Aisha Sharif was born into a Muslim family, but not by much.
"My father actually converted right before I was born, and my mother converted shortly thereafter," Sharif said.
Before their conversion, Sharif's parents were Christians, as was the family in which Sharif's siblings were born.
But their parents' changed faiths. And so it is that Aisha Sharif grew up an African American Muslim woman.
Sharif touches on this experience in the interview below. She also discusses being Muslim in post-9/11 America.
It's her poetry, though, that brings Aisha Sharif to Bidwell Hollow. Her debut collection, To Keep from Undressing (paid link), was released in January by Spark Wheel Press.
Publishing was the end of a road littered with rejection letters and marked by trials of patience and persistence.
Aisha Sharif recounts the publishing process and more below.
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Q&A with Aisha Sharif
Can you tell us a little bit about yourself?
I grew up in Memphis, Tenn., the middle child of five children. I attended college at Rhodes College and graduate school in Indiana University, Bloomington. I spent a few years in St. Louis but currently live in Shawnee, Kan., a suburb outside of Kansas City, Mo.
My hobbies include writing poetry, decorating, and sleeping.
Aisha Sharif, African American Muslim Woman
You were a child when your family converted to Islam, correct? What was that experience like for you?
My father actually converted right before I was born, and my mother converted shortly thereafter. So, I grew up only really knowing myself as a Muslim.
However, my two older sisters were raised as Christian for the first 3-6 years of their lives. I have seen pictures of them on Christmas opening Christmas presents and have wondered how they navigated that transition, how they had to learn to do away with certain traditions once they understood they were no longer Christian. I write about that in a poem, “Conversion Residuals,” in my book.
I have often looked at old pictures of my parents when they were Christian, sipping champagne, smoking cigarettes, mingling at parties and have noticed the very different world they navigated. They almost seem like different people.
At times, I wondered what type of life I would have had if they hadn’t converted, if I would have had access to a different world or been more or less compassionate for people who are religious minorities as I am now.
What’s the experience been like for you as a Muslim woman in the middle of the U.S. in a post-9/11 world?
The experience has been very complex. On one level, it has been burdened with acts of Islamophobia. Hearing offensive comments from random people in the streets after 9-11 about how Muslims should “go home,” reading about Muslims being attacked throughout the world, having my faith demonized in the news, and watching the president ban people from select Muslim countries from entering the country has all really weighed on my hope.
At times, it is hard to stay positive about the goodness left in the world. And yet, as quickly as I get despondent, I read about acts of kindness where strangers step in and defend a Muslim woman being harassed on the street or I personally receive an invitation to visit my daughter’s kindergarten class to talk to her peers about Ramadan. These types of acts make me very proud and happy to be a part of this larger community.
Since 9-11 there has been an increase in interfaith activities across the country where Muslims, Jews, Christians, Buddhists and more have gathered to engage in dialogue on how to dispel hate. Thinking of this reminds me how sometimes conflict can bring out goodness, pushing people to really unify, evaluating their moral compasses and realigning their actions to keep negative acts from continuing to happen.
The Poetry of Aisha Sharif
Many of the poems in To Keep from Undressing relate to being an African American Muslim woman. How does your identity shape or inform your writing?
My identity informs my writing heavily.
I am an African American, Muslim, woman from the south. These identities are layered, one intersecting with and affecting the others; for example, I am constantly aware of 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. So, since my life is one of intersectionality, I try to show that intersectionality in my poetry.
Is there a universal message or theme you hope others receive in To Keep from Undressing?
I would like others to see how balancing faith in a higher power and finding your individual identity is a beautiful journey.
At times, we uphold our beliefs and feel confident in our individuality, the two working seamlessly, and at other times, one of these may take a back seat as we grow. We question the faith of our parents, wondering if we can align with the tenets. We may leave faith as we try to “uncover” ourselves. I attempted to collect poems in my book that reflect that process.
The book shows a trajectory of experiences in hopes of reflecting the process of keeping faith while maintaining a sense of self.
The Road to Publishing
How long did you work on the poems that you included in To Keep from Undressing?
In total, I had been working on these poems for about 13 years.
