Look let me show you something: an interview with Sharifa Tartoussi

In the lead up to the launch of her debut collection, ColourBlind, MSW’s Amanda Anastasi interviews Sharifa Tartoussi on going to the Australian poetry slam, loving her culture and examining privilege.

Sharifa, you won the Victorian Poetry Slam last year, qualifying you to compete in the Australian Poetry Slam at the Sydney Opera House. What were the things you gained from this experience?

I think the biggest thing that I gained was connections. I mean that both as an artist and as a person. I was able to connect with other artists from around the country and internationally. I was able to get to know more about them as people, about the creative projects that they are working on, the causes they hope to champion and the nature/vibe of the scenes that they came from. It was not only eye-opening in that sense, but hugely enriching, when it boils down to the best thing about this particular gain; I made new friends from around the country based on shared interest and these are now not only people I can collaborate with in the future, but people I get the feeling will be lifelong friends in some instances.

I also gained a huge amount of exposure, winning the Victorian final meant that there were radio interviews, news articles, a title I could put in the bio section of applications. It got people paying a lot more attention to me as an artist and to the conversations, I am hoping to prompt people to have more. I also got to perform at the Opera House which exposed me to a whole other arena of audience members and prospectors, which is always welcomed. It means that you have more people listening and likely to take heed of what you have to say.

Being on that big a stage also meant the I was forced to grow both as a person and an artist. It got me thinking about what was next for me and how I could keep advancing and challenging myself. Although initially, it meant that there were growing pains, I feel it helped me achieve a healthy equilibrium between being proud of the work I have already done while still being able to see where growth can occur and new avenues can be explored.

In my own poetry, references to my cultural background are made when incidental to the poem I am compelled to write. In most of your work, nationality and culture are placed front and centre in a deliberate way. What is your aim in doing this?

I haven’t always been in love with my own culture. Proud: yes. But in love with – that has only been a recent thing. I think a lot of the time, coming from a background that is so much of a mystery for a lot of people – and by that I mean a cultural and religious background that is talked about heaps in the media and on public platforms (often by people who being neither to the culture or the religion) – it becomes a little bit of a convoluted version of the Loch Ness monster. Everybody has a theory on it and nobody really knows what is going on. Initially, even I didn’t know enough about my own culture to be able to not be sucked in to the whole food, clothing, that seedy part of the world trilogy that is often presented. But as I entered my twenties, something just changed. A curiosity developed and I was able to explore the beauty that exists in the music and literature and history that you have access to and identify with, being a Middle-Eastern person. I think by bringing that to the forefront of a lot of what I write and perform, I get to engage with and explore that passion for who I am and where I came from while also sharing it. And I guess, as a by-product, I am able to change perceptions and dispel myths without explicitly setting out to do so. It isn’t so much an approach that tells people they are wrong in what they think and tries to correct them; it is more of a “look let me show you something” that hopefully eventuates into the realisation that maybe the initial perceptions that a lot of people have about me based on my religion and my culture might not be as accurate as they thought they were.

Are there Middle-Eastern-Australian poets that have inspired you?

I have this anthology of Arab female poets, and each and every woman who has a piece in there floors me. I also take a lot of inspiration from older poets like al-mutannabi and Mahmoud Darwish, and then there are more modern-day poets like Rafeef Ziadah who inspire me. I think the list just keeps growing the more I explore and I am so grateful that I have access to the work of countless Middle-Eastern artists to inspire me in my work.

In your piece Ya Jabal (Mountains), you reference the shortening of ethnic-sounding names. My parents, as first-generation Australians, anglicized their names to ease the transition of migration. How important do you feel it is to claim the names and words of one’s cultural background?

It’s funny actually. There is another poem in the collection that is based on this particular theme. I think culturally, many of our names are attributes or concepts – positive attributes. My original name is ‘honour’, my mother’s is ‘hope’ and so on and so forth. Our names mean a great deal to us since our parents bestow them. They’re the first things that they give to us and become a lifelong identifier. When you migrate or your parents migrate, it becomes hard to hold on to your culture. A lot of people will change the way they dress or look to fit in better. In extreme circumstances, to avoid racially motivated assault, part of that is shortening your name or anglicising it. By the notion that your name is the usually the first thing somebody learns about you. By reclaiming you name, you are reclaiming your entire identity and you are basically saying: “no, I won’t just fit in anymore, I am not afraid anymore, this is who I am and you have to tolerate and accept me as I am just as I have been tolerating and accepting you for who you are. I have a right to exist this way just as you do.” In that sense, it is the simplest claim to one’s heritage and history and I think holding on to that, along with many other aspects of our cultures, is important because it makes us who we are and means that we own that.

I have always perceived one’s country/culture upon birth to be a random act of the universe, and so view it as just one part of an individual’s identity. This leads me to ask, what else would you say is a major identifier for you?

I think when your country or place of birth and your culture of birth are different you tend to have a conflict of identity. When you add being othered and told that the latter is the root of a large proportion of what is wrong with the world, I think you are faced with either shying away and dissociating from it or embracing and owning it. For many people we end up with the latter, especially when you have physical identifiers that cause you to become the subject of discrimination.

That said, for me personally, I think we are all amalgamations of the places we have been, the people we have met and engaged with: their stories, their histories, the culture our parents pass on to us and the cultures we find in the communities to which we belong. By that token, I think being Muslim is a major identifier, and while the world likes to intertwine that with being Middle-Eastern, it can be a rather separate thing. Islam makes up a large proportion of my truth while being Middle-Eastern is a big part of my reality. I would also say that being a woman is a major identifier, in that being born and going through life female means that you are socialised a certain way and viewed a certain way and that affects you in a very big way. I think though, any of those things alone (in addition to being a poet, a performer, a dentist, a myriad of other things I identify with and participate in) are not representative of who I am. I think all those things together in addition to my context (growing up largely white passing in a western society) make me who I am, these things may sometimes individually shape me, but together they make me who I am.

*Name the poetry collection you keep returning to.

I don’t think that there is a particular poetry collection that I keep returning to, just a playlist on YouTube of my favourite poems that I keep going back to for inspiration with artists like Sofia Elhilo, Emi Mahmoud, Rafeef Ziadah and few locals/ex-locals like Arielle Cottingham and Tariro Mavondo.

Your new collection is entitled ‘ColourBlind’. Is focusing on our commonalities the key to a more ‘colour blind’ society, or is it looking unflinchingly at the differences?

I think colour-blindness, in its metaphorical form, is something we should be weary of as a society. The collection itself is an examination of privilege and identity and tends to sway between pieces where the subjects are themselves colour-blind, and pieces where the notion of colour aims to elude the reader’s own colour-blindness through the presentation of aspects of my own identity and heritage that are not often seen in the white interpretations of the Arab-Muslim female narrative. By colour-blind, I mean unable to see one’s own privilege, particularly in terms of race identity and the concept of white privilege.

To answer your question more directly, I think a bit of both. I think focusing on commonalities to humanise people in conjunction with focusing on differences to other them sets us up for a colour-blind society.

What would you like to write about in the future that you haven’t explored yet?

I think that at some point, I’d like to write more observational poetry – the kind the creates a moment instead of providing a narrative or conversation. At the moment, my poetry very much tells a story and often makes a point through the telling of that story. Although I feel like that will probably always be where my passions lie, I would very much like to explore new styles and topics.

*What is your favourite word?

There are so many words and I love most of them more or less equally. I go through phases but, at the moment, no single word stands out for me.

*Poetic self-portrait: in seven words or less, describe Sharifa Tartoussi.

Fire meets ocean storm; they find equilibrium.

Sharifa Tartoussi’s debut collection ColourBlind can be purchased on the Melbourne Spoken Word online shop, and will be launched this Saturday, alongside Charlotte L Raymond’s The Melanin Monologues.

(Questions marked * are questions I ask all of my interview subjects.)

Amanda Anastasi