Books In Conversation
Exiles of Eden
LADAN OSMAN with Alex Dueben
Ladan OsmanExiles of Eden
Coffee House Press, 2019
Ladan Osman’s first book was the prize-winning manuscript The Kitchen Dweller’s Testimony, and her second book, the just-released Exiles of Eden is a different book in many ways. There are many ideas and themes which connect the two books. Both are deeply personal books that center around large ideas and concerns. Osman’s new book is about Adam and Eve and the idea of exile as something embedded within all people, refugees and the destruction of landscape. She addresses these larger issues alongside smaller, more personal ones, and perhaps most striking—is sometimes laugh out loud funny. It’s an impressive second book and Osman spoke to me from her home in Brooklyn.
Alex Dueben (Rail): The Kitchen Dwellers Testimony was an award winning manuscript. How do you start thinking about a second book or pulling together poems into something cohesive afterwards? What came next?
Ladan Osman: The reason why Exiles of Eden deals with a lot of imagery of bewilderment and why there’s this return to the Adam and Eve story is that I felt so much outside myself. There are things that I didn’t think about very carefully in terms of releasing a book – and I didn’t know to even think about them. I anticipated that I would continue to do teaching artist work, but then a bunch of teaching contracts fell through. We all know the adjunct hustle. When that stuff started to fall through, the only way that I could make money was to do readings. That’s a blessing, but it hardly matches my personality. All that energy went into the second book. I don’t know that I was thinking about another project as much as I knew that there was a shift inside myself. Before even Kitchen Dwellers was out I had written “Parable for Refugees” and “Landscape Genocide.” I was meditating from a more rooted place about various histories, how geographies are so subjective and how it speaks to us and what does it mean to feel distant from myself, distant from homeland. It wasn’t until right before I submitted the manuscript to Erika Stevens at Coffee House that I could see that I was making a project and one that made sense.
I had pretty good training in my MFA. I just have a very intense memory of Brigit [Pegeen Kelly] who was my main mentor and the book is dedicated to her. She had a lack of concern for me in terms of making decisions based on money or what we can loosely call power. I felt very free to write. People think there’s more freedom in being a freelancer, but things were so precarious. At the same time, nobody was really monitoring me. I had really great mentors who said, don’t worry about criticism, it’s okay to keep on in the way you’re going and whatever is supposed to open for you will open for you. You can’t apply that all the time to month to month bills or even where you’re going to live or what you have to do with your material body, but that helped sustain me when I didn’t have those material things. Then when I did have those material things and a sense of comfort, but not maybe a sense of validation or clear direction, let me just be comfortable with bewilderment. I was hearing, you’re lost, you’re not taking advantage of the things being given to you, you’re supposed to use your book to leverage yourself and to advance your life. I didn’t know that a book was supposed to be like a business card. I think that that kind of pressure can be really devastating if you’re not careful. I don’t know that worrying about analytics and promotion is super conducive to writing poetry. [laughs] I would do readings sometimes where I would ask nobody to record or even take photos, and read things that I didn’t intend on publishing for years. That was a really exciting way to come into the second book because I felt really free to experiment.
Rail: That’s interesting because I felt like this was a more personal book than your first book, but it felt like you needed to carve out a new space to find a way to write a personal book.
Osman: There are some things that are personal, but I think my responsibility as a poet is to approach realness more in the sense of tone or atmosphere or the realness that it welcomes in others. It is personal in the sense that I have experienced various kinds of heartbreak and there are very real things that I consider inside my identity that affect my daily life, but at the same time this speaker feels more mature than me, more present, more willing to accept what’s at hand. I really struggle to say what I feel about something. I have to really roll it around it my mouth and wait to have a couple of dreams about it to be able to articulate what it is that I’m experiencing. I was a young divorcee and people were like, don’t mention that. There’s a sense of that being shameful. There’s a sense of wanting to be fully inside my body and that’s not just sexual or erotic, but sensual. That’s something that is really policed for a lot of people, but definitely for women, for people who are femme and non-binary. I can just speak for myself as a woman and as a black woman who I guess generally appears to people as foreign.
The realest thing in the book is the preoccupation with landscape and climate change. Things that are maybe disguised as love poems or parables are sometimes a reaction to the destruction that we’re causing—which is not beautiful. I’m not very interested in ruins in that way. I’m interested in history and heritage but not ruins. So where physical heat appears, what the ocean is doing, how weather or landscape can just come upon a speaker—that’s probably the closest to my emotional register.
Rail: When I say personal I don’t mean that you’re the “I” in every poem, but there are feelings and ideas that recur which seem important.
Osman: I admire the speakers. The things that they are asking me to write about and the way that I resist that actively. Do we need that narrative? Do I like that image? Why is this the next stanza? If I were not learning and disrupting myself then I would become suspicious, but at the same time, my speakers are more true and more present and more indestructible than I am. You keep reaching for something that eludes you. Here’s this voice that I don’t know, yet is trying to introduce itself to me. I have to give this poem months of tries to write down what that voice wants. By the end, the way that I know it’s not me entirely is that I find myself improved. I wrote Refusing Eurydice and was more a capable human. It was a gift to me. My job is to try to get my ego out of the way and do the work without worrying what other people will think or what I can get from something in order to share this thing that has definitely offered me some good—and maybe can offer others some good. That good is sometimes disruptive. That good sometimes comes with a lot of questions.
