Always Becoming: An Interview with Ladan Osman

by    /  May 19, 2018  / Comments Off on Always Becoming: An Interview with Ladan Osman

Ladan Osman was born in Somalia and grew up in Columbus, Ohio. She earned a BA at Otterbein College and an MFA at the University of Texas at Austin’s Michener Center for Writers. Her chapbook, Ordinary Heaven, appears in Seven New Generation African Poets (Slapering Hol Press, 2014). Her full-length collection The Kitchen-Dweller’s Testimony (University of Nebraska Press, 2015) won the Sillerman First Book Prize. Her work has appeared in Apogee, The Normal School, Prairie Schooner, Transition Magazine, and Waxwing.

Osman has received fellowships from the Fine Arts Work Center, Cave Canem, and the Michener Center. She is a contributing editor at The Offing and lives in Chicago.

She spoke with Sampsonia Way in September 2017 as part of City of Asylum’s annual Jazz Poetry Month

I was wondering if you could start by talking about growing up in Columbus, in Ohio, with so many languages around, like East African and Somali, and what that experience was like for you?

Right. Growing up in Columbus— so much of that experience has informed my work and the way that I am in the world. Columbus is still very American, really Mid-Western, but it has this sense of being outside on a regular basis, and this greenness. There are just little bits of forest kind of all over the city. But, the landscape is complicated by organizations and the government routing of immigrants to very specific cities, across the U.S. so there will be a bunch of African or Asian immigrants that come together and it’s unclear sometimes how folks even ended up in Columbus. There is that experience of being “Somali-American,” I guess, would be the more proper label: that experience of growing up here, but then always having a “sense of home.” You have to think about your experience as different from folks who just came to the U.S., or who themselves have not been in Somalia for sometime, or were in a refugee camp in Kenya for example, for ten or more years, and then are just almost dropped into the U.S. My parents are both educators and very active members of our community and are very serious people, so you never lose track of the complexity of it. Everybody often has the same expectations because sometimes being known as someone from Columbus, it’s like– Oh there’s so many of you guys, so many Somali people there… Well alright, but then I think sometimes when we’re less sensitive, we don’t think about how it’s not something someone dreams about one day– Oh it’d be really great to just wake up in a country and not know how it is that I ended up there… and the language and the climate is unfamiliar, and the visual landscape is unfamiliar— and then to have to try and make it work when there are so many ways in which you feel unwelcome. It’s very good for human work to have to think about your relationship to relative privilege, and to your sense of home and community.

Can you talk a little bit about that experience linguistically? About the languages that you were surrounded by, growing up, and how that came into your work?

It was primarily Somali, and then there’s English of course. A lot of times kids… even when not in the country for too long, they just end up speaking English. What will happen a lot of the time is people speak English to their parents, and their parents speak whatever native language back. There was a period of time, especially when I was younger, when Columbus neighborhoods and the school system were more diverse, and you would hear Thai and Vietnamese and Spanish and English and Patois from various nations of the Black diaspora, and Somali, and Amharic.

We have so many ways of coming to language and to communicating, and English is so fluid; but then when you learn English from textbooks you have to have a very exact relationship to it because you are not automatically accepted as an “English speaker” or as an American. You recognize even more so how fluid English is, and who it is that’s allowed to contribute to the archive of language and change it, and who it is that’s allowed to make a mistake without comment, and which accents of English speaking are acceptable. It’s not even about being a stranger, it’s also class- which I don’t think we talk enough about anywhere, but definitely not in the U.S. There’s a way that you’re perceived even if your class is unknown, and then the language that you speak and the way that you speak the language, the tone of your voice, the way that you deliver language, your confidence in speaking, all of that gets wrapped up in a really strange way and identity and it’s so much harder when you falter with language or you’re not as comfortable. I remember earlier on in my life just not having a grasp on language because I was a kid and I didn’t know what I was doing and still needed to learn, but also from not feeling as confident with the English language. There was a clear shift before the time that I became a teenager of almost like dedicating more time and brain-power to a mastery of the English language so that I could write better in it, and succeed academically and not hold on so much to the Somali. Now I look back and think- Oh that’s actually really hard and really painful, was that the best choice to make? Is that a choice I could resist making?

