Mahtem Shiferraw On Poetry And The Immigrant Experience

January 28, 2018
               News

By SUZETTE GRILLOT & JACOB MCCLELAND • JAN 19, 2018

Poet Mahtem Shiferraw’s collection of poetry Fuchsia examines personal displacement and nomadism from the perspective of immigrants.

Shiferraw, who grew up in Eritrea and Ethiopia before moving to Los Angeles, says she was inspired by poetry as a child. She attended an Italian school in Ethiopia, where she was immersed in a culture that embraced poetry.

ListenListening...14:01Mahtem Shiferraw talks with Suzette Grillot on KGOU's World Views.

“Our professors used it on a daily basis. We used quotes and metaphors. Italian is very rich with metaphors. So it was just I think a natural fabric into our learning,” Shiferraw told KGOU’s World Views.

In Fuchsia, Shiferraw draws upon her experience as an immigrant, and how one can be changed by moving to another country.

“I do bear the responsibility to share our collective history.  And coming to the U.S., and having to explore our new identities as African-American or as black, in all these race and ethnicity questions that we are exposed to, it reminds us more of the homes,” Shiferraw said.

Shiferraw wanted to explore and write about this theme because it is something that she says immigrants rarely talk about. Instead, she says immigrants are more likely to discuss themes like assimilation, perseverance and how to provide for their children.

“When people leave their homes for one reason or another, they'll leave things behind of themselves that they don't necessarily recover, or want back, or even realize. So it's kind of this sort of invisible shifting of things that occurs within people, and over time it changes who they are for worse or better,” Shiferraw said.

INTERVIEW HIGHLIGHTS

On being inspired by poetry in her Italian school in Ethiopia

I don't think we were ever terrified of listening or writing poetry. Our professors used it on a daily basis. We used quotes and metaphors. Italian is very rich with metaphors. So it was just I think a natural fabric into our learning. So I think we grew up with that. And after that learning about the authors, reading in Latin which was more difficult than reading in Italian. And then reading Dante and Leopardi and all these other Italian authors in Italian. It was just very moving in ways that we thought we could never, that I never thought I would relate to these people. They were you know in a different country, in a different culture, writing about different things that I had no relationship to, but I was still moved and I felt something and I connected. And it was a way for me to experience the world beyond my city or my house or my being.

On her why Fuchsia is explores personal displacement and nomadism

Coming to the U.S. and having to explore our new identities as African American or as black, in all these race and ethnicity questions that we are exposed to, it reminds us more of the homes we left behind or the countries in the land to be left behind and the people we left behind. And this sort of displacement I thought was interesting and deserved to be documented because when people leave their homes for one reason or another, they'll leave things behind of themselves that they don't necessarily recover or want back or even realize. So it's kind of this sort of invisible shifting of things that occurs within people and over time it changes who they are for worse or better.

On helping helping advance the careers of emerging artists of color

I founded Anaphora Literary Arts as a way to kind of work on different projects and partner with different organizations and art institutions and colleges, to kind of promote long term practices to help writers of color and promote artists of color. So that was a gateway. And Black Lyoness Press was founded with the same initiative, sort of, to promote more women of color. And not just promote them to publish their work but also to give them opportunities to network with other writers, to have a sense of community and companionship and fellowship that we should have actually accessible as readers up color. And that creates opportunities, not just for us, but also for the next generation of writers.

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FULL TRANSCRIPT

Suzette Grillot: Mahtem Shiferraw, welcome to World Views.

Mahtem Shiferraw: Thank you.

Grillot: It's great to have you here as part of the Neustadt Celebration that we do every year. Thank you for joining us. I want to start with a little bit of your background being a writer. You write fiction and write poems, especially. You're a poet. You're from Ethiopia and Eritrea. So can you tell us a little bit about your background? You know your road to poetry too. You know from Ethiopia and Eritrea to being a poet.

Shiferraw: Sure. I was born in Eritrea and I grew up a little bit there. I spent my early childhood and then moved to Ethiopia with my family in the capital city of Addis Ababa. And I grew up there until young adult, and I attended an Italian school in Addis Ababa, so Italian language lends itself very naturally to poetry and poems. And reading about Italian authors and literature was very inspiring it was I think a natural progression from being just aspiring to be a writer and starting to write poems in Italian first.

