On this last episode, we look back on 23 years of joyous, difficult and always informative conversation.
A love letter to the diasporic communities she grew up in, Safia Elhillo’s debut young adult novel “Home is Not a Country” has been hailed as “nothing short of magic.”
Sudanese by way of D.C., Elhillo formerly coached the District’s youth slam poetry team. She joins us to talk about her latest work, and what it means to be caught between life in America and dreams of her homeland.
Produced by Julie Depenbrock
- Safia Elhillo Poet and Author, "Home is Not a Country"; @mafiasafia
KOJO NNAMDIYou're tuned in to The Kojo Nnamdi Show on WAMU 88.5, welcome. Later in the broadcast Composer Rob Kapilow joins us on Kojo For Kids, but first, a love letter to the diasporic community she grew up in, Safia Elhillo's debut young adult novel "Home is Not a Country" has been hailed as nothing short of magic. Sudanese by way of D.C., Elhillo formerly coached the District's youth slam poetry team. She joins us to talk about her laterst work and what it means to be caught between life in America and dreams of a homeland.
KOJO NNAMDISafia Elhillo is the award-winning author of "The January Children." Her first young adult novel written in verse is called, as we just mentioned, "Home is Not a Country." Safia, thank you so much for joining us.
SAFIA ELHILLOHi, Kojo. Thank you so much for having me.
NNAMDIAnd I should correct myself. It's Safia, not Sofia, Safia Elhillo, tell us about "Home is Not a Country." What made you want to write this novel?
ELHILLOSo I initially never even planned to write a novel. I had been a poet for years and intended to stay a poet until someone kicked me out. And I was having a conversation with Christopher Myers, who runs the imprint that publishes "Home is Not a Country" and he was just talking to me about all sorts of formal possibilities for making books for young people. And he said to me, have you ever considered writing a novel? And usually I am like so borders are permeable. Genre is not real. And in that moment I don't know when I got so conservative, but I was like, excuse me, sir. I am a poet. But thank you so much for thinking of me.
ELHILLOAnd, you know, he's very smart. He was very slick about it. He dropped that line of questioning. And he was like, anyway, tell me about some of your favorite books. And I immediately launch into talking about this book called "Autobiography of Red" by Anne Carson. And he hears me out and he lets me say my piece. And he was like, Cool. You know, that's a novel, right? It's a novel in verse -- this book that you think is your favorite collection of poems, which, you know, let me know that I had accidentally been studying this form for years. And it kind of demystified it for me. So it was very easy after that to convince me to sit down and try to write a novel.
NNAMDIIf you have questions or comments for Safia Elhillo, you can call us at 800-433-8850. Have you read or heard of her work? Give us a call. Are you a slam poet? Do you enjoy going to poetry slams? We'd love to hear from you 800-433-8850. Send us a tweet @kojoshow. Email to email@example.com or you can go to our website kojoshow.org. Join the conversation there. Safia, how much of this novel is autobiographical?
ELHILLOIt's barely autobiographical. I was really excited to get to make things up for once, which is not something I usually get to do in my regular poetry writing life, but I did let my characters borrow some details from my real life. So I grew up going to a Sudanese Sunday school. So I grew up in D.C. But this Sunday school was on Sundays at a middle school in Montgomery County that a bunch of parent volunteers would rent out. And then they would do their best -- you know, none of them were professional teachers or anything. But they just would do their best to teach all of us kids Arabic and, you know, vague things about culture. They tried really hard to teach us the Sudanese national anthem, but I still only know like barely the first two bars of it after all these years.
ELHILLOAnd I also was almost named Yasmeen. That was the name that my mom had picked out for me. And right before I was born, I think, I keep telling this story. I need to maybe fact check this with my mother. But as I remember it, right before I was born my dad's great aunt Safia died. And they were like, oh, we should like show respect and honor our new ancestor by naming the baby Safia. And so I too grew up obsessed with this alternate version of myself as ascribed to this other name that I could have had.
NNAMDIYou have been both a member and a coach for the D.C. slam poetry team. How did you first become interested in poetry and when did it become a passion for you?
