A few good words with Sagirah
BVS: This work is full of ritual gesture and sacred objects surrounding beans. There’s something so beautiful about the way they take and hold space here; the narratives that food builds within our own histories, and those of our ancestors. Tell us a little bit how you came to beans as a tincture/magic/focus.
SS: My whole life I’ve been searching for stories that resonate with the cultural specificity of my upbringing. Being a descendant of the survivors of American slavery and being a third generation Muslim means I grew up without stories (in the mainstream culture) that fully reflected the nuances and flavor of growing up Black and Muslim. And on the few occasions where those stories were visible, they often centered the voices, stories, concerns of men. With this context in mind, I write from a place of hunger. I crave stories that are doused in the flavor of the women who reared me. I’m not a particularly great writer, so the closest I can get to channeling that energy is through the act of ritual and through the honoring of even the smallest details. For me, this includes food as an entry point into culture and relationship building. I’m forever in awe of how our ancestors were able to preserve pockets of culture as form resistance—which even today ( if you are paying attention) you can’t help but notice in the traditions we still carry with us---from food, music to idioms--the reliance of our ancestors manifests in our norms and culture making. Beans in particular became an entry point for me because of the relationship my community has with the bean pie.
My poetry has been exploring bean pie as an entry point to learn more about my community and also unpack the potential subtext of bean pies as a parallel to the particularities of Black Muslims’ historic role in resistance and all of the complexities that arrived with this. From the standpoint of health and wellness, economic empowerment, and collective nostalgia— for me, bean pies in more ways than one, are in conversation with our positioning in the culture.
Bean pies, were the muse that lead me to really start investigating beans and their histories. It’s been a fascinating journey and I have dozens of some readable and some not so readable bean or bean pie related poems because of this.
BVS: I feel like faith is always (or almost always) a part of poetry, even if it’s not as pointed or nameable as it is in “Qasida for the creator of bean pies”—if nothing else, we all are pledged to the temple of words. There is some kind of religion there, perhaps. But this is different, named, clear—Islam undergirds all three poems. How do you feel that faith informs your writing and/or gaze?
SS: Faith informs my life and as a result informs my writing both consciously and unconsciously. I was raised in a Sufi household and the older I get, the more apparent it becomes to me just how much of my poetry is influenced by this tradition. The tightrope of celebration, reverence, reverie, love, anger, hope---for me all these things circle back to my faith and specially that up bringing. What’s been weird for me is the external mainstream cultural shifts and perceptions with regards to Islam and Blackness. For me, I think my poems have always written from the same essential places, but I wonder what residue these external gazes are leaving on the poems. For me regardless of if the Islam in my poetry is overt to an external reader or not, I try to write from a place of sincerity.
BVS: Sometimes, I lament the internet because information is too easily extracted. Sometimes, I miss the labor that a Google-less world demands. Describe your favorite book without naming the author or the speakers/characters. Let us do the research to find it.
SS: I love this question so much! This novel changed my life. I read it for the first time when I was about 12—and it was the first time I had come across literature where the voices and concerns of Black girls were centered in a serious way. The content of this novel is heavy, and difficult because of the abuse and trauma the characters go through. However, it was refreshing to read, in the sense that as a poor Black girl who did not feel beautiful who was still unpacking the dangers of internalized white supremacy, and as a survivor of assault---reading this novel was the first time I felt seen during some of the darkest years of my youth. I go back to reading this novel often and many of the other works of this author who is the greatest living American novelist. This novel will break your heart but also hold a mirror up to the cruelness of the world and will do it with prose that is so riveting it might as while be subversive poetry.
[Editor's note: My first instinct is to say that this book is The Color Purple, by Alice Walker, as it's a coming of age(s) story that deals with trauma, supremacy, beauty, etc., written by one of the best writers to ever do it, but I recognize that I may see that in this description because it's my favorite book. This got me thinking about how this description could fit so many books written by (and for) black women and what that says about our need to be seen, heard, our need to have the pains and joys of our experience communicated outside of our intimate family partnerships/homes/hearts. Really made me meditate on legacy and how we see ourselves and each other in and through writing. What a blessing!]
Sagirah Shahid is a Black Muslim writer from Minneapolis, MN. Her poems and short stories can be found in Mizna, Paper Darts, AtlanticRock, Blue Minaret, and elsewhere. Find here on FB at @beanpiepoet & Twitter @ SagirahS.