Nearly every poem in Ladan Osman’s collections points to generations of women whose full humanity has been questioned or exploited, their power underestimated.
There is something that happens when holding Ladan Osman’s award-winning book Exiles of Eden in your hands.
Her lines tend to levitate from the page and embed themselves into your heart and consciousness. She writes: “They should warn us about their triggers” when talking about police brutality in America. And later, “What is it like to be so free?” “We are looking for better myths” “I sunder in a different language” and the absolute stunner: “I am the most romantic man I know.”
Osman, who was born in Somalia and grew up in Ohio, is deeply interested in exile. She is concerned about women “running shoeless away from whatever / and whoever pursues them.” She is concerned about Guantánamo detainees and survivors of the Indian Ocean tsunami of 2004. She’s in solidarity with refugees and diasporas, with Black lives, with young artists and outsiders to institutions. In addition to humankind, she is alert to environmental degradation and destruction. In one poem, when scanning images of war zones, she tells the reader she is looking for water and green. In another, she writes the poem from the perspective of an insect.
Osman’s work has a pronounced feminist thread. She writes in dialogue with ancestors, myths and origin stories—specifically Eve and Eurydice. “I’m buttressed by ancestors who tell us they’re proud,” she writes, adding: “I am Ladan, who knows her mother, and her mother’s mothers twenty generations back.” Nearly every poem in her collections points to generations of women whose full humanity has been questioned or exploited, their power underestimated.
Her books include images too—photography, cartoons and Google Map frames of war zones—which offer further mediations on vantage point. She points her readers’ attention to a fly on the corner of a writer’s desk, to a Black body wearing a hoodie, to young boys at a public park with faces lifted to the sky waiting to see if a basketball made it through a hoop. Her images give attention and praise to stories that are being left out and marginalized. In many cases, the subject’s existence is actively in danger.
Ms. had the pleasure of corresponding with Osman this March, which turned out to be an exciting professional season for the artist. She had just won the Whiting Award for Exiles of Eden and recorded her poem “Refusing Eurydice” for the New York African Film Festival. She’d had her television directorial debut, too, with The Ascendants—a series highlighting four up-and-coming female artists in Chicago.
She was “making things happen” with the kind of generosity and originality she has become known for— along with the invention, tenderness and humanity that spreads across the arc of her work.
Emily Sernaker: In your essay “I Cried, Power! (On Protest and Masterful Citizenship)” you wrote: “America has finally broken my heart. The English is sufficient.”
I guess what I really want to ask is how are you doing, especially right now in America, March 2021? What is it like being a Black, female, Somali American poet trying to bring your voice and creativity forward?
Ladan Osman: It would be convenient to feel relief after the election. This is a really murky moment, in a long sequence of murky moments. I don’t think it’s my lane to say what needs to happen or how to do it, but there’s an immense amount of pain radiating all over the country—pain that’s exported all over the world. I don’t know how to be comfortable when so many workers are subjected to impossible conditions, when young people have been failed so abysmally, they’re forced to adjust their dreams. But I think hope is a practice so I’m determined to do my best work, and to help other artists do the same.
Sernaker: Is there a particular memory of photographing a protest that stays with you?
Osman: A memory I often revisit is from the 2017 Women’s March. An older Black woman was standing next to me. I photographed her sign, which read: “Please God help us!!!” She was alone, silent, focused. We were the only Black people in that area, and there was a lot of jostling, people walking through our bodies. The back of her sign, a rough draft written in pencil, read: “God help us.” When I looked again, she was gone.
Sernaker: How can the combination of mediums change or deepen the way a reader/viewer engages with the material?
Osman: I experience it as reaching, and having some help with those attempts. When I want a break from words, I can let images take over. The combination feels more natural, and a more accurate impression of what I’m trying to translate onto the page. It’s also a way to take an extra opportunity to communicate. My hope is that it encourages the reader/viewer to toggle between senses as well as memories, fantasies, questions.
Sernaker: Your first chapbook was part of the New Generation African Poets book series. How did placing that impact the trajectory of your career?
Osman: It put me in conversation with contemporary African writers (my elders and my peers), and it gave me a loyal global audience. It remains a huge gift to publish alongside a growing family, to witness emerging writers break through. If it wasn’t for the African Poetry Book Fund series, it would’ve mattered a lot more that I didn’t have a certain level of success in mainstream American publications.
