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In New YA Novel, Poet Safia Elhillo Untangles What It Means To Belong

Author and poet Safia Elhillo. (Courtesy Aris Theotokatos)
Author and poet Safia Elhillo. (Courtesy Aris Theotokatos)

Safia Elhillo didn't really plan on writing a novel.

Despite her lifelong obsession with fiction, Elhillo felt like maybe she should just stick to poetry. Fiction writing was an elusive mystery to her after years of being a poet. "I was a writer who was prepared to spend the rest of my life staying deeply, deeply in my lane," she says with a laugh.

After persistent encouragement from those around her, Elhillo decided to step into the arena of fiction writing. "A friend disoriented me with this hard truth that my poetry 'North Star' all these years was actually a novel." And so, "Home Is Not a Country" was born.

Elhillo may not consider herself a novel writer (yet), but you would never know it after reading her book. She masters the free verse technique and uses poetry to build characters and landscapes so vivid and real that at times, reading the book feels like watching a film. Her characters have flesh and bone and the spaces she creates with just a few lines of poetry exhale and inhale with sounds and smells.

Equal parts ghost and love story, "Home Is Not a Country" (out now) breaks open what it means to lose home and find it again. While the book is not autobiographical, many parts of it reflect Elhillo's own experiences growing up as a Sudanese American. Split into four distinct parts, the novel follows teenager Nima, who is grappling with her sense of belonging. She lives alone with her mother, Aisha, who left the "old country" (which is never named) to start anew in the United States. Nima deifies her father, who died before she was born in what her mother describes as a "car accident."

The cover of Safia Elhillo's novel "Home Is Not a Country." (Courtesy Make Me a World)

Nima spends most of her time wishing she was invisible — at school where Islamophobic students tease her, in Arabic class where she stumbles over conjugations and even at home, where her tired and overworked mother sits on the couch after finishing her shift. In the time Nima isn't wishing herself into nothingness, she's spending it with her best friend, Haitham, the son of her mother's friend who also immigrated from the "old country."

Throughout the novel, ghosts are resurrected over and over again. Nima clings to the memory of her father while the identity of Haitham's father is still shrouded in mystery. Her mother's country is another ghost, looming on the horizon of Nima's desire to find a home for her loneliness. And most notably, Yasmeen, the ghost of the girl Nima should've been, gradually becomes more and more corporeal.

The veil between the spiritual world and the physical one is thin throughout. As Haitham's grandmother warns Nima, "...don't run after sundown because a jinn will trip you/ don't raise your voice or you will call them to our side." The warning is both literal and metaphorical. Nima conjures Yasmeen, out of her own feelings of being an incompetent daughter. Yasmeen's motives toward Nima are unclear but their journey together becomes a fraught yet necessary part of Nima's personal growth.

This magical realism is carefully threaded throughout "Home Is Not a Country" but Elhillo points out (while referencing a Toni Morrison quote) that for many people of color, especially African and Afro Diasporic peoples, magical realism "is a part of our everyday life," Elhillo says. "I'm from a culture where discussing things like jinn is casual and common." Indeed, Yasmeen inspires some comparisons to the titular ghost in Toni Morrison's "Beloved." Both are young spirits, somewhat spiteful, who are eager to claim a life they never had. "Yasmeen is as important to Nima figuring out what 'home' means as Nima is," Elhillo says. "Even if she doesn't have the best intention at the start."

That search for home is perhaps the biggest ghost in the novel. Nima clings onto an idealized vision of what her mother's country is like, the family she never met and what things would be like if her father hadn't died. She spends most of the book emotionally drifting away from her mother, Aisha, while lamenting the life Aisha could've had and the youth she's lost. In many ways, Nima fashions Aisha into a ghost as well, something that's been lost that she cannot recover.

The mother-daughter relationship between the two dances at the heart of the story. While it starts off as a tense and sparse two-step, their bond waltzes into something ripe for growth "Nima starts to engage with her mother outside of the fact that she's her mother and in doing so gives her personhood," Elhillo says. "Nima learns to stop flattening things out, which is a really important shift in her perception."

In the end, Nima finally learns that trying to "find" home is a lost cause. Home is what we bring with us, what we plant and what we nurture into being. It is not a place or even a time. "It's the process that I was sort of born into," says Elhillo. "watching adults deciding what home was and making it for themselves, rebuilding or reinterpreting customs to adapt them to their new environment."

Home isn't a country. But Elhillo's novel will help you pry your own heart open, in hopes that maybe, you, the reader, can find a home in yourself.

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Arielle Gray Twitter Arts Engagement Producer
Arielle Gray is the arts engagement producer for WBUR

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