The January Children
(University of Nebraska Press, 2017)
The term “January Children” refers to Safia Elhillo’s grandfather’s generation—people born in Sudan under British colonial occupation—but in her new book of poems, the January Children, Elhillo is trying to make sense of much more: her entire family’s history, the nation of Sudan, what it means to be bilingual, and how familial and national history has played out over decades. She also writes in different ways about the late Egyptian singer Abdel Halim Hafez and uses him as a lens through which to interrogate many of these questions. The winner of last year’s Sillerman Prize for African Poets, Elhillo’s book came out earlier this year from the University of Nebraska Press and the African Poetry Book Series. We discussed the lifetime project of a first book and considered what will come next.
Alex Dueben (Rail): Could you explain the title, because I don’t think this is well-known?
Safia Elhillo: The January Children are the generation born in Sudan under occupation. I also recently learned that this isn’t a phenomenon that’s unique to Sudan. Basically, children were lined up and assigned birth years by height and all given the birthdate January 1st. My maternal grandfather is of that generation.
Rail: The spine of the book is these poems about Abdel Halim Hafez. How did those poems start?
Elhillo: The process of writing these poems and this book was the opposite of what my process is usually like, where I’ll usually be like elbow-deep in something before I realize that I’m working on a project. With this, I decided that I wanted to write a book about Abdel Halim Hafez, but I did not know what that was going to look like, or even why. I tend towards obsession. I’d written a poem about Abdel Halim for a class assignment in my MFA program, and by that point I was feeling very overwhelmed by the whiteness of the program, so I started bringing in these Abdel Halim poems. It got to a point that I was not writing poems about anything else, for maybe a year. It wasn’t until I made up my mind that this is what I wanted to write a book about that I had to sit down and brainstorm what the points of connections between Abdel Halim and me were, and try and mine my obsession to figure out what its roots were.
A lot of the earlier poems were dealing with a caricature of him, which was all I knew. He was hugely famous, and there was no way I could have grown up in the household I grew up in and not known who he was. But all I knew about him was that he was very famous and very hot and sang love songs and that everybody was in love with him. He had a very hard and very sad life, and he died very young. The more I learned about him, though, the more he filled in as this human figure, and I think he became a more solid surface that I could experiment on. Once I was secure in my knowledge of Abdel Halim—and my relationship with Abdel Halim—I could trust him to be the subject and object of poems that were a little bit weirder and more conceptual.
Rail: Those poems end up being very personal and about your history and cultural background, and he becomes the lens you use to talk about these things.
Elhillo: It got to the point where I couldn’t be talking about Abdel Halim and talking about Egypt and talking about the Arab world without talking about race. That was, I think, a train of thought that I wasn’t expecting, but it became a matter of considering my own body as it relates to Abdel Halim’s body and the bodies that he sang to. He would address a lot of his love songs to “asmarani,” which is a term of endearment in Arabic for a brown-skinned or dark-skinned person. The term asmarani comes up in his songs so often, it’s almost as if she’s a recurring character, even though she’s not named.
And there are a lot of different interpretations [of the word]—some people think it means “swarthy,” some people think it means “brunette”, but my understanding of the word, and the way the word has been deployed in my life, is that it means dark-skinned. That felt pretty radical to me—that his song lyrics were taking time out to specify she was a darker girl. In this world that’s pretty racist and colorist, that felt important to me. There was also a big interview component to my research; I was just trying to talk to people from various generations about their relationship to Abdel Halim Hafez’s music—my grandma remembers where she was and what she was doing when he died. I think it hadn’t occurred to a lot of people, the significance of asmarani. I can’t remember who it was, but someone said that asmarani “doesn’t mean black so don’t think that.” That shook me, but also was very interesting—in the way that all painful things are kind of interesting. It opened up a whole other set of questions for me about this figure that I’d married myself to in this project.
Rail: I know in Arabic poetics the term habibi, which means beloved, is the typical object of affection. Is asmarani rare?
Elhillo: Not really. There’s a subgenre of mostly Egyptian songs I’ve encoun- tered. Asmarani is sort of a canonical love song figure at this point, but I don’t know how common or popular that was pre-Abdel Halim. All the other songs that I’ve encountered that use asmarani are more contemporary.
Rail: The opening poem of the book starts “verily everything that is lost will be / given a name & will not come back / but will live forever.” That feels like a mission statement in a way. Naming is important for you.
Elhillo: I think taking on asmarani as the character name was also a way to make all this personal. Part of the initial thought was to write about—and as—Abdel Halim’s asmarani, hence all the poems where I pretend to be his girlfriend. Asmarani was this figure that was sung about but never talked about, which was shocking to me. Also, in the way that most love songs are abstracted so that it can be about anyone, there was never any concrete asmarani that people could point to that Abdel Halim was singing to. He seems to have a very tragic and fraught love life. I think he never married. As a result of that, he was, like, the national boyfriend, where everyone could plug themselves into the song, and he would be singing about them. I don’t know if the number has been officially documented, but it’s said that at least fourteen Egyptian women killed themselves on the day of his funeral because they were just so distraught. The book is my turn to imagine myself as his asmarani. One more imagining in a long lineage of pretending to be his girlfriend.
Rail: I was struck throughout the book by how you talk about language. There is a sense of disconnection and exile, but something more, a disconnection from your own voice, in a way.
