The Spiritual Fact of Our Oneness: A Conversation with Charif Shanahan


Charif Shanahan’s second poetry collection, Trace Evidence (Tin House, 2023) is a stunning tryptic that powerfully explores themes of mixed-race identity, time, mortality, and queer love. At the center of the collection is the poem, “On the Overnight from Agadir,” a meditation on the meaning of belonging, home, and the mysteries of fate. Shanahan wrote it after sustaining serious injuries in a bus accident in Morocco, while he was a Fulbright Scholar researching his mother’s homeland. Shanahan’s poems ask difficult questions for which he provides no easy answers. He encourages us to engage with complexities, nuances, and narratives that may differ from our own. There is pain in these poems, but also joy and hope. At the heart of Shanahan’s work is love and the belief we are all interconnected, changed by every encounter we experience. One cannot read Shanahan’s words without being changed.

Charif Shanahan is the author of Into Each Room We Enter without Knowing (Southern Illinois University Press, 2017), winner of the Crab Orchard Series in Poetry and a Lambda Literary Award. His work has appeared in The Nation, The New Republic, The New Yorker, The Paris Review, and elsewhere. Shanahan is the recipient of a National Endowment for the Arts Literature Fellowship, the Wallace Stegner Fellowship at Stanford University, and a Fulbright Senior Scholar Grant to Morocco. Originally from the Bronx, he is an Assistant Professor of English and Creative Writing at Northwestern University.

I had the great pleasure of speaking with Charif Shanahan over Zoom about identity constructs, the complexity and nuance found in life, and the “spiritual fact” of our oneness.


The Rumpus: Congratulations on this truly amazing collection. Can you share how it came about?

Charif Shanahan: In 2015, I left my job and my apartment in New York and went to Morocco for what I thought would be a year on the Fulbright to research my family genealogy and representations of Blackness in the Maghreb. About two months into my time there, I was on an overnight bus that crashed. I was badly hurt and medevaced to Zurich, where I was in the hospital for two months. I had three surgeries. After I left the hospital, I ended up back in the Bronx, where I was born and raised, for a long convalescence—in my childhood bedroom.

That experience is the genesis of the book, and its center. The other two sections of the book, which is a tryptic, take up themes of mixed-race identity, time, mortality, queer love and sexuality.

The beating heart of the whole thing, of my first book also, and probably of my vision as an artist, is love, in all its expressions, what denies it and what makes it possible. The grief that accompanies that love has to do with the separateness of our species, how we have divided ourselves, sometimes in ways that feel positive, sometimes in ways that are apparently neutral, and sometimes in obviously corrosive and violent ways. I believe that a unified sense of “us” is our initial state of being in the world– before we are named, gendered, raced, and cultivated into a self, a person. In my poems, I am trying to return us there, to bring the singing voice of the poem and the reader back to that space.

Rumpus: Let’s talk about the poem that centers the collection: “On the Overnight from Agadir.”

There’s tension, deciding whether to make the trip to your mother’s homeland, the tension between the desire to discover and the desire to disappear—or maybe to just get a dog. The search for place, for home, for meaning, your thoughts about time, about the meaning of your work. The poem is so huge in its reach and heart. While you were recuperating, in a forced stillness physically, did you do a lot of writing? Even if it were just in your head?

Shanahan: Poetry was nowhere near my consciousness in the acute moments after the accident, or in the months after. There was supposed to be only one surgery, then there was a second, then a third. With complication after complication, I just wanted to get the fuck out, to get to the other side of it.

I began to explore the experience in poems when I arrived in California, the September after the accident, and it’s amazing how fate carried me into that process. My first book was picked up shortly after I had arrived in Morocco, so my intention that fall had been to apply for fellowships and university teaching positions around the country, to see where I would end up after Morocco.

The accident happened at the time when I would’ve started doing that. While I was in the hospital one morning, between surgeries two and three, I thought to myself, If you get out of this, you’re going to need something to do! It was December 2. I remembered that the deadline for the Stegner Fellowship at Stanford was December 1, so it had passed that midnight. I was disappointed. Then it occurred to me that because Zurich was nine hours ahead of California, the deadline hadn’t yet passed in local time! I had thirty-five minutes to throw together the application, which I managed to do, using pre-existing application materials. Months later, recovering in the Bronx, I was lamenting my circumstances, wondering what was next, when ding! an email came in from Eavan Boland. I arrived in California that September, and it was there that I began to metabolize the experience creatively. 

Rumpus: It feels like this was a poem you had to write.

Shanahan: The experience was so complex and layered that I needed to process what had happened to me, and language is one of the tools I use to contemplate, to process experience. The poem was the eventual byproduct of that process, which, at its start, was about something else, about integrating experience. Somewhere along the way, the processing had occurred and I began thinking aesthetically.

Rumpus: How did you decide to put that poem in the middle of the book?

Shanahan: The first question I had was whether it could be a book-length poem. I generated many, many, many, many pages. In my discussions with Louise Glück at Stanford, from whom I had the privilege of learning, and in my own thinking about the poem, it became clear that it could be a book-length poem, but didn’t need to be. I whittled down the pages and distilled the poem into its current form. In its shortened version, it would exist alongside other work, and centering it then felt intuitive to me.

Rumpus: You write a lot about social identity and physical positioning. All of this is done to find the place of belonging we call “home.” Has the accident, the aftermath, and the process of metabolizing the experience into poems changed your concept of what constitutes home?

Shanahan: It returned me to an understanding, a wisdom, that had always been inside of me that I had lost touch with somehow. There is a truth, I believe, inside each of us, whether we are connected to it or not, that we are at home wherever we are. We are at home in the body. Sure, certain spaces might comfort or energize us more than others. There are places where we feel a sense of kinship to the physical earth, the people, the culture that’s expressed there. But we are diminished, I think, when we begin to depend on something outside of ourselves for a sense of safety, or self-possession.

I have an older poet friend who, in a long spiritual conversation we once had, said, completely earnestly, “Home is a sentimental fantasy!” I understand now more clearly what she meant.

Rumpus: “‘Mulatto’ :: ‘Quadroon,’” a brilliant poem that appears early in the collection, begins with what seems like a universal need to express one’s self: “I want to tell you what for me it has been like.”

The barriers you experience to that expression are not universal, however: “To speak at all / I must occupy a position / in a system whose positions / I appear not to occupy.” You are both, as you say, “A part and apart.”

This feels like a really impossible situation. Can you speak to how that position/non-position and language are connected and how existing in that liminal space adds both an urgency to the need to be heard and, at the same time, a questioning of whether that’s possible?

Shanahan: The poem meditates on that very question and, importantly, I think, doesn’t reach a conclusion. I’m not really interested in posturing at irrefutable conclusions, or easy answers; I want instead to put a spotlight on complexity, on nuance. I believe that racial discourse in this country is often flattened into one of a few mainstream narratives, probably in part because many people are resistant to even the clearest and most urgent issues—police brutality, for example. I don’t mean to say those narratives, or the portions of the conversation, that are most central today should not be as central as they are. I’m saying that there are many narratives. If you are in a body, you are racialized. You are having a racialized experience. What if integrating an experience, like my own, seemingly adjacent to larger mainstream narratives, or other narratives that are less familiar, into the larger racial discourse, can actually help us advance that discourse? I believe it can and does.

As for the poem, one cause of the limits on expression is the tendency to conceive of race, myopically, in terms of a static presence or absence of privilege, when privilege is dynamic. I have privilege in one room, then I absolutely do not in the next. And the reason I lack privilege in the second room is the reason I have it in the first. How do you “position” (name) that? So yes, let’s keep talking, let’s put everything, and everyone’s experience, on the table.

Rumpus: The way you write about your mom is so beautiful. I’m thinking of “Not the Whole Thing, but a Large Part of the Story,” of “Trace Evidence,” and of “Two Rooms Down the Hall,” in which you write “When she tells me not to put forward that I am Black, she is saying I love you. / She’s saying I want you to live. I see now. When she told my brother she wished / He’d just find a nice blonde girl and settle down, I took her by the face / And, staring into her even-keeled nonchalance/ told her I love you, and you are crazy.”

Your mom taught you a lot about identity, and while her own view of herself seems solid, it didn’t match the spaces in which people saw her.

Shanahan: That dissonance has been a primary question of my own identity and has required me to examine the instability of identity constructs, and in particular racial constructs, over time and space. My mother is from the Maghreb, born and raised in Morocco, identifies as Arab, as Muslim, as Moroccan, as woman. These were the identity markers germane to her experience.

It wasn’t that the color of her skin did not have meaning in Morocco. It of course did. But when my mother arrived here, to a new cultural and national context, with its terms of identity, its pathologies, her Blackness took on new meaning, new significance—and often contentiously. Now, it’s not that I think a person in her circumstances would need to revise their self-concept, but I think it becomes especially important to consider those circumstances when children are involved, when a first-generation Black American experience is happening outside of an African American lineage. I’m writing into that generational dissonance. As I ask in a poem that didn’t make it into the collection, “Why are the parts of her that she cannot see / the only parts of me that I can?”

