Ladan Osman’s urgent poetry and our founding myths

Ladan Osman

An interview with Somali-American poet Ladan Osman on her work, white supremacy in America, and Adam and Eve.

Cordoba, Spain September 2018. Image credit Joe Penney.

Interview by
Joe Penney

The poet Ladan Osman’s work is lyrical, forceful, playful, piercing, fun, funny, and also sexy. Perhaps its impact is felt most deeply because of a trait so often lacking in today’s discourse: its sincerity. In her second collection of poems Exiles of Eden (Minneapolis: Coffee House Press, 2019), Osman delivers an incredibly urgent call to action against founding narratives that are so prevalent in American society, and which are poisonous to women and people of color. It is a strong antidote to the Vice-style cynicism that has helped usher a white supremacist into the US presidency by soaking popular culture with the dangerous notion that taking things seriously is uncouth.

Raised in Columbus, Ohio, Osman won the Sillerman First Book Prize for African Poetry for her first collection of poems, The Kitchen Dweller’s Testimony. Her experience in the American Midwest is the backdrop for many of her poems, but her speakers carry us around the world, and have a special longing for Osman’s birthplace Mogadishu and the sea that surrounds Somalia’s capital city. In Exiles of Eden, a title that refers to Adam and Eve and implies that the original human story is that of seeking refuge, the poems inhabit worlds of immense love, intense anguish, and quiet contemplation, sometimes all within the same stanza. Osman refuses to be defined by anyone else’s vision of who she is and what she can do in poetry. Her lack of engagement with common tropes of writing for voices cast as “marginalized” in popular American narratives is part of what makes her work so compelling.

Given the singularity of her work and the relevance and importance of a Somali-American woman’s experience to the current political moment, I asked Osman if she would share her thoughts on some of her poems, white supremacy in America, and Adam and Eve.


JP

As someone who looks so closely at what home and citizenship mean, what was your reaction to Trump’s comments about the four Congresswomen “going home”?

LO

I think the obvious thing is that it’s important to determine who the other is and what the other deserves, so that you can clarify to yourself or to the masses, who it is that actually belongs and who it is that has the right to exclude, and even the right to identify and label.

So much of it seems to have to do with who is seen and who does the seeing, and why it’s so important to unsee aspects of citizenship, aspects of civic duty, especially when we’re talking about Congress. These are people who have been elected to represent the people and to execute civic duties. For them to be attacked on the basis of their citizenship is pretty unnerving. It’s so glaringly illogical, and so lacking in decorum.

I mean, I think the point is to be disturbing, the point is to be disruptive. And I think the point is to cover up the ways that these Congresswomen are disruptive in their politics, and to shift the emphasis to who a racist would like them to be on the basis of perceived nationality when they’re all American.

I think another thing that I wish I saw more conversation about in public discourse is that when you try to exclude a person from the place where they’re rooted, where they’re invested, where they’re serving, and to define home as something that they are outside of, or don’t deserve—the intention seems to be to create a sense of dislocation, and one that’s not just physical or geographic, but psychic, emotional. Something that disrupts the psychology of the citizen. And it doesn’t seem to have anything to do with logic or legality, it’s just to create harm, and to set a standard for what’s OK in discourse.

Reading at the Sapanca Poetry Festival in Sakarya, Turkey October 2018. Image credit Joe Penney.
JP

There seems to be a singling out of Ilhan Omar specifically, as a target of hate. Trump linked her to Al Qaeda and brought up that “some people” comment again. Besides AOC, it seems like she’s almost become the main target of hate, and sort of the right wing’s painting of a nightmare for what America has become. How do you see this particularly disturbing racism against Omar, the first Somali-American elected to Congress?

