Safia Elhillo has won the 2018 Arab American Book Award, also known as the George Ellenbogen Poetry Award, for her debut poetry collection The January Children. She is the first Sudanese American author to win the award. A leading voice in the contemporary African poetry scene, Elhillo is known for her experimental poetic style and her hard-hitting provocations on questions of identity, language and displacement. The January Children was also awarded the 2017 Sillerman First Book Prize for African Poets, two years after Elhillo co-won the Brunel Prize.
A few days ago, on Instagram, Elhillo shared photos and videos of the 9 November award ceremony in Michigan, where she made a fashion statement in a suit by Scotch & Soda. In her powerful acceptance speech, Elhillo reopens some of the questions she’s posed in her poetry about the intersection of Arab identity and the politics of race. She interrogates certain underlying assumptions of Arab identity and why embracing blackness complicates as much as enriches her sense of what it means to be Arabophone.
Watch clips of the speech and read the transcript below.
I have increasingly over the past few years had trouble with identifying as Arab as part of my identity, as Sudanese, as black. I’m still trying to find language to harness the strangeness and the intersection. I am trying out Arabized African, Arabophone African and a bunch of other clunky things to hold the fact that I am an Arabic speaker with an identity shaped by this Arabic but a race independent of it because Arabness is in itself so difficult to define as an ethnic or racial identity. There has always been a tension for me around the fact that I find community with other Arabophone people while always being aware, being made aware of the relative blackness of my body in those spaces. So many atrocities have been committed in the pursuit of Arab Identity and the erasure of identity that do not fit within it, namely to try and discard Africanness and blackness with a lot of trauma as the cost.”
[… end of video #1] “I have found great community among Arab and Arab American writers. Least of all being the chance to speak the Arabic-English hybrid language that I feel most fluent in. I want to be careful not to diminish the importance this community has had in my life and to honor it in every way I can. I am an Arabophone black person, not Arab, and I think Arab is so often used as short hand for Arabophone, which creates a conflation between the two identities…I often encounter the paradox of being in this community and not of it. Maybe some day I’ll have a full answer like a slick little term to use but I don’t have that yet. I also want to emphasize that this is my specific process and journey. I don’t want you to go find your Sudanese friend and be like you’re not Arab. This is my stuff. I don’t ever want to be in a position where I am speaking for a group of people.
Brittle Paper congratulates to Safia Elhillo.