The Bard Speaks: A Conversation with Ladan Osman, Author of The Kitchen-Dweller's Testimony

cover art: rj eldridge

cover art: rj eldridge

Photography, cover art, and interview by RJ Eldridge.

The poems in Ladan Osman’s The Kitchen-Dweller’s Testimony (U of Nebraska Press, 2015) enrich and engage the worlds they inhabit with questions. Topics range from race, to magic, to what it means to be an immigrant girl in an often misunderstanding place. Sometimes heart-wrenching, sometimes hilarious, often mystical, always expansive and expanding, this collection rewards a reader with so many moments on which to meditate. 

R: First of all, thank you for agreeing to do this conversation. I’m so excited to be one of the first folks to share with you on this. Before we get into the details around the book, I think it might be good for readers to get an idea of your background. Where are you from, where is your family from, and how does this inform what shows up in your work?

L: I grew up in Columbus, Ohio but my parents are from Mogadishu, Somalia. As a kid, I remember worrying a lot about identity: if I mispronounced a word, or stopped speaking Somali altogether, was I an American? When I had the sense English couldn’t meet what I meant, did that prove I didn’t belong here? The most difficult part of negotiating both identities was not knowing if I was my authentic self, whether I’d be a different person had I grown up “back home.” I hadn’t chosen this place. I didn’t know if I belonged “back home,” either. This was a big concern in my mind when I encountered the language of immigration: was I an alien resident in this country, or on this earth? Most of my writing considers displacement, how imagination provides what isn’t available to the body. It seems the displaced body carries heritage through memory; for first generation immigrant children, a mostly secondhand memory. The landscapes of my parents’ stories, both biography and fable, appear in my poems. It was raining hard one afternoon, and my father started talking for a long time about how nomads move with rain and shadow. In considering oasis and drought, I began to take water seriously, and that eventually showed up in my writing. Many phrases translated from the Somali also appear in poems: the sinking woman will make froth a handhold (“Western Gate”), you lie so good you make the ocean sweet (“For the Woman Whose Love Is a Bird of Passage”). The process of distilling experience into an act of communication is linked to translation in my mind. The slipperiness of metaphor, that I am never satisfied with the image, with my lyric, that’s true in either language. Whatever I try, there’s a kernel between myself and another human. There’s also something in myself hidden from me. This is a tension I can’t help engaging. 

R: When I first heard you sharing your poems with an audience, I noticed a quality in your performance, as well as in the content of what you read, that seemed to come from some other place.  It was clear your poems transcended the idea of a writing about being a writer. Your work moved a diverse audience in a very immediate and apparent way. You seemed deeply invested in the lives of people whose stories were, like yours, often untold. Is this intentional?

L: Thank you. When we first met, you asked me about my engagement with the prophetic tradition. I told you I had to think about it. I’m still thinking about it. Many of my poems are in part exegetic, writing into Biblical and Quranic passages around prophesy, authority. That women are so often denied automatic credibility, that our logic is so often assumed fallible, is stunning. Moroccan scholar Fatema Mernissi jokes about “Arab therapy,” talking and talking until you learn something from someone. Arab means (or sounds like) tongue in Somali (carrab). The word for language (af) and mouth are the same (the Somali language, the Somali mouth). Already, there’s so much complexity, questions around colonialism, nationscape, and national identity to consider. 

I do care about stories. I’m surprised every day by the things people do or say, especially children. I love how elders have an impulse to share knowledge, their interest in using parables to deepen understanding. The stories that moved me most and helped me get past pain, even brief encounters with strangers, even silent ones, make it into poems. I take that seriously: the unwanted confession, or advice. How often does a person repeat a story? Why did they feel safe sharing it just then? 

R: Who are your major influences? 

L: Toni Morrison, Jamaica Kincaid, Mahmoud Darwish, Tayeb Salih, Sherman Alexie, Lucille Clifton. These writers engage philosophy, music, magic, humor with such clarity. Each approach urgent considerations, each is concerned with the immediate without ignoring history. Lately, Murakami’s fiction and interviews give me encouragement. He’s so comfortable working in his atmospheres. I like how people speak/misspeak. My parents are the strangest people I’ll ever meet in that regard: how they use images, how they move across time and subject without asking the other for clarify, when they are joking and reminiscing. It’s often a soothing, poetic exchange.  

R: I told you the other day I sense a lot of Rita Dove in your work. How a poem stays in your mind for days. How it doesn’t leave even after you sleep it off. Finally one day you realize that you’re inhabiting the metaphors to which the poem introduced you—that the poem has altered your world and now you just have to live in the world this poem altered. You’ve got so many poems like that. I can see how Kincaid, Darwish come into the work in this way, too. They both deal with such elemental aspects of experience. It’s moving to me how you can do that, and yet the images you choose are accessible to everyone. It’s in how you arrange them, it seems, in their relation to one another and to your memory and experience, and to ours as readers, that their capability to alter rests. 

L: I appreciate your generous analysis. The speaker of this collection moves through girlhood and womanhood, returning to particular images and landscapes: water, grass, shadows, dolls, beetles. The overall narrative becomes an uneven mirror, whose returned image moves beyond simple reflection by the last section. Van Jordan taught me to trust that I am the common thread in my images. A sequence may seem disconnected but through meditation and serious revision, I can focus attention on an image system: how does it operate? What does it require? How do I allow the atmosphere of the poem (tone, structure, content) to serve its lyric intentions? 

R:  Many of the poems in The Kitchen-Dweller’s Testimony concern place, especially in regard to a sense of belonging or not belonging. I get the sense you’re engaging in a very powerful way with the concept of home. 

L: I often wonder if displacement affects your heart. If it’s possible to have a nomadic heart. 
“Kitchen-Dweller” is based on a Somali joke: jiko muufo, or clay oven. It translates literally as “kitchen flatbread.” This is a woman who loves domestic work so much, she watches bread rise while it's still in the oven. I’m interested in how we value domestic and public space, what we devalue in order to privilege work outside the home. Often I think about how I don’t entirely belong in my mother or grandmother’s domestic histories, or in their dreams for my public life. 

R: This issue is about growth. Can you speak a little on the topic?

L: Growing pains are the best kind. As a kid, I used to feel my joints, my kneecaps, my flesh straining. It’s an ache that’s hard to describe but in the last few years, my spirit has had to expand rapidly. 

R: How so?

L: There was a time a regular hallway seemed cavernous. Some everyday anxiety could drop me into deep icy water. I felt ice growing up my arms. I felt I was growing icy wings, that a coldness would keep spreading until it reached my chest, and kill me that way. I was really convinced by this image for a short time. Then I realized I was the one describing, and wearing that image. I could leave that atmosphere anytime I wanted by changing my language. That psychic shift invited real healing in my life. 

I learned a lot while revising this book: What do I repeat? What do I request? What is the end game of this book? I became comfortable engaging surreal elements in the last section. That sense of play made it easier to take other emotional risks. 

R: As a black woman—an African woman—who writes and publishes a book of poems through a major press, you are in rare company. Not enough black women and girls get a chance for their perspectives to be heard. Black women and girls who actually get a platform become, then, representatives, for better or worse, of black women and girls as a whole. I imagine to be the daughter of African immigrants, you face this push for representation to an even greater extent. In terms of race, gender, nation--Do you feel that you bear a responsibility, and if so, what is it?

L: I’m responsible for making my best effort in my work, for making my most true work. There’s so little space, and sometimes such fierce competition for this small space, further limited by small imagination about our abilities as black women. But there’s a clear interest in claiming space together. Anyway, we’re used to creating other worlds that run alongside this one. Some of my most important work as a writer is determining who the work is for, how to write without catering to western appetites and curiosities. I’m also responsible for making more space. I’m afforded great opportunity in part because of my identity. I can’t ignore the historical, social, political, and emotional concerns of my people. 

R: What do you want this first collection of poems to do?

L: I want it to invite conversation, collaboration, as well as interrogation of interior and actual landscapes. I want readers to ask: What story am I in? Does it move with me? Women are discouraged from asking this enough: Does this narrative deserve my participation? 
I hope to remind others to refuse shame of their pain, personal and communal. 

The Kitchen-Dweller’s Testimony won the University of Nebraska Press’s 2015 Sillerman First Book Prize for African Poets. It will be released worldwide April 1, 2015. You may pre-order this riveting text and receive 25% off using the code 6AS15 here.

Poet Ladan Osman was born in Somalia. She earned a BA at Otterbein University and an MFA at the University of Texas at Austin’s Michener Center for Writers. Her poetry has been featured in former US Poet Laureate Ted Kooser’s syndicated newspaper column, “American Life in Poetry.” Osman lives in Chicago. Follow Ladan Osman on IG: @ladanbadan.

Join BGIO for our first Book Club gathering with Ladan Osman in Chicago on April 18th. 

photo: ladan Osman

photo: ladan Osman

RJ Eldridge (b. 1984) is a Chicago-based writer, emergent multidisciplinary artist, curator, educator and thinker. He is the Associate Director of the Chicago Slam Works House Ensemble, and teaches creative and critical writing and photography with Young Chicago Authors, Chicago Slam Works, Chicago Danztheatre and the Storyographers Digital Storytelling Organization. He made a national television debut last September in the NAACP Image-Award nominated series, Lexus Presents: Verses and Flow. A graduate of the University of South Florida’s Master’s program in Africana Studies, with a focus on literature and theory, he has engaged widely on the role of the arts in the construction of identity, and seeks to expand the dimensions of thought on the intersections between performance, race, history, ontology and myth. He has instructed at the University of South Florida, Young Chicago Authors and the Noble Network Charter Schools in Chicago, and has gained a reputation for enhancing literacy through critical thinking. He currently resides in Hyde Park.