Issue 3: Dictationship

Some Are Capitalized and Some Are Not

Asiya Wadud with Mirene Arsanios

June 17th, 2019

Bouchra Khalili, The Constellations #8. Silkscreen print mounted on aluminum and framed, from the series The Constellations, 8 silkscreen prints, 2011. 42cm X 62 cm. Courtesy of the artist and Galerie Polaris, Paris

When Asiya and I met in a neighborhood café in Brooklyn the day prior to my departure for Beirut, she was sitting at the bar with a pile of hefty, colorful books next to a glass of water. Browsing through Teju Cole’s Blind Spot, we began talking about how the success of Cole’s representation of place is largely due to the discrepancies he introduces between conventional imaginings of cities such as Berlin, Athens, Beirut, New York, and his essayistic expressions of them. Asiya Wadud, in her own way, also remaps the mainstream American imaginary by extending the poetics of location, connecting various migrant crisis and the conditions originated them, from the Middle East, through Europe, to the Americas. Interconnectedness requires a language, maybe beyond English. Wadud responds to this crisis by conjuring geopolitics, setting a rhythm through a series of invocations and prayers that propose naming as a universal, yet specific mode of address. Crosslight for Youngbird originates in the news and in the dictation of information and reporting on the ongoing calamity of migration set off by the war in Syria, while Wadud reverts to dictation for its repetitive powers; molding language into prayers in which the reader is summoned. “Say Amira,” “Amira,” Wadud writes. Crosslight for Youngbird is a lyrical constellation of poems; an invitation for the reader to navigate new ways that are also old ways of listening and calling each other by a name.

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Mirene Arsanios: Let's start by talking about the genesis of your book, _Crosslight for Youngbird.

Asiya Wadud: I started writing Crosslight while I was teaching English at the Brooklyn Public Library, which I’ve done since 2014. The class meets weekly and there are people from all over the world: Gambia, Ivory Coast, China, Brazil, Mexico, Lebanon, Russia, Poland. The class I teach is a companion to a more technical class in English grammar. People come to practice speaking in English with other people, and also to learn a bit about living in New York. Early on, I fell in love with teaching this class— it gave me a new way of looking at English and of thinking about my own mother tongue; distancing myself from it and reflecting on my own vantage. And that was due to questions raised about the relationship between words that I had previously never considered, such as the aural quality of words: what is the difference between "selfish" and "shellfish"? I love this question. It says so much about the arbitrary possibilities and relationships between words, and how anything can relate to anything else. You can extend that question to ask about the relationship between any two ideas that would have been previously unrelated in your mind. The question struck a chord and in a way it drove the writing of the book, or at least the cadence and shape of the pieces. Every Wednesday, I had the chance to (almost) relearn English, to think about relationships between words in a new way, and to think of ways to explain things that I, as a native speaker, took for granted.

MA: Can you say more about distancing yourself from your mother tongue?

AW: I teach this class because English is my first language. Each Wednesday I ask myself these questions: What does it mean to have a hierarchy of mother tongues? What does it mean to master a language? What lives at the edge between mastery and novice-hood? A lot of times, my students would ask me "Oh, can I say this in English?" And I say, "Well you just said it. So yes, you can say it." They are asking for permission to speak and to speak in a way that's legible. I think there is an urge to compress the long continuum of being understood, and of speaking in a way that native English speakers also understand to be English. Coincidentally, when I started teaching English ( and working on Crosslight) I also started reading the work of Clarice Lispector. Three years ago, I was at Greenlight {Bookstore}, saw the cover of a book, and picked it up: it was Near to the Wild Heart. It upended my whole life! I was blown away by what she was allowing herself to do with language, how she played with it, how she moulded it. Today is the anniversary of the day she died. Her birthday is tomorrow and she died a day before her birthday in 1977.

MA: There's a common understanding that “good” English has to be seamless; sentences must flow naturally, especially when writing contemporary American fiction. The language has to disappear behind the story, and if it doesn’t, it becomes “foreign”. I’m interested in devices such as translation, which reveal the artifice that upholds “seamless” language. Walter Benjamin says that the task of the translated text isn’t to preserve the original but to re-imagine the original text itself.

AW: Yes, absolutely. In the reading experience you describe, the writer can be invisible, almost subsumed by the narrative—I think the joy of reading is the feeling of being jostled, or dislocated by something. There's this urge to try and erase all those fissures and say, “Okay this isn't how you say it, this isn't how a native speaker would say that.” I was recently editing a friend’s book, and I think English is their third language. There were a lot of idiosyncrasies in it, which I wanted to preserve. I didn't want to erase the texture of the text. Can we just sit with that? What is the anxiety to fix something? What new knowledge does the fixing offer us?

MA: Your questions speak to my experience of reading your book, which I read with a dictionary in hand because there were many words I didn’t know and had to look up. I mainly speak Latin languages, and I felt that much of Crosslight's vocabulary was drawing from Anglo-Saxon semantics.

AW: I'm curious, do you have any examples?

MA: I can’t remember exact words but those I looked up always seemed to have a Middle English root. It reminded me of George Orwell’s essay, "The Politics of the English Language"—a hate manifesto against Latinate words that praises the simplicity and directness of good-old, Anglo-Saxon words. You claim in the book that people assume English isn't your first language. Is this a way of telling them, “I know English better than you do or ever will”?

AW: I definitely wrote this book with a dictionary, so I'm glad that you are reading it with a dictionary. I love dictionaries. Before I even started writing Crosslight, I knew I wanted to write about this particular moment of migration and movement. I started keeping a little notebook of words I knew I wanted to use, and which resonated with my intentions. This question “where are you from”; the violence of this question often gives me, I wouldn't call it anxiety, but a kind of insistence on: "I know this language". Like a persistent etching. I know that I know this language, and I know it well enough to be able to play games with it. I'm interested in the fissures and borders of language, its topography and geography. Any language has its gatekeepers, the people and institutions who decide what is and is not masterful and elegant language. So, I love that my English students, intentionally and unintentionally, toy with those rules. I try to embody a distance from English, or at least enough distance to toy in the ways that my students do.

MA: Words have an autonomous life that may be distinct from national borders, especially in this moment of global migration where migrants land in a place, pick up a language and leave again, shaping a new language along the journey.

AW: Something else that was really instructive when writing [my book] was Bouchra Khalili's The Mapping Journey project. I cannot tell you how many times I went to see it when it was at MoMA here in New York. I think what she makes evident so well in the work is a sense of movement and how a language like English, or any other language, is a palimpsest. When you leave a place, it's not like you seal the door, lock it, and none of the knowledge gets mounted onto the next language that you have to acquire. Influences are far-reaching.

MA: Have you heard of The Freedom of Speech Itself? It is an artwork by the Lebanese-British artist Lawrence Abu Hamdan about a speech analysis software initially used by European states to determine the origin (and truthfulness) of asylum seekers based on their accent. The software probes and polices the “purity” of your original accent—a process that evidently doesn't take into account migration histories, how long you have lived in a place, or the ways in which accents are shape-shifting and continually modified by their proximity to other languages and cultures. In short, essentializing accents on the basis of origin, and vice versa. Many asylum-seeking requests were rejected on this basis.

AW: The “purity” of a regional accent! It is incredible that this how the software is used, as if a person leaves one place and alights to the next without any “lingual interference” along the way. Also, it’s astounding that they’ve employed a robot to do this work, which brings a strange truthfulness to the project, since robots are objective but of course are also given bad, or wrong information. My next book, Syncope (out in the Fall of 2019), is largely based on a Forensic Architecture report about the Left-to-Die boat case. Through them, I learnt about a case from 2011 in which 72 people—migrants and refugees—left Tripoli, Libya, and their boat drifted for 14 days. Various vessels and helicopters saw the people on board in need of help, yet no one rescued them. All but nine of them died. What is involved in the responsibility of seeing someone this way? What is our obligation?

MA: Are you thinking about these questions from a legal perspective?

AW: And from a humanistic one. How do you decide whether someone is human or not? There's an entire lineage of theories, ideas, and questions to arrive at the fact that not all people are human enough to be saved.

