Safia Elhillo is the author of The January Children, and recipient of the 2016 Sillerman First Book Prize for African Poets and a 2018 Arab American Book Award. Inspired by her own experiences, her works focus on a tethering existence with displacement and longing. Safia has also shared her work on platforms like TEDxNewYork, the BBC World Service, and the South African State Theatre.
Your latest book, The January Children is a deeply personal collection of poems with a focus on displacement and longing. What inspired the beginnings of this?
The book started as a series of poems I’d been writing about the late Egyptian pop star Abdel Halim Hafez. At first, it was just one poem, but after it was done I still had so much more to say, so I kept writing more, and was surprised by how many memories I had of hearing his music when I was growing up. So the poems then became a new entry point to thinking about my childhood, and my parents, and my grandparents— that element of nostalgia was the first component that came together.
And as the character of Abdel Halim solidified in my mind, I started to trust the character (this abstracted, fictionalized version of Halim) to be able to hold bigger, stranger ideas. Karen McCarthy Woolf wrote, in the foreword to my chapbook Asmarani, “as the subject of [my] attentions he provides an opportunity to personify and deconstruct [my] relationship with the Arab[ic]-speaking world.” Writing poems to this dead pop star turned into writing poems about a lost country, a lost sense of nation and nationalism, a world gone extinct, in more concrete ways and with more concrete feelings once I had a name and a body to assign those emotions to.
As a Sudanese American, the concept of home and belonging must bring up some sense of questioning. How do you navigate through that? What does home mean to you?
There’s a Theodor Adorno quote I like—“for a man who no longer has a homeland, writing becomes a place to live.” I’m a third-culture kid—Sudan as a homeland and America as a host land are both fundamental to my transnational identity, so I can never be fully Sudanese or fully American. I cannot belong fully here nor there. But, also, my mother says often “I made home” and I love that—the idea that home is not a ready-made location determined by where I was born or where my parents are from, but rather it’s an active construction. It combats the idea that home is a fixed, static location that I could find if I could only learn the right language, or tradition, or recipe, or song or whatever. It presents the option of home as a portable environment—home as a decision, a project, rather than a country. A country is so fallible, is such a fiction. Countries are invented! Somewhere in history, some guy drew a line. And for so long, nations and nationality were so central to my crisis of identity, and eventually I just got bored of that and how it hurt me. I am interested in writing a world in which I don’t need a nationality in order to identify or locate myself.
Tell us a little more about your writing process.
I’m a very slow writer—I’ll take notes for weeks, sometimes months at a time, before I finally sit down to draft something. I keep a lot of lists—always one with words I like/want to use/don’t see enough. And then when I finally do sit down to write, I usually play the same bit of music on repeat until I’m done, to help me feel outside of time so I can stay focused.
What is a book you read that changed you?
“Autobiography of Red” by Anne Carson exploded my idea of what I thought I was “allowed” to do as a poet. Also, Mahmoud Darwish’s “In the Presence of Absence” gave me so much language around longing for home, for homeland.
5 books you think everyone should read?
“Season of Migration to the North” by Tayeb Salih, “Autobiography of Red” by Anne Carson, “The Arrivants” by Kamau Brathwaite, “Go Find Your Father / A Famous Blues” by Harmony Holiday, “Crush” by Richard Siken, AND this is more than 5 but everything Aracelis Girmay ever wrote.
Taking care of tomorrow—part of which, for me, is taking better care of my stuff. Making anything has its cost—I try not to let that cost (the labour, the waste, the time, all of it) go to waste, so I try to buy less and take better care of what I already own. I’ve been sewing since I was a kid, so I do little repairs and alterations—anything bigger goes to my grandma or my tailor.
What is the relationship you have with your clothes?
I love to put on a costume—even if the character I’m dressing up as is just myself. I’m super introverted, and was really shy as a kid, so part of the way I’m able to even just do my day and be in the world is to dress the part. I try to dress like someone who is stronger and more confident and more put-together than the creature that I actually am on the inside.
What is one thing you stand for and believe in, and why?
My greatest obsession is that of representation—of honoring intersections and nuances of identity. For so long, I wasn’t seeing my particular intersections of experience represented in the literature I was reading, and this sometimes made me feel like I didn’t exist. The more we make our stories public, the more we have a record that we existed, the more we can continue to dispel the obsolete notion that only old white men have experiences deserving of literature. The obstacle, in having so few previous examples of stories like mine, was feeling like I was starting from scratch in creating this record, and feeling tokenized and treated as a representative of my communities at large. When I write a poem, I don’t want it to be taken as a reflection of the Black Muslim Sudanese-American Woman experience as a whole, because there are as many Black Muslim Sudanese-American Woman experiences as there are Black Muslim Sudanese-American women.
How would you like to be remembered?
I hope anyone who’s met me would remember me as kind, and only remember the days when my eyeliner is symmetrical.
We are inspired by Safia’s authenticity and empathy and are proud to have her as Fieldtesters, a group of inspiring individuals that test MATTER products in their everyday journeys of passion, to help us improve durability and design. Safia is wearing the The Sideswept Dhoti + Hairline Stripe in Size 1.