Perspective and insight on war and writing with author Dunya Mikhail
INTERVIEW BY RONALD GRANT
PHOTOGRAPHY BY BRAD ZIEGLER
Examining the impact of war on the human condition through poetry dates back centuries. And the escalating situation throughout the Middle East has created voices that continue to expose the impact of war from different perspectives. Arguably, there is no current voice that speaks on war through poetry more candidly, effectively, and beautifully than Dunya Mikhail. An instructor at Oakland University, Mikhail is a native of Baghdad who studied at Wayne State University after fleeing Iraq in the mid-1990s when her poetry was labeled “subversive” by the Iraqi government. Since then, Mikhail has published a series of praised books, including the much-acclaimed The War Works Hard and Diary of a Wave Outside the Sea. Mikhail sat down with PARKVIEW to talk about everything from the impact of her poetry on the lives of the disenfranchised, to what it was like returning to her home country this year after leaving twenty years ago. “I was ready to hear the horrible stories,” Mikhail says of her return. “I was not ready to see and hear so much hope from the people that I visited.”
PARKVIEW: Which writers and poets had the greatest influence on you when you first began writing poetry?
DUNYA MIKHAIL: I don’t have certain names, but I remember that there were some books that I went to back and forth. The Thesis of Fantasy by Ali al-Shouk was something unique during that time. It used math to express poetical ideas. I found it so modern in the middle of classical Arabic poetry, which honestly bored me. I also loved that the poetry of other languages, especially French, was translated into Arabic. I liked that it didn’t sound so perfect.
PV: Describe the set of circumstances that brought you to the Detroit area to teach at Michigan State University and Oakland University after immigrating to the United States.
DM: Well, I came to America when I was a student at the University of Baghdad studying English Literature. I never felt that I would come back and stay here one day. But my work as a journalist for the Baghdad Observer, the lack of freedom of expression, the censorship, and, more importantly, my poetry being labeled as “subversive” by Iraqi media, made me leave Iraq. I stayed about one year in Jordan and then came to Detroit where I had a grandmother and relatives. I continued my studies at Wayne State University. I was admitted by chance when I graduated from secondary school in Iraq, but I was not allowed to leave. Iraqi law stated that women were not allowed to study abroad at their expense during wartime. After ten years, I brought the admission paper, but it was expired. I was given a new one and also offered a chance to teach Arabic. I found that it appealed to me, so I continued teaching Arabic in other places as well.
PV: It has been said that when you write about war, you write about it as a woman, a mother, a wife, and a friend. Can you talk about why you take this approach?
DM: I don’t really mean to write from that perspective, but the fact that I am all of those roles you mentioned makes its way through my writing. The Iraqi readers back home noticed this because most writers were males and they were soldiers in battlefields. Most of them were writing about war from first-hand experience. I mean, they had actual confrontations with the “enemy” and they rode the tanks, carried weapons and lived the battle day and night. As a woman, I wrote about the war’s impact on the home, the streets, on everyday life. When Diary of a Wave Outside the Sea was published in Iraq in 1995, the readers noticed that the tone was different. On readers’ level, the book was received well. On censors’ level, it was received with frowns [and contempt]. They interrogated me. I left my country right after its publication due to the complications I began to face.
PV: In an interview with NPR in 2013, you said that you believe that writing about war doesn’t heal wounds like medicine, but rather, it reveals them like an X-ray. Do you still feel this way?
DM: Yes, I still think that way. We resort to poetry because we want to be alone and we want to be with others at the same time. Poetry is strange. It’s both so useless and so essential, like the trace of butterfly, delicate and effective.
PV: Do you feel that your writing and poetry can be used to empower people who may have experienced a similar situation to yours, for example, people directly impacted by the current Syrian refugee crisis?
DM: I’m not sure. But as a poet, I throw a stone in the sea and watch for the ripples. I believe the movement of those circles in the sea to be an effect, whether I intend them to be or not.
PV: In what ways do you believe your poetry has had an impact on people in different kinds of disenfranchised communities?
DM: I do receive a large amount of letters and messages from people across social media that express to me how much my poetry matters to them. One of them had been a political prisoner in Iraq since the 1990s and he told me that one of my books, Almost Music, was in his pocket and that he was reading it every day for ten years. I felt bad though that he didn’t have other books to read there! He probably hated it after all that time. [Laughs]
PV: In what ways has your writing allowed you to connect specifically with the Arab American community in the Detroit area, if at all?
DM: When I first came to Detroit, I found it cold and industrial. Baghdad was hot in terms of weather, poetry, and cultural debates with tea of cardamom, and sometimes was burning with too much war. Gradually, I discovered the warm corners in the bookstores’ cafes in Detroit where I could write freely. I met new friends and introduced them to my new places in my new town. In one of the casual meetings I had with a friend who is an art lover, we talked about our need to activate the cultural life in Detroit. This resulted in us founding a nonprofit organization called Mesopotamia Forum for Arts and Culture in 2012. We meet twice a month and make plans for artistic performances. But I believe that the creative process is very individual. As a writer, I am a whale. I need to go to the depths and explore the waters on my own. Then I come up to the surface and meet other explorers and socialize with them.
PV: In an interview earlier this year, you said that because of the actions of the Islamic State in Iraq, you have thought about returning to help your country beyond writing. Does that still hold true?
DM: Yes! I actually did go back to Iraq in May after twenty years. I went to the north, visited the camps, and met with a number of survivors. I wanted also to visit my grandmother’s grave but I couldn’t because Da’esh [ISIS] is still in control of that area. Some friends who I knew from the time I started publishing in Baghdad thirty years ago organized a casual poetry reading for me there. They didn’t let me stop reading poetry, almost as if those words were going to save them!
PV: What is the next piece of writing that you are working on and when will it be available to the public?
DM: My new book contains real stories of women who escaped ISIS, with photos. I learned about these stories from the person who saved them, Abdalla. So far he has saved 260 women, although his own sister is not among them. After one year of phone conversations, I met him, his family, and other survivors in the camps in Dohuk. He was originally a beekeeper in Sinjar, the area that was invaded by ISIS on August 3, 2014. ISIS, coming on the caliphate vehicles with their black flags, took around 6,500 people as prisoners of war. They killed the men and the elderly women and took the young women as sex slaves. The women were sold and exchanged, as if they were items from a store. While trying to save his niece, Abdalla developed a network of drivers and smugglers to save more and more families. His original work with the honey trade between Iraq and Syria helped him in his new job.
PV: What advice would you give to your students and other young writers who seek to make their voices heard through poetry and creative writing?
PV: My only words would be these: If you can go on living without writing, why write? But if you can’t go on living without writing, why not write?
Dunya Mikhail is a Kresge Fellow, a United Nations Human Rights award recipient and a lecturer at Oakland University in Rochester, MI. Her new book, In the Market of Sex Slaves, was published in Arabic and released in October by Al Mutawassit. She hopes to have it published in English in 2017. Dunya can be reached on Twitter at @dunyamikhail.