diaspora

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

rama ghanem: this month's featured culturalist

I interviewed my sister, Rama, about her most recent projected titled "Girls in Conversation" a photo-journal about what it means to be a woman of color living far away from home, and the feeling of loss that comes with it, amplified by heirlooms left behind. 

Hi Rama! Tell us a little bit about you

I’m a mixed media artist based in London, where I study, and Dubai, where I grew up. I make work about a lot of things - but mostly about feminism and Arab women, Western Pop Culture, transnational identity, and sometimes about my own lived experiences. I often work with various media including photography, time-based work, installation and net art. 

And tell us a little bit about your project

This project was a series of unstructured interviews with women of colour who come from a diaspora background, with questions around their home(s), identity, material items passed down to them as heirlooms, what they might pass down themselves, memory, and creative output. Photographs were taken during and after the interview process.

To what extent does being part of a diaspora group influence how you see the world and in turn your art?

It absolutely influences how I see the world because diaspora is more than physical displacement. There’s a mental disorientation that comes with that shift in environment. Diasporic individuals experience what is called a double consciousness, a term used to describe that fragmented sense of who you are. Sometimes your identity can become a matter of choice and other times (due to inequality) some of us have no choice but to conform to one thing or another. What I find compelling about looking into those layers of identity is seeing what unifies individuals from different diaspora backgrounds, but also the dissimilarities between them. It's interesting to think about how our condition changes in relation to the spaces we occupy and move through, in that sense also, the diaspora are very fluid and alive.  What was beautiful about each of those interviews was the vast difference in cultural experience but also how each of them expressed an attachment and sentimentality to their belongings, which I imagine is particular to people who are familiar with loss.

 It was quite a personal and intimate project. there’s an unstated trust there, when you’re taking pictures of somebody. There’s a vulnerability on my end as the photographer too, because it is my gaze that is imposed on somebody else, and so in a way it becomes about who I am as well. I stopped taking things at face value and recognized that everything is delicately connected to everything else in like for example how the things that belong to you shape your sense of belonging to something else. 

Why photography?

It wasn’t always my choice of medium in much of my previous work but when it came to looking inward and probing around this idea of holding something dear, photographs that you could touch made a lot of sense. I think I’ve actually always had a fascination with freezing a moment in time. As someone who came from a displaced family old photographs were my window into what life could have been like for me if I had grown up closer to my roots. It can be such a potent medium, but I don’t think it’s the aesthetic potential of it that pulled me. Though we’re bombarded with so many images every day, and that oversaturation of beautifully curated content from social media and advertising etc makes it difficult to create something really eye catching because we have almost seen it all. I decided to follow a different approach and to look past the composite aesthetic and try to just give you the person behind it. I don’t think it’s about the images really.

What’s next for you?

I think I’m going to venture further into photography or film. I’m not the type of person who plans my projects in advance, it is always the case for me that I reflect on my daily experiences and am able to express an idea inspired by that experience when it happens.

You can follow Rama's work on instagram here @itsactuallyrama