David Remnick: Safia Elhillo came into the spotlight in youth poetry slams in Washington DC where she grew up. She's the child of Sudanese immigrants. She published her first poetry collection in 2017 and she wrote a novel in verse called Home is Not A Country. Elhillo's new collection is called Girls That Never Die.
Dana Goodyear: When I first read Safia's Poetry, I was really struck by just how raw it is.
David Remnick: Dana Goodyear is a staff writer at TheNew Yorker and a poet herself.
Dana Goodyear: She's obviously someone who's really deeply interested in language and nuance and subtlety, but there's something so candid and embodied about the work that really was what grabbed me. Most of Safia's work up to this point has really focused on questions of identity. How race, culture, religion, country of origin define who you are. In this book, she's doing all of that, but she's also made it incredibly personal and that feels really different. When we spoke, I asked her to read a poem from the new collection, the poem's called On Eid We slaughter Lambs and I know intimately the Color. Here's an excerpt.
Safia Elhillo: I write An Uber is spilling the last of the ginger light, driver handsome enough to pull listening sounds as he chats. Our talk is casual at its center, but at the edges I taste an old brittleness, memory of something burnt. He circles his mouth to an electronic cigarette and its vapor braids into the earth and vinegar smell of sweat. "You are Muslim," he tells me. Not a question, and I nod, smile at his smoke, dark eyes in the mirror. I count the prayer bead strung in a necklace from his rear view. 99 and perfect, glossy and unworn. Mine are sandalwood and leave their perfume when cabling through my fingers. Drink? Smoke? He demands an inventory of my wickedness in the way men of my faith think me immediately theirs, daughter and sister and wife. Always a test and never asking my name.
Safia Elhillo: Before this book, I think I had very clear rules for myself about what I was and was not allowed to write poetry about. My body was one of the things that I was not allowed to write poetry about because I also didn't ever want to do anything that would call attention to my body or make anyone want to look at it or perceive it or pay attention to it. My first book is called The January Children and it came out in 2017 and my body is not really in that book. It is thinking primarily about language and identity and place and still, even though I wrote a book that followed all my rules about what I was and was not allowed to write poetry about, after that book came out I was having a pretty rough time on the internet and it would often be men in my inbox, a lot of whom share some of my intersections.
They were just so mad at me and I was like, "I didn't do anything."
Dana Goodyear: Basically you were being told that you weren't being modest because you had published poems? what was the specific--
Safia Elhillo: It wasn't even about the poems. I think it's just that I was existing on the internet. Just a lot of name calling and shaming and things like that. Meanwhile, here I was thinking that I was winning the modesty game. I was very particular about what kinds of clothes I could be photographed in and the kinds of things I would discuss in public and I think I had to sit down and really dismantle this idea that if I was whatever, polite enough, respectful enough, modest enough, quiet enough, silent enough, that nobody would ever want to do me harm.
When I started, and I started to write some poems around that time just because that's one of the main ways I process a feeling, and I immediately felt those poems starting to nudge up against my rules. My body was very much in those poems. I also don't know that I'd ever written a particularly angry poem before that, or at least I'd never sat down to write primarily from a place of anger.
Dana Goodyear: in the acknowledgements to the book, you characterize it as a breaking of silence, not just for you, but also for other women in your circle and in your family. There are a number of poems that either directly or indirectly talk about cutting. Can you explain for readers who might not be familiar what that practice is?
Safia Elhillo: Yes. Cutting refers to FGM, which is female genital mutilation. It's a process whereby a child's clitoris and sometimes other parts of the genitals are removed in an effort to discourage promiscuity later on in life.
Dana Goodyear: This was something that you wanted to address. It seems like a really direct way of centering a female body in the poems, but also a way of questioning a practice that is part of your family's heritage.
Safia Elhillo: This is something that has been on my mind probably since I was a child. I grew up knowing that FGM was a common practice in Sudan and in a lot of surrounding countries and there would often be an allusion to the practice having happened in my family and in my own lineage. Just casual speculation also in my family about who had or had not been cut and in what style and to what extent. It was spoken of pretty quietly and usually in specifically cloistered, fem spaces, but still very casually. There was never an announcement of it or even any real processing.
"This person was cut, this person was not. At this point, it fell out of fashion." Recent generations, it's not as prevalent and I think, obviously it just really stayed with me but I haven't really dedicated a lot of time and space in my poems to it before that because that very much felt within the realm of, "These are things we do not talk about. This is family business. This is not to be talked about outside of the home in any way." I really just cannot be contributing to a culture of silence anymore and so I figure the least I can do is keep my side of the street clean.
Girls That Never Die. Perhaps a cow, some gold for a girl carried, kicking from her father's house, from her father's name and slung over his shoulder and passed to another whose belonging will name her, will give her form. Girl like water, shapeless without the bowl. Girl perhaps cut, perhaps in the pharaonic way, sent off to be split. Girl as paintbrush sent off to stain a sheet, perhaps by cover of night. Perhaps the husband is old and the girl a child, legs clamped tight as if by stitching. Perhaps his brothers, perhaps his cousins, men as ropes, as chains brought in to peel the girl like young fruit, the pith still bitter, still clinging to the rind.
Dana Goodyear: I want to switch gears a bit and talk about language. You include a lot of Arabic words and phrases in your poetry, but you've also said elsewhere that that language is complicated for you. Can you talk about how you feel about Arabic and why you sometimes include it in your poems but don't fully embrace the language?
Safia Elhillo: The writer Elamin Abdelmahmoud just released a memoir a few months ago called Son of Elsewhere and I think it's maybe the first English language memoir by a Sudanese person I've ever read. He talks in that book about how his Arabic is frozen at age 12 because that's the age at which he left Sudan and immigrated to Canada. I'm also deeply a child in Arabic. I actually don't have-- I don't even think it's a question of fluency or not fluency in that I get how the grammar works, I can conjugate a verb, but there's just a fundamental lack of adult vocabulary in my Arabic.
There are just a lot of words that I don't know, a lot of nuance that I can't express. I know how to ask how you're doing and how your family's doing and how is your health and thank God a bunch of times and praise the food and make small talk. Talk about the weather, things like that. If we're having lunch, my Arabic is great, but for just the vocabulary and the range that I need to access to write poetry in order to say exactly what I mean, I don't have access to that in Arabic because I don't have the vocabulary for it.
Dana Goodyear: There is a poem I would love to have you read that is about that because I was thinking when you were saying, "I can ask about the weather and I'm a really good lunch date in Arabic," I was like, "But you can also swear." Will you read Profanity for us?
Safia Elhillo: Yes. This poem actually, funnily enough, is about how I can't really swear in Arabic. All my swears are soft and they're like animal words and stuff. I don't know any good proper swears in Arabic. Profanity. One, I know 99 names from my God and none from my redacted. A failing not of my deity, but of my Arabic. Not the language itself. Rather the overeager mosaic. I hoard, I steal, I borrow from pop songs and mine from childhood fluency. I guard my few swear words like tinkling silver anklets, spare and precious, and never nearly enough to muster a proper Arabic anger, proper Arabic vulgarity. Only a passing spar, always using the names of animals. I am not polite. I am only inarticulate, over-proud of my little arsenal.
A stranger blows a wet tobacco kiss through the window of my taxi and I deploy my meager weapons, dog, pig donkey. Finally my crown jewel. I pass my tongue across my teeth, crane my neck about the window and call your mother's redacted. Two, now I know the worst profanity. What men use when they need to curse one another, to cut. Word I only know as a swear. Your mothers, your sisters, mine. In Arabic, the word hisses, traps the tongue between the teeth, spits. Words so similar to an English kiss turn to venom by inflection, to rot in the mouth. Site of shame. Birthplace of the profane. What word can I use to call my own? How without disgrace can I name my innocent parts, my wounds? I am saying, if asked in Arabic, I could not tell you where I open.
Dana Goodyear: Safia, thank you so much. Really enjoyed talking to you.
Safia Elhillo: Thank you so much for having me.
David Remnick: Poet Safia Elhillo. Her new collection is called Girls That Never Die. She spoke with Dana Goodyear, a longtime staff writer at The New Yorker.
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