Zainab Altuma on writing as survival and the privilege of poetry
Zainab Altuma on writing as survival and poetry's privilege
I’ll admit that when I logged onto Zoom to meet with Zainab Altuma for the first time, I was nervous.
I first stumbled upon them a year ago when I read their article about microaggressions they experienced from security guards at Juice Jam. The wisdom, conviction and bravery with which Zainab told their story struck me somewhere deep in my core, moving me to find and join their almost 5,000 followers on Instagram.
Since then I have followed them through the eyes of an avid fan, as an aspiring writer who sees and admires the raw talent of another.
All this is to explain the apprehension with which I logged onto Zoom, and the relief I felt when I learned that, on top of being incredibly wise, Zainab Altuma is nice.
Zainab is a 20-year-old Syracuse student on the pre-law track, currently taking a gap year at their home in Westbrook, Maine. Originally from Iraq, they moved to the States the summer before their freshman year of high school.
After a self-described “identity crisis” at 13 years old, Zainab took up writing. Seven years later, they published their first poetry collection, And This One is Not About Survival, and are in the process of an even larger project– an expose called Re-Agency of the Colonized Body.
I sat down with Zainab to talk about their books, their life, their writing and their sense of self.
For readers who don’t follow you on Instagram and wouldn’t have that behind-the-scenes look, explain the title And This One is Not About Survival.
So writing definitely started as a survival tool in one way or another. It started as me trying to understand myself, but it quickly became a survival tool when I moved here. When I became a college student, that’s when my writing became a survival tool. It became me explaining my identity. It became me trying to relate and trying to make people relate to me, and so that’s when my Teen Vogue article came out about being a queer Muslim. And then all the Daily Orange articles came out about institutional apathy and islamophobia and all these identity explanation pieces that were almost me trying to defend myself in the world I’m living in.
That’s how I survived– turning any single negative experience into writing, but I also just want to write love poems. I want to talk about the experiences of being a young adult that anybody gets to feel. I wanna talk about the summer flings and the situationships that didn’t work. I want to fantasize and romanticize my life, and I should be able to do that. And when you’re expected to just talk about your survival, you don’t get to do that.
What does the act of writing look like for you?
It looks like so many different things. Writing definitely has looked rushed to me when it used to look super intentional and intimate. Before, it looked like sitting down, eliminating anything that could be a distraction and just like getting lost in making something out of just my words and my thoughts and my journey.
As of late, I could be in the car waiting to get dinner, and then you’re gonna see me on my phone and I’m just typing. That’s literally how I wrote And This One is Not About Survival. It was two months of me writing on my phone 24/7 every second. I’m stealing moments to have pieces of something to write. The last time I really published something poetry-related was my senior year of high school. Since then I’ve been subjected to presenting my writing as a way to explain myself and my identity to people who didn’t understand it when really I just wanted to write poetry. And so finally I just wrote it. I figured I literally had my phone on me 24/7, so why not write? I wrote in my notes app constantly over and over again.
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What artistic decisions went into And This One is Not About Survival that readers may not pick up on at first?
The published poems have typos in them, and I left them in on purpose. I really wanted to bring back my beginning as an immigrant kid who didn’t know English and learned English in six months and became the best writer in their class. Who is that? What do they look like? Who are they now? And that’s why And This One is Not About Survival was the perfect kind of project. And if anything looks iffy, it is literally all there because I wanted it to be.
Another thing is I did not keep any titles. I just numbered them, and actually, I haven’t shared this yet, but I made a bunch of different titles and the numbers of the poems and then you get to mix and match them and decide for yourself which would be the best fit for the poem you just read. I wanted it to be left to interpretation. That’s why I left that space for people to annotate as well because I just wanted it to be like a personal journal. Leaving the poems just numbered would give people the space to interpret them however they wanted to. That’s the point of having personal work out there because you can relate to it so differently from how I meant it to be. I wanted to keep that space for interpretation. I didn’t want to make it rigid.
On the cover of the collection, it says “a poetry collection for the dead and the living.” What does that mean?
I was kind of mourning different versions of myself in this book. I wrote this especially after a heartbreak I went through this year. It was definitely a mix-up of different heartbreaks, but there was a big one out of all of them. I was a version of myself with that person, but I am just not the same anymore. It was almost like mourning my past self, but also this is honoring the new version of this person who is writing this book and becoming myself even more right now.
Describe those two people.
With that person, I was somebody who just wanted to be loved no matter what the cost. That was the borderline message: no matter what you do to me. I just want to be loved, so if you offer me the breadcrumbs of whatever you have, I’ll be OK. When in reality that’s not true. I am a fountain of love myself, so why can’t I get the same too?
Now I’m in a place where I’m in so much hurt and pain from that experience and I’m experiencing it and going through it still, but I know that people deserve fountains of love and people deserve waterfalls and said people include me and that’s OK. Being on the other side, I’m grateful I was left. I’m grateful because I would not have this book and I would not have been here and I would not have gotten the chance at a new life. Honestly, it just feels like a deep rebirth. I am more myself now. I am still in pain, still hurting, but I’m becoming and that’s all that matters.
How long did it take to write? What was the timeline?
The timeline was super quick but super intense. I was writing every second of the day possible, but I wrote for five weeks straight. I did not stop. Any second I was just writing constantly. Then I edited for about two weeks. So it took two months collectively, but the idea of the book was in my head like since the beginning of the year.
There is Arabic laced throughout the collection. How did you pick when and where to include that?
I remember there were words and lines where I felt them so strongly I knew English words would not suffice in explaining what I felt. I think in moments of strong pain or any really extremely strong emotion, I knew Arabic needed to be there. Like in #12 I used the word ‘queer’ in Arabic, and this is usually used to exclude queer people because it has still not been reclaimed fully yet. In that line, I really wanted to explain that kind of like isolation and disgust I felt from that person really wanting me to not be queer anymore. And no matter how they tried to make themselves seem like they were accepting it, they didn’t really. That was such a strong constant emotion in that relationship that surfaced. Queer being reclaimed in English makes me feel like I love myself, that’s who I am, I am proud of it. But that word “ “مثلي,” if I directly translated it to English, would be somebody who’s out of place. So that feeling definitely exists in how I always felt out of place with that person.
I feel like when I as the everyday audience look at your Instagram page, I see it as art. Is that your intent with your social media presence?
I love that question. A lot of times it’s unintentional, but there is that subconscious feeling that I really want it to mean something to somebody. I really don’t like social media to be honest! I’m not the biggest fan, and people think I am because I’m usually there but I’m honestly not the biggest fan. Especially this year it’s been really just a creative outlet. It’s been a space to post stuff about my writing, to share writing pieces, and to interact with people. At the time I didn’t really perceive it as art, but really I try to speak art into anything.
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I have to ask now about Re-Agency of the Colonized Body. How long has that been in the works?
It’s been 15 months since I started it. It was a random August night and it was 3 a.m. and I was like ‘Re-Agency of the Colonized Body needs to happen right now.’ I was planning on publishing it in September 2021 but I realized as I started writing that this is some heavy work and it’s going to take a lot longer than that. Then I tried to publish it midway through this year, but then it hit me that I was not emotionally ready for the work to be out yet so I paused writing it. Literally last week I started to continue writing it again.
I think it might be one of the most, if not the most, important works of my life. I don’t know if it was Kendrick or somebody else who said that there’s that one piece of work that is always in the back of your head, and you know you can’t do anything else if you don’t finish that first, and that is definitely this book for me. I would love for it to be out in 2023 sometime.