What was the conversation within your family and your community about that choice, whether there was a deliberate moment, or it was just kind of a shift of a younger generation moving towards more English speaking? Was that something your parents commented on, or talked about?

Yeah they still do comment on it, because my parents speak Somali and other languages as well. I’ve heard my parents speaking Italian and various dialects of Arabic and that was very normal for me to hear the ways that they have been informed not only by their traveling, education, and world experiences but also by the impact of colonizers long term. Language is loose anyways, but there’s this difficult thing of never being “American” and never being Somali enough. It’s not even actually true that having a firm grasp on a language relieves you of anything.

It’s also really interesting because I know people whose families made a very serious effort and they were able to, if not return home, they would go to Somaliland or Hargeysa, and they would refresh the language and know different ways of speaking Somali. But, since where you’re primarily based impacts your identity, there’s a long conversation both specifically and community-wise around who “belongs.” Also, one thing that I really recently realized that is completely bizarre is the way that the language changes over time. If my parents haven’t lived primarily in Somalia, for what, like 20 years or something, the way that they speak Somali identifies them a little bit too as being from a specific place-but also from a specific time. They must feel stranger to various Somali people that are coming to the U.S. And, the way that we can’t use language in the U.S. to be separate, because your name or sometimes even your appearance can indicate tribe in a very tribal culture, and you know that has a very serious impact. So, there’s a way that conflict can disrupt that a little bit and that makes language more flexible. Everyone is thrown into it when you’re speaking a language that’s not your first language, and it’s not the one that’s most emotionally available to you.

I dream in English, I think in English, it’s a a good language, but you don’t ever really fully feel your second language, there’s something about it even after all this time. And then the primary language that you “feel,” you’re not as expert in, so you’re just in this ambiguous place which is great for poetry.

The language of your poetry is really beautiful in the particular shifts in language. I’m thinking particularly of the poem “Trouble” in which there’s all of these deliberate but not deliberate uses of English that could come across as mistakes or misspeak but tell this beautiful multi-layered story. There is so much of that in your poetry.

That was definitely one of the few places that I wanted to do an experiment in writing that was also a bit of a flex, like- I want to show you that I understand this language so well that I can play in it. It took a while to get there. I wouldn’t even say it’s confidence, it was a kind of curiosity and a will to try that I don’t maintain at all times. Even when I was in grad school, this feeling unwelcome to English, or people assuming that you don’t know what you’re doing, or that you don’t read well is really fascinating to me. When people make assumptions about other people it’s like- Wow, you must not have been surprised by other humans enough in your life! It’s very hard to predict what people are like or what they’re gonna be up to. I wanted to also show respect to people who are trying to articulate in a language that is maybe primarily not theirs, and then the difficulty of trying to articulate psychically and emotionally. How do you put that on a paper? That feeling, and that discomfort?

But some of it was just graffiti, a slur like the line “such and such people will…” it was supposed to say, I guess, “burn in hell” but it said “born in hell,” and that’s actually a lot scarier than the correct usage. So I thought- What can I make from that?

Yeah, absolutely. And you teach as well, can you talk about teaching this language to English learners, and what that experience was like for you?

One thing that’s interesting about teaching, especially at the college level, is the immediate suspicion that some students will have, or the tone that’s in the room for about the first twenty minutes in the first class. Sometimes it’s gendered, sometimes it’s appearance based, it’s maybe ageism, it’s inscrutability, like- Well what is this person doing here? and Can this person really be an authority? Having to demonstrate that you’re supposed to be there, and are in fact capable of eliciting refined thoughts and deeper responses to artwork; identity becomes a part of a quiet conversation in teaching. But also, the students bring so much to you and the vulnerability that’s needed to be a good teacher is very instructive for writing, and I learned so much by reading, and listening carefully, and by making errors. It is a bit surreal to teach a grammar exercise as a refresher in, say, a freshman composition class. It’s extremely weird for me, but the place that has always felt like home and the place that I could return to is stories. The stories are in English, and that’s the language that I have the most facility in. That was also always a real pleasure to get at that, and to not focus so much on how to articulate but that we can articulate and there’s so much pleasure in that. Naturally, students do begin to write better and then their grammar and everything does improve, and that has helped me to know where I struggled in my youth.

I sound like an American for the most part and people don’t understand like the lag in language sometimes. I don’t understand idioms or colloquialisms sometimes, or the manner of American joking, or the way that people are passive aggressive- all of that is a language too, and I still don’t “get it,” right away sometimes. So it’s a matter of trying to navigate all those things that will come up in the weirdest ways when teaching.

Right. Turning to talking a bit about the book- the word testimony is in the title, and you talk a lot about testimony and about witness and the sort of exercise of being the one to write things down. How do you think about that duty and that responsibility? Do you worry about getting the “right story” when you’re witnessing these things that other people you know aren’t talking about?

That’s a really good question. I think I feel more of a responsibility to do good human work, to write the thing that’s hard for me to write, and to express to the greatest ability that I can, and to take that task really seriously. But, because so much of my work is not autobiographical or “real” in that way, I think I feel very free to explore what I need to explore, and to let various figures be allegorical. But it still lands in real life things. I think in prose, I can feel a different kind of fear and responsibility because there are so many other writers, and there’s so much richness, and the internet has given us so much to look at. At the same time, I have been able to quietly work and do other things, because there’s all these other people that write very explicitly into these subjects, and do performance work; they publish, they do collaborative works to very high degrees of success, and that does relieve a lot of pressure to do things in the way that I know how to do them. That’s worth more than ambiguity. I’m not ambivalent, but I’m really comfortable with ambiguity or at least I aim to be.

I was curious about your experience as someone who is writing about the lives, particularly of women, who are kind of relegated to these spaces, who are kitchen dwellers. What do you think your relationship with that kind of womanhood is? Especially now, being someone who has gone to college, and tours the country speaking and reading- how you see yourself in relation to that community of women? What has the response from that community been to you, and what is that position like?

These are questions I’ve never been asked before, so I really appreciate them. I think I’ve always had a pretty positive relationship to domesticity, but I also don’t have a good relationship to evaluation, and to ranking, and to certain kind of like “power-grabbing.” So much of what sexism, racism, and all these thinking problems, are rooted in is a measurement somewhere: “this is less than this thing.” It’s like, is the world really like that? I mean we can make it like that, and there’s certain very powerful and seemingly immersive structures that use this kind of thinking, but when you look at it actually, or conceptually, it doesn’t make a lot of sense. It never makes a lot of sense, but in the outside world, there’s this discomfort and the disdain for certain ways of living. I know that I didn’t completely fit into that, because I never aspired to be a certain kind of woman, or to just be a certain kind of partner to someone. That can take you out of the story about gender, and the story of womanhood, and so I actually feel out of place, socially, very often. What if I am made to reveal what I actually think about things, or that I don’t have clear thoughts about them? I’m just kind of open. I think things have gotten easier with conversations about lifestyle, and various ways of being queer and entering queerness. I think that whether you identify as straight or queer, it’s better for everyone because it gets rid of these walls and these binaries, and this thing or the other thing. That has developed into adulthood- at first it did not feel very accessible and I understood that I had to be very quiet about certain things. There’s the tension of liking the kitchen, having a very sensual attraction to food, and enjoying the cultivation of safe and comfortable space that has been very fragmented and weird for me my entire life. But then, I think the reception for my work has been really good across the board. To a degree I’m like- Is this something going on here? because I’ve not dealt with probing questions and things, but not really any criticism or people expressing unhappiness, or even any real critique to be honest (whether it’s with young people or older people, people who identify as women or as men or who do not identify gender wise). I think I’ve been a little more surprised by where men have been interested in the work and have identified with it, because I was thinking so much about women and the life of women and what is expected of women. I was like- Oh okay. Well, that’s a nice surprise. But I think I feel odd sometimes because of the things that some of the women in my family and of a different generation, have to pass through, and the ways that they have to suffer and still suffer. I think about that everyday because it’s so obvious, and it’s so much a part of my regular family life. I’ve been very grateful that I have not been perceived as being really distant. I have not been told that it seemed like I was saying one thing is better than the other, or that I think I’m above a certain lifestyle, because of the work that I do or because of my education. Because what I actually think and feel is that when it comes to these questions, my answer is, “Well I don’t really know, I’m just trying to figure it out.”

I think in the book, there are a lot of undertones of pain and violence. But the women are crafted as these incredibly strong people, so to look down on them in any way after reading it, I don’t think, or I would hope, is not possible after reading the poetry.

So many of the poems in the book are sort of spoken in ambiguous voices, all those voices that are heard around and through these characters move through the book, and through the poetry. Thinking about witness and testimony alongside of that, I was curious about your process of trying to represent and embody certain voices, while also telling your own story and your own experience. Do you see those things as separate, or do you see your own experience and all these voices merging together?

I think the things definitely meld together. I have been pretty reticent to talk about my own life, or reveal autobiographical information, and I think some of that is just– it’s the strangeness of being open and willing to accept the exchange. But, at the same time, there are times that I can be extremely– it’s not, like shy is not the right word– but private and skittish. (laughs) I don’t really know what that’s about. It seems like something to hide behind. But what I’m doing right now at this moment and what’s unfinished– that is closer and is the most vulnerable is the most exciting– so I have to recognize that I did the best that I could at the time that I was doing other work.

I am interested in what we learn ambiently. When I speak to people, it’s very animated and I probably talk too much, but the rest of the time I’m almost completely silent and can spend days or weeks in a row primarily in that mode. A lot of what I experience is from other people, and I’m very interested in those things: what I hear off the street, what I hear in exchanges. A lot of strangers just talk to me, and especially if people ask what you do and they find out you’re a writer, then they tell you all these things. I do feel very responsible for those stories, and there are some cases where it’s explicitly biographical and I cite the person because I ask them if it’s okay to cite them and reveal their information, but sometimes they’re like, No write about it but say my name is this (or don’t). As far as storytelling events in some essays, I explore that, but haven’t done that as much in poetry. Poetry has been more of a space of developing things philosophically and cinematically and with emotional tone in the way that I feel music can. I want my poetry to do that, because I don’t have musical ability in that sense. I think it feels selfish sometimes, like you didn’t give something to your readers, or people come to watch readings without having a sense of what you are like. There can be a major discord. I was just talking about that with Damon [Young, of Very Smart Brothas] upstairs, he’s like “Your work is heavy but then you’re just so different in person and in the way that you speak or joke. What do you think about that?”

I would like to be more available, especially to younger people, because I was always looking for people to help me or give me information when I was younger. Sometimes you just have to look to the TV, or to books or to magazines or something. I didn’t really get the kind of information that I needed and that’s why I needed to write. It’s like, Well I have to write the book that I need to read. But that can be exceedingly lonely, and I don’t know that enough people talk about the way that all our lives are lonely. We don’t have to make it something special because it’s art, or I’m an artist. No, I think the things that we’re doing, the way that we’re making an attempt to understand our human life, that’s an extremely lonely pursuit. You’re always becoming, or trying to become, and no one can help you with that. You just have to do it. So, I would like to be more open about things because I know especially some younger people have struggled– and then, some people assume things in the absence of giving information, which not a lot of writers are doing now. There’s all these amazing personal essays, people are very personal on Instagram, or whatever, and people assume that things are easy.

For example, a fair amount of readers assume that things are very easy for me or that I’ve had a certain kind of life which is not accurate. I feel really bad because maybe I have information that’s useful for people. What is it like to be an artist who didn’t come from money, who is in a precarious financial situation? I think a lot of times people can become discouraged, and in the absence of a story, they invent something that is really nice and looks powerful and is successful. They don’t know that actually, I did this reading with a negative bank account balance, and I was in a foreign country and that was really scary, or I only ate grits for these last couple weeks, and like my muscles are tired and– it’s just not human weakness to experience that. It’s just the situation that you’re in, and you may be in for some time, and it’s a hard reality to look at.

What it does it take to make the work when you’re not okay, sometimes emotionally. There’s all this stuff that I just had to Google, even in the last couple of years, like How do I…? Why am I not giving that to readers or to the people who are coming to the work for information? How can I do that in a way that satisfies me artistically and mentally? And it might be that poetry is not the medium for that. Maybe it’s in photography, maybe it’s in prose writing, maybe it’s in collaborative efforts. That’s something that I have to keep thinking about.

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