Thursday Dec 07

MarwaHelal Marwa Helal is a poet and journalist. Her work appears in Apogee, Hyperallergic, the Offing, Poets & Writers, the Recluse, Winter Tangerine and elsewhere. Her work is forthcoming in the anthologies Bettering American Poetry 2016 and Best American Experimental Writing 2018. She is the author of I AM MADE TO LEAVE I AM MADE TO RETURN (No, Dear/Small Anchor Press, 2017) and Invasive species (Nightboat Books, 2019). Helal is the winner of BOMB Magazine’s Biennial 2016 Poetry Contest and has been awarded fellowships from Poets House, Brooklyn Poets, and Cave Canem. Born in Al Mansurah, Egypt, Helal currently lives and teaches in Brooklyn, New York. She received her MFA in creative nonfiction from The New School and her BA in journalism and international studies from Ohio Wesleyan University.

Why I Write: Marwa Helal

As a young person I wrote to define myself. That writing, which took the form of poetry, journaling, and list making led me to my work as a journalist. But journalism was insufficient. And my journalism teachers were right, “you do not want to know how that sausage is made.” This is why they were teachers and not journalists.

I worked for a major television network in Washington, D.C. right out of college and saw firsthand the abuses and biases that take place in the name of “objectivity.” The use of outdated b-roll to represent images from the [invented] Middle East, the repeated choices to use dehumanizing images of people of color who were only alleged to have committed crimes. That benefit of doubt not afforded them. And doesn’t make a catchy headline. It was also laziness on the part of these so-called journalists. Their easy willingness to regurgitate the White House press reports for mass digestion. Being in that newsroom showed me how little difference there is between democracy and dictatorship. But I imagine if you are reading this, you are already aware of this on some level, so let’s move on...

Poetry is my journalism. It tells the truth. It touches on our collective humanity through the specific, builds new pathways for empathy, and sears itself into memory. What I mean is, poetry allows for greater accuracy and deeper transformation than any news piece ever ever. A successful poem seeps into the subconscious and becomes a part of our consciousness. The possibility of our collective betterment is what drives me.

In post 9/11-America, I became Muslim. Though I had lived in the U.S. since I was 2.5, I was still an immigrant and was first denied a work visa and then a student visa, which left me [indefinitely] stuck in Egypt during the formative ages of 24 through 27. It was through these events that I came to know displacement intimately, and learned the value of poetry, as it became my home. My work aims to create space for the unseen victims of discriminatory foreign (read: immigration) policy, migrants, refugees, and in short: the displaced.

I write to share what I have experienced and observed through the lens of my own complex identity. To hold a mirror to how I am seen, read, and misread—and the implications then of how we see each other. Writing provides a sense of continuity between the many places I have lived. I write to reclaim and to resist the loss of my native culture and language: Egyptian and Arabic, respectively. I also write to restore my body. The loss of country or place, or the not having a country or distinct nationality, emphasizes the body.

Displacement is not only in the relocation of the body from one place to another, rather it is a state of consciousness constantly occurring within the body. In this way, displacement is double fold. And we are entering a time where the majority of the human population is or will soon be displaced. The newspeople call it a refugee crisis. But this is not new nor is it news and it is beyond a crisis. It has been happening since slavery and colonization. So, I write to rip the mask off of their lazy alarmist bullshit. I write to dismantle Western invented hierarchies and to imagine new ones that serve us all.

I know what it is to be without country and it is to be without body. In this way, my body of work becomes my body; my country. I write for those of us who have no country with hopes that we can make a home here: in the ink. I write for those bodies, those lives that deserve better from all of us. This is how I take responsibility for my complicity in this life.


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