I remember an editor at a top publisher wanted me to reconsider my chapbook as he stalled on saying yes to my first book. He argued if I published with APBF, my book would be relegated to African Studies classes. It backfired big time because I’d never considered that possibility and it was delightful! Pulling my book from that so-called dream press was one of the best decisions of my life.
Sernaker: I admire the range of projects you take on, and your openness to collaboration. How do you choose what projects to pursue?
Osman: When writing and revising poems, it’s easy to get sick of yourself. When I make things, I don’t want to worry about thinking small or rely on what has worked in the past. I regularly revisit notes on the types of work I would like to do, then show up in community, talk about my daydreams until I connect with someone on the same wavelength. I love collaborators who commit to an idea yet remain flexible in its execution. I’m inclined to people who practice in multiple fields, and people still straining for their lucky breaks.
Sernaker: Who are female and non-binary artists that inspire you?
Osman: I love films by Hlumela Matika, Lucrecia Martel and Garrett Bradley. Artists like NIC Kay, Pina Bausch and Sky Cubacub have loaned me such courage. Maya Angelou gave me gifts early on, along with Lucille Clifton and Jamaica Kincaid.
Right now, I’m reading Donika Kelly, Ama Codjoe, Aisha Sabatini-Sloan and Danielle Evans. Jory Drew and Joelle Mercedes’s multimedia works are light years ahead in how they invent or adapt masculinities.
Sernaker: Can you share that story of how you met Sam Diaz—who is featured in your wonderful YouTube documentary “Sam Underground” co-directed with Joe Penney—and why you wanted to put their voice forward?
Osman: Sam Diaz was singing Whitney Houston’s “The Greatest Love of All” on a nearly empty train. The clarity in her tone, its warm resonance, her confidence just ripped through my headphones. I couldn’t take them out fast enough. Why was this obviously church-trained, fine-eared vocalist giving us this incredible gift? I asked for her contact, we had a short conversation, then Joe Penney (co-director) and I headed to Harlem to film her at home and while busking.
I don’t think I wanted to put Sam’s voice forward. It was already there, startling and magnificent. I wanted to know more about her, to share her story. Our short video was amplified by Sam’s talent and American Idol. We cried watching Sam win last year because it meant millions more would know her a little, too.
Sernaker: I just finished watching The Ascendants (wow!!!). What was it like to create the four-part series and to work with those phenomenal artists?
It was almost like a time warp because I met each of these musicians at open mics or at their album
releases when I lived in Chicago. We collaborated on everything from interview questions to mood
boards, and it was an honor taking slow time with them, watching them at work, filming them in
sunlight or under studio lights. It was important to us to create dreamy segments so the audience
could understand them outside of labor, could see them in editorial mode. I wanted to make
portraits of artists who know themselves, who are beloved in their city and beyond, who are already
making huge impacts with their music. I’m tired of waiting for a random critic to proclaim what is
already known. Too often, Black women are made to wait for breakthroughs, and then only uplifted
when our successes are undeniable.
“I’m tired of waiting for a random critic to proclaim what is already known. Too often, Black women are made to wait for breakthroughs, and then only uplifted when our successes are undeniable.”
Sernaker: What draws you toward filmmaking?
Osman: Film taught me how to specify and arrange images. I think I’m most taken with how one scene converses with another, how it’s all happening in a bigger tableau, an atmosphere. I’m interested in feature films and series. I want to challenge myself to stay with someone or within a sensibility for a few hours, to indicate worlds in that time.
Sernaker: In a recent interview you said, “People have such a limited perspective on women’s voices and women’s lives and women narrators…” How can we push against society’s expectation of women leading small lives and small stories?
Osman: I’m not sure. Every once in a while, someone is trying to challenge my humanity and all I hear is that womp-wonk-womp sound Charlie Brown’s teacher makes. I can’t take on someone else’s shitty story. Just because a lot of people repeat it, and build institutions to uphold it, and put war machines behind it, and torment anyone who resists it doesn’t mean I have to worry about contesting it. I won’t wait for that shitty story to redefine me as a character.
