In Conversation With
Aria Aber was raised in Germany, where she was born to Afghan refugees. Her debut book Hard Damage won the 2018 Prairie Schooner Book Prize in Poetry and has just been published by the University of Nebraska Press. Her poems are forthcoming or have appeared in The New Yorker, Kenyon Review, Narrative, Muzzle Magazine, Wasafiri, and others. This year, she was the 2018–2019 Ron Wallace Fellow at the University of Wisconsin-Madison.
Tom Simpson: What was it like to hear that "Afghan Funeral in Paris" was going to appear in The New Yorker?
Aria Aber: I felt incredibly grateful and called my best friend, the poet Momina Mela, to shout a little bit in celebration. Happiness is only real when shared; what’s the use if you can’t tell anyone about it? Like almost every other writer on the face of the earth, I had always dreamed to have a poem in The New Yorker. I am infinitely grateful and will remember it for the rest of my life. The editors, Kevin Young and Hannah Aizenman, are doing a tremendous job to cultivate a more inclusive range of poets. But I know that the glitter around esteemed publications is still exclusive; at the end of the day, my question is: who is not getting heard when I am? Whose space am I taking up? I only represent a small fraction of the voices that are out there, shouting about the same or similar issues. I urge poetry readers to expand their reading habits and to also delve into independent and online magazines to find more marginalized and less established writers.
TS: You tweeted recently that the poem "The Ceremony" means so much to you that you broke up with someone over it. That's really powerful.
AA: Obviously I can't share the details of that story, but I can give you some background information as to why the poem means so much to me: my entire life I had been ashamed of being Muslim, of being Afghan. I grew up in a post-9/11 world; I was 10 when it happened, and my identity, my life collapsed around me. The Hulu show "Ramy" depicts in a truly amusing and heartbreaking way the surreal, life-altering impact 9/11 had on Muslim children of a generation that grew up in Western countries—if you haven’t seen it, I’d highly recommend it. A lot of little boys named Osama became Ozzys. People took off their hijabs. I was told not to talk too loudly about who I was. So, I spent a big chunk of my pre-adolescent life lying about where I was from, and trying to erase my heritage by starving my body in an attempt to silence my identity, my color, my space in the world. I didn’t know how to stand up for myself. I wasn’t a "good enough girl" for my community, but I was also not accepted as "one of the others" in the predominantly white and Catholic town in which I was born and raised. Even if sounds dramatic, ceasing to exist seemed like the only way out. Therapy, medication and psychedelic drugs helped me reconcile my heritage with my innate beliefs in a spiritual world that includes a God I don’t need to be ashamed of. Shame about the self, yes: this is what the poem is about—the ceremony that leads through many transformations to arrive at self-acceptance. It is a confessional fable about who I am, a woman of Muslim heritage who has a body and hence experiences all types of desire. And if I love someone, I want them to be curious about this very tender history of mine; I want them to look at me and see the journey.
TS: What has it been like to land in Madison, Wisconsin, for this stage of your life and literary evolution?
AA: Madison, Wisconsin is a strange place to live in—there are a lot of similarities to Germany, but this city is, at its core, quintessentially Midwestern. I learned how to drive here, ate my first cheese curds, saw silos and cows and "refugees welcome" signs in lawns that belong to people who probably have never encountered a refugee before, I joined my first co-op, I lit my first fire in my first fireplace. I drove through a cornfield and suddenly understood the pastoral American poem; in fact, I wanted to write it. I was so cold I wanted to die. I edited almost all of my book here and Wisconsin has made it into my debut—the landscape is featured in at least two poems. Sometimes I feel so out of place and uncomfortable in my body, I forget it is because I am the only person of color in the room. Still, I know that I can "pass," even if not as white, as a light-skinned type of "other" and that helps. Here, my privilege greets me in intricate, complicated ways. I love my apartment. I can hear birdsong and crickets and go for long walks by the lakes. The nature is beautiful, and I have made some of the most important friendships of my life. The fellowship through the Wisconsin Institute of Creative Writing is one of the most generous and amazing experiences for any emerging writer. I am grateful to have been here, to have seen this side of America, and to have had the resources and time to write in a place far from my comfort zone.
TS: Whose poems, whose music, are you submerged in at the moment?
AA: I just got back from a road trip to the Badlands in South Dakota, and my fellow fellows and writer friends Mary Terrier, Kate Wisel, Natalie Eilbert and I were listening to the songs of our heartbroken youths: a lot of indie for nostalgic reasons, like Bright Eyes, Counting Crows, Wallis Bird, Third Eye Blind. I listen to a lot of Outkast and James Blake, the latter of which attended the same university that I did as an undergrad, Goldsmiths College in London. But I am also obsessed with FKA Twigs, who is in my opinion one of the most accomplished and promising entertainers and performers of our time. I am working on a collaborative essay on her work with the writer Fatima Farheen Mirza.
