Between the Covers Podcast - Transcript
Between the Covers Charif Shanahan InterviewBack to the Podcast
David Naimon: Care about the climate? Know a writer who does? Submissions just opened for Grist Magazine’s free annual climate-fiction contest Imagine 2200: Climate Fiction for Future Ancestors. Grist is looking for short stories that envision the next 180 years of climate progress, imagining worlds of abundance, adaptation, reform and hope. The Imagine contest emphasizes hope, justice, and solutions. It’s an invitation to imagine a future in which solutions to the climate crisis flourish and help bring about radical improvements. It is a call to craft stories that challenge the status quo of extraction, oppression, and violence. Winners will be published on Grist’s site in an immersive climate fiction collection and receive a cash prize, plus there’s no submission fee. The deadline to submit your story is June 13th. For all the details, go to grist.org/imagine, or you can find all these details in the accompanying transcript for today’s episode as well. Again, check it all out at grist.org/imagine. Today’s episode is also brought to you by Katie Holten’s The Language of Trees; a gorgeously illustrated and deeply thoughtful collection in which Holten gifts readers her tree alphabet and uses it to masterfully translate and illuminate beloved lost and new, original writing in praise of the natural world. With an introduction from Ross Gay, and featuring writings from over fifty contributors including Ursula K. Le Guin, Ada Limón, Robert Macfarlane, Zadie Smith, Radiohead, Aimee Nezhukumatathil, James Gleick, Elizabeth Kolbert, Plato, and Robin Wall Kimmerer, The Language of Trees is an astonishing fusion of storytelling and art and a deeply beautiful celebration of trees through the ages. The Language of Trees is out on April 4th from Tin House and available for pre-order now. Long-time listeners of Between the Covers know very well that my questions are different than most; both in length and in form, almost like mini-essays, ones that hopefully prompt even longer and extended answers from the writers being asked them. The poet Simon Shieh once said something on Twitter that I really loved, “As far as I’m concerned, David Naimon doesn’t have conversations with writers, David writes beautiful, thought-provoking collaborative essays in real time with them.” I really like this notion that I’m co-writing an essay in real-time with my guest. The reason I bring this up today is because in the middle of today’s conversation, there are two back-to-back questions that are uncharacteristically long even for me and yet they are actually the tiniest of remnants of what I ultimately didn’t bring into today’s conversation with Charif Shanahan. Sometimes, one of the things that attracts me to pursuing a given conversation is actually an ignorance on my part, or more charitably put, a curiosity about something I don’t know or that I don’t have experience with. For instance, when I learned that James Hannaham’s book Pilot Impostor was in conversation poem by poem with Pessoa’s poetry, because I’d never read Pessoa and had been very curious about him nonetheless, that was an added allure to pursuing a conversation with Hannaham about his book. Then there are conversations like the one with Myriam Chancy where I feel like I still haven’t fully found my footing from the vertigo I experienced learning all that I learned about Haitian history and how and why and to what depth and breadth Haiti had been punished after successfully becoming the first Black Republic. Vertigo and shock and a little bit of shame that I was just learning this now, this late in my life, but also a lot of excitement about how it reshaped so many things I thought I knew. I say all of this because when I interviewed the Moroccan novelist Abdellah Taïa, who engages not only with his own life story as a queer Arab man who grew up in a Muslim family in Morocco but also with questions of colonialism, gender, Blackness, indigeneity, and language, that conversation was one that made visible to me the immensity of what I didn’t know about Blackness in North Africa, about the intersections, tensions, and histories between Arabness and Blackness, and Arabness and indigeneity in the Maghreb. I knew that Charif Shanahan’s debut collection grappled some with all of this and that talking with him would be an opportunity to gain a greater understanding or the beginnings of one as we talked about his poetry. But as I read his second collection, the one we talk about today, a collection equally engaged with the complex relationship of Arabness, Blackness, and Whiteness in his own life as a mixed race American poet, I discovered that while the first book has poems that are more directly geopolitical and/or engaging with North African history and Blackness and anti-Blackness, his latest book engages more with the ways these structural and historical issues find themselves in the most intimate, interpersonal relations, whether how they ripple through families, between lovers with one’s therapist, among one’s peers, or simply moving through the world. Like with every conversation, the email that goes out to supporters is similarly full of the things referenced in today’s conversation and resources associated with the topics we discuss. But this time, it is probably twice as long or maybe three times as long. The first half pertains to what we do speak about and ends with a very long section of resources that corresponds to these two questions I’m referring to that happen in the middle: the historical and geopolitical questions that I do ask. This section contains the many articles from African anthropologists, Arab manuscript experts, Moroccan historians, and more because the material is speaking into a silence and a taboo; a silence that both exists in the cultural sphere but also has affected and extended into the academic one. Because of this, I wanted to make sure you have all the material I reference or that formed my questions so you can engage with it as well if you desire. Then the second half of the resources is a lot of material I encountered that was super fascinating that I probably would have used if we had been talking about his debut but didn’t feel right to shoehorn into this conversation and yet I wanted to share it with you nonetheless. One area that we do touch on when we talk today, but that forms a larger presence in the resources, is about the Moroccan football team at the World Cup and the amazing amount of both joyous and incredible as well as fraught and controversial questions that were raised about Moroccan identity. You could be completely allergic to sports and I think still find all of this material mesmerizing. At the heart of today’s conversation with Charif is the question around how does one speak, how does one make art from one’s position when one’s identity is itself defined by its instability, if one’s identity escapes categorization, where the available words to describe you would reduce you? Not only what would one’s poems look like, one’s language sound like if it was able to create the space for that instability, but also what does Charif’s own exploration of his particular situation reveal to all of us about identity at large and the construction of self and what the construction achieves or forecloses. One of the cornerstones of my preparation for today was a recent interview of Charif by Safia Elhillo in the Arab American literature and art magazine Mizna; a journal that centers the work of Arab, Southwest Asian, and North African artists, but for this particular issue, there is, in their words, “an all-Black takeover team” with Safia as the guest editor of the issue. It is really incredible as is the magazine more generally. Mizna has done something similar to what Jewish Currents did after my conversations with Claire Schwartz and Daniel Mendelsohn when they sent me copies of relevant issues corresponding to those conversations. Mizna has sent copies of the black takeover issue as well as copies of some other recent issues including one that is dedicated to a tribute of Etel Adnan and a special folio they published with the Asian American Writers’ Workshop in tribute to Sarah Hegazy, a queer Egyptian activist imprisoned and tortured after flying a rainbow flag at a concert and who died in exile. There are several different sample bundles of these issues and/or the folio available for new supporters of the show and Charif is adding a reading from what will ultimately become his third book; an epistolary and polyvocal work called Dear Whiteness, adding a reading of an excerpt from this to the bonus audio. The copies of Mizna, the bonus audio archive, and the encyclopedic resource email that accompanies each episode are only a small number of possible benefits of becoming a listener-supporter of the show and joining the Between the Covers Community. You can find out more at patreon.com/betweenthecovers, and now for today’s episode with Charif Shanahan.
These stories are about to get unleashed. They’re about the wildness contained in all of us. “I think stories have some magical effect in the world. I think it’s really hard to live without stories and if somebody tells you this is the way you’re going to end up, you’re lucky if you can forget that.” “There’s me and then there’s writer guy me, and then there’s me working, which is the absence of me. It’s just a story.” “I had no idea how to write a novel. I didn’t know if it would ever come to fruition. I was working at a vet and lint-rolling puppy hair and cat dander off myself.” “They’re almost like really shy animals. They will come out of the woods but you have to stay very still and you have to pretend like you’re not interested in them.” “Artists tend to put their fingers in the wounds in the silences.” “I believe in the role of literature as a catalyst for dialogue and new forms of thinking.” “All the stuff I’m interested in is thrown into the washing machine that is my brain and it’s put on a spin.”
David Naimon: Good morning and welcome to Between the Covers. I’m David Naimon, your host. Today’s guest, Poet Charif Shanahan, has a BA in Comparative Literature and Creative Writing from Princeton, and after several years working in finance in London and New York, returned to school for an MA in Comparative Literature and Literary Translation from Dartmouth followed by an MFA in Poetry from NYU. He was a Fulbright scholar in Morocco, a Stegner fellow at Stanford, has been Program Director of the Poetry Society of America, Poetry Editor at Psychology Tomorrow Magazine, and is currently serving as guest editor at Poetry Magazine. Shanahan has taught at California College of the Arts, NYU, Collegio di Milano in Italy, Stanford University, and is currently an assistant professor of English and Creative Writing at Northwestern University. His translations from Italian have appeared in Columbia University’s Translation Journal Circumference at a public space and have been performed by the Vienna Art Orchestra. Shanahan’s poetry has appeared everywhere from The New Yorker to The Nation. It’s been anthologized in Seeding the Future of African American Poetry and an African American Poetry: 250 Years of Struggle & Song among other places, and has been supported by fellowships from everywhere from the National Endowment for the Arts to Cave Canem. His debut collection Into Each Room We Enter without Knowing with a starred review from Publishers Weekly was a finalist for the Lambda Literary Award and the Publishing Triangles Thom Gunn Award. Ilya Kaminsky called it “Lyrical and unforgiving,” saying, “I believe Shanahan is a rare kind of poet because his voice is unrelenting and calm at once; he is both vividly empathetic and fiercely honest.” Yusef Komunyakaa says, “Here in these pages the politics of color is highly personal; in a time of bleaching creams and psychological erasures, where there’s an attempt to diminish the African, this poet confronts himself and family head-on, and in doing so, through wit and an astute sense of history, his poetry dares to affect the reader. These poems cross borders in the blood and through an imagination that challenges us.” Today we’re talking to Charif Shanahan about his second collection just out from Tin House called Trace Evidence. Publishers Weekly in its star review says, “In this exquisite and affecting collection, Shanahan explores longing and alienation in queer and mixed-race contexts. With provocative and arresting language, he examines the ways in which white supremacy and heteronormativity make those who do not fit neatly into categories feel like outsiders in their own lives. Out of pain and loss, joy, sex, state-sanctioned violence, and nomadic longing, Charif constructs a comprehensive identity and an artistic vision that is dynamic and brilliantly conveyed.” Three U.S Poet Laureates agree, our current laureate Ada Limón calls the book, “Dangerously wise, wholly human, and deeply rooted in attention. A book for anyone who has ever questioned where they belonged.” Our 22nd U.S Poet Laureate Tracy K. Smith adds that these poems remind her of the period after a great struggle when body and psyche recover one another. Trace Evidence is an utter revelation. Finally, our 19th U.S Poet Laureate Natasha Trethewey says, “Charif Shanahan is examining race and sexuality in ways I have not seen. Trace Evidence mines the most intimate reaches of our colonial past to ask these important questions: How do we live and love with so much betrayal? Betrayal of the self, by family, lovers, friends, the body’s betrayal of itself? Notably, the book contends with an anti-Blackness beyond the familiar narratives of our contemporary moment: here, it emanates from the Arab world through the very parent who confers Blackness to her children, offering nuance and complexity to the ways in which we tend to consider the subject. And while there is a through-line of pain in this book, as it explores the liminality of mixed-race identity, time and mortality, it neither ends in despair nor seeks to assign blame. . . . Charif’s is a necessary voice.” Welcome to Between the Covers, Charif Shanahan.
Charif Shanahan: Thank you so much for having me. I’m honored to be here.
DN: Even though your book will be out when people hear this, we are actually talking before the release of Trace Evidence, most of the readings of yours I’ve watched while they’ve had you reading poems from Trace Evidence often, they’ve centered around your work in the debut. You always would preface these readings, like you do in your bio on your website as well, by saying that you grew up in The Bronx with an Irish-American father and a Moroccan mother who’s both Black and Arab. You often also talk about how during what was supposed to be a Fulbright year in Morocco, you’re in a horrible bus accident where you were ultimately medevaced to Switzerland, and after multiple surgeries, spent that year not in the ancestral homeland of your mother and her family but in your childhood bedroom in New York City. While the accident took place after your first book, both books engage with questions of your family lineage with race and identity, with Blackness and anti-Blackness, with Morocco, with selfhood, with language in relation to all of it. Maybe we could start with the ways in which you feel like Trace Evidence is an extension of the questions that animate your debut and/or the ways you feel like Trace Evidence is a departure from your debut.
CS: I do feel that Trace Evidence is an extension of the first book in a way. It’s certainly centered around the same concerns and questions, many of which, or perhaps all of which, are unanswerable which is the point for me in part. I think what has less space in the second collection is the maternal relationship and the tension that the speakers in the first collection and then I in my life have contended with as a result of my mother’s story, the way that she is racialized here, what that means for me and my brothers who are of Moroccan heritage but US American breastfed on US American racism, as we all are, which is constitutive of this country. Not to say that we’re all racists obviously, but it’s in the air, it’s in the water, and that dissonance of self-concept that is generated by the culture of origin, the geography of origin. There were poems that I wrote towards the first book that really engaged directly with the mother in a way that’s present in Trace Evidence. But the mother poems, if we can call them that, are really contained to three in the first section. There’s the title poem Two Rooms Down The Hall and the Sears & Roebuck, and well four, and then the Not the Whole Thing, But a Large Part of the Story, where “Over there, she was saharawi, asmar, Even ibd. Over here, Black,” that one. I think what feels different to me, the essential quality that feels different to me between the two books is that the speaker, by the time we arrive at Trace Evidence, has held on to the answers that we all can contend with and look at that, again, do not have answers but for himself is clear about who he is. The journey of coming into that was part of what I was trying to spell out in the first book and demonstrate in real time actively beginning with these childhood poems, although I resisted a linear curation of both books. The coming into is part and parcel I think of Into Each Room, and what we have in the second book, I believe in my own conscious making of it, was someone beyond those questions as they dictated or informed how he would move through the world and how he would choose to identify and was now speaking from a subject position that was defined by its instability. There was a looking for a finite place that I think finally is unavailable but there is an agency, self-possession inside an individual speaker who is able to state as he does in the title poem, “For us here now I will be the first of our line,” like that certainty, that conviction, that clarity of self and circumstance for me feels like the essential difference.
DN: Both books are about identity as you’ve suggested in a manner that’s very specific to your own identity. But as you’ve also alluded to I think, the ways your particular identity speaks to questions of identity I think extend far beyond you. I would like to start on the conceptual and philosophical level on the linguistic and existential level and then move into the granular details of your specific situation, which I think your collection mostly does as well. The first poem in the first section “Mulatto” :: “Quadroon” sets up I think what you’re suggesting around defining oneself in one’s instability essentially. Maybe we could start with the questions that it poses by hearing the poem and then after we hear the poem, we can spend some time in the aura of those questions.
[Charif Shanahan reads a poem called “Mulatto” :: “Quadroon”]
DN: We’ve been listening to Charif Shanahan read from his latest collection, Trace Evidence. I’d like to speak together into these unanswerable questions when you say “To speak at all/ I must occupy a position// In a system whose positions/ I appear not to occupy,” and then to have the poem land on the line “it may be that I cannot even if I want to tell you what for me it has been like,” to have these statements come very early in this collection, that maybe language itself is foreclosing the possibility of self-knowing or self-expression, and yet at the same time paradoxically, it feels like your expression against language’s capacity seems to itself open up possibilities for us to know you and to hear you. I want to spend some time with this, the placement of the poem here, the placement of these questions here in relationship to defining oneself through one’s instability.
CS: Thank you for that, David. That poem very clearly to me needed to be toward the beginning of the collection. One thing that I would point out to listeners who may not have a copy of the book is that the very first poem in the collection before the first section begins is a poem called Colonialism, which is a narrative fragment, a memory of a young boy speaker crossing the street into traffic in Morocco with his Moroccan mother and his two brothers. These are US American children on the divider. The boy rushes into traffic and the mother eventually crosses over and there’s this encounter. It felt really important to me to start the collection with that poem as the lens through which to read each of the three sections that are to come. Specifically because, well, for many reasons, but one of the reasons was that “Mulatto” :: “Quadroon” somewhere between as an opening to the entire collection would not have expressed the geographic origin of the questions and of the Blackness within this particular family in a way that feels crucial, in a way that is really constitutive of the questions. We arrive at “Mulatto” :: “Quadroon,” another aspect of that poem that listeners might not be able to hear is that those words are actually in quotation marks in the title as a way to foreground that the object of inquiry in the poem, as much as it is about the experience of inhabiting or not inhabiting one of those labels, is also about language, is naming and the influence of these categories, these taxonomies on how we can communicate and what is even possible. I think as you’ve expressed, the poem resists a clean and easy landing. It exists in acknowledgment of the complication of the speaker’s position. There is a question of whether or not one can really communicate in a way that is comprehensible when inside a social context, that does not account for them really, that does not allow them to be legible in a way that is recognizable, familiar to the other individuals in the social context and how that position might eclipse the very possibility of language. Poetry or that poem in particular comes in as a kind of antidote in a way, or at least a resistance to it because we, of course, understand by the time we reach the end of the poem a little bit more about what it has been like for the speaker although it’s in this lyrically expressed meditative way. That really, for me, as the portal into the collection, felt really crucial because within the first two poems, we established geography and racial instability, and also the ways in which that complicate communication, which is to say commune, touching, seeing one another, knowing one another. I loved what you said earlier about how you wanted to frame the conversation that you wanted to start with this conceptual or philosophical and then get into the granular because as much as the poems seem to be about identity, these are poems that explore mixed-race identity, these are poems that explore Blackness in the Arab world, whatever it might be, for me, the grief at the generative level of many of the poems is really to do with the separateness of our species and how we have become unknowable to one another in some respects, and language as a fundamental vehicle for knowing one another and receiving one another is already implicated from the very first poem of the first section.
DN: That’s a great segue into what I want to ask you about around the separateness of the species. When I think of this question of language’s capacity, I think there’s one way that this can be viewed as universal as I think you’re suggesting. That points to perhaps a translational aspect to any word that when I say, “I feel sad,” I’m translating that feeling into whatever available vocabulary I have and that word sad both does and doesn’t represent what I’m feeling, and 20 people who say the same sentence “I feel sad” are having 20 very different experiences. But here, we’re talking about language and its failures around questions of core identity. A lot of writers of color who come on the show really push back against universalizing experience, particularly because of the way for Millennia, the white male writer has been the default voice for the universal, not always is obviously foregrounded as the “we” of Walt Whitman but as a cultural default that sometimes we might not even notice that this is the default. I think of Natalie Diaz, Solmaz Sharif, Dionne Brand, also Claire Schwartz, all of them evacuating words like “we” and “citizen” and even “human” from what they would consider an unearned goodwill stored within them; words that end up erasing and excluding who is in the we, who is a citizen, who is considered a human and given human regard. But in many places where you’ve talked about your own work, it feels like you take another path, or maybe to the same place or maybe to a different place, and that’s where I wanted to explore. For instance, in your personal statement for your NEA Fellowship, it begins, “Born into a mixed-race, bi-national family in the Bronx, I have from youth navigated complex questions of intersecting histories, geographies, and identities. In particular, the experience of not being seen, ethnoculturally and racially, and with it not being heard, marked my early life so constitutively as to become an existential echo: I did not—could not—exist in a social world whose terms did not exactly account for me. From that social position, I naturally sought any person, experience, book, painting, photograph—anything I could find—that reached beyond constructed social divisions to a sense of unity, or oneness, to a plane of human experience not only available to all but constituted by all.” Also in this collection itself you say you don’t believe in interdependence because it implies separateness, which you believe is false. Recently on The Poetry Magazine Podcast where you appeared to talk about your guest editorship, you said you were not interested in erasing difference but you were interested in those moments where a construction of identity, whatever that construction is, comes down. I’d love to hear any thoughts you have about unity, universality, shared experience, bridging the gaps of difference in light of the discourse happening around the legacy of this historically. I don’t think this “we” you are conjuring outside of your poetry in these conversations is the same as Whitman’s “we.” I’d love to hear what you think about it.
CS: I have so been looking forward to this conversation, thank you for that question. [laughs] I believe that our initial state of being as we enter the world is of oneness, a spiritual existential metaphysical connectivity and it’s so slippery to talk about it because even connectivity would suggest separateness merged and that’s not what I mean. I mean one vast thing that we are then partitioned out of into personhood, we’re languaged, cultured, raised, gendered, and named. Part of what I believe is happening in profound experiences of art is that that self, what we might call the ego or the self, lifts, and for a moment, we merge with the singing voice whose subjectivity that poem depends on, which is one of the paradoxes. The other paradox is that we are arriving at a languageless place, I believe. I believe silence and the ineffable are where the poem take us and the paradox is that it does that through language, and that in these encounters with our, I think of the Anne Sexton line, the title is escaping, it’s one of her most famous but she says, “and when we touch we enter touch entirely,” that’s what I believe is happening. For me, the ruptures, you pointed to that point, the places where the constructedness dissolves or falls apart would feel to I think a lot of people who are able to function, live, and exist within a framework, a social framework disruptive, problematic, threatening even to core identity and self-concept in terms of the world, their existential orientation to the world around them and to the people around them. They felt that way to me too. But for me, I have come to reframe them, those moments of rupture as a kind of return or a reminder, a representation of the truth inside what we have constructed, which I would never suggest is not real. It’s the first level of human experience, like what we are interfacing through the terms of the social world. I don’t mean to say that because constructed, we can dismiss it all. What I mean to say is that there is something behind it and that because constructed, it therefore must, in some way, in some respect, be challengable, be fallible. There’s got to be holes. There’s got to be ways that it doesn’t account for everything that is to come, everything that happens after the establishment of a framework. I feel like I may be moving away from your question. Is there a part of the question I’m missing, David, now that we’re talking about God? [laughter]
DN: Well, we kind of are. I feel like you’re evoking a “we.” I don’t want to put words in your mouth but it feels almost like so many people talking now about entanglement and mycelial networks, like I think of Ross Gay talking about entanglement and being beholden to others, and it’s in our entanglement and our beholdeness that I think he’s trying to speak from. It reminds me of that a little bit.
CS: I remember the other piece which was the line in Fig Tree that says, “[I am trying to say something about interdependence, which I don’t believe in.] It implies separateness, which is false,” and I do believe that. I really do believe that you and I are the same thing and it’s the kind of statement that would make people roll their eyes or point to all the very real and important ways in which you and I are not having the same experience or even similar experiences, which again, I don’t dismiss by making the statement that you and I are the same thing. It’s a simultaneous truth and I think we tend to focus on the one aspect, on the here and now, they’re very real, and understandably, the consequences of the identity categories that we have made and live inside of. There’s also this other piece, this pre-verbal piece, this piece that I have personally found to be transformative, healing, inspiring, motivating. In some respects, and I think I said this in my conversation with Adrian, the truest thing available to me, because the available categories were always already contentious in my particular instance, they were always already challenged, refuted, disputed in a way that could be crazy-making if I didn’t understand that no one can tell you who you are even if the systems in which we live would purport to empower individuals to do so. The separateness and the oneness, I am not at all interested in flattening our differences, I’m interested in the meanings that we have attached to them, what we’ve come to call them, how cultures and histories have been born out of them, and how we can hold those differences and still be here together in common purpose and objective.
DN: Well, right before this poem, right after the poem we haven’t heard yet, Colonialism, and right before “Mulatto” :: “Quadroon,” there’s an epigraph to the first section by the Chinese philosopher Mengzi whose Latinized name is Mencius born in 372 BC, which says, “A sense of shame is the beginning of integrity.” I realize that shame in this sentence could mean many different things and also that I don’t know what it means for you, and how that shame relates to the poem and the section that follows. I think of something I mentioned in my conversation with Monica Youn, which is largely an exploration of what she calls a poetics of deracination. I mentioned an idea of Ngũgĩ wa Thiong’o that our bodies are our first field of knowledge, that if we begin from a place where our skin or our hair is wrong or any non-normative aspect of our bodies is wrong, we build a knowledge without a foundation in his mind. I think of a long Twitter thread you did about being mixed race, 18 tweets that I’m going to totally paraphrase but you talk about, among other things, how despite your poetry often looking at the painful aspects of your experience, that you genuinely love being mixed. You love the access you have to two totally different social and cultural worlds and that the ambiguity of your body gives you access to certain contexts that you actually aren’t, by origin, a part of it all. You quote a couple of lines from a sonnet by Shara McCallum, a light-skinned Black poet of mixed descent that go, “you are so everywhere, so nowhere, in plain sight you walk through walls.” At one point you say, “As I’ve grown to accept a certain instability of experience in terms of my racialization, a slipperiness that confers privilege in some contexts and to be sure a total lack of privilege in others, I am anchored by knowing that my racial identity/identities could never depend on anything other than the fact of them and certainly not on the racial pathology of the person looking at my body. If it did, my entire psychological existential orientation to the current terms of social identity would shift with each viewer racializing me anew which would be madness. I’m not saying the different ways in which my body is read are without consequence. On the contrary, much of my poetry has emerged from this particular and dissonant aspect of my racial experience. I’m saying that only I get to tell you who I am,” all of which makes me think of the two meanings of a part in the poem you read, a part of and apart from. I realize I might be putting two different things together but I wonder about the epigraph, a sense of shame is the beginning of integrity, and what if any relationship it has to not being defined by how others perceive you, which in my mind feels like the opposite of what Mengzi is saying but perhaps I’m reading a different connotation to the word shame and to the word integrity.
CS: The opposite of what he’s saying, in your reading he’s saying what? Sorry.
DN: That having shame is part of self-construction, of having integrity. That’s the way I read it as if it’s the beginning maybe of human socialization, probably something to do with the awareness of others and not just being in yourself, that shame and integrity, I feel like perhaps he thinks of integrity as a good thing and that shame is the vehicle to it.
CS: Yeah, that’s exactly what I was going to say. I don’t think the argument inside that statement or the way that I’m anticipating the first section with that epigraph is that shame need to be a part of having integrity or that one who has integrity also has shame necessarily. But I think shame, as an emotional state, as a psychological orientation, which is distinct from guilt because guilt is having done wrong and shame is believing you are wrong that if something is defective, that experience is a conduit or a channel to integrity through understanding what the circumstances are that have generated the shame in the first place. The implicit ask of the shame is understanding from where it emerged and how to contend with it so that one could arrive on the other side with integrity, with the integrity of self-determined self-concept. I think the other and the gaze of the other is part of what generates the shame but is finally not involved in the process of moving past it and being earthed in one’s essence and finding the integrity.
DN: To spend one more moment with your Twitter thread, it feels like you flipped the dynamic on shame when you say, “What I’ve found challenging is actually not being mixed per se but the ways that the logic of legibility around which race and racial hierarchies is constructed purports to give authority over one’s identity to anyone other than the individual in question,” and then later, “Erasure, racially for me, is always most painful when by other Black folk. But there’s an irony in it that for me relieves the pain. It’s not me they’re erasing, not exactly, it’s themselves by projecting on to me and reinflicting an erasure which they’ve internalized. When it comes to that sense of ‘authority,’ I have come to believe that it exists in direct proportion to one’s own shame. So wily a thing it can sometimes present as arrogance or even strength when it in fact corrodes. It’s very, very sad and has, in the most essential ways, absolutely nothing to do with me. Because if you loved yourself, why in the hell would you need someone to be anything other than who they know themselves to be?”
CS: Again, I stand by every word and actually hearing you read that back to me, I think, “Well, David, send that to me and maybe I have an essay there.” [laughter] Because it’s gone, I deleted it. It’s amazing that you have that because I think it wasn’t up for more than 15 minutes. So yeah, I stand by every word. I think the shame in those tweets is really inside the individual who would deign to tell those around them who they are and who they are not. There’s one thing for my body to be interpreted in different ways depending on who’s looking and that’s the portion of the instability or really a mark of the instability that I have come to accept that I understand, I know to expect. That was the kind of experience that generated for me early in life, the kind of shame that I am referring to Mencius to identify, which is the sense of oneself that one develops in their very early life as we, again, are partitioned out of oneness, gendered, raced, countried, languaged, and also based on who’s around us told about ourselves. We are taught to believe certain things about ourselves through the interpersonal encounters, through the social context, and that for me was an experience that was marked by shame or generated shame. Similarly, there is a shame that I think other folks would carry that I’m referring to in those tweets regardless of racial background. They’ll be the example that I mentioned and that you pointed to was the erasure that sometimes happens from other Black folk in the particular pain of that, that something is being defended when a person feels it very important to say you are not X, you are Y, you were not Y, you were Q. Something is being protected, something is being defended. In that way, and as much as racial categories I think emerge from the construction of Whiteness actually, there is the racial hierarchy implicit in that that is being defended even as someone might feel that they as a Black person are defending the integrity of their Black experience which is different from my Black experience and not about Whiteness per se, although always already is, of course. I think very associatively, David, if I veer off, just bring me back. [laughs]
DN: I will.
CS: Just bring me back. I do believe what I’ve said and I think the shame, I can give you an example and I don’t know if this is something that would be appropriate for the podcast but I had this friend from college, a Black woman of Jamaican extraction and she made it known that one of her grandparents was White but everyone in her family was Black identified. We fell out of touch after college and then reconnected some years later. I helped her get a board position at an organization that I had a relationship with and at the end of the first board meeting that she attended, one of our board colleagues who happened to be a White woman who, of course, knew that I was the reason why this friend from college had gotten a board position, came over and asked us about our experience at Princeton and said, “What was Princeton like for you two?” I responded honestly and said, “Well, I found Princeton hard as a person of color. As a queer person of color, I found Princeton hard.” The friend from college snapped back like barked, “Oh, you’re not that colored,” in front of a White person, which is sacrilege. [laughter] It’s like, “How dare you?” I exist in acknowledgment of how I read, the privilege that I possess, and as I said in that tweet, it has given me access to certain things that I know Black friends and family would not be able to access in the same way, conversations, particularly conversations around race and racism, diversity, equity, and inclusion, so on and so forth that I am able to participate in bewildering to the person looking at me, because they don’t f*ck me exactly, they don’t know how to integrate me into the pathology like the scaffolding inside their psyche. What I know about this experience with this person is that whatever it was inside her that led to her saying that, which was an erasure, which was violent, it was totally f*cked up, has in a way nothing to do with me and has everything to do with the way that she feels about her own Blackness and how that is playing out in her experience and the story she is telling herself about her life. She couldn’t fathom that somebody who might be able to pass, and I’m not even really sure that I can, I tell some friends and they’re like, “Are you kidding me? In what room are you White?” and then I walk into rooms where I’m not seen where the amount of times that I’ve walked into rooms that have been populated by all White people who miss me and have let crazy racist sh*t fall out of their mouths, I can’t even tell you, David, that’s the instability. But what I know about this encounter is that I was the canvas, I was the vehicle for the self-flagellation, I was the sounding board of shame, I was some agent in her own self-narrative, which I think is marked and defined by shame because why would she need to do that to me? There’s another response that would be one of curiosity. God, we were there at the same time and I didn’t realize that you struggled in that way. What prevents that from being available? Which goes back to the Fanon epigraph because part of what I’m interested in doing in the book is exploring the obstructions to love, which I think is another way of naming the oneness that I’ve expressed earlier. What gets in the way? What makes it hard or feel impossible? This I think is an example of that.
