Interview with Suheir Hammad

8 June 2006

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Palestinian poet Suheir Hammad.

Suheir Hammad’s work has appeared in over a dozen anthologies and numerous publications. Her own books are ZaatarDiva, Born Palestinian, Born Black and Drops of This Story. Suheir has won several awards for her writing, including the Audre Lorde Poetry Award, The Morris Center for Healing Award, a Van Lier Fellowship, and a SisterFire Award. She is co-writer and original cast member in the Tony-award winning Russell Simmons Presents Def Poetry Jam on Broadway. Her play, Blood Trinity, was produced at the New York Hip Hop Theatre Festival. She is from Brooklyn by way of Palestine. Suheir Hammad’s latest book of poems, ZAATAR DIVA, is available from Cypher Books.

I had a chance to talk with this amazing woman on the 15th of May (Al Nakba) about families, poetry, and Sam Cooke.

Christopher Brown: You and I are both displaced people. Our families’ land was stolen from them. In your poetry we often see a theme of reclaiming what is ours. Can you talk more about this?

Suheir Hammad: Well, I think that poetry tries to make a connection between the absences and the losses that I feel in my person, and make the connection to the body feeling detached or feeling displaced, and the reality of land and shelter and the idea of the continuity of citizenship and the idea of ancestry. I think reclaiming is an ambitious agenda - if you’re beginning to write a poem, will you actually be reclaiming the rights to a land or a nation and other rights to citizenship? So I think the work succeeds more when it’s about illuminating this detachment. I think when I was in my 20s, there was definitely this sense which was needed, and everyone should have it, of figuring out what to reclaim and how to reclaim it. And we do this with language. We do this with words that aren’t necessarily good for us but we reclaim and give them power in a different way. When I talk about Israel, I talk about 1948 Palestine. So it’s in this sense not of denying the reality in front of me, but using the language in a way that fits my perspective more and my worldview more. But I think it does come back to, in the poetry, what do we feel in our bodies when we are displaced people? What do we feel in our bodies about the future when we know what has happened to our ancestors in the past? So it’s really important for me to make this connection between the earth that is beneath our feet and the sky that we imagine above us.

CB: When one reads your poetry it could be very easy to fall into the trap that the politics engages the art when in fact, the art engages the politics. You have a way of exposing your readers to a world many of them might not have known existed. Is this something you yourself feel is being communicated?

SH: Yes, I think because the US doesn’t recognize Palestinians as proper refugees. The idea that politically the Palestinians are not considered refugees in America meant that the dominant narrative that I received as a child in public education completely cancelled out the narrative my parents told me at home. And so this idea that my parents gave me this entire history of displacement and the refugee crisis around the world … then I would go to school in Brooklyn and not only would this narrative not exist, the narrative that was put in place was the opposite of it - the idea that the Palestinians were inherently violent and that they were inherently anti-Jewish. And so for me, growing up, with Puerto Rican, Black and poor White kids, I realized at a very early age that what I was hearing about their people, and their history from the same narrative, the same authoritative voice, was probably as inaccurate as the information about my own parents. So, once I realized that authority had benefited from a particular storyline and all these stories were happening simultaneously parallel to it, then I became interested in the other stories. Like the shadows, the shadow of what they tell us is actually happening. I guess people are born poets in a certain way, so I automatically took language to be my tool. That was the tool that I was going to use to illuminate the shadow areas and give voice to the voiceless. And again, it’s quite an ambitious idea that you could represent in a poem or in a body of work, the idea of displacement or the idea of oppression. Because that’s all it will be in the poem on a page - an idea. It won’t actually be hunger; it won’t be the army at your door, but it will be a representation of it, in the face of all these false representations of our lives.

CB: In your most recent book of poetry ZAATAR DIVA there is a poem that I particularly love, “DADDY’S SONG,” that takes me back to the time of Sam Cooke and his ballad “A CHANGE GONNA COME.” Could you talk more about this poem and your relationship with your father and Sam’s musical impact on your relationship with your dad?

SH: The poem is very literal. When we watched the film MALCOLM X at home, my father sat in his chair during the film and there was no sobbing, no theatrics. But I turned to look at him in the middle of this scene, where Sam Cooke’s song played, and he was crying. Sam Cooke somehow got to the Third World, because he was so fine, and he had that voice. So, the developing world welcomed his vice into their homes. So when my father came to the US, a young father of three in 1979, with my mother who was pregnant with their fourth child, he was familiar with Sam Cooke. I would hear him talk about Sam Cooke, and he was coming with this idea of America; then he was put up against Disco music that was coming out of the stores and cars and then eventually rap music which followed not much later after that. So, for him, Sam Cooke represented his version of America. I think music in general has played a very healing part of my life. Sometimes it’s human voices, which I guess it is as primal as it can be, and sometimes it’s the vibration of the saxophone or the drum. And I wanted to make a connection between not just Sam Cooke’s tragic life and my father’s life and Malcolm X’s life and my own life, but I wanted to make the connection to the generational pull of music. Sam Cooke, who came from absolutely nothing - like my father came from - and wrote all these other songs like CUPID, SHE WAS ONLY 16 and all these kinds of bop songs, and through all of it created an anthem for people all around the world. I wanted to remember everyone involved in the making of that moment in my life.

CB: Recently a controversy erupted at Brandeis University regarding 17 paintings by Palestinian youth depicting life under Israeli occupation. After four days on display, the paintings were taken down after several students complained to the administration. University officials said they would be willing to show the exhibit again if paintings showing an Israeli perspective were placed alongside them. Could you speak about this controversy and the greater issue of censorship?

SH: I don’t know enough about that particular exhibition and the statements that they put out on their decisions. But I think it is part of a continuum of what happens to any Palestinian narrative that does not complement Zionist ideology. It is questioned and often suppressed and often undermined. So I think, again, it is part of a larger sense of these voices coming out of the shadows saying: “This is our perspective.” So many times you read a poem about 1948, or you read a poem about 1967, and in New York there is this constant need for balance and this constant need to appear fair. It’s an interesting American goal that we have. We are told that we are FOX News, that we are fair and balanced: therefore any story that we tell has both of these sides. When the reality is that there are never two sides. This is part of our linear thinking. That there is a beginning and end, a left and a right. And I decided not to live my life that way, to try and not live my life by that sort of paradigm of time and perspective. And if one begins to see time in a different way and begins to see perspective in a different way, then you realize that you can pick up the story at any point. In the dialogue, at any point, you can shift your perspective, and say: “Let me look at it from this way.” And it’s interesting when people say that we need a Jewish voice to counter this or we need an Israeli voice to counter this, when I have found in my own personal life that when that has been brought up to me, it’s generally, what they were looking for was a Zionist militancy to “balance it out.” They did this without realizing that for someone like me - who reads different news, not necessarily only for-profit mainstream news, but news from the grassroots and news from independent sources - for me the balance isn’t there to begin with. So the idea of illuminating Palestinian lives, or giving voice to Palestinian oppression is trying to write what is not a “balanced” picture at all for the American public generally, or in the academic world or the art world.

