Najwa Ali: Emerging Writer Award Winner 2016

Interview by 
Rachel Thompson

From all the wonderful emerging writers we published last year in Room, one writer's work stood out for members of Room's collective. Najwa Ali's poem "Harbour", published in 38.1, In Translation takes readers from Dar-us-salaam through airports where languages become "tickets and mirrors, places / to store bodies and spare parts" to rooming houses with "dead receivers and no ticket out".

No stranger to
Room, Najwa Ali also won our 2013 CNF contest, judged by Betsy Warland, for her essay "Writing, In Transit". We submitted this essay to the "One-of-a-Kind" category of the 2014 Canadian Magazine Awards, where it received honourable mention.

The Emerging Writer Award is open to anyone published in a given year in Room, who has not already had a book published. The award comes with a cash prize of $500.

 

You won our 2013 CNF Contest, and we nominated you for a Canadian Magazine Award for which you won honourable mention (One-of-a-kind category), and now you are our first winner for the Emerging Writer Award. What impact has winning these accolades had on your writing?


It’s strange to win things. On the one hand, it feels deeply affirming. It means, somehow, that one’s words are read and recognized. On the other hand, these things are set up within competitive frames that sometimes make me uncomfortable. I am also rather reticent so I’m not always keen on public attention, other than through what I write and publish.

I didn’t know much about Room but came across the contest online and submitted my essay because Betsy Warland was judging. I admired her work and hoped she might appreciate the formal qualities of my writing. I was delighted not only to win but to be introduced to a whole new community of readers and writers.

For Room to nominate it for the Canadian National Magazine Award last year was incredibly supportive—and now this new award...though I admit to some embarrassment at being marked as ‘emerging’. I have not had a linear path as a writer, and cannot yet imagine what it might be like to fully ‘emerge.’ I feel like one of those unidentifiable plants that run wild underground and send out shoots, periodically, in odd places.
 

You write in several genres, though poetry seems to infuse everything. How has your style evolved to be so lyrical and what goes into the decision-making when you're determining the form and genre of a work?


Recently, an editor in the US asked me to write a preface to a poem. I was initially resistant because I felt the poem, though cryptic, did not need my introduction. Yet his insistence created something new. I came to realize “I am not good at genres, my mind, my body, finds itself turning, holding a hand out to gather.”

Your word ‘lyricism’ also brings to mind an uncomfortable episode from my early years in Canada. A professor returned an essay marked generously with red lines. She told me ‘people like you write English in very flowery ways—we don’t write like that here’. I was horribly embarrassed—of myself, of my ‘people’ and of the ‘too much-ness’ of our writing in this language that had been imposed on us. I was also angry and fully aware of her racism. Somewhere, in the years of working these things out for myself, of learning to edit yet being unable to control the ‘too much-ness’ of my language, some particularities of style and voice began to develop. I struggled, for a long time with silence, with the force of what I wanted to say but could not, with my own internal dialogue with the many historical, cultural and linguistic currents that run within me. All that, I think. At the same time, a desire for emptiness, breath, silence.

I don’t have any proper way of making these decisions about genre and form. It depends on what I am writing about. I am still learning but I do pay attention to my own discomfort, not necessarily that of others. That is one reason why it takes me so long to write.
 

What is your writing practice and where do you write?


I write in notebooks, on pieces of paper—on the subway, at work, in cafes in libraries. I recently set up my computer in a room which receives beautiful southern light. This helps me feel less claustrophobic. I work in a terribly undisciplined way, but obsessively sometimes. I am still learning to develop a ‘practice’… I need to stop working at night so I can learn to sleep.
 

What are you writing now?


I am reworking (for the hundredth time, it seems) a small novel. I am not happy with it but it doesn’t let me go. There is a collection of stories that I hope to complete this year. In between, I try and gather bits and pieces but I have no idea where these will go. There is another book brewing—but I’m not fully sure what form it will take.
 

You often infuse politics into your writing, with themes of war and migration. Why do these themes keep coming out in your writing?


I am not sure I would use the word ‘infuse’. Politics is about power. Power, for me, is woven into language and into silence. I do not write in the languages I was born into and still speak, each year, more brokenly, more hesitantly. Colonialism, slavery, capitalism, migration and various types of violence are the engines of my ancestral and national histories. I was born into this. It is not new. As a child and young adult, with my own complicated travels and witnessing of internal and cross-border violences, I began to ask questions that still haunt me today. At the same time, I am interested in small things. In the quotidian, in sensual, bodily pleasures, in what causes the heart to lift and open up to another.
 

You wrote on Huffington Post (in a piece posted by the National Reading Campaign) about how nothing you were reading at 17 connected with the real Canada you were facing as a newcomer, or with the realities of your life at the time. Do you find books that reflect that reality today?


A young migrant arriving today would experience something quite different from what I describe in that piece. Canada, then, seemed so bleak to me, so bounded, so narrow-minded. I felt I had stepped into erasure. Even mail and telephone calls home were difficult, expensive. You have to remember, the world wide web arrived only in the late ‘90s. There was no easy access to what had been left behind, especially for those of us who came from far away—from Asia, from Africa. There was so little access to languages, to people, to our sense of home. It is still terribly painful not to have enough money to return or even travel more often to my original ‘home/s.’

Of course there were writers—Nortje (as I mention in that piece), Harris, Selvon, Clarke, Ondaatje, Brand, Phillip, Crusz, Vassanji etc. but their presence here was not known to me then. It took a long time to learn, and unlearn. I was not, I should admit, all that interested in Canadian writing or writers at that time... I hardly understood North America and wanted, badly, to leave—and did, for many years.

Over time, marvelous writers have worked incredibly hard to transform literature in the many diasporas and in-between places we belong to. There are so many realities, so many stories…
 

What are you reading now?


I am trying to write more and read less these days, but failing… I am far too curious. Some recent books include Edwidge Danticat’s The Dew Breaker, Jaspreet Singh’s Chef, an anthology called Seeking Palestine and Yvonne Owuor’s Dust. I also return, faithfully, to re-read certain writers who I hesitate to name because they mean far too much to me.
 

Where else can we read your recent work?

Some pieces are available online at World Literature Today and there’s a poem at Warscapes. I’ve also published a short essay I’m rather fond of, on Matisse, in World Literature Today’s print issue (September 2015). A longer, more complex essay on place, memory, migration and gendered violence came out a couple of years ago in Wasafiri (issue 77, 2014) And of course, Room has supported me greatly by publishing “Writing, in Transit” (37.2) and the poem “Harbour” (38.1) .

 

Author, editor, and member of the Room collective, Rachel Thompson, sends out free weekly letters to writers to help illuminate their writing lives. Sign up on Lit Writers.

Photo: Rita Leistner

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