Zainab Amadahy is a writer and activist of African American, Cherokee and European heritage. Her publications include the novel Moons of Palmares (1998, Sister Vision Press) as well as an essay in the anthology Strong Women’s Stories: Native Vision & Community Activism, (Lawrence & Anderson, 2004, Sumach Press).
Most recently Zainab contributed to In Breach of the Colonial Contract (Arlo Kemp, ED) by co-authoring “Indigenous Peoples and Black People in Canada: Settlers or Allies”. Many of her recent articles can be found on rabble.ca.
As an artist and activist based in Toronto Zainab has worked with a variety of organizations to support decolonization, social justice and First Nations struggles.
BCP: Why did you start writing poetry?
ZA: I actually started with lyric-writing for my own songs as an artistic experiment. It was great because I had no expectations of becoming very good at it. I just had something to say and thought that, because I listened better when the message was musical, others might feel the same. This lack of expectation freed me up. It was at a time in my life when I was exploring and growing and evolving and I wanted to share some of what I was experiencing. So I wrote half the songs on Spirit Wind’s debut CD Breathing the Wind. The response was encouraging. I learned I was more of a lyricist than a musician, though.
BCP: What is your writing process?
ZA: It has changed over the years. Used to be, I’d come at it from my head, wanting to communicate ideas, influence people’s thinking, educate and so on. I was communicating head to head. It wasn’t very heartfelt, although I felt strongly about what I wrote and am proud of my non-fiction, issue-based publications.
Nowadays my writing starts from a feeling place, whatever the genre. I generally experience a strong emotional response to something and feel the urge to share it — AND in the process, I usually transform that feeling into something hopeful, positive and wondrous. Or at least I try.
In terms of the mechanics, I like to plan. That’s where the meat of the work is for me: outlines, character profiles, charting the journey. Even with poetry, I’ll ask myself questions like: “Okay, this is what you’re feeling now, what do you want to say about that and where do you want to take it? Why do you care? Why should other people care? What feelings do you want to have by the end of this poem?” It makes the actual writing easier. I don’t always stick to my skeletal framework but it helps the flow.
BCP: Has writing poetry informed your other writing?
ZA: Absolutely! Non-fiction, songwriting and poetry have better enabled me to write from the heart, expose my vulnerabilities and share myself in a way that hopefully touches others. This has influenced my non-fic for the better.
BCP: Is it hard to juggle writing in different genres?
ZA: Not for me because I LOVE to write and I LOVE stories. In fact, I think juggling is easier than not. In one day I’ll write 5 pages of my novel and have no more to give to it. But two hours later I’ll be able to focus on another writing project, seeing it through fresh eyes because I haven’t worked at it for a while. If I have to put a project down for a month I don’t stop writing, I just focus on another project for a time.
I enjoy learning more about how to write in different genres and experimenting. I’m always excited about what can happen. For example, in working on a non-fic article I might find an inspiring idea for my novel, and then a character in my novel might have a song to sing … on and on it goes. The trick is to make sure I finish my projects, which I seem to manage once in a while.
I remind myself every day how privileged I am to have the time and resources to write as much as I do. My life hasn’t always allowed that and certainly, when I think about writers in other situations, I realize how blessed I am to have this opportunity.
BCP: You are a fan of Maya Angelou. What do you like about her poetry? How has she influenced your writing?
ZA: First and foremost for me, Maya Angelou is a woman who came out of some seriously difficult challenges and not only wrote about them in honest, heartfelt and inspiring ways but used those experiences to grow wise and more loving. She influenced me as a role model, as a woman who wasn’t afraid to write about both racism and sexual violence. She wasn’t afraid to challenge white AND Black men on their sh*t at a time when there could be serious consequences for Black women who spoke out. In doing so, she broke ground for a lot of us who came up after her. I identify with her writings and with her journey as a writer/Elder.
BCP: Much of your writing is political. Do you also write about the fun stuff of life? Why or why not?
ZA: Actually, most of my PUBLISHED writing is political but only a few of my songs and poetry could be considered as such. I’ve written love songs, poems dedicated to my children (who are my greatest teachers), songs about spiritual transformation, humorous poems … None of my songs on the Breathing the Wind CD are political. And my speculative fiction novel Moons of Palmares may have political undertones but it’s really just a story about characters being transformed by their relationships with each other and their planet.
As for the fun stuff, everything I write tends to have positive, happy or uplifting endings (even non-fic) because I care about leaving people hopeful. Words, whether spoken or written, have conjuring power. Why conjure up more negativity? What purpose does that serve?
At the same time I don’t believe that being in denial about some scary stuff going on in the world is useful. I think our hope and positivity actually have greater impact when we hold on to them in the context of some tough realizations and difficult history. If life was la-di-da easy and happy all the time what would our hope and positivity count for? It’s in coming out of challenge, trauma and tragedy that we truly appreciate love, peace and laughter.
BCP: Non-accessible academic writing, long and boring speeches, and yelling slogans on a megaphone are given precedence over poetry in the activist world. What role do you see poetry having in activism? How can poetry get more than a quarter of a page in a magazine (if at all) and be used as more than an opener at events?
