To Remember, Read, and Return: A Conversation Between Omar Sakr and George Abraham
OMAR SAKR: I remember Philip Metres reading my poem, “Extermination,” and telling me to cut the last three stanzas. I still feel the absence of those stanzas, and it reminds me of something Jayson P. Smith said to me once about knowing the difference between ending and exiting a poem. They might have been paraphrasing, but it was something about how you should look for exits to a poem, as opposed to an end — this was, I think, an argument against narrative — and I guess what I’m wondering is, how do you exit a book? Or is the book, if it’s cohesive and linear enough to be considered in the same way as a poem, exiting you? I am wondering because, though it’s been nearly a year since The Lost Arabs came out in Australia, I don’t feel it has left me, or I it, at all.
GEORGE ABRAHAM: I also think about something Danez Smith once said in a workshop about hiding behind brevity, and how we can push and challenge ourselves by letting the lyric mode take over; by letting our eye continue and lead us to, perhaps, a more vulnerable and terrifying state. I’m not sure if this aforementioned “exit” strategy would have served many poems in Birthright which are the byproduct of an introspective wandering.
OMAR: I fucking love this, yes. I live for that kind of excess even though I struggle to enact it.
GEORGE: That said, Phil also gave me some tough, necessary edits for Birthright. The opening poem, “TAKING BACK JERUSALEM,” ended with a tirade about cursing white christian americans in an airport who were getting hyped up for their trip to “the holy land of israel.” Phil looked at that poem and said, “Why not end it on the line ‘Forgive me. I wrote this / in an american airport / & its magic escaped me’ instead?” I didn’t need to curse white christian settlers because I’m not sure the book arrived there quite yet. Though perhaps the book’s existence is itself the curse. I’m especially thinking of how this, the opening of my book, is a moment of turmoil, fear, and uncertainty; a poem, at the heart of which is a failure of language, or more precisely, a failure of autobiography. What better place is there to start a collection about finding and discovering language than that? At that precise rupture, that precise failure.
OMAR: I sometimes think that the notion of autobiography is unbelievably stupid, and arrogant. The idea that any one person can author their story in the singular. It is a profound fiction. (Sidenote: I often use “sometimes” as a rhetorical device to protect against criticism. If I think this only every now and then, well, that’s okay, it’s not all the time, you know?) I am frightened by, and drawn to, the power of declarative language. I can see that same fear at work in Birthright, I mean quite literally in the case of your erasure poem that reuses the text of the Balfour Declaration in a subversive way, but also in your palinode, in your mirror poem where you flip the text, in the many dazzling ways you utilize repetition through form to create new meaning. It’s a showcase not just of how innovative and inventive you can be as a poet but also of an extraordinary anxiety that really resonates with me.
GEORGE: Thank you, habib. I think The Lost Arabs is most definitely a testament to the power of declarative language, confronting especially that which we cannot name easily. I think that is what stood out to me about “Instead, Memory” (a poem which made me have to put down the book for a while). I’m curious to hear more about how memory (and access thereof) play into your writing, of narratives both of and outside the self.
OMAR: I’ll be thinking about that poem for the rest of my days, not because it is a success but rather because it is haunted by all the other versions of it I attempted, which is fitting, since it speaks to the terrifying power of memory and how it ultimately resists my attempts to sweeten it, to transform it into something more bearable. At the heart of this, too, is a strained relationship with authority, and authorship. My mother has just as much a write to right my autobiography. My brother, my cousins, my aunty — even teyta and jido, though illiterate in both English and Arabic, and though dead — they too have a right to my story, which is also my blood. All any of us could offer is a version of my body, a version of a memory, a dream, and alone each of them would be wrong, but together, maybe some element of truth can be achieved. This is a romantic notion. I shudder to think of what they would offer given a chance. This is why I find arguments about an ethical way to write literature utterly hilarious — there is no such thing.
I’m well aware that my family would be revolted and horrified to know of the sexual, “deviant” things that enter my work, or the unglamorous, violent poverty we found ourselves living in, replicated for the world to see. I know, too, they don’t have the skill or the means to write in English the way that I do. They cannot counter whatever narrative I put forth. It is abominable to have this kind of power, even knowing that it will not affect them in the slightest — they do not read books, they are not online on social media, the people in their circles will not care. And still, I am consumed by the idea of how much I need to speak through what happened to me, perhaps in part because it is the only kind of power I can have over them, the many who abused and neglected me, perhaps in part because they are not in this world, and so I feel safe occupying it; I feel able to know them and love them here in a way I struggle to in life, but I would be lying if I said the desire for some kind of retribution didn’t course beneath all my rationalizations, or at least that there is a comfort in being within reaching distance of this, my ultimate weapon.
