'Swimming in History, if You Can Find the Water: A Conversation between Poets' by Hayan Charara and Patricia Smith

Continuing our Poets in Conversation series, Hayan Charara and Patricia Smith meet in the rapids of an email exchange.

HAYAN CHARARA: We've got a friend in common, the poet Diana Goetsch, whose poem "Black People Can't Swim" is one of my favorites. It opens:

When I told Patricia how much I loved the pool at the Y
she said, 'Oh, black people can't swim,'
which made me grateful to be let in on this,
not the information, but the intimacy—
the fact that she could let fly with such a piece
of black on black attitude without the slightest
bit of shame or self-consciousness.

Are you the Patricia in this poem? You want to talk about this?

PATRICIA SMITH: I am indeed the exalted Patricia. The incident in question took place when Diana was Doug—she was a former student who was a better writer than I was from the very beginning. I'd see her once or twice a year, and the meeting was always more of a messy collision—updates, jealousy, measured flirtation, misty recollection, competition. I had no idea that the he was considering she, but that's beside the point. We were with a gaggle of gals, one of who had designs on our Goetsch—we were strolling the streets as a group, leaving or approaching something to eat, dawdling in store windows. I remember how utterly foreign chitchat about "hanging out at the pool" was to me, and the God-honest truth was the best way I knew to shut down that line of convo. Sorry, kiddo. We don't swim.

I remember Doug/Diana (I'm all over the place, I know, with names and gender assignments, but what are the rules? I'm speaking of a time when someone who is now a woman was a man but is now such a kickass woman that the old "he" seems an insult. Oh, well.) I remember Double-D (I think she'll like that) probing me as her nosy self so enjoyed doing, scribbling those mental notes, turning me into eventual poem fodder. We. don't. swim. I attempted to introduce her to the early sixties on the west side of Chicago. Where would we find the pools, honey?

I have been immortalized in a Goetsch masterwork, but I still don't swim. Pools are now abundant, and it no longer seems to be a problem if a black person sticks a toe (or a torso) in. But I never trusted the water. Shimmering on top, dark beneath. I don't trust rivers, so I don't trust pools. I think my mama drilled in that lesson. Something about disappeared people. Something about Emmett Till. The Tallahatchie was wet too, right?

HAYAN CHARARA: I've known the Goetsch poem for years, known Diana for longer, but I never asked if it was you, even though I wondered all along. I'm glad I finally asked.

So, I grew up in Detroit, and at least in my neighborhood, no one owned a pool. As an Arab kid, I didn't have the ghost of Emmett Till haunting me, but most of my friends must have. Their parents would have been kids the summer of 1955, when they found Emmett Till's body.

For me, something like that—a tragedy that would've prompted my parents to keep me from something they wouldn't have otherwise—it was not keeping me from a body of water, but from an entire country. I wasn't even three years old when the Lebanese Civil War began, and I was finishing high school when the war ended. In all that time, my parents never took me or my sister to Lebanon, which was where they were born, a place I knew well, at least in my imagination, because my parents talked about it all my life. But except for a trip taken there when I was an infant, I never again set foot in Lebanon.

In this way, Detroit really is more than just my hometown; it's my homeland. And if you know anything about Detroit in the 1970s and 80s, you realize how depressing a statement this is. But not nearly as much as saying the same thing about Lebanon during the same time period.

Anyhow, I still managed to learn how to swim—the hard way: I was thrown into a lake and then told to swim or drown.
I took a very different approach with my own kids.

I saw on Facebook that you're going to be headed to Tuscany sometime soon, to write. What are you going to work on there? Or what are you working on now?

PATRICIA SMITH: Ah, we are more alike than you know. You didn't know Lebanon. I didn't know the South.

When my mother came up from Alabama to Chicago during the Great Migration, she fully had no intention at all of being a transplant. She wanted her life to begin the moment she stepped off that Greyhound. She was ashamed of her homemade clothes, ashamed of the twang in her speech, ashamed of what she was sure white folks would consider a shabby upbringing. So she struggled to reinvent herself, and she sure as hell wasn't gonna have "no country child." The only way I would make it in life, she thought, was to convince me to be as white as possible.

And being white meant never admitting to that dirty South in my history. She never talked about it, and as she snapped those links to my southern lineage, she cut me off from my own history. She didn't regale me with stories about the sprawling hamlet of Aliceville, Alabama, and she kept me away from relatives who were still living down South. So I knew I had a history, I even knew where it was, but for all my life she's held it at arm's length, frustrated by my determination to know more about that "nasty ol' Alabama stuff."

Oh, and Emmett died in the south, in that horrible horrible way. So that's not a place you want to care about, chile. Nothing good for you there.

