Intersections and White Space: An Interview with Safia Elhillo

By Holly Spencer




Safia Elhillo was born in Rockville, Maryland in 1990 to Sudanese parents. Her writing explores the nuances between belonging and exile, and the conflict between identity and home. She has appeared in many literary publications, including Poetry, Callaloo, and the Academy of American Poets’ Poem-a-Day Series. Her work has appeared in several anthologies, including The BreakBeat Poets: New American Poetry in the Age of Hip-Hop and Women of Resistance: Poems for a New Feminism. She has been nominated for the Pushcart Prize. She was the co-winner of the 2015 Brunel University African Poetry Prize, won the 2016 Sillerman First Book Prize for African Poets, and has received fellowships and residencies from Cave Canem, The Conversation, and SPACE on Ryder Farm, among others. Currently, her collection, The January Children, won a 2018 Arab American Book Award, receiving the George Ellenbogen Poetry Award.  Her future work, partnered with Fatimah Asghar, Halal If You Hear Me, is an anthology of written by underrepresented Muslim voices: women, queer, trans, and non-conforming writers, due out in April 2019.



You are a globally focused writer during a time of aggressive patriotism here in the United States. How is this impacting the type of writing you are doing now?


So, I think I’ve always had a little trouble with patriotism in general because, I mean, I want to be from somewhere enough to be patriotic to it. But I think increasingly now, so much of my crisis of identity is tied up in the fact that I’ve used national identity as the center of the way I choose to identify myself, and because I’m a transnational person.

            Because my family is from one country and I was born in another country. So, I think, increasingly, I am not so interested in a country or the nation state as the primary way I identify myself.

            Now we have things like the Internet, we have no real way to force separation of peoples across national borders. You can still physically force borders, but people can now talk to each other, can now see each other, and can now exchange ideas across borders, across oceans, across continents in a way that is unique to this time with a speed that is also unique to this time.

            I think it’s making people think new thoughts about what constitutes community and what constitutes belonging in a way that geography never did before.


So, you’re an optimist. You have hope in humans?


I’m a Sagittarius. We’re optimists. (Laughs.)


Because that sounded very open-minded, like we’re going to get through this. There has been such a regressive mindset that has been emboldened by certain facets of the government at this point, so, as a writer and a woman of Sudanese descent, how are you reconciling that on the page?


It’s all well and good to sit and talk about being optimistic, and then sit back and expect someone else to do the work and to build that world that I dream of, but what I think I am trying to do with my writing more and more is to just draft that version of the world that I would like to see, that I think is possible. If you build it, they will come, sort of thing. So, yeah.


This book is covered in loneliness and the struggle to be a “brown girl.” I love that you call yourself a brown girl. You don’t get caught up in the political correctness of lady or woman. It’s approachable. I like that.


Thank you.


You’re welcome. You navigate the age-old awareness of color and skin and beauty with longing and desire expertly. I feel your poems that address Abdelhalim Hafez are a way for you to address desire and longing in a place that doesn’t always see and accept the beauty of brown. Would you expand on this theme of body and desire and how you chose to use Hafez as a trope, an object throughout?


Yes. He was almost an avatar. I think as I got deeper in the process of writing these poems, and things got weirder and I got further and further from shore, I started using Hafez as a body to assign all my varied, complicated feelings of the world that I come from. And I think he is a good face to that because he is like the Elvis to the Arab world. He is so famous. And so beloved. The mythology of him is that on the day that he died, at least four Egyptian girls were recorded to have committed suicide because they were so distraught that he was no longer in the world. He was the Arab world’s national boyfriend.

What got me interested in him in the first place and what I thought was so radical about him, and what is still so radical about him now, is that he would specify the brown girl in his songs. So, the fact that this universally beloved pop star was specifying the darker girl in the face of a society that historically has been pretty racist and pretty colored is so radical. I grew up at the intersection of dual identities and as the result of being like so many intersecting things I never really saw my particular intersection represented anywhere. So that tiny moment of feeling named in these famous iconic love songs, which are actually talking about me, when I grew up thinking that they weren’t. It didn’t register until I was much older. When I was a kid I wasn’t particularly thinking about race or color or how radical the songs were. They were just the songs my mom and grandma liked listening to and revisiting them as an adult and realizing that what I thought was just a continuation of the erasure that I felt in the media was actually a whole body of work that was naming me the whole time.


Because there is the large gap between academic poetry and performance poetry, what kind of poet do you consider yourself and does it depend on the context? How do you bridge the gap?


I think, and maybe again it’s because I am an optimist, but I think that gap is closing. I think that gap is outdated. Because I think that so many, so much of the new guard, particularly young poets of color, started out in performance poetry the same way that I did. A lot of us came up through slam, like I did, coz at that time that was the only space we were seeing young, people of color doing poetry. So, it was really for lack of choice. That’s not to discredit the role it’s had in my life. Most of what I learned today, I learned in those spaces. But I think, for so long we lived hearing that there is a distinction between the page poet and the stage poet. And because we were poets who sort of wrote with the option of performance in mind the whole time, I don’t think I’ve ever written a poem that I wasn’t prepared to read out loud somewhere. I think because of that we often get dismissed as less literary or less deserving of space in academia. Look at who is entering the teaching force as professors, who is winning all the literary prizes, --Natalie Diaz just won a McArthur Award today-- so actually the idea that poets of color who have a performance background, or who write with a musicality in mind, or who just know how to read a poem out loud in a way that feels intentional is outdated. I think we used to be told that we could only do one or the other. And the plot twist is that we get to do both.