ELHILLOSo I am by no means the only or first poet in my family. My maternal grandfather, (unintelligible), is a poet. My maternal aunt, (unintelligible), is a poet and a playwright and a filmmaker and, you know, was the first person I ever knew who had an MFA. So by the time I came around talking about I wanted to be a poet, they were like, oh, again. Okay, totally. But it took a while for me to get to it. I always had hobbies. I think I was a very creative kid, but nothing would stick. I would be really into drawing for two weeks and really into making jewelry for two weeks. And then I would drop it and go to something else.
ELHILLOAnd I started writing poetry like on sort of little bits of hotel stationery. My family used to travel a lot. So that no one would look at these notebooks and think that they had anything significant in them. So I was hiding my poems in plain sight by just kind of writing them on this nothing stationery.
ELHILLOAnd, you know, it was your usual fair. I was like 13, 14 so some boy had hurt my feelings or I had an unrequited crush or whatever. And then a friend of mine was also getting into writing poetry at the time and she invited me to come with her to the open mic at Busboys and Poets, which at the time was just the one location at 14th and B. And it was on Tuesdays nights. So after much convincing, because it was a school night, my mom let me go with my friends. And it was incredible.
NNAMDINo, no, no. She didn't just let you go with your friends. She said your whole family is coming. Okay.
ELHILLOWell, this was -- the first time she let me just go with my friend. And then when I was like, I want to go back. She was like, okay. Hold on. What is this place that you like keep going back to. We need to check this out for ourselves. So you can go by all means, but we're all coming with you. And by we all at that point it was my mom, my brother, my grandparents were living with us, my cousin, my aunt. So it was maybe like eight or nine of us total.
ELHILLOAnd this used to be like the place to be on Tuesday nights. Those tickets would sell out so quickly. And the poet Derrick Weston Brown used to work the door at the time. And so me and my whole family would show up week after week and be like, can we get nine tickets? And he'd be like, you need to come earlier if you want me to be able to seat all of you. You need to start coming earlier. So it took us maybe like a month and a half to be able to finally get in. And then my whole family would arrange themselves in the front row. And when I would go up to read, they would all be like studying what I was reading to make sure I wasn't doing anything that I wasn't supposed to be doing.
NNAMDIIt's amazing, an amazing experience. We're talking with Safia Elhillo. She is the award-winning author of "The January Children." We're talking today about her first young adult novel. It's written in verse and it's called "Home is Not a Country". You attended quite a few slam poetry nights at Busboys and Poets. What was that experience like?
ELHILLOWell, it was I think the reason the poetry thing stuck instead of all the other various creatives hobbies I'd had for two seconds at a time is I go to this open mic and I'm suddenly exposed to this world of these like incredible weirdos. And I felt like I'd found my people.
NNAMDIYou'd found a home.
ELHILLOI was like this is tribe. Exactly, I was like, do you mean to tell me that the only thing I need to do in order to continue to get invited back to this space that I want to be a part of is to just write some poems. I'll write 25 poems. I'll write thousands of poems. Just please keep letting me come back here and hang out with these people.
NNAMDIYou're not the only -- as you mentioned early, you're not the only poet in your family. What influence did your other poetic relatives have in your life?
ELHILLOSo with my grandfather, it's interesting because there's a bit of a language barrier in terms of being able to have a real relationship to his poetry. I speak conversational Sudanese Arabic. And he writes in like very heightened formal classical Arabic. So I experience the poems almost as like pieces of classical music or something. They don't really register to me as words to me. I just see them like, wow. This sounds really good, but you could be talking about your McDonald's order and I would not know.
ELHILLOBut it was really interesting because I'm the first person to work like full time professionally as a poet in my family. So my grandfather always had other day jobs. But it was really interesting to see how he was like regarded in his community and his friend groups as the poet, and how it was such an esteemed thing to be. I feel like here in the U.S., you know, I tell people I'm a poet and the first question I get is, okay, but what do you do for money? But I feel like in the culture that I grew up in poetry and poets are so esteemed that it's almost like a title that's bestowed on someone.
NNAMDIExactly right. I'm wondering though, if you might read a passage from "Home is Not a Country," a poem called "America."
ELHILLOYes, of course. "America. I got to have hearted Arabic classes each Sunday in a rented room at the middle school and bleeped (speaks foreign language) and agree with Haithem who sits behind me that this is like so boring. We never ask why our mothers had come here and could not let it go. Though I always begged for the same crumpled photograph stories of weddings that went on for weeks, cafes crowded with poets, gardens lush and humming with mosquitoes. We whispered to each other, "If it's so great there, then why don't we ever go back?" But I have always listened to the stories. And every day I long. At school I still do not speak. I wear the same fleece sweatshirt washed and rewashed.
ELHILLOThe girl who sits behind me in math came over once to work on a project, Told everyone after that it smelled like rice and dirty plants, wondered aloud if my mother was bald under the headscarf. In my silence I dressed myself in yellow and imagined a garden thick with date palms, a girl mouth open and fluent who knows where she is from.
NNAMDIThat was Safia Elhillo reading from her new book "Home is Not a Country." In about the minute or so we have left in this segment, Safia, who is Nima? And what struggle is she facing here?
ELHILLOSo Nima is my main character. And she grows up obsessed with the world that she could have been born into as imagined through the name that she could have had, which is Yasmeen. So in imagining this alternate version of herself she also vividly begins to paint this alternate version of her life for herself almost at the expense of the life that she is currently living.
NNAMDIIn what ways is Yasmeen different from Nima? We still have about 30 seconds.
ELHILLOSo she imagines her just as the all-around better version of herself. She is -- her posture is better. She looks taller. She's better groomed. Her Arabic is better. She has more social graces. She's better liked. She's better contextualized.
NNAMDIGot to take a short break. When we come back, we'll continue this conversation with Safia Elhillo. It's about her first young adult novel written in verse. It's called "Home is Not a Country." I'm Kojo Nnamdi.
NNAMDIWelcome back. We're talking with Poet and Writer Safia Elhillo about her first young adult novel written in verse. It's called "Home is Not a Country". And, Safia, Nima feels frustrated with not belonging to either world. How does she navigate this search for home?
ELHILLOSo the way that she kind of builds together this imagining of the alternate better homeland is through this obsession with all the old songs and the old films and old photographs of her parents in their youth at parties and dancing all this. And she ends up in the company of Yasmeen having to go back to that moment in time to this pivotal moment in which her mother decides which of the two names she will give her daughter. And in getting to see this world for herself, she gets to see that, yes, of course, it is beautiful. That part is true, but that's not the whole story. It's never the whole story about any place that all it is is just beautiful.
NNAMDII'm wondering if you might read two more passages from "Home is Not a Country." At the start of the book, you describe Nima's parents, her father, who is deceased and her mother who is on her own.
ELHILLOYeah. So this first poem is called Baba. "The photographs of my father are everywhere alone in a suit framed in the living room, seated with his afro full, tapped to the mirror of my mother's dresser. In the one on the coffee table she stares at awestruck at his bride, a passport picture in momma's wallet, a single furrow in his brow. I like the ones of him younger rounded and serious as a child. Dusty kneed as a teenager crowded with other boys around a ball before the car crash that took him from knowing me, before the father sized ache, before my mother all alone still crowding herself to one side of the bed saving his place, soft browns of the sepia photos making him impossibly far away.
ELHILLOAnd then this other poem, this other half of the diptych is called Mama. "In this photo my mother is alone, as I will come to know her. It is her wedding day back home, a lifetime right before mine, before the new country and the widowing and the worry lines stamped into her brow. Her eyelashes painted dark beneath a headdress of silver coins strung across her forehead and her hands floating up to fix the arch of her headscarf, soiled colored blooms of henna twisting from both elbows to each finger.
ELHILLOA different country, a different life, the henna since faded and the story hushed to memory, to old bits of song from oceans away. We are no longer back home. The headdress has been sold and my mother is alone, is at work, is rushed in her headscarf and blue jeans. And it hasn't been her wedding day in years. Her name Aisha means, she who lives, but mostly she goes to work and comes home tired and watches television. And sometimes in the televisions blue glow, her eyes make tears that do not fall. I keep this photograph in a tin box that once held butter biscuits long ago eaten by guests unimpressed with our spare American living."
NNAMDISafia Elhillo reading from debut young adult novel. It's called "Home is Not a Country." Here now is Salma in Ashburn, Virginia. Salma, you're on the air. Go ahead, please.
SALMAHi, Kojo. Thanks for taking my call. I just wanted to relate to your guest. I am the daughter of Egyptian immigrants. First generation American Egyptian and I feel like, you know, going back to your point about not fitting in. When, you know, growing up here in the U.S. I was almost not American enough. I do wear the headscarf and I visibly look like I'm different. And when I go back home to Egypt in the summers to visit extended family, I'm almost too American. So it's always this balancing act of, you know, trying to absorb both identities at the same time, and being true to oneself that it's okay to be more than one thing at the same time.
