Safia Elhillo is an award-winning Sudanese-American contemporary poet and Stanford University Fellow. Author of The January Children (2017), Home is Not a Country (2021)Girls That Never Die (forthcoming), and co-editor of anthology Halal If You Hear Me (2019), her work has been recognised internationally for its originality of form and capacity for tenderness. A recipient of the Sillerman First Book Prize for African Poets, co-winner of the 2015 Brunel International African Poetry Prize, listed in Forbes Africa’s 2018 30 Under 30, and a Pushcart Prize nominee, to name but a few of her incredible achievements, Safia’s work gives her homeland a body to speak from. As both a written and spoken word poet, she engages with identity, belonging, and ideas of home. Her work blurs the boundaries between fiction and poetry, dancing in the space between the two. We had the pleasure of interviewing Safia about her verse novel Home is Not a Country, which tells the story of Nima, a 14-year-old Muslim American girl struggling to find a place in a suburban post-9/11 town. In this interview, Safia speaks to us about the inspiration behind Home is Not a Country, her roots, and writing a world that reflects the one she grew up in. 

Leanne: Home is Not a Country is such a powerful tale about grappling with identity and belonging in the Western world. Do Nima’s experiences mirror your own in some way?

SAFIA: While I lent some details from my own life to this story—specifically, going to a Sudanese Sunday school and almost being named Yasmeen—with almost everything else, I wanted to allow myself to relish the freedom of fiction. In the rest of my work as a poet, my “I” is often read as autobiographical and there is a set of responsibilities that come with that, so I was excited to get to make things up for this project—time travel! Spirit visits! It was fun to not talk about my own life for a little bit. That being said, much of Nima’s emotional arc in the story mirrors the way my own feelings about home and belonging have grown more complicated and nuanced with time; like, I myself had to realize that I needed to release myself from this need to belong to a country, any country, before I could walk Nima through that process. 

“I myself had to realize that I needed to release myself from this need to belong to a country, any country, before I could walk Nima through that process.”

Leanne: Your style of narration is so refreshing, knitting together time travel and culture through the fluidity of poetry. How did Home is Not a Country come into being and did you always intend to write a novel in verse?

SAFIA: Thank you! To be honest, I’d never planned on writing a novel. I’ve been a poet for years and kind of don’t really know how to do anything else. All my eggs are in this one basket. But I was having a conversation with Christopher Myers, who runs Make Me A World that publishes Home is Not a Country and he asked me if I’d ever considered writing a novel. It’s funny because I think of myself as being so, like, borders are fluid, genre is fake, but in that moment, I was like, a novel? I am a poet. Thank you so much for thinking of me, but no thank you. 

And to be clear: it’s not because I’m so snobby about only writing poetry or whatever, it’s not about purity or anything like that. I just am generally terrified of doing anything I feel like I’m not already good at, which I recognize as a huge character flaw, and I am trying to work on it. So, after I said no, we started talking about books, and he asked me what my favorite book of poetry was. I immediately started talking about Autobiography of Red by Anne Carson. And Chris hears me out, lets me finish, before being like: you know that’s a novel, right? It’s a novel in verse. It turned out that I had accidentally been studying this form for years. And that helped demystify it for me and made it feel less like this impossible forbidden genre. It was very easy after that to convince me to sit down and try.

Leanne: In an interview with The Nerd Daily, you spoke about being obsessed “with the idea of alternate or parallel selves, especially in the context of diaspora.” The idea of our parallel versions existing, or waiting to exist, is so fascinating. Was there an event that inspired this? Have you ever had an encounter with the supernatural world?

SAFIA: Like Nima, I was almost named Yasmeen. That was the name that my mother had already picked out before I was born. But then an older relative—maybe a great-aunt—named Safia died. I was named after her instead. I’ve known forever that I almost got this other name, so I grew up obsessed with this alternate version of myself that I ascribed to this other name that I could have had, which then went hand-in-hand with this other life I thought I could have had if I hadn’t grown up outside of the country of my origins, wondering what I’d be like if I’d grown up there instead of elsewhere. About the supernatural world, I come from such a spooky culture! Everyone is always seeing ghosts and spirits and jinn and just talking about it casually, so the presence of spirits and jinn and ghosts has just been a profoundly casual thing in my world, my whole life. 

“I’ve known forever that I almost got this other name, so I grew up obsessed with this alternate version of myself that I ascribed to this other name that I could have had, which then went hand-in-hand with this other life I thought I could have had if I hadn’t grown up outside of the country of my origins, wondering what I’d be like if I’d grown up there instead of elsewhere.”

Leanne: Home is Not a Country depicts Muslim and immigrant communities in a warm and enriching light. We meet vibrant characters who are full of laughter, song, and hope, despite the weight of the discrimination they face. How important was it for you to represent these communities in this way?

SAFIA: I wanted to make a book for my communities—complete with the aunties and uncles that taught me Arabic on Sundays, and their children, who I grew up believing were all my cousins, in that particular kind of diasporic siblinghood. I wanted to write it in the language we invented together. That’s what the world I grew up in looked like, and I have loved books for what feels like my whole life, without seeing that world reflected in any of them. I wanted to carve out a little space for us, and to have that space be celebratory and funny and complicated and not just entirely traumatic, because I feel like my people are only ever being depicted as suffering.

Leanne: If you could go back in time and give advice to your 14-year-old self, what would you say?

SAFIA: The books you love are wonderful and important but try to spend a little time out in the world, too. Books aren’t a replacement for actual people.

Leanne: Aside from your identity as a hugely successful writer, what else would you like the world to know about you—if anything?

SAFIA: Because I exist in this strange dream where my hobby became my job, I feel like I am constantly in search of a new hobby. I am learning how to sew these days. I’ve got a real sewing machine and everything! 

Leanne: Do you have any advice for young BIPOC writers hoping to begin their career?

SAFIA: So much of my writing life feels like it’s been shaped by the Toni Morrison quote: “If there’s a book that you want to read, but it hasn’t been written yet, then you must write it.” So really, all I can ever suggest is to read, and then read some more, to figure out your voice by figuring out your taste and what you respond to in other people’s writing. And then try to name what it is that you are still looking for in these books, that you still haven’t found, and fill in, with your own writing, those gaps.  

“Try to name what it is that you are still looking for in these books, that you still haven’t found, and fill in, with your own writing, those gaps.”

SAFIA ELHILLO is the author of The January Children (University of Nebraska Press, 2017), which received the Sillerman First Book Prize for African Poets and an Arab American Book Award, Girls That Never Die (One World/Random House, forthcoming), and the novel in verse Home Is Not A Country (Make Me A World/Random House, 2021). Sudanese by way of Washington, DC, she holds an MFA from The New School, a Cave Canem Fellowship, and a 2018 Ruth Lilly and Dorothy Sargent Rosenberg Fellowship from the Poetry Foundation. Safia is a Pushcart Prize nominee (receiving a special mention for the 2016 Pushcart Prize), co-winner of the 2015 Brunel International African Poetry Prize, and listed in Forbes Africa’s 2018 30 Under 30. You can find her on Twitter and on her website.

LEANNE FRANCIS is an English Literature and Creative Writing graduate from the North East of England. Being of South African and St Helenian descent, she is keen to pursue a career in publishing and poetry whilst pushing for representation across both. You can find her at @leannekf on Twitter or @leannekerenza on Instagram.

“I grew up obsessed with this alternate version of myself”: A conversation with Safia ElhilloHome is Not a Country by Safia Elhillo
Published by Make Me A World on 2 March 2021
Genres: African, Coming-of-age, Literary fiction, Novel-in-verse, Poetry, Supernatural, YA
Pages: 224
Format: Hardcover
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Nima doesn't feel understood. By her mother, who grew up far away in a different land. By her suburban town, which makes her feel too much like an outsider to fit in and not enough like an outsider to feel like that she belongs somewhere else. At least she has her childhood friend Haitham, with whom she can let her guard down and be herself. Until she doesn't. As the ground is pulled out from under her, Nima must grapple with the phantom of a life not chosen, the name her parents didn't give her at birth: Yasmeen. But that other name, that other girl, might just be more real than Nima knows. And more hungry. And the life Nima has, the one she keeps wishing were someone else's...she might have to fight for it with a fierceness she never knew she had.