Leila Chatti is a Tunisian-American poet and author of the chapbooks Ebb (Akashic Books, 2018) and Tunsiya/Amrikiya, the 2017 Editors’ Selection from Bull City Press. She is the recipient of scholarships from the Tin House Writers’ Workshop, The Frost Place, and the Key West Literary Seminar, a grant from the Barbara Deming Memorial Fund, and fellowships from the Fine Arts Work Center in Provincetown, the Wisconsin Institute for Creative Writing, and Cleveland State University, where she is the inaugural Anisfield-Wolf Fellow in Publishing and Writing. Her poems have received awards from Ploughshares‘ Emerging Writer’s Contest, Narrative‘s 30 Below Contest, and the Academy of American Poets, and appear in Ploughshares, Tin House, American Poetry Review, Virginia Quarterly Review, Kenyon Review Online, and elsewhere.
Chaya Bhuvaneswar: Can you reflect on the process by which you came to realize you were a poet, when it became central to you to write and publish your poetry? Are there significant relationships (mentors, teachers, early readers, friends) that helped you understand you have this gift, and are there ways you now seek to form those relationships with emerging poets to support them, now that you have a body of work and a readership?
Leila Chatti: I’ve always been drawn to words. My parents like to remind me that even as an infant, I was fascinated by books; there are photographs of me propped up in my crib surrounded by them. I think that’s very interesting, and I’m not sure why I was attracted to books before I could make sense of what they were, or even of language itself. Perhaps predictably, I began reading early, at the age of three, and writing shortly thereafter.
My parents encouraged these pursuits, though they were not big readers themselves. My siblings, too, don’t really read. I think I was a curious child and I knew reading allowed me access to an endless store of information. I was also curious about myself, and other people, and writing is where I worked to discover what it meant to be alive in the world.
When I first realized I was a poet, with the same certainty and absoluteness as the fact of my brown hair or the city of my birth, I was in early adolescence. I was a cliché in that I thought a lot, felt more than I could bear, and used poetry as a container for what I carried too much of. There’s a line by Lisel Mueller I always think of when I am asked why or how I began writing poems, because it comes from a poem in which she addresses the same question (it’s how the poem begins). As Lisel says, I “placed my grief / in the mouth of language, / the only thing that would grieve with me.” I had a difficult, extremely painful young adulthood. I wrote to make sense of my suffering. I still write to make sense of my suffering, the suffering I encountered then and the suffering I’ve since amassed. I write now, too, for and about other things, but this remains my primary impulse.
I was lucky to have had teachers who saw both that I was in pain and that I had a talent for rendering that pain into language. In particular, my high school English teacher, Marianne Forman, encouraged and nurtured my love of poetry. She first introduced me to the work of Naomi Shihab Nye by handing me a stack of her books, and ten years later, Naomi has written a blurb for my chapbook. And now that Marianne has retired, I’ve offered her what I know about publishing and her poems are making their way into the world. There’s a lovely circling back in all of this that touches my heart in a way I can’t fully articulate.
I’ve had many wonderful mentors on my path, including Kim Addonizio, who gave me the courage to leave my job and chase this dream, and Dorianne Laux, my poetry mother who, as a mother does, taught me everything I know. Now that I know anything at all, I try very hard to pass that knowledge along. It can be difficult to do this from afar, as it almost certainly requires the Internet (while I think it would be wonderful to send letters, I haven’t seen much of that in practice), and I withdraw frequently from social media to focus on my work and protect my health. I’ve found what I like best is direct mentorship—either through e-mail exchanges or in person, during workshops of varying lengths and contexts. I will be teaching my first online workshop this spring through The Speakeasy Project, which I think will be a happy melding of the two. And while I love to build long, deeper-knowing relationships, I’ve found that mentoring can also be as brief as answering a question, providing resources, or sending a note of praise and encouragement. I believe strongly in opening doors, particularly for writers from marginalized backgrounds/identities, because there is plenty of room for all of us wherever we’re trying to go.
