RAFEIF ISMAIL: You can be your own hero
If you were to guess Rafeif Ismail’s age on life experience alone, you’d aim higher than you ought to. In the less-than quarter of a century Ismail has achieved big things.
A contributor to three anthologies, political experience under her belt, and in 2017 a national writing prize for her piece Almitra among the Ghosts. In feedback from the judging panel Ismail was credited with inventing a ‘new style of poetry-prose that incorporates her home culture with English in a startling way’ where ‘each word is there for a purpose’.
I spoke with Rafeif about one of her most recent published works and contribution to new anthology Growing Up African in Australia.
MEET RAFEIF ISMAIL.
RAFEIF ISMAIL. I’m a classic third culture child. I was born in Sudan and spent the first few years of my life there, then lived for three years in Egypt as a refugee, before arriving in Australia in December 2003.
THE PIN. The piece that you submitted to Growing up African in Australia is called Four Stages, in your own words what is it about?
RI. It’s about mourning and the forced migration journey. I wrote Four Stages in March last year in response to the passing of my grandfather. I saw him in 2017, and that was the first time I had seen him in fifteen years. I’d expected to see him again at least one last time.
When I wrote Four Stages I was going through those stages of mourning and coming to terms with the idea that I would never go back home to what I supposed home was, because the people that make it home are passing. There is so much family history that has been lost or stolen because my immediate family had to flee the Bashir dictatorship in Sudan and that has made it impossible for us to connect with friends and family members.
That was what I was feeling when I was writing Four Stages. The constant stages of grief and the constant rebuilding a lot of refugees go through. We exist in this cycle in a world that wants only your triumph or tragedy and not the whole person. It’s either the myth of the excellent refugee or the tragic refugee and not the entire experience.
It was a cathartic experience to write Four Stages. It allowed me to reflect on my life until that point in time, to examine myself, what brought me here and why I do what I do. I don’t feel comfortable writing memoir, possibly because I don’t feel comfortable leaning into the feeling’s life writing bring forth, but with four stages, it needed to be done.
When I read Four Stages I was struck by how you can interpret it as either a standalone piece comprising of four stages, or stages within the stages such as the section on Australia, which has its own complications that you’re processing...
RI. Yeah, absolutely. I was really interested in writing about Australia for the anthology, and the idea that Black girlhood isn’t really a thing here. It didn’t hit me until I arrived in Australia and I didn’t process it till I was much older. Being the only Black girl in my primary school and being one of maybe four Black girls in my high school, it’s been an interesting experience to realise that I was seen as an adult before I was seen as a child, and an object before I was seen as a person. It’s not something I would wish on anyone and it’s a tragedy that it’s happened to so many Black youths.
Each stage contained a memory I found significant, and in writing those memories, I hoped to begin a dialogue, with myself and with whoever reads the work.
There is a point in the piece where you have a conversation about not looking Sudanese. Is this a conversation you regularly have?
RI. There seems to be an expected homogenous Sudanese identity, which is false. Sudan is a multilingual, multiethnic, multi-religious country which has been the subject of multiple multiple colonisations and some that are still ongoing. Conversations about me not looking Sudanese enough have been a constant experience in my life. I left Sudan so young and so abruptly as well, so it does come with this sort of insecurity about who I am. Am I really Sudanese? Am I really Australian? I don’t fit in there, I don’t fit in here - I absolutely did not fit in, in Egypt. That’s why I call myself a classic third culture child - the eternal identity crisis of who am I and where do I fit in?
I think these questions are something that most young people of diasporic heritage grapple with and they have certainly been formative for me, hence their inclusion in Four stages.
Do you think the question gets easier as an adult?
RI. It does but it’s still complex. It’s easier to articulate as an adult but the more I find out, the more questions I have. There are also questions you figure out you need to be asking, but don’t realise.
You don’t know, what you don’t know… you know?
In Four Stages you talk about Superman and Wonderwoman. How big a feature of your upbringing were comic books and superheroes?
