A Poem and Interview with Aisha Sharif
To Muslims Who Do Not Say, Salaam
All your life, you’ve tried to muffle the sound
of your father trumpeting the adhan
in your ear every day, five times a day.
You’ve hung your mother in the closet
of your mind, ashamed of her habit. Yet, a hijabi
walking toward you raises your dead,
and you must look away. You’ve white washed
your name, turned Abdullah to Abe, Suhaylah to Haley.
But here is faith, that security checkpoint
you thought you had already passed.
Will it set off the prayers resting in your palms,
the Arabic on your tongue? You look away
and do not say, Peace. Because how can you wish
for your sister what you do not have yourself?
– – –
Aisha Sharif: I’m originally from Memphis Tennessee; my Father is from Memphis, he grew up there, and my Mom is from St. Louis, Missouri. Like a lot of African Americans, they converted, well my father converted [to Islam] in the 80’s and my mom converted shortly thereafter. My Mom was Catholic and my Dad was Episcopal. All of my brothers and sisters were raised Muslim.
I went to Sister Clara Muhammad School from grades third through sixth, and that really helped shape my Muslim identity. After that I went to public school, I think that was around the time I started to write poems. I always approached writing as a cathartic experience; writing through a situation to reveal thoughts that perhaps we never wouldn’t engage with. It wasn’t until graduate school that I started writing poems about being African American and Muslim, and dealing with that identity. Once I got to grad school I had a bigger pool of Muslims that I was communicating with, but they were Arab and Turkish. That made me more conscious of being African American.
Sapleo Square: After graduate school is when you participated in the Cave Caniem fellowship?
I found out about Cave Caniem when I was in graduate school. I was pursuing my MFA in poetry. I graduated, I went out and taught high school for a few years, and I didn’t really write much at all, and I needed to get back into the writing game. I just needed to have that connection with other poets, especially African American poets. I have met so many different writers, and I have learned a lot about myself as a writer and my craft too.
SS: There was a time in this country when it was illegal for African Americans to read and write. Do you feel that there is a need for more communal support to feel confident and empowered to keep writing?
AS: I would definitely say, yes. During the time I was in St. Louis I didn’t have a writing community at all. I was on my own, and I wasn’t writing. Even though there is great value in being able to motivate yourself, to be a self starter, there is nothing that can replace having a community. Being a writer involves being aware of audience. If you don’t have an audience looking at your work on a regular basis, whatever regular is, whether it’s once a week, twice a month, once a month, then I think you don’t get the full aspect of how your work can be strengthened and challenged. So once I started going to Cave Caniem I started to push my writing more because I had people who essentially would call me out on certain moves that I was making that were too safe in my poems or didn’t need to be made.
SS: You mentioned audience. We were introduced to your work through Rattle. Would you rather speak to a group of people that have no connection to your experience, so you can educate them or do you want to write for the people in the community you grew up in?
AS: That’s such a good question. I think initially I was writing for my academic peers because in graduate school that was the audience of our poems. I just thought, may be I’m going to be the person that introduces the African American Muslim life to these people. They seemed really interested and they always said that they enjoyed reading my work. So, I didn’t give that a second thought. It really hasn’t been until that past year that I started to rethink my audience, and think, ok, maybe my audience needs to be the people around whom I’ve grown up. The poem in Rattle, Why I Can Dance Down the Soultrain Line, is a very different type of poem then a lot of the poems that I write. I wouldn’t say that it’s not representative of my work because it is, but I also write a lot of form poems.
I’m realizing, that there is so much diversity within a community, and as much as we are connected by religion, we all have different experiences. I would love to have Muslims be open more to talk about stuff that is uncomfortable. I feel that there is such a stigma, like a taboo about sex, marriage, therapy, which are all the things I talk about in my next book. I would love for this book to be a conversation starter for Muslim women because I know I’m not the only one that has thought about certain questions about going without hijab, even though I’ve worn hijab my whole life, those types of questions, and not wanting the stock answers either.
Aisha Sharif is a Cave Canem fellow who resides in Shawnee, Kansas, a suburb that borders Kansas City, Missouri. Much of her poetry and nonfiction addresses the politics of “bordering identities.” As an African American Muslim woman, her work explores how racial, gender, and religious identities align, separate, and blend. Selected as the Featured Series Poet for the 2011 Fall/Winter Issue of Tidal Basin Review, Aisha’s poetry has also appeared in Rattle, Callaloo, Crab Orchard Review, and Calyx. She earned her MFA in Creative Writing at Indiana University, Bloomington and her BA in English from Rhodes College in Memphis, TN. She currently teaches English at Metropolitan Community College in Kansas City, Missouri.