LO

 

Ilhan is a black woman who is visibly Muslim, and doesn’t shy away from her identity. Besides that, she and the other targeted Congresswomen are vocalizing a set of policies that are beyond uncomfortable for this administration. There’s hope in the appearance of these politicians: that they’re here, that they can run, that they can succeed, that they can be so widely celebrated. It’s something that I believe is beyond the imagination of the typical racist and typical misogynist.

I can see why people who think like that would experience her as a nightmare, because she is disrupting the order of things and the order of how things are supposed to be, and forcing them to confront their limitations in real time. You can’t argue with who or what’s already there. Just because you call it a blight in your vision, or a blight upon the American record doesn’t undo her appearance, it doesn’t undo the fact that she’s there. And so what can you do, then, except to assassinate the character of this Congresswoman and to attempt to undermine her policies and everything that she stands for, and attempt to also isolate her further from these already isolated Congresswomen.

You asked about the “some people” comment. There are certain words and phrases that I’m really uncomfortable saying, because people are already prepared to read me as a threat, and as violent and as in cooperation with terrorists. So the words “terrorism,” “9/11,” there’s a long vocabulary list—”bomb”—there are things that I know not to say in public. And the same goes for so many Muslim people I know.

I noticed that most of us, instead of saying bomb, we say the “b-word” or for terrorist, we say the “t-word.” I wondered if it was a (now) very natural avoidance of saying that word, especially in front of a crowd of people, in official space, and when you’re being recorded. So many of us now, in trying to be careful, in ways that we’ve been forced to be careful, trying to demonstrate loyalty, caution, especially as someone living in the US but never read as an American, I wonder if it’s possible that was just a very typical verbal glitch. Because I would be very surprised if she or anyone in her family were throwing any of those words around, especially in public places.

JP

In your poem “Boat Journey,” the speaker asks, “What is it like to be so free? / To drift in a water in a country you call/Your own. Unprepared because you can laugh/Into an official’s face. Explain, offer no apology.” Is this descriptive of whiteness in America?

LO

I was actually watching these young women in a boat. I noticed that—except for a fleeting concern about their safety because they didn’t really seem prepared—I didn’t really think anything. But then when I tried to draft what a speaker would think, and what another voice could offer, especially in the context of other crises, those questions of citizenship and of whiteness, of privilege, and who’s free very quickly rose to the surface and became the obvious thing that was worth exploring.

Part of whiteness is not really being seen for your whiteness, it’s something that’s meant to be almost atmospheric, you know, you just take it for granted that it’s there, and it’s supposed to be there. And it’s what’s supposed to sustain everything. Anything that tries to challenge it is unnatural; it’s like a kind of biosphere that you’re attempting to destroy. And so I don’t think that those real-life women who were at Promontory Point in Chicago, I don’t think that they were thinking at all about their whiteness. I presume that they’re American citizens just based on hearing them speak and their very Midwestern accents.

But that I knew inside myself, actually, and the speaker of the poem would agree, I would never get in a boat like that. I would never assume that I could do that kind of experiment and things would be fine, that I would be safe, and onlookers would possibly help me if I was doing something I wasn’t supposed to do, or drifting in water I wasn’t supposed to be in.

I would assume that, you know, you can’t carry a lot of stuff with you for fear of it falling into the water. I would be really nervous about that. Because then what if there’s a question, as there has been a question on American highways and American streets, about my citizenship, and I don’t have proof of those documents with me. And I’m doing something that could very easily be seen as suspicious, you know, “What are you doing on this water? What’s your aim? Leisure, taking in the beauty of the water? That’s ridiculous.” Like, of course, I could be doing that and have every right to. But it would be hard for the people who enforce the law to imagine someone like me taking up that space and exercising that freedom.

Cordoba, Spain September 2018 by Joe Penney.
JP

You end the book on such a triumphant and affirming note.  There are parts in the poem “Refusing Eurydice” where you affirm your identity and where you’re from and who you are. And it ends on “We’re looking for a better myth. / We’ve only been looking since Eve.” It’s very positive but at the same time, it’s very ambitious, because from what I understand, you’re challenging the founding myth of three major world religions. How is this ambition in storytelling received, in particular by an American audience?

