Safia Elhillo, a Sudanese American writer, visited Northwestern for the English department’s most recent talk in the Moore Lecture series Thursday evening. The event was part-listening party, part-lecture, part-conversation and part-Q&A with the public.
Elhillo, originally from Maryland, is a current Wallace-Stegner fellow at Stanford University and has won the Arab American Book Award twice. She also published her most recent poetry collection, “Girls That Never Die,” in 2022.
Northwestern’s English department planned the event for around four months, according to Northwestern Assistant Director in Creative Writing and English Colin Pope. He studied Elhillo’s poetry in graduate school, and said he was excited for the event.
“She’s gonna have a big career later,” Pope said. “You want to get people when they’re on the way up; you’re gonna get them while you can still afford them.”
The event began when Elhillo played a short YouTube video titled “Sudan Cypher,” in which various rappers with connections to the nation of Sudan deliver verses in a mix of English and Arabic. Close to 30 graduate students, professors and undergraduates made up the audience.
Over about half an hour, Elhillo unpacked the video, referring to notes from her red notebook. She explained how the lyrics created rhymes between words in English and Arabic that would not work if they were in the same language. She also focused on how the rappers played with sound in their verses, “Arab-izing” English words to celebrate so-called “corrupted” English. This interplay creates what Elhillo termed a “third space,” meaning a unique identity at the intersection between American and Arabic identities.
“I generally do not translate,” Elhillo said. “I need you to come meet me here in my language and my silences, where I’m either talking directly to you or not.”
The event then shifted into a conversation between Elhillo and Creative Writing graduate student George Abraham before opening up to a Q&A with the audience moderated by Abraham. Questions ranged from what Elhillo was reading to the use of ecological language in her poetry.
According to Abraham, they’d only known they would be moderating the event since last Monday. Still, they said they felt comfortable hosting since they’d known Elhillo for years now. Abaraham met her at a slam poetry event in New York and has developed a deep appreciation for her work.
“It just kind of came together very last minute but very lovingly,” Abraham said.
Weinberg third-year Raza Zain Ayoob, an attendee, gushed about his love for Elhillo’s work. He first heard about Elhillo when she Zoomed into his introduction to poetry class last year, and he has been reading her poetry since.
“Over the past year and a half, I’ve just been diving into her work, quite obsessively, honestly,” Zain Ayoob said. “I’ve had her books in my bag for the last five months.”
Weinberg first-year Regan Brower said she’d only come to the lecture because her creative writing professor had recommended it to her class, but she left the evening inspired to dive deeper into writing.
“I’m definitely gonna watch the video again,” Brower said. “I’d like to hear more about her process and what inspires her.”