The PEN Ten with Samiya Bashir
The PEN Ten is PEN America’s weekly interview series. In this week’s interview, Hafizah Geter, content editor and publicity coordinator at Poets House, speaks with poet Samiya Bashir.
When did being a writer begin to inform your sense of identity?
As a child. I remember it clearly. I was eight years old. One might say I was a weird kid.
Where is your favorite place to write?
I work best some place either quiet and undisturbed or loud and chaotic. Right now I’m on the smoky outside patio of a café in the middle of a very large intersection in Lisbon. In either of those extremes I can access a necessary kind of mental solitude. Chaos becomes white noise, becomes atmosphere, and I can slip into a sliver of timespace. Among a throng I need not be regarded quite so individually, whereas one or few people need noticing, are noticing, attend or need attending to. When quietly alone, or invisible in a crowd, I can safely slip in/through my timespace sliver while my body remains unmolested and at work.
Obsessions are influences—what are yours?
The metaphysical world. There was a period as a kid when I was like the neighborhood bike fixer. But I wasn’t fixing bikes to help people! I really wanted to know how they worked and why and what if they did this or that instead. It was a selfish altruism. In high school I wanted to take auto shop for much the same reasons. I’m from Michigan, so the making of cars was a distinct flavor of the cultural air back then. For b.s. reasons of gender and class, I wasn’t allowed into auto shop and was routed instead into typing. I was, of course, righteously livid. I also suspected typing would be useful because I’d once been that frustrated eight year old who couldn’t correctly hold a pencil so as not to disfigure the fingers, whose mother rolled her eyes and said something akin to, “stop being so dramatic, girl,” said that I could learn how to type and write all I wanted. It’s both true that typing became culturally, personally, and professionally useful. It’s also true that I still can’t fix my own car. Because gender. Because class. Because bullshit, really. See? Obsessions. Influences.
What’s the most daring thing you’ve ever put into words?
I don’t know if I’d call this daring, but among the most harrowing was a piece I wrote about a sexual assault that took place when I was a teenager. He was someone I knew. After hearing about it, he trolled and flamed me on social media, insisted that everything I wrote was lies, and worse. Of course I blocked him, but the takeaway was about how far and deep the roots of denial reach and how quickly exposure to light causes those roots to ignite in rage. I see this in the current eruptions of white supremacist attacks around the country. I see it in all those who don’t consider themselves racist, yet become hysterical at the very suggestion that black lives matter, or that their police are dangerous, or that their institutions are rotten not just at their frayed edges but to the core. Why so angry? Why so quick to violence or to silence the speaker(s)? This, to me, is where daring comes in: For some of us, to speak at all, to speak even amongst ourselves, to speak even simply to affirm our beauty or laugh our own moments of joy, can be daring. To speak about intimate violence, or the many shades and effects and affects of white supremacy, or the connecting threads between them, is daring when our culture is built not only upon those things, but upon the fierce denial of their existence. For me, to claim language and put it to use to speak my existence, to write at all, is to dare. That’s the bottom of the hill I climb. And then I climb.
What is the responsibility of the writer?
To write. Or to accept as gracefully as possible the consequences of silence. That’s about it. Thing is, those consequences are no trifle. “The writer,” such as they are, can lose their mind or more by not writing. Your work, if it’s in you, can be both tonic and toxic. I know when I’m not doing my work; I don’t feel right, or I get physically sick in a million different ways until I get quiet enough to say: Hey, sit down. Do some work. Then the pen is a leech and a cup. As I let the work out, the body kind of detoxes. And still, despite all that, I don’t have to do it. I can just let myself get sick or go nuts. I’m human; I have a choice. But I don’t seem to have much choice about those two things being my choices, which is where the responsibility lies. I can accept the fact of those two choices, or not, but denial is a decision too, and one for which, in the end, I am responsible.
While the notion of the public intellectual has fallen out of fashion, do you believe writers have a collective purpose?
Collective? No. Purpose? Sure, but not in the singular. I think we are all here to do our work, not necessarily the work. Ascribing some sort of universal THE to the work each writer (or artist, or parent, or critic, or public intellectual, or farmer) must do often serves as a silencing tactic. There is the right work and the wrong work in those cases—which seems a dangerous dichotomy. Instead, the “right” work is individual to that worker and that time in their process of working and/or living. Some of us work toward liberation of self or community or people or planet. Some of us work toward the destruction of same. There are infinite other purposes around and between. Each is real, whether we like it or not. The purpose of some writers is to attract sexual partners. Period. The purpose of other writers is to make money. The purpose of yet other writers is ego inflation or propaganda or maybe the empowerment of children. As a writer, an artist, a human, I’d rather work toward my own purpose—or even the purpose of a particular piece of work—than some purpose ascribed to me which, necessarily, comes attached to the agenda of the ascriber. Of course, as we work toward those purposes—good, ill, or indifferent—that rascally rabbit responsibility lurks the dusty corners and ashy knee-backs.
