An interview with Edil Hassan: Writing poetry rooted in migration, otherness and Somali heritage

When I write of those days now, there is something fuller and heavier

Edil Hassan is a poet of Somali background based in New England. Two of her poems appeared in Asymptote’s most recent issue in the feature on banned countries. Ms. Hassan graciously answered a few questions about her work and inspiration.

Claire Jacobson (CJ): Your poems are so grounded in deep family relationships and stories from the past. Can you talk about the inspiration for these poems? What drove you to write them?

Edil Hassan (EH): The Drought for a long time was only the last stanza. I had seen a picture of a capsized migrant boat in the Mediterranean on some news site—a new picture every week or month, never the same boat. It’s like those videos of Black girls and boys who are killed; I’m waiting to know the person behind the camera. I knew though that this poem was incomplete, and like all stories is layered. Migration comes with a loss of place, and mediating on family helps me track that disappearance.

I’ve only ever seen one wedding picture of my mother and father when I was young. The camera was focused on my mother in red with gold on her neck and ears. My father is standing to the side speaking to someone, cut off. I can’t remember the story of how they met. Origin Stories comes from my attempt to resurrect them.

CJ: How does your Somali heritage influence your writing, either in how you write or what you choose to write about?

EH: When I was young, I used to write what I saw: white mothers and fathers living in American suburbs, young white girls with pronounceable names with no racial confusion in sight. It was really the reason I didn’t write often. It was a special kind of self-alienation that I have learned to shed through writers like Leila Aboulela, Ladan Osman, Nadifa Mohamed, Warsan Shire, and others.

My heritage not only gives my writing dimension and scale, it also allows me to give voice to the silence of otherness, diaspora, and even the silences within my most intimate relationships—which means writing, especially starting from my own positionality, is always restorative.

CJ: What do jilal and tusbax mean, and why did you choose not to translate the terms into English?

EH: Jilal is the dry season of Somalia, and tusbax is the Somali word for wooden prayer beads. I did not translate them for the same reason that I did not italicize them. Neither English or Somali is marked Other for me. Both exist in the same space, slipping into each other constantly, by word or sentence. Both languages come together to filter and direct the stories I want to tell.

CJ: I love the way you play with visual imagery throughout your poems. Can you talk about how you use the visual realm to discuss deeper matters of family and love and loss?

EH: Visual imagery really comes from a third-space negotiation of memory—memory as experienced first hand or as an inheritance. So the imagery that I use (water, drought, heat) work as tools to excavate these memories so that I can look at them in a different light. In my mind, The Drought takes place at my grandmother’s house in Borama, in northern Somalia. When I was a child, I didn’t think anything of days without rain. But when I write of those days now, there is something fuller and heavier. I might then understand lack of rain as a sign of grief, a mark of silence, or a symbol of powerlessness. The memory is the same, but water becomes a lens that transforms it into something more.

CJ: In your view, how does your work speak to the current international political climate and the issue of banned countries?

EH: Somalis, Muslims, immigrants, migrants, and refugees, we all have complicated and unique histories of how we come into existence. By that I mean displacement and migration are mediums through which identity is constantly constructing and arranging. And the way that we make sense of nationality, belonging, and home-making isn’t something you get to see in the media. At the same time I want to complicate the political intervention of counter culture that unwittingly absorbs Muslims and other marginalized people into multicultural narratives of belonging. Narratives like these inadvertently reproduce set norms of citizenship and nationality. Ultimately, I suppose my work shows the way that my people have existed before the Ban, and will continue to exist despite it.

Claire Jacobson is the Assistant Interviews Editor at Asymptote. She studies French literature at the University of Iowa, and translates from French and Arabic.


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