RI. I learnt English through comic books. In Egypt I would come home from school and watch the Superman/Batman show. When we came to Australia the country seemed like a whole other planet, it was a completely alien world to me, so when I found that comic books were a thing here it was something I recognised and could latch onto. I would spend hours in the library just reading comic, after comic, after comic until I actually managed to learn the English that I hadn’t learned in school.
Comics have been really formative for me. Like a lot of young people who live with forced migration I was looking to be saved, but I was also looking to save the people I care about. Comics provided that avenue for me to imagine. In Four Stages I speak about going back to my very first school which had an intensive English centre supporting newly arrived students. The first question I asked the young people is who is your favourite superhero and why. The all had different answers but the idea was the same - they wanted to change the world and they wanted to make sure their family was safe. They wanted to be brave and to save someone they love.
That’s why comics are important. They give you hope for a better world and I think they give you an understanding that you don’t have to wait to be saved. You can save yourself.
Do you still read comics?
RI. I will never stop reading comics. Myself in 2009 would not have imagined we would have a Black Panther movie, or that we’d have Iris West as Flash. We now have characters of colour on screen, inspired by comics and I think that’s life changing. When Black Panther was released I went and watched it twenty-two times and the representation we have seen in recent years has been monumental. To see people of colour, Black people being represented in fiction has been life changing for me and I am sure it has been for other folks as well.
Did it have a different impact upon you each time?
RI. Actually, it did. The first five times I went with different groups of people and their reaction influenced my reaction. The first time was with a multicultural group, primarily made up of my African friends. We all dressed up in traditional clothes and were shouting ‘Wakanda forever!’. While watching it I could see northern African culture, dress, and tradition. I recognised things from my days in Sudan and from stories told to me. It was pan Africanism at its best in art.
Getting into your career, you ran as the Greens candidate for Mirrabooka in the 2017 state election. In the lead up you talked about the Pauline Hanson effect and wrote an open letter to Senator Hanson. In the letter you talk about feeling unsafe to leave your house, a theme you touch on in Four Stages. What is your take on politics in 2019?
RI. It’s a trash fire. I joined politics because of the 2013 election. That election is one of the single most traumatic moments of my life. I say this having lived in Sudan, that’s the magnitude of the trauma. It was the year the ‘You Will Not Make Australia Home’ campaign launched. And politicians waged a war on people from refugee backgrounds. It was a war of propaganda with no care for the impact on everyday people. I was 18 at the time and I remember thinking, ‘my God, did I just leave a war zone for another?’.
When the 2016 federal election came around, I recognised that I wanted to do something, so I began volunteering with the Greens, and then found myself a candidate in the 2017 election. My goal was to help open doorways so that more young people of colour could engage in politics. I also wanted to make sure my community had a voice. We are often used as talking points and then discarded, so like I learned from the incredible activists I have grown up with, I decided to meet that act of silencing by raising my voice.
Pauline Hanson’s return to politics has accelerated the proliferation of extreme views. White supremacy is on the rise and there’s a move away from humanity in politics. That’s totally unacceptable.
We are now facing a growing divide where violent ideas and rhetoric have become bolder. It doesn’t matter if the voices are few or many - they are loud and cause a violent reaction. That violence is often targeted at the people who are most visible and vulnerable in our community because hypervisibility is hypervulnerability. I despair for the Australian conscience.
Reflecting on everything you’ve said there, how important is it to have collective writing opportunities for emerging and unseen talent?
RI. I think it’s life changing. Particularly anthologies that centre voices of colour or centre the kinds of work we need right now. They give space and open a door to mainstream publishing that people of colour doesn’t usually have access to.
My previous contributions to Ways of Being Here and Meet Me at the Intersection have led to mentorships and national prizes, including the Deborah Cass Prize for Writing in 2017 which was monumental to me. Most recently I’ve had a piece published in Meanjin. It’s been amazing to have these opportunities that may seem small to someone who has privilege but can be life-changing to someone who doesