featured culturalist: dalia elhassan

Dalia is a poet and friend that I admire and respect simultaneously. She has been recently shortlisted for the African Poetry Prize 2018 and a recipient of the Hajja Razia Sharif Sheikh Prize for Non-fiction. She is fiercely talented and passionate particularly towards issues of social justice which she often addresses in her writing. She's our Featured Culturalist for this month's issue of follow the halo. Below is our interview with her

Tell us a bit about yourself

My name is Dalia Elhassan and I’m a poet and writer based in NYC. I was born in Sudan and spent my childhood growing up in various pockets of Miami, FL I’m primarily interested in the function of language and how it can serve as a way to account for my experiences and the way I move through the world with all my various identities. Mostly, I’m interested in celebrating the experiences, the spaces and the places that made me who I am. I’m also a part-time (sometimes full-time) Beyoncé enthusiast.

How did you get into writing poetry? 

I really owe a lot of my introduction to writing (and eventually poetry) to my mother. Growing up the daughter of two Sudanese immigrants in the US, my parents were insistent on us having as much access to education as possible with whatever resources were available. I have really warm, vivid memories of taking long bus rides with my mama to public libraries and checking out anywhere from 14-27 books every week and going home to read as many of them as we could together. As a child, I buried myself in language. The only way I knew to understand the world was through words. My love for reading extended into my love for writing.

I wrote my first poem when I was eleven or twelve years old and because I was so young, I can’t often remember how or why I fell in love with poetry. All I knew was, at the time, I stumbled upon something that made me feel alive and affirmed and sustained a voice in me. I grew obsessed with Def Jam Poetry and would re-watch so many of the performances for hours on end just so I could hear the kind of metaphors they used and try to emulate that in my own writing.

What would you say influences or inspires the themes in your writing?

There’s this John Berger quote I stumbled upon recently that goes, “Never again shall a single story be told as though it were the only one,” and in so many ways, this feels true about the way I conceptualise my work, what its influenced by, and the themes present not just in the writing, but in me. I’m not interested in having my story told for me. I’m not interested or invested in the idea of a single one-size fits all narrative that gets applied to women of Color, to Black women, writers or creatives who are creating work (and complicating) the idea of ‘home’ or the diaspora they belong to.

Before this past year, I didn’t write a single poem for three or four years. As hard as I tried, I felt blanketed in this silence that, to this day, I haven’t quite worked out a name for. In those years of silence, there were two poets whose work I returned to ritually: Warsan Shire and Safia Elhillo. Their writing inspired and permitted me to write about what was familiar, recognisable, difficult, and vulnerable to me, and I drew so much power from that.

So, how does your heritage play a role in who you are as a as a writer?

It is everything. I don’t think there’s a way to understand me, as a person or a poet, without really taking a look at the places and spaces that have made me, without understanding the connection I have to my culture and my people. As an adult now, I am extremely proud to be a Sudaniya and really nurture this inexplicable connection I feel to all things Sudani. But it wasn’t till I was a little older that I realized how much I really struggled with these complex feelings of fragmentation and distance growing up. I didn’t have the words or the language to address the kind of shame that wound up in my childhood body. That shame came and formed from a place where I learned and believed a fiction about myself as an individual and a fiction about my people collectively; that we were either one thing or another (the binary & cliche Are We Arab? Or Are We African? debate). It was hard being young and Sudanese in non-Sudanese contexts and constantly feeling like I had to explain or justify what I was. The language I know now, the one I write in, is one I use to affirm and celebrate my identity and I’m grateful for the gift that is poetry because it gives me the room to reflect on the world/reflect the world I exist in with so much pride.

What's next for you?

I want to continue to grow as a writer and improve on my craft. Writing, growing into a poet, it feels like something that chose me long before I chose it. I’ve always carried this quiet, long felt belief that I was destined for greatness not because of anything superficial, but because I am a result of the resilience, hope, and faith of my mother, her mother, my father, and the people that came before me, who had to be so I could be. I want to keep turning inward and honor the me that exists because of them, honor the depth and resilience of the people that made me, and honor the newfound language I have to express all this.

Dalia currently resides in New York City and attends The New School. For more about her and her work you can follow her on Instagram/Twitter @daliaelhassan