The first time I saw a pool, I was twelve years old, and I was at camp. On the first day, to decide your swimming level, they asked us, one by one, to get from one end of the pool to the other. They figured that the ones who could swim would swim, and the ones who couldn't swim would walk (it wasn't very deep). But wise ol' Patty Ann decided that swimming couldn't be that hard. I'd seen swimming. It involved floating, and how hard could that be?

So my name was called, I jumped in, and I did that hilarious scoop-clutch-flail thing for about ten feet before sinking quite dramatically. Really cemented my rep for that camp session, as you might imagine. City girl didn't like bugs, got scraped up easily, was definitely at odds with the outdoors, but hey, I had provided a year's worth of entertainment.
I still don't swim.

Detroit. You like Motown? You MUST like Motown, or we will cease this conversation. Do you dance?

I'm going to write fiction in Italy. Short stories starring the mothers of the murdered. Right now I'm working on a book of dramatic monologues to accompanying 19th century photos of African-Americans. My husband and I have a huge collection. It's the project I proposed for the Guggenheim, and I feel guilty that I haven't made a move on it yet.

HAYAN CHARARA: Yes, I like Motown. For a while, when I was young, I would go with my father to his regular doctor visits—and they were more regular than not—that's another story—anyhow, the doctor's office was on Grand Boulevard, not far from Hitsville USA.

My parents also had Motown and Motown era 8-tracks at home. They listened mostly to singers from the Arab world, greats like Oum Khalthoum and Fairuz, Wadi el Safi, and Mohamed Abdel Wahab (to most Arabs, at least my parents age, names like this ring bells the way Billie Holiday, Ella Fitzgerald, Nina Simone does, or Frank Sinatra do for Americans). Anyhow, the singer I loved most from the Motown era—and still do—is Aretha Franklin, who Berry Gordy tried but failed to sign onto his record label.

I still love Aretha. And even before my boys knew how to walk, I would play them Aretha's song, and they would hold onto something, a table, a chair, and shake and dance.

I don't dance, not really. Unless it's for my kids, or my wife. I'm too self-conscious, and I am the last person I want to see dancing.

A lot of my friends in Detroit share the migration story you told. Their mothers and fathers or grandparents came up to Detroit, for work. That's why most of my family made it to Detroit, in the sixties, from Lebanon—to work in the factories. We experienced something different, though, in terms of identification with our "lineage." My parents worried so much that we'd lose our heritage—whether it be language, customs, practices, or even the sense of community they tried hard to foster, despite living several thousand miles from their homeland.

The reason for this, I think, has to do with the fact that my parents were not among the first wave of immigrants. Others had come before them, and that generation worked hard to assimilate—changing their names (Americanizing them) and doing many of the things you describe about your upbringing: trying to be "white" in whatever ways they could.

There's a famous court case, from 1915 that attests to this: a man named George Dow sued the United States, which twice denied his naturalization application; long story short, Dow argued that his application should be approved on the basis on the racial schema used at the time, and according to Dow, he—and people from parts of Asia, including Syria and the Middle East generally—should be considered "white."

My parents weren't part of that generation. They were a part of that second wave of immigrants. They were informed, in part, by the larger cultural and social movements of the late sixties, and the revolutionary ideas sweeping the globe at the time. They were proud of their difference. They definitely didn't think of themselves as white, and nobody else did either. My parents, and the parents of all the Arab kids I knew, instilled in us every kind of "Arabness" they could muster. I had a cousin whose father would not allow us to speak English in his house. He was stern, too, so we didn't dare break his rules.

Despite all this, though, my parents worried more about our physical safety than our cultural heritage. My parents both came from a village in southern Lebanon, Bint Jbeil, which is just a little over a mile north of the Israeli border. The civil war was horrific, and even though other families went overseas and back, safely, I know that my father, at least, didn't feel he could go back so soon—he was too politically active, and this may have meant he was risking too much by returning.

He did eventually return, though, permanently (my mother died before she could do the same). In 2003, he went back, and three years later, war broke out again, this time with Israel. Israeli bombardment in this war—the Lebanese call it the July War—destroyed so many cities and towns. My father's house was spared only because it's situated at the top of a hill—the Israelis could see, plainly, there was nothing going on at the house; tactically speaking, on the Lebanese side, it was useless because it was an open target. It got riddled with bullet holes, but otherwise, it survived the war unscathed. The village, though—schools, pharmacies, hospitals, and a lot of people did not survive.

I have a poem about this, called Animals. It's up at the Poetry Foundation, and in my new book, Something Sinister.

We have one more thing in common, at least, and that's a children's book—both of our books are published by Lee & Low, in fact.

My book is actually based on the war between Israel and Lebanon. From a kid's perspective. With cats. And with a lot more hope in it than in the poem Animals. The book is called The Three Lucys.
I'll tell you a little about my book if you tell me about yours.

PATRICIA SMITH: Motown was, is, and will always be my soundtrack. After my mother and father separated (I was ten—for the life of me, I don't know how he stood living with her for that long), I was stuck living with a pretty non-communicative parent. I had questions. No answers were forthcoming. So I got all my ideas about life, love and romance from Motown lyrics. You can imagine how that impossibly rosy mindset screwed me when adulthood loomed—I grew up with the mistaken notion that I was born to be begged for by some silver-throated crooner.

It didn't matter that I lived in a neighborhood populated by single-parent families, that storybook romance was not in residence. All it took was a beautifully anguished "please, please" from one of the lookers in Berry Gordy's stable.

Smokey Robinson was a particular favorite, thanks to the muddled directives on race coming from my mother. If only my broad nose wasn't so broad. If only my skin didn't remind her of mud. Smokey's skin was light and his hair silky, which was as close to white as any black man was every gonna get. Since nothing could be done about my regrettable hue, I could at least crush on someone who didn't have to try so hard. His voice was like pouring cream. That sly little crooner broke my heart several times over—but I still love him. Checked him out live in concert a couple of years ago, and my innards are still shivering.

I'm intrigued by the fact that your parents mixed Motown with Arab favorites. Would love to hear a musical mashup. So, who do you think I'd like best—Oum Khalthoum and Fairuz, Wadi el Safi or Mohamed Abdel Wahab? (I've forced myself not to listen to any of them in advance.) I love Ella, and am one of the few black folks who's committed many of Sinatra's hits to memory (my favorite is "The Tender Trap").

I'm surprised that you loved and love Aretha. Her level of soul can be disturbing—as my father used to say, "best fitted for a dark blue room when you're sipping a deep brown drink." Have you ever had the blues? When? Why? (BTW, I have made a solemn vow to see you dance. It may be difficult, but I'm a determined lass. My guess is AWP.)

Meanwhile what an odd story of parallel migration—my parents running away from their past, yours struggling to resurrect it in their new home. Like I said before, links to my history were ruled by shame. White, white, white was the only answer to overcoming that shame—replacing it with an almost laughable denial. (For some strange reason, the sordid tale of Rachel Dolezal just flashed in to my head. She's the white woman who's struggling to convince the world that she's a bonafide African-American. How—sigh—far we've come.)

All I can remember is that all my mother's parental instruction ended with the same three words:
—Don't be saying "ain't" when you're around white people.
—You've got to wear your good clothes around white people.
—You best to learn how to say "Yes, ma'am" and "Yessir" if you're gonna be around white people.
And my favorite: "Don't act all colored when you're around white people."
As if color was something I could control.

The social and cultural crusades of the '60s passed right over my parent's heads. According to my mother, it was all "white people bizness"—and although she constantly nudged me to make white people business my business ("Pinch your nose while you're watching TV so it won't be so wide"), that didn't apply to any form of revolution. "Black power" was something white people said.

My physical safety was a concern too, but in a different way. Chicago was and is WAY more segregated than my folks expected it to be, so my mother's way of introducing me to that brave new world was to keep me away from it. Don’t ride the bus because it might cross over into a neighborhood where they don’t like black folks. Come home when the streetlights come on, because that’s when all the shiftless colored folks come out. Don’t go to that store, because I don’t think they like when black folks come in there. Don’t live too loud and call attention to yourself.

I feel like I grew upon the wrong side of a window.
There was a real war going on—Vietnam. I remember being plopped down in front of the television, with no explanation of what I was going to see, and watching battle footage. I remember that little crawler at the bottom of the screen—this many dead yesterday, this many dead today, this many dying right now. I'm still ashamed to say that that war might as well have been on the moon.

I wonder if my parents ever considered that they had a home to go back to. Instead, our war was in Chicago, right after Martin Luther King's assassination, when our west side neighborhood was burned to its bones by rioters. It was the first time I realized that, as far as the larger city was concerned, Chicago's new migrants were expendable. It was years before the community was rebuilt. Grudgingly.

I wrote a lot about the migration, the community and the experience of being "first generation up north" in my book Shoulda Been Jimi Savannah. I haven't really written the truth about my mother, though. I suppose that's coming.

Your poem knocked all the air out of my day. I went looking for more of you. Wow. Can't understand why I didn't already know your work.

So, we're Lee & Low brethren! And we're both New Voices Award winners. My book Janna and the Kings came out of my experience of accompanying my dad to the neighborhood barbershop when I was a kid. It's where I learned to love elderly black men—they let me in on their gossip, taught me to play cards, told me corny jokes and whirled me around on that little leather throne. The book imagines a young girl, very much like me, who hangs with her grandfather and his friends at the barbershop, then wonders if there's still a place for her there after her grandfather dies.

