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Aesthetic enthusiasm: An Interview with Dunya Mikhail

MQR’s Online Series, “Celebrating Writers in Our Community,” is inspired by our upcoming special-themed issue, “Why We Write.” The series of interviews is a celebration of the diversity of Southeast Michigan writers, their talents, their motivations for writing, and their significance to our community. 

Iraqi American poet Dunya Mikhail was born in Baghdad and moved to the United States in 1996. After graduating from the University of Baghdad, she worked as a journalist and translator for The Baghdad Observer. Facing censorship and interrogation, she left Iraq, first to Jordan and then to America, settling in Detroit. She earned an MA at Wayne State University, and she currently teaches Arabic at Oakland University in Michigan.

According to the Christian Science Monitor, Dunya Mikhail is “one of the foremost poets of our time.” She has received a Guggenheim Fellowship, United States Artists Fellowship, a Knights Foundation grant, a Kresge Fellowship, and the United Nations Human Rights Award for Freedom of Writing. Her writing has garnered attention from The PBS News Hour, The New Yorker, The New York Times, The Guardian, and Poetry, among others. 

Her books, published by New Directions, include THE WAR WORKS HARD, shortlisted for the Griffon Poetry Prize; DIARY OF A WAVE OUTSIDE THE SEA, won the Arab American Book Award. THE IRAQI NIGHTS, and IN HER FEMININE SIGN, selected as the Wild Card Choice (UK), was chosen by The New York Public Library as one of the ten best poetry books of 2019. Her non-fiction THE BEEKEEPER, a finalist for the PEN/John Kenneth Galbraith Award, and long-listed for the National Book Award, is an account of enslavement of women by ISIS, who are rescued by an unlikely hero: a beekeeper, who uses his knowledge of the local terrain, along with a network of transporters, to bring these women, one by one, back to safety.

With irony and subversive simplicity, Mikhail addresses themes of war, exile, and loss, using forms such as reportage, fable, and lyric. In an NPR interview, Mikhail said, “I feel that poetry is not medicine- it’s an X-ray. It helps you see the wound and understand it. We all feel alienated because of this continuous violence in the world. We feel alone, but we feel also together. So we resort to poetry as a possibility for survival. However, to say I survived is not so final. We wake up to find that the war survived with us.”

Lillian Pearce (LP): Can you speak on the intersections of political and geographical motivations behind your work? 

Dunya Mikhail (DM): My poetry is not political, even though it’s influenced, to some extent, by political issues. As an immigrant writer, it’s natural for me to develop a strong sense of place. I always transfer in my mind between my motherland and my fatherland, like how a child moves between the parents. When the parents fight, the child gets frustrated. But I found that poetry is my homecoming wherever I am. 

LP: “Poetry is not medicine – it’s an X-Ray. It helps you see the wound and understand it.” Can you discuss why you find it important to use poetry as a tool to understanding in lieu of a way to heal? 

DM: Poetry helps diagnose the wound, and that’s actually the first step towards healing. But I don’t consider writing as catharsis. Rather, it’s a way of life. 

LP: How has translation played a role in your motivations for writing? 

DM: Currently, I am self-translating my work which means I am writing it twice. It’s a process where I allow some type of communication between the text in Arabic and the text in English. They enrich each other and grow together without imposing too much on each other, a behavior similar to true lovers’. 

LP: What are the global implications of your work? How does a global community influence your motivations for writing? 

DM: When a poem is sent to the world, like a letter inside that bottle in the sea, a community of readers associates it with some meaning, familiar or unfamiliar, and they add their own layers of meanings to it, and that’s what makes it alive. The poem offers space, and readers immigrate to it. In poetry, I am the native citizen who welcomes others, the way I was welcomed by others who came before me.

LP: In what ways has teaching in Michigan influenced your position as a writer? Where do you find intersections between your positions as a writer and educator? 

DM: For the sake of writing, I quit my full-time job in Dearborn Public Schools and took a part-time job at Oakland University in 2012. I lost more than half of my salary and benefits, but I became happier with my extra time writing.

LP: In his 1947 essay, “Why I Write,” George Orwell breaks down his motivations for writing into four distinct categories: sheer egoism, aesthetic enthusiasm, historical impulse, and political purpose. How would you define your motivations for writing? 

DM: For me, it’s aesthetic enthusiasm. As an Iraqi who was born and raised in Baghdad, I opened my eyes to the war. Writing was a way to turn a catastrophic event into an aesthetic one. We need so much beauty and grace to create that balance with the reality we witness in our everyday life. The other motivation is that I write to be myself. Each plant has a seed. Each human has a seed-like essence. Mine is writing. 

LP: MQR’s special-themed issue, “Why We Write,” seeks to illuminate perspectives and examine the motivations of writers specifically in relation to how they are influenced by social and political conditions and social justice. How do these concepts influence you?                                     

DM: I don’t understand politics very well, but social injustice influences my writing. As Martin Luther King says, “Injustice anywhere threatens justice everywhere.” For example, I’ve listened to women from my country who were stolen by ISIS and escaped. In the future, we may read about what happened to them with dates and events, but in literature, we would know more about their personal stories and be able to trace the beats of their hearts during danger or fear or love or any other human feeling. As a writer, I am influenced by the human condition and environment. However, the question of “what” is not enough to make art. What matters more is “how” you present the truth. 

LP: In reference to the act of writing or the writing life, how do you think about community? 

DM: The whales dive deep in waters and then come to the surface to communicate and socialize with other whales or just to take a break before they go back to the deep waters. Writers do the same. They need the time to go deep in their inner world and then need to be with others to share ideas or exchange the stuff they found and brought from under the waters. When I was in college in Iraq, it was the community of writers and artists who kept the flame of innovation going despite the challenges on all levels.  A pre-Islamic poet, Emru’ al-Qais says, “the jinn tell me the poems, and I just pick from them.” Well, I know what he means, but the jinn is not enough for me to write. I need people. 

LP: What would your council be for young people looking to find their voice and narrate their experiences in times of uncertainty, injustice, and the unknown? 

DM: I would remind them of Bertolt Brecht‘s question and answer, “In the dark times/ Will there also be singing? /Yes, there will also be singing./About the dark times.” And I would also remind them of the Sufi poet Rumi’s words, “Respond to every call that excites your spirit.” Just one more reminder (from me), writing is not only about an experience; writing is itself an experience.

LP: How have your motivations for writing evolved during the pandemic? 

DM: I felt distracted, and my attention shifted to the safety of loved ones. On the other hand, I completed my debut novel during the quarantine. As a poet, I am used to solitude, you know. But solitude is not my only business. We poets are also the modern nomads. We like to wander from place to place, reading poetry to people and making connections with strangers, with everyone.