Poet Sawsan Al-Areeqe on the Best and Worst of Being a Poet in Yemen and Why You Should Read Ali al-Muqri
While she was in Iowa City, participating in the International Writing Program (IWP)’s fall 2013 residency, Yemeni poet and filmmaker Sawsan Al-Areeqe spoke with the program’s “On the Map” series. The video interview was recently released on YouTube:
Al-Areeqe is the author of three poetry collections, The Square of Pain (2007), More Than Necessary (2004), and What if My Blood Turned Into Chocolate (2011). She is the winner of the British Council’s 2010 Zoom Film Contest for her short Prohibited, and of the Special Jury Prize at the 2012 Meknes International Film Festival for her short Photo.
On the Map: The best thing and worst thing about being a writer in your country?
Sawsan al-Areeqe: I cannot say either a best or worst, because writers develop a state of alientation from their environment. At the beginning of hteir writing career. As a writer, I learn to reprogram my relationship with my society according to my own views and feelings. Regardless of the place I inhabit. However, the best thing about being a poet in my own society is that poetry is highly respected.
The worst, which did not happen to me, is the fact that my society judges poetic texts according to a religious perspective.
OTM: Why do you write?
SA: Writing is the only option in Yemen that allows me to survive. If we had a music institute, maybe I would have become a pianist or a ballerina, had there been any schools that did this…art. But there are no other options in Yemen.
Writing gives me the opportunity to paint my own life and to live my life, with the minute details and specific pains. And there is absolutely no amount of fluid that can diminish my thirst for creativity and challenge.
OTM: What writer or book has been especially important?
SA: I recommend Black Taste, Black Odor, a novel by the Yemeni writer Ali al-Muqri because it opened the door for a new type of literature that sheds light on marginalized groups in Yemen. This means that the literature in Yemen begins to focus on particular issues, like the dark-skinned servants whose lives resemble the gypsies in Europe.
OTM: Do you read prose at all?
SA: In general I don’t think that writers do anything with regularity. For example, I read poetry, and then watch some movies, and then sometimes I even re-read old novels, because I enjoy re-discovering their details.
OTM: Should the State give financial support to writers, or to literature?
SA: Writers complain about the country’s lack of support. But even if it did support literature, the country would [take over] the space of writers’ creative autonomy. We don’t want the country’s support. However, we need independent cultural organizations to adapt the culture’s fate outside national or political interests. In other words, we need professional institutions and publishing houses that market books. And turn them into commodities. This is the best and most suitable alternative.
OTM: What’s a question you’ve always wanted to be asked about your work?
SA: Besides writing texts, I also write in visual mediums because I am a director. If you would have asked me about this, I would have said that making short films in Yemen requires support, training, and care. … [A] cinematic culture does not exist in Yemen. My films participated in several festivals abroad and two received awards. And what matters to me is that my film was screened in the Mesa film festival in New Orleans in the middle of October 2013.
You can read several of al-Areeqe’s poems on the IWP website.
The full interview with al-Areeqe:
An excerpt from al-Areeqe’s short film, Photo: