On Belonging, Writing, and Migrating with Dr. Fatin Abbas

Bard College Berlin offers a myriad of classes dealing with questions of race, migration, and culture. This semester, I am grateful to be part of one such course, African Narratives of Migration and Globalisation with Dr. Fatin Abbas. Fatin is a writer and professor whose work lies at the intersection of African and Middle Eastern studies, migration, gender and visual studies. I was very interested in her work outside of the classroom and had the wonderful opportunity to chat with her about all things literature, relocation, and Beyoncé. 

During our last discussion in class, we read Bye Bye Babar by Taiye Selasi. One of the points brought up during this session was present in her TED Talk in which she says, “Don’t ask me where I’m from, ask me where I’m a local.” So, my first question to you is of where are you local? 

Where am I a local to? That’s a tough question. I would say I’m a local to about three cities in the world which are of great importance to me. Berlin, currently; New York, which is where I grew up; and Khartoum, which is where I was born. 

Do you feel a greater sense of home or belonging towards any of these cities?

My roots come from Khartoum, which is the place of my origin. Khartoum’s culture shaped my early life and still shapes my identity to a very large extent. I have always perceived Khartoum as the land that keeps me connected to my family and Sudan, which are both very important to me. At the same time, in terms of “home” or where I feel most comfortable, it would probably be New York City. This is the place I am most familiar with and like I mentioned earlier, it is where I have spent the majority of my life. I know that New York has this dazzling and diverse appeal to it, but there is something else about the city that I find exceptionally unique: it’s familiarity. You get off a flight at JFK and will almost instantly (and certainly) feel like a New Yorker. There’s no distinction between a New Yorker and non-New Yorker. It is a very inclusive city that embraces everyone that comes its way. There is this sense of openness to New York that I really love, which is similar to Berlin. I would say that Berlin has also become my home in many ways, especially because I have found a lovely community of people here. I thoroughly enjoy this city’s political culture, which is not common to other places that I have lived. I also appreciate how welcoming Berlin is to any kind of creative and artistic experimentation, which for me, evokes a feeling of acceptance. 

Well I think you answered a part of my next question already, but would you like to elaborate on your school and college life? 

My story happens to be a teeny bit hard to follow. I did some of my schooling in Khartoum before moving to New York, which is where I completed my Middle and High School education. As for my undergraduate college (BA) life, I spent one year at Princeton University and then transferred to the University of Cambridge in the UK. After this, I ended up going back to the USA to do my PhD at Harvard University. When you were asking me the places where I am a local, I was also wondering if I should mention Cambridge. People are typically very attached to the place they attend university, as those are the years in which one’s adult identity is shaped. But yes, there was a lot of bouncing around the world during the years of my education, a lot of movement between different places.

What prompted you to transfer from university in the USA to the UK? 

Well, I only wanted to study English Literature. Don’t get me wrong, I loved Princeton University and had an amazing group of friends there. However, like every American university system, I had to fulfil some graduation requirements that included studying civil engineering and organic chemistry on top of my English Literature courses. That was not very enjoyable and I realised that in British universities, you pick your major and concentrate solely on that for three years. So yes, that was the thinking behind transferring colleges and moving across continents. 

Have you always wanted to study English Literature? 

Yes, I have somehow never questioned my devotion to this subject. It’s the track that I set for myself at a very young age and I have not deviated from that. I studied English Literature during my undergraduate years and Comparative Literature for my PhD. English was again one of the writings that I studied, I also had to study two other languages that were not English, so I opted for Arabic and French literature. At the end of the day, it was very clear to me that this is what I wanted to do since I like reading books and writing essays. I don’t know if my students feel the same way. 

Did you always want to be a writer? 

Initially, I would say no. As you can see from my academic life, literature has always been important to me, but over time, creative writing as a subject of study also became crucial for me. As a child, I used to write a lot and I think that had to do with my moments of dislocation. My interest in writing grew out of my own story of migration. My family left Sudan in 1989 because my father was a political dissident. He was put in prison and stuck there for a year under the previous dictatorship ruled between 1989 and 2019. It was unsafe for my family to continue living in Khartoum, especially for my father at that point. We were lucky because my mother was working for the United Nations in Sudan and managed to get transferred to New York City, where she ended up working at the United Nations Headquarters. The move to the USA as an eight year old was extremely stressful and traumatic. My siblings and I changed schools three times in eighteen months. We started our schooling in Sudan, then ended up in a white suburban school in Maryland, which was a complete culture shock, and then we went to public school in New York City. Even though we spoke English very well because we went to an English speaking school in Sudan, accents became an issue in the USA. We withstood such cultural and linguistic dislocation between the young ages of eight and nine. 

At the same time, my parents were very busy because my father was not immediately let out of the country. During this period, my mother was busy trying to manage life in a  foreign place. She was forty years old and had never lived outside of Sudan. Suddenly, she was living in the apace city of New York with three children to take care of. The process of my father’s release took quite a while, but he managed to come to the USA. My mother became the breadwinner and she had the “good job” but it was rough for her. Although she was based in New York, she had to visit conflict zones as a part of her work. She would be in Lebanon, Yemen, or Somalia for years at a time, so we would only see her during vacation. It was in these moments of dislocation when I found writing to be my anchor. Writing became a form of making sense of my new surroundings and experiences. I would write fairy tales and childish stories, but that became my way of seeing the world and creating control. 

While I understand that my experience of migration was very privileged compared to most people’s, writing turned out to be an escape of some sort from this difficult experience. I’d been writing pretty much my whole life, but I returned to it with a serious approach during my PhD. I decided that creative writing is the most meaningful form of self expression for me, as opposed to academic writing. After this, I reshaped my focus to creative writing and I guess this is the story of my journey as a writer. 

What was your first ever piece of writing? 

Wow! Let me think about this one. I think the first piece that I wrote was a little dark for someone that age. It was about this young girl that dies and goes to heaven. It’s complicated, but heaven actually looks like hell. It’s full of fire and all the images you can associate with hell. There was also the devil present here, but he’s surprisingly nice and everything ends with the girl living happily ever after in a hell-looking heaven. 

What is your latest piece of writing?

The short story “The First Murder” is an exploration of identity and technology. The story was inspired by the Black Lives Matter protests; I was asked by the MIT magazine to write a story themed around technology, and I was thinking about how digital video has been so central to disseminating knowledge about police brutality that black people face on a systematic basis in the US–and everywhere of course, let’s not pretend it’s better in Europe. So, at the center of the story is a video, and a character’s reaction to that video. The video disturbs the character’s equilibrium, their sense of safety and distance, and the story unfolds the consequences of this. I was going back and forth about the race of this character, but ultimately decided to leave it ambiguous. This way, the reader can project their assumption onto the story. 

As for my personal take on this story and trauma porn – I have not watched the video of George Floyd being murdered by the police. I refuse to watch it, because I know what happens and it happens all the time. I will read about it, but I won’t watch it. It might be selfish because I am protecting myself from the rage these videos will evoke in me, but at the same time, they make me feel impotent and helpless. In our class, African Narratives of Migration, we looked at photos of “human zoos.” Those images are not consumed by mainstream media and social media in the same way that videos of police brutality are. Ultimately, I think anger is important. It’s an important emotion that is often the catalyst for change, but I don’t need to circulate videos of violence being inflicted on black people to feel that anger. 

I’m curious to know where the equation of teaching, on top of writing, came into your professional life? 

The first time I taught was during my PhD. PhD students spend a substantial portion of their PhD teaching undergraduate students. That is part of the way in which one is prepared to become a professor, as teaching is an integral part of the American PhD experience, unlike anywhere in Europe. One of the incredible courses I was very lucky to teach was called “Gender and Performance.” It was taught by a professor called Robin Bernstein at Harvard University. It was eye opening for me as I realised that teaching has the power to transform the way people think about the world. I’m also thinking about how important my teachers and professors were during the course of my own education. I was always lucky to have extraordinary teachers from middle school all the way through university. I believe my affinity for teaching comes out of that.  

How do you balance writing and teaching?  