MA: Following World Word II, international conventions were drafted: the Geneva Convention, The Universal Declaration of Human Rights, and so on, defining humanity through a series of moral and political precepts. But the humanitarian project has failed (it was actually never really effective in the first place). Today, it reveals the hypocrisy at the core of liberal democracies and the institutions tasked with preserving and protect human rights for the few… At the end of your book, you cite sources : news and magazines articles reporting on migrant journeys across Europe, what they encounter along the way, all the hardship they face in the process. Your poems translate this information into another form, leaving the world of factual reporting for another, more abstract poetics. Can you talk about the relationship between your poems and the news they refer to?

AW: First, in the summer of 2015, at the height of the migration crisis in Europe, I started following the news very closely. It’s not a surprise but I believe it's noteworthy that rarely are names given to people who have lost their lives in Mediterranean crossings. There exists an erasure of identities in a heavy-handed way. The migration and the scale of deaths were housed in a language of anonymity and forgetting. What is the project of not naming someone? This absence of names was and remains evident in the US-based news stories I was reading in the New York Times, The New Yorker, and other publications.

Crosslight is somehow incantatory, elegiac—I hope. It thinks about what it means to lose someone. There are no names given but there are a lot of images of people who have died in the most heinous ways. What does it signify to want to show someone in distress without doing the work of actually knowing their name? Why include the photograph? What new information is gained through it? Much of the book also has to do with the brutality of this. Secondly, there is a documentary series by Matthew Cassel titled "The Journey." I was really moved by the stories, and by one of the families profiled in the series in particular. Fadua and her two daughters, Nina and Nara. I watched the series, and watched it again and again. [Cassel’s] short film was divided into six parts of 13 minutes each. He was embedded with the families who were traveling from Damascus, through Turkey, all way to the Balkans, and finally to central Europe.

The first piece of Crosslight, “16 Ways”, is for the most part, a retelling of the documentary series. I was thinking about these two girls who were traveling with their mother, so I created a persona called crosslight for youngbird; youngbird is an amalgamation of these two girls, Nina and Nara, whom I fell in love with. I imagined this book in large part for them. And I think he [Cassel] was close to the people he was traveling with. His piece offers a counter-narrative to all the other nameless pieces I had read. I hope to go to Sweden next summer to meet Fadua and her two children.

MA: The New Yorker addresses a specific kind of readership… Your poem operates on a different level; its scope isn't to explain, convert, inform, or influence an abstract notion of public opinion. It is closer to an invocation, or a prayer sent to the people affected by these hardships, while inviting readers to partake in a moment of urgent recognition: “You can say their names. They were named… “Say Fatima” “Fatima,” “Say Mustafa,” “Mustafa.”

AW: Prayer, invocation, and incantation are big elements of the book for me. I'm also thinking about what it means to be doomed, how do you live with that? How do you keep this knowledge but still carry on?

MA: You have a sentence in the book, "doom and resolve each keep their own metronome." Fate permeates many of your poems with expressions such as “Inshallah,” “Mash’allah,” “If God will […] “God has willed”. There is a larger force that we do not control. Yet, at the same time, this fate is also human-made. There is another beautiful sentence from your poem: “Remember: we, too, are but the fold: a struggle to reach Astral”; “Anything can be light when you call it light," which made me think of the incantatory power of words. Your poems seem to suggest that language recovers its performative powers, infusing words with the ability to alter reality.

AW: One morning, I went into the school office and on the desk was a copy of the New York Times with a photograph on the cover of a group of people, their limbs entangled and at odd angles, clearly a scene of distress and death. I read the caption—they had suffocated. All of them. No one had survived; everyone had died. I think what struck me is that everyone in the office was milling around getting their morning coffee, and there was this newspaper. I couldn't believe this photograph existed; that this was the documentation of these lives. In the poem that you mentioned I was thinking about the power of language to recover us [add excerpt of the poem] and to deliver us, if we just gave it our attention. If you don't give anything your attention, then you just get what you get: nothing.

MA: On the issue of naming, I was curious about the name of the locations that appear in your book. Most of them I believe are in Europe. They're all stops—cities or villages—on the path to a more coveted, final destination. I was thinking of the particular geography that you invoke: Lampedusa, Calais, Hamburg, Patera, etc. How does this translate to an American readership? When you were writing the book, who was your imagined audience?