ZA: I think what activists increasingly understand is that all our thinking actually comes from the heart. The Elders are very clear about that. Even scientists will now tell you that the emotional centres of the brain are always engaged in decision-making and so-called rational thinking processes. Feelings play a role in activist discourse as well. You can see this very readily in the Tea Party movement but that’s an example of angry/fear-based activism. Unfortunately a lot of anti-colonial, lefty activists are also pretty angry/fear based, whether they use arts processes in their activism or not.
That, for me, is the crucial issue. I think that what can make poetry and other artistic disciplines powerful in terms of articulating visions, encouraging actions, educating, etc. is that they can inspire us to allow love to motivate what we think, say and do. I’ve heard activists say they do what they do because they hate and are angry about something. My response to them is that there’s enough of that in the world and look where it’s gotten us. It doesn’t take a particularly creative or talented person to spread more hatred, anger and fear. I ask what’s behind those feelings. Fear is the source emotion for hatred and anger. Fear is based in a realistic concern that our basic needs aren’t going to be met. And love is a basic human need, as essential as food and water to our survival.
Offer love as a motivation for forming community or challenging injustice or writing and see what happens. Act like you care for life – all life – and see how many people start to listen to the message. I think the activists and academics that role model caring concern have the most sustainable successes AND derive the most joy from their work.
So, poetry and other forms of artistic expression can be very helpful in terms of movement building and inspiring social change.
BCP: Have any Aboriginal poets helped your activism as an Aboriginal person fighting for Aboriginal rights?
ZA: Just to clarify, these days I identify as an African American woman with Tsalagi (Cherokee) ancestry. I could go on as to why but that’s an issue for another interview. As for my influences, two stand out.
1) Buffy Sainte-Marie. Her lyrics are truthful, powerful, insightful and, fundamentally, loving. The first time I heard Universal Soldier a veil before my eyes was lifted and I felt my personal responsibility in matters of war and peace. Her songs Anna Mae Aquash and Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee shook me to my core. These lyrics challenge not only those in power but the rest of us to care and act.
2) Lee Maracle, whom I hope you will someday profile on the blog. Again, her work is honest and challenging and raw and loving all at the same time. It’s so layered that every time I re-read it I come to a deeper level of understanding and feeling. With Lee I never fail to learn something or see things in a new way. She’s one of the few people in this world who blow me away. With many writers I can appreciate the way they say what they say, the unique perspective they offer, but I’m not always surprised by the content; I don’t experience it as anything new. But Lee will write, say and do things I never expect, never see coming. I love that.
In both cases these women blazed trails for the rest of us. To this day they remain humble, nurturing women who continue to help up-and-coming writers, offer their time to worthwhile causes and care deeply for community.
BCP: Palestinian rights are very important to you. Has reading the poetry of Mahmoud Dharwish helped you in understanding the Palestinian struggle?
ZA: What I have read of Dharwish’s work truly moves me. The depth of his understanding of life and struggle leaves me awestruck. Though he wrote about Palestinians, he, like many poets, wrote and spoke universal truths. At the same time, he reminds me of the unique aspects of the Palestinian struggle.
I think there are many people who want to draw parallels between the struggles of Palestine and those of Indigenous peoples on Turtle Island, and there are many, but I celebrate the differences as well. Not to be divisive, but to be clear and honest and honourable. I can’t support struggles if I’m unclear about them.
Palestinians among other Arab peoples have a long and glorious history of using both the written and spoken word as a tool of spiritual and social liberation. Poetry holds a revered place in Arab culture and reminds us what has been lost in the English-speaking world. Dharwish motivates me to grow and evolve and use any tool at my disposal to make that happen.
I read a quote of Dharwish’s where he said that he believed that poetry only changes the poet. This might sound like cynicism or disillusionment but I believe he understood that each of us has to take responsibility for our own spiritual evolution. There are roles that poets can play but in the end our lives are for us to create. That’s a powerful realization.
BCP: As someone who sings and writes, do you see poetry and song related? Has one helped the other?
ZA: I’ve turned some of my songs into spoken word poetry and one would think it’s only a matter of speaking lyrics but it’s not that simple at all. They differ in structure a bit. Lyric-writing has to fit musical rules and rhythms; has to follow the energy of the particular music, for example. Plus, these days our ears are trained to expect rhyming (or approximate rhyming) in song. So creating within that structure can be either challenging or liberating, depending on my mood.
On the other hand, poetry is much less structured, though it certainly needs rhythm. At the same time that’s not as easy as one might think because then you have the challenge of not having structure or rules or templates to rely on. It’s like free fall. Scary and exhilarating all at the same time.
Both are challenging and fun to write, though. Either way, I think the key to enjoying the writing process is to feel passionately about something you want to say.
BCP: What advice do you have for young writers?
ZA: One of my sons is an aspiring writer and I urge him to live life to its fullest. Take emotional and physical risks. Travel or explore while standing still. Find people and things to care passionately about. Get your heart broken. Experience as much as you possibly can. It will feed your writing and enhance your enjoyment of life.
Tune in to Black Coffee Poet Friday October 1, 2010 for a video of Zainab reading her poetry.
Come see Black Coffee Poet read at the launch of Descant 150: