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Good Literary Citizens: An Interview with Ladan Osman

July 13, 2015 | by

Photo: Tariq Tarey

Photo: Tariq Tarey

The past two years have been eventful for Ladan Osman. Last year, her chapbook, Ordinary Heaven, was selected for inclusion in the box set Seven New Generation African Poets, a project of the African Poetry Book Fund, and she received the 2014 Sillerman First Book Prize for African Poets for her manuscript The Kitchen-Dweller’s Testimony, which was published in April by the University of Nebraska Press.

“I have rarely encountered a young poet whose work was so completely its own thing,” writes Ted Kooser in his preface to Ordinary Heaven. The speakers in Osman’s poems are often women, and the book tackles themes of love and loss, displacement and authority. At its heart is the notion of bearing witness and what that means both in a larger political sense and in very intimate ways. The language is rich and playful and can be both brutal and transformative—sometimes in the same poem.

Osman spoke with me recently by phone from her home in Chicago about metaphor, translation, and family influence.

How has your background informed your work?

My parents are from Mogadishu, Somalia. I grew up in Columbus, Ohio, in neighborhoods that were largely populated, if not by Somalis, then by East Africans. So many different elements go into my work, but there’s a very direct link to the way my parents would tell stories—their comfort using parables, making leaps in language, speaking in metaphors. My father would often point to a complex image or something strange and say, Look, it’s a metaphor. But he wouldn’t explain further. My parents speak English and other languages, but they’re most comfortable speaking Somali and they would speak Somali to us. So I always felt like I was doing some kind of translating. And things that are untranslatable—that’s poetry, too. 

Being a first-generation immigrant puts you in a unique position—you have a deep connection with Somalia and to your parents’ experiences, but most of it is secondhand.

That’s an act of translation as well. The stakes are much higher because there’s always something about my identity that feels fluid. There are often questions—if not from myself, then from outside myself—that have to do with loyalty and where I’m rooted. I was educated in the States. I have loved and matured here in the States. I’m rooted to America, and specifically to Ohio, but cellular memory calls to places I haven’t seen in my adult life. Sometimes negotiating that feels like a challenge. In my poems, too—trying to figure out who the work is for, what the work is for, what it is meant to do. Those considerations are definitely worthwhile, but they go far beyond poetry.

In his foreword to Kitchen-Dweller, Kwame Dawes describes your “persistent and dogged desire to leave no questions unasked and to regard experience as worthy of probing in search of meaning.” He also wrote of your “belief in poetry’s capacity to transform through witnessing.” I think that’s a valuable frame for your work.

Kwame wrote a generous foreword. In workshops, sometimes there’s one reader who understands your work, how to frame it, and who gives critiques that are elemental and very meaningful. Though I was drafting most of the poems before I even knew Kwame, it has been such a privilege to receive what almost seems like retroactive support from him. That’s how total I feel his understanding is—of not only my work but also my intentions while drafting.

Inquiry is my most direct route to understanding. If I find language for the archetypal stories I encounter, if I can weave them with image systems available in the world around me, I find a way to connect with others’ intimate histories. I think sincere witness can function like a skeleton key. A good story—one that knows its use and power—startling imagery and syntax, and a curious perspective can help us bypass problematic social and political structures that are in part designed to limit voice.

Where did the book’s title come from?

Kitchen-dweller is my translation of two things. A jiko muufo is a traditional Somali clay oven. It’s also a joke about a woman who really loves domestic work. The way I understood it as a child is that this kind of woman loves the work so much, she stands over the bread watching it rise. That it would be a joke—something to be disregarded—was an even deeper relegation. I haven’t encountered any culture that doesn’t impose very real limitations on a woman’s capacities. I wanted the title, and much of the book, to point to women’s bodies navigating public and private spaces.

It was important for me to address all the ways people attempt to override the narratives of our own lives, and the ways we subjugate ourselves and second-guess our own sense of witness. I wanted that idea to start at the level of the title. The poems examine essential limitations of space, limitations on the imagination, limitations of what we do or what we are made to do. And what is to be avoided, especially when ways of being or telling signal too much freedom, generate too many pointed questions. It’s interesting, too, that in the West, there’s resistance from other women to any mention of kitchens or domestic space. As if that resistance isn’t also politically charged.

“Silhouette” is about your attending a reading by Claudia Rankine in 2011. You write, “I don’t belong, the luxury of thinking, the wealth of talking about thought. What was this written in response to?

I hadn’t been living in Chicago very long and was finding it difficult—the city is so segregated that people feel like they only belong in certain neighborhoods. I’ve never encountered a city like that before, and it was hard sometimes to get around, but I really wanted to go to that reading. I rushed there from my not-so-great job, and I felt out of place, as a black woman, as someone not affiliated with any institution. But Claudia Rankine gave a lovely reading and afterward we had a conversation about shame. I admitted sometimes that I sensed I should apologize but wasn’t sure where I was mistaken, what prompted that impression. She said that there’s no place for shame in my vocabulary. I went home and thought about it and realized that I needed to expel that sense of degradation. Writing is a way of problem solving. It gives me a kind of control that I don’t typically have.