GEORGE: I’ve been grappling with similar contradictions and complications of autobiographical writing, especially in my recent fiction writing. I keep returning to something Alexander Chee wrote in How to Write an Autobiographical Novel, about needing to write not the world he knew, but a world he knew. There are some “fictions” I want to write because I am afraid to call them “memoir,” though I’ve also tried to make room for speculation within poetry too. I recently restarted my first novel because I found that this novel was, unfortunately, way too close to my current reality for it to be a healthy thing to write, but furthermore, that I was perhaps running from the harder story to tell: a story which holds academic and american sociopolitical power structures accountable by critiquing what these systems mold us into, by considering the selves I could have become.
Writing Birthright was essential to understanding this new vision of my novel. There were three Georges writing Birthright and all of them deserved to be represented: the pre-return, the returning, and the post-return/perpetual Returning. Birthright is triptych-ed in this precise way, though aspects of all three inform every section. I needed not really to negotiate with the divergence of my former selves, but present them in simultaneity, leaning in on their contradictions instead of shying away from them for the sake of an “easy” read that caters to colonial imagination.
OMAR: Right, I understand wanting or needing to tell the more difficult and honest story. I want to be clear that my saying there is no such thing as an ethical way to write literature is not to say: Do whatever you want, party! It is to say: You have a responsibility to try your utmost regardless. “I have this power and they can do nothing to stop it” is not a boast but a warning, a lesson that tells me to tread carefully, to listen as hard and as well as I can to their voices, which whisper and roar and chant and sing and holler within my bones.
I’m thinking of the way we Arabs, people of color, people from marginalized communities in the West, are forever read through the lens of autobiography. If Rachel Cusk writes autofiction, she is a genius, a master of observation and technical innovation; if we write fiction, or poetry, it’s always brought back to our bodies, our histories, and it’s read as a failure of our imaginations, a lack in our ability. But everything is fiction, including memory — everything, everything. I guess what it all comes down to is a fixation on how we’re read. Trying to anticipate it, subvert it, dance around it, own it. I see all these strategies at work in Birthright too.
GEORGE: Definitely. Birthright is a collection that can be read, or that can be Read. I don’t think any Reading of it, for instance, is meant to happen in a single continuous sitting, and I hope that its length can serve as a resistance to the (western-imposed) limitations on what a poetry collection should look like. There are prose sections, discontinuities in space, time, form, and memory. There are palinodes explicitly contradicting other poems in the collection. Birthright does not even have a title poem, though there are two poems whose titles explicitly mention the concept: “elegy in which the Birthright speaks back,” and “mythos of birthright, ending in a return to olympos” — a palinode which deconstructs the mythologies around return, and hence, the (colonially constrained) imaginations built around the concept of Return and the decolonial project in general, really. These poems are mirror contradictions of themselves, mirroring so much of the type of logic the book operates on: to build a diasporic poetic and question its very foundations and imagination in the same breath. The heart of this manuscript is in the relationship between these two poems, but in another way, I consider Birthright itself to be the title poem — the very existence of a book titled Birthright, written by a Palestinian and moreover advocating for decolonization and Return, is itself the poem, the subversion of.
I keep thinking about the title poem to your collection, Omar, and in particular how these lines get at the heart of it all: “Every day / my certainty collapses. That I am lost. Or can be found. That there is such a thing as Arab.” I’d be curious to hear you talk about the process of finding “The Lost Arabs” as the title poem (if there was one), as I’ve gone back and forth on this myself.
OMAR: I wrote the title poem “The Lost Arabs” (originally published in Prairie Schooner, alongside a few others in the collection — shout out to Kwame Dawes: I love you, habibi) after a chat with a friend of mine, Palestinian poet Najwan Darwish. We were walking in Mexico City, on the way to a poetry reading in a strange gallery full of statues of headless angels, and it was on this walk that he told me that I am one of “millions of lost Arabs,” people disconnected from their mother language and culture. He didn’t say it with any judgment, or as a pronouncement that I was lesser, and in fact, I reference him again in “What It Is to Be Holy” as the figure “of his country and on his country” who reassures the boy “born in a colony” that he too is Arab. What I am questioning throughout my book, and in this particular poem, is the notion of an ethnic authenticity, particularly one granted from an outside source.
