful but so is using crude language. It’s like you’re meeting it face to face, and seeing it for what it is, if that makes sense. Other things that inspire me are my friends and how unafraid they are in everything they do.
Gaamangwe: It’s really inspiring and empowering that at the early-stage of your writing, you are already going deep in your traumas. That really takes courage. What traumas from your past experiences are important for you to write about? What do you hope to illuminate about your ugly truths?
Sahro: I’m a daughter of immigrants and watching my parents struggle and try to make a living when I was younger was difficult. Especially as I got older, my parents were convinced I was this Anglicized devil. That’s the subject matter for some of my poems–being stuck between borderlines. To answer the second part of your question, I really don’t know. Right now it’s just acknowledging them and accepting them as they are.
Gaamangwe: Is the conviction that you are an Anglicized devil because of your sexuality? Can you talk to me about existing here and how that conviction affected your personal reality?
Sahro: Yes, but it encompasses everything; me not wanting to adhere to Muslim dress codes, not knowing how to speak my native tongue, being bisexual. I was just constantly never meeting my parent’s expectations and their conclusion was ”Ok, you’re just Anglicized.” But in terms of my sexuality, that’s something that’s concealed in real life. I’ve only come out to my mum this year and before that I was closeted. I couldn’t even say the word ”gay” in real life. So I created my own space online and surrounded myself with other LGBT folk, it’s amazing. But once I go offline I’m hit with this toxic, homophobic environment where I have to control every word and movement. Even now, whenever I compliment women on TV, my mum side-eyes me and turns off the TV. Keeping to myself is something I’ve learnt in childhood, even if it’s the painful option. That’s the reality I live right now, to navigate this space as quietly as possible. Something I know I have in common with other young gay people.
Gaamangwe: That’s a really difficult reality to exist in. You captured this difficulty in your poems; “Daughters” and “Dear Mother”. There is this kind of erasure, where the mother forces or attempts to make the speaker become who she wants her to become. It creates a double-life kind of thing. Did that make accepting your sexuality difficult? What has empowered you to get to the point where you could come out to your mother?
Sahro: Oh yeah definitely, I went through that typical ”maybe I’m not gay, I’m just confused” stage when I was coming to terms with my sexuality. I had to unlearn so much internalized homophobia and it was a painful and uncomfortable process (which is common and inevitable when you’re unlearning anything). It was ten times harder because I’m Muslim and all my life I was fed these ideas that you couldn’t be both Muslim and gay. Once I gave myself a space, however small it was, I was able to explore my sexuality and think and reflect. And being around other like-minded young gay people was all the more liberating. Also, I’m a total coward and depended on twenty seconds of courage, which left me the instant I told my mum.
Gaamangwe: I do think that twenty seconds is all the courage you need. You are brave, because there was so much at stake here. Thank you Sahro, and all the best with Brunel International African Poetry Prize and your poetry.
NB: This interview is part of a collective book project with all the incredible and talented shortlisted poets for the 2017 Brunel International African Poetry Prize.
Download the full book HERE: Conversations with Brunel Poetry Prize Shortlist