Elhillo: I think a not-uncommon symptom of being a child of diaspora is the privilege and torture of bilingualism. I have access to the two worlds that the two different languages contain, but I’m also never going to be entirely fluent in either because part of me will always belong to the other one. It’s been the source of a lot of shame, feeling not fully of one of those worlds or the other. A new development in trying to exorcise some of that shame is accepting that there’s a third language that forms in the hybrid space between the two of them, and that language is my first language, my native language. What I was trying to do in these poems that have both English and Arabic text in them was just trying to render, as directly as possible, the way that language actually works in my head, or in situations where I’m most comfortable. My mother and I, or my brother and I, or my cousins and I, we speak in this combination of Arabic and English. Those are the only situations where I don’t feel like I’m translating one to another because the word comes out in whatever language it was thought in. A lot of these poems, at their conception, were trying to cut out this process of translation that I have to do all day, every day. I wasn’t trying to write in anyone’s language but my own. Or in any language but the one that I feel most comfortable in. Then there’s an added step because the Arabic that’s in the book, for the most part, is pretty formal Arabic, whereas the Arabic that I speak at home—all Arabic is regionalized, every country has its dialect; so, I speak Sudanese Arabic at home. But I never really learned to render Sudanese Arabic in writing. The extent of my Arabic education was in Modern Standard Arabic, which no one speaks. It’s like Shakespearean English in that people will understand what you’re saying, but you’ll kind of sound like an asshole because it’s not a way that anyone conversationally speaks.
Rail: You also talk in two very different ways about the past. You’re telling the history of Sudan, but how much of this is an attempt by you to tell your family history?
Elhillo: That was a big part of it. My family tells all these really wild stories very casually. No one was writing them down because it’s so casual. It was shocking to me, honestly, that no one had written this stuff down before. My maternal grandfather is a poet—and, you know, he did the right thing and went into finance instead—but he’s a poet. His sisters were also poets, but because of the age that they grew up in, his sisters didn’t learn how to read or write. So they would come up with poems and recite them to each other, but it was an entirely oral process. Then they died and their poems are gone. I feel in this access to literacy that I have—that my aunts didn’t— I’m another in a long line of containers for these stories, but now I have the tools to get these stories to outlive my body, to outlive the people who told me these stories. There’s that saying that when an old person dies, we lose a library. These stories, for the most part, are being told to me by people in my family who are not getting younger, and who, as they continue to live their lives, will start to forget a lot of the details. I’m just trying to make a record of the things that I’ve been told, before they forget and before I forget, and before we all die.
Rail: How do you think about constructing poems with spacing and line breaks and not using much punctuation?
Elhillo: Caesuras evolved into becoming the only punctuation that I like to use in a poem. Punctuation feels aggressive to me. A period is a mandatory stop, and a comma is a mandatory pause, whereas a caesura is more of a hesitation, and that feels truer to just the sonic environment I want to create around the poem. I don’t want to force anyone to pause or force anyone to stop, but there are these little pockets of breath that are there if you need them as you move through the poem. I like the suggestion of that instead of the instruction.
Rail: Are you trying to find a way to convey how it should sound or be read on the page with that?
Elhillo: Sometimes. They have the dual function of being like sheet music for me when I’m writing, telling me when to take a breath. Also they function visually for me—I don’t like to feel like I’ve used too many words, so they’ll often come up in a poem where I feel like I just need space.
Rail: You close the book with the line “i am most afraid of having nothing
/ to bring back so i never come home”.
Elhillo: I grew up hearing so much about this generation that left Sudan to go get foreign jobs and degrees and training to then bring these skills back home and “fix our country.” But people left and realized how much more comfortable life was outside [Sudan], and then the question became, why come back? There’s this middle class who went out into diaspora to, in theory, get training and come back to rebuild the country. They left a vacuum behind. Sudan, at some point, lost a whole demographic of people who were the ones who were supposed to come back and fix it. I think about this idea of leaving home to bring back more than we had to begin with. How much is enough for this big homecoming that everything has been hinging on? And just—staying away with the intention of amassing enough skills or wealth to then bring back home and improve the situation back home, and then just staying away forever because it’s never enough.
Rail: What has the experience of winning the Sillerman Prize and working with Kwame Dawes been like?
Elhillo: It’s been more than I even knew to want for myself, honestly. I was in Sudan visiting my grandparents when I got the call. My phone was off and I got an email from Kwame saying that he’d been trying to call and so I turned my phone back on and called Kwame. Very quickly, so as not to use up my roaming minutes, he told me that I won the prize and then hung up and left me to freak out with my family. [Laughs.] A lot of those poems I wrote while I was in school doing my MFA, but I took notes for what became a big chunk of the book while I was in Sudan for about three weeks with my grandparents. To be back at the conception site of the book and hear that it was going to become a book was unreal. Everyone cried. [Laughs.]
Rail: I hate asking what you’ve been doing lately, but the book has been out for months, and you won the Sillerman early last year. Has the experience of making the book changed the work you’ve been doing since?
Elhillo: Since the book has come out I’ve been on the road almost nonstop. I’ve been traveling and doing readings and workshops. In a lot of ways, it felt like I’d been working on this book, in one way or another, my whole life. As corny as that might sound. This book is the culmination of so much of the stuff I’d thought about and felt and experienced for like 25 years. And then I finished it. So I’ve been learning how to write poems again. For all the years that I was working on the book I never felt like I was writing in a vacuum because it was always part of some greater project, so there was always an existing prompt. Lately I’ve been tricking myself into thinking I have a prompt by experimenting with form. That takes some of the pressure off of me. First of all, it’s just fun in an exercise sense, but also, if I write a sonnet and it sucks, it’s because I don’t know how to write a sonnet, not because I don’t know how to write a poem.