I had been writing poems in graduate school and afterward, submitting them individually to journals, and around 2011, I realized that they should be in a book as the themes of faith and race very much aligned. I spent the next 6 years revising those poems and submitting the manuscript to poetry contests.
I received many rejections. I would revise, reorganize the poems and add and subtract more poems with each rejection. In 2017, I submitted the manuscript to Spark Wheel Press and was finally accepted.
What was the process of finding and working with a publisher like for you?
The process of finding and working with a publisher was one that took a lot of patience. As mentioned above, I spent several years submitting my manuscript to contests for publication and receiving rejections.
I didn’t know if I was choosing the wrong contests or if there was something about my work that needed to be strengthened. It most likely was a combination of the two.
I had to be willing to reorder my poems and cut and add new ones as well as really take a deeper look into the contests and open calls to determine if the my work actually fit with the interests of the publisher.
Luckily, a friend informed me about Spark Wheel Press and the editors’ previous work; I read up one them and they seemed like a good fit and it turned out that they thought I was, too! I valued their approach to the editing process and their inclusion of my ideas in that process.
Sharif's Reading and Current Project
Who are some poets that you admire?
Yusef Komunyakaa, Anne Carson, Rita Dove, Sylvia Plath, Mahmoud Darwish
Have you read any good books lately?
Yes, The Poet X (paid link) by Elizabeth Acevedo, a fabulous young adult novel, and Green Target (paid link) by Tina Barr, a book of poems that uses nature to question how we arrive at “organic” thoughts and connections.
Lastly, anything else you'd like Bidwell Hollow readers to know about Aisha Sharif or your work?
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.
Thank you to Aisha Sharif for this interview. You, too, could be featured on this blog. Use this website's contact form to reach out.
WHY I CAN DANCE A SOUL-TRAIN LINE IN PUBLIC AND STILL BE MUSLIM
My Islam be black.
Not that “Don’t-like-white-folks”
kind of black. I mean my Islam be
who I am—black, born and raised
Muslim in Memphis, Tennessee,
by parents who converted
black. It be my 2 brothers
and 2 sisters Muslim too
black, praying at Masjid Al-Muminun,
formally Temple #55,
located at 4412 South Third Street
in between the Strip Club
and the Save-A-Lot black.
My Islam be bean pie black,
sisters cooking fish dinners
after Friday prayer black,
brothers selling them newspapers
on the front steps black, everybody
struggling to pay the mortgage back
My Islam be Sister Clara Muhammad School
black, starting each day
with the pledge of allegiance
then prayer & black history
black. It be blue jumpers
over blue pants, girls pulling bangs out
of their hijabs to look cute
black. My Islam be black & Somali
boys and girls, grades 2 through 8,
learning Arabic in the same classroom
cuz we only had one classroom
black. It be everybody wearing a coat inside
cuz the building ain’t got no heat
My Islam be the only Muslim girl
at a public high school
where everybody COGIC asking sidewise,
What church you go to?
black. It be me trying to explain hijab
black, No, I don’t have cancer. No,
I’m not a nun. No, I don’t take showers
with my scarf on. No, I’m not
going to hell cuz I haven’t accepted
Jesus Christ as my Lord and Savior
black. My Islam be riding on the city bus
next to crackheads and dope boys
black, be them whispering black,
be me praying they don’t follow me home
My Islam don’t hate Christians
cuz all my aunts, cousins,
and grandparents be Christian
black. It be joining them for Easter
brunch cuz family still family
black. My Islam be Mus-Diva
black, head wrapped up,
feathered and jeweled black. It be me
two-stepping in hijab and four-inch heels
cuz dancing be in my bones
My Islam be just as good as any Arab’s.
It be me saying, No, I ain’t gonna pray
in a separate room cuz I’m a woman
black. And, Don’t think I can’t recite Quran too.
Now pray on that black!
My Islam be universal
cuz black be universal.
It be Morocco and Senegal,
India and Egypt. My Islam
don’t need to be Salafi
or Sufi. It don’t have to be
blacker than yours black.
My Islam just has to be.
— "WHY I CAN DANCE A SOUL-TRAIN LINE IN PUBLIC AND STILL BE MUSLIM" from To Keep from Undressing (paid link). Copyright 2019 by Aisha Sharif. Published by Spark Wheel Press. Used with permission of the author.
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