Magazine article World Literature Today

"My Poetry Has Two Lives, like Any Exile": A Conversation with Dunya Mikhail

Magazine article World Literature Today

"My Poetry Has Two Lives, like Any Exile": A Conversation with Dunya Mikhail

Article excerpt

Dunya Mikhail is a native Iraqi, forced to leave her home in 1996 to be able to write her poetry without censorship. Her sense of loss for her homeland permeates her writing. Published both in Arabic and English, her recent book, The Iraqi Nights (2014), reimagines what it means to be an exile. The cadence and subject of her poetry builds on her previous work in Diary of a Wave Outside the Sea (2009) and The War Works Hard (2006). Mikhail began publishing poetry as a student at the University of Baghdad, where writers that resisted the governing regime through their work lived in a constant state of fear and retaliation. She started to rely heavily on the power of the metaphor to convey her politically charged thoughts to the reader. Mikhail's poetry chips away at political and social Iraqi constructs to reveal the truth, and within it all she harbors a sense of hope-a prayer for Iraq.

Sobia Khan: Dunya, your poetry centers on your experiences of the wars in Iraq and as an Iraqi exile. Can you speak a little more about your life experiences that you capture in your writing?

Dunya Mikhail: I can tell you my life story briefly: I was born, I write poetry, I will die. But each of those three actions carries millions of details. The fact that I was born in Iraq, for example, means waking up every day to the sounds of sirens and explosions, the Tigris River and the cafés with masgouf fish and the tea with cardamom, the coffee shops for men only, playing soccer in the streets with the neighborhood kids, the University of Baghdad and skipping classes to continue discussions about art and poetry with other artists and writers, using metaphors to hide the true meanings from censors, the death of my father due to lack of medical treatment, exchanging our house for one-way tickets . . .

SK: As an exile living in the United States, your work continues to reflect your anxieties as an Iraqi. How do you use the medium of poetry to think through those anxieties, and has your writing changed in the nineteen years you have lived in the United States?

DM: I think that the metaphors somehow returned to being their real things here. Did that ruin my poetry? Well, I think that my style of writing didn't change, but I just don't feel the need for extra layers of meaning for other purposes than the text itself as art. But my usage of the English language made me more sensitive toward my usage of Arabic. Trying to translate my own poem gives me a chance to distance myself somehow from the poem and try to understand it from the outside. The problem with this, however, is that I am free to change the original as much as I want to since it's mine, and I often do. Some words and phrases come in English first due to their cultural connotation. My poetry has two lives, like any exile.

SK: I am intrigued by how you equate your poetry as having two lives. Is there never the possibility of having a single life for an exile, and for your poetry?

DM: The exile can't resist taking a look back, like Orpheus. Trying to have one life for the exile is like a word in dictionary: it occupies one space but has other meanings and connotations. The here is an occasion that reminds us of there.

SK: Your most recent book, The Iraqi Nights, uses historical literary archetypes and reinvents them. Can you say more about what you are trying to accomplish in The Iraqi Nights?

DM: The Iraqi Nights has poems on multiple themes. For example, the title poem is comprised of seven sections that are supposedly written on seven walls. In Babylonian mythology, Inanna had to pass seven gates to find Tammuz so that he could play the magical flute. Inanna is the goddess of love and war, and she's both masculine and feminine. She was in both upperworld and underworld. She's pretty much like Iraq with all of its contradictions. The title of the poem is a reference to the 1,001 nights. Miracles happen in those tales narrated brilliantly by Sheherezade. …

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