I knew this world was a scam since I was eight years old, that some people see a pulsing, space-black blob of plasma instead of a person. They can’t see me or hear me and in turn I don’t believe them or who I am when translated through them. I would love to see us decenter prevailing perspectives. I would love to see us ignore them enough to nourish ourselves and each other. Every time I see people rightfully outraged by another poisoned and poisonous voice, I wonder who we’re not upholding with our affirmations and repetitions, who is out there waiting for their chorus, their defenders.
Sernaker: In our last Ms. interview, you spoke about racism you encountered in the publishing world. It also came up in your 2020 statement about Coffee House Press. Would you like to share more about those experiences? (I’m thinking of the term “dis-invitation” and the poem “Silhouette.”)
Osman: I wish poetry publishing had more ambition. There’s an audience for our work. We deserve decent pay for our labor. We have no use for outdated fixations on the fiction market or inferiority complexes. The publishing world has low expectations for Black books. Added to that, it has low expectations for Black critics, literary organizations, and readers. My statement about how my press mishandled Exiles of Eden is a familiar experience for a lot of writers, and is acutely true for a lot of Black writers. This lack of vision is maybe more profound when we consider books across the diaspora.
Presses should hire full-time staff members that reflect their actual and aspirational catalogs, in both acquisition and publicity roles. Don’t sell me a story about diversity if your staff, board and contact lists don’t match. As presses learn how to cater to Black readers, they need to trust that Black authors already have valuable insights. Until presses cultivate mentorships in underrepresented communities, and enter meaningful collaborations with spaces that already support us, wonderful books will wait for attention that may never come. I’m glad Coffee House has taken some steps to address its issues and am curious to see how they’ll implement changes long-term.
Sernaker: Can you share about the experience of crafting your poem “Refusing Eurydice”?
Osman: In 2015, I was depressed and unsure how to put one foot in front of the other. A family member was suffering profoundly just as hatefulness was becoming more permissible. There was too much Black death, too much tension. Visibly queer friends were chased home, women were attacked waiting for the train. I watched several friends break down. It was my bottom. I didn’t know how to be on this earth anymore. It felt like there was sludge inside me that I needed to expel but I couldn’t do it until I wrote the correct spell. A friend assured me I just needed to make it one more night, and had me promise to take a trip with her one day. I couldn’t break that promise.
“Refusing Eurydice” was written to be recited, to echo enough if alone or to fortify a congregation. Just like with my first book, I knew it was the last poem, and I knew I would have to change my life once it was finished. I was chasing a better version of myself. I felt like I was dying to catch her and I needed a song to keep me running.
Sernaker: I keep thinking about the line from Sympathy for Eve: “Her logic not yet accidental.” Would you like to speak about that poem through a feminist lens as well?
Osman: This is a love poem for a specific loss hidden in a love poem for founding myths. Not for the myths we have but the intention behind them, what they’re able to do, and that we can create new ones. As I considered climate change and that staggering devastation, I had to go back to a beginning, to imagine Eve as a witness to the whole human timeline, as one embodiment of the lonely experience of being a person. We contain worlds and are present in worlds but interiority can be so vastly solitary. Here, she’s free to observe and think. Very often, women’s work is excavated for what’s convenient, and overlooked when it’s disruptive. Here, Eve’s perspective isn’t landing on a point or two worth noting (that accidental logic). She’s not explaining or defending herself. She is the point, the center, radius, diameter, the entire plane.
Sernaker: We haven’t really talked about the concept of exile yet. What does it mean to have those lines of refusal at the end of a collection exploring displacement?
Osman: It’s too hard to react and reorient ourselves after a disinvitation or expulsion. Why should anyone have to flee? It’s exhausting enough to maintain one life, imagine having to build a second or third life. Imagine having to rewrite your dreams in real time while you fight to survive. Why should anyone be pushed into the sea, the desert, the bush? Why should anyone be pushed off the sidewalk, into their homes, deeper into themselves just to endure any state’s violences? It’s unacceptable. The oppressors have too much freedom in their actions and their stories about their actions.
Sometimes this all feels like an enchantment. How did we begin to normalize unsurvivable conditions? It’s confounding. I understand our political and social realities but I refuse to accept them as final, as inevitable. I want to remain in a state of awe, to preserve a sense of reverence.
You may also like: