Mirene Arsanios


Interview with Asiya Wadud

Mirene Arsanios: Let's start by talking about the genesis of your book, Crosslight for Youngbird.

Asiya Wadud: I started writing Crosslight while I was teaching English at the Brooklyn Public Library, which I’ve done since 2014. The class meets weekly and there are people from all over the world: Gambia, Ivory Coast, China, Brazil, Mexico, Lebanon, Russia, Poland. The class I teach is a companion to a more technical class in English grammar. People come to practice speaking in English with other people, and also to learn a bit about living in New York. Early on, I fell in love with teaching this class—it gave me a new way of looking at English and of thinking about my own mother tongue; distancing myself from it and reflecting on my own vantage. And that was due to questions raised about the relationship between words that I had previously never considered, such as the aural quality of words: what is the difference between “selfish” and “shellfish”? I love this question. It says so much about the arbitrary possibilities and relationships between words, and how anything can relate to anything else. You can extend that question to ask about the relationship between any two ideas that would have been previously unrelated in your mind. The question struck a chord and in a way it drove the writing of the book, or at least the cadence and shape of the pieces. Every Wednesday, I had the chance to (almost) relearn English, to think about relationships between words in a new way, and to think of ways to explain things that I, as a native speaker, took for granted.

MA: Can you say more about distancing yourself from your mother tongue?

AW: I teach this class because English is my first language. Each Wednesday I ask myself these questions: What does it mean to have a hierarchy of mother tongues? What does it mean to master a language? What lives at the edge between mastery and novice-hood? A lot of times, my students would ask me “Oh, can I say this in English?” And I say, “Well you just said it. So yes, you can say it.” They are asking for permission to speak and to speak in a way that's legible. I think there is an urge to compress the long continuum of being understood, and of speaking in a way that native English speakers also understand to be English. Coincidentally, when I started teaching English (and working on Crosslight) I also started reading the work of Clarice Lispector. Three years ago, I was at Greenlight {Bookstore}, saw the cover of a book, and picked it up: it was Near to the Wild Heart. It upended my whole life! I was blown away by what she was allowing herself to do with language, how she played with it, how she moulded it. Today is the anniversary of the day she died. Her birthday is tomorrow and she died a day before her birthday in 1977.

MA: There's a common understanding that “good” English has to be seamless; sentences must flow naturally, especially when writing contemporary American fiction. The language has to disappear behind the story, and if it doesn’t, it becomes “foreign”. I’m interested in devices such as translation, which reveal the artifice that upholds “seamless” language. Walter Benjamin says that the task of the translated text isn’t to preserve the original but to re-imagine the original text itself.

AW: Yes, absolutely. In the reading experience you describe, the writer can be invisible, almost subsumed by the narrative—I think the joy of reading is the feeling of being jostled, or dislocated by something. There's this urge to try and erase all those fissures and say, “Okay this isn't how you say it, this isn't how a native speaker would say that.” I was recently editing a friend’s book, and I think English is their third language. There were a lot of idiosyncrasies in it, which I wanted to preserve. I didn't want to erase the texture of the text. Can we just sit with that? What is the anxiety to fix something? What new knowledge does the fixing offer us?