The last year that I was writing the book there were times where it felt like the particles that make me up wanted to escape each other. Not that I wanted to escape myself or this life, but the matter that I was made of was coming apart in a way that I couldn’t describe in logic, in language. When I look back on it now, it was how I didn’t want to be in this place where all I was thinking about was survival. I think that’s different from being inside of a depression, in a specific way, or a struggle with suicide even. It was more I’m in survival and I can barely understand it and I long to be just living. I long to be in a place where I can imagine thriving.
Rail: Sympathy for Eve ends: “We are not a biological imperative / we were joined by the impulse for story” and so much of your work is a rejection of narrative and the demand to bend and simplify events and feelings into a structure. I see that in both your essays and poems.
Osman: When I heard the story of Adam and Eve I was like, come again? I have been thinking of it since I was a child. What does it mean to be the first ever? To be always considering words and not have anything to check yourself against? You have no lineage. I think that so much of this world tries to cut those ties for various oppressed groups of people. I think it’s really really important to dwell on the story of Adam and Eve not because of a religious question, but it’s so commonly accepted as a human story. As you can tell, I take things super-literally because we have to be able to go into the story and eat parts of the story and dwell in it. I think that’s part of the reason why the language of parables are so beautiful and why reading religious texts was so important to me, because there are people who believe this to be an actual fact and I’m super curious what they think about this history.
What is it like to be the parents of the first murderer? And the parents of the first slain? That’s ridiculous. How could anybody stand that pressure? If that’s supposed to be our human root, what a melancholy we carry within ourselves from that confusion. The confusion that there’s not even real help and you have to pass through it yourself. If you understand it as just a story, there were people who were to some degree, first. There are so many firsts that we have to experience in our individual lives. What does it mean to be ejected from home if home is described as a beautiful garden and you can never go back? What does it mean to be ejected from paradise and do you carry that memory with you on earth? The common interpretation is that this was terrible and they disgraced themselves, but it seems to be an incredible gift. You have this curiosity, so go into this realm with your curiosity with your preparedness to name things and everything is going to be new.
As one who was raised outside of my home country, it’s not that I can’t go home, but I could never be the person who was raised in Somalia. I could never be the person who experienced my homeland outside of the situation that kept me from being raised there, which was the civil war. I don’t want to discount the experiences of people who chose to stay or who could not leave and for the people who are internally displaced, but I can never be the person who walked through those choices. I could never be one of the adults who chose whether to leave or to stay. There was so much that was given to me and at the same time, there’s a part of me that has been taken away and that lack is irrevocable. I don’t know that the language exists—it probably does, outside of English. It’s not disorientation, but you’re always looking over there.
I wanted to think about what are the parables that might be comforting for someone who experiences some kind of exile. How can I make something that is beautiful for people who have walked through these things, or know people who have. It’s so much the essence of the human story and I think that any serious poem is approaching that. I think about Adam and Eve and that whole story and what kind of civilization are we. How can we help to be at a loss for the things not only that are happening but for the things that we’ve done? Can we ever face that? Humans have killed animals that don’t exist on this planet anymore. In the book Coming Through Slaughter there’s a reference to “landscape homicide.” So much of the human project seems to be about landscape genocide. At the same time, I’m using wifi, I’m throwing out mad plastic shit. I feel like I’m careening through the world and I don’t entirely know what I’m doing, but I also have a sense of optimism. If we really could hold the gravity of this inside ourselves, it’s very hard for me to believe that any of us could continue to act in these ways. That’s what I feel like sometimes is the work of art. Which is a huge goal, but we see that art accomplishes it all the time which is why it’s so inspiring and important.
Rail: You have written this series of essays, Alien Citizen Field Notes and you have a line, “homeland lives in a future.” I feel like the essays and your poetry are very connected to these ideas and concerns.
Osman: I didn’t know how to do anymore what I needed to do in poetry and was becoming frustrated with myself. I had the opportunity to travel to Niger. If you look at the election cycle, it used to be that people would try to show that they were a good person and trustworthy and show images of themselves as wholesome and create a myth of themselves that makes them worthy of leadership. The picture that was being painted this time was if you’re contentious, if you’re disruptive, if you’re aggressive, if you violate other humans – that’s what makes you worthy of leadership. Instead of masking that in policy and aggressions, it became everyday rhetoric. Not micro-aggressions or a general feeling of discomfort, but loud and cartoonish and relentless. That impacts people’s daily lives. How hard it’s going to be for some of us to just take the train or walk around or show up for work or to travel domestically or internationally.
