Writing as Remembrance, Negotiation, and Intention: An Interview with Tariq Luthun – Michigan Quarterly Review

Writing as Remembrance, Negotiation, and Intention: An Interview with Tariq Luthun

MQR’s Online Series, “Celebrating Writers in Our Community,” is inspired by our special-themed Fall issue, “Why We Write,” coming October 1st. The interview series is a celebration of the diversity of Southeast Michigan writers, their talents, their motivations for writing, and their significance to our community. 

Tariq Luthun is a Detroit-born Palestinian community organizer, data consultant, and Emmy Award-winning poet. He earned his MFA in Poetry from the Program for Writers at Warren Wilson College. Luthun currently serves as Board Member and Development Coordinator of The Offing Literary Magazine after a two-year stint as editor of the Micro Department. His work has been named Best of the Net and has appeared in Vinyl Poetry, Lit Hub, Mizna, and Button Poetry, among other credits. His first collection of poetry, HOW THE WATER HOLDS ME, was awarded Editors’ Selection by Bull City Press and is available now.

Lillian Pearce (LP): In his 1946 essay, “Why I Write,” George Orwell breaks down his motivations for writing into four distinct categories: sheer egoism, aesthetic enthusiasm, historical impulse and political purpose. How would you define your motivations for writing? 

Tariq Luthun (TL): I don’t disagree with the general notion behind each of Orwell’s categorizations, but I do think that they are somewhat rigid. Orwell states that the “political purpose” in his writing was often outweighed by the other motivations before going on to say that he wanted “to make political writing into an art.” Orwell and I agree that all work holds some political bias. Ultimately, the motivations and literary ambitions one is able to embark upon are heavily informed by the political space(s) one’s body has occupied. But, Orwell—at least in this account—seems to find difficult the task of merging political and artistic purpose (though he says it is made easier as one becomes more conscious of their political biases). Whereas, in my opinion, there are many writers who are able to create work that seamlessly infuses political purpose without sacrificing aesthetic considerations, and employ journalistic fervor without the dryness and detachedness typically associated with reportage. 

In any case, one cannot divorce elements like egoism, history, aesthetics, and political purpose from one another. And while he doesn’t spend too much time explicitly stating it, I believe that Orwell would agree with that claim. This is especially true when we are forced to reconcile that history has often been skewed by certain politics and vice versa. And what of this definition of aesthetics? You cannot argue against the reality that the “perception of beauty” is swayed by what has historically been given power. That said, Orwell and I diverge quite a bit on the role ego plays in writing. 

Perhaps egoism is not always enacted out of vanity, but out of the desire to affirm one’s place in a world that actively seeks to commodify us. Personally, I have long approached sheer existence with the understanding that everything we choose to do or not do carries a political impulse. I—being the first son of Palestinian immigrants from one occupied land to another—possess a body that cannot escape the circumstances that have coded my considerations. When I write about something as mundane as mint leaves or as abstract as affection, I am writing about them as a mind and body that hails from displaced peoples, that has reaped some privileges but also many pains. I write from a body that persists in a world where most dream of arriving at a point where they can not only articulate their experiences, but also have those narratives be received—and even, in some cases, celebrated—by others. Everything I choose to say or not say in a poem works towards or against the conditions that have made me—no act is neutral in a world as nuanced as ours.

I believe Orwell knew of this dichotomy, but I fear that his definitions are too individualistic despite that knowledge. Which brings me to my gripe with Orwell’s categorizations: the omission of community. Certainly, when one thinks of egoism and the desire to be remembered, we might attribute a somewhat narcissistic origin to it—especially when applying a Western lens. But, for someone as mindful of socialist values and what it takes to combat imperialism, I think it’s a woeful oversight to not recognize that many people engage in the act of writing to foster community. Through storytelling, we create the connective tissue that enables the other motivations to take hold. 

Now, this is not to say that every writer has a strong communal impulse. But, all content has the potential to galvanize. As much as I dislike how attention to representation in media has drowned out other tangibly vital causes, representation is one key component of movement building. Some may be activated by story, others by what the story fails to consider. Some are moved by poetry, others by memes. Regardless, there is an inherently human desire to be accepted by others that doesn’t cleanly fall into any one of the other motivations. For instance, when I write a poem about retrieving mint leaves from my mother’s garden in our backyard, I am ordering language in a way I find beautiful to document a moment of history that occurs each day and is shared by many immigrant communities here on Turtle Island and beyond. I think there is some journalism in that, some representation, and some power to be seized in the naming of our experiences. This chain of occurrences eventually works towards shaping the world in some fashion or another when these stories are read, and repeated, and passed down. So, yes, a small part of me creates this to be remembered as an individual. But, a greater part of me creates in order to remember, and to help others do the same by gathering us around that remembrance.

LP: MQR’s special-themed issue “Why We Write” seeks to illuminate perspectives and examine the motivations of writers specifically in relation to how they are influenced by social and political conditions and social justice. How are you influenced by these concepts? 

TL: I spoke to this a bit when dissecting Orwell’s motivations, so I’ll just reiterate that everything is interconnected. Social conditions are curated by political conditions and vice versa. So long as economies rely upon capitalist modes, they are relying upon racism, sexism and other forms of discrimination to create classes that will either produce labor or reap production. In a capitalist system—where our bodies are increasingly commodified—every action and inaction leaves us either more or less valuable to the system itself. But, what is valuable to the architects of that system is often incongruent with what is valuable the majority of us used as fuel for the system—those of us who seek a humane societal construct for all peoples. So, any time someone spends writing a poem in lieu of making themselves available to a production line, they are making a political choice with social implications. Every second I spend perfecting a metaphor is one less second I spend learning a coding language for my day-job. Alternatively, every second I spend promoting my art is one less second I can spend on the art itself. All the while, considerations must be made about what is a consumable narrative—each writer needs to decide for themselves what, when, and how they will pursue the craft in a world that may not seek art from them.

Everything I am able to create is often a negotiation with the time I am afforded, the energy I can muster, and the communities I am in conversation with. Because of this, I need to be extremely intentional about the world I am trying to build through my work. To me, poetry—and storytelling more broadly—is a tool to build movements. However, those movements can be either good or bad, where “bad” is defined as something that produces harm. So, when I consider the negotiations we must make as people—and by extension, artists—I ask: does the creation of this have the potential to heal, inform, or otherwise spur someone (even in some small way) toward something good? But, I do not know to what extent I would have to ask myself about healing or informing if I wasn’t a displaced Palestinian in concert with other marginalized peoples across the world. How many of us would be less consumed by the need for our work to be a salve? What might I write about if my people were not being ethnically cleansed by a colonial entity that benefits from the violent seizure of Palestinian land and resources? How might I write if I was not acutely aware of the surveillance placed upon BIPOC communities here in Detroit? And, given that we exist on what is occupied indigenous land, where might I write if movement was truly free?

Unfortunately, this is not the world we live in. There are literal armies of content producers and influencers who get compensated for regurgitating violent talking points to undermine our social movements. So, as long as there are people working to uphold the systems that benefit from harm, there needs to be people working to undo that harm while also drafting the blueprint for the just world we hope to live in. This impulse is what motivates me to write, and informs how and what I write. I seek to use my writing as an artifact that collapses time. I might write a poem that reads as very personal, but that poem may hold a critique of the way things are or a vision for the way things could be. Concurrently, the poem in and of itself serves as a piece of journalism or a literary marker in history to disrupt any erasure being levied against me and my communities.

Honestly, it’s all very daunting. But, while it’s maddening to me to consider the harms people face every day, the world isn’t going to change overnight. So, I think that reinforces the need for patient, intentional work. It takes a scaffolding of narratives that people can believe in to make the lasting change we need to see. If we can start smaller by speaking to the communities we find ourselves in and working to connect those communities to one another, I have faith that we can combat the systems that are devastating us. 

But, it starts with that connective tissue: the story. 

LP: You are a community organizer in addition to being a poet. When you think about the act of writing or the writing life, how do you think about community? 

