“In Peace”: A Conversation with Matthew ShenodaMays Albaik (MFA GL 2019)
At some point in Wintersession, I decided I needed more poets in my studio.
It was with that in mind that I first emailed Matthew Shenoda. The inaugural Vice-President of Social Equity and Inclusion (SEI), Matthew is a diaspora poet and a scholar of ethnic studies and creative writing. Before coming to RISD, he was the CalArts Assistant Provost of Equity and Diversity and Columbia College Chicago’s Dean of Academic Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion. Throughout all of this, he still wrote, and he still taught. If anyone was going to break the stream of RISD crit language in my studio, it’d be him. His reply to my invitation opened with “Ahlan wa sahlan, Mays!” His sign off was “In Peace,” and his studio visit did not disappoint.
When I ran into him again late this February, the v.1 team had already been thinking about faculty features, and, trapping him between the lunchtime throngs of students along North Main, I suggested we sit down for a chat. Once we got started, It didn’t take long for us to realize this wasn’t going to be a quick chat. Two hours and many transcribed pages later, it still feels like we just started the conversation.
Since then, Matthew’s position has shifted to Associate Provost of Social Equity and Inclusion, hinting toward a focus on the curriculum and academics. Following are three excerpts from our conversation.
Mays Albaik: Of all your published essays and poems, I’m very drawn to your last poetry collection, Tahrir Suite. Could you talk a little about it?
Matthew Shenoda: Tahrir Suite is a book-length poem about the Egyptian revolution. I was in Egypt, which is where my family’s from, up until a week before the revolution. My family and I left to come back to the US and the revolution happened literally seven days later. So as I was following the revolution, this major moment in contemporary Egyptian history, and seeing this transformation and thinking about my family and the future of the country, I did the only thing I know how to do, which is to write. It was a way for me to process what was going on.
The book follows two fictitious characters who begin in Egypt at the moment of the revolution, and just as the revolution erupts they find out that they have been cleared to immigrate to the United States. This leads to their grappling with this moment in the revolution and then leaving the country and living in the diaspora. It’s self-reflective, it’s also my own struggle and a way for me to move through my own thinking around what was and still is a very complicated moment in Egyptian history. I needed to do this from diaspora since I wasn’t able to be there. Had I been there, I probably wouldn’t have been writing about it. I would’ve just been in the streets. Having that distance allowed me to reflect on what was happening in real time, and think about questions that I’ve been obsessed with my entire life, questions of home, and whether there is such a thing and what that means and how that shifts. The malleability of home and of memory and of identity and how we change in different climates. I think all those strands exist in one way or another in the book.
MA: I often think making work in the diaspora in terms of realms. Diasporic work becomes a bridge between different realms, different diegeses. In Tahrir Suite, because of the epic form and the movement in the poem’s rhythm and narrative, I think of a tether instead of a bridge—the diaspora tether.
MS: I always think of migration as a kind of trail. Which is similar to the tether analogy. It was important to me to write this poem poetically. I didn’t feel like I could honestly engage with the revolution through anything but poetry. Any idea I had that seemed concrete would change within forty-eight hours. Poetry allowed me the ability to live and grow with the idea of change and of revolution and of transformation in a way that felt more honest to me.
MA: The term commitment, in the sense of committed literature, or littérature engagée in French, comes to mind. Committed literature is something I often think about when I’m looking at diasporic work and literature of resistance. In the late ’60s, Ghassan Kanafani said in an essay on resistance literature from Palestine that Palestinians didn’t have the luxury of debating the merits of commitment in literature. I’m thinking we might be at a similar moment in time.
MS: I would argue that we’ve always been at that moment. But I think that idea of commitment, which I link to responsibility, is a human thing, not an artist thing. And I think that we can be committed in all kinds of ways. I see myself as a cultural worker, and that manifests in different ways—sometimes it’s about institution building, sometimes it’s about teaching, sometimes it's about writing a poem, sometimes it’s about going out into the street and protesting. Even child-rearing is cultural work in its own way. All of these things are really essential pieces of the whole human, which is the thing that I’m most interested in. I am not somebody who creates this incredibly rarified pseudo-magical space for art. I don’t know that I believe art “saves lives.” I can’t save a human being’s life with a poem, and I don’t think that’s a poem’s job. What I can do is shift the perspectives of people through their engagement with poetry, allow them to see the world differently and make different decisions. If poetry has taught me anything it’s that it’s about discovering and rediscovering one’s own humanity, and if poetry ever stopped doing that I would probably stop writing poetry. If it reached a point where it wasn’t doing that for me, where it wasn’t allowing me to cultivate my own sense of humanity, I don’t know that I would engage it. I would go on to something else. Maybe cooking.
MA: [Vice President of SEI] is a big Job.
MS: Oh, it’s an experiment.
MA: It’s a big experiment, then.
MS: So here’s the thing: I’m a person of color in the United States of America who comes out of a series of colonial interventions throughout my history. I don't inherently trust any institutions, it would be foolish for me to do so, so my interest is less in creating some stagnant notion of an institution that does X, but rather, in a set of human moments that will last as long as they last, knowing that these institutions evolve in different ways, and depend entirely on the human beings who are in them. It would be great to say let's shift RISD forever, but I’m not fixated on that. I think we often get bogged down into wanting to change the course of the institution forever, into creating something that is ultimately stagnant, and it becomes so complicated that we just talk and talk and talk and we don’t do anything in the moment. I’m interested in the moment. I’m interested in creating a set of interventions and human moments that make this place better for the people who are here now. And if the next generation and the generation after that pick up pieces of that or carry it on or completely dismantle it and do something else, so be it. But we have to do something in this moment, and if we begin to think in that way we may relieve ourselves of the anxiety of trying to change an entire structure. So what interventions can we make, what moments can we create for the time being that make this a more equitable and more inclusive space? What if in the course of the next five years we can create a different kind of experience for our students and see what we learn from that, see how we evolve. Maybe it will continue, maybe it will shift, maybe it will all fall apart, but at least we’re doing something and engaging our own humanity in this moment. In that sense I think that being action-oriented is absolutely necessary.
I’ve said this to the leadership here: I’d much rather, if we were to fail, that we fail after being intentional than fail by being passive. We may fail either way but let’s fail through practice, as we do as artists all the time.