Mejdulene B. Shomali | COMING OF AGE IN ARABISH
an excerpt & interview
reasons i do not like to be touched
a friend looks at me, exclaims you’re so tiny! & the idea makes me laugh & food doesn’t do what it should anymore & everything in my mouth leaves a tinny taste behind & i clean my tongue with my toothbrush, so far back it leaves me gagging & i only want coffee, bananas, cigarettes & you look like you’ve lost weight! & my teeth feel fragile & my stretch marks are rivers, deep and wide for drowning & my sister used to be fat & food doesn’t do what it could still & you look like you’ve gained weight! & i dreamt my teeth turned to kindling & my stretch marks are paint strokes, red and flaring like fire
Originally published in The Pinch
The forms in coming of age in arabish are indicative of a desire to chart the page as territory, the page as chronological mapping. How do you conceive of time and place as a means of form building?
The page has always been a place where I reclaim time and territory. If the page is place then form provides topography while rhythms and sound mark the passage of time. So, a poem narrates history as it creates it. I also think time and place are inherent in form. Line breaks, stanzas, spacing, use of white space: these are all modes of place and placement, often displacement. Cadence, pacing, rhythm, rhyme: these are all modes of time and create synchrony, dyssynchrony, and asynchrony. For example, in “here, now” the poem alternates between left and right alignment to create a sense of movement in the here and now of the poem, to help convey that the here and now is fraught and unstable, and that here and now is itself a movement. It also reflects the content of the poem—the back and forth migration of the speaker between geographic locales. Between the alternating alignment and content, I like to imagine the poem creates the movement in the experience of the reader that the speaker narrates.
Can you talk a bit about your processes for braiding Arabic, English, and transliterated Arabic words throughout the book?
I grew up speaking Arabic and English and completed schooling in the US and Palestine. This has meant that some of the things I know, I know in one language or the other. There are times where I can only summon a word, idea, or concept in Arabic, or times where English is occupies my imaginary. To disrupt that occupation, I like toying with translating things back and forth. I love transliteration because it reflects the processing of language with and through translation. Transliteration allows variances, inaccuracies, and absurdities to flourish. I also appreciate how transliteration marks an impasse or invitation for different readers. It can produce welcome for a reader or alternately a sense of alienation. Even for those uncertain of the meaning, transliterated words contribute to the sound and visual scape of the poem.
Coming of Age in Arabish houses many assertive voices. Do you write with a particular audience in mind?
Yes, I am writing for my communities, families, and kin. I’m writing for people who feel hailed by or seen in the content of the work: Palestinians and Arabs in the homelands or diaspora, other Arabic and English code switchers, queers of color, fat femmes, people whose realities are informed by im/migration, people who experience non-belonging in its many forms, people who are sad or depressed, people who are looking for a good cry. To be completely honest, I am also writing for myself, a sort of dialogue with the difficult and treasured aspects of my identity and personality. Very occasionally, I am writing to hegemonic or dominant audiences. More often, I welcome those communities as listeners and readers but they are not the first or target audience.
Poems like “watching cnn during the first intifada” utilize frequent repetition. What roles do litany and repetition play in your work?
In that particular poem, repetition is about an unwavering assertion of Palestinian life in the face of the relentless assault on our survival. In general, repetition enacts traditions of call and response in Palestinian folk songs and poetry, where it establishes rhythm, and helps the singer or reciter with recall. Repetition is also a hallmark of prayer, something that was very much a part of my childhood and something that echoes in my life now. I am so comforted by repetition as song, as prayer, as chant. I am excited by how repetition builds momentum. Repetition and litany have done the most for my poems when they implore the reader in prayer or crescendo with readers in song.
What elements of poetry feel crucial to you when writing a poem that engages with displacement?
I think this depends on the poem at hand, though I’ve discussed some of my strategies above: repetition for placement and insistence, transliteration to invite intimacy or create distance, use of the form and rhythm to map time and space. I think it’s tied up with what the poem sets out to achieve, and the audience receiving it. If I am narrating displacement and seeking to recreate it in the reader, uncommon forms and structures can sometimes achieve that. By the same token, witnessing or experiencing the displacement could feel like recognition or an affirmation of the reader’s experiences. In that way, the poem might be a source of comfort and solace—a togetherness in the margins. I do think, reflecting again on the question of audience from earlier, that overall I intend and write for togetherness in the margins instead of an instructional or empathetic exercise for those unfamiliar with the narrated experiences.
Mejdulene B. Shomali is a Palestinian American poet and Assistant Professor in the Department of Gender + Women’s Studies at University of Maryland Baltimore County. Her creative and scholarly work centers on femininity, queerness, and Arab cultural production in a transnational perspective. Mejdulene is a 2018 VONA fellow; her poems can be read or are forthcoming in Copper Nickel, The Shade Journal, Tinderbox, Diode Press, The Pinch Literary Journal Online, and Mizna, among others. She currently lives in Baltimore, MD.