Armed with Words: Moroccan Poet Rachida Madani
“For a woman, just the act of writing or speaking in public is a political act.”
The Moroccan writer Rachida Madani is often described as a “lifelong political activist” who resists social inequality, the patriarchy, and censorship with her words. While her small stature and quiet voice seem to contradict this powerful description, after spending a few hours with her at the Carnegie Museums of Pittsburgh, I realized that beneath her demure exterior was a steely core. Madani is the author of three poetry collections, including the recently translated Tales of a Severed Head, which was a PEN American Center Poetry in Translation Award Finalist in 2013.
On April 22, 2014 Madani came to City of Asylum Pittsburgh to read from Tales of a Severed Head. During the reading she was accompanied by Amun Raqs, a Pittsburgh-based Egyptian Surf Cabaret band. After the reading, she spoke with Sampsonia Way about language, womanhood, and reinventing Scheherazade.
Tales of a Severed Head was shortlisted for the 2013 Poetry in Translation Award. What does it mean for you to have your work available in English?
It is a pleasure to see my poetry translated into English. Translation allows my work to cross frontiers and brings my voice to a larger readership. This is important because my ideas and concerns are universal. My poetry is about sisterhood and solidarity with all women, wherever they are.
How do you feel about literary awards and contests? Is your opinion of your own work changed when it’s nominated for an award?
The nomination is flattering, but it doesn’t change anything. Writing comes from a powerful voice deep within me, a voice without concessions. When I’m writing, I’m sharing that voice, not competing with anybody. I’m definitely not interested in competitions. I even suspect that receiving an award might stop my creativity.
How did Moroccan culture, and the many different cultures it contains, influence you as a writer?
When Morocco was divided into Spanish and French protectorates, Tangier was a melting pot of cultures, religions, and languages. All of that is still reflected in the diverse languages that are spoken in my city; readers of my poems and my novel can surely detect that.
You came of age during Les Années de Plomb. How did this influence your writing?
During those years of political persecution in Morocco I needed to express my anger and rebellion against an unfair system. Writing became a duty to share the collective memory of those unjust years so that they could be inscribed in history and never forgotten. I bear witness to this terrible era of Moroccan history in my poetry, whether it’s through themes, tempo, or in the subversive discourse that I use.
Political persecution, social injustices, and women’s conditions forcibly forged my political awareness. Yet, I never adhere to any political party or movement because I refuse ready-made doctrines.
You’ve been described as a “life-long political militant” who fights with words. What do you fight against?
When people describe me as a “militant” or an “activist” I smile because I have a specific definition of activism. For me activism is a full-time, life-long political engagement for an idea or ideology. I’m not that. I see myself as poet armed with words to bear witness and revolt against injustice, social inequality, women’s conditions in a patriarchal society, men’s superiority complex, despotism, and a lack of freedom of expression.
As a woman writer, do you feel you have additional responsibilities as compared to a male writer?
I refuse to see myself just as woman writer with specific feminine duties and claims. Female and male writers are navigating on the same ship, with the same direction and goals. I’ve never had any problems being a woman writer, and I don’t think that other female writers in Morocco face gender problems.
You describe Tales of a Severed Head as being an “effervescence of consciousness amongst Moroccan women which had been there long before the Arab Spring.” Why was it important to express this consciousness?
For a woman, just the act of writing or speaking in public is a political act. For a long time Woman was confined to a role of procreation and marriage, and nothing else. Expressing Herself through writing is reclaiming a role that was long confiscated from Her. This act is a means of liberation, an arm of defense. Putting words to Her pain and status are ways to overcome Her dramatic conditions and be in charge of Her destiny. Being aware of Her conditions, bearing witness, denouncing injustice, conceiving Herself in another way, changing things—all this can be the purpose of all poets, but certainly myself.
Why did you choose to reinvent Scheherazade as the voice for Tales of a Severed Head?
Sheherazade is an activist and feminist. In One Thousand and One Nights Sheherazade is a crafty woman who tells never-ending fairy tales to her husband to stop him from killing more women. She relies on tricks and manipulation to change these women’s fate. However, ultimately, it’s a poor and pitiful example of a militant. I wanted to rehabilitate her, so I gave her the words of a true militant who does not fear confrontation and who calls on other women to combat injustice.
Why is French the best medium for your writing? Is there a political motivation for choosing French?
French is not my mother tongue. For me it’s the language of the colonizer, so I wouldn’t adopt it politically. The reality is that I started reading in French from an early age, when things permeate your inner being and are impregnated forever. I internalized French, and it became my language.
Language is a raw material, like clay for a sculptor. It doesn’t matter where it comes from, it matters what you do with it.
Why not write in Darija?
Darija doesn’t have the same subtlety, so it doesn’t seduce me as a medium to work with. Darija is a dialect, a mixture of Arabic, Berbère, and all other languages that are spoken in the country. It varies a lot from region to region, so which variety of Darija would I use, and what could I do with it?
If you are talking about reaching more of the Moroccan readership, you have to bear in mind that Berber is also spoken in Morocco and varies from region to region. The only language that unifies Morocco is classical Arabic, but that’s only learned in school. It’s not my native language, and it’s not really used in everyday communication. While it is a very beautiful language for poetry, it’s awkward when I use it, as I didn’t receive enough education on it. I believe that when you want to express yourself as writer, the best language reveals itself to you; you can’t choose it.