TL: I think about community as the space that holds and nurtures us. It’s a place where we can build healthy and fulfilling connections with others, and those connections help us mature as individuals. No matter how introverted I might be, I can’t ignore that I am still a social being by nature. Each of us, I imagine, craves for the space that we share with others to be affirming. But, that type of affirming space isn’t always easy to come by. In fact, much of what we call “community” is really just a network. To build true community requires great, intentional care. 

For me, writing serves as the collateral to be welcomed into that type of space. I think that the backbone of any community is the story. Now, it doesn’t necessarily have to be verbalized—in many cases, the story is unspoken. The story that connects us might be faith or shared struggle, but at the root of it all is a story. As a writer—and more broadly, a storyteller—I recognize the power that exists in our craft. It is for this reason I have always seen poetry as a tool. In the context of community organizing, I could theoretically pull someone aside and hand them a leaflet to discuss why they should support something like abolition, but by inviting them to a live event where they can experience the true texture of the story is a far more powerful motivator to me. 

In short, actions speak louder than words, but words are the genesis for action. Writing helps spark the movements we seek to create, and helps foster the communities we seek to build movements with. When I was younger, I was performing poems at poetry slams not because I wanted to win, but because I loved having an excuse to connect with other writers—it was how I found my friends, and continue to find friends. I sought to host reading series and poetry festivals and town halls because I know that this is life-saving work—even if we can’t always readily see the ways in which lives are being saved, held, and nurtured. Once I came upon that realization, I sought to use the act of writing as a way to pull people together, and see what those gatherings yield.

LP: How do you involve your own motivations for writing in the workshops you facilitate? 

I don’t know if I actively involve my personal motivations for writing in the workshops themselves. To me, I try to keep that space as open as and unstructured as possible—you never know when a specific dictation might skew what the writers are generating. 

With that said, I think that my motivations for writing find themselves in the very desire to facilitate a workshop to begin with and also to meet people where they’re at. I mentioned earlier that I like to use writing as a tool to pull people together, and also to inspire movement. The workshop serves as a vehicle for that movement in a way that also decenters me. My goal as a facilitator is to offer people tools, and let them run with that as they please. One of my favorite workshops to lead had me blasting Alessia Cara’s “Here” as a way to illustrate lineation in a poem—that sort of thing is fun to me. Another workshop featured a group-generated cento. In both cases, there was something communal about the experience that inspires individual generation.

So, perhaps I have a few meta-motivations at-play! Regardless, I want each of my workshop members to be able to leave feeling a sense of accomplishment derived by the growth they exhibited rather than the work they produced. Some of the workshops I loved most were the ones where I felt moved by the process of and carried out with me, even if I wasn’t able to muster a draft I could immediately do anything with.

LP: What would your council be for young people looking to find their voice and narrate their experiences in times of uncertainty, injustice and the unknown? 

I believe that we write for ourselves, but we share for others. Writing—whether it is the act of writing or the content that this writing yields—must fundamentally work towards satiating something in the person putting pen to page. 

My advice to any writer—but especially young writers—is to write for yourself first and foremost. If the work you create doesn’t bring you joy, then it’ll be too easy to let other people’s tastes dictate your value and how you should feel about your work. We need to do our best not to get caught up in writing for audiences that doesn’t care for us. Far too often I see people write for others instead of themselves, and when that work isn’t received the way they anticipate, they’re left having invested a great deal of time, energy, and self-worth into a doomed thing.

The way I see it, by writing with yourself in mind, you are that much closer to satisfying the impulses that spur you to write in the first place. More importantly, if and when you choose to share that work, those who do connect with it will be tapping into a more authentic version of yourself. So, whether the goal of the writing is catharsis for the self or to build truly affirming relationships with others, it starts with being mindful of your own needs. By catering to the audience of yourself, you build confidence in your craft while also introducing the world to the story you needed to read. From there, chances are that if it’s a story you needed to read, then there’s someone out there who will need it, too.

Read Tariq Luthun’s poem “The Summer My Cousin Went Missing” from MQR’s Winter 2020 issue here.

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