And that is the perfect segue for me to ask you since you think those faces are changing, the gap is being bridged, so how does it feel to be a young poet in a field that has been largely dominated by old, white males? Does your face in that crowd, in that changing climate, feel included?


Yes. I feel really in community, I don’t ever feel isolated in any way. I don’t feel like I’m in it alone. There are so many of us, we all grew up together, so it’s exciting to be doing this weird thing with my friends.


Awesome. When you are getting ready to write about a subject, how do you decide where to focus your craft? How does that process work for you?


I think generally, I don’t pick a subject in advance. I think things are already in place and then I sit down to write. It’s not necessarily a subject or them or anything like that. The thing that drives me to write is that there is something I am considering. There might be a word that is knocking around in my head or today I want to use form. I have been using form a lot as an entry point for myself. But I don’t ever think it’s like I am going to sit down and write a poem about economics. It’s still word-by-word, line-by-line, and fundament-by-fundament. Then, a few lines in I start feeling what it’s leaning towards investigating. Or writing in the general direction of feeling uncomfortable in my body. And then seeing where on that chart it ends up.


Your form is extremely pleasing to the eye. You make elegant and poignant use of white space. Tell us about how that functions in your work.


I’ve been using this caesura of white space as punctuation, and I started phasing out the period and the comma because it feels so hard and so mandatory.


So final.


Yeah. I think it introduces an element of silence to the poem that I’m interested in. I don’t like feeling like my poems have too many words in them so this way I can regulate and make sure there is like air in them, there is silence in them, there is space to be able to rest between stops, walls, closets, even. So, yeah. The caesura is my favorite toy. I’m interested in the hesitation, interested in giving the reader a respite for a second and then going back to the language and what better way than to just have it be silent, to be blank for a second, to get a rest for as a long as you want to before moving onto the next chunk of text. And I am not interested in a hard stop, not interested in the hard pause.


Do you feel any spiritual or mystical power behind your writing?


I will say sometimes it is mystical and spiritual, that I feel guided by something bigger than myself, but I think that also scares me a little bit. I don’t know where that comes from; I don’t know how much there is. So, I’m worried that if I use that as my exclusive source, it will be like, “Sorry that was the last poem. Go find something else to do.”


(Laughs.) All tapped out.


So, I think nowadays, I am more interested in treating it like a list of tasks, like something I must show up and do, rather than I feel the great guiding hands. Some days I sit down to write when all I truly want to do is sit down and watch Food Network and take a nap, and I think often those days when the first and second drafts of the poem are not very successful, but I need to be able to survive writing a bad draft of a poem and be like well that’s it. I’m out of poems. So now, being able to come face to face with my own failed attempt, normalizes it for me and I think well it’s okay because this is draft 1 of 27 anyway. Better luck next time.


The spring 2018 issue of The Fourth River featured work on the themes of displacement. I see The January Children using similar themes. How does the displacement you write about in The January Children parallel the violent nationalist ethnocentrism that is happening in the U.S today and how is your writing navigating that very same displacement?


Writing The January Children was almost like an exorcism for me where I think that the thing about a first book is that I think I spent most of my life writing about it in some way. And then it’s finished. The engine behind The January Children was this general sense of malaise and nostalgia and feeling out of place everywhere, feeling not American enough, not Sudanese enough, feeling not Arab enough, not black enough, and I think articulating those things and making something out of those things helped me lay them to rest a little bit. I think what felt like the turn was that one day I wasn’t sad anymore. I still had to finish this book and that sadness, and that angst and that pain couldn’t be the well anymore, couldn’t be the engine anymore, coz that’s not sustainable. For it to be sustainable, I would have to hurt forever, and I am not interested in doing that. I want to be okay. So halfway through that process, I think by saying and naming and renaming the things that hurt me, after a certain point, I had taken power away from those things. Then I had to quit identifying myself with not being enough of x, y, and z. and once I let that go it was like a clean slate. Not calling myself not American enough, not calling myself not Sudanese enough then what am I calling myself. I had all the freedom in the world to choose my own name at that point.

I think there are probably more displaced people in the world now than ever before. And if there are more displaced people, then we must rethink how we choose to identify people in the first place because there are a whole segment of populations that don’t fit in anywhere, in the system of identity and system of naming that we have been using for so long. So, once I saw how big the Sudanese-American population was, I couldn’t keep being like, “I’m not enough, I’m not enough.” Because saying that about myself, I was saying that about my whole community of people. I’m more interested now in honoring those intersections than mourning not being one or the other.