DN: Well, as a step further into bringing this discussion into the particulars of your life moving through the world, let’s hear Colonialism, the opening poem that orients us geographically too, in a more specific way racially also to the book.
[Charif Shanahan reads a poem called Colonialism]
DN: We’ve been listening to Charif Shanahan read from Trace Evidence. There’s so many things that I love about this poem. It feels almost like a parable for one and I love that it evokes three languages: the speaker looking both ways, two different ways, but also being viewed in two ways by the mother and by the people on the street. It made me think of many things, for one, your incredible conversation with Safia Elhillo for the latest issue of Mizna, the Arab American literary journal, an issue that she guest edits with a takeover by an all-Black production team that looks at the intersection between Arabness and Blackness much as both of your books do and her books do. I’m going to highly encourage people and I’ll point people to seek out this issue of Mizna. Safia, outside of this conversation with you in other places, has talked about how she speaks Arabic in her family in the part of Sudan where her family is from but that she doesn’t know really how much she thought of herself as Arab because a lot of Arabs don’t read her as Arab and she’s experienced a lot of microaggressions in the Arab world, particularly when she was living in Egypt, things that she didn’t realize she was internalizing at the time because she was too young to realize what she was internalizing. She said she used to talk about her Black Arabness but now that doesn’t feel right and she says things more like Arabophone Blackness or Arabized African-ness, that these work better because Arabness is not entirely indigenous to her Nubian identity. This is my long preface to her asking you in Mizna about how you started thinking about Blackness in your poems and how you came to a vocabulary around it. I want to ask you the same question here about how you came to your own vocabulary within poetry to unpack Blackness in your poems. But also in light of something you mentioned later in that same conversation, that at the beginning of your journey around talking about the complexities of your particular Black experience, somebody told you as a sort of critique, “I mean, I understand where you’ve arrived but you could have just been Black. You could have just written a book that put you forward as Black and affirmed that identity is given so people would question or challenge your belonging less.” How did you and how do you speak back to this? I’m sure there are many others who do this very thing that this person is suggesting who are mixed race that you yourself very much do not want to do.
CS: Thank you so much for that question, David, truly because it touches in some way the most essential aspect of what it is that I’m trying to do through the poems about race in particular, which is that it would have been a lie for me to do that. It would have been a hell of a lot more comfortable. It would have led to fewer awkward conversations. It would have led to fewer situations in which I needed to account for myself or justify why I was in this room or not in that room, but it wasn’t true exactly. In a way, it was. In a way, it was in the sense that I have always been who I am. The cultural inheritance has always been the cultural inheritance, the racial categories implicated by that inheritance have always been those categories and what’s changed is my consciousness around them, my consciousness around the histories that I emerge from, that my people emerge from, my relationship to that cultural inheritance. I think I have come into what was already there. I don’t think there’s been a fundamental change, which I think is implicit inside this advice that you’re actually something else but you’re close enough to this so that you could have just been this and why not just assume that position? The experience, the experience that I had and that I’m trying to capture, portray, convey inside the poems was something else, which emerges from the instability of racial constructs. Instability is a term that we’ve used to talk about an experience like mine of being racialized in different rooms depending on who’s looking but it also exists across time and space, it’s also part of the mother figure’s story which is that she is of a context where the identity markers that are germane to her experience are Arab, Moroccan, Muslim, women, eventually mother, and then she gets on a plane and moves her life to the United States that has the traumatic racial history it has, the current racial politics, and there is a question of race that is not brand new but specific, particular here that she now needs to contend with. That is part of my story. That has to be part of my story and that has to be part of what I’m trying to offer. I think there’s strength in that truth. But I think one of the misreadings of the work, one of the easy misreadings of the work is that these are confessionally oriented poems or that these poems emerge from compulsion to be seen because they emerge from an individual who maybe wasn’t, and I don’t need to write poems about this, David, I don’t need to write poems about my mom, [laughter] I don’t need to do that. There’s no compulsion that makes this the thing that I absolutely must talk about. It’s that there is something relevant inside this to every single one of us regardless of where we are on a racial spectrum, regardless of our acculturation, our level of consciousness around race. Part of what I’m interested in doing is demonstrating the ways in which the macro, the systemic forces and influences shape the most intimate aspects of our lives. The poems that speak to the mom are not poems that emerge from a contentious relationship between speaker and mother. Although they are that in a way, they are more to me about colonialism. They are more to me about White supremacy. They are more to me about systems that are critiqued, challenged, the integrity of those systems are challenged through these poems. Those are poems that I could only have written by not taking that advice, by not having done what that person told me to do. They are only poems that I could have written by sitting in my truth, which was that this was always a question which was unanswered, that it’s complicated, that what that person was effectively advising me to do and what that person wanted inside their advice was simplicity, they wanted to flatten it. They wanted it to be knowable, familiar. There was a threat inside my having done what I did, which was reshaped as, in my best interest, how is lying about my experience in my best interest or in the best interest of anybody who’s listening?
DN: Well, maybe in connection to that question you just posed, and tell me if this feels like a stretch as a connection, this reminds me a little bit of when I was talking to Monica Youn again and her talking about the credentialing that goes on around authenticity, and maybe this is what that speaker was asking you to do, that yes, she is Korean-American, yes, she has, in her case, two Korean parents but she didn’t speak Korean, her parents were aspiring to the model minority to assimilation, she hadn’t been to Korea. So this idea of going to her “homeland” to find the material for her work, to perform a certain essentialized authenticness, in some ways, plays into the ways the White imagination expects to see and view her and her work. She even goes into talking a little bit, I can’t remember if it was on the show or off air, but just the funding mechanisms are all in that White imaginary too. It’s easier to get funded to go “back” to Korea to have an experience and then bring that back for your Korean-American poems. Does this feel related to what this person was suggesting is how would maybe the usefulness of you lying about your experience would be a practical usefulness because of what the culture is expecting and hoping from you?
CS: Yeah. It is related a little bit. I think that person felt that there was a question of authenticity that would be raised about my inhabitation of Blackness, my claiming of Blackness, my putting myself forward as a Black person on earth even while I am acknowledging that within the diaspora, there are many countries, cultures, and languages, many histories within a global perception of Blackness, and my belief that there are as many Black experiences happening on earth right now as there are Black people. I think this person was trying to protect me. I don’t think it was practical in a professionalizing way, maybe it was personally practical, it was about simplifying. Black was a word that was difficult for my mother to even say. It wasn’t the reality of our experience, my brothers, and I should speak for myself, the reality of my experience was not that I had a White parent and I had a Black parent and here we have a light-skinned mixed-race person who is claiming Blackness. That isn’t what the individual who’s giving me that advice feared I would be critiqued about or criticized about. It was that the non-White parent in my instance disrupted the system in a way that bewildered people that she was racialized as Black to basically everybody who looked at her here but did not conceive of herself as such. It seemed to this individual, and to many people who finally are wrong, that my claiming of Blackness, when the child of someone who is conferring it to me but not identifying with it herself, was somehow not a thing to do, was somehow dangerous, was somehow a problem and that I didn’t need to do that, I didn’t need to demonstrate my having done that. I could have just started as Black from page one. That is a reduction of the complexity and I think the complexity and the nuance are the way forward. I think complexity and the nuance are the way out.
DN: Yeah. Well, when you answered the question in Mizna about Blackness and vocabulary, you said, “When we speak from a particular vantage point, culturally, nationally, religiously, racially, using the language conferred by the context of those positions, we speak from our individual subjectivities in a way that can often flatten the complexity of the question of race on a global scale and over time. So, if we’re describing Blackness or a Black experience using language that emerges historically from a US American context, it’s kind of anachronistic when we’re talking about contemporary depictions and experiences of Blackness and the language fails differently if we’re talking across national or cultural boundaries too. So the language pieces are really complicated and probably require a reimagining on the part, not only of Black folk from the Arabic-speaking world or Black folk period, but of all people who are awake and alive in the mind and spirit.” This made me think of this great essay by John Keene, Translating Poetry, Translating Blackness, where, among other things, he reveals how Blackness shifts in nature when thinking of Blackness in Brazil, in the Dominican Republic, in Iraq, or Pakistan, and that the absence of translations of literary text from these writers impoverishes our sense of what Blackness is and/or could be in the United States. In the introduction to that essay, Daniel Borzutzky’s introduction, Daniel says, “Part of the question I’m hearing here is that at this moment in the United States when opinions about race continue to be presented as essential truths, that it would do a world of good for United Statesians to understand that some of our ideas about race are arbitrary and that others have been constructed to fit the needs of historical establishment powers. This is not to say that racism is not ever present in these other international contexts, instead it’s to suggest that there is value in understanding other countries’ imaginings of race so that we can understand how race, both here and abroad, is a concept that is historically specific, culturally manufactured, and politically modifiable according to whatever foundational fictions and realities a nation wishes to produce.” It made me wonder, thinking back to the poem Colonialism, and being watched by different people each with their own subject position, nationally and racially and a poem in three languages, and you having lived in the United States, in England, in Switzerland, and Morocco, if we could spend a moment with any experiences that might come to mind about how your identity is constructed by others as you’ve moved to different continents and been in different spaces. I know you’ve spoken about this in other interviews like working in London, for instance, it’s not the same.
CS: Yeah. I realize that the question before the one that you just asked that I don’t think I really answered because it was about language, the one thing that I would say is I think the problem of language when it came to the identity of our family was its unavailability, that there were no terms that accounted for us. While there were terms that existed in a US-American context and there were terms that existed in a Moroccan context within our family unit in that apartment in the Bronx, where both the United States and Morocco coexisted, there was no language to hold us all, or at least me and my brothers and my mother, and that was part of the first poem that I read part of the problem. I really appreciate what Daniel said, the cultural specificity, the historical moment that it is simultaneous fiction and reality. I think we as a species, as a culture have such a hard time acknowledging the truth of the reality of it like it’s 2023 and we are still having to argue that racism is real, that police brutality is as old as the United States of America. We’re still having to make these fundamental foundational arguments that it doesn’t seem possible to me at times to really integrate the fiction into that discourse. We all intellectually understand that race has no basis in biological or scientific fact. I think most thinking people know that and yet that truth exists simultaneously with a kind of social fabric and an interpersonal motion, rhythm, and energy that is really dictated by that fiction and therefore very real. It seems to me that integrating experiences that are maybe to do with or put a spotlight on or emphasize the fictional components that demonstrate the constructedness of it would enhance and progress racial discourse.
DN: In light of that thinking about highlighting the constructedness, talk to us about how your selfhood is constructed by others when you’re not in the United States compared to the United States.
CS: Well, I think as soon as I get on a plane and leave this country, race, [laughter] race, it’s not that it becomes a non-factor but the charge of it shifts, diminishes. The identity categories or markers that come to the fore shift and so it depends on where I am. But as I said in that interview with Adrian, when I was living and working in London, it was a very international professional context in the sense that there were a lot of folks who were born and raised elsewhere who then went to London for their careers and so on my desk at work, there was an Italian guy, a French woman, someone from Spain, and so it was really nationality in my case being from New York City, a world city that lots of people were excited about, they would refer to me by city and so it was nationality and geography that were the identity markers and race was less operative where he says we hold that in the United States was less operative. I think Morocco is the only place I’ve been where my freckles sometimes throw people off but I’m more or less fit in. I’m also taller than a lot of the men in my family and in my community there but there’s a way that I optically am received and it’s when I speak that one understands there is something else happening and then that I’m from the United States begins to mean certain things to certain people. But it’s ever shifting, it’s never static. It’s dynamic, alive, and it would be totally bewildering and painful in the absence of the understanding that the perception does not make you, that the perception is not your truth.
DN: Well, I recently and very belatedly discovered the Back Draft series at Guernica Magazine where Ben Purkert, for the last five years, has been having poets on to discuss a poem in relationship to an early draft of the same poem.
CS: Yeah. It’s a great series.
DN: Yeah, it’s a great series and I just saw that he’s stepping down from it.
CS: Yeah, he stepped down.
DN: Which makes me sad. For your recent appearance, you chose the poem Wound, which used to be called Existential Wound, and people can see both versions. I’ll point people to this conversation that you have with Ben. But given that we’ve talked a lot about language, it’s interesting to see this discussion about this poem as one about breaking form, that it’s a broken sonnet. It’s something I didn’t notice until you both spoke about it. But I’m compelled by this idea of using a received form and breaking it in relation to this examination around language and its limitations in capturing selfhood. I was hoping you could talk about how the poem is broken, what the wound of the poem is, and whether the way it is broken is part of the wound, an enactment of the wound, or maybe it’s the opposite I wonder. Then maybe we could hear Wound and I was thinking we could hear Wound and Indeterminacy.
CS: I think of this poem in relationship to or in connection with the first poem you had me read, the “Mulatto” :: “Quadroon” somewhere between because it’s about the necessity or it emerges from the necessity of a position in order to be comprehensible in language. I think there’s a way that the categories of identity pressurize speech, which is to say no ability within language like being apprehended, comprehended through the language we use to communicate with others, like any human being can say any word, that’s not what I mean, I mean cultural dictate, the way that language shapes consciousness and perspective. Who’s the individual behind the limits of my language, the limits of my life, or the limits of what I can see? It’s in that respect. If you are not yet legible, recognizable within a context, a social context, your language is limited. In the third section of the book, ars poetica emerges as a concern, a theme. I am thematizing poetry, a poetic project that captures or is concerned with these other questions of identity, sexuality, family, and so on and so forth. It’s the same kind of dilemma that we encounter in that very first poem that was expressed poetically through ars poetica. It has taken me years to begin this very poem and that isn’t an exaggeration. I think for the majority of my 20s, David, I was writing poems in a vacuum and knew no poets. I knew Linda Gregg who I had studied with in college and who had really changed my life and opened me up to all this. She had introduced me to Timothy Liu. I was living in Europe. I was partnered and having a life there, writing poems, and trying to figure out how to write poems. I was already in my late 20s by the time I came back to the States to pursue the MFA. During that time, during the seven, eight years, I often felt like I did not know what my subject was or what my subjects were. I didn’t have “anything” to write about. Intellectually, I understood that that was such a preposterous notion. The world is literally and figuratively on fire, you’re in love, you are a US American living abroad. There were so many elements of my experience and of life on the planet that were worthy of my consideration, yet there was this sense or this feeling that I didn’t have a thing to say or didn’t know how to communicate it. That was directly connected to this problem of positionality and language as I have come to understand it. The greatest developments in my poetic life and my life as a poet, the development of an aesthetic, a voice, a continuity of aesthetic across poems has really emerged from changes in my life rather than exposure to different poetics which is important differently. I don’t mean to minimize the importance of reading against aesthetic inclinations so on and so forth but finally looking at this thing, finally looking at these questions which were so complicated and so painful, we didn’t have the language available to talk about them and therefore suppressed, finally opening that back up, letting it all out, and looking at it, was a breakthrough. I think the people around me at the time, poet friends who were around me at that time saw it as such and understood it as such. That was the moment when the poems that were in the first book that were really dealing with Blackness in the Arab world, the instability of mixed race experience, the liminality of it first started to come and they really poured out of me. My experience tells me what I assert in this poem Wound is the truth is accurate. I was meditating on that and thinking about that as part of a poetic development, like a developmental stage in my being a poet as a non-racial necessarily but no less important identity marker and label to wear and inhabit as the speaker and certainly, the third section of the book does. That as I began to thematize the development of a poetic identity and a poetic voice, that stage needed to be captured. It needed to be reclaimed. In thinking about how to do that in a way that was meaningful, that contributed to the book, thinking about the way that form could hold that, trying to imagine the way that form could hold that dilemma or that tension was something that emerged to me near the end of the editorial process with Tin House. It was initially as Back Draft shows a 13 line stanza and I got rid of the Existential, and I kept Wound and thought about how the form, I mean part of what I believe about form is the form finally of course is content but that there is wisdom inside the initial offering. There is formal wisdom or wisdom that would lead to a formal container or shape in the initial gesture. I saw that it was roughly sonnet length and that there was a kind of volta. The final line was initially the 13th line and it occurred to me that to formally express what the poem was literally saying on the sentence in line level, I could move the 13th line down to the 14th, assert the sonnet form, gesture towards the sonnet form, gesture and echo of it at least while also not upholding it, asserting it and not asserting it in the same gesture. It is a sonnet but it also isn’t in the way that some of the racial categories or that liminality of the racial experience for the speaker is experienced or is known. The wounds, you asked what the wound is, the wound is placelessness and namelessness, the existing inside the interstices, what that means about language interpersonally and the way that you and I are talking right now but also the making of an art that is constructed of language.
DN: Well, let’s hear Wound and Indeterminacy.
[Charif Shanahan reads a poem called Wound]
[Charif Shanahan reads a poem called Indeterminacy]
DN: We’ve been listening to Charif Shanahan read from Trace Evidence. In the beginning, I mentioned I wanted to start from a philosophical and linguistic place, then move to a more granular on-the-ground place of socio-political questions. The reason for this is partly because I was afraid my interest in some of these questions around Black and Arab identity in North Africa would overwhelm the interview because when I had my conversation with Abdellah Taïa, the Moroccan novelist when he was on the show, he’s not a writer of mixed-race, he’s an Arab writer from Morocco who grew up in a Muslim family in Morocco but lives in France, he has plenty of material from his own subject position to write about and into, a queer man with many family members who stopped speaking to him when he came out. He nevertheless insists on describing himself as Muslim and queer even as he’s rejected, and he also refuses to portray France as an enlightened safe haven, writing about both the anti-Arab racism and Islamophobia in his country where he lives now, and also writing into his very fraught relationship with the French language, and the fact that he’s writing into a language which in Morocco is associated with the elite when he himself comes from a very poor family, it seems like to me, an entire writing life could be mined from all of this and all of this alone. But one of the things that’s attractive to me about his writing is how he does relatively small things on the margins of these stories that have outsized effects on the stories at large. The books are deeply immersed in Arab culture but sometimes also evoke the world of Morocco pre-Arabization, like the Berber warrior Queen Kahina who led her people against the Arab invasion in North Africa. One book has a character who becomes a Moroccan soldier fighting for France in Vietnam. In one novel, he has a Black character who’s a hotel cleaner in Cairo, a refugee from Darfur who hates Egypt as he’s often stoned in the streets. I feel like he’s arguing that even though this isn’t his story in the normative individualistic sense, that in his mind it is. Placing these figures within his story often changes the whole book. I remember when I was preparing for that conversation, realizing that his work both showed me the immensity of what I didn’t know about many things that I was curious about, the Arabization of North Africa, Blackness in North Africa, the Trans-Saharan slave trade, I remember at the time poking around a little bit, not because we were going to focus on that but coming across the Senegalese anthropologist Tidiane N’Diaye who estimates that 17 million East Africans were sold under slavery via the Arab slave trade and that in his mind, the Trans-Saharan slave trade has had and still has an immense impact on the current state of Africa, yet that there is this incredible taboo that exists today about writing about it or speaking about it. He says, “Most of the African authors have not yet published a book on the Arab-Muslim slave trade out of religious solidarity. There are 500 million Muslims in Africa, and it is better to blame the West than talk about the past crimes of Arab Muslims.” I didn’t know at the time about this anthropologist, so I reached out to some anthropology friends like, “Who is this guy?” [laughs] I discovered since then in preparing for today that those numbers that he puts forth can’t be verified, they’re contested by other historians but that taboo is very, very real. I also remember when preparing for Abdellah Taïa coming across an article in Al Jazeera about the slave trade, it was an op-ed that seemed really off linguistically to me. The language got very vague and euphemistic with a shorthand that both performed a gesture as if it were looking at something that I think it was also looking at to dismiss without you feeling like it was being dismissed, a placeholder language so that people don’t really need to look. It reminded me of writings I’ve seen by American Jews about The Israeli War of Independence and The Nakba, language that prevents one from having to confront details and specifics or from even having to know them in the first place. As you can tell by the length of this question, [laughter] part of me was excited to talk to you, selfishly, because it was an opportunity for me to learn more as I knew your first book engages with this history of North Africa, several poems engage with indigenous groups in Morocco whose history is predate, Islamicization and Arabization, several eunuch poems and a poem that mentions a leader of the Arab slave trade who is both Black and Arab and who owned Black slaves. But your latest book doesn’t engage with Moroccan history in this way, which is why I’ve waited to bring this up until later in the interview. [laughs] Nevertheless, I do feel like spending some time with this might be useful as a context around your mother. Your mother, as you’ve mentioned, is the figure who returns, I think, most often in the books, more in the first book, your mother who’s Black and Arab who doesn’t consider herself Black. She’s a huge part of your poetry yet. As an entryway into talking about Blackness and Arab identity in Africa, I wondered if this long non-question of mine, what it brings up for you about her attitudes maybe more specifically, then how those do or don’t align with your own experiences around being in Morocco yourself in relation to Blackness.
CS: Sure, yeah. Thank you for that. I think the first thing I would want to say is that the numbers of Black people in North Africa grew as a consequence of the Trans-Saharan slave trade, dark-skinned people who would be racialized as Black, which is to say Black individuals and the language is complicated, we’ve talked about that at length but I’m approximating for the sake of comprehensibility and the possibility of this conversation, the number of Black people in the North increased as a result of that history. But there are indigenous Black groups to the North of Africa, there are subgroups of Berber who are “Black presenting,” so the Haratin as an example are a Berber people who are desert dwellers who are Black, are darker skinned. The emphasis on the slave trade is important but the questions that would remain about self-identification in the North, what exists separate and apart from that too? The complexity as I understand it, and as I have gleaned from my mother’s life and the lives of my family who were there, is to do with really the layers of empire and how there were shifts in self-identification as a consequence of the given imperial context. You have Arabized Africans, which is to say Arabized ethnic groups, and centuries later, the French come so you have francophone Arabs in the Maghreb who might be Black presenting but as a result of these colonial histories do not identify with Africa or Blackness at all which is what generates the possibility or the possibility of an experience such as my mother’s having come here. But what I have found to be true in the North is that there’s a really intense colorism. I wouldn’t exactly use racism to describe it but there’s an intense colorism which is really maybe akin to a caste system in India where darker skinned Arabs are thought to be closer to “Black Africa,” which is in this imagination, in this conceptualization of what it means to be of Africa, an undesirable identification and undesirable marker. There are very real differences between the North and sub-Sahara, of course, and those are cultural, those are national, those are linguistic. Even when there is no apparent difference in embodiment, there often is. But even when there isn’t, that distinction is upheld. For a US American to encounter a Black presenting North African who says, “I am Mediterranean, not of Africa,” “Les Africains sont là-bas!” pointing to the South, which is a line in one of the earlier poem, “That’s where the Africans are.” It can be surreal to encounter that. I think part of the challenge is that because race is a social construct and firstly about the body, but perhaps not finally about the body, we have had in a US American context Black people who have existed along the full spectrum of possible presentation, which is to say there have been very light-skinned, green-eyed Black people for as long as there have been Black people in this country. So if you extract individuals from the North of Africa where there is an internalized sense of difference between individuals in sub-Sahara from who they are as individuals in the North, that internalized sense of difference is very real for them and again jettisoned by real cultural, national linguistic differences. But to take those individuals who distance themselves from sub-Sahara, from a “Black-Africaness” and to put them here, the possibility of them not being racialized as Black is unthinkable for a lot of people. It’s like, “Well, what else could you be?” I think part of what was true for my mother is that, and I want to be sensitive and respectful because my mother is Herculean and tremendous, just tremendous, but part of the obstacles, part of the challenges that waited for her here was to do with the ways in which she was racialized. People thought, before they heard her speak, that she was African-American, descendants of enslaved Africans in the Americas which she was not. When she would assert that she was not, the way that was often heard or interpreted was like she is denying a part of herself and that actually isn’t true. She’s protecting the parts of herself that she perceives are being erased by the assigning of a different category. The intersectionality of her position, we can’t even really talk about her in that way. We can’t even really talk about an individual in that context as being both Black and Arab though I understand why we are. I think it would be more accurate to say that she is who she is and she has every right to remain who she is despite where she brings her body and what pathologies and social expectations are put upon that body and wait for her there. But Blackness was not even a language that she had until she learned her fifth language which was English. There were different terms. The whole orientation to bodily presentation was distinct from the way that we pathologically talk about and cultivate it here. I think those were her circumstances. I’m treading really carefully because it’s so fraught and complicated and I want to be respectful to everyone involved. I hope that I’ve conveyed as honestly and openly as I can the complexity of her experience. But what I absolutely do not think is that she needs to revise her self-concept because now in a place where a different identity is put upon her, I don’t think that is true. I think that’s another violence. I think that’s just another psychic erasure and is violence. I think what is true and what is necessary is to consider the circumstances that she emerges from when children are involved, when there is a first-generation Black-American experience that is happening as a consequence of our cultural, national origin but not an extension of it, not a thing passed down. It’s a thing passed through. That here means something else. In the absence of having been acculturated as a Moroccan speaking Arabic, I was told I was Muslim but I’m Muslim extracted is how I would talk about it. I’m not Muslim-identified. The consciousness around identity and self-concept was US American for me necessarily by virtue of where I was raised, the schools I was going to, who I was talking to, and who I was around. There’s something received from her that is constitutive for me though given the context of origin for her less meaningful there. There was a line in a poem that didn’t make it into the book. It was a question, “And why is it the parts of her she cannot see are the only parts of me that I can?” That was the line and the poem didn’t hold so it didn’t make it in but that was the sense. I hope I’ve answered that really important non-question. [laughter]
DN: I love that line. I have more I want to share but first, let’s hear the poem Two Rooms Down The Hall which is one of the mother poems in the new collection.
[Charif Shanahan reads a poem called Two Rooms Down the Hall]
DN: We’ve been listening to Charif Shanahan read from Trace Evidence. Thinking about your exploration of what language can hold in relation to selfhood but also in particular in relation to a selfhood that is defined by its instability and the line about your mother in the poem you just read, “And the self she refused to let her body take on,” I wanted to spend a moment with the taboo around speaking about or looking into, speaking or writing about the Trans-Saharan slave trade or Arab anti-Blackness in North Africa. I read and watched a lot of interviews with the author of the book Black Morocco, Dr. Chouki El Hamel, a professor of history and a specialist on slavery and race studies in North Africa, and also panels he was on about race and racism, all with African scholars that were either Arab or Black or Arab and Black, and the speakers were always very careful. You could feel how fraught the conversation was on the one hand, yet how important it was to the panelists to be there nonetheless. Many would preface their remarks with how Islam, at its essence, is an egalitarian vision, that in Muhammad’s eyes, there’s no difference between a non-Arab Muslim and an Arab Muslim, a Black Muslim and a White Muslim, but also while noting that the gulf between this radical vision and the embodied cultural practices was quite large including at times the enslavement of Black Muslims. Chouki notes that speaking into this is fraught also because of widespread Islamophobia and anti-Arab racism, that the people stepping forward to speak into this are themselves from communities with real vulnerabilities and also surely White slavery apologists would use this in regressive ways. But he and the others insisted that if we continue to use these reasons as the reason not to speak and not to do scholarship, that it perpetuates real tangible, and ongoing discrimination and harm against Black communities in North Africa today. He talks about how there are very few monographs on the history of the Trans-Saharan slave trade and that academic endeavors to restore the forgotten role of Blacks in North Africa are only just starting, and that constructions of race around Blackness in North Africa are not a European import but predates European colonization. Salah Trabelsi, a medieval Arab manuscript expert and a member of the International Scientific Committee of the UNESCO Slave Route Project, which was created partly to speak into and break this taboo, talks about how much is actually in the record from the beginnings of the arrival of Arabs in Africa onward, that Arab documentary sources show that the Trans-Saharan slave trade was, in his mind, as devastating as the transatlantic slave trade to Africa and more to the point that it’s important to break the taboo on speaking about it because the long-standing stereotypes of Black people as inferior, other, or associated with various negative attributes continues to impact the education system and the school curricula today. Of course, it’s hard not to think also about what’s going on right now in the last couple of weeks and months in Tunisia with the president having just called sub-Saharan African migrants part of a criminal conspiratorial plan to turn Tunisia into “just another African country,” one that doesn’t belong to the Arab and Islamic Nations anymore, with amnesty issuing an alert because of the ongoing waves of anti-Black mob violence since that speech. Then lastly, I want to juxtapose something personal and anecdotal with something structural. One of the fellow panelists, the freelance journalist Isma’il Kushkush mentions how this is the first time in 48 years that conversations he often had with his family he was now witnessing being held publicly. I think of this one, I also think of Chouki El Hamel when he writes about how the multi-part documentary he participated in called Slavery Routes/Les routes de l’esclavage which was broadcast on the European channel Arte, which I think is a joint German and French station, how Al Jazeera also aired this show Slavery Routes but they wouldn’t purchase part one which spans from the 5th to the 14th century and focuses on the Arab Islamic empire in relation to the African slave trade. They air the documentary as if it started with part two. He also notes an absence of language in Arabic to talk about this, to discuss this. Obviously, this isn’t the focus of our time today and it’s also something that you focus more directly within your debut, but it feels like an atmosphere in your work overall, this question of what is being spoken, of what is possible to speak and name, and what speaking or not speaking does. I’ll share a whole bunch of other things with listener-supporters that I came across, really interesting things about questions of indigeneity in Morocco, the status of Jews and how it’s different in various places across the Maghreb during colonial era and postcolonial era, some writings by M. NourbeSe Philip about her time in Morocco that also I think speaks into the silence. But if this raises further thoughts, of course, I’d love to hear them. Otherwise, perhaps we can hear the beginning of the long poem, the one that anchors the center of this book that ultimately is about your arrival in Morocco and your bus accident when you go there called On the Overnight from Agadir
CS: Thank you for that, David. I think what you’ve just shared really is a testimony to how profound the culture of silence around this subject is and how old it is. Part of my learning and my healing, frankly, around these questions was to do with coming to an understanding that the culture of silence within my own home around these subjects, because it’s so complicated and fraught, and we didn’t really have the language available to even go there was also true on a cultivated mass scale, that there really is difficulty in my experience, a profound difficulty in engaging openly around these questions of Blackness and Africa in particular. I forget the scholar that you mentioned who said that there was really an absence in Arabic to discuss these phenomena within the language. I found that in my own experience, that I would meet Moroccans who were Black presenting. Again, that’s rough approximate language because there are so many ways that Black people present but who would be genuinely bewildered, genuinely bewildered if you referred to Morocco as an African nation? There was a conflation of Black and African, and the experiences that I had in the conversations that I tried to have at various points when I went to Morocco, then while I was on the Fulbright for those two months before the bus accident where even in the presence of a Black embodiment or a clearly descendant African person, which I think within a US American imagination, I think the term would probably be like a sub-Saharan heritage, there was a discussion of Africa as beginning at the desert and we in the North are [inaudible] and the desire was to be in proximity of Whiteness, of cultures that are born of Western Europe. I know Chouki, and Chouki and I have had many conversations and we haven’t met but his book was really important to me because it was the first English language book-length history of Black people in the Maghreb and in Morocco specifically that I could find. I think I was 32 when I encountered it. That was the first time that I was really able to gain insight and understanding into the length of this history, and how the problem was the ways in which it had been shrouded in mystery and hidden, and that individuals like my mother as an example, like my ancestors who were a part of a Black history in the North would themselves not even speak about it in that way regardless of the language that we’re speaking. It’s not like a terminology issue. It’s a conceptual issue. It is geographically dictated that if you are of the North, you are not like a sub-Saharan. I want to be careful too to say that I don’t think that this is true for all Moroccans or that colorism, the intense colorism that I’m speaking to that generates these fissures and these divisions would be upheld by all Moroccans. But I’m saying that I personally have encountered a lot of it and very close to home.
