- Safia Elhillo
The PdS Black Voices Series Presents: SAFIA ELHILLO
talking with an accent about home (reprise)
after Lawrence Joseph
a sudan of gardens & magnolia flowers
of cloying thick coffee & dark dregs
a sudan of my grandfather awake
with the sun & feeding the birds & the
early morning perfume of something
burning a sudan split by a river in two
quartered by new boundaries &
i with my feet in my grandmother’s lap
& my story perfect by never beginning
oiled in romance the river nile a dirty
refrain emptied of actual water
the great-aunts long dead dark-lipped
smiling in pictures four long burn
scars striped down each face healed
over to look painted on
asmarani does psychogeography
once we lived in zamalek in the same building as mohammed tharwat once i
was four years old in dar es salaam in love with a boy named osmani once in s
harm el sheikh i bought a peachcolored doll & was called darkgirl for the first
time smiled with my teeth didn’t know he meant to be cruel once in cairo i sat
next to amr diab’s daughter while learning to embroider nameless & tiny
flowers once in nairobi i learned to speak english once in washington dc i
answered black & was told to say nigger to prove it once in khartoum i was
three days returned not yet readjusted & wearing bright white sneakers that i
cleaned with a toothbrush once in khartoum the sun warmed my earrings until i had to take them out once in geneva the pink wall took the skin off my arm once in geneva i was one of three african girls at school two of which were said to stink i was never told which two
self-portrait with the question of race
ع ِرق: /i·riq/ n. race; vein; SUDANESE COLLOQUIALderogatory african blood; black blood.
”ا لله يسود ليلتك زي ما سود وجهك“ ”may god darken your nights/ as he has darkened your face“
:اسمرت: /as·ma·rat/ v. FEMALE THIRD PERSON SINGULAR PAST TENSE to tan; to get darker.
egyptian comedian mohamed henedi dresses as a sudanese man & sings
“وسمرت وإتحرقت بس بطاطا“ ”she got darker/ & burned like a potato“
[but your daughter will be fine but keep her out of the sun but do something
with that hair or people will not know she is بنت عرب daughter of arabs]
A few good words with Safia
PDS: In both “asmarani does psychogeography” and “talking with an accent about home (reprise)” you push away from normative punctuation, forgoing any full stops for a fluid line. How do you see your syntactical choices speak to the content of these poems? What about writing identity prompted this formal move?
SE: The decision, at its core, honestly comes from the fact that I have an obsessive need for clean, straight margins, if I can help it. This often means that I can’t break the line where I maybe would have chosen to break the line if it weren’t for the constraint of needing all the lines to be the same length. I’ve found the caesura helps me visually render where I would want that break to be within the container of the shape the margins create. I also like to use the caesura in place of actual punctuation because I like that it’s more of a suggestion, a hesitation, than a hard stop or enforced pause. It keeps it feeling gentle and musical when I read it back to myself (I can only hope that this is what’s happening when a reader who is not me encounters the poem). Visually, I also prefer the caesura to traditional punctuation because it’s a visual enactment of little bits of silence. I like there to be a good dose of silence in the poems, otherwise it feels like I’ve used too many words.
PDS: If there was one poem written by someone else that could sit next to these three poems, which one would you choose? What tensions/dialogues would you look to engender?
SE: I was thinking a lot about Lawrence Joseph’s poem, “Sand Nigger,” during the time I was writing these poems (“talking with an accent about home [reprise]” is written after “Sand Nigger”). I am fascinated by the ways we rebuild the worlds we’ve left behind in the new worlds that host us, and the Lebanon in Joseph’s poem feels like the Sudan in mine, the homeland that haunts the hostland. He writes: “In the house in Detroit…Lebanon is everywhere/in the house.” He said the thing I’ve been trying to say, the reason I’ve kept writing and rewriting in an attempt to get at this simple truth that has complicated everything.
PDS: What does it mean to you to be a black poet? How does your identity inform your work?
SE: Lately, as a black poet I’ve been thinking a lot about the phrase being used by #BlackPoetsSpeakOut: “I am a black poet who will not remain silent while this nation murders black people. I have a right to be angry.” It keeps me aware of what is at stake—I am black, and alive, and speaking, so I need to know why I am speaking, and why I am writing. I am black, and woman, and immigrant, and Muslim, and Arab, and alive—like, what are the odds? I’m here, for now, and I get to make that mean something. Growing up, I was told a lot of stories about old Sudan, about my family, and what still haunts me is the story about some of my grandfather’s sisters, each of them poets, neither of whom could read or write. They’d speak the poems out loud and commit them to memory, but then the poem died with the body. And being forgotten is another sort of death, so I have the chance here to keep some stories from going extinct. If I get to stay alive, the stories I’ve been told get to stay alive with me, the things I’ve seen and the things that matter to me, get to stay alive with me.
As far as identity, my crises around identity are sort of the lifeblood of my work at this point. I think a lot about the Adorno quote, “for a man who no longer has a homeland, writing becomes a place to live.” I exist in the hyphens between my worlds—Sudanese-American, African-Arab, etc.—and I try to write into that hyphen because otherwise it tortures me—if I’m not actively engaging with it, then I’m at its mercy.
SAFIA ELHILLO is Sudanese by way of Washington, DC, currently living in New York City. A Cave Canem fellow and a poetry editor at Kinfolks Quarterly: a journal of black expression, she received an MFA in poetry from the New School. Safia is a Pushcart Prize nominee and joint winner of the 2015 Brunel University African Poetry Prize. Her work appears in several publications and in the anthologies TheBreakBeat Poets: New American Poetry in the Age of Hip-Hop.