Sherry Shenoda is a Coptic poet and pediatrician, born in Cairo, living near Los Angeles. Her work is at the intersection of human rights and child health. She is the author of Mummy Eaters, and The Lightkeeper, a novel.
I had the pleasure of exchanging emails with Sherry Shenoda to discuss her powerful poetry collection, Mummy Eaters, winner of the Sillerman First Book Prize for African Poets and longlisted for the National Book Award. The book takes the reader on an imaginary journey of one of the daughters of the house of Akhenaten in the Eighteenth Dynasty of Egypt, through mummification and the afterlife. The call-and-response style between the author and the imagined ancestor in the Coptic tradition invites us to explore the interplay between spirituality, ancestral journeys, and the human experience.
Throughout our conversation, Shenoda reflects on the complexities of the human experience, offering insight into the role of hope, imagination, forgiveness, connection, and healing in cultivating a compassionate worldview. She highlights the power of hope in the face of trauma, providing a unique perspective at the boundary between reality and optimism. Our conversation is a meditation on the importance of remembering our ancestors as humans and finding a path forward that centers hope and resilience.
Saddiq Dzukogi: I love documentaries about ancient Egypt, particularly the way archeologists piece together life stories of individuals who lived thousands of years ago. But I often wonder about the implication of this kind of interest. What do you make of the spiritual displacement that occurs as a result of what seems like a disturbance of the dead’s spiritual journey, to feed the world’s insatiable curiosity of ancient Egypt?
Sherry Shenoda: I do too, Saddiq. In some sense, when we go that far back, any ancestor belongs more to humanity than any specific people and we could really use the unity that sort of collective imagination creates. When someone dies in the Coptic Orthodox tradition we say to their descendants: may you live and remember.
It’s a prayer for living forward while holding the memory of their beloved dead. But even as local and rooted as my own family was just a generation ago before immigrating to the US, our memory only goes back a couple hundred years. No one alive now has a living memory of ancient Egyptians—in that sense looking at what they left behind at least allows us to resurrect some picture of their lives.
On the other hand, the challenge is to remember that we’re dealing with humans, and not, say, fossilized animal remains. Some groups, like the ancient Egyptians, are unique in that they preserved their dead so well—in this case as part of their spiritual journey to the afterlife—that we still have human remains to examine. We must remember that they’re human. There’s a line from a National Geographic article a few years ago about the Pharaoh Djer (d.3055 BC, 1st dynasty) that details the finding of his mummified arm, and it reads, “The jewelry was carefully removed and preserved…the arm was noted, photographed, and thrown in the garbage.” I think about that often. It’s helpful to resurrect our ancestors in memory, but we must remember that they’re human. We’re living in an anti-human age and it’s easy to commit crimes against each other and our collective ancestors when we forget or overlook their humanity.
SD: In reading your work, I am reminded of what my current practice as a poet is, which is to exhume and examine the history of Hausa mythology and lineage, through the lens of colonialism, particularly cultural and spiritual colonization. As someone who has done that successfully, what are the parameters and questions that guided you in this groundbreaking work?
SS: Thank you. My guiding principles are connection and healing. As a clinician, I often work with children who have experienced trauma. We now know a lot about how trauma affects growth, development, and future health outcomes. But if we stop at the effects of trauma and don’t wrestle with the questions of mitigation, I think we’ve fallen short, and failed both our ancestors and descendants.
When exhuming and excavating, as you say, my own cultural inheritance, what I’ve found most helpful for me is to walk a middle path, one of mitigation of hurts, of forgiveness, if you will. Sometimes there’s too much current hurt to speak openly about forgiveness, but forgiveness has little to do with the perpetrators of crimes in my mind. It centers the ones doing the forgiving, ennobles their efforts at progress past hurt, and allows a path forward. I’ve seen it in clinical practice and it’s the lens I use to deal with colonization. It isn’t perfect and you could argue that it isn’t just, but I’m interested in living a good life, a healthy life, and in my own life that outcome is tied to forgiveness.
SD: The idea of forgiveness as a corrective action is very striking—do you think this can be applied to issues of reparation and return of stolen artifacts and objects?
SS: Forgiveness is my lens for viewing injustice, but I don’t think mercy and justice are mutually exclusive. I think forgiveness works best personally and locally, as any solution that hinges on affection and community must. I fight like a wildcat for justice for my patients in a very broken healthcare system. Returning stolen cultural heritage isn’t negotiable—it has to happen because it’s just and right.
But we can still approach individual people not as colonizers or colonized, but as humans, with openness and curiosity. We can center hope and resilience in our conversations about reparations. We aren’t our ancestors any more than people holding stolen goods are their ancestors, and we can take responsibility for our own relationships, and focus on solutions rather than past harm, for our sake and theirs. It’s a path I know isn’t the most popular, but it’s the one I choose in my own life, and I find it effective and healing.
SD: “Invocation” is such a beautiful prayer of hope and belonging that seems to speak to the various spaces of your spiritual and ancestral journeys—Is there any relationship between hope and skepticism in your writing process? And how does imagination play a role in your acceptance of the inevitable realities of your world?
SS: In my work as a pediatrician, I work often at the boundary between reality and hope: the realities we deal with are often based on trauma, exclusion, lack of privilege, a broken social support system, minimal social capital, and limited resources. But children are resilient, resourceful, and open to growth—they can imagine better worlds if we help mitigate their trauma. So, I toil in the space between reality and hope.
I think it’s the space all modern humans exist in, actually, in the state of affairs we find ourselves. We’re dealing with existential crises as humans that no civilization has dealt with before, and the scale of potential destruction from threats like nuclear war and climate change are almost beyond our imagination. I often think of Wendell Berry’s line: “Be joyful, though you know the facts.” I live between those two tensions: the hope and joy, and the hard facts.
SD: In “Ancestor Opening of the Mouth: A Daughter’s Long Wail,” you write, “I am racing towards Life” which mirrors, in a way, our own journey toward mortality. I am interested in the way you use the persona poem to inhabit the spirit of a mummified body. Can you speak to the process of writing the poem? How does the voice’s proximity to history make this engagement urgent?
SS: I wanted to look out through her eyes and remember what life was like for her, the daughter of a Pharaoh—a god on earth, but still mortal—and sense the beauty and danger and fragility of her life. The issue of connection comes up for me often. We are so disconnected as humans right now, so it was good practice for me, to look through the eyes of an imagined ancestor, one who lived so long ago, and try to understand something of what her life might have looked and smelled and tasted like and have compassion and empathy for her experience. It’s good practice for me to do the same for the people around me today. There’s no overstating the urgency of how loneliness has become an epidemic issue, and the urgency of our need to look out, through each others’ eyes.
SD: In “Question,” you write, “What becomes of the soul / whose body is unearthed / whose body is eaten?” What was the role of questioning in the making of Mummy Eaters?
SS: The book hinges on that question, and the broader, unwritten one: how would our past, including colonialism, or our future, in which we will continue dealing with existential crises like climate change and the threat of nuclear war, look if we believed that the other was human? Would we still consume each other? It feels as though much of my life’s work depends on the answers to those questions.
SD: “Race Against Time II” begins with the idea that some people would rather believe aliens built the pyramids than acknowledge that brown and black people were responsible for creating something so enduring and monumental. This raises questions about the ways in which brilliance and intelligence are often questioned based on one’s identity. As a pediatrician or poet, have you personally experienced this kind of bias? How do you navigate such a world and how can Brown and Black individuals assert the intellectual meticulousness of their cultures and histories, despite these being often dismissed as unorthodox?”
SS: This questioning of intelligence and brilliance has been going on a long time, hasn’t it? It’s incredible really, that we call into question the intelligence at the very cradle of all civilizations.
Copts were at one time considered illiterate because they wrote and spoke Coptic rather than Greek. You could make the argument that the split between the Eastern and Oriental Orthodox Churches was less dogmatic and more about putting the Alexandrians in their place. And Giovanni Belzoni, considered one of the more enlightened explorers, called us “an ignorant and primitive nation.”
I don’t have an answer to this problem, Saddiq. There’s no forcing anyone to acknowledge intelligence or brilliance. But I do find it rather satisfying to surprise people repeatedly in my own life. All I can do is show up and do the work. This is all the advice I can give young people of color: learn your history, study your ancestors, do the work faithfully and don’t focus on the acknowledgement. Your brilliance will shine through—they won’t be able to ignore you.
SD: Finally, congratulations on the successes of your debut collection Mummy Eaters, winning the Sillerman First Book Prize for African Poets and being longlisted for the National Book Award for Poetry. How do these recognitions impact you as an author? Can you compare the experience of writing a book of poetry versus a novel? Lastly, what exciting projects can readers expect from you soon?
SS: Thank you so much, Saddiq. It’s difficult but I try not to focus on recognition and critique as they are both fleeting, in my limited experience, and then I’m just with my own thoughts again. So, I try to be faithful and honest in my work. The novel was a much longer birthing process, if you will. I’m finishing up a second one. It takes me more long-term sustained attention, but I really enjoy the work. My first, The Lightkeeper, is a fantasy that explores free will and our ability to love in the face of impending loss. The second novel, also a fantasy, circles the question of why suffering exists and how children move through the stages of grief. I’m also working on another poetry collection: this one is centered around scent and nostalgia, with an emphasis on what it means to face extinction. So, I’m working on several projects, but I’m also trying to enjoy watching my little sons grow. I want to be present with them, and for my patients, so it may take me some time to get my thoughts down on paper. I don’t feel pressure about it. I’m trying to be grateful and deliberate.