It’s no secret that the literary world is dominated by white, male voices. But some writers and editors of color are shifting the focus. The Stripes EIC, Aisha Oxley, recently sat down with Safia Elhillo, an poet, Cave Canem Fellow and editor at Kinfolks Quarterly, a literary magazine that features black authors exclusively.
Read their conversation below.
AO: When did you start writing?
SE: I don’t know if I ever “got started” in any decisive way. It’s been around my whole life. My grandfather writes poetry in Arabic. And my aunt writes poems and plays. I was also a new English speaker at one point in my life and I developed a literary fluency in reading English. You know – I could read a book, but with a really thick accent. So that was what my existence in the English language was like for quite some time.
AO: Can you remember the moment or time period when you began to think of yourself as a writer? Do you think of yourself that way now?
SE: Well now, by process of elimination, it’s how I think of myself because I’m not really doing anything else anymore. I don’t think I’ve had that sparkly, “I am a writer” moment yet. I know it’s what I love most in the world. I’m closer to that than anything else but I need to spend some more time in it before I can confidently say, “This is what I am. This is who I am.”
AO: So you just finished your MFA program at the New School. Recently there’s been a lot of talk – think pieces and such – on the difficulty people of color have in navigating predominantly white MFA programs. What was your experience like?
SE: I was lucky in that I started my Cave Canem fellowship during my first year of the MFA. So I had that as a counterpoint to my very white, academic experience. If I hadn’t had that, I would’ve had a very tough time – especially the first year when I felt as though no one was reading my work in a way that was helpful to me. It was like no one wanted to critique my work because they were afraid they might sound racist. The feedback would often be something like: “Oh, this is such a beautiful depiction of your culture.” Meanwhile, the poem would not be about my culture. But I wanted to know – do my metaphors suck? Are these line breaks correct? My work was being treated anthropologically instead of as a piece of work to be crafted. Cave Canem came around at the right time, though. And then I started taking a class with a professor who would be my thesis adviser – he became an ally in that space. One workshop commenter told me that my work ‘presupposes a cultural literacy that I shouldn’t assume all my readers have access to.’ Verbatim. It was a good one. But the professor jumped in and said that because my work is written in English, that’s all the cultural literacy that’s needed to read it.
AO: What did you end up writing your thesis on?
SE: The manuscript of poems is called Asmarani, which is an Arabic term of endearment for a brown skinned or black or tan person. It’s about…many things. But the main through line is this Egyptian singer and actor and general heartthrob from back in the day. Three generations of women in my family have been in love with him. But what I found most compelling and radical about his work is that he sings to the asmarani – the brown girl – in particular. You know, there’s a lot of colorism and racism in the Arab world that I occasionally have to navigate as a black Arab. So I’m exploring my own black Arabness through the lens of writing about and as the asmarani.
AO: Why was Cave Canem such an important space for you at the time?
SE: I’ve known about Cave Canem since I was too young to apply for it. But the year my friends and I all turned 21, it became this whisper everywhere — that this was the year we all needed to apply. And even now that I’ve been there, it still hasn’t lost that sparkly mystique. Cave Canem has always been “it” — black Disneyland for poets. But no one ever fully knew how to explain that experience to me. Everyone was just like “you’ll see.” And now I get it because I don’t know how to talk about what happens there without reducing it. You go to workshops everyday and you hang out with black geniuses from everywhere and you stay up til all hours of the night. It really is just like grown up summer camp for black poets.
AO: So, like Cave Canem, do you feel like the work you do as an editor for Kinfolks Quarterly is providing another space for black poets? Why do you think these exclusive spaces, whether physical or page bound, are important for black writers?
SE: All-white, academic spaces can be paralyzing and heartbreaking. You start to think maybe there is something wrong with your work because people don’t know how to read it. There’s this automatic assumption that my poems use their foreignness and ethnic-ness as a crutch and that they’re not just as careful about craft and editing, as my white male counterpart would be when he’s writing about doing opium in the forest. You hear it enough and you start to wonder if it’s true. As we continue to grow spaces like Cave Canem, Kinfolks, and Caliloo, it becomes a reminder that it’s not true. That the work is just as important. It’s a remedy to this heartbreak that black writers encounter in all white spaces. You’re taught to be grateful just to be there and not make too much noise while you’re in there. So if I hadn’t had the combination of Kinfolks as a community experience and Cave Canem that year, I don’t know if I would still be writing poetry.
AO: Well, I think this would be a good time to ask the central question of this series — What does it mean to you to write while black? What is unique about black writers?
