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As if the World Has Not Turned its Back: An Interview with Mahtem Shiferaw

Mary Catherine Ford: Mahtem, thank you so much for agreeing to this interview. It was such an immense pleasure to read and review Fuchsia, your debut poetry collection, for World Literature Today, and then to hear you read at Berl’s Brooklyn Poetry Shop last month. What a fabulous reading that was! I felt so privileged to hear you and the other incredible writers that evening.

You are fluent in multiple languages, including Italian. If I’m not mistaken, you’ve read a great deal of classical Italian literature, such as Dante, in Italian. Can you discuss how Italian literature has influenced your own writing?

Mahtem Shiferaw: I first learned how to read and write in Italian, so a lot of my thinking before writing is influenced, in one way or another, by the language itself. Italian is so rich, so lyrical, with so many ways to adorn and construct poems, so much yellow and green to unpack; the options are endless. So it does lend itself naturally to a more poetic way of being, of existing.

Some of my favorite writers are Italian—Leopardi, Saba, Calvino, Manzoni, Seneca, Petrarca. When I learned it in school, I spoke Italian with so much pride and joy, and years later, I am still unpacking its complicated history with my countries, my people. We have a lot of Italian words in Amharic and Tigrinya, and even though Ethiopia was never colonized (only occupied for about five years), we can always trace back its origins to that difficult time. So, in a way, I am a product of that, the unintentional marrying of Italians in Ethiopia.

MCF: You’ve published short stories as well as poetry. While you were at Vermont College in the MFA Creative Writing program was your concentration in fiction or poetry?

MS: My concentration was actually poetry, but I went to all the fiction lectures I possibly could! The low-residency program is designed to provide you with six months’ worth of lectures/panels/discussions/workshops, etc., all compressed into ten days. I think my first semester there I crashed on the third day, because I was trying to attend everything. I am more selective with my time now, but I do think of fiction as poetry. I see poems everywhere I go, whatever I’m doing. Sometimes it’s a sound, or a color, or a perplexed expression. Sometimes poems come in the form of a character, or a conversation, and then they are shaped into prose (which eventually becomes part of my fiction writing). My job, besides listening to my characters, becomes then an act of mending of sorts; I patch poems here and there until I begin to acquire some clarity and make sense of a story, a plot line, a theme. Looking back, I realize I attended fiction lectures not only to learn about craft, but mostly to find the courage to create novels; I needed someone to give me permission to do so.

MCF: Can you talk about how the structure of Fuchsia came about? Did it come about as you were writing the poems for the collection, or did you sit down with the poems after you’d written them and figure out how they fit together?

MS: Most of the poems in Fuchsia were written in a span of about five years or so, and were loosely organized for my creative thesis at Vermont College. But I kept workshopping the pieces even after I graduated, and I had been thinking about the poem “Fuchsia” for a while; it had been brooding inside my head without my knowing. When I finally sat down to write it, I knew which poems clicked to fit into the manuscript and which needed to be shaved off (though I still tried to sneak some in). The last poem I wrote from the collection, I think, is "How to Peel Cactus Fruit"; I had one stanza for about a year, and then I saw it: I saw it completed and completing the manuscript. After that, it was a matter of organizing the poems in a coherent and organic way, more or less.

MCF: The poems in Fuchsia use different voices to great effect. The poem “How to Peel Cactus Fruit” uses the second person, while “In the Lion’s Den” uses the first-person voice, though the two poems come across as equally powerful and personal.

Did you make an active choice to use different voices for different poems as you sat down to write each poem? Were there poems that you wrote in one voice in an early draft but later decided worked better in another voice?

MS: Not really. Each poem is its own thing, before existing within the rest of the world, the collection. The poem does not care which collection you put it into, so each poem blooms according to its own parameters. As such, when I sit down (or stand, I have poems written in walls too) to write bits of a poem, it comes out in its own voice, its own language, its hues more defined as it finds itself onto the page. It’s as if the poem already existed somewhere else, it just needs my catching to flesh out in this world. Of course, the voice can change in a poem, especially during the editing and revision process, but if you are staying true to each poem’s vision, its message will not be altered. That said, I do find the second-person voice to be more compelling, because it separates me, the writer, from the speaker of the poem. Though thinly separated, that line exists to protect me, the writer. I think it’s a mechanism my brain uses to protect the art and keep the speaker intact.  

MCF: Can you speak to the idea of writing as a political action?

Your poem “Kalashnikovs” in particular seems to evoke this: “It was forbidden / to mourn in public. // Years later / I attend fund-raising campaigns / for Africa, thinking I can help / if only I could hear their stories.”

The stories of violence in Eritrea and Ethiopia in Fuchsia feel, in part, like an act of defiance against that decree to mourn in silence.

I don’t wish to limit the conversation of your work to the lens of East Africa, though. Your work also speaks of limitations and potential violence women face, in “Being a Woman” and other poems. It seems that in your writing you have a determination to speak of the forbidden, whatever the topic.

MS: Writing can be a political action, but for me, it is deeply personal. Whether I am writing about mourning, or about my family, or about a biblical character, I try to think how we are affected by the world around us, and how differently we respond to things. How does one think of war and fruit in the same instance? How can you lose multiple children and still find it in you to be kind and be thankful? How do people persevere in times of sorrow, how do they break and mend themselves back together? And how, do they continue to exist with such grace? These are the questions that haunt me. I think writing poetry is personal for me because I feel the pains and aching of others in such a profoundly personal way, and the least I can do, as a poet, is to bear witness to their strength, to help bear their burden, even if a little.

