Aisha Sharif is a poet and educator who has published widely, been nominated for a Pushcart, and is a Cave Canem fellow. Her work explores how identities of race, gender, and religion come together, diverge, and blend.
Her debut collection of poetry To Keep from Undressing from Spark Wheel Press explores the intersection of African American and Muslim American cultures, and while she does not shy from the political, her poems have a disarming quality—it’s worth listening to her reading of “Why I Can Dance Down a Soul Train Line in Public and Still be a Muslim” to get a sense of the of both the power and playfulness she brings to her work, and how those two dynamics create tension in her poems. Sharif also brings the perspective of a feminist of faith, which again drives home her ability to communicate multiple ways of being in the space of a few lines.
Sharif currently lives in Shawnee, Kansas with her husband and their two daughters. She teaches English at Metropolitan Community College in Kansas City, Missouri. We recently discussed living in the Midwest and the misconception about arts opportunities in the region, the nuance of her book’s title, Michael Jackson, and how the American identity is by nature an intersectional one.
The Rumpus: Could you talk about the title of your collection, To Keep from Undressing. It feels both intimate and political. What’s the story behind the title, and the poem it comes from?
Aisha Sharif: The title of the book is a line from one of its poems “Iddah.” In the poem, the speaker observes her sister who, after leaving an unstable marriage, suffers from depression and constantly sleeps in her work clothes. The speaker notices that her sister does this “to keep from undressing,” which is to avoid dealing with the realities of her current life, being divorced and the internal and external shame associated with it. So she sleeps in “yesterday’s clothes” literally and figuratively to avoid dealing with her new life.
This line “to keep from undressing” represents all of the ways we, particularly as women, battle revealing and confronting aspects of ourselves. Interestingly, Muslim women “keep from undressing” in a physical sense in public by being modest and covering; there is a benefit to this, and the book includes poems that talk about the beauty of not undressing, of keeping certain powers and beauties for oneself. Yet, the book also explores how keeping from undressing in some situations can be used to hide from the truth of our lives. “To keep from undressing” as a title is a statement indicating all the ways we cover ourselves—the choices we make to reveal and conceal our selves (physical coverings and spiritual coverings), the ups and downs of that process.
Rumpus: As in some other poems, in “Why I Can Dance a Soul Train Line In Public and Still Be a Muslim” you intersect the African American experience with the Muslim American experience in America. I feel like Americans in general are pretty bad at acknowledging that we can have dual or multiple identities, even though that feels pretty basic to the American experience. What are your thoughts on this?
Sharif: I would agree that individuals having dual identities is a very American concept; in fact, it’s almost inescapable. The very idea or “founding” of America is based on the intersection of various groups of people (some willing and many unwilling) who inhabit this space—slaves, indigenous people, immigrants, refugees, Catholics, Jews, Muslims, Spanish-speaking communities, native Arabic speakers, gay, straight, Northerners, Southerners, etc.
These groups, and their cultures, intersect. Their people intermarry, convert, and cohabitate which makes for a very layered existence in this country. Contrary to what some narratives and images would have people believe, to be American is to be a product of multiple heritages and identities.
As an African American, Muslim, woman from the South, I live my life constantly aware of intersectionality, how one identity intersects with and affects another.
More specifically, my parents converted from Christianity to Islam in the late 1970s and epitomized how seamless having dual identities could be in America. Growing up, we attended an Islamic school and learned Quranic Arabic, and yet we still listened to popular Black music and engaged in African dance classes. The masjid (mosque) I attended celebrated Black and American culture by taking trips to the rollerskating rink, holding fish fries after Friday prayer, lip-synch contests, and Black history programs.
I grew up seeing that being Black and Muslim was as natural as being American. My family established Islamic rituals and celebrated Ramadan, yet we would also visit our Catholic relatives in St. Louis during the summer, attend programs at their church, and talk about Lent and their fasting practices, too, as a way to bond through interfaith. I was and am aware of dual identities as natural, very much tied to my being and living in America.
Rumpus: You do address your faith in your poems. How has being a Muslim American influenced your writing life?