SE: An awareness of what the stakes are – I get to be alive and speaking and have access to a platform where other people are going to listen to what I have to say. So with that in mind, what am I going to say? It’s a responsibility but there’s also a joy and an honor to it. It’s a beautiful thing to have a voice – to have enough ownership over your own lived experience that you can assign the language you use to talk about it. There’s a power in that. And especially in times when we’re being fucking hunted — having that ability to name the things that are happening to us, means that no one gets to pretend that this isn’t happening anymore.
AO: What do you think is different about this moment in time for black writers? Is there anything different?
SE: There is an urgency. Before, being in editing spaces where it’s sometimes thought that a writer was leaning on current events to get their poem pushed forward. But now, I don’t think the attitude is that anymore. You don’t really get to not address what’s going on. And even not addressing it, in a pointed enough way, is a radical act. You know – people outside are dying but I’m gonna write about this bomb ass pedicure I had today. And I’m going to do that on purpose. There’s just much more of an awareness of what we choose to say about the ways we’re living our lives.
AO: Can you talk about an example of writer who has brought awareness to the issues facing black people in a way that moved you?
SE: This could be a very long list, but what immediately comes to mind is something Danez Smith said in an interview: “I hope we can do something besides just talk about the bodies, to actually make sure the bodies remain alive. I want to do more than talk beautifully about dead black people. I want to make sure black people stay alive” and I think that’s so important, to try to think beyond just the moment of mourning to what the action can be.
AO: To go back to your writing in particular, how do you define yourself as a writer? Is there a driving force behind your work?
SE: I think about existing in the in-between of a lot of identities and how that often feels paralyzing in that I don’t belong enough to one side or the other to talk about it with any authority. I’m an American-born Sudanese woman. I am a black Arab. I am an Arabaphone black woman. I am an Arabized African. I’m an Afro-Arab. There are all sorts of configurations for how you wanna put things around the hyphen and a whole set of politics depending on each. I prefer Arabized African or Arabaphone African. I get that the term black Arab is used more often because it’s cuter and shorter. But the problem I find with that is that it assumes that Arabness is the default and that the Africanness just modifies it where I think it’s the reverse. Sudan is in Africa, it’s been there this whole time, so I’m African first and I’m Arabaphone in that that’s the language I speak. But I don’t think that changes anything about my Africanness.
AO: How do you feel as a black woman writer? What does it mean to be a black woman writer versus a black man writer?
SE: I’ve been thinking a lot about #sayhername… so often the black woman has been positioned as the person who stays behind to mourn the black man after he’s died rather than the one that is also being killed. I’m thinking a lot about that because I have lived this narrative of women mourning men. For so long it has been that the men die and we write about them and sing songs and try to preserve their dent on the other side of the bed. But that’s not all we are. So I’m trying to be very careful in the language that I use to talk about black death in terms of gender.
AO: Can you describe a moment that has energized you as a black writer?
SE: I have many versions of that moment – I read a good book or a well-written Facebook status…. I’m constantly being reminded that there are genius black people out here doing the good work. When I wake up and feel like the world sucks and it’s worse than it’s ever been in history and all these black people died over time and it still isn’t better – you know, the fun happy thoughts to have over morning coffee – I know there are well-equipped people taking care of each other and doing this work to uplift and inspire but also to hold people accountable. I don’t feel like I’m mourning by myself anymore.
AO: What are the projects you’re working on now?
SE: I’m finishing the manuscript for Asmarani. I’m also starting a new manuscript in addition to that one. And other than that I’m just trying to figure out what to do now – do I want to live in New York anymore? America? What do I want to do when I grow up?
AO: Right, the million dollar questions. I’ll end with a few fun ones – what’s your favorite book, poem and black writer?
SE: These are the hardest questions you’ve asked so far. I’m really terrible at picking single favorites, but one of my favorite books is Autobiography of Red by Anne Carson, because it expanded my idea of what was possible, or allowed, or doable in poetry and made writing so much more fun. I also really love “The Collected Works of Billy the Kid” by Michael Ondaatje, because I’m obsessed with the process of mythologizing a character, and love when I see it done in poems. Also “Season of Migration to the North” by Tayeb Salih and “Go Find Your Father/A Famous Blues” by Harmony Holiday. I have a billion favorite poems. Here are some: “Blue” by Carl Phillips, “First Red Dress”by Ladan Osman, and “Gravity” by Angel Nafis. And my favorite black writer is Patricia Smith.