Mantle, Louie Van Patten
Tell us about the conception of this poem.
It really just began as a running list of things I'd heard from my mother, grandmother, and aunts, that I'd automatically accepted as truth until sharing them with people who aren't Sudanese or aren't part of my family. I remember telling an American friend that in my household we would clean cuts with perfume or cologne, like it was the most normal thing- she was absolutely horrified. That got me thinking about all these other practices and theories I'd internalized and accepted as absolute truth as a child, that I wanted to bring back up and examine as an adult.
Has New York proven to be some imaginary homeland, or are there parts that strike you as genuine home?
I don't think I consider New York to be home, really. I have my attachment to it, of course, if only because it's the only city I've lived in as an adult. But it's always felt temporary- just as it really just occurred to me that I wanted to move to New York, when I was a teenager living in Washington DC, I feel another push to move away soon- I'm not quite sure how to explain it. I love it here, but I want to keep moving. I don't even know where I want to go next, just that I don't want to waste being young and portable.Do you have other home(land)s?
Lots, of all sorts of scales. Sudan, obviously. Cairo, Egypt. A pink house in Geneva, Switzerland. My mother's house in Washington DC. Bits and pieces of memory of a house in Dar es Salaam, and another in Nairobi. An apartment in Brighton, England. All places I've made a base of for some time, if not a whole home.Do you also write in Arabic?
Dude, I wish. I don't know why but the muscle doesn't seem to be there. I speak it, and read and write it, but I think it's my distance from English that allowed me to find poetry in it, whereas with Arabic I am only recently moving out of the attitude of "oh, that's just how things are said" into closer reading and listening. Also, on a technical level, written Arabic is pretty different from spoken Arabic. I am fluent in spoken, Sudanese Arabic. Standard, written Arabic is still associated with school and homework and stiff formality, in my mind.What are you currently working on?
I'm working on a book of poems that is so far called "Asmarani," a term of endearment in Arabic which loosely translates to "the brown girl". The poems are, on a surface level, about the Egyptian singer Abdel Halim Hafez, and on all the other levels are an exploration of my Black-Arabness and all my other hyphenated identities.
Safia Elhillo is a Sudanese-American poet living in New York City. She is an MFA candidate in poetry at the New School, and a Cave Canem fellow. Her chapbook of poems, The Life and Times of Susie Knuckles, is published by Well&Often Press, and she is a poetry editor at Kinfolks Quarterly: a journal of black expression.