INTERVIEWED BY SOPHIA LIU
Noor Hindi (she/her/hers) is a Palestinian-American poet and reporter. Her book, Dear God. Dear Bones. Dear Yellow is out with Haymarket Books. She is a 2021 Ruth Lilly and Dorothy Sargent Rosenberg Fellow. Follow her on Twitter @MyNrhindi.
Hi Noor! Congrats on Dear God. Dear Bones. Dear Yellow.! It’s so propulsive and unflinching. I pause at lines and wow. I want start by asking you about “Fuck Your Lecture on Craft, My People Are Dying” which so well-deservingly blew up last year. What was your reaction to the attention the piece received?
First of all, thank you so much for reading the collection and spending time with the poems.
I think the biggest motivator for me in writing the book was seeking community and connection. I felt so connected to the authors of the collections that I read when I was studying and exploring poetry, so I'm really glad to hear that the book resonated with you so much.
“Fuck Your Lecture on Craft, My People Are Dying” was a wild experience. I didn't expect the poem to blow up the way it did. But I think because of the pandemic, the George Floyd protests, and Israel threatening to and evicting families living in Sheikh Jarrah, there was a lot of anger and tiredness in our country and worldwide and the poem resonated with many people. And the coolest thing was just to be able to reach so many people and respond to them and say thank you and hear about their personal reading of it and how it connected to them.
You end ““Fuck Your Lecture on Craft, My People Are Dying” with the line “One day, I’ll write about the flowers like we own them.” Those words are shattering. They’re especially shattering because that day may never come, or when it does, we’ll be long gone. How do you assess poetry's capability as activism and advocacy when so much feels out of our control?
A protest poem is not a protest. It's not a burning of a police building. It's not a change of legislation. But what poetry does is give voice to the people who are most impacted by violence, by colonialism, by climate disaster. For example, rather than somebody reporting on an event that impacts people, a poet is able to just write their own story, document their own history, and be a voice that connects to other people like them. For me, emerging into the literary scene reading queer Palestinian and Arab poets, I knew that I wasn't the only one and felt less lonely and alienated. I hope that by writing my own poems, I’m reaching audiences that need to be reached to empower them.
There’s humor blended into the poems in Dear God. Dear Bones. Dear Yellow. I loved the lines “I assimilated so much / I drink Diet Coke / at the rate of a middle-aged / white woman” in “Broken Light Bulb Flickering Away” and the sarcasm in “Self Portrait as Arab/Muslim Teenager in an All-White High School.” But I felt something bitter about the humor—it becomes a coping mechanism against the white supremacist capitalist patriarchy, against America. Can you speak more about the humor in the book?
I really believe in humor's ability to access hurt and make a point without feeling too heavy. It’s a useful mechanism. People don't expect when you're writing about immigration, sexuality or sexual violence, for there to be an element of humor. But I think in our human existence, there are varying emotions and ways of coping that I often don't see represented in poems that are tackling these tougher subjects. Personally, I think entering the poems with a certain level of light-heartedness allows me to access my own voice to be able to talk about difficult topics without coming to the page with this sense of heaviness and dread.
Another topic you navigate is your difficult relationship with journalism. Does observing the violence, voyeurism, and dehumanization of journalism prompt you to approach your journalism differently?
I was on this crusade for years when I was doing journalism to convert more reporters to poets, and or at least get them to read poetry. Because so often reporters are interviewing subjects—people who are experiencing violence or racism—but we are still the gatekeepers of their voice. We’re choosing which quotes to pick. Sometimes we're using their narrative, their story, and their voice to explain a larger phenomena. Poetry, on the other hand, is a person’s unfiltered voice and experience. It’s documentary.
Solmaz Sharif’s work, for example, incorporates family, history, and photography. Poetry is so empathetic and attuned to the heart, but reporting doesn't always feel that way. In reporting, there's a structure and an argument that’s presented through statistics or a study. I think it's worth reading a person's perspective for the sake of reading it and experiencing that story first-hand and sitting with their art. I also think that poetry taught me to be in touch with feelings and sit through the pain. When you're reporting, you're not always able, or you don't have the time to process everything that you're seeing, which ultimately does a disservice to what you publish.
Despite your critique of journalism, you still pursue journalism. Can you describe that dissonance?
I actually published my last story in August of 2021, so we're nearing roughly a year since I’ve stopped reporting. I’m working in communications and marketing now and I haven't returned to reporting. I burnt out. But it's something that I continue to use in my poetry. What journalism taught me is how to connect to communities, how to find information, and how to interact with documents. I still use the skills even though I'm not currently practicing it.
Many of the poems Dear God, Dear Bones, Dear Yellow respond to or incorporate journalism. The use of headlines in “Good Muslims Are All Around Us” is so powerful. How does your work in poetry and journalism overlap and carry over to one another?
As a child growing up in the United States, and as somebody who was six years old during 9/11, growing up in the supercharged anti-Muslim rhetoric, it's always been fascinating to me the ways in which headlines report articles and how the language that we use creates violence that can be targeted to a specific group of people consciously or not consciously. When somebody hasn't taken the time to think about language and its impact, there are implications to the words they put on a page. I was very aware of the consequences of reporting. Reports about Palestine, for example, often say Palestinian children have been shot dead by Israeli officers. They’re referred to as shot dead and not murdered, which implies that there isn't this connection between the perpetrator and the victim. You also see this a lot with the way that we talk about the killing of Black men in this country by police officers in the use of the active versus passive voice. Growing up in that atmosphere taught me to be more critical.
One of the most poignant moments in the book is the USCIS Trip poems, where you detail your grandmother’s relentless and excruciating journey to become an American citizen. How do you go about having conversations with people who hold such contrasting, and often heavily idealized, images of America?
America often creates wars, meddles into other countries. create chaos, and wreaks havoc on generations. Then we become refugees or have a need to immigrate to this country as a direct result of America being a colonial nation and American interests always being put above all else in the world. When you are somebody who is white and or has grown up in this country and hasn't been to other countries, you believe that the world revolves around the United States, that it is the center of the universe. With my grandma, she was happy to receive her citizenship and felt a sense of safety and stability in having her citizenship. But I continually ask: at what cost?
I ask that question with the knowledge that it's a question I'm asking from a place of privilege as somebody who did not grow up in Palestine. I was born in Amman, Jordan and I didn't grow up there either, so there's a lot that I didn't experience. There is still this image of America being the land of opportunity. In a lot of ways, some of the poorest people in this country are perhaps richer than people in other countries around the world. We know this to be true in some ways, but I just continually question the consequences.
I’m wondering with relatives, like your grandmother, who still blissfully believe in America, are these conversations even worth happening?
Family and politics are really difficult to navigate. It's really hard for me to come to her and tell her to be critical of this country when she is limited in the amount of water that she can use every week in Amman. She’s limited in the amount of gas she can use and parts of her home are not heated in the winter. For me to come and tell her to be critical of America, as I'm sitting in an air conditioned and heated home, and have this ability to use as much water as I please, is a privilege.
I haven't navigated that conversation. And I, throughout the process of her receiving her citizenship, helped her with it. I wasn’t going to break her bubble of joy with whatever criticism I had. She deserves to be happy.
In “I Buried My Father Last Winter,” you write “The first time I met my father, I was interviewing a Bhutanese refugee.” When I spoke to Diana Khoi Nguyen, she discussed that she spoke with members of the Vietnamese diaspora due to the silence sustained by her parents. Do you share a similar experience?
My dad was somewhat open about talking about his experiences. I was working on a story at the time for a magazine about a community that was living in Akron, Ohio, which is where I grew up. The community consisted of predominantly Bhutanese and Nepali refugees. I was fascinated by their experience of coming to this country because it mirrored my grandparents’ experience of having to navigate language barriers and watching this generational divide with their kids. In the poem, I quoted the words from a refugee I interviewed.
It mimicked a lot of what my parents often said to us or accused us of growing up because of the strangeness and distance we felt from not growing up in the same place, not speaking the same language, and not having an affinity for the same food. White people, for example, often go to the same high school as their parents, or share similar experiences, and I think there’s a closeness and intimacy in that. But children of immigrants don't experience that. When I was interviewing this refugee, I was at this place of empathy and understood the sense of betrayal and loneliness with one’s children and new country.
You open with an epigraph “Let this book be an invitation, as prayer, as love.” Moments of love are dispersed through the book. In “USCIS Trip #2,” you write “I want my rage to elicit love and more love. I want people to stop asking if I love this country.” In the last piece, “Pledging Allegiance,” you question, “What does it mean to love? A country? A book? A people?” How do you intend the book to serve as love? What does it mean to proffer this book as love when you question its definition?
In a way, I wrote the book from a place of isolation and loneliness and a desire to connect. My sense of safety, community and belonging and feeling loved came from reading other writers like Tarfia Faizullah, Randa Jarrar. Safia Elhillo, and Kaveh Akbar. All of these people made a huge impact not only on my work, but also on my mental health and ability to navigate the world. I see the book as an act of love and vulnerability. I think that often your first book as a poet tends to be autobiographical because you have all these experiences you’re going through. I wanted that first page to welcome people in and to make them feel safe and to establish a connection.