I had to stop and look at how do I understand my citizenship? How do I understand a lack of welcome I may experience, even as a citizen? How do I understand my participation in these systems, however unwilling they are? They are a truth I have to locate inside myself. I’m not waiting for a sign to help me understand them. I’m taking prose and imagery and processing that in real time and sharing that with a reader. I feel a responsibility to at least attempt to do that, even if some of it is oblique. I don’t excuse myself from the responsibilities that I may have within a diaspora and my relative privilege. I understood in the last year and a half that I had to do more work with photo essays because when I visited Lagos and Istanbul and Dirkou and the different protests that were happening in the last couple years in the US, photography was the only way to start to get at everything that was inscrutable. I asked people for permission to take their portraits or more often they would indicate that they would like me to take their portrait. Even if that’s not my inclination, now I’m in an exchange with a fellow human being. That became a really interesting conversation, too and was one way to know that I was welcome and capable of participating in a human story even if I didn’t know what I was going to do with all that content.
You can’t just do nothing. Also sometimes I was observing how the journalists were doing work and how the NGO was behaving and how the politicians were behaving, but then people who were migrating who were returning home or considering how to go on in their journey were saying, hey, write this down, this is my story. Now I have a responsibility to speak to that context. A lot of that is through language and some of it is vague. It’s the knowing look, especially among women. How many ways will I see women—especially black women—lock eyes, going: “Do you see this?” If I have the opportunity to speak to that, it’s almost like I’m doing that with the reader, having that exchange and attempting to make it more legible. If you’re not supposed to be somewhere—if you’re not behaving like a police officer or military person or a journalist or a typical photographer—and you’re just moving through space and asking permission as you do things, people seem to be more comfortable being vulnerable. I think also the strangeness of being a black African woman making photographs and appearing in some of these places is surprising sometimes. People are willing to say things that they might not normally say. And they’re willing to pose for photos that maybe they wouldn’t normally take. The number of times that people have cried right after a portrait. There’s so much going on that it will take me years to catch up.
Rail: Exile and loneliness and displacement of a sort that can’t be blamed on one thing or traced to a narrative. In Refusing Eurydice, you argue that we have to craft our own ritual and myth to get through.
Osman: And that it’s okay to be searching for that. You can be dissatisfied with the myths that are available to you, and not have something to put in its place. I feel that only in places that are commercial or only in places that can commodify human experiences or only in places that are irreverent and have no respect for the sacred would there be this idea that something always has to be filled in. I think that’s slowly driving people to despair. Or maybe not slowly, but makes a lasting, damaging imprint. To say you’re nothing, you’re not welcome—and then to suggest that if you don’t have a model to disrupt, that if you’re not powerful enough to break this system, then it’s like you’re doubly nothing. There’s something strange about that poem because five or six people solicited it but when it got to the editing stage and was slated to appear, every time it’s fallen through. Like it’s not meant to be published outside of the book. Which could make a person wonder, maybe something is wrong with this poem?
Rail: I said before you dislike narrative and Refusing Eurydice sums up so many of these ideas in the book and try to find a way forward, but it doesn’t wrap anything up because these concerns cannot be solved or wrapped up easily.
Osman: Right. Because the whole thing is disruptive. If you somehow survive these pressures and abuses, even that is treated as suspicious. You didn’t succumb to this? No, I’m still here. You can feel sometimes like a superhero. Some of that is inside the conversation of black girl magic, for example. It’s easy to fetishize this survival and consequent thriving of people. That deserves to be celebrated, but there can be something really treacherous in that. There is something in the mainstream that is sneering a little bit at people’s will to do more than just be.
There is some resistance of narrative, but I resist the narrative that’s ascribed to someone like me – a writer who has my personal, political, and bodily identity, where my limits are supposed to be intellectually and otherwise. I’ve been treated my whole life by authority figures I don’t get to ask questions, to keep my head down. If one can find a place in this dastardly system, that’s pretty good. Well, what if my makeup is that I can’t be pleased by that? The story that has been created for me is so incredibly stupid that I can’t take any serious time grappling with it. I can’t sit here and explain to someone why I should be treated as a human or why #MeToo is important. By the time you get done explaining yourself and explaining your conditioning and explaining how you survived your conditioning, there’s no living left. I’ve always been in a hurry to be a powerful elder. How do I get to a place where I have a knowing look in my eye and I take the things around me seriously? I want to teach and mentor but still be open to learning and have the humility to say, I don’t know too much, I just know that I’ve tried my best. How do I get there now instead of getting caught up in some kind of stupid Twitter argument?
Rail: One reason I think I called the book personal is that for all the ideas and issues, it always connects to the personal and there’s this sense of humor throughout the book. For all the brutality and honesty, you made me laugh out loud.
Osman: Thank you! Folks do not notice that. I’m not funny enough I guess.
There are so many jokes that are embedded in the poems. I think people get it when I’m reading. A book can be long term experience. Maybe you’re not feeling the book the first time you picked it up, and my hope is that a reader would want to come back to it. That the experience they have if they read the whole thing two years later is different from the first time, and if they come back to it twenty years later it will mean something else then. The only way to do that is to place little gifts. But I also feel like I’ve become more humorless. How do we keep our hearts from calcifying? I think humor resists. I mask my personality when it comes to humor. There are very few people in my life who know that my default is to consistently tell jokes and listen to jokes and be silly. I don’t actually know what that’s about.