Recognizing years of cultural theft and appropriation, to whom would you like to give back the crown?
I’m more of a melt down the crown and give everyone a little piece of shine kind of thinker and maker and doer. The hierarchy of the crown is something that humans recreate again and again; perhaps it’s natural to us. But loving and sharing and caring for ourselves and each other is also natural to us. We, quite wonderfully, get to choose which natural tendencies into which we want to press like a bruise toward healing. Free will isn’t always a kindness; it’s likely the lynchpin of responsibility. If we deny the supremacy of the crown and instead recognize whatever we imagine as royalty in each of us, if we allow not only our divinity to twinkle and thrive but the divinity of and within others (big words carelessly tossed onto yoga mats and coffee mugs), then we may have just done some powerful work.
How has the very public mainstreaming of bigotry and more visible and documented police violence resonated in your personal life and writing?
I see nothing new about this hyper-documentation of violence against black bodies. There are reasons why slave markets so often occurred in public squares. There are reasons why groups like the Klan commit their deeds under cover of night but by bright firelight. We were always meant to see and fear this violence and bigotry, to “place” ourselves in hopes of avoiding their entanglements, to remember how they always remain unpunished—all of us: the targeted and those handed the scope and trigger. This is the cornerstone of our culture, it simply shifts its medium to keep up with the times. As do I. As does my poetry. As do my poetics. I’m not afraid to shape-shift when survival is at stake. Grainy video imagery, cell phone photos, dash cams, and body cams are not for our protection. They exist to insist on our fear and compliance. It has always been mainstream and it has always been denied. That may be the best part of the trick—its shape-shift. I won’t deny, in my life or my work, what I see; but I also refuse to engage it only through mutually-agreed-upon theatrics. I will not watch the snuff films. I will not accept “he smoked marijuana so he deserved to die” as unsmackable language. I might even suggest that maybe there are a million other things under the sun that can actually free us than constantly re-traumatizing and terrorizing ourselves in service of our oppressors. And then I will task my work to say, like this [turn the glass], and like this [poem the glass], and like this [poem the poem; glass the glass].
What book would you send to a government leader, domestic or foreign, who censors (or inhibits) marginalized and/or dissenting voices?
I wouldn’t. I’m not that trusting of government leaders, foreign or domestic. There’s a scene in the TeeVee series, American Horror Story: Coven, where Kathy Bates’s character, as an animated head separated from her body and without the agency to escape, is placed by Gabourey Sidibe’s character atop a table in front of a television and forced to watch the entire nine hours of the original Roots series without cessation. It’s corny, but there’s also a knowing brilliance in that moment. Give such a leader a book and they’ll likely burn it. If they do read it, there’s nothing to interrupt the filter of their own biases, their own tones of voice. Their unchallenged interpretations are the problem here so it becomes, in the mental parlance of my grandmother, a waste of postage. Instead, I would insist that they sit still and listen to how I or we would read it. Whichever books we choose—and I don’t personally believe this effective in the singular—they must hear through our voices. From Ayi Kwei Armah to Leslie Marmon Silko to Maxine Hong Kingston; from June Jordan to James Baldwin to Percival Everett and Toni Morrison and Toni Cade Bambara and Fred Moten and Octavia Butler and Samuel Delaney and M. Nourbese Philip and … this is going to take weeks. It could take years. It could take generations. But if it’s worth doing, then it’s worth doing. I feel confident in our ability, if nothing else, to arrange for alternate leadership (or leadership’s alternate) during the process.
Where is the line between observation and surveillance?
Intention. Observation can a liberatory driver of creativity; it can help us understand and access our own humanity and that of our neighbors. Surveillance is necessarily in service to an agenda, and generally used to help that agenda act upon the surveilled to accomplish its goals. When I observe the wind through the trees, the marvel of how it shakes the leaves, I am not trying to alter or stop the wind (usually). I am not trying to change the trees or to destroy them. I observe to marvel, or to imagine, or to remember. But if I’m surveilling those trees then perhaps I hope to relocate them. Maybe I want to harvest them for timber and need to understand how quickly they can be replaced and re-harvested. I might want to know what lives in them that I can eat, or whether I can live in them myself, or what is under the ground in which they’re rooted that I might exploit. Either way, I’m not simply honoring the tree, or even myself. I am there to reshape the order of things to my benefit or liking, to follow the same human impulse that makes us fashion the crown and the head upon which to place it.
Samiya Bashir’s books of poetry: Field Theories (Spring 2017), Gospel, and Where the Apple Falls, and anthologies, including Role Call: A Generational Anthology of Social & Political Black Literature & Art, exist. Sometimes she makes poems of dirt. Sometimes zeros and ones. Sometimes variously rendered text. Sometimes light. She lives in Portland, Oregon, with a magic cat who shares her obsession with trees and blackbirds and occasionally crashes her classes and poetry salons at Reed College.