Somewhere in Between

Suheir Hammad’s Drops of This Story slips through my fingers. I do not know what to do with it. There’s no story, but the half-page sketches (?) add up to a life. A young life, but a life nevertheless. There’s no narrative, but each sketch alludes to events beyond itself. I can’t tell if it’s poetry or prose: the sketches are too incomplete to be prose, but form a whole too coherent for each to be poetry. At moments it seems to be directly autobiographical, in others, I feel she could just as easily be making things up or embellishing. And it’s somewhere between traditional writing and slam, spoken word poetry.

Somewhere in between, like the poet herself. Palestinian, born in a refugee camp, raised in Brooklyn and later Staten Island. She laments being American when she visits her Palestinian cousins, and Palestinian when she’s in New York. (That is, when she’s allowed to be Palestinian, when her teachers aren’t telling her that there is no such thing as being Palestinian.) She’s also somewhere in between genders. “…my father really did raise me as a boy. I was encouraged to think, to ask, to figure out. […] My father raised a strong human being, but when when he realized I wasn’t gonna grow a penis, he changed his mind. Thank God it was too late.” When me meet her, the opening line, she says “I told her to chop it [her hair] all off.”

The drops of story are a great metaphor: each are a tiny bit, but together they add up (and they don’t always blend the way they’re supposed to). And the fluidity of the story reinforces the fluidity of her identity: slipping in and out of contexts, not being sure which side to belong to…all this I get. But all that in between is not why it slips through my fingers.

I understand now my father really thought he was doing me good. Education means a lot to Palestinians. We’ve become some of the most educated people in the world through our diaspora. We’ve had to be. When you ain’t got land, your degree may be your only solid ground. May father felt (feels) that being a doctor would give me security. How can I explain that I’m not safe from anything if I don’t write?

When I read that passage I thought a-ha! so that’s what she wants to do: she wants to solidify her identity through writing. She doesn’t want to find herself in either the oppressive Palestinian tradition of her father, nor in the racist tradition of her adopted country (US). She is going to will her own identity, with he own words, against the traditions that would both claim her in a way that she is not and reject her for what she is. Great.

Except that that effort is belied by her constant defense of one tradition to the other, by her attempt to be both forgiving and condemning her mother for staying with her abusive father; by her attempt to both side with the youth she’s surrounded with, and stand apart from their self-destructive drug, alcohol, violent tendencies; by her attempt to both fit in with the boys (when playing hand ball), and not be seen as a girl watched by boys’ eyes walking down the street.

She wants to fit in with the traditions that surround her (one or the other, or both), but also stand for herself. She wants to be seen as the sum of her own experiences and defend Palestine, except she has never been there, this is not her experience. “You are what your experiences make you… […] spirit of dance slave who bathed in the Nile”. This is her story, but “before I knew how to write, this story was around, waiting to let me know it was there.”

Suheir Hammad – somewhere in between her own story and two larger stories, not her own, to which she wants to belong.

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