I’ve never felt totally secure as an Arab, an Australian, a Muslim, a queer, or a Turk, for various reasons, and so while I am “of” or “belong” to these various sites, I don’t see them as static or concrete, but as fluid. My relationship to each, as ideas, and as communities, has changed over time. I’m increasingly concerned with how quickly and easily the boundaries of these identities are hardening, and used less as a means of community-building, a way of knowing and loving ourselves, and more as hierarchical and exclusionary based on an invented authenticity. Every queer person in this world knows how quickly your belonging to a particular racial, social, or cultural group can be rescinded, and how painful it is to have the door shut on you.
GEORGE: This circles back to your point about how we’re being read versus Read. It’s almost as easy for the publishing world to ignore our voices as it is for them to lazily read and casually misinterpret us, assigning implicitly racist labels on our work like “amply justified anger.” Who is such a review for, exactly? The reviewer’s white guilt or actually uplifting Arab artists? The latter requires a more difficult and thorough Reading. If the people reviewing us hold themselves to these low of standards of rigor toward non-western intellect, how could they not only learn from their mistakes, but perhaps open doors for critics (preferably own-voice critics) actually willing to do the hard work of Reading us and building a language for this exciting moment we’re witnessing in diasporic Arab anglophone literature? The line isn’t merely identity, and none of this is to say that Arabs are automatically incapable of misreading our work. Some of the most generous Readings of my work have come from fellow non-Palestinian BIPOC, none of which is surprising, given how so much of the language of Palestinian liberation and solidarity came from the liberation frameworks of Black and Indigenous peoples. The line is drawn in intellect, for me — who is willing to do the hard and critical work of Reading/Seeing/Building with us versus who isn’t.
OMAR: Those are really important points, both around needing more space for literary criticism within the community, and how identity itself is not proof against poor reading or even deliberate misrepresentations based on personal bias. Lord knows lateral violence is a persistent problem, one exacerbated by material disadvantages and the burden of a “visibility” that is magnified by scarcity. Maybe this is why by the end of my book I am, among other things, giving myself to permission to just let go, to get away from whoever and whatever is causing harm. It is an exhausted release.
GEORGE: Julian Randall and I were talking once about this idea that the last word of a poet’s (especially debut) book, often represents the book’s heart. The last word of my final poem, in both its first and final draft, was “stay.” It was the word I arrived at and returned to; at points when I considered a switch that would make Birthright’s last word “beginning,” I felt deep in my core that the ending it needed was “stay.” I want to address that The Lost Arab’s final word is “leave,” like … We really did that psychically/telepathically? I’m curious to hear you talk about your relationship to that word, as it relates to your book and beyond the book even.
OMAR: The tension between “stay” and “leave” is so intense, but I think we’re both gesturing to our bodies, where we’ve been placed, how we are relating to that place, and to its abandonment. There are so many parallels between our books, and our last poems, they truly are siblings, dancing; I read Birthright and knew that we were brothers not because we’re both queer Arab poets in the diaspora but because so many of our agonies are sisters, and by agonies I also mean loves. My last poem, “In Order to Return,” has the final line “it is human / so human / to leave” and I wanted that to speak to not just migration, but also to my own strategic distancing from my family and culture, from the very idea of belonging and nationhood. Sometimes we have to leave even God behind in order to hold on to ourselves, or feel that we must, and it is so often through distance that we understand why it is we need to return. I think as well, this poem was an act of forgiveness for my family for having left the homeland, for making me a lost Arab.
GEORGE: For me, so much of Birthright was born from interrogating a supreme and nearly unsurvivable loneliness — a loneliness that, despite almost killing the speaker at points, has the danger of being romanticized in diasporic poetry. It was crucial for me to represent the speaker’s journey into the unlearning of said constructs. So much of the zionist project survives and festers because of its ability to gaslight Palestinians and making us feel alone in all of this, whereas in truth, history has always said that organized oppressed peoples have unanimously triumphed over oppressive systems. These downstream psychological effects of zionism on Palestinians’ mental health writ large (i.e., depression, anxiety, PTSD, how nearly every person in my family has a mental disorder) are both intentional and integral to the continued festering of the israeli project. When I think of the book’s closing command, “stay,” I cannot disassociate this utterance of this word from our people’s mental health writ large, and how these systems often force us to unspeakable ledges and lonelinesses.
Omar Sakr is the award-winning author of These Wild Houses (2017, Cordite) and The Lost Arabs (2020, Andrews McMeel). He is the son of Lebanese and Turkish Muslim migrants.
George Abraham is a Palestinian American poet and PhD candidate at Harvard University. They are a Kundiman fellow, a board member for the Radius of Arab American Writers (RAWI), and the author of Birthright (Button Poetry, 2020).
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