Rumpus: This title made me laugh: “While I Wash My Face, I Ask Impossible Questions of Myself and Those Who Love Me,” because, Charif, you ask impossible questions all the time!

Shanahan: Guilty.

Rumpus: What I found interesting in this poem and several others is that you address yourself in the second person. You directly ask yourself questions. How did that choice come about?

Shanahan: The first piece is the distancing effect of using the “you as I,” the permission it grants you to inhabit a different mind space around your subjects, to separate from them in a way. The self that I’m addressing is part of me, is inside me, but I’m able to inhabit or situate myself in a different internal position vis-a-vis the material at hand.

The gesture is also necessitated by something I believe and that I think a fair amount of people I know would find difficult to trust: the self speaking to you right now, is not the self I inhabited (or that inhabited me) at the beginning of this conversation. We have changed one another in this dialogue of thirty or forty-five minutes. It doesn’t mean that this change needs to be profound, or on a constitutive level. It means a shifting occurs, by virtue of our “contact.” There is information about living, art, human connection, language, race—about everything that is alive inside this interaction—that you have integrated, or that at least is inside you waiting to be integrated. The same is true for me.

Rumpus: We talked about interpretations, and the way people bring with them their views of others when they meet them. Is it scary to put yourself on the page this way, while knowing people are going to hear what they hear and see what they see through their own lens?

Shanahan: I love what you’re saying because it’s an element of my work that can be easily misunderstood. A reader might say these are “confessional” poems or poems that seem generated by a psychological or emotional compulsion to reveal, to be seen. I wouldn’t agree with that at all. I think honesty, or transparency, is an aesthetic choice.

We shouldn’t assume anything that happens within the body of any poem is an event that has actually been lived. In the moments when I am most apparently honest about experiences that one might be expected to hide or keep to themselves, I am more than sharing myself or reflecting myself to an individual, I am reflecting the reader back to the reader. I am reflecting you back to you. One of the lines in “Fig Tree” is, in a similar vein: “Do I apologize? I am of this same world.” I didn’t ask for any of this, and I have nothing to be ashamed of.

I genuinely believe that I am you. It’s a notion that, again, many find hard to accept, or trust. I don’t mean to flatten our differences or to suggest that we’re having the same experience. The constructed world, though constructed, is real. In a way, it’s the first level of experience. My story has to be your story on some level, and yours, mine. We are beholden to one another. We are here at the same time.

Rumpus: What would you like people to get from this book?

Shanahan: I would like them to recognize themselves in a life that isn’t theirs, or maybe even like any they’ve known. I’d like them to be reminded of, again, the spiritual fact of our oneness—in a way that doesn’t feel irrelevant to how we live but can actually animate how we live, that can shape how we move through these lives and these bodies, at this time. I hope there are people who inhabit identity positions very different from my own, who can nonetheless see themselves in this book. I hope the book will awaken some people to the complexities of racial identity, especially today in an increasingly globalized world. I hope that the book can reach people’s hearts and souls and generate new conversation around the subjects I’m exploring.

Rumpus: Do you find that message, this book is especially necessary today?

Shanahan: I often ask my students, “The world is literally and figuratively on fire. Of all the things we could do with our lives, why write poems?” There are many answers to that question, of course, but chiefly, for me, it’s about the elevation of consciousness, the understanding of portions of human experience, even when that experience is far from our own, that poetry enables.

As a species, we can’t even agree, for example, that the climate crisis is real, or, as I put it in a poem in the book, that “we are all the same animal.” We can’t get on the same page about scientific fact, even when it requires our urgent, collective attention if we’re going to make it. And that must be rooted in the competing priorities generated by our separateness.

So yes, I think now is as good a time as any to spread a message of oneness.

Rumpus: What’s next for you?

Shanahan: I am working on a memoir that treats, in prose, the same subjects as the books of poetry, and I’ve also started my third book of poetry—a book-length epistolary poem to Whiteness. The poem is poly-vocal, written by many “authors,” and moves across time and space. There’s a section that comes out of the seventh century Arab slave trade, for example, preceding a section that comes out of the contemporary Bronx. It’s very global in orientation, as I am as a person and a poet, and I’m excited to keep ‘finding’ it.




Author photo by Rachel Eliza Griffiths


Diane Gottlieb’s essays, stories, and reviews have appeared in About Place Journal, The Longridge Review, The VIDA Review, The Rumpus, Hippocampus Magazine, Brevity’s Nonfiction Blog, McSweeney’s Internet Tendency, and Entropy, among others. She has an MSW, an MEd, and received her MFA from Antioch University Los Angeles where she served as lead editor of creative nonfiction for Lunch Ticket. You can find her at and on Twitter at @DianeGotAuthor. More from this author →