Lit Chat: Sagirah Shahid
Sagirah Shahid is an African American Muslim poet/creative spirit/lover of the arts based in Minneapolis, MN.
Sun Yung Shin: Sagirah, thank you so much for chatting! I love your writing and can’t wait to read more of it. I know you are from New York. What kinds of reading did you do as a kid? Did you have a favorite library? Did you, like a lot of writers, have quirky obsessions as a youngster?
Sagirah Shahid: You just made my life—I feel like you’re winning in life if you give off New York vibes in Minnesota. I was born and raised ( for the most part) in Minnesota, but New York has always felt like a kindred home to me. That said, my mother moved to New York nine years ago, so I visit her there fairly often whenever I get the chance.
As a child I read a range of things—a mix of cheesy stuff like The Babysitters Club and Judy Blume and required religious readings/memorization/oral storytelling/cassette tape lectures (I was home schooled for a bit). I’m including oral/audio storytelling and learning because that medium of learning shaped my appreciation for literature, language, and storytelling more so than physical books did, at least initially anyways.
With regards to libraries, all libraries were my favorite library! I grew up in a low-income household so the library was a favorite hangout of all the kids in our house because we could escape in books and play online computer games. My family moved around a lot within the Twin Cities, so finding the closest library was a given regardless of where we were.
As far as quirks go, I was a straight-up weirdo as a kid. I didn’t always connect with kids my own age and had loner tendencies. One random obsession I had as a kid had to do with miniaturized things, like tiny furniture—not necessarily doll stuff but replicas of highly detailed, larger-than-life stuff, or tiny objects turned into a replica of a larger thing, like a toothpaste cap as a lampshade. There was this series of photography books for children that had whole scenes of stuff like that and I loved it. I collected or made tiny furniture well into high school.
SYS: Do you find that you have a different attitude toward or a different kind of praxis of writing (or reading) during the winter? What are your favorite beverages when you’re writing?
SH: I think I write more in the winter because I get easily distracted in the summer. That said, I think I’m more of a gatherer in the warmer months, my creative process is very fragmented, so I jot things down or immerse myself in experiences/experimentation when it’s warm. In the winter it’s ugly showerless isolation, where I play chicken with my own emotional vulnerabilities and fears to attempt getting at something that at the very least feels honest—even if it isn’t any good. I binge-read in waves and spurts.
SYS: What have you read lately that you’ve really liked? What’s on your writing shelf that you’re excited to read?
SH: I have been too stressed out to read much of anything this month but, the most recent thing I read that broke my heart was a short story by Cristina Henriquez called “Everything is Far From Here” ( I’m using the word “read” extremely loosely here because I listened to her reading of it on the New Yorker’s podcast). I’m looking forward to reading two books, which currently aren’t on my shelf but are on my reading list: Sing, Unburied, Sing by Jesmyn Ward and How Capitalism Underdeveloped Black America by Manning Marable.
SYS: What else inspires you in this multiverse that either feeds into your writing or is just awesome?
SH: People. Nothing grandiose, but just, like, the little moments of casual humanity that happen in life, like someone scooting their bag out the way to make room for you on the bus. That and—this one is harder to describe, but like the sheer magical wonder that Black, Brown and Indigenous folks carry within. I’m in awe of anyone who comes from these communities for several reasons. With regards to my own communities, I legit stay up some nights in, like, tears of joy or anger or a combination of both, just incredibly grateful that several someones—ancestors I’ll never know the names of—survived America’s bullsh-t which allowed me and all my kin to be alive. It blows my mind. It makes me want to do stuff.
SYS: A lot of writers struggle with their day jobs and also how to be an artist. It’s not just time and money, necessarily, it’s also—for some people—being institutionalized and being conditioned or being used to thinking and being in certain ways as a wage worker. What do you for wage work and how does it affect you as a writer?
SH: I don’t believe in money, I believe in joy and gratitude to the Creator. I trade my time to sustain my body, which is a temporary vehicle to get to something larger. That said, I have the privilege to do this, so I don’t take my blessings for granted and try to practice the type of solidarity that comes from growing up without—that is, resisting structures that systematically disenfranchise and inhibit the economic health of communities. I also try my best to show up and share what I have when I have it, if I have it—be it money, property, opportunity, or resources. I engage in this practice while in a positive state of wellness. When I’m unhealthy, I do what I need to do to recharge and then go back to this work.
SYS: Is there something you’d love to see in the Twin Cities literary community that hasn’t happened or manifested yet? Is there something you need or would want people to know about you as a writer, or what you consider your writing community/genres, that are misunderstood or not understood?
SH: Yes, an annual three-day-long Black Muslim Women Creatives conference and/or writing retreat. I would also like to see a week-long (and also annual) international poetry festival here. Lastly, a series of epic poetry and dance flash mobs scattered throughout the cities (maybe along bus routes?).
On a slightly personal note, some things I would like to remind folks of are:
Spoken Word is poetry.
I respect Rupi Kaur (both her hustle and her impact) and I’m suspicious of people who go out of their way to trash her.
The Twin Cities, for the most part, is an incredibly segregated literary scene, which is a direct reflection of the unspoken ethos of the Cities.
Life is a poem.
Warsan Shire and Nayyirah Waheed. I don’t have anything cheeky to say here, I just wanted to give them a shout-out because I admire them both and want more people to read their work.
SYS: What do you think about the word “craft” in terms of growing as a writer? Are there “craft” things that you’re working on right now?
SH: The word “craft” reminds me of synthetic cheese. All jokes aside, I am always working to improve my craft and do not limit myself to craft as defined by academia or whiteness. (Though I do enjoy reading “craft” books. I really like Graywolf Press’ series The Art of..., for example).
Currently, I am working on two separate elements of craft. In my fiction, I am practicing/learning/experimenting with unreliable streams of consciousness in my characters. In my poetry I am wrestling with the notion of authentic emotional reactions and performative emotional reactions/responses—I have not developed the skill level to enact the communication of this tension, so I try and fail at a bunch of cheap tricks with the hope/aspiration of getting to something that’s close to capturing what I aspire to convey.
SYS: Anything else you’d like to share about your writing life, means, and ways?
SH: Just that I love you, Sun Yung Shin, and I hope everybody reading this has bought or is conspiring to buy all of your books. Thank you so much for all that you do to enrich our community and to support writers!
SYS: Thank you so much for your time and talent!
Sun Yung Shin is the author or editor of six books including two books in 2016: Unbearable Splendor (poetry/prose), which won a Minnesota Literary Award, and the best-selling A Good Time for the Truth: Race in Minnesota (anthology of essays). With the filmmaker and writer Xiaolu Wang she recently co-founded the Women of Color Artist Collective. She lives in Minneapolis and can be found on Facebook, twitter, sunyungshin.com, and agoodtimeforthetruth.com.