You know if you are Palestinian, you are no longer a poet unless you are completely apathetic or apolitical. Then, suddenly, you are a pure artist. And I don’t have to follow those definitions because the artists that I love were always engaged in their societies, and you don’t always have to romanticize where your parents come from or the language that they speak or the traditions that they hold. You don’t have to romanticize all of it in order to be able to reflect it. You can stand outside of traditional Palestinian culture and say this is what I disagree with, you know, these traditions and these ways of thinking. At the same time, I can stand up and say: “No matter what else is going on, occupation is wrong, land theft is wrong, the privatization of water, which is happening all over the world, is wrong.” I think what is actually most unsettling to people is when the theft of Palestinian land and the theft of Palestinian civil rights is connected to Venezuela, when it is connected to South Africa, when it’s connected to what is happening in Chiapas. to people all around the world. Yes, Palestine is at the center of The New York Times, for good or for bad, but we’re not really getting the information. In New York we have an art exhibit, “Made in Palestine,” that a committee of artists and activists in New York City had to find a gallery space to rent and to create a gallery for this traveling exhibit, because no private galleries would host it in New York City. This is the contemporary, modern, or post-modern artwork from the Diaspora population, and I think in the entire exhibit there is one Palestinian flag. So there is one piece of work that is considered a nationalist piece of art. There are pillowcases from prison, and the artist, a Palestinian prisoner, painted on the pillowcases, and in some of the paintings there was a flag - so then it automatically becomes “political art” without the context of prisons, without the context of occupation, or 1948. I think it’s really important as artists to not only find the spaces where we can come into our own aesthetic and our own vision. Your own aesthetic, your own evolution as an artist to have room in social engagement are very important - but I think it’s important for us to make those spaces for other artists as well. It may be for artwork that isn’t my aesthetic, or maybe for a political perspective that isn’t one I share. But I know that it is important to have the room to breathe and to evolve.

CB: Recently, Will Smith, Sharon Stone, Madonna, and Jim Carrey have visited Israel. It seems that Ziggy Marley, rapper 50 Cent, and The Black Eyed Peas are planning concerts there. Do you feel artists should boycott performing in Israel due to the current situation as artists did in South Africa in the 80’s?

SH: It’s a long-standing conversation in the academic world, whether socially progressive academics and scholars should visit Israeli universities or give lectures there. I have followed that conversation for a few years and I always feel that, as an artist, there are so many reasons I make any given decision about my public life, and so I’m always really wary of judging from the outside why someone would choose to go to any of these nations, not just Israel. You know, if someone chooses to go to Australia, you know I spent a week there and I never met an aboriginal person, except in a museum. Literally, in a museum, and she was blonde. So for me, my responsibility if I’m visiting a nation is to say, who is not represented here? And sometimes that comes down to class, especially the artistic traveling class has all this privilege - I travel with my work and I’ve been able to go to places that I never dreamed that I could go with my work. And so my personal responsibility once I get there is to do the research about the entire range of perspectives. I had a conversation a few years ago with Harry Belafonte and he told me that he was one of a group of people that had been invited by Golda Meir to Israel in the early days. And he went, and for him the idea of a socialist experiment on the Kibbutzim, and what the people thought would be an Israeli constitution at time, which they still don’t have, was really exciting. And, of course, having lived in the West through the European holocaust there was definitely a sense of redemption for him, I think, in going there and sharing his talent and sharing his vision. So that was a really important thing for me to learn from him. This is why he went. Now, I could have automatically shut down and said; “You should have never have gone. You should have known better.” But he didn’t know better and, when he did know better, he made different decisions.

I think that all the people you mentioned are really commercially successful. So, at the end of the day, what are the decisions that they make about their careers in America? Are they going to places in America where people can’t afford stadium tickets? Are they doing workshops in prisons? Do they have a foundation set up that actually sponsors radical change? I think all of those things come into play. So I think for me, someone like Will Smith, with all due respect, I don’t know what his track record in political activism is here. I wouldn’t expect him to go to Palestine and suddenly have an epiphany about the world, and land rights and water rights. Having said all that, it really hurts me that people have not come around and had a “Sun City” type of boycott. This idea that we are not going to play these venues because we know that these venues give money directly to the occupation, or we are not going to play for this organization because this organization in the past has never stood up for a peace settlement. I think about this all the time because I get letters from Haifa and Tel Aviv University of young people, Israelis, who are doing their dissertations on my work and who want to interview me, and each time it’s a decision I have to make. I have to weigh where I am politically and where I’m at in my career and if I really believe that this conversation will help. And, you know, another thing is, that as angry and as frustrated I get, I hope that music will change peoples hearts. So, I don’t know - maybe what Israeli youth needs is the Black Eyed Peas to come sing; “WHERE IS THE LOVE?” I try to be optimistic in that vein. At the same time I think, me personally, would I do a big reading, if I got paid from an Israeli audience? The opportunities have not been as appealing to me as they might be in the future. It’s a hard call. I think one thing we have to do is hold people accountable, but yet not condemn them. Because if you condemn them the conversation stops.

CB: You often write about the similarities of people of color in relation to the power structure. One might say you derive this from a Black Consciousness perspective, a shared philosophy of suffering that unites all people of color under the same oppressive yoke. Is this something you have tried to create - to have all people of color united, understanding that we all have a common bond with each other through our struggles?

SH: Yes, absolutely! I think all of us (People of color) live under White male supremacy. So that means, if you are a woman or man of color, you are at a disadvantage under White male supremacy. There is definitely a cap. There is definitely a roof for your participation in the dominant narrative, for your participation in the rule making of the world. So you think of India, and bleaching creams in India; you think of Kenya and bleaching creams - all around the world, or you think of White women starlets here in America in Hollywood and people who are on magazines all the time and how they too are living under this aesthetic of a perceived White beauty. Even within their own cultures there is a new idea of a certain body type, a certain created face as a beauty ideal - creating faces on White women now that are not natural to White women and then telling White women, this is what you look like. The Black Nationalist Movement, the Power To The People Movements, plural, all made these connections. African Nationalism, Arab Nationalism, the indigenous movements in South and Central America which were crushed by our government all made the connection, it came back to land. So the idea was that, look if I’m a peasant farmer in Mexico and I don’t have any control over owning my land, the growth of my land, or how I see what comes out of my land, or make money of the things that come off my land, I can make that connection without reading any book and without having a political view on any one of the ethnic conflicts around the world. I can make the connection with me and a Palestinian farmer whose olive trees are razed, or an American farmer in Nebraska who can no longer save seeds because the big pesticide companies say that seeds can no longer be saved. I think that connection is already there. One of the things that happens - it has happened with the work of June Jordan and Audre Lorde - the criticism that would be thrown upon them is: “The world is not that connected.” There are these huge differences and there is a reactionary part of nationalism, of course, which says “no one suffers like my people suffer.” That is what Angela Davis calls “the oppression Olympics” - “No one has been through this history. No one knows how I feel.” The gap that I’m trying to fill isn’t whether or not we are connected, because people understand this connection no matter the language that addresses the culture we are talking about, but the sense that the differences are okay and should be celebrated. And that ultimately, the differences don’t matter when it comes to putting food on your child’s plate or the kind of education that will be available to them. People have a hard time and we tend to feel isolated in our victimhood - that’s the idea of victimhood, right? No one else understands and no one else can help you.

There are definitely central themes in my work because of the people in my life. Haiti is often on my mind because of what it represents to me as someone in the Western hemisphere, not just as a Palestinian but also as someone who lives here understanding the history of Haiti’s struggles, and Haiti’s revolution, in the world. That connection isn’t far-reaching for me - it’s in this hemisphere, and I look around in this hemisphere and say: “Okay, Palestine is over there, South Africa is over there, I can’t necessarily see and feel this every day of my life. So, what is here? What is closest to me?” You see again the displacement, the disenfranchisement, all around you. And I think the other thing that silences and suppresses our evolution of our political and aesthetic thoughts is the fear of not knowing what you’re talking about. The vast majority of contemporary poets that I know, my friends, don’t read enough. They don’t read enough in their own study of the craft of other poets. The idea that they would read a non-fiction book on the Iraq war that is happening now, or a book on the history of trade between India and Egypt is a lot to ask for from contemporary Americans. We just don’t read enough. Period. And I include myself in that, you know there are many more things I need to read before I write about something. I think some times we censor ourselves because we don’t really know what the reality is of a situation and that’s pretty dangerous. The information is available and you can just ask. And it’s okay to make a mistake, and that’s the other thing. It’s okay to stand up for something you believe in and if you’re a little misguided or you’re a little naive, the next time you’ll make a better decision. But we’re afraid to make political mistakes.

CB: Finally Suheir, May 15th is Al Nakba (The Catastrophe). You recently traveled to Egypt and continually go to Palestine, Jordan and other parts of the Middle East. How do you see the current situation, not only in Palestine but also in the Middle East in general and the future for that region?

SH: There is a larger collective view which is very bleak. It is indeed bleak. And part of the reason it is bleak, in the Middle East and throughout the world, is because of the bleakness we are facing here in America - the reality of the power of American dollars and foreign aid and the WTO and IMF. The reality of how those dollars and agendas affect the everyday lives of the working poor and the disenfranchised is overwhelming. You think, well ,I’m taking my books of poems and some CDs and these people are facing a government that has been in power for 40 years. Or they’re facing the best-trained and equipped army in the region. So I am a realist in that sense that this is a huge machine that we are up against and we may lose in the sense that we may lose this round of it. Because, again, life is a continuum. But with that reality exists all these pockets of resistance all around the world. And again, it’s people who are making the connection to their local situation as well as connections around the world. Again, it’s usually women who are the most radical and the most progressive and who are saying, across class and national lines, that we don’t want our children to go off to war. We don’t want to have to deal with these damaged soldiers when they come back. We don’t have the resources to deal with this. We don’t have the resources to create a better future for our children, or even a future that they envision their own selves. We’re so far off the mark when it comes to protecting our planet, being aware of the plundering of our resources. We are so far off the mark there that there is so much work to be done, yet there are collectives all over the world - not just of women, but predominately women - who are saying that we will no longer divide ourselves between body and land. We will no longer divide ourselves between the private and the public sector. We will no longer divide ourselves between what we can and what we cannot talk about. That is happening all over the world. It’s happening in America which is probably the most pivotal place it can happen. We have this conversation with our friends all the time. Our civil liberties here are being chipped away. So many people are being monitored - their personal and public lives are being monitored and you feel like: Where do I go? Where do I go to fully live and fully realize? Do I go to an ashram? Do I go sit in the hills and smoke reefer all day? What is it I do?

I keep coming back to the idea that you have to stay here, you have to talk to American people who are just like me who were raised just like me, or not, who speak a similar English, or not, but the thing that we have in common is or tax dollars. And that is where our shared responsibility is - how this government spends these shared tax dollars, where they go, who uses them, who benefits from them. It’s really important for me to stay as long as I possibly can, living the majority of my time in America trying to get American citizens to make the connections we so often don’t make. And you know for me, that conversation now begins with New Orleans and the horror that happened after Hurricane Katrina, what we witnessed on television, what CNN correspondents went down and viewed and grassroots activists from all over the country saw. When I talk to people - not just in America, but anywhere, I say: “Well how many Americas do you think exist?” When you read in the literary newspapers, The New York Times, the Washington Post, this conversation over and over again about how America is hated, you know we have to refine that conversation and ask, what characteristics and what consistently is it that people resent in the world. While there has been an imperialist continuum in American history, there’s also been Paul Robeson, and that’s the thing that we have to keep reminding ourselves - we are part of a continuum of resistance. And thank God for Howard Zinn’s books, for Noam Chomsky, for all the scholars who aren’t necessarily making a political agenda, but who are saying, don’t forget these voices, the ones that created the weekend, that created the unions, that have always been against intervention, that have always been against imperialism. That’s part of the America that I want to nurture. And I think that if we do that here, then everyone in the world, every child in the world, will benefit if American children are socially engaged and literate, and healthy. The reality is that American children are not these things. And so I think we have a lot of work to do, but there are pockets of resistance. That is where you find your breath. That is where you find your oxygen and then you go back out into the world with this puffed up chest and you try to exhale light and try to create.

Christopher Brown is a grassroots radical journalist who lives in Arizona. He continues to stand along Palestinians as they struggle for self-determination. He has absolutely no ability to write poetry, but he can make a wood sculpture like nobody’s business.

Related Links

  • “A Prayer Band:” Palestinian poet Suheir Hammad on Hurricane Katrina, Suheir Hammad (13 September 2005)