Sharif: My identity informs my writing heavily. As a religious minority, writing has become therapeutic, to where I need to write to understand certain questions like, “Will my daughter where hijab?” or “What if my parents didn’t convert to Islam and had remained Christian? How would my life be different?” So, writing and my writing life has become the process I use to figure out these questions deliberately, as I may not force myself to address them otherwise.
My writing life also has become the process where I understand intersectionality, for example, how my race affects my religious views, how I grew up wrapping my hijab like an African turban rather than draping it like many of my Pakistani and Arab friends, how that headwrap instilled in me racial pride while also bringing judgement from many other Muslims about the “right way to wear hijab.”
This intersectionality often displays itself in my poetry where a narrative has multiple layers; for example, I may weave in Black vernacular with Arabic or fuse Quranic verses with memories of trips to the local skating rink. Since my life is one of intersectionality, I try to show that intersectionality in my poetry.
Rumpus: I think that oftentimes people misunderstand the hijab or headscarf and view it as oppressive to Muslim women—though certainly not all Muslim women cover their heads in the first place. What does the headscarf symbolize for you?
Sharif: Unfortunately, yes, many people view the headscarf (the hjiab) as something that prevents a woman from truly being herself. But this view rests on the assumption that freedom and individuality only can come when a person shows off aspects of their physical selves and that oppression is covering of one’s body because it prevents expression. Granted, there are women who are oppressed in many so-called Muslim countries (which are actually just corrupt religious states) and are forced to wear burqahs by their government due to misogynistic practices.
The idea of the hijab in Islam, when displayed correctly, according to true Islamic principles, is not oppressive, but actually freedom. As I attempt to show in my book, keeping certain aspects of the self to oneself, let’s say one’s hair, can be very freeing because it involves a level of self-awareness and prioritizing of deeper aspects of life. On a foundational level, the headscarf is an act of faith. It is simply an engagement with submission to God, covering to serve God, which is quite common in many faiths—Catholic nuns cover, as do certain Jewish sects, and Sikhs.
On a more personal, individual level, my headscarf is also a way to express multiple forms of beauty and self-presentation. The way I present myself in public wearing the headscarf is one way I show up in the world, and without it in private is another form of expression. Both are valid, and they allow me the ability to decide who and where I reveal certain aspects of myself when I want. In that is a lot of power.
Rumpus: Some of your poems acknowledge the Jinn, which can be perceived in Islamic culture as taboo to discuss directly. For those who are unfamiliar with this concept, can you provide some context?
Sharif: In Islam, the Jinn are beings that are made out of smokeless fire. They can inhabit heaven and the earth, though they are neither angels nor devils. They are beings with free will that can be peaceful and good, yet they can also function like tricksters. This latter point is important, especially for the purposes of the book, as it is believed that every human has a Jinn, and that Jinn can “act” upon humans in various ways.
It can aid a Muslim or it can unearth mischief, especially if that person is not at peace with himself or herself. So, the Jinn are taboo to speak about because some Muslims believe that doing so unearths its mischievous possibilities and, ultimately, humans’ weaknesses in overcoming them.
Yet, there is a common saying by the holy prophet Muhammad, peace be upon him, that he had made his Jinn a Muslim. So, in a nutshell, the task with having a Jinn is to make it be used for good, which can only occur if one is good and at peace within themselves. For Muslims, the Jinn exist, and yet also are manifestations of our own souls. The poems in the book present speakers who are in various relationships with the Jinn that are reflective of their own spiritual development.
Rumpus: These days, you live in Kansas, and I think that often times folks think of states like Kansas and Missouri as just flyover country, but there’s a rich arts community in the mid- and central-US. What has your experience been?
Sharif: Before moving to the Midwest, I unfortunately never associated it with having rich arts communities. But there is a strong presence here of diverse, unique artists. You may have to seek it out intentionally, but there are communities of writers, visual artists, and dancers that I have come to know and gain a lot of inspiration from. I am a part of Cave Canem, a collection of African American poets across America, and at one point, there were five of us here in the greater Kansas City Metropolitan area, which may not seem like a big number, but for Kansas City it has allowed us to do poetry readings and workshops for novice writers!