But that said, I do feel the poet, at her best, is defiance in herself. She defies silence by writing, by bearing witness, by voicing things that would go unheard. And growing up in a conservative culture (and now living in the opposite) has exposed me not only to the ugliness of the forbidden things, but also to the things we do not allow ourselves to do or become, whether intentional or not. For instance, because my family survived the years of war, they do not mourn, or cry in public, including in each other’s company. I find that both fascinating and heartbreaking; what must we do to let our bodies be free? We don’t even allow them to grieve properly, openly. These are the things I think and write about.

MCF: “How to Peel Cactus Fruit” brilliantly shows the way violence in society infiltrates all aspects of life. The poem took my breath away. The verbs are all so harsh and direct, sharp somehow, while the physical imagery of the poem offers both pain and gasps of relief.

I find myself returning to the final lines of the poem, “This is what cures war: // the taste of watery fruit / in your mouth of fire.” Can I ask you to talk a little bit about the poem and, especially, those last lines of the poem?

MS: The thing with war and violence is it exists beyond its time, it stays with you long after its visible effects are gone (the bombings, the deaths). The devastation that follows the aftermath of war stays for years, it takes a couple of generations (or more) to be even addressed properly, and years later, we feel its effect, visible or invisible, and the breaking continues within us. “How to Peel Cactus Fruit” contains the idea of war within war, comparing the simple eating habits with the atrociousness of violence. In Asmara, beles, cactus fruit, is a source of joy; people eat it after a rainy day, street merchants store it in baskets and keep it cool and cold. When you buy it, they snatch the thorns and curl its skin, revealing fresh flesh. This is a ritual that happened even in the dark days filled with violence; the same streets that were bathed in blood would also be bathed with a rain that brought merchants with cold beles. The act of eating it is also violent: in order to get the meat, you must crush or scrape its thorns, you must peel its skin, your fingers will most likely bleed. How can you separate the small joys of eating beles from war? You can’t, at least, I can’t. But this joy is also one that persists, one that will continue to stay with you, and one way or another, undo the horrors of war from your body. Through this simple act, you defy everything you are taught not to do in such a difficult time: you go outside, you smile, you make small talk, you go about buying a fruit, as if the world has not turned its back on you and your people. And in that fragment of time, you believe, perhaps, we will get through this. Perhaps it was not all in vain. Perhaps this light from the fruit is a glimpse of heaven, perhaps this cold is actually healing the soreness from the silent cries people have mustered so eloquently. Perhaps this, too, will cure war.

MCF: You created quite a stir at the 2016 AWP Conference when you spoke about poems coming to you as colors first, not words. Your poem “Synesthesia” explores what colors evoke for you. Does your process for fiction writing work differently?

MS: No, it’s quite similar. Actually, everything I understand about the world comes to me in colors. It can be crippling and wonderful. I was trying to explain this to someone recently, and realized it is not limited to my writing (poetry or otherwise). Colors are a sort of language for me, the default language in which I understand the world (sorrow and grief follow hand in hand). When I first met you, you were light gray, which, at that moment, I took to be joy. But it’s never quite that simple. Colors are culturally associated with emotions; blue is sad here, but blue is so rich in my mind, blue is many, many things! Blood is a color too, as is warmth, as is music. I find that the different types of laughter are all different colors, textures, shades; so everything I experience comes to me in that form. My mom likes to say that I eat with my eyes; and it’s sort of true. I am currently craving blue, and this craving is incessant and unforgiving, but how do you explain this to anyone? I go to the ocean and find it gurgling in deep emerald-gray; I look up the sky and there is yellow and cobalt. This blue I’m craving, I suspect, is not food, or color, but something I do not know. Yet. Perhaps it’s a poem. Or a collection still brooding. So it’s the same with my fiction, or my photography. I write about a house filled with yellow, or a blue shadow, and my photography captures maddening colors (you should see my Instagram feed …)

MCF: addition to being a gifted writer, you are also a visual artist. Can you talk about your visual art?

MS: Once someone told me that I am a visual poet, which I think is more accurate. I see before I write. I mainly engage with photography, focusing especially on portraitures of black women (I am working on a series now on black women and hair). But I am fascinated by art that expresses itself in multiple senses: an erasure poem, visual writing, textile prose, weaved stories, soundless pictures, etc. Most times my visual art supplements my writing one way or another. I use visual art mostly as a social commentary; I am currently working on a multi-media project, “The Book of Exodus,” which attempts to capture the migratory stories of the people of Ethiopia and Eritrea. I am listening to individual stories, and also taking portraits and, when allowed, short videos. It is quite fascinating; the moving and shifting can be traced on their faces, their expressions, their tone. Their stories come alive when they speak, and these are multi-dimensional stories that cannot be captured only with poetry, so using visual art amplifies these unique narratives. 

Mahtem Shiferraw is a poet and visual artist who grew up in Ethiopia and Eritrea. Her work has been published in the 2River View, Cactus Heart Press, Blood Lotus Literary Journal, Luna Luna Magazine, Mandala Literary Journal, Blackberry: A Magazine, Diverse Voices Quarterly, The Bitter Oleander Press, Callaloo and elsewhere. She is the founder and executive editor of black lioness press & studio, actively working to promote the literary & artistic work of people of color, and in particularly women. She won the Sillerman Prize for African Poets and her full length collection, FUCHSIA, is out now from the University of Nebraska Press. Her poetry chapbook, BEHIND WALLS & GLASS, was published by Finishing Line Press.

Mary Catherine Ford is an MFA candidate in the Creative Writing Program at Queens College.

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