Writer Safia Elhillo talks representation, inspiration, and the heterogeneity of her identity

Monday, November 13, 2017 - 12:00am
Poet Safia Elhillo

Poet Safia Elhillo wrestles with the intersection of multiples identities throughout her work, especially in her new book, The January Children. The term “January Children” refers to her grandfather’s generation- born in Sudan under British occupation and assigned birth years by height, all given the birth date January 1. Elhillo addresses the possibility and complexity of fluidity in one’s identity through the themes she explores and stylistic elements of her poetry.

While on campus, she spoke to the Council on African Studies at the MacMillan Center about her work, creating representation and the radical notion of self-care. An edited version of the conversation follows:

Abdelhalim Hafez is a central figure throughout the January Children. Was he your main inspiration in writing it or were there themes you sought out to address?

I had been living away from home for a while. In having a space to myself for the first time, I found myself reaching for all of the markers of home. I would take curtains from my mum’s house, tried to make all these foods and I was reaching for the music as well so I was listening to a lot of Abdelahim Hafez who I grew up listening to. After a certain point, I had enough poems and I was like okay this is going to be a book and I had to find an entry point that I felt secure in. So I started researching him a lot more. What Abdelahim Hafez did which is still radical 40 or 50 years after he died is that he addressed his love songs to the “asmarani” which is a term of endearment for a brown-skinned or dark-skinned girl in Arabic.

I used that as the entry point to start thinking about first, my relationship to the Arabic speaking world and my relationship to the Arabic language and inevitably in thinking about my relationship to the Arabic speaking world, I had to start thinking about race and how it gets a little more gray scale and nebulous outside of the U.S context. Now, you have to think about what does black mean if it’s not in English or what is an Arab actually? Is it a race? Is it a real thing? So it opened up all these doorways and all these questions that I now had to answer. The other element was nostalgia from thinking about my family, and this music I had grown up listening to. Abdelahim was the catalyst for all of that by accident.

There is an interplay of Arabic and English, why was that important for you to do?

It is as close as I’ve been able to come in my writing to how language functions in my brain where if I’m speaking entirely in English or entirely in Arabic, then there’s always a part of me that’s translating. I feel most comfortable talking in a hybrid language- where the words can be Arabic or English and I do not have to make sure what comes out of my mouth is in one language only. I was trying to write poems that sort of cut out that tedious process of translation and just write poems that come as close to what it sounds like in my head.

Why did you decide to utilize caesura in your poems, was it also a reflection of your thought process?

I like there to be a healthy element of silence within and around the poems. First on an aesthetic level, it otherwise to me, feels like there is too many words on the poem. The caesura as far as it’s practical function- I think punctuation is really aggressive. Especially in the context of what I want my poems to sound like and feel like. A period is a hard stop, a comma is a hard pause and it’s not an  option- when you get to it, you have to. A caesura is a hesitation and that’s softer. It’s what I want the overall world of a poem to be like and I think visually, it gives you a little bit of a break before you get back into the language. It also enacts the silence that punctuation is meant to enact so that there is like a little bit of quiet in your head, in your eye before you move on to the next word. Also, I just think it makes the poems look fun.

In your poetry, there is representation of Sudanese girls which for some girls reading this may not have existed before, how is that important for you to do and are you ever weary of being tokenized for it?

As with most things, there’s a gift and a curse. I think it was important for me to make work that made space for all of my gazillion identities. I read a lot growing up and in none of the things that I read was there a character that represented all of my deeply specific intersections and so as far as I knew, that person didn’t exist in literature and so to the world of books and to the world of literature, I didn’t exist. At least now, no one can say that there isn’t a book with a Sudanese girl in it and that’s low key all I wanted to do. I did it and I feel happy about that.

But, there is the problem that arises of being expected to represent something that’s being looked at as a monolith. Instead of being looked at as a story of one Sudanese girl, it’s taken as a representation of all Sudanese girls. I get it on both ends where non-Sudanese people think I’m the spokesperson for everything Sudanese and then on the other end, I didn’t grow up in Sudan. I’m not actually equipped to be speaking to Sudanese life of or “Sudanese-ness”. All I’ve set out to do was talk about my very specific identity and my very specific experience as a child of Sudanese parents who grew up in different countries. I lived my formative years in the northeast of the United States . This is all very specific and if you change one factor, it would be a very different story and I don’t expect myself to be able to tell that story as well.

In a world that often profits from the emotional labor of black women, and women of color how do you navigate prioritizing self in both your work and everyday life?

I’m still trying to learn the balance. There’s temptation- the world likes me best when I’m wounded and I’m broken because that’s compelling and sexy and ok fine but that’s not sustainable. If I need to be permanently broken to make work that the capitalist eye is interested in, then maybe I don’t want to make work that the capitalist eye is interested in. I think people often don’t regard creative writing as work especially when you’re working with an autobiographical eye, there’s a perception that you just put down what you thought and felt and that’s over. I’m trying to be very disciplined and technical with the way I approach my work which means that I need to be able to show up and do my work regardless of if I’m having a good day or a bad day or I got a full eight hours of sleep. None of those variables should take away my access from the engine in me that makes me able to do my work. 

Written by Joan Chika Agoh, who is a freshman in Trumbull College.