Afra Atiq has presence. Her laugh is as addictive as her poetry and her larger than life smile welcomes the world as her stage. Half Emirati, a quarter Japanese, and a quarter American, Afra serves up pieces inspired by food and her heritage. Currently undergoing her Ph.D. in Mass Communications, she recently spoke with another regionally celebrated poet, Bassam N. Bassam, and as it often is when two talents meet, the result was a conversation many would like to be a fly on the wall for.
I first saw her onstage, performing what I thought was the piece of the night. She was incredibly lively; she lit up the room more than the blazing spotlight she stood beneath and every other line she delivered received burning snaps from the audience. As a high school senior who is experiencing the wears and tears of college applications and year-end exams, I took the interview without even blinking. Through our two-hour conversation, I learned more about Afra than I could have hoped for. I got no schoolwork done that night, but it was surely worth it.
Describe your creative process.
I don’t actually have one. I was talking to one of my friends-slash-poetic mentor-come-person who kind of made me, and he told me to find my creative process. I don’t actually have one. I’m not one of those people who would walk in somewhere and get inspired by their surroundings. A general rule of thumb I have is I would wait until something pisses me off. Usually when I write it’s one stream of consciousness — I feel like my raw thoughts are much more powerful than revised ones. With slam [poetry] it’s different because it’s three rounds. You have three poems and you need to actually have them prepared in advance.
If inspiration was a person to you what would he look like?
The refrigerator (I started laughing to myself). Oh my god you’re going to print that aren’t you? If inspiration was a person they wouldn’t be very mysterious. They would be that person you live with or that you see every day but not pay very much attention to. Then, when it hits you, you think “yes I know him!”. They’d be really tall for some reason. Maybe it’s because I’m really tall and I expect everyone else around me to be tall. I feel like you’re thinking “Oh my god what did I sign up for.” If inspiration was a person, I also feel like it would be the person who points out everyone’s’ flaws. I’m sure everyone had that one teacher who was like “No! You’re doing it wrong. That’s not how it’s done.” I feel like it [inspiration] challenges you to try something new.
What prompted you to write?
I get asked this very often. I always tell people that I don’t consider myself as a writer as much as I consider myself a performer. When I look back at it, I’ve been writing for a while but I didn’t know what it was and I didn’t know that it would take on a life of its own. I think I’m more of a stage person than a page person. I feel like people need to see me and not read me; my words don’t necessarily leap off the page. I don’t see myself as a writer. I can’t say that I started writing at this age, or that I write, draft, and edit because it’s a completely different process for me. With performance poetry, I think that you need to mold yourself because performing is different for everyone.
Do you have a cause or do you write for anything that you are passionate towards?
Other than the food (Again, I started gasping for breath)? I do feel that as an Emirati and as a woman we should be telling our own story. If we don’t tell our story, then someone else will, and it won’t be their story. I find it important to write about domestic and social issues that reflect the culture; things no one says. It’s not just getting up and rhyming words; it’s actually having a message. I’m not trying to belittle anyone’s craft, but there are only so many poems you can hear about someone and their ex. There are only so many love poems you can hear. Poetry throughout history has always been the catalyst, and it’s always been a tool of the people. So why not put a message in there? In all fairness, I think it might be difficult because it’s very easy to rant: about your ex, your boss, or the things in life that annoy you. It is difficult to instil positive messages sometimes.
Imagine yourself on a stage. What does this mean to you?
It means everything. It without a doubt means the world to me. That’s my world. It’s my moment to put something out there. I’m not one of those people who before performing are so calm and contained. I’m always a nervous wreck, but once you’re on that stage, nothing matters. The reason why I know this is my calling is that every time I walk off that stage I nearly fall over because I can’t feel my legs. I feel so energized and happy. It’s almost as if my brain is trying to process what just happened and is desperately trying to get the message down to my legs like “We need to walk, we need to get off the stage.” I love it, I love it so much. I don’t know what I love more than that besides friends, family, and food and not necessarily in that order.
Images by Olga Lobanova.