DN: Would you be open to reading the opening to On the Overnight from Agadir?
CS: Sure. This is from On the Overnight from Agadir. The poem has an epigraph from Darwish, Your Cause and Your Life are One.
[Charif Shanahan reads the opening to the long poem called On the Overnight from Agadir]
DN: We’ve been listening to Charif Shanahan read the opening to the long poem in the center of his new collection Trace Evidence. One of the areas I most happily got lost in was around the historic performance of the Moroccan football team at the World Cup, the farthest an African team has gone before, and as a representative of Africa, how it created a lot of angst across the continent when one of the players called it a victory for the Arab and Muslim world but failed to mention Africa. This is one area I couldn’t stop reading about because I think it speaks to something really fascinating about Morocco’s own identity, which I think like yours is, if not impossible, really difficult to capture in language. I’m thinking of a line in your first collection where you say, “I’m beginning to understand I’m African,” something your mother responds to by saying, “Now, how can that be, child? How can that be?” and with Safia for Mizna you say, “I’ve had to think about how to reconcile or hold the non-American origin of my Blackness with my Americanness,” then around the World Cup and the game between France, and Morocco you tweeted, “A gentle and respectful reminder, as we talk about colonialism/French occupation in Morocco, that the Arabization of North Africa was itself a kind of colonial history. I’m rooting for my people, which is to say Africans living beneath layers of empire. That’s all. Carry on.” A lot of the many articles that I came across about Moroccan identity in relationship to the team focused on fault lines and on fraught histories, not just whether Morocco is African but even within Morocco, Moroccans who were Amazigh or indigenous not considering themselves necessarily Arab also not wanting to be erased in this discussion. But there was one article I particularly loved that celebrated the impossibility of categorizing Morocco called Everyone has a Stake in Morocco’s Football Team by Brahim El Guabli, a Black Amazigh Indigenous scholar which speaks to how players were flying the Amazigh flag and the Palestinian flag in addition to the Moroccan flag about the nearly one million Moroccan Jews in Israel that were cheering for the team, which all brings me back to how you said in The Poetry Magazine Podcast that you weren’t interested in erasing difference but in those moments when our constructed sense of self falls away. It feels like what happened with the team which challenged borders of language, of nation, of race, and religion could be viewed as one of those moments. In that spirit, I was hoping you’d read two short pieces from the third section of your book, then talk to us about what defines the poems in the third section versus the ones in the first two. I was thinking of Self-Portrait as Homo sapiens and While I Wash My Face I Ask Impossible Questions of Myself and Those Who Love Me.
[Charif Shanahan reads a poem called Self-Portrait as Homo sapiens]
[Charif Shanahan reads a poem called While I Wash My Face I Ask Impossible Questions of Myself and Those Who Love Me]
DN: We’ve been listening to Charif Shanahan read from Trace Evidence. What if anything puts these poems in the third section along with two other poems that you’ve read earlier, Wound and Indeterminacy?
CS: The short answer to that question is time and the speaker’s relationship to time, and ability or inability to inhabit time and to be in the present moment. But I want to share a little bit about how I came to understanding or realizing that this was a part of this book and that these poems that constitute the third section really were essential to the movement and the development of the book, which is I said much earlier in our conversation that often, the discussion about race as a social construct that would maybe point to the moments at which it dissolves or falls apart, which you just referred to a moment ago, can often feel theoretical to people. It can often feel detached from human experience. We understand that this is a social construct and we can think about it as such, and the impact that construct is having on lives is separate and apart from the discussion about the instability and the constructedness, and part of what I wanted to demonstrate was that this racial experience too informed and dictated a kind of life, a kind of human experience, and its impact is maybe less clearly related to questions of privilege or the absence of privilege which is usually the lens through which we think about the impact of race by demonstrating other intangible, psychic, emotional consequences. What the third section of the book is really performing is all the ways in which one’s relationship to time, which is their measure of life, I mean it is in a way one’s life. We say an hour and what does that mean really? That means human experience, that means experience that an individual is actively making, inhabiting, contributing, or avoiding. The third section spells out all the ways in which the questions of identity that are explored really directly, then from a variety of angles in sections one and two dictate or inform this relationship with time, so the epigraph of this section comes from a Rilke poem and the translated rhyme reads Future, Who Won’t Wait for You, which emerges for me, and within the context of the book from an anxiety about what the future might hold and what one needs to do now in order for the future to hold something positive or to be something that one looks forward to. But the attention is so fixed on what is not here and now that it becomes problematic, and it’s so fixed on what is not here and now because the here and now, or all the reasons that the book is already spelled out up until this point, feels impossible to inhabit, that the mind, the psyche has to move somewhere, it has to go somewhere. That’s the way that we enter this third section, then there are different angles of relationship to time that some of the poems take up. I’m thinking of the On Exiting Universitätsspital Zürich, New Year’s Eve 2015 and the speaker is in a city where he had once lived, and is now leaving the hospital and a feeling that he had only felt in Zürich, in that place at that time of life suddenly populates his body, his mind, his heart, his feeling again and the superimposition of who he is now leaving the hospital, and who he was then, and returning or reverting back to who he was then as an existential question. The poem asks like, “Is this my life? Was this a possible life? Was this a portion of life? Or was I meant to be here? Was I meant to come here and integrate this self?” I think integration, interestingly, it’s the final word in the first of these two most recent poems you asked me to read, but the integration of aspects of self that would inhabit and exist in the world that are occluded by the original problem of identity is part of something that I have lived. That is part of something that I have needed to do in my own life in order to heal and to move beyond the stasis of some of these questions. But it’s something that’s also happening actively in the book. I think we see that in the Fig Tree poem where there are these self-referential moments and the speaking self interrupts itself in the moment of the poem, then that becomes the poem. There was a self in this hospital poem as an example that the speaker needed to integrate him. It’s really about time and present-moment inhabitation, and how to be in the here and now when doing so seems difficult but also excruciating. [laughter]
DN: I’m glad you mentioned the Fig Tree poem because I really found it satisfying to encounter it late and to have it be in conversation explicitly with previous poems. It’s really wonderful the way it folds back and ruminates on itself.
CS: Thanks. I think the Worthiness poem that the book closes on is very much in the vein of the third section and it makes explicit statements and asks questions about time, time passing, and being here and now. But there was a way that that poem too held space for the other threads of the book which, in my reading and in my hope for that poem, braided together all of the constitutive elements of the book into this final three-and-a-half page meditation. It certainly too is a culmination of the part of the third section that focuses on the ars poetica and the thematizing of being a poet as an identity and the thematizing of making poems. There’s a line that says, “[Speaking to you here, like this, is the most difficult thing I can do.] The presence it requires is agonizing, feels fatal.” That comes up at the end of the section but that maybe is like the underpinning of these time poems.
DN: Yeah. I want to talk for a moment about therapy. In the opening to Overnight from Agadir that you just read, you fire two therapists. But therapy and therapists show up periodically in the book, mostly bad therapy. I remember long ago now during one of my conversations with Morgan Parker talking about therapy and I’m conjuring this entirely from memory, and it’s possibly faulty memory so don’t quote me here. But in my memory, how being depressed and having anxiety as a Black woman in America is actually a very rational thing to be, and that therapists who see things entirely as individual and subjective, and can’t look at the structural, who can’t talk about racism, that this is a huge obstacle to care. Curious, I looked up some statistics. In 2015 for instance, 4% of psychologists were Black according to The American Psychological Association and Morgan even has an afterword in her YA novel dedicated solely to how to find a therapist. Perhaps the moment that most sticks with me from Claudia Rankine Citizen is when she makes an appointment with a therapist to address her own mental health concerns and when she shows up at the woman’s house, the therapist apparently couldn’t even imagine that this new client would be Black, so screamed at her to get off of her property, not realizing she was coming there for care. I wondered if you could speak to both how you bring therapy into Trace Evidence and also to what end you bring therapy into Trace Evidence.
CS: Thank you for that. There are three mentions of therapy as I recall. The first is a poem called Countertransference, the second references the part of On the Overnight from Agadir that I read a moment ago, then the third is called Psychotherapy. I think the culmination of that thread or that sub-theme is really in the third poem Psychotherapy, which is a one-sentence poem, “For all the years you have yourself submitted to this process, energetically at first, then incredulously, exhausted. It may be all you needed to hear. You heard in the very first office, the one with the plastic gladiola flanked by coiling plants on the table beneath the light switch. Abandoned is not a feeling. It’s an interpretation of events.” There was one of those Instagram accounts, I think Poetry is Not a Luxury that shared this one, and it got a lot of love but then it also got a comment from someone who was both a poet and a psychotherapist who said, “Wait, wait, no. Abandonment is totally a feeling. It can be both, it can be not a feeling, it could be an interpretation of events.” I’m not saying that people don’t feel abandoned and no therapist told me that. This is a product of my imagination and my integration of the work that I’ve done in therapy and the lessons I have learned. But the idea that the story we tell ourselves about our lives and what has happened to us is dependent on, emerges from a process of interpretation of those events on some level. Someone could leave to save himself and it might have the consequence of abandonment, it might have the consequence of someone feeling abandonment but it’s not what happened. It depends on the perspective, it depends on the vantage point, it depends on the interiority of the soul and the mind that’s engaging the question. I think part of what is all over the book and what these poems touch or what I hope these poems touch is there are consequences over an expression of the psychic distress that the instability of these categories and the challenges of identification for the speaker is having to navigate. The way that these conversations about race as a construct can often feel theoretical or detached from lived experience and also a conversation that I could understand certain folks would say is one of privilege, the possibility to even have a conversation about the instability of racial constructs or this racial category is a mark of privilege because I myself am firmly within. I think it’s important to do that in part because there are ways in which the racial scaffolding holds, of course, it holds which is why it persists. I think what I’m trying to do with those poems is just to demonstrate the depth, the impact. Even for an individual who might be perceived to possess privilege, these circumstances can have a deleterious effect. I think also I said much earlier that part of my interest in this book, in my work, I think it’s a core element of my vision as an artist is to demonstrate the ways that the systemic is inside the micro, the macro is inside the micro, the way that the larger structures or systems that we live in have the most intimate reach. It’s not just between parent and child. It’s within self, it’s within relationship to self, so the Countertransference poem as an example stages a scenario in which there might be a kind of racial mutuality or a speaker who is seen and witnessed by the mental health practitioner that they are working with then yet the system is such that there is division even there. There’s no place that it doesn’t touch.
DN: Well, one thing I would love to hear about in the realm of the psychological is something you say in the poem Fig Tree, that you’re worried about safety in the work, that the psyche tries to protect a person from the original wound. I wondered if you could speak to how you gauge risk in your work in relation to the way you see your own mind trying to reposition itself to the wound in ways that might foreclose risk.
CS: How do I stay safe? How do I keep myself safe?
DN: No. Actually gauge risk. How do you make the poems risk when you say you’re worried about safety in the work and you can see the psyche protecting a person from the wound, that seems like noticing that mechanism of the mind, I read that as a possible way the mind can protect you from actually engaging with the work that you want to engage with but maybe I’m reading it wrong.
CS: No. I think the way that I understood that moment, the way that I understand the psyche protecting you, that it’s about safety is to do with the limits of the inquiry that which we can not yet on earth. That there are portions of the conversation that are up until now unavailable to me because the psyche is doing its work which is to protect you. Part of what’s believed I think in psychoanalytic thinking is that the psyche will only allow you to feel what it knows you can tolerate and that new pain, therefore, is actually a mark of growth because there is a capacity, there was an unearthed renewed capacity to engage more deeply with something that was so painful or traumatic that it needed to be suppressed, that it could not be engaged with. I think the risks are inherent in the subjects and themes that I’m talking about like it’s a minefield. I’m aware of that. [laughs] I think the power for me is in cleaving to the truth. There are many truths and that’s part of what I’m cleaving to, but to really just ask how could it be that a child is raised in a city by a mother that he has come to perceive as Black, who herself does not perceive herself as Black, how can that be? Just talking about that, just putting language to that I want to believe is enough of a contribution. Drawing attention to the narratives that are less familiar is a risky thing to do, is a dangerous thing to do. There’s a line in a poem called Self-Determination with the Question of Race where the speaker says, “I take nothing from you when I say I am,” and that is something I believe to be true but I think many individuals experience as untrue. For me, to use language and claim something for myself that another person might claim for themselves differently seems to be a taking away, seems to be a diminishment, or a lessening.
DN: Well, in both of your books, you spend more time with the question of race but they both also engage with queerness. I wondered how much or little you see these questions of identity around race and language intersecting with questions of queerness. If we go back to the first line of “Mulatto” :: “Quadroon,” “I want to tell you what for me it has been like. To speak at all. I must occupy a position,” is this conundrum one that extends in any way to being queer or is the positionality of queerness one that has more language available associated with it in a way that your particular mixed race identity does not?
CS: I think the same dynamic does not exist in my experience and therefore on the page but that the dynamic, the conundrum as you called it racially for the speaker influences and even dictates I wouldn’t say queer identities so much because I would say sexuality and love between cis men. The very next poem, in thinking about curation and I love thinking about the way that a group of poems comes together to form a section or a book, it’s like a great joy for me, but the very next poem was a poem between lovers and a relationship is ending. That’s a poem called Imago and it starts, “Stay, I repeated. Stay. And each time I said it. You stepped further away.” It was about the ways in which that relational dynamic, the racial circumstances, the instability, the unknowability was seeking resolution within the relational context. It wasn’t that the speaker’s relationship to his queerness was marked by the same dynamic, that his relationship to his mixness or to his Blackness was causal or consequential, what is the impact of all the race stuff, if you will, within a love or sexual context? But I really hope that one of the echoes here would be the poem ends, so the feeling was not one of loss exactly though I have lost and lose but completion. The loss had occurred before we tried to give ourselves a name and that assertion of naming ourselves as a couple, as partners, as companions come right after a three-page meditation on naming. I don’t expect there to be a throughline between those two moments for a reader but it’s in essence, it’s an unconscious element that would shape the reading process.
DN: Talk to us a little bit about, you keep pulling in the critique of your work into your work or the critique of your pursuit of the work, people saying to you, lovers, teachers, “Are you being too serious? Is this work too heavy that gets brought into the poems?” I wondered if you could talk about that impulse. It’s a meta impulse but it doesn’t feel like it’s a game. It feels very enriching to the poems. But talk to us a little bit about the critique of you in relationship to this pursuit of self-knowing in poetry where you take it and you bring it into multiple poems.
CS: I think the moments that you’re referring to are poetic expressions of a phenomenon that I experience racially which is that I need to be aware at times of the way in which I am imagined by the person that I am engaging with, interfacing with. It’s that double consciousness that Du Bois spoke of but it has sometimes felt like a triple or quadruple consciousness in my situation. Part of why I’m interested in the book is expressing, demonstrating, spelling out, playing out the ways in which the circumstances and the questions of identity are expressed interpersonally in really intimate spaces, are expressed within relationship to self, and are also expressed within the sexual relationships, then also artistically in one’s self-realization as an artist and as a poet specifically. It’s an adjacent gesture or the mirror gesture of the racial perception and the poetic gestures, such that I’m imagining in those moments in the drafting of those poems. I’m imagining how in a way my body might be perceived in this particular context by this particular individual, what a reader might be imagining in their engagement with the poem about my awareness, consciousness, blind spots. One of the critiques that was very superficially offered to me once by someone who I think had encountered a single poem was that I wasn’t thinking diasporically enough. [laughter] That was part and parcel of what I was doing, it’s related to readership in a way to me, David, because it has felt necessary to me at times and maybe it won’t as I move deeper into my life as a poet to account for the imagination, what I suspect based on my lived experience might be imagined or perceived based on these lines. It’s a concern that actually helped me finish the poem Worthiness which is the final poem in the book because there’s a way that that poem, which is a very long poem consisting of one-line stanzas, moves between various threads and the logic of the poem is juxtaposition, how and when do you get out of one thread and into another thread? When does the thread come back? It’s curatorial. This concern about perception and accounting for anticipating certain perceptions was a guiding light as I curated that poem because I would make a statement that would appear to be, or to some would be provocative like scientists say, “There is no single physical attribute that establishes the so-called race.” I can hear someone hear that, I can imagine someone hear that and say, “He’s saying that race doesn’t exist, that race isn’t real,” and the very next gesture in the poem is scientists say, “Trauma inhabits the body cellularly and is passed on generationally,” which is to say, “Hold up, no, this is quite real. There is a consciousness that is aware of the reality of it, even after it’s just affirmed the fiction of it.” That’s how I see that gesture.
DN: Well, in the spirit of your opening epigraph, “I believe in the possibility of love. That is why I endeavor to trace its imperfections, its perversions,”
an epigraph by Frantz Fanon, the Black Caribbean political philosopher who fought for the independence of North Africa from the French, let’s go out with a reading of Control and My People.
CS: Beautiful. Okay.
[Charif Shanahan reads a poem called Control]
CS: Sorry. I’m having a moment, just shaking my head looking at the poem because of how I’m just thinking about a lot of things and how much growth was necessary for so much of this book to even have been written.
[Charif Shanahan reads a poem called My People]
DN: Thank you so much, Charif.
CS: Thank you so much. And just to bring this fall back full circle to the sense of oneness that we were talking about at the beginning and also the Fanon epigraph, the imperfections, and the perversions of love, I think what I believed as a human being, David, is that nobody has any idea what’s going on or why any of us are here. [laughter]
DN: I’m definitely in that club. [laughter]
CS: That’s what we’re looking at and the question of what we can do in the face of that to me intuitively has always seemed to be to love one another. It feels sentimental to say that, it feels unrealistic, simplistic, pat. But I don’t think it needs to be any of those things. I think that we aren’t loving one another, that we aren’t loving the earth is the reason why we have more urgent things to tend to or it would seem that we have more urgent things to tend to like oh, the climate crisis which we can’t even all accept as a species is real. We can’t even get on board that this is fact, and that dissonance must, it seems to me, be to do with the competing agendas and priorities that are born out of our separateness, that are born out of an absence of love and a sense of oneness even as we navigate this world in different bodies, languages, cultures, and so on and so forth.
DN: Thank you, Charif.
CS: Thank you.
DN: We’ve been talking today to Charif Shanahan about his latest collection with Tin House, Trace Evidence. You’ve been listening to Between the Covers. I’m David Naimon, your host.
Today’s program was recorded at the volunteer-powered, non-commercial, listener-sponsored, full-strength, makeshift home office of me, David Naimon.
If you enjoyed today’s conversation with Charif Shanahan, there are two other Morocco-specific episodes that I think would pair nicely with it, one is the conversation with Abdellah Taïa, which we talk about today, but there’s also an older one with Laila Lalami where she talks about the account of Cabeza de Vaca’s arrival in Florida in the 1500s but tells it from the perspective of the Black Moroccan slave that accompanied him on that voyage. For the bonus audio archive, Charif contributes a reading of a long excerpt of what will ultimately become his third book, a polyvocal epistolary book called Dear Whiteness. This joins bonus audio from everyone from Kaveh Akbar to Ayad Akhtar, from Phil Metres, Victoria Chang, and Ada Limón among many others. The bonus audio is only one possible benefit of joining the Between the Covers Community including copies of the Mizna Southwest Asia North Africa Black Takeover issue to the Tin House early readership subscription getting 12 books over the course of a year months before they’re available to the general public to a bundle of books selected by me and sent to you. In addition, every supporter can join our brainstorm of future guests and every listener-supporter receives the supplementary resources with each conversation. You can find out more at patreon.com/betweenthecovers. Or if you prefer a one-time donation, you can do so via PayPal at tinhouse.com/support. I’d like to thank the Tin House team: Elizabeth Demeo and Alyssa Ogie in the Book Division, Beth Steidle in the Art Department, Becky Kraemer and Jae Nichelle in Publicity, and Lance Cleland, the Director of the summer and winter Tin House Writers Workshops. Finally, I’d like to thank Imre Lodbrog and Barbara Browning for creating the outro. Their album Imre Lodbrog et sa Petite Amie can be found on iTunes and Barbara Browning’s trove of ukulele covers can be found at soundcloud.com/barbarabrowning.