Interview with writer, translator, and PhD student, Samantha Kostmayer Sulaiman. Sept. 8, 2017
Jacinta White (JW): Samantha, thank you for taking the time to share with us today. I’ve been impressed with your commitment to poetry as a way of, what I consider, “building community.” Tell us, however, in your words what you’re doing with the Syrian poetry project.
Samantha Kostmayer Sulaiman (SKS): It is an honor to participate in a forum devoted to engaging this most enriching nexus of art and ‘community building’ and all the possibilities contained therein; thank you so much for inviting me. Almost ten years ago, I began to collaborate with small group of wonderful Syrian poets to help translate their work and bring these treasures from the Arabic language to the English reader. It became a creative confluence of aesthetic and political riches, whereby I was surely the greatest beneficiary. I was motivated to engage these very fine contemporary works in part to broaden the accessibility to beauty in a broken world, but also to nuance the global conversations being had about Arabic culture, religion, the East, etc. Syria is now part of the collective consciousness because of the horrors and the humanitarian crisis unfolding over these six plus harrowing years. But Syria is much more than the contours of the conflict and the limits imposed by Western discourse; it is a vibrant, stunning, surprising, diverse, complicated and contradictory tapestry containing millennia of history, a history continuously infused with the power of poetry, with the commitment to verse, with beauty and art in all its known and unknown manifestations. I am not a historian of the region, nor have I lived there long enough to speak to its breadth, its mayhem or its majesty, but since no society going back to antiquity can be summarized succinctly, it falls partly on the poets, those embedded in language and place, image and idea, to reveal and unravel, to conceal and reimagine what is hitherto fore unknown, perhaps even to them. I am not romantic about poetry as a singular salve, but I tend to see great poets as historians of sorts, as purveyors of broad truths wrapped in secrets and sitting ever so lightly in the embrace of language. In my desire to help transport these fragments of a cultural context across the bridge of language, meaning, and meter, I was gifted a gorgeous access that were it not for the generosity and patience of the poets with whom I collaborated, I would have been denied.
JW: You are poetic. Tell us more about how you see language and poetics?
SKS: I have no real training in the literary arts so for me poetics becomes predominately a matter of intuition and instinct. In my own writing, it’s a constant experiment and one that becomes the very source of my narrative exploration. My fiction is often about language, its limits, its constituent elements, its grand significance or lack thereof. I am long working on a short story collection about the letters of the Arabic alphabet. Each character has so generously offered me the opportunity to reimagine how letters, words, sentences, structures, and meanings form a multiplicity of entanglements that, when well orchestrated, might move us, infuriate us, change or open our minds. The poetics of this endeavor begins for me in the space where the very architecture of language opens up crevices to travel between the abstract and the tangible. These anthropomorphized or objectified or symbolic letters hold for me in their new narrative shape a way to negotiate both the power and the whimsy of how, in poetry and prose, ideas become nestled in, confined by, or strangled with the elastic structure of language. In my work as a translator, I rely on the poet’s intent, meaning and music as much as possible. Then they trust me to make certain strategic poetic and linguistic choices that I so hope honor their art in my language. Translations are never duplicates. Therein lies the gorgeous opportunity to offer yet another (not entirely the same) beacon of art
JW: Isn't this the great gift of art and creativity? The unexpectedness of what we learn? Can you share some of what you've learned about yourself?
SKS: Absolutely, there are few things more potent than the way creativity nudges us to see the hitherto fore unseen and possibly imagine the unimaginable. As someone who tries to seriously grapple with ideas of emancipation and engages various philosophical and political theories, it is often art that invites me to newer ground, to richer soil, and to deeper insight. So often art conveys what must most be said but has not yet been heard. One seminal discovery for me was how much more the pen or the keyboard are then just conduits, tools or implements. Something happens in the transport of the idea that assertively yet unintentionally changes the destination and I am left relying on the process of production as much as on the process of reflection. In my own writing, I often have a fairly concrete idea of what I hope to explore, the idea I need to unravel; but I am not aware of the tone or style or voice until it starts crawling across the page trying desperately to introduce itself. I would never go so far as to say I have yet crafted a recognizable or even relevant voice or style but that each of the ideas upon which I fixate in narrative form don a very specific wardrobe unrevealed even to me until scribbling, scrawling, or tapping begins. In this tension, I am the (sometimes resentful) recipient of a call from the work in my head to make it to the page where it is no longer quite so naked in its timidity or chilly absent its form.
