The voids that have been filled by poets like Safia Elhillo have been refreshing and overwhelmingly fulfilling to say the least. The rise in exposure of these writers’ work goes to show that they are quenching a very real thirst. Their poetry and storytelling have validated the experiences of many, creating a bond between writer and reader that is rarely seen. The work of black female poets, in particular, has contributed to the journeys of healing, self love, and liberation for many of their readers.
Safia Elhillo is Sudanese by way of Washington, D.C., a poetry editor at Kinfolks Quarterly: a journal of black expression, and she received an MFA in poetry at from the New School. Safia has been nominated for a 2015 Pushcart Prize and was joint winner of the 2015 Brunel University African Poetry Prize. Her work appears in several publications and in the anthologies The BreakBeat Poets: New American Poetry in the Age of Hip-Hop and Again I Wait for This to Pull Apart.
Below is a conversation with Safia Elhillo, exploring her inspirations, motivations, and more broadly the pressing need for raw storytelling and poetry.
BLAVITY: Toni Morrison once said “Freeing yourself was one thing; claiming ownership of that freed self was another.” In what ways has writing been a form of liberation for you?
SAFIA ELHILLO: Writing, for me, has been liberation through agency. The closer I come to telling my story the way I want it to be told, the more ownership I feel over my lived experiences, my identities, etc. It feels liberating to be able to choose the language I use to tell the story instead of just passively accepting the language (or silence) that someone else assigns me. It’s liberation from the silence or omissions that often are assigned hyphenated identities, and non-Western identities, and non-white, non-male identities.
B: Your work does not shy away from vulnerability. Have you struggled through sharing your truths and your wounds?
SE: I don’t think I know any other way to write, really. I generally take everything really personally (when my favorite Arab Idol contestant was eliminated last season it genuinely ruined my whole week) so I don’t even know how I’d be able to approach writing without bringing all my truths and wounds and feelings along with me. The struggle is more so when there are other people’s stories and truths and wounds tied into my telling of my own, particularly with my family, and I have to be careful with that responsibility and try to handle it with integrity.
B: Your poems often deal with the complexities of love, whether it be unrequited, familial or romantic. In What I Learned in the Fire you say “love and the wrong man are an alternative to hating my body.” Explain your journey with self love, and the ways in which you hope your readers can walk away from your work with empowerment.
SE: I’ve come to accept that self-love isn’t this fixed, stagnant endpoint, so it’s always going to be a journey, and it’s always going to require active participation in that journey. That said, I don’t think I quite have words to quite explain my journey, and don’t think the idea is to recreate others’ journeys toward self-love. I have learned that, in my case, it involves being consistently gentle with myself and listening to myself. If I’m tired, I sleep; if I’m hungry, I eat; if I need to be alone (which is 95 percent of the time, honestly), I’ll figure out a way to allow myself that, even if it’s just stepping out of a crowded room to sit outside for a moment.
B: Something that draws me and connects me to your work are the conversations you have with your readers about language.
A line that struck me from To the Girl in My Jazz Class: “When our voices were torn from us, bleached and shoved back into our mouths as a language that does not set a place for us at its dinner table, we still found words.”
Also from dilute: “stupid girl, Atlantic got your tongue”
The English language is inherently tied to oppression, what are your thoughts on the resiliency of black writing to shine through nonetheless?
SE: I believe so hard in reclaiming and mutating language formerly used to oppress and alienate — the Ntozake Shange quote “I can’t count the times I viscerally wanted to attack, deform and maim the language I was taught to hate myself in,” sums up my poetics better than anything I could say myself. I believe in a poetics of mutation, (and as a third culture kid I believe in hybridization of language), especially for people of color writing in languages that, historically, were introduced to us through violence. What I believe in, and write in, is what Wail Hassan in Immigrant Narratives describes as “a language semantically infused by its Other, bearing the marks of linguistic and ideological contamination…a major language in the hands of a minority writer is defamiliarized through its infusion with words, expressions, rhetorical figures, speech patterns, ideological intentions, and the worldview of the author’s minority group, which differentiate the writer’s language from that of the mainstream culture.”
B: From your poem drown: “half don’t even make it out or across you get to be ungrateful you get to be homesick from safe inside the folds of your blue american passport do you even understand what was lost to bring you here.”
Being part of a diaspora evokes feelings of belonging everywhere and nowhere, have you found solace in this? Is there a way to find belonging that isn’t attached to a particular place?
SE: I don’t think I’ve ever felt a sense of belonging to any one place. There are many places I love, but not one that I would immediately think to call “home.” I guess the positive side to living in diaspora (I don’t exactly want to use to word “positive” here because it feels kind of flippant, but I also can’t figure out what other word to use, so) — the positive to living in diaspora is that it dislodges the idea of home from a fixed geographic location and makes it an active building process, where you get to choose (or not choose) where home is or make home a portable concept, which is what I try to do. Whenever I answer a question on this idea of home and diaspora I reach for something my mother says: “I made home,” which I like so much more than “I found home” because it makes it a choice and gives a feeling of agency.
B: In bride price you share stories of women, beauty, marriage and worth. These stories validate the lived experiences of many of your readers, providing a narrative not often read. What are your thoughts on the importance of telling our own stories?
SE: I mean, if we don’t tell our own stories, probably no one will, and it will make it so easy for the world or history or whatever to pretend we don’t exist and never did. Reading poets like Ladan Osman, Warsan Shire, Aziza Barnes, Camonghne Felix, Matthew Shenoda, Elizabeth Acevedo, and the list goes on and on, makes me feel seen in moments where the world or the dominant white male anglophone narrative or whatever has almost succeeded in convincing me that I don’t exist.
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