I moved that Lee & Low Award call around my desk for months—when I finally decided to address it, the manuscript was due the next day. I didn't realize how much I loved that story, how much I had internalized it. And like a fool, after the award I thought I could just crank out a kid's book whenever I wanted. It's hard work—everything's been written about already!

Did you ever think about writing another one?

HAYAN CHARARA: I just saw some of the Lee & Low people in San Antonio, at a conference for librarians. I talked to Jason Low, and he said wonderful things about Janna and the Kings.

Years ago, when I lived in New York City, I tried writing a children's book, and I did, but it ended up not a children's book. A decade later, Naomi Shihab Nye urged me to try again, and she told me about Lee & Low.

The Three Lucys is a war story, a true story (based on my little brother's experiences during the war—the July War, as the Lebanese call it—between Lebanon and Israel. Obviously, kids lived through that war, as they've lived through every other war on the earth. But too many war stories focus on the men fighting them, not the children—and hardly ever the animals, either, that get caught up in the violence. And most of the stories written about war, or during war, aren't meant for children to read.

I don't see why not. Not if it's done right—which is the case for any work of literature. With The Three Lucys, when war breaks out, the main character and his family take shelter away from their home, but all the while the boy, Luli, worries about his three pet cats, who are left behind, and they all happen to be named Lucy: Lucy the Skinny, Lucy the Fat, and Lucy Lucy.

Every kid who has a pet, at some point, deals with the loss of that pet. That's what the boy in this story learns to deal with. Every kid, at some point, is frightened, too, and the book shows us how this family works through fear as well.

In the end, the book ends on a sad note, yes, but it's hopeful, and along the way there's humor, there's laughter, there are good times—life goes on, even in war time, but especially in times like these, people (children and adults) need ways to heal, to grow, and the book allows kids a way into healing and growth.

I'm not sure I'll write someone else for children. Right now, though, I'm working on a novel that is definitely not for kids, not ever, though kids play a major role in the story.

I'm glad you got to read 'Animals.' Glad it knocked the air out of you. That was the intention. Khaled Mattawa told me once that the poem, to him, felt like getting stabbed in the stomach, and then the knife getting twisted. That's what the events described in the poem felt like in actuality.

I think your father got it right about Aretha Franklin: "best fitted for a dark room when youre sipping a deep brown drink"—least the songs I listen to over and over. "Ain't No Way," for example, or "Say A Little Prayer."

Doesn't everyone have the blues? They should. I'm a happy person, mostly, but horrible stuff has happened to people I know, and love, and people who look like me, and people who don't look like me who I don't know, and it's unacceptable for people to go around not wondering whether life on earth is worthwhile. The answer, some of the time, is no. I'm not advocating that people bail on life, or the earth (though that's a thought), but that people do something. And the first step is getting informed. But that's only a first step. After that, maybe the second step is a good song and a good drink. After that, people need to do something more, and by "something" I don't mean post about it on Facebook or Twitter or "like" a picture or post about people getting fucked over. I mean donating money to an organization, or volunteering, or supporting people who do more than these things.

I'm ranting... again. Forgive me. But I needed to. I know you know what I'm talking about.

Anyhow, even if the world could be beautiful all the time, everywhere, there's the usual sadness that comes with being human. My mother died when I was young. There's that. My father could have been a nicer man without demons. There's that. Thank goodness for music. And drinks. And food and all the things that make us forget until we have to remember. I still don't know about dancing. If you can pull that off, people should keep an eye out for flying pigs and the like.

So, when it comes to great Arab singers, I think people will lose their shit if I don't tell you to start with Oum Khalthoum. For me, she was an acquired taste. I began with Fairuz, but maybe you could Youtube both, in one sitting. Once you've listened to Fairuz and Oum Khalthoum you should check out vocals-only version of your favorite songs—it's a thing, apparently. There are all these audio tracks of original studio recordings of popular songs but with only the vocal tracks. The best one I've heard so far is Queen's "Somebody to Love."

You can hear every breath Freddie Mercury takes; you can hear him running out of breath. I'm probably wrong about this, but I don't know how anyone can't think it's amazing. I just got goose bumps remembering it. I think that's my cue to stop talking.

This piece appears in The Lifted Brow #34. Get your copy here.

Hayan Charara is the author of three poetry books, most reccently Something Sinister (2016) and a children's book, The Three Lucys (2016). He Lives in Texas.

Patricia Smith's eight books of poetry include Incendiary Art, Shoulda Been Jimi Savannah and Bold Dazzler. She is a professor at the college of Staten Island.