NNAMDISafia, is that the essence of what you mean by "Home is Not a Country?"
ELHILLOIt is. I think I am also the product of this kind of third in between hyphenated diasporic space. And I found such community with people who also occupy that third space. And I think from those people and from those communities I learned that home is not this fixed place that's determined by nation or geography. It's the thing that we make together with the people that we're accountable to.
NNAMDIThank you very much for your call, Salma. At the heart of this story is the mother-daughter relationship. Safia, how does that relationship progress throughout the novel?
ELHILLOSo we watch Nima at the beginning of the book almost -- her mother is almost overshadowed by the specter of her deceased father, who is perfect in Nima's eyes in the fact that she's never gotten to interact with him. And so she's never gotten to see him flawed in any way. And as the book progresses she kind of starts to get to know her mother as a whole person instead of just this like remaining parent in the absence of a father. She starts to get a sense of like her mother's desires and motivations and traumas and the fact that her mother has a rich inner life and ambitions.
ELHILLOI think even getting to go and see her mother address primarily by her real name, her first name Aisha instead of just as Mama, which is primarily how Nima knows her. I feel like that for me was such like a real growing up moment where I realized my mom's real name was not momma.
NNAMDIThat is funny. Tell us about Nima's best friend Haithem.
ELHILLOSo I know we're maybe not supposed to have favorite characters. But Haithem is my favorite character. He was just so much fun to write and he really was just such a bright spot in the midst of a story that had so much heaviness, but he's so like bubbling with humor and mischief. And he's just always like constantly in motion and making a joke and laughing. And I think he is the primary presence that kind of coxes Nima outside of herself and gets her to be in the world a little bit by spending time with him and engaging with him.
NNAMDIThe boundary between the spiritual world and the physical world is razor thin in this novel with elements of magical realism coming into play. What do you think is the significance of magical realism to people of the diaspora?
ELHILLOSo there's a Toni Morrison quote on magical realism, which, you know, it's long since been time for me to memorize this quote, because it sums up so much of what I believe. But I think it almost -- in the context of my culture at least, it almost doesn't bare delineating it as magical realism, because as you mentioned the boundary between the real world and the spirit world or the world of magic is so thin and basically nonexistent.
ELHILLOIn the household, in the culture that I grew up in people would talk so casually about spirits, about jinn, about magic that I almost didn't realize until later that this it's supposed to be something of a world that is not our world, because it just is so thoroughly incorporated in the world that I grew up in. So in making this book, it almost didn't occur to me until hearing it called that after the fact that I had written magical realism. I think I had just made a document that reflects my own relationship to like the barely existent boundary between the physical world and the spirit world.
NNAMDIYes. When you come from countries like ours, magical realism is a part of your realism. So anyway, what's next up for you?
ELHILLOI am currently trying and failing to finish my second collection of poems, which is called "Girls that Never Die," which was supposed to also come out this year, but as of this writing that book is not finished. It will not be out this year, but hopefully next year. And I'm also finishing a first draft of a second novel in verse with a little less magic in it this time. But whose protagonist is a poet. So I'm having fun writing a little bit more autobiography into that one. And I'm finishing my fellowship here at Stanford and starting to figure out what I want to be when I grow up after this.
NNAMDIWell, we know what you need to do when you grow up after this. You need to come back to Washington. That's what you need to do, because we're looking for you. We're expecting you, but good luck to you in your future endeavors.
ELHILLOThank you so much.
NNAMDISafia Elhillo is the award-winning author of "The January Children." We were discussing her first young adult novel written in verse for young adults. It's called "Home is Not a Country." We're going to take a short break. When we come back, Composer Rob Kapilow joins us on Kojo For Kids. I'm Kojo Nnamdi.
Most Recent Shows
Kojo talks with author Briana Thomas about her book “Black Broadway In Washington D.C.,” and the District’s rich Black history.
Poet, essayist and editor Kevin Young is the second director of the Smithsonian's National Museum of African American History and Culture. He joins Kojo to talk about his vision for the museum and how it can help us make sense of this moment in history.
Ms. Woodruff joins us to talk about her successful career in broadcasting, how the field of journalism has changed over the decades and why she chose to make D.C. home.