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Our Own Stories: Refugee Rights & Racial Justice, Sara M. Saleh

Sara M. Saleh is the daughter of migrants from Palestine, Egypt, and Lebanon, living and learning on Gadigal land. A human rights activist, community organiser, and campaigner for refugee rights and racial justice, she has spent over a decade in grassroots and international organisations in Australia and the Middle East. A poet and writer, Sara’s pieces have been published extensively in English and Arabic.

We talk to Sara all things identity, belonging, refugee rights, racial justice and the power of words for social change.

As the daughter of migrants from Egypt, Lebanon, and Palestine living and learning on Gadigal land, does your identity and heritage influence your artistic practice?

I aspire to write with precision and with all parts of myself present, ebbing and flowing - even if this is without resolution or reconciliation, often. This has meant being in spaces that are uncomfortable, uncurated - but always remaining curious as I continue to uncover my family’s background and write about things I have for so long been unable to name. And naming things is particularly important for Palestinians. I am also very conscious that I am writing as a daughter of people who have been dispossessed, yet complicit here in dispossession, as a settler on stolen land. So this has informed my positionality, my privileges that are not available to everyone and my responsibilities - how that plays out in creating art and the ethics of this creating. So yes, absolutely my heritage and cultural background influence and dare I say disrupt and challenge my practice and my creation. I am always returning to these themes in my work in different shapes and forms.

You are a human rights activist, community organiser, and a campaigner for refugee rights and racial justice. Why are you passionate about helping communities?

I always say this: it’s common for a lot of Palestinians specifically, and Arabs more broadly, to learn to march before we walk. To chant for freedom before we talk. I grew up in a politically active family, and I’ve been very lucky to have that around me and to link that with my faith. That gives me a sense of purpose and the coordinates for how I navigate and negotiate my life...and I follow in the long held, honoured tradition of my ancestors in doing so. That means not being satisfied with these broken systems as we see them, refusing to accept the status quo no matter how tempting it can be - if you benefit from it. It means contributing to building a culture that is not exclusionary, that is not hurtful, that doesn’t deny people their rights and their dignity, that is based on generosity of spirit and love.

Social justice is important to you and you have spent over a decade in grassroots and non-governmental organisations in Australia and the Middle East. What has been the most memorable moment and has this impacted your writing?

One of the most defining moments for me in my formative years was the death of Muhammad al-Dura in Gaza in 2000. I will never not be shaken to the core by that image of him, 11-years-old, could easily pass for a family member, being shot and murdered by Israel forces, dying in his father’s arms. And there I was, also 11, excited to go to my best friend’s birthday party on the weekend, preoccupied with what to buy her. That’s the kind of thing that really instils that conscience in you from a young’re old enough to know this can’t be OK, that there’s something seriously wrong with the world, yet young enough to somehow be optimistic and hopeful that maybe one day you can help fix it.

Through the power of words you are able to extend solidarity with marginalized people. What reactions do you get for your work?

Really interesting question, I don’t think I have reflected on this enough lately. It’s a powerful affirmation actually to be able to pause and process that your work could touch even one person, to remember that there are people out there who say to me, we wish we had this work growing’s so nice to see you on a bookshelf or in a library somewhere. But of course the work doesn’t happen alone, it’s a reflection of many people - a movement really and that’s what I am interested in, elevating more Arab and or Muslim voices, and making sure that when we are writing and creating, we are also doing so, conscious of fact that we are doing this on stolen land, where histories have been erased and voices dismissed for too long and if we are not actively resisting our role in that, then we are complicit.

Also, writing as a Palestinian in particular elicits a sort of reaction - provocation - in and of itself. I don’t even have to do anything but exist, and that seems to be upsetting to some.

You were the first Muslim woman to win of one of Australia’s most prestigious poetry honours, the Peter Porter poetry prize. Soon after you won the Overland 2020 Judith Wright Poetry Prize back to back. How did you feel gaining such recognition?

I feel so privileged and honoured but also mindful of this whole conversation around ‘Firsts’. I am building on what those before me have done, it’s there and it exists even if it’s invisible to us (or willfully ignored, sidelined and undervalued). Every single piece of ‘work’ I have put out there is a series of collective generosities. It’s a culmination of my discipline, effort and passion, yes but more so that of my teachers and mentors, their belief in me - as well as my family and community for being so gracious and generous in trusting me with stories (and co-creating some with me!) and in sharing support.

Grateful as I am, accolades and awards and applause aside, I will always be writing.

Congratulations on the announcement of your debut novel with Affirm Press, to be published in 2023! The acquisition follows your participation in the inaugural Affirm Press Mentorship for Sweatshop Writers. How do you feel about publishing your debut novel?

Thank you. The very same week the contract was signed, my dad told me he found a dusty old contract (from decades ago!) for a novel for my now passed grandfather...and that was surreal. It is an honour and a privilege and a joy beyond words to do what I love, and for that to be a reflection of who I am and my dedication to this craft, an extension of ancestry, and a celebration of heritage and community.

The book, titled Songs for the Dead and the Living, is an intergenerational novel following a Palestinian family that ends up in Western Sydney. What are some of the themes you explore through your story?

I don’t want to give too much away yet, but I can tell you it’s more than just a portrait of what it means to be stuck in the double bind of being an undocumented woman migrating from one oppressive society to another across a continent. It’s about love, and longing, and liberation in all its forms and on multiple fronts, and of course, raises arbitrary notions of borders and citizenship.

You are passionate about telling our own stories. Why is this important to you, and do you feel your debut novel presents the opportunity for you to present your own narrative, honoring your community and heritage?

I am a big advocate of ‘own voices’, being able to write your stories with nuance and complexity and messiness, to enjoy the craft and the journey, without subjugation to the white gaze, without any expectation to react or exist in opposition to, without diluting or giving into ‘model migrant’ narratives or other oppressive literary barriers (like only write about trauma) ... I am interested in our ability to be ALTER instead of COUNTER (Thanks Prof Ghassan Hage). If you want to write about themes of migration, war, family, love etc go right ahead...if you also want to write about your favourite chewing gum, you do that, too!

I also want to say, our communities have been artists and writers and poets and musicians creating for a very long time...the question is why wasn’t the world paying attention? Who does that benefit? How did we get to be subsumed by such eurocentricity and monotonous (sometimes mediocre) voices in our artistic traditions and education systems? Power... power and the powerful, try as they might, won’t change that we’ve always been here.

How can storytelling act as a tool for social change?

Poetry can’t shut down detention centres or bring down apartheid walls, but it is imperative for transformative politics. Poetry creates language and shapes thought, and that is what enables meaningful action to take place. If you enter a poem or story from one end, and exist transformed on the other - like walking through a portal - then I believe the poem has done it’s job. It’s made you feel something.

Through poetry you get to inhabit worlds and views that are mistranslated, misrepresented, misunderstood....But perhaps it’s worth reminding ourselves, maybe it’s not just what poetry does for us, but what we can do for poetry.

How has your faith as a Muslim impacted your creative practice?

Growing up in a family and community that has a strong and rich history of oral storytelling, I have really come to appreciate this on a very granular level. To have the space and knowledge and shared generosities that this storytelling brings and to be able to understand language, its malleability and musicality, of rhythm and tone and pacing, within the Quran, which is itself poetry embodied. Ritual has also taught me to be present, to take my time, to stay grounded despite the churn and pressures of this exploitative capitalist society that is addicted to productivity at the expense of all that I value (family, community, connection, health and well being - all an amanah, entrusted to us).

I also resist the dualities imposed on me, frustrating reality as it is, people needing to shove me into Muslim and or/ western, English and/or Arabic...learn from my literary traditions and I write, I want to follow all of it, I have the right (write) to all of it. And nothing less.

One last thing to mention. The ‘label’ of Muslim (or Arab or...) poet is something I will always take pride in, but that needs to be my choice. Because we need to recognise that it is used reductively and is loaded and comes with baggage that white poets for example never have to contend with (they’re just ‘poets’).

What does the future of Islamic art and culture look like to you?

Poetry is for the people and I am really interested in reclaiming and reinhabiting that.

The views of the artists, authors and writers who contribute to Bayt Al Fann do not necessarily reflect the views and opinions of Bayt Al Fann, its owners, employees and affiliates.


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