If there is anything that history has taught us is that language is a powerful tool. Poetry is one of the most expressive forms of art where writers often times pour their hearts and souls out. Marginalized and oppressed communities for years have used poetry along with other forms of writing as outlets to let out and express their experiences, histories, memories and feelings. Poetry is no stranger within the Palestinian struggle and likes such as Mahmoud Darwish, Suheir Hammad, Remi Kanazi, Rafeef Ziadah and Tariq Luthun are testament of this.
Palestine in America had the pleasure to sit down with Tariq Luthun, a Palestinian American poet based in Michigan whose poetry is powerful and expressive.
PiA: A little bit about you and your background
Tariq Luthun: To keep it brief, I’m a Palestinian-American poet and strategist. I’ve bounced around between a lot of fields from journalism to research to analytics, but the one common thread between them has always been storytelling. Right now, I spend a lot of my time trying to foster spaces for self-expression and growth, usually through words. When I was younger, I was always looking for ways to get involved and stay engage with the communities around me, but that wasn’t always so easy for a variety of reasons. So, these days, I make it a case to try and create that “safer” space for folks especially youth.
PiA: How and when did you start writing poetry?
TL: I started writing at a very young age. I was always a pretty voracious reader, so when I needed more outlets to create, writing became a natural realm to find myself in. So, I’d been a writer for much of my life, but I didn’t really start writing poetry until my senior year of high school. As part of my humanities class, we were tasked with “Outside Activities” where we would have to find some artistic, cultural, or literary event not sanctioned by the school and just attend. I stumbled upon a slam run at our local library, and instead of just attending I decided to participate. I did pretty well and came in second place in spite of how shy I was. I gained a lot of confidence in my work after having shared it aloud, and from there I started exploring with the craft a bit more through the rest of the year to the point where I almost entirely gave up writing in other forms— that was just how natural poetry felt to me at the time.
PiA: Where do you find inspiration to write?
TL: I think urgency inspires me to write. To be honest, I don’t really know if there is one specific place where I pull my inspiration from, I just know that I am moved by positive change, growth.
For me, it’s less about finding that inspiration, and more about living my life in a way that respects the space and communities around me.
When you orient your way of life towards a certain goal, I think the writing just follows suit. As a Palestinian American, I’m no stranger to loss and its many shades. That constant, looming threat of loss— whether it is a life, or an identity, or a piece of culture, etc— lights a fire under me. So, when we talk about “urgency,” what I’m saying is that as a person of color with a variety of privileges and disadvantages afforded to me, I constantly ask myself how can I leverage my identity in a way that makes this world around me a bit more inhabitable for those I’m sharing this earth with.
PiA: What are some of your “must read” books that developed your sense of social awareness?
TL: Well, given the age we live in, I think a great deal of the work I consume isn’t found in books. With the way information travels so quickly, a lot of the work and discourse that will find itself in books is being shared among us right now when you’re thinking of game-changing content-creators like Junot Diaz, Te-Nehesi Coates, Chimamanda Ngozi, etc.
With that said, I think it’s important that we exercise that balance and recognize that there is a great foundation for awareness— and, ultimately, tangible action— in books. I think there are a great deal of works out there that develop a sense of social awareness, but probably the person I would have people start with is Audre Lorde, and specifically “Sister Outsider.” What Lorde did with her work for how we come to view “identity” is unmatched. As a person marginalized for her sexuality, race, gender, and beliefs, she articulates concepts that some contemporary thought leaders are constantly preaching.
What social awareness comes down to is being able to not just wrestle with our biases but seek ways to overcome them. I feel that Lorde’s work really helps to open the door for people to challenge their perceptions of identity and the ways in which we don’t see how we are capable of harming one another.
PiA: What do you think the role of art/writing is in regards to the Palestinian struggle and/or social justice movements?
TL: Writing— and more generally art— serves so many purposes when it comes to social justice movements. I think some of the most beautiful and necessary works are born out of a personal desire to heal, and they are shared out of a greater desire to heal others. Secondly, each act of creation serves as a cultural and historical timestamp of sorts. Yes, we have the news and Twitter, and the like. But, the works we are creating now also act as a form of journalism that current and future generations can look at to not only help them get a fuller understanding of the narratives taking place, but also to speak to these consumers of the story in a way that a news article or a scholarly piece cannot.
In terms of creating work with an eye on the Palestinian struggle, sometimes all we know is what we have lost and what we could lose. I think a lot of younger folks fall into this trap of dedicating themselves to illuminating the struggle, but neglect to take care of themselves in the process— I was definitely a victim of this when I was younger.
These days, I take some issue with the idea of creating anything that doesn’t try to heal us, first and foremost. This is definitely not to say that we shouldn’t be putting effort into sharing our struggles, as there is definitely a huge and vital place for the overarching strategies and works that combat oppression. But, one of the ways supremacy ideologies consume us is by forcing us to address them. As a member of the diaspora, I feel that it’s important that what we do isn’t solely a response to colonialism and imperialism. If we get to a point where all we’re doing is creating work to get the attention of folks we need to convince to care about us, we leave ourselves susceptible to forgetting about the people we do this work for.
Still, I don’t think the space is finite. Art makes reality more digestible, and it allows us to share with people and illuminate struggles in a way we aren’t otherwise able to. I think it’s necessary that we’re constantly pushing the narrative out there and using art to find ways to penetrate the world’s consciousness in a way it doesn’t expect, but I also think that as Palestinians it’s vital that we create beauty reserved for ourselves and our healing.
PiA: What’s your favorite personal piece and how did it come about?
TL: I think my favorite personal piece is always fluctuating. My barometer for what becomes my favorite is rooted in when I like what the piece is doing, not just what it is. So, what is my favorite piece today may not be the same piece tomorrow. Right now, I’d have to say that my favorite piece is the one you’re featuring at the moment, “Mismarked.”
I wrote “Mismarked” a few years ago in my senior year of college. I had been struggling with a few different things, in addition to not having had time to write new poetry in a while. In those moments when I’m down like that, I think about how I would be in Gaza playing soccer barefoot with my cousins, and how those were some of the most carefree times of my life. But, that’s bittersweet when you think about how those same moments are bracketed by harsh realities like having to use buckets of water to wash ourselves when our power sources were bombed, or how my brother would be afraid to sleep given the way Israeli fighter jets would set off sonic booms as they flew above. All of that just kind of flowed out of me and into this piece I’ve been writing and editing and performing through the course of the past few years. On one hand, I hate that the piece has to exist because of the realities that make it come to be, but I also can’t negate the pride my family and friends here and in Palestine have responded to the piece.
Like I mentioned earlier, art heals us and this piece has done a lot of healing for me and my communities, so I’m just really grateful that it’s out here in the world using its legs to bring some joy while also articulating the struggles that we face.
PiA: Being from Michigan and so close to Detroit, how do you think writing can be used to create connections between various marginalized communities in order to develop meaningful solidarity amongst them?
TL: Actually, I was born there and still try to a lot in the city as well. Though I grew up in Dearborn, I was in and around Detroit pretty often as a kid, so that proximity to the city and Gaza has been a huge influence on the way I perceive community and resilience. Ultimately, that’s translated to being a big point of emphasis for me in my work as a writer and an organizer because I’m constantly trying to find ways to bridge marginalized communities in order to build solidarity, while also making sure that that solidarity isn’t transactional. The greatest tool for me in doing that has been poetry.
So, when we extrapolate that to writing as a whole, I think the lessons we can use lie in active listening. Solidarity is easily derailed when we stop accepting one another’s stories as valid and become contentious with the populations we’re struggling alongside— and that’s not an easy thing to do. For example, anti-black racism is still a very real issue that we need to face in PoC (person of color) communities that doesn’t get washed away by saying “oh, but we’re both oppressed.” I think that the sharing of stories allows us a glimpse into the lives of other marginalized people who are fighting the same type of beast, while also reminding us to address the beasts our communities might be feeding, whether or not they know they are. At the end of the day, if we truly believe that our liberations are linked (and they are), then solidarity can’t happen if we’re not consciously combating what ails the people we’re working alongside— that process starts with listening.
PiA: Lastly, what do you wish to accomplish with your writing?
TL: Really, the only reason I write is so that these words can exist and speak for me when I can no longer speak for myself. It’s a privilege to be able to have language and these platforms, so I’m really just trying to find the best means to share these stories in a way that inspires action.
Currently, I’m working on my graduate degree in poetry and trying to send work out hoping that it will reach the eyes that need to see it most. At the end of the day, I’m just some kid from Dearborn trying to connect with people I may never meet with the hopes that we can make some good happen.
For more info on Tariq and his work check out his site: www.tariqpoetry.com