Rumpus: You’re a Cave Canem fellow, you teach, and you have published widely. What’s your advice to emerging writers who might be struggling with unpublished drafts?
Sharif: My advice is to be a reed in the wind! That is, be willing to move in the direction that your poetry is telling you in needs to go, be willing to take advice from others, and be willing to let the work rest and return to it later if it needs that. My journey of writing and publishing this book extended over ten years. That is a long time, but the work (and moreover, I) needed that time.
I received several rejection letters when I first began submitting the collection in 2008 and would attempt to reorganize the manuscript only to receive more rejections. What I didn’t realize at the time was that my book was not ready to be “birthed.” I was not ready or capable of tackling some of the poems, craft-wise and experience-wise. So, I decided to take a break from it. This was the best decision because in this break I had huge milestones in my life: I got married and had my first child.
After returning to the collection, I saw the holes and got some important advice from a well-known poet. I began adding more poems and revising ones that I thought were “finished.” If I had pressed and pressed earlier, then I would have made the book into something it wasn’t ready for. Sometimes, you have to listen to your book and be ready for what it is telling you.
Rumpus: In terms of going back and fixing the “holes” in your book while you were trying to get it published, what did that mean for you? Rewriting? Adding more poems?
Sharif: Fixing the “holes” in the book meant several things for me. It first meant adding more poems. I realized that there were certain aspects of my faith journey that were not really addressed (like my parents’ conversion and how parenting has made me reevaluate my prayers). These themes developed later in the composition process mainly because they are themes I only started to reflect on as I got older.
The initial drafts of the manuscript that I had written in my mid to late twenties housed poems dealing mainly with hijab and race. As I grew older, the manuscript was calling for a broader range of topics, a gap I only realized as I matured myself.
So, I went back and added more poems about marriage, motherhood, and sexuality. Fixing the holes also meant getting out of an organizational structure that wasn’t working for the book. The book was (and still is) divided into five sections because initially I wanted the book to mirror the five pillars of Islam—the five tenets that guide Muslims’ beliefs and actions. However, the editors at Spark Wheel Press, Liz Kay and Torrey Smith, revealed that the organizational strategy wasn’t working; I was trying to place poems in sections that I felt fit each tenet even though the poems weren’t written with those tenets in mind. Thus, the book’s structure seem forced. So, the poems were rearranged. There are still five sections, but they are organized via a more natural mix of chronology and content.
Rumpus: What’s next for you?
Sharif: I am currently working on a collection of poems about Michael Jackson. He is such a fascinating person, complex and controversial in many ways. I want to explore his fears and passions and the ways he “kept from undressing.”
Rumpus: Why Michael Jackson? He’s a challenging figure.
Sharif: I’ve always been intrigued with Michael Jackson, not simply due to his music, but moreover due to how he navigated the public/private divide. On one level, here was a man who exuded such confidence and joy on stage through his musical and dance performances, and yet, on the other hand, he was quite shy and socially awkward in his private world.
To complicate matters, he created his own fantasy land (Neverland) as an escape from reality, adulthood, and the responsibility that comes with it. It is as if he is two different people. The presence of two seemingly contradictory existences really fascinates me. I’m intrigued with that duality, which is something I’ve understood as a person with a dual existence.
I don’t equate myself with Michael Jackson, but I, as an African American Muslim, see how someone could exist with a weird double consciousness, always aware, like Michael Jackson was, of his public persona and keeping that up, while also wanting to escape it. It is a problem, as W.E.B. DuBois suggests, that splits Blacks, like Michael Jackson I would argue, into two different people. I want to delve into that twoness, exploring his conflicts with race, sexuality, and his relationships with women and children, his body, and adulthood but also the beauty within those layered identities. To this end, I’ve written some persona poems in his voice and poems in which we see him engage with his jinn. It is super creepy, but also exciting.
Photograph of Aisha Shariff by Clay E. Bussey.