LO

I think it depends which American audience, but I think in general, not well. I’ve had editors write to me, “Who do you think you are? What do you think you’re doing to American poetry?” Which is an interesting accusation. There’s a veiled accusation there; what would I be trying to do to American poetry? As if it’s a specific figure, and I’m trying to stab it or something. I think that attempting to do anything in literature is read as an affront. I’ve had people tell me (and this was acceptable in my MFA program) that if they saw any poem or submission with my name on it, they would immediately throw it in the garbage, and I’ve been told even by loved ones that I should consider publishing under a different name because people would not be willing to receive anything I was saying with my own name.

The last poem addresses most specifically women, femmes and non-binary people, although the “we” does include everyone. There are specific images that link to those identities because the myth that we have in place comes with its heaviness, and it comes with its melancholy. The story of Eve—though in general, not a lot of Muslim people look at it this way—you know, it’s all her fault, basically. And it’s like, wouldn’t it be just like a man to say, “it was her, she did it.” And now there’s all this commotion.

So many different things play out that way. You can be considered frail and inept, but then at the same time be considered a walking chaos. On one hand, you’re the whole center of humanity, some kind of like cosmic womb walking around, but then on the other, very likely to be the downfall of society by not being submissive enough, by not being conventional enough, by not submitting to the world order that is already at hand, which has never been advantageous for us.

We do need different and better stories. We need to see the stories that were tossed out because they had women voices in them, or they had woman interpreters, or they had woman spiritualists that were depicted or who were in conversation. And that’s not, you know, talking about the holy books. That’s really just even in the history and the interpretations of religion itself, like, who are the custodians of those myths? And not only what are considered the holy books but this is also true for the foundational artworks and the foundational poetry and what established the lyric. Where’s our place in that? And if you can’t find your place, you have to break it open, you have to reconfigure it and see what there can be for you.

That act of invention, for me, is how I show my respect for the power of storytelling, and the power of myth and the fact that people need to recite things to keep themselves going. And so it becomes critical for all of us to be able to have things to recite that we belong inside of. It’s ambitious for me to wake up day to day and walk around the world and think that, to know that I have the right to my intellectual exercises. That’s already much more ambitious than what’s been laid out for me. So it’s like, why not put that stuff down on a piece of paper and bind it in a book?

Brooklyn NY July 2019. Image credit Joe Penney.
JP

In a writing sense, what type of narrative is expected of you?

LO

I think that it’s really necessary to have some of these narratives, and this is not at all to disparage the people who have come before me and my contemporaries, many of whom are friends, and the people who are coming after me. But I think the expectation for me is to be a bruised, sad, black girl, who is absolutely overcome with these harms. To let myself become preoccupied with the stereotypes, resisting them trying to prove my humanity, and then adopting some of this imperialist language to talk about Somali people as being nothing, of having no home, nothing to go back to, having no dignity. You know, these things that really speak to a poverty of the heart, because you’re still a human and intact—and this is such an obvious thing to say—but you’re still a human and you’re intact, regardless of the material situation that you’re in, regardless of the thing that you’re attempting to flee.

I think that if I were more willing to disregard my own humanity and the humanity of people who look like me, that approach would be more welcome. Those are some of the notes I’ve gotten in the past: “Well, why don’t you just explain your Somali-ness, or just randomly put the names of towns or rivers and explain who you are and where you come from to a western sensibility.” But the explanation is always coming from a position of need, a position of pain, a position of brokenness. I know that I can’t be broken. So how can I write those poems?

About the Author

Ladan Osman is the author of Exiles of Eden (2019) and The Kitchen-Dweller’s Testimony (2015). She lives in Brooklyn.

About the Interviewer

Joe Penney is a journalist, photographer, and filmmaker based in New York City.

Further Reading

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