CB: Your work involves such a gorgeous calibration of the mythic and the personal—it is a great comfort to read poems about prayer, characters from Ovid, the Q’uran, reproductive health, and questions concerning motherhood, instead of being swept into the pettiness and ugliness, the unbelievable headlines of certain recent political events. In particular, the scenes from ordinary Muslim life are what move me to tears—the life my partner and I are striving to give our kids. (My partner is a non-observant, but still deeply religious, Turkish and Q’uran-literate son of a cleric in rural Turkey.) The ordinariness of the prayer rug, the counting, the calls to prayer, knowing lines from Q’uran, knowing about holy days. Knowing things by their proper names, without letting hateful rhetoric in any way touch or define/defile them.
Have you felt compelled to respond to Islamophobia directly in your work? The incredible line “I have never felt in my bones a bomb’s radius of light” gave me such joy, because it’s so human and so compassionate, yet at the same time it glories in the “beauty of the world that has two edges, one of laughter, one of sadness, cutting the heart asunder” (per Virginia Woolf).
LC: I love that Virginia Woolf quote—I hadn’t heard it before, and now it’s going in my notebook. To answer your question, yes, I have felt compelled to address Islamophobia head-on. I was 11 years old when the Twin Towers fell and so came of age in the context of a country that despised me. I wonder sometimes what my life would look like if I hadn’t learned early the possibility (reality!) of deep, pervasive hatred; I cannot recall a time when I was not acutely aware that what I was was the wrong thing to be. That sense of being “bad” and an outsider rooted in me, and I suspect it had a greater hand in my development and self-esteem than I realized. If we all see the world through a particular lens because of our circumstances, this certainly tinges what I see.
Despite this, I originally resisted writing head-on about being Arab and Muslim. When I began my MFA, I was very sick—I had a tumor that was thought to be cancer, and suffered from daily, intensely unpleasant symptoms because of it. I, as you might imagine, thought of little else, and so wrote about this illness regularly. I was discouraged from doing so by an instructor and told my success would be found in writing about “Arab things,” advice which deeply unsettled me— not because I didn’t want to write about “Arab things,” but because I thought I already was (if I, an Arab, have written a poem, is that not an Arab poem?; and Arabs also get sick, and write about it—), and because I feared tokenism. I think many, if not all, writers of color experience at some point this dread, this doubt, that they may not truly be as talented as their white peers, that they wouldn’t be there if it weren’t for the bright flag of their identity—that being nonwhite is the only interesting or valuable thing about them. I certainly did. I wanted to be successful, but I didn’t want success that wasn’t earned. Too often during those early years, it was implied—or said outright, by friends even!—that I was lucky to be Arab/Muslim because it was an easy ticket to publication and awards. Never mind that I was almost always the only Arab/Muslim published in an issue, or in a year’s worth of issues, of a journal, or that I had never been taught Arab or Muslim literature and had to seek it out on my own. Still, it haunted me, so I kept my most clearly “Other” poems to myself, which is a perpetuation of silencing. I sent out work that obscured my identity—work about the ubiquitous experiences of desire and grief—to prove that I did, indeed, deserve “to be there.” Once I acquired that proof, I sent out the rest.
So, all that said, I have a complicated relationship to writing about identity—or, rather, publishing that writing. It is interesting to me that Tunsiya/Amrikiya will be my first book-object out in the world, as I think even three years ago I would have been nervous about debuting with “Arab things.” At some point I internalized the idea that “serious writing” was writing where identity was in the background, because I had been raised with a canon composed of writers whose whiteness/Westerness/Christianity was so centered that it wasn’t even considered an identity, it was considered human experience. Of course, this is not true. I didn’t set out to specifically challenge this, however; Tunsiya/Amrikiya arose naturally, out of necessity. 2016 was a brutal, terrifying year to be Arab and Muslim in the United States. I wrote to process and to speak back. I hoped, of course, to educate and challenge, but I was mostly writing for myself and other Arabs and Muslims, so many of the poems in the chapbook are celebratory and domestic. It’s my life: where I came from, how I came to be the person I am, and a small glimpse of what life as someone like me might look like. I like to think that these poems may also push back against Islamophobia, though they are not explicitly political; hatred is often the failure to see a stranger as fully human, and in these poems I reveal my full self.