Shiferraw: And then when we moved to Los Angeles with my family about 12, 13 years ago, I attended college in Los Angeles, so I had to learn English sort of. And then I started exploring poems in English. And it was, I don't think it was as a natural progression as it was before. English is a very different language. I like to think of it as practical language, but it's also a language with many nuances, and it's a very cultural language. So then I started writing poetry in English as well.

Grillot: So I have to follow up on a couple of these things, that you found first when you were studying at home in Ethiopia that you were studying Italian poetry and that you found it very inspiring. What was it about poetry in particular that inspired you?

Shiferraw: I think before even the language itself, it's the culture that we were exposed to. We weren't really, I don't think we were ever terrified of listening or writing poetry. Our professors used it on a daily basis. We used quotes and metaphors. Italian is very rich with metaphors. So it was just I think a natural fabric into our learning. So I think we grew up with that. And after that learning about the authors, reading in Latin which was more difficult than reading in Italian. And then reading Dante and Leopardi and all these other Italian authors in Italian. It was just very moving in ways that we thought we could never, that I never thought I would relate to these people. They were you know in a different country, in a different culture, writing about different things that I had no relationship to, but I was still moved and I felt something and I connected. And it was a way for me to experience the world beyond my city or my house or my being. And that really was, it was terrifying to experience that but it was also enlightening. There is this whole entire world that exists beyond us and the gateway to that world is these simple books. And it might not just be poetry. It could be comics. Italian culture has a lot of comics. So there was this comic book culture. Even in this comics you read fragments of poetry here and there. So for me that was the common denominator that I saw everywhere that I looked and I read and I talked to people was the poetry. So I think that's why it was inspiring.

Grillot: So many interesting things you've said here one of which I want to start with is the cultural notion. I mean it in this way that in different cultures there is different appreciation for poetry. Right. I mean you referenced English being a practical language. Maybe, is that the explanation, maybe, is that because English is more practical that we don't automatically grow up, you know, reading poetry in the United States.

Shiferraw: That could be it. Actually I think because growing it in Ethiopia even Amharic, which was the language used at the time, it also lent very much to poetry. Lot of people in Addis Ababa who speak Amharic still speak in idioms. My father is notoriously known for speaking, this thing we've called sam-enna worq, which is translates to "wax and gold," very loosely. It's talking about something and having two meanings. So you have very apparent meaning and then hit the hidden meaning. So it is poetry but at the same time I think it's a way of being. And English, when, when, I first learned English at least, it was practical so when you come here for the first time you turn your learned a practical language the basic things that you need. But poetry in English I feel like is almost a completely different language on its own. It's very dense. It's very textured and complex. It has its own narrative and its own world. So I think even natural born English speakers might be terrified of poetry because it is a different language. I think that's how I see it.

Grillot: Can we talk a little bit about your book Fuchsia, one of your recent books. You've go many books and edited volumes and collections. But one of your most recent ones future it's about displacement in the nomadic self. Can you tell us a little bit about that in terms of, what do you mean? And then how does this relate maybe to some of your experiences? Or do you draw on your own experiences to write?

Shiferraw: That's a difficult question and that's a great question. I do draw on my personal experiences but I also feel as an Ethiopian and Eritrean and immigrant, I do bear the responsibility of other fellow immigrants. So I do bear the responsibility to share our collective history and coming to the U.S. and having to explore our new identities as African American or as black, in all these race and ethnicity questions that we are exposed to, it reminds us more of the homes we left behind or the countries in the land to be left behind and the people we left behind. And this sort of displacement I thought was interesting and deserved to be documented because when people leave their homes for one reason or another, they'll leave things behind of themselves that they don't necessarily recover or want back or even realize. So it's kind of this sort of invisible shifting of things that occurs within people and over time it changes who they are for worse or better. But I don't see that being discussed a lot. A lot of things that we discuss as immigrants is how to adjust, how to assimilate, how to survive and have skills, or or the strength or the perseverance to survive in a new world and inhabit and provide for our next generation or our children but we never discuss, I don't think, at least openly, we never discuss the things that we lose or the things that we leave behind. So I thought this is something I absolutely need to talk about and make sure to tell people, "It's okay to talk about this. It's okay to talk about these feelings." In immigrant cultures, as I see a lot, that we don't ... we're all about perseverance and strength. We're never about exposing ourselves or being weak or having a moment to grieve. So I thought okay I can give a space, even if it's a poetry book, for us to pause and grieve about these moments and talk about them and learn from them and kind of recover bits of ourselves that we lost. So that's kind of the nomadic self that they're trying to talk about Fuchsia.

Grillot: Well I think also you find new things when you go to new places and one of the poems that I read a few years that I just absolutely love is "#Things I Googled when I first came to America." And again you know just as an example, "Why is William and Bill the same guy?" You know, Judge Judy money. Oprah. Why people. Hot mess. What is white? Why Halloween? Time zone? I mean you've got like this, that's just a part of your poem and out of order. You've got a very long list of things that you googled when you came to America, some of which are heavy things like, What is white? Racism. And then like, Why do we celebrate Halloween? Tell us about this poem. And in some way it seems related to what you were talking about about your experience in what you referred to about your book and displacement, the nomadic self, the book Fuchsia. Because you're clearly needing to learn new things but you're also, in some ways maybe, that Google list is capturing some of the things that you're losing as well.

Shiferraw: I think when we get here first, we're so involved into trying to survive we forget that we're exposed to this culture shock that we we didn't know before. It's a whole new world. It's all new culture. It's different cultures, actually. And for the first time, at least when coming from Africa, you are exposed to a new self. So you've been told that you're black now, or you're African American or this ethnicity and that race. And what does that does to the notion of yourself before and after. And I think it's a humorous way of approaching this kind of heavy subject and questions that people have that we take for granted when we've lived here for so long. But I recently had somebody moved here recently asked me, "Why do you keep changing the time? Who gives you the right to do that?" And I didn't know how to answer that. I was like, "You're absolutely right." But there are practical reasons why this has been done. But those are the kind of things that we don't know and we don't know to ask ourselves. We always laugh with my friends we see how Google here so you can find anything and you can find how to do anything. So those are the kind of things that we would think about and the culture shock that we're exposed to. And then just getting, not just the answers to those kind of questions, but understanding them deeply and understanding how it works within the new culture that we're into. So that was, I think, a humorous way of approaching that.

Grillot: Well I just want to finish on this note. I mean not only are you an award winning writer or a poet, you're also an entrepreneur. You've founded a nonprofit organization that works to advance the works of writers and artists of color, Anaphora Literary Arts. You've also cofounded the Ethiopian Artist Collective. And you're the executive editor of The Black Lyoness Press. So I mean as if you weren't busy enough, you have all these other things you're working on as well. Can you tell us a little bit about these types of projects and why they are important to ... in terms of expanding not only your work but, you know, other women of color and other artists of color that are coming from around the world and try to you know enter this world.

Shiferraw: I knew when I started writing that I wanted to do something beyond writing, have a greater impact than just publishing books and poetry and fiction. And I wanted to see if there is a way to do something for other emerging writers of color like myself and artist of color. And when being involved in the publishing and literary industry, I found out more and more that there is this gap between the publishing industry and writers of color in the opportunities that they have or don't have. So I founded Anaphora Literary Arts as a way to kind of work on different projects and partner with different organizations and art institutions and colleges, to kind of promote long term practices to help writers of color and promote artists of color. So that was a gateway. And Black Lyoness Press was founded with the same initiative, sort of, to promote more women of color. And not just promote them to publish their work but also to give them opportunities to network with other writers, to have a sense of community and companionship and fellowship that we should have actually accessible as readers up color. And that creates opportunities, not just for us, but also for the next generation of writers. And that's I think a small way to help diversify the publishing and literary industry, I believe.

Grillot: That is very important work. Mahtem, thank you so much for being here today and sharing your work and your story with us and I really appreciate your insight into these issues.

Shiferraw: Thank you for having me.

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