The Vulnerable Coupling of Languages: A Dialogue with Rabha Ashry
Rabha Ashry is Egyptian, from Abu Dhabi, and based in Chicago. She has a Bachelor of Arts from New York University Abu Dhabi, and she has recently completed an MFA in Writing at School of the Arts Institute of Chicago. She spends a lot of time scribbling short poems in her notebook and smoking menthols. She likes collaging, playing the ukulele, and watching copious amounts of trashy TV in her free time. Hearing her name pronounced right makes her happy in a way she can’t quite describe, and she speaks to her roommate’s cats in Arabic because she knows they speak Arabic too. She writes about exile, the diaspora, and living between languages. She has been a fellow at Ox-Bow School of Art. She has done residencies with Holly and the Neighbors and Black Widow Books. She is the co-founder and editorial director for Second Draft Press. Her work has been published in the Oyez review, Collected 2018, Airport Road, Electra Street, and Strange Horizons.
BY NKATEKO MASINGA
This conversation took place between South Africa and the United States via email.
Nkateko: Hi Rabha. Congratulations on being shortlisted for the Brunel International African Poetry Prize! What does being on this shortlist mean to you?
Rabha: Hello Nkateko. Thank you so much for reaching out to me!
I moved to Chicago by myself four years ago to pursue my MFA in Writing at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago. In that time it has been difficult not to feel alienated from my mother tongue and my heritage. Living in a place so foreign to me, and so far away from everything I know, it has been a struggle to stay connected to my roots.
Growing up, Arabic was the language of parents, teachers, and cartoons. I taught myself English, and it became my secret language, the language I used to communicate with my sisters without my parents eavesdropping. My relationship to Arabic has always been uncomfortable. Moving away from home made me realize and understand my deep love for the language I’ve always taken for granted. I find myself mouthing Arabic to myself when I’m anxious or feeling lonely.
My favorite verse of the Quran, roughly translated, is a prayer imploring Allah to “ease my path, open up my chest, untie the knot of my tongue, so that I may be articulate.” I feel my tongue untying as I write in Arabic and English, as I traverse the lines I have put in place two decades ago surrounding the two languages that live in my mouth.
Being shortlisted feels like recognition, like being seen and heard. It feels like validation for my struggles with language, an acknowledgment of the vulnerable coupling of Arabic and English in my poetry. I appreciate and admire many of the shortlisted and winning poets, and it’s an honor to be considered on par with the wildly talented African writers the award has brought into the spotlight.
Nkateko: A few weeks after we began our conversation, the news came in that you had won the 2020 Brunel International African Poetry Prize. Congratulations on this incredible achievement! Can you take us back to the moment you found out you had won?
Rabha: I was in a work meeting on zoom when I got the email. Thankfully, I was on mute, because the first thing I did was scream, then I jumped up and ran to my partner to tell him. It was such an exciting moment! Seeing the “You’ve won!!” on my phone was so surprising and so so gratifying.
“My relationship to Arabic has always been uncomfortable. Moving away from home made me realize and understand my deep love for the language I’ve always taken for granted. I find myself mouthing Arabic to myself when I’m anxious or feeling lonely.”
Nkateko: I was listening to the podcast of a BBC Radio interview in which Safia Elhillo and Fatimah Asghar were discussing their 2019 anthology, Halal If You Hear Me. In the conversation, Elhillo mentioned the influence that the rhythmic language of the Qur’an has had on her own writing. This influence is quite evident in her work. Two of my favourite poems by her, ‘ars poetica’ and ‘vocabulary’, explore the difficulty of translating from a language in which there are no separate words for certain concepts like and love, and also where numerous meanings can be assigned to the same word, which she then emphasizes by crafting the latter in the form of a multiple-choice test. Similarly, in her poem titled ‘Kal’, Asghar says, “Allah, you gave us a language where yesterday & tomorrow are the same word. Kal.” In your biography, you mention ‘living between languages’ and I immediately thought of these two poets and how their work explores that concept, particularly with Arabic and English.
In the poem ‘half asleep’, you talk about “a tongue heavy with anchor” and that makes me think of the burden of translation. I have always been curious about what is lost when we translate from one language to another, but I have never had to think about how to work with two languages simultaneously. Is it an act of betrayal to use one language over the other, or are there poems that call for this? In ‘drums’ you use both Arabic and English, and for someone like me, who cannot read Arabic, it is not entirely clear why that is. What informs your process when you are crafting a poem that begins, perhaps, in Arabic, in your mind and then ends up as English on the page, or a mixture of the two languages? Of the two languages that live in your mouth, which one ends up on the page and why?
Rabha: I love that you bring up Safia Elhillo and Fatimah Asghar, they’re two of my favorite poets and their work hugely influences my poetry. Halal if You Hear Me is a brilliant anthology.
I think about translation and accessibility a lot. Writing in English alone feels like I’m putting myself in a box I’m not comfortable with. I take a lot of pride in my mother tongue and I aim to represent that pride in my writing. I have dedicated a lot of my time and energy to learning and becoming fluent in English. A big part of me believes that my determination to master the language as much as I am able to has been due to a lot of internalized racism. I think about the concept of the colonized mind, about how my ability to articulate myself in English has always been praised. From mothers back home hoping to replicate my training so that their daughters would speak the language as well as I do, to Americans marveling that I could speak without a visible accent. While this may seem like validation, it feels like a betrayal. I wish now that I could go back and spend as much time and energy into my Arabic. I worry that, in building a writing practice that is primarily English, I have turned my back on the beautiful intricacies of Arabic.
I was always determined to create in English, and it’s that alienation that I feel from my mother tongue that I try to replicate in my poetry when I use my broken, imperfect Arabic. I want my English readers to feel like they missed a step. To be reminded that the world outside of English is vast and beautiful. I want my readers to settle into their discomfort, to acknowledge the Arabic as a world they might not be able to enter but would be able to understand from context.
Nkateko: When I read your ten poems for the first time, I made a note of the ages mentioned in the different poems as well as what happened to the narrator at each of these ages. Was it a conscious choice to use numbers (versus writing the ages out), perhaps as a way to count the various traumas inflicted on the narrator’s body and mind? In other poems in the set, numbers are used to emphasize the cost of something, or the number of times one must pray in order to be forgiven. Perhaps I am reaching by seeking a connection or a hidden meaning behind the numbers, and this could just be a stylistic choice, but I find it very interesting. The poem titled ‘wrong’ reads almost like a counting song at first, and then exposes something more sinister as the narrator gets older.
Rabha: I grew up counting prayers. Five times a day, six during Ramadan. I’ve always been nostalgic about dates. The numbers five and thirteen hold a lot of significance for me. For as long as I can remember, everything felt like a countdown, and I suppose that’s why I count up in “wrong”.
In “wrong” the numbers serve as a way for me to collect and characterize my upbringing. I wanted to see how five was different from twenty four, and seven from nineteen, and so on. I use the numbers as a way of list-making and as a way of keeping track.
Ultimately, though, the numbers were a stylistic choice.
Nkateko: ‘I want my English readers to feel like they missed a step.’ I love this. When I started writing, I would italicize every word that was in my home language, Xitsonga. I even had a detailed glossary of Tsonga words at the end of my first chapbook. All of this makes me cringe now, but at the time I thought that this was standard. I believed that it was the best way to make my writing accessible to everyone. A few years ago, I was a panelist at the book launch of Serurubele, a poetry collection by fellow writer Katleho Kano Shoro in South Africa and I shared what a revelation it was when I read one of the poems in which she personifies her mother tongue, Sesotho, by saying that she too, next to English, will have her back up straight. This rebuked me for my years of using italics to bend my mother tongue into subservience next to English. It is true that the world outside of English is vast and beautiful, yet sometimes it takes the work of another writer to remind us of what we know but often fail to see. Is there anything that you lose sight of now and then, that the work of fellow writers or your writing community reminds you to do, or not to do?
Rabha: I used to spend a lot of time worrying about accessibility, about pleasing my audience, making my experiences easily digestible. I write a lot about trauma, and I’m realizing that it’s not my responsibility to appease all of my readers, my only responsibility is towards myself and doing justice to my experiences in my writing.
I used to use transliteration so that my Arabic would still be readable, but that became a compromise I wasn’t willing to make. Safia Elhillo’s The January Children was the first time I came across Arabic used in poetry so frankly and unapologetically. It inspired me to do the same thing with my poetry, and that is one way that the writing community helped me to understand my work better.
I’m now working on becoming a more active member of the Chicago poetry scene. Of course, with everything that is going on, that has been put on hold. I’m trying to gain more confidence in my abilities as a performer. With the support of various artist collectives based in Chicago; Second Draft Press, Holly and the Neighbors, and Black Widow Books, I am giving myself the space to conceive of my writing as more performative and visual. I find this evolution in my art practice to be very exciting.
Nkateko: That is very exciting. Do you think that there are poems that only belong on the page, or that all poems can be adapted into performance pieces?
Rabha: I think some poems are more urgently performative than others. More specifically, poems that have Arabic in them, as performing them give the language more context. I don’t necessarily believe that all my poems can be performed. Poems where I’m experimenting with white space on the page tend to stay there.
Nkateko: In an essay titled ‘Functional White: Crafting Space & Silence’, Orlando White writes that the white space is just as important as the text in a poem and that it can be used to “express a silence.” I did not fully understand this until I started reading the work of poets who use white space intentionally, to carve out an image or to imitate the pauses we make in speech; wide gaps for long pauses, small gaps for short pauses. At that time I was beginning to experiment with form, writing pantoums with no punctuation, using caesurae instead of punctuation in some poems, learning the importance of a line break. All my high school knowledge of poetry told me that a new stanza is like a new paragraph and is preceded by a long silence. I then came across run-on lines that crossed stanzas and I learnt to feel my way through each poem, to read the text out loud and decide where it feels comfortable to insert a pause. What are you learning in your own experimenting that perhaps contradicts what you believed poetry could be, or what it could do? In the midst of this global pandemic, we are forced into a type of silence, a sort of white space taking over where we previously had interactions with others. Where do you find community during this time, especially since you mentioned that you were working on becoming a more active member of a poetry community? Have you been able to move some of those interactions online?
Rabha: I used to be of the opinion that a poem could only exist as a column on the left side of the page. A very traditional conceptualizing of a poem. It was through the encouragement of my professors in grad school that I started moving the words around on the page. I think of white space as room to breathe, to make the reader slow down. I don’t really partake in visual arts at all, so this is my version of visual art; a poem that is not only a poem but a drawing, an interpretation of what space can do.
A lot of the people organizing in the poetry scene have moved their work online. Aywa, an organization that seeks to bring SWANA queer voices to the front, have been putting together online open mics. Second Draft Press have been putting forth daily writing prompts. Black Widow Books and Holly and the Neighbors have been holding online residencies on Instagram. While it’s challenging to organize in this current atmosphere, the poetry scene has been mobilizing and creating space for poetry enthusiasts around Chicago.
Nkateko: ‘…a poem that is not only a poem but a drawing, an interpretation of what space can do.’ This is beautiful. Is there a poetic form that you like working with, one allows you to explore white space in the way that you are attempting to?
Rabha: Concrete poetry is always fun to play with when thinking about white space.
Nkateko: It is indeed a challenge to organize in these difficult times but it is also very encouraging to know that the creative work has not stopped altogether. A sense of community is important and I am glad that there are platforms creating space for poets to share their words. Thank you so much for speaking with me, Rabha. I truly appreciate the time that you have taken to answer these questions. Congratulations once again on winning the prize. I wish you the very best with your writing as well as any other endeavours that you will be pursuing this year and beyond.
Rabha: Thank you so much for taking the time to interview me!
Nkateko Masinga is an award-winning South African poet and 2019 Fellow of the Ebedi International Writers Residency. She was nominated for a Pushcart Prize in 2018 and her work has received support from Pro Helvetia Johannesburg and the Swiss Arts Council. In 2019, she won the Brittle Paper Anniversary Award. Nkateko is an interviewer and director of the Internship Program at Africa In Dialogue, as well as the founder and managing director of NSUKU Publishing Consultancy. She is the author of a digital chapbook titled THE HEART IS A CAGED ANIMAL, published by Praxis Magazine. Her latest work has been selected by the African Poetry Book Fund and Akashic Books to be published in the 2020 New Generation African Poets chapbook box set.