Interview with Hanan Issa Welsh-Iraqi poet and writer.
I was excited and honoured to be able to interview Hanan Issa an upcoming and talented poet and writer, from Wales, as I had seen her stellar performance in the Hijabi Monologues. We have been following her for a while on Instagram and I just knew we had to interview her once she announced the publication of her upcoming book.
Hanan is a Welsh-Iraqi poet and writer. She has been featured on both ITV Wales and BBC Radio Wales and worked in partnership with National Museum Wales, Artes Mundi, Warwick university, Swansea Fringe, StAnza festival, Wales Arts International and Seren Books. Her work has been published in Banat Collective, Hedgehog Press, Wales Arts Review, Sukoon mag, Lumin Journal, Poetry Wales, Parthian, Y Stamp, sister-hood magazine and MuslimGirl.com. Her winning monologue was featured at Bush Theatre’s Hijabi Monologues. She is the co-founder of Wales’ first BAME open mic series ‘Where I’m Coming From’. She was a 2018-2019 Hay Festival Writer at Work. Her debut poetry pamphlet ‘My Body Can House Two Hearts’ will be published by BurningEye Books in October 2019.
SSWH: Congratulations on your upcoming publication of your book a poetry collection! What was the motivation for you to publish your collection?
Hanan: Thank you Akeela. I had been working on this group of poems for some time when I saw that Burning Eye were holding a competition. My motto for last year was ‘why not?’ and so I entered and won alhamdulilah.
The roots of this pamphlet’s title (My Body Can House Two Hearts) came from two ideas that are very important to me: the power of women and raising up others along with yourself. The notion that a woman’s body is full of enough strength and power to harness ‘two hearts’ is based on a verse in the Quran. At the same time, as I was re-reading Audre Lorde’s essay ‘The Master’s Tools Will Never Dismantle the Master’s House’, I was struck by how much the words of a self-described ‘black, lesbian, mother, warrior poet’ resonated with my interpretation of this verse. She talks a lot about how women have this enormous capacity to love. She anchors this love, that isn’t selfless or sacrificial, in the practice of interdependence. Audre Lorde also encourages the rejection of what she argues is an inherently patriarchal behaviour: to see ‘difference’ as something we should fear or compete with. The concept of ‘two hearts’ also refers to how, as someone of mixed heritage, you tend to have split or multiple loyalties and identities which is very much a theme of the pamphlet as well.
SSWH: Have you always been a writer?
Hanan: It embarrasses me to say that despite having always written, even since I was little, I couldn’t accept the title of ‘writer’. I remember meeting someone for the first time who asked me: ‘who are you?’, ‘what do you do?’ There was no pause between the two questions as if they were entirely linked. At the time I was working in a charity for Deaf and hard of hearing people. Although I enjoyed my work, something inside me whispered ‘but that is not who you are.’ I don’t know if being Muslim, being half-Arab, or being working class contributed to me not allowing myself to accept ‘writer’ as an identity but I think they all played a part. It felt indulgent to wholly claim something that I enjoyed so much without any apparent benefit to others. Anyway about 3 years ago I dumped all of that baggage and started calling myself a writer without the self-deprecating cringe-face. In January this year I quit my day job to focus on writing full-time. It’s been a scary 9 months but I am learning so much about myself from having taken this leap.
SSWH: Please tell us more about yourself!
Hanan: I live with my partner Abdurrashid, my son Yousuf and our cat Trico and, apart from writing, I love beaches, trees, good food, good coffee and the occasional Flamenco class.
SSWH: Why poetry?
Hanan: Poetry is language at its finest, its shiniest, its most polished. Most poets will tell you they agonise over a word, a comma, how a line looks on the page. Thomas Gray said ‘poetry is thoughts that breathe and words that burn’. Then there’s spoken word poetry – I started off writing angsty, cathartic pieces that helped me make sense or navigate the changing world. The diversity in what constitutes poetry today is so so exciting- basically there is something for everyone!
SSWH: Could you tell us about some of the topics and issues your poetry covers?
Hanan: I’ll admit I’m a little wary about this question. I used to feel compelled to write about certain topics or issues. Then I realised that, for me personally, this was that feeling of working for ‘the greater good’, to justify my writing ‘indulgence’, just manifesting in a different way. So I stopped writing poems about hijab etc and started writing about anything and everything that took my fancy. So in this pamphlet I have some pieces that can be read as overtly political such as ‘Better version of bravery’ that circles around the MeToo movement and our individual responsibility to act. I also have a piece called ‘Ten Men’ that touches on colonialism and colourism in my own family history. But than I have pieces that are more interested in how global history overlaps such as ‘Offa’s Coin’ or how we deny/ remake our own history ‘Austrian Hands’. And then I have a poem that’s just about watching my son eat strawberries!
SSWH: Doyour poems use a mixture of Arabic and Welsh ?
Hanan: There’s a sprinkling of both Arabic and Welsh throughout and that’s because I grew up with a sprinkling of Arabic and Welsh in my day to day life. I can’t say that I am tri-lingual, or even bilingual really, but both languages mean a lot to me and how I ground myself as a person.
SSWH: What would be your advice to anyone thinking about publishing a book, especially poetry? What were the biggest challenges?
Hanan: I would say its really important to feel passionate about the work you want to get published. If you don’t feel that strongly invested, why should a publisher? Also you will be spending a lot of time with this work – developing, editing etc so best to be something you really love!
If you don’t already have Twitter, make an account and start following lots of publishers and agents (create a list if it helps). Most publication call outs are promoted via Twitter, plus its a good way to see if your work would fit with a particular publisher by seeing other things they publish.
Also, find a writing group, a writer friend/ mentor who will give you honest, critical feedback on your work. No one wants to be the person on X Factor who sounds like a strangled cat but when they get rejected says ‘but my friends all tell me i’m great!’
The challenge I mentioned above, of accepting myself as a writer, was very difficult. So much emphasis and pressure is placed on you to work for the betterment of the ummah, for others and I think as women we self-deprecate even more so. And writing is, by definition, a solitary practise. Letting go of the idea that I was placed here with the sole purpose to nurture/ coddle/ ameliorate others was deeply empowering. This doesn’t mean I don’t try to help others. Nor does it mean I’m ignoring the power of ‘having a mic’. It just means I’m not afraid of societal disapproval or of having the appearance of working for my own career progression.
SSWH: Finally please tell us who or what inspires you?
Too many writers to mention! I’ve talked about Audre Lorde but also Toni Morrison. If I ever feel like I’m losing direction I turn to their work for guidance. Poetry by Zeina Hashem Beck or Terrence Hayes is almost always on my desk or in my bag, butalso Carol Ann Duffy, Derek Walcott and I had a real ‘how have I only just discovered you’ moment with Tarfia Faizullah recently! Some of the greats like Jane Austen, Neil Gaiman, Chinua Achebe, Kazuo Ishiguro, Albert Camus, Angela Carter, Margaret Atwood,, Khalil Gibran, Malorie Blackman and more recently Nnedi Okorafor, Guy Gunaratne and Max Porter.
Thank you so much to Hanan for answering our questions in such an insightful and personal way. We wish her all the best with the launch of her poetry collection, which you can purchase either from Burning Eye or from Waterstones. Interview by Akeela Ahmed MBE (follow her @AkeelaAhmed)