How useful is the African Poetry Book Fund series as a frame for people to read your work? Is being categorized as an “African poet” something you find constricting, something that doesn’t really encompass what you do?

I’m grateful that my work has an opportunity to be in communication with emerging and established African poets, to be part of an initiative interested not only in archiving what’s already there and making it easy to access, but also in the establishment of libraries, in publishing a variety of voices. That’s larger than my own work. That conversation is ongoing, and I consider it a privilege to be one of the first, along with Clifton Gachagua, to be part of that movement.

I’ve had people openly tell me that if a poem with my name on it came across their desks, they would throw it in the garbage. I don’t think you’re asking this, but there’s no way to mask my identity—and I don’t have any interest in doing so. If I’ve done what I’m supposed to do, the identity of the person reading the work doesn’t really matter. My interest is in storytelling. I think the frame was always going to exist. When I’m communicating with the African Poetry Book Fund, with Kwame Dawes, with other editors there, I don’t have to worry about fighting, and there are misunderstandings that I won’t encounter with them. There are many people who don’t have to engage with a struggle that emerges from their very basic identity. And I appreciate that being among Africans means I don’t feel exoticized, I don’t feel special. I’m among peers and elders, doing my work.

Some of the poems in Kitchen-Dweller function like prayers, and it sounds as though these poems have helped to introduce you to a community, which is something that religion offers.

Community and guidance. It’s one thing to be taken care of professionally and to be supported creatively, but I’m also around people—Kwame Dawes and Matthew Shenoda, specifically—who are a model for living. They’re very serious people and they’re sure-footed, but I don’t get a sense that they’re attached to worldly things. Witnessing the choices they’ve made as writers, as teachers, as good literary citizens, and also in their partnerships and who they are as fathers is a kind of total support that I would not have known to ask for. I fully acknowledge there are people who have been working hard for a long time and don’t have this configuration available to them. It means I have to show up and take it seriously.

I’m also interested in work and what work is. Religion argues there’s a pleasant way to be alone in the world. It’s not isolation exactly, but you’re focused and there’s a lot you have to process internally. I appreciate that meditation affords a sense of peace while toiling. It’s worthwhile not only in the world but in your emotional and spiritual life. There are parallels between art making and the roles that religious communities prescribe for everyone. What is your responsibility in bearing witness, in sharing, what does charity really mean and how do you consider that outside of yourself? It’s not exactly what drives me, but it is interesting. Ted Kooser has said that religion is people coming together to do good or to be peaceful at the same time.

In “My Father Drops His Larynx,” you write about a father’s health issues and finding him in this weakened state. The poem is rife with pain and agony, but it’s transformative as well. That’s something you do in many poems.

I had been thinking about primordial fear, the fear that comes being an adult and thinking about aging and the distance from your parents—physical distance, emotional distance. How we deal when our parents are silent and there’s a mystery around their struggle, but also what happens when they’re not able to tell us their stories anymore, what happens when you haven’t asked enough questions. These meditations changed the logic of the poem. I was thinking about a time my father was ill. I wondered what it would mean for my father to lose his voice, lose his ability to tell stories. I started thinking about frailty. What would it mean if I had a child watching me in a moment of physical weakness?

It’s a straightforward poem that suddenly reaches into the future and imagines my father as an elderly figure—which he’s not now. It was necessary to have an element of the surreal so that I didn’t have to look at this pain directly. I worried about it as a small child—losing my parents. It’s the same kind of yearning I feel when I’m around libraries. I’ll never read all the books. I’ll never be able to fully feel my parents and really inhabit their stories. They will pass without me fully knowing them. The reverse is also true—although they’ve witnessed the entire thread of my life, they can’t really understand me. There’s also tension between girls’ bodies and adult male bodies throughout the book, and it was important for me to be mindful of the father and the brother figures, to create moments of safety and tenderness in the book, to balance assailment and welcome vulnerability.

Even when you write about fear and loss and the threat of violence, your sense of language is very playful. It sounds as though you got a lot of that from your parents.

Yes. My mother would talk about something very normal, like what she did that day, but sometimes other people and other times would get mixed into it, and she’d decide to use figurative language. The language of symbols communicated her associations, the movement of her mind, more accurately. There’s a flow my parents enter only when speaking with each other. It’s all play—it looks like you’re having an argument, but you’re not, or it looks like a straightforward conversation, but you’re really seducing them. When you listen to two people talk, you sometimes hear one person take on the vocabulary of the more alluring speaker—their cadence starts to shift, maybe even their accent changes slightly. I love watching that.

Poems like “Trouble” came from misspeakings or found language that I rearranged over time. I collected phrases for probably two years. I’ve primarily taught in communities of ESL speakers, where there’s a particular attentiveness to language. I’m fascinated by our belief in words and how we demonstrate that belief on a daily basis.

Alex Dueben has written for The Rumpus, the Poetry Foundation, the Daily Beast, and elsewhere. His interview with William Gibson was included in Conversations with William Gibson.