‘Minding my people’s business’: An acclaimed Sudanese American poet makes a home in L.A.

On the shelf

Girls Who Never Die: Poems

By Safia Elhillo
One World: 144 pages, $18

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If you search for “Safia Elhillo” on YouTube, the first entry you will see is a Video of 2016: a reading of her visceral, mesmerizing poetry cycle “Alien Suite” at the 2016 College Unions Poetry Slam Invitational.

This particular video has over 150,000 views, but what sets it apart from other slam poetry videos is the length. Elhillo recites her verse for 16 minutes in front of an audience we cannot see, although we do hear their collective murmurs and snaps.

Her voice is both sweet and expansive – helium and honey – when the Sudanese-American poet speaks of studying Arabic, her identity in relation to the nation state and family. And though she never raises her voice, the sincerity of her stories pulls you in.

This effect is only amplified in person. During a recent meeting at her Los Angeles apartment to discuss her fearless second collection, Girls That Never Die, Elhillo, now 31, spoke at length about everything from her artistic evolution to the challenges of finding someone who can style her hair properly. She exuded the supreme confidence that characterizes both her performances and her online presence. Though she’s also arguably one of the most fashion-forward poets on Instagram, for this interview she forged her usual bright colors and eclectic prints in favor of a loose-fitting cream dress that she feels feels more authentic when she’s chilling at home.

Throughout our conversation, her somber expression often morphed into a huge grin, revealing the joy seething underneath — as well as beneath the surface of her writing.

And it is her written poetry that is making an impact now. In the six years since she’s been in this video, Elhillo has gone from winning slams to winning book awards. Her first collection of poetry, The January Children, won the Sillerman First Book Prize; This was followed by a young adult novel in verse, Home Is No Land, which was longlisted for a National Book Award and received a Coretta Scott King Honor. These books explored belonging to a post-colonial world and creativity despite man-made limitations.

"Girls Who Never Die: Poems" by Safia Elhillo

“Girls That Never Die,” which came out last week, has the potential to be a breakthrough. Compared to her earlier work, it is less about nostalgia and more explicitly about shame and silence in relation to Muslim girls. It also signals a change in style and perspective. Where she used to reflect language by writing without punctuation or capitalization and using frequent caesuras or rhythmic pauses, she instead opts for prose poetry to present a set of hard facts more directly—and to more effectively critique the violence against women in her community.

Poems like “Infibulation Study” take up cultural taboos like genital mutilation. Others acidify the collection—again, that balance of seriousness and joy—with shrines to femininity and solidarity. “Ode to My Homegirls,” for example, shows the mischievousness and protective loyalty of young women.

Opening up about misogyny in Muslim culture carries a risk that Elhillo well understands: White audiences might find their stereotypes about Islam reinforced. But for the poet it is much better than not expressing himself at all. “Ultimately, silence will not protect any of us,” she said. “When harm is done, harm is done. If I keep quiet about it, the damage will not go away.”

Elhillo doesn’t write for a white audience anyway. Girls That Never Die is for her aunts and uncles and the religious community she grew up in. It’s not for those who have already chosen Islam or girlhood or the intersection of both, she stressed. “I’m really tired of trying to prove my humanity and the humanity of my community to people who don’t see that as a core belief,” she said.

In that lack of zeal to appeal to a wider (and whiter) audience lies precisely the power of Elhillo. She said she never looks at the sales of her books; it is not their responsibility. Instead, she prefers the freedom to write concretely about blackness, Sudanese and Muslims in all of its myriad complexities. Any other reader can also listen freely.

“The plan is to write as if only the people I’m talking to are reading the poem. … Then everyone else listens in for what will hopefully be a super interesting conversation,” Elhillo said. “I don’t have an ambassador bone in my body. I’m just minding my own business, minding my people’s business.”

As a bilingual writer, she allows untranslated Arabic to weave naturally into the fabric of her verse. She regularly references the lyrics and stories of famous Arabic singers, most notably Egyptian artist Abdel-Halim Hafez in The January Children. Elhillo refers to the word asmarania term of praise and reverence for black people to describe their own black identity in an arabophone world.

The Muslim-American experience is essential to her work but is never made essential; Elhillo’s poems are too varied for that. She compares her poetry to the Koran in one respect; Allusions are not explained, and the reader (eavesdropper and insider alike) is expected to do the work of understanding the context.

A woman leans on the armrest of a couch

Safia Elhillo allows untranslated Arabic to weave naturally into the fabric of her verse. The reader is expected to do the work to understand the context.

(Mariah Tauger / Los Angeles Times)

Elhillo is a second-generation US citizen, but she describes herself as an outsider who writes at a distance from American culture. It makes sense when she talks about her upbringing in the US, surrounded by a community of Sudanese immigrants in the Washington, DC area, and going to Arabic school on the weekends. But she is still informed and schooled in the American poetic tradition.

“I think of Frank O’Hara, just that frankness in that straight talk,” she said. “The colors are really solid – it feels very American.”

The performance is still in her bones; Reading your work is the first step in your editing process. “Your ear can always catch something your eye might not.” The existential crisis facing every poet is when to stop editing. The moment comes for Elhillo when she can read the poem in front of others. For them, the dichotomy between stage and page is wrong.

Still, Girls That Never Die is more structured than her earlier work. In part, incorporating new shapes was a way to deal with the pressure of doing justice to her earlier work—a way to lower the stakes. “I was like, ‘Well, that counterpoint sucks because I’ve never written before,'” Elhillo said. “Instead of saying, ‘This poem is bad because I myself have no value as a poet.'”

As her second collection goes out into the world, Elhillo’s life continues to evolve in ways that are sure to expand her work. Having moved through different cities – from DC to New York for school and then to Oakland for her Wallace Stegner Fellowship at Stanford – she has always found a local Sudanese community to give her ground. After moving to LA last year during the pandemic, she found relief in the sunny weather and close friends, but she has yet to find her local Sudanese community.

However, Elhillo has found a way to keep up with her Arabic: “All I have to do is go to a shisha bar I’ve never been to, place my order, wait five minutes and then [ask], ‘Where do you come from?’ And then the floodgates open, you know?”

The poet nowadays is more focused on creating such new rituals, simple pursuits that mark the transitions of a life. Her aunt, who cuts her hair regularly, recently got married and moved to Sweden, so she needs to find a stranger to confide in about her split ends. She also needs more bookshelves for the dozens of books on her office floor. And she’s finally learning to drive, after putting it off to learn how to write counterpoint.

A couch potato at heart, Elhillo loves hosting intimate gatherings with close friends in her living room – but when she does go out, it’s always in style. For them, on Instagram or in the world, fashion is just another source of self-expression. Much like her poetry, her clothing borrows from a variety of influences.

As she navigates her new life, the immediate present has more impact than ever on this history-focused poet. Expect to see more of these in her next collection, which will be released next year.

“In the poetry I’m writing now, a lot of it feels more mundane in a way that feels good,” she said. “I take my little walks and make observations, and it’s nice to know that that deserves poetry too. It doesn’t have to be a huge break in history.”

Deng is a Taiwan/Hong Kong-based queer American poet and journalist who was born and raised in the San Gabriel Valley.

https://www.latimes.com/entertainment-arts/books/story/2022-07-20/a-sudanese-refugee-poet-on-the-rise-makes-herself-at-home-in-l-a ‘Minding my people’s business’: An acclaimed Sudanese American poet makes a home in L.A.

Sarah Ridley

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