In terms of literature, I am reading or just finished reading Mohsin Hamid, Roland Barthes and Garth Greenwell. Poetry wise, I've been reading a lot of Taneum Bambrick, Ellen Bass, Victoria Chang and Marwa Helal lately.
TS: I noticed that your sister Nadine's visual art influenced the cover of Hard Damage, and her author photographs of you appear elsewhere. Tell us about Nadine's art and eye.
AA: Nadine offered the inspiration for the composition and she chose the picture and color scheme. The painting featured is by Egon Schiele and depicts the dancer Moa, who was the only woman of color he painted. Schiele is important to my work and my aesthetic and despite controversy about his personality, I am proud and relieved to have his artwork featured on my first book cover, and will forever be grateful for Nadine for unearthing that picture from museum archives. Reading about Moa fills my heart; she was an exciting, strange person with so much willpower at a time where women were mostly used as "muses" and not taken seriously as artists themselves.
I am quite enamored with Nadine's art; she’s currently finishing her degree in Design and will then embark on a fruitful career. She sold her first painting in high school, so she’s already successful and was always endowed with "it," I suppose. Nadine works extensively with photography, collage and experimental film, as well as illustrations. Her artworks revolve around othered bodies, women’s trauma, exile, mass migration, the fragility of human skin. I have never seen an artist work with a color palette better than Nadine; she is truly one of a kind. I’m mostly fascinated by the meticulousness of her eye. As a messy person, I can’t fathom how precisely she sees and how acutely she renders the world, especially in portraits.
TS: Let's cut to the chase: how long do you figure we have until humanity's failed experiment with civilization ends entirely? What sorts of beauty and joy sustain you?
AA: I love this question. But I don’t know if the monolith of humanity created or experiences civilization as an experiment. To me, “civilization” means less than the fascist and destructive socio-political network that spans our earth and which we now often criticize in our dystopian rhetoric. I think of civilization as an inevitable groundwork for a society of global scale based on technological advancement and shared cultural norms, ideals. Humans have always lived in communities and tried to become "better;" advancement is a part of our biological make-up. That doesn’t necessarily have to be bad, it could be good. What has failed us however, and is failing us as we speak, is capitalism. The experiment of capitalism has perhaps ruined most of the earth, and how long "our" resources will last us is dependent on the way we will tackle global warming and the remains of "our" "shared" resources. We need to create an infrastructure that is sustainable and discover a way to implement fair and ethical distribution of resources, of which there are still plenty. Humanity as a whole needs to realize the interconnectedness of all things, the web that includes nature and animals and dirt and humans and technology. Collectively, we must imagine and realize a way to share the earth while respecting that interconnectedness. And collective consciousness is going through an interesting transformation right now. I believe we have the chance and the opportunities to morph our reality. As Mary Terrier puts it, "the world offers us little entrances." It’s a time for action. As we live right now, those with enough money will find a way to make this planet habitable for themselves. Venture capitalists are investing in the colonization and exploration of space; I think that there are things possible beyond our imagination, and that the poor and general public will fall behind and perish if we don’t become proactive. If we, as a monolithic whole, tackle climate change and white supremacy correctly and choose to be good instead of greedy, we could create something beautiful: the end of capitalism is not necessarily the end of the world. But it first begins in the imagination, which needs to deconstruct the rhetoric we are being fed by demagogues, dogmatic politicians and mainstream media that inspire cynical apathy. We can change. I know that; I live by that truth. I am a hopeless romantic and optimist, maybe because I come from a family of political activists. I believe that we have bodies so we can use them in protest, regardless of what that means to us individually. We have bodies so we can live in demonstration for what we believe in, and in protest against that which we wish to change.
The beauty of art and the joy of human connection are what sustain me and my work. Frankly, I wouldn’t be able to get out of bed in the morning if I didn’t believe in altruism and the good in humanity, if I didn’t live by the law of all-healing and ubiquitous love (which, to me, is God), if I didn’t believe this earth mattered, that everything is frail and alive and fleeting, or that language is music and can change and save and reach and touch. I live for friendship, good food, the sound of my family’s laughter, which I know rises like a sonic phoenix from the ashes of all their trauma. Human tenderness. The love of animals. The silence of untouched nature, of which there is almost none left. Moments of magic in human thought where philosophy and physics meet. Music makes my life worthwhile; there’s a reason why slave houses forbade singing, why listening to music and dancing is not permitted under Taliban rule. It is that which connects us to each other, to the invisible world which breathes under this world, and to the intergalactic space that vibrates around and above this world: the first breath, a rhythm, the pulse of the heart. We share it with all there is. Poetry is an attempt to add to that beat.