In the very beginning of this year, I was first introduced with Ladan Osman’s poems through a Bangla translation done by Mahmud Alam Soikot. Those translations in my native language made me interested in reading more works of Ladan. I found her works brave in a very sophisticated way. Ladan Osman was born in Somalia and later she moved to Ohio, US with her parents. She grew up there. Her first poetry collection The Kitchen-Dweller’s Testimony (published by the University of Nebraska Press) got the award of the 2014 Sillerman First Book Prize for African Poets and in 2015, her chapbook Ordinary Heaven has been included in the box set Seven New Generation African Poets which is a project of the African Poetry Book Fund. She has brought the readers into a new sight of Somalia to see and think beyond the conventional existing westernize idea of any African country.
One day in a conversation, Nigerian poet David Ishaya Osu asked me why I am not taking Ladan Osman’s interview for Prachya Review, since she is now considered one of the most powerful Afro-American voices in poetry. I jumped up and said, “Yes! I love her work!” Anika and I then contacted her and she agreed for the interview, even gave us two poems of her to publish along with it. She talks on various issues here, like her idea of poetry, her root and background, African literature, writers who influence her, her plans for the future and much more.
– Shafinur Shafin
Shafinur Shafin: Hi Ladan! Thank you for accepting our request for the interview. You were born in Somalia. Do you have any memory of Somalia, from your childhood?
Ladan Osman: I remember the scent of the ocean and the earth; my parents’ home, that stone; light on the ground and the walls and floors. I grew up in the U.S. but cellular memory is real, geographic memory is bodily. This is added to revisiting albums and my parents’ stories. Something in me glitches whenever I see photos, or hear the names of streets distantly familiar to me.
Shafin: In a conversation with Alex Dueben, you mentioned that your parents were most comfortable speaking Somali to you, at home. Why have you chosen to write in English and not in Somali?
Ladan: By the time I was a preteen I became self-conscious speaking Somali. After college, I don’t hear hours of Somali on a daily basis. I didn’t lose my language but I lost confidence speaking it. I spent most of my life writing in English and in order to do my best work, to the best of my ability, I write in English. This is the language in which I exercise the most control. Lately I’ve studied my father’s translations, and feel capable translating Somali to English. We always hope to return home, wash the rust off our tongues.
Shafin: Maybe this is why you said in an interview that you are translating the memories and experiences of Somalia that your parents carried. Do you miss your root? Or do you enjoy the fluidity of your identity? Don’t you think if you were in Somalia all along, the way of your expressions would be different than now?
Ladan: My root is deep deep. I can never lose it so I can never miss it. I do enjoy privilege from the fluidity of my identity. I can’t tell what would be different if reared in Somalia. I think my reference points would be different but think my core understanding of the world may be similar. This is because my parents are my first and best teachers, and they don’t seem to think losing their root or shifting their core is possible. They never spoke it to me if they do.
Anika Shah: What pulled you to be a poet? Did it even occur as a conscious event, or it just happened? Have you ever considered any other medium to express yourself other than poetry?
Ladan Osman: I was writing short stories as soon as I could, mostly what’s now called magical realism. In the fourth grade, I read Maya Angelou’s “When I Think About Myself.” I didn’t know this storytelling form existed. It wasn’t until the end of undergrad I felt I could do something with poems. But I studied philosophy and poetry to learn how to think. That’s the main thing.
Poetry includes but transcends poems. Poems are an artifact, and the form I’ve published most. I write fiction and nonfiction, and photograph. I teach, story-tell, perform, and consult artists across disciplines. This is all poetry.
Shafin: How do fables, fairy tales, folk stories, and religious rituals of Somalia influence your poetry?
Ladan: Many of the poems in my first book are parables. I was interested in constructing worlds, using events and figures to indicate a world, and for that world to be in conversation with the world we experience directly. Somali stories and turns of phrase influence my thinking and my writing. More than anything, inclinations in the language turned my eye to the natural world. Somali has many words for intention, many ways to indicate personal responsibility in an outcome. This affects my narratives and my syntax. The Quran and other religious texts contain the verses people turn to in distress and jubilation. We memorize them. We carry them. Besides personal pleasure in scriptures, I feel I have a duty as an artist to study the texts that are important to so many of us.
Shafin: A bunch of your images are centered on the body and household chores. Beside that you have used Biblical and Quranic references in some of your poems. In your composition, is it important for the elements to harmonize with the themes, or do you simply allow the poems to pop up organically without control?
Ladan: I don’t think looseness has to be sloppy. There’s a lot of control in the organic. What looks like imagination or menagerie is actually evidence of study and my will to include the chaos of everyday life in my work, to joyfully document the everyday sublime. We hear and feel through harmony in so many ways, and each poem has its breaths, its mode of disrupting the air around it. I allow their irregularities and allow the poems to make demands on me but this is all control. I’m forced to regulate my artistic insecurities. Even wandering demonstrates a form of control. For me, there’s a difference between control and rigidity.
Shafin: Back to your childhood: In your poem, “Amber doll,” you maintained a conversation with the doll as though it was a living being. I would put two questions in one: how much of memory do you find favorable to deplore in your poetry? Were there moments in your growing up that you did not admit as true to your girlhood?
Ladan: I don’t think I deplore any memory or invented narrative. There’s friction and some reservation but mostly I’m curious about that tension: the distance we try to make between what we see and what we choose to tell. “Amber Doll” has many real elements, and most of my work is puzzle-making. Even my nonfiction is not exactly real. I try to focus on what’s true, and that includes emotional register, context, what I hope to communicate in our present moment. Receiving the event and sharing it, every choice I make putting it on the page, is subjective. So many things are true to my girlhood because in my memory, my girlhood was a state in which I may include worlds more vast than the one most people could say was closer to an objective truth. It’s dangerous for me to invest much in that so-called objectivity. It makes others’ perspectives the point of origin. Given the frequency of flat ideas on identity, it makes no sense for a black girl to invest there. They want us to believe their world is irresistible. It’s not.
Anika: How important are metaphors to you? Does it ever make you worry that your metaphors may not comminute with the readers like you intended them to?
Ladan: Everything we experience seems allegorical. Metaphor is the language of emotional and spiritual life. We describe our internal worlds using images from our known worlds. Metaphor is something I pursue in language—how are people looming, striving to connect with each other via images? If you listen carefully, people reveal a lot through their imagery banks and tense choices. Through them we indicate plans, mood, comfort with ourselves, and the people we’re addressing.
I trust in my readers. I trust my reader to return to my work. I trust my reader to argue with it. I never intend obtuseness but do welcome ambiguity. When I was writing this book, I didn’t think about readers. I thought about drafting true atmospheres and improving the technical skill needed to share them. This has led to some fracture after the release of the book because I hadn’t thought about people reading it, responding to it.
Shafin: You brought the issues of racial politics, religion, violence against women and the identity crisis and the struggle of an African immigrant in the poems of The Kitchen-Dweller’s Testimony. They come up in your poetry so much, how significant are these issues to you, and why?
Ladan: I was thinking this morning about archaic uses of the word “issue”: as in progeny or as a verb (what I put out from myself). I’m almost always talking about our relationship to God, to empire, to the law. It may look like a love or family poem but I’m thinking through philosophies of the body, the city as a structure, an invention. On the surface, these things are important but I’m most drawn by their sources. From where do these delineations and schisms flow?
Shafin: I find, I am obsessed with my brown body – I feel like it’s a temple and I worship it, it reflects in my poetry often. You wrote in a blog, “I often think of my black body as a site of invention, and invention as an act of faith.” I liked this part, I could connect myself with this. I have felt that in your poetry what has been expressed about the body is more than just a simple body. How do you see “body”, really?
Ladan: Sometimes I have a very impersonal relationship to my body but I love it, and understand our love for our bodies. I don’t understand why Narcissus is a fool actually. How could one not be in awe of a reflection? Is it really just the body in the reflection? I see myself as a creation, in conversation with marvel and I like to express awe and gratitude for this body. But I don’t put it before the intangible. Some days I have to remind myself I am a woman, a black woman, and the year/city in which I live. I do work to tether myself in a body that others celebrate, or attempt to transgress. Some call this struggle anxiety but it’s something else. It’s the weirdness of inhabiting a form. I think I recognize what’s unreal about our forms.
Shafin: In “First Red Dress”, the speaker tells the girl as a warning, ‘Go out in that dress/ and you’ll get split like a watermelon. Down there.’ That poem had a massive impact on me. When I read it I imagined the fear, of being raped, of being torn. Could you tell me a little bit about your thoughts on that poem?
Ladan: This is the poem that made me realize how unprepared I was for response to my work. Many young women, unfortunately, relate to it, and recite lines from it to me. While the poem isn’t completely real, I revisit this fear when it’s cited: that our bodies are not ours, that we can expect abuse. The conceptual violence, implanted in girls by a very young age, is much worse than abuse of the body. It complicates abuse of the body, makes it seem total. This is how we can tell patriarchy is working: you wish you were not a girl at all, you wish you had never left the house at all. What a blasphemy!
Anika: Who are your favorite writers and poets? On more than one occasion you have expressed your love for the works of Toni Morrison. I am curious because she is my favorite too: what do you love most about her?
Ladan: I love the work of Brigit Pegeen Kelly, Jamaica Kincaid, Mahmoud Darwish, Jim Crace, Salvador Plascencia, Selah Saterstrom, Teju Cole, and the first or soon-to-be published works of poets like Airea D. Matthews, Roger Reeves, Mahtem Shiferraw, and Keith S. Wilson.
Toni Morrison holds everything at the same time. Theory, narrative, music, mystery. Sometimes each sentence requires the same parts of our brains as logics in geometry or abstract math. I admire her intelligence and her sensitivity, her love for others’ stories. I don’t know many writers who seem so attentive to the declarations, the flesh, even exhalations of other humans.
Shafin: How do you feel the influence of Afro-American writers on your writings? Is it that the influence of Afro-American writers is the strongest on you?
Ladan: Definitely the theoretical and creative works of African-American thinkers has significantly impacted my spirit and work. These are the artists I first studied when suffering from displacement, when looking for a rootedness that relies on more than the arbitrary lines and identities of this fickle realm. But when I visit home, I realize the particularities of my parents’ language and personalities impact my work. It’s only a few weeks ago, I realized I’m trying to communicate the complexity of my mother’s jokes, for example.
Shafin: Africa is a multicultural, multi-ethnic and obviously multi-national continent. But when people talk about African literature, they often take it as a whole, as if Africa is a country, not a continent. That hardly ever happens when talking about the literatures of other countries or continents. Why do you think it is different in the case of Africa? How do you feel about that?
Ladan: Those people have a limited imagination about the black body and everything it issues. Anti-blackness is a mark of stupidity and its practice draws one into deeper stupidity. It’s an amusing but not fascinating compounded degeneration. I can’t afford to give much attention to this thinking. I may have to hear it out and about but I don’t often carry that garbage to my desk or the sacred space of meditation. It’s a waste of time to explain what’s obvious to a racist. That’s the point. To waste our time (Toni Morrison explains this best). I don’t owe anyone a demonstration of my or my continent’s wideness. The work will never lead us to foolishness and is probably the best use of our time.
Anika: Tell us about your next project. Do you ever intend to write a novel, or an autobiography?
Ladan: I’m releasing new poems in coming months, and writing essays. I only intend to write what insists on being written, and what I need to write in order to evolve. I want to feel grown when I finish a manuscript. I want to see that I’m a sounder human, who is of better use to others. When I visit schools, students request a novel, and I trust in the youth.
Two Poems of Ladan Osman
at a Claudia Rankine reading, University of Chicago, 2011
I enter: carpet, curtains,
large, framed pictures of robed white men,
a glassy glare over a forehead, below the voice box,
students in bland shades.
I don’t belong, the luxury of thinking,
the wealth of talking about thought,
privilege of ease among important people.
I am afraid of them, their smell,
their cotton, their expensive running shoes,
their faces so hard to read
when they make odd-placed sighs
at black people histories. There is not one
bright color. A professor laughs—
quick, self-turning, a paper cut
to his own heart.
I hate myself for the shame of forgetting
the books on my shelf,
the many others read on the floors of libraries,
corners of bookstores where the cashier can’t see me.
Shame when I see all the book spines there ever were,
their colors and textures like women bent in prayer on a high holy day.
My voice is small as it asks,
What will it matter to them if I make a book?
I am one poet. Isn’t there space for me?
And the tears are sweet, completely sweet
as if they mean, even now you don’t believe?
The colonizers couldn’t have dreamed it,
the preoccupation with the heights of my soul,
my intangible qualities, if I am only the silhouette
of a shadow. If this poet is white in third world countries,
what am I here? It’s possible I’m just like the wind in the curtains.
They monopolize part of the eye.
The wind makes its mischief in goose flesh.
A girl closes the window.
[First published Kweli Journal.
The Kitchen-Dweller’s Testimony, University of Nebraska Press, 2015.]
Practice with Yearning Theorem: Tangents
I make room on the doormat
though no one is coming.
It’s a hot night. I’ll eat cool soup,
maybe out the can. No,
garnish it: are carrot shavings
good in butternut squash soup?
I take a photo, crop the chip in my bowl.
Maybe I’ll send it to my siblings
to show them I’m living well.
I’m eating soup and salad
I couldn’t buy at a restaurant
most days. I remind myself
I shower, sleep free from molesters,
that I’ve paid my bills this month,
and washed my dishes this morning
with my own two hands.
But am I grateful? Last night,
I tried to kill a moth. Two moths
sprang out of it, and split.
I didn’t know moths made formations.
The night before that, I killed a moth,
got a paper towel to clean the wall,
and found another moth next to it.
I killed it, too. Why should I go on
killing moths? What have they done?
On the way home tonight,
I saw two pots of flowers,
with fronds cascading from them.
Then I saw a dog with his head,
forepaws outside the fence.
He seemed to need a pat
but I recalled his barking,
his paws slapping the fence.
I wondered if this was the same dog.
On some hot nights, I remember
a poem about a restless woman
in a laundromat, her wetness.
At eighteen this was amusing.
Later, I read that rare plants
thrive in laundromats,
and understood her.
It’s a hot night. End of summer.
A scratch on my nose burns
but I don’t wash off my makeup
in case I go out.
Maybe I’ll “get to go out,”
like a kid waiting at the kitchen table
looking at the back door,
her mother at the sink.
I kill yet another moth,
and consider leaving its body,
bait for the ones eating uneven holes
into the blooms of my favorite shawl.
I call it favorite after ruin.
I wore it to the conservatory
so it could visit siblings.
I’m concerned with families
not the families of moths, apparently,
because I miss the one I came from,
and the one I don’t have yet.
It’s a hot night.
I’m aware of my wetness.
I’d wear rosebud undershirts
as a girl, my chest poked out.
Relative women noted my posture,
said, so, you’re smelling yourself,
and that, too, I understand only now.
Interview taken by
Shafinur Shafin, a poet and writer from Bangladesh
Anika Shah, a writer and translator