That’s an interesting question. I think writing and teaching are very complementary to each other. Writing is a very solitary thing, right? You’re just sitting in front of your computer screen for hours, talking to nobody and working on a paragraph. Teaching offers a great counterbalance to that. As somebody who likes working in solitude very much, I find that it can get somewhat depressing every now and then, especially during Berlin winters. But then again, I find joy and comfort in engaging with my students. I get the best of both worlds! 

How do you think both writing and teaching have influenced your life? 

Writing is a thread I have been following for a long time and I presume I will be following it for years to come. It has and always will be an anchor for me. It has provided me with a sense of comfort as a child and as a compass of direction as an adult. Teaching also happens to be an anchor for me, but in a different way. I loved being a student and teaching is a way to continue being a student, except for the obvious fact that I am on the other side of the table now. For instance, think about making a syllabus. This evokes questions like – ‘How do I consolidate all this material into something coherent? How do I present a story or journey of some sort to my students over the semester? What would be something that I enjoyed reading, that my students will also resonate with? What would I like to learn more about along the way?’ Hence, it’s a way to continue learning and to keep fresh, while exposing myself to new things through my students and colleagues. Teaching keeps me intellectually stimulated and establishes a greater connection to those around me. I guess this makes teaching a social anchor. 

How did you hear about Bard College Berlin and when did you start teaching here?

This is only the second year I’m teaching at Bard College Berlin, so I joined very recently. I found out about this institution through Prof. Dr. Agata Lisiak. We were talking about expanding the Migration Studies course offerings at Bard College Berlin. She was wondering if it was possible to offer a course focused on Africa, which is how I came up with LT323 African Narratives of Migration and Globalisation. I’m also teaching LT177 Narrative Non-Fiction this semester, which is a very interesting course. How do you write about your own life, other people’s lives, or real events? It’s a class that involves more close reading and we go through some classics over the semester: Frederick Douglass’ work, Barack Obama’s autobiography, Sarah Ahmed’s Killjoy Manifesto, and so much more. There’s academic writing and then there’s non-fiction writing. It’s such a broad, general category and the class aims to narrow that down. 

What are your favourite pieces of literature? 

Again, a tough question and I think it’s hard to condense my life’s readings to a short list. But here it goes:

  1. One Hundred Years of Solitude by Gabriel García Márquez
  2. God of Small Things by Arundhati Roy 
  3. Seasons of Migration to the North by Talib Salih 
  4. Beloved by Toni Morrison 

Last year, the two of us attended Prof. Dr. Agata Lisiak’s workshop called New Feminisms, New Questions. One of the presenters at the workshop was Sarah Banet Weiser, who wrote the phenomenal book Empowered that examines commodity feminism. We delved into questions about pop icons using their platforms for change and Beyoncé came up. Weiser proceeded to exclaim her love for Beyoncé while also being critical of her. The idea of indulging in, yet being critical of artwork has come up multiple times in our class discussions. So, what are your thoughts on Beyoncé? 

Oh my God! I should have foreseen this question coming my way. Well, I love the early Beyoncé, especially the era in which she was part of Destiny’s Child. I love her still. I love watching her visually and it’s quite empowering to see this black woman in a position of remarkable power. With that being said, she represents a very limited form of corporate feminism that is very problematic. Although she’s nice to watch and indulge in from time to time, it’s important for us to be critical of her as well. And I will be honest, I never really drank Beyoncé Kool-Aid or Lemonade, whatever that is called. 

In the past couple of months, I have felt a deep sense of uncertainty that stems from the Black Lives Matter protests over the summer. It was exhilarating to see the movement unfold, but I was and continue to be worried about what the future holds for racial inequality. Even now, with the US Election, this uncertainty has risen. To conclude this interview, I would like to ask you what do you find comfort in during such precarious times? 

My faith in your and the coming generations. I have hope for the future because of younger generations that understand that a lot of the issues we face on the daily are rooted in systemic and institutional injustices. Oppressive political systems like in the US, but also elsewhere in the world, need to be dismantled for things to move forward, and how that happens is a big question. 

I would like to thank Dr. Fatin Abbas for this wonderful conversation outside of our usual classroom setting and for a new reading list that will keep me occupied until the end of this COVID-19 lockdown!

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