AW: I thought about this question a lot. When I was writing Crosslight in 2016, I wanted to acknowledge a crisis with global reckoning. Distance doesn't excuse us from trying to make sense of the forces that contribute to and perpetuate these crises. Distance can become a readymade excuse to distance ourselves from something, and to instead focus on matters at "home". But what is home? I imagined my audience to be “Americans at home” reading this book with a map maybe, trying to understand some of the places that are less familiar to them. I recognized while I was writing that many Americans, unless they travel, would not know these places. But I wanted them to. Yes, we live in the United States, yes, these places are thousands of miles away, but can you extend your imagination, or your humanity to a concern for something outside the U.S.?

MA: In the poem “Youngbird, highwaterhome” you also say, “when a country doesn’t claim you, just gather your own.”

AW: Yeah, absolutely. I think from the time that I was little growing up in Washington D.C., people always asked me where I was from...

MA: White people or Black people, or both?

AW: Both, in different ways. D.C. is just below the Mason Dixon line. Now that I live in New York, D.C. feels like a southern town to me, where the limits and expectations of whiteness and blackness are rather codified. If one is even a little bit outside of the expectations, then there are a lot of questions that arise right away. So for white people to ask me where I'm from… (and so much of the time the question was whether I was from London). What's the real question? What are you really trying to ask me? That question was so pervasive during my childhood that as long as I could remember, it imbued in me this idea of countries being much more expansive than any border could contain. A country has nothing to do with the borders of the state. When I was 9, I put an advertisement in a magazine for a pen pal, and received hundreds of letters from girls all over the world. The ad said, “Hi, my name is Asiya. I like reading, writing, teddy bears and ice skating.” I had no idea about the teddy bears and the ice skating, they just sounded like nice things to like—they were aspirational interests. I got hundreds and hundreds of letters back from kids from all over world. That was the defining experience of my childhood; writing to these kids from Johannesburg, Seoul, Vienna, Tokyo to Ghana, and from all over the US. I didn't leave the country until I was 21 but never had a sense of being confined. My childhood felt very expansive. Everyone wrote back in English, even if English wasn't their first or second language. I think it imbued me with a sense of capaciousness and playfulness from an early age, of what it means to speak a language, or have fluency in English.

MA: Some writers living in the U.S. write about crucial topics such as white supremacy, immigration and structural racism, while not always connecting these to wider, global conditions. Your book connects growing up black in the United States and feeling displaced, to other existing forms of racism and displacement abroad.

AW: My sister lived near Munich for about 10 years between 2005-2015, and during those 10 years I would visit her whenever I could. I think, like my pen pals, this also trained my gaze outside of the U.S. There was something that formed in the space of home; blackness in the United States and abroad, and my relationship to Germany, as a new familial place of return. I'm not sure yet what to say about it but language, of course, becomes emotionally resonate—when I hear German now, a series of pictures form from my sister's life during her 10 years living in Germany.

MA: In a Triple Canopy interview, Renee Gladman says: “Black people and Eastern European people should have a conversation about possible overlaps between their experiences, and what if I were to call myself an African American Eastern European, or is it an Eastern European African American." This brings me back to naming. All the names she uses in her novels are Eastern European sounding without specifically referring to an existing city. Not being defined by the parameters that define you at “home” allows you to inhabit the world otherwise.

AW: Yes, it's a sort of expansiveness. Something opens up and you can reinvent yourself. People do it all the time, they move to New York to reinvent themselves. I'm working with someone who is translating some pieces from Crosslight into Latvian, which is compelling because it's a place, a language and an experience that feels distant from me. I went to Riga last summer to feel far and away from the U.S. The hope in writing Crosslight was that it would resonate beyond the United States, outside its limits. The piece the translator is starting with is called, “Youngbird highwaterhome”. She read it and identified it with her own experience growing up in Riga. She has a lot of questions I love, many of which give me pause: “What do you mean when you write ‘calca make da bone firm’… I looked up this word and it doesn't exist in English.” I checked some English dictionaries and I think I made it up. It's an amalgamation of words from Spanish, Latin, maybe English, and something that one of my students said in passing.