JW: Why is this work important? Particularly in today’s political climate?
SKS: This work is important to me for two seminal reasons, each spawning more reasons. First, the more I learn about the global machinations and reifications of contemporary political projects, programs and possibilities, the more I look to the gifts and voyages offered by artists in times of strife. And I cannot think of a time in human history devoid of strife, of deep pain and profound loss, of pernicious hierarchies and cruel erasures. In the context of my own obsessions, poetry unfolds in myriad ways both for the poet and for the reader. Writers need to write; creators need to create. Each time that inspired ideas are formed and cradled in evocative images nestled in a scaffold of words designed to convey some semblance of meaning, the poet is breathing, and art and thus beauty are alive. Readers access those breaths to better breathe themselves, to locate in stanzas and phrases and lines a deeper access to thought, to reflection, to other worlds and to their own. The writer is in a unique yet surreptitious conversation unencumbered by time and space with each of their readers. The mystery that unfolds in each of those interlocutions is part of a personal but also political fabric; it affects how we conceive the world, how we look to and for art to convey what politics and science has thus far failed to convey. The work is important because the poet must exhale in order to draw another breath. Second, working with gifted Syrian poets at a juncture of profound and poisonous political ignorance surrounding their country is important for what insight it can offer, for what rich context and generous nuance is embedded in the works. Translation, to my mind, is both an aesthetic and a political endeavor, one rife with potential to revitalize moribund thinking and reanimate inspiring visions. Much of the West, for all its navel gazing and self-adulation, is woefully ignorant about cultures and traditions which have been historically boundaried off, arbitrarily and violently conceived as ‘other’ by several centuries of Eurocentric arrogance and malignant logics. The poetry of Syria or Nigeria or Cambodia is much more likely to offer insight and critical perspective than the mainstream media or postulating politicians. We are bereft of subtleties; the tastes and sounds of any given region, the vernacular, the local humor, the fragrance, the forgotten and the remembered are all made manifest in the bounty of each culture’s creative expression. Every time any of us reads and seriously considers works from other countries, from other languages, from other social and political contexts, we are made less ignorant, less beholden to static stereotypes, less sheltered, and less dangerously insular.
JW: Yes. Very insightful. Do you believe writing (and performing) is a way of healing?
SKS: This is a very layered question for me as my faith in creative engagement for healing both individual and collective trauma has grown exponentially as I have witnessed its potency and potential. I confess to once having been a rigid materialist and not understanding so many of the ways in which ideas that shape our realities are often embedded in creative craft. I am not sure the impact can always be quantified but I know the power of creative intervention cannot be underestimated. The Black Arts Movement is, to my mind, a potent example. White supremacy is obviously not gone and has not even abated, but creative energy, empowerment and pride communicated via artistic expression offer profound spaces of solace, solidarity and recognition. Healing is a difficult entity to disaggregate but there is empirical evidence that exposure to music and art that reckons with the experiences and aspirations of the oppressed, the violated, and the forsaken has tangible benefits and offers the fire of inspiration and invites critical reflection. The healing capacity of art is two-fold and then synergistic. No doubt that the creation of art is a health necessity for the artist, it’s a balm, a release, an intervention, a form of therapy that while self-administered is collectively experienced. That touches on the second layer of healing which is for the recipient, the interlocutor, the reader, the audience - in short, the world. We who offer honest attention to art are so often touched in ways that are otherwise less accessible and remain mysteriously unknowable. We are marked by new images, other ways, fresh ideas and thus changed, altered by the kaleidoscopic scope of art. And as anyone who creates knows, we are, in part, all we have ever read and heard and seen by those whose creative footsteps we cross to head to our very own destination. Healing is a form of imagining a distance or recovery from trauma and imagination itself is a form of creation.
JW: I love how you weave together imagination and creativity. You can't have one without the other. We try to give space to those across the globe -- artists and readers -- to do just that: imagine, create, heal. Our theme this quarter is “Remember.” In your own writing, how do you bring in memory? How important is this to you?
SKS: This is a critical and complex query and one, that for me generates more questions than answers. When confronted with the power of memory, I am forced to ask what it is specifically and how faithful it must be to facts or truths or history. Remembering strikes me as the more creative and sublime sibling of knowing or thinking through the past, a non-linear unspatialized past.
JW: Ah, yes, you are a philosopher.
SKS: Well, it makes me wonder, are memories only from the past? Is it not possible to remember what might happen? Isn’t literature a space for remembering what can and will happen woven into what may have actually happened? Afro-futurism has lots to offer here. I am not convinced memory is a product of our direct experiences; we have collective memories and imposed memories and made up memories perhaps more true than any ‘real’ remembrance. In my own work, I rely on remembering in a variety of ways. First, my dreams often inform my creative writing. Did I correctly remember that dream or does it suffice that I think I did and thus feel inspired? Senses often evoke memories for me; a scent, for example. But how evoking that fragrance migrates through my memories to produce some literary reflection remains mysterious to me. I have, for example a short story generated by a smell I could only locate in a history not my own; I wrote another piece based on an image I think I remember from my dream. I cannot trace the precise lineage from the moment of memory to the piece it inspires but herein lies the web of remembrance which locates the sensation in some past as formative to a creation in some future. That said, I believe there is no way to dispense with remembering as critical to our writing both thematically and stylistically. We are reliant to some extent on what we ‘remember’ of our craft and our growth. Forgetting too is a form of remembering insofar as it creates a hitherto fore unavailable space to flourish absent its former resident. As artists and thinkers we make and remake memory to craft a future, a narrative, a burning idea, a beacon.
JW: You've given me a different perspective and something I want to think about more. You’re involved with a number of projects. The Syrian poetry is just one, but you're also a writer and in a PhD program. How do you manage life as a writer and scholar?
SKS: I so envy those who manage to somehow integrate their various praxes and make even the most academic of endeavors creative and innovative. I am still in the early research phase of my dissertation and that involves very close readings and textual analysis of the works in my field. I realize how much translation has helped me to more closely engage and interrogate texts in which word choices are so critical for constructing meaning and situating context. My scholarly work is deeply indebted to the poetics of meaning, and despite being located in a particular historical reflection on contested notions of subjectivity and sovereignty during the trans-Atlantic slave trade, almost all of the theorists and analysts upon whom I rely come out of literature and philosophy, two fields richly engaged with the imagination. My greatest debt and appreciation goes to Black radical studies generally for all its scholarly and creative bounty and specifically for all the ways that imagining, theorizing, and conceptualizing emancipation is centered and entwined in a host of political and creative projects. I read futurity and radically alternate worlds and social relations primarily through the generous lens of African diasporic/Pan-African history and philosophy and then bring that scrutiny and passion to bear when reading and translating poetry. I am deeply grateful that I have a creative practice (my own writing and translation collaborations) as well as a scholarly commitment. The former is the nourishment I so need to keep my imagination nimble, while the latter keeps me accountable and engaged in what I hope will be a humble albeit meaningful contribution to the long march of discourse designed to dismantle this world and offer up a much freer one, freedom here conceived politically, socially and creatively. I have yet to form the requisite balance between these two commitments but it is perhaps that tension that makes me long for both in such measure that I am never satisfied and always yearning.
JW: Samantha, your time and words have stirred something within me and I'm sure our readers. Thank you! The conversation is just beginning.
SKS: Thank you, Jacinta. See you soon.