“It’s an effort to map my own self”: A Conversation with Asiya Wadud and a Folio of Poems, curated by Henk Rossouw

Asiya Wadud is the author of the chapbook we, too, are but the fold. Her first book, Crosslight for Youngbird, is forthcoming from Nightboat Books later this year and other books will be out from Ugly Duckling Presse and Nightboat in 2019 and 2020, respectively. She lives in Brooklyn, New York, where she loves animals.

Henk Rossouw: You wrote A Well-Built Lean-To Un Appentis Bien Construit in Mexico City. How did the circumstances of the work’s composition–whether geographic, temporal, psychological, political, or anything else that comes to mind–shape the form-content of the work? Specifically, how does Mexico City, with its multiple languages, its public spaces, its pedestrian life, its precarious subsoil, its vast size, relate to your introductory note to the work? The note begins: “This project examines the sturdiness of empire and the insistence of mapping a colonial legacy onto a face”. Or, was Mexico City as the site of composition kind of unrelated to the work in a way that was freeing? There’s some delight for me that we’ll conduct most of this conversation while I’m home, as to me much of the work really resonates with South Africa, where a seemingly innocent but ultimately violent question recurs: Where are you from?

Asiya Wadud: Sometimes, I feel like weeks pass without me really looking at myself in the mirror. The distance is too close, the vantage too direct. But, when I do, I see my face and it’s usually different than I imagined or remembered it. There has been a persistent thread in my life, since I was little, which is the thread, as you described it, of a seemingly innocent question: “Where are you from?” I grew up right outside Washington, DC, and this question first trailed me there when I was small, maybe 7, and has trailed me in every country I’ve been to since. When I was small, this question was jarring and discordant in its tacit insistence and agreement that I wasn’t from where I was. I wondered, then: what about my face looks far away? What in my comportment is not of the Mason Dixon Line? My family has been in the United States for almost 200 years. Why is the lineage so faint in the face, or what are the markers of citizenship, nationality, and lineage?

When I was little, “Where are you from” was a persistent question, asked by different people. In the 1980s and 90s, there were sizable communities of Senegalese and Malian immigrants in the greater Washington, DC area. I felt comforted when people from Senegal and Mali would ask me this question — there was a sense of being enveloped into a wider fold —  but unsettled when Americans asked the same question.

I didn’t leave the United States until I was 20 years old, but throughout my childhood, had pen pals from all over the world: Johannesburg, Manila, Vienna, Seoul, Accra, Tokyo. These relationships settled me into a new, more expansive sense of home and helped me contend with the forced and implicit alienation of being rendered a stranger in my home country.

A Well-Built Lean-To | Un Appentis Bien Construit was borne out of a newer iteration of the question “Where are you from” that shadows my adulthood. It is a simple assumption that I am from [a] Francophone West Africa. Any country I go to, including my very own, French-speaking people approach me in French. This is “the mapping of a colonial legacy onto a face” that I write about in the Well-Built Lean-To introductory note. In Mexico City, a French couple, approached me in French, not for their lack of Spanish, but because there was an assumption that we shared a language. Sometimes this feels violent, like a nostalgia for empire and colony and other times, it feels more innocuous, like a simple desire to speak your language when far from home.

HR: Given the interaction with the French couple in Mexico City that you describe, can you tell us about the emergence in your own mind and writing practice of the compelling, innovative form of A Well-Built Lean-To? I mean both the mirror text in google-translated French and the tight lineation–and anything else that comes to mind. How did this form come about and did the form aid the writing?

AW: As far as the tight lineation, I was walking when I started constructing this poem. I was walking away from the French couple and towards a bookstore I like, close to the apartment where I was staying for the week. The lineation is meant to be propulsive, like walking, and also to show how a belief that one has, whether with merit or without, can have its own drive.

I’ve been re-thinking the Google-translated French, thinking about the intended reader of this portion of the project. The English, without question, is meant for any reader to read, but the badly translated, one-to-one, French that lacks nuance? I’m not sure in this moment. Is it actually meant to be read, and if so, is there a hierarchy in the English and the French? And if there is, how can I show that?

Originally, the idea of the Google-translated French was to use it to talk about a slapdash assumption, this idea of drawing a very quick conclusion based on little information. The manifestation of this idea is the Google-translated French text — something that takes a moment to translates but misses all the nuance. But, I’ve been thinking: who is the intended reader of the French text? Is it meant to be read at all? And if the answer is yes, then I may eventually re-consider the translation and its fidelity, and have it properly translated.

HR:And what about the title, A Well-Built Lean-To | Un Appentis Bien Construit? I love its resonance. To me, being from South Africa–a country in which corrugated iron, cardboard, unused sewer pipes, plastic sheets, an overhang on a rocky beach can often become the materials for resourceful forms of shelter–I immediately recognize the oxymoron of a “well-built lean-to”. An oxymoron in the sense that a lean-to that has taken creativity, skill, and thrift to construct might also be utterly temporary, and vulnerable to destruction. At the same time, this is quite a literal reading of the title. So, I’m wondering, especially in terms of the face, what are some of the resonances of–or thinking behind–the title for you?

AW: Before I switched to writing and teaching in 2016, I’d gone to grad school for city and regional planning and African Studies, focusing most of my work on slum upgrading in Nairobi. Alongside students from the University of Nairobi, our group of urban planning, architecture, engineering, and public health students worked on behalf of residents of the Mathare informal settlements in Nairobi to help formalize and identify their most urgent infrastructure priorities. This work was done with the knowledge that establishing something lasting could be dismantled at will, since, technically, the settlement was illegal.

As you note, with any temporary structure, it must be pliant enough to move under duress. And there is the assumption that it will be moved, since there is always an element of vulnerability and precariousness in informal structures. The structure has to be built well enough to do its job of sheltering from the elements, but by nature, it is not a permanent structure. It must be possible to disassemble the structure quickly, with little warning, since so often informal settlements are razed with very little notice.

With empire, it also must be well-built enough to uphold the structure and scaffold of power that allows an empire to persist. But, ultimately, an empire always falls. Once the empire falls, you can see how cheap the materials were. When an empire falls, nostalgia readily occupies the void. The space it fills is just as expansive as the empire itself. One of the most ready ways to see an empire, to see a state, is in the face of the people who are subjugated. So, in mapping a colonial language on to a face well after the end of colonization is a kind of persistent, violent, and disquieting nostalgia. In the case of the French couple in Mexico City, it’s also a nostalgia for an imagined past — imagined because I was never a French subject, but perhaps also a projection, for the couple, of what it would be like to subjugate someone. This is a more sinister reading, but maybe for the couple, they simply saw my face and thought me countryman. But, even so, implicit in countryman is the history of subjugation.

So, the title, A Well-Built Lean-To | Un Appentis Bien Construit refers to the persistence of empire and how once the empire is gone, people look for reminders and markers of the past — real or imagined— so that it continues to flourish.

HR: You have a surge of new books coming out. Exciting! Nightboat will publish your debut Crosslight for Youngbird in October, and next year Ugly Duckling Presse will bring out Syncope. From what I’ve read–and this is a tentative summary–your work is often concerned with forced migration, such as the perilous crossings of refugees across the Mediterranean, and ways in which poetry can speak to, if not of, the imposed violence of this experience, imposed by the spectator, the nation-state, the global economy. To me, A Well-Built Lean-To approaches these concerns from a new angle. Could you tell us more about the relation of the excerpt below from A Well-Built Lean-To to the rest of the text? And to your body of work as a whole?

AW: Yes! This project is quite different from my other work in that it interrogates these persistent themes I’ve been thinking about — forced migration, nation, home, and borders, but does it at a slant. For me, this project is the most personal and begins to draws a tentative lineage between my investment in these and why, personally, I might be interested. It’s an effort to map my own self in the ways that I map those I write about in my other projects.

A Folio of Poems by Asiya Wadud

Henk Rossouw’s book-length poem Xamissa won the Poets Out Loud Editor’s Prize and will come out from Fordham University Press in Fall 2018. Excerpts are included in the chapbook boxset New-Generation African Poets: Tano (African Poetry Book Fund/Akashic Books) and Best American Experimental Writing 2018 (Wesleyan University Press). From South Africa, Henk received his PhD from the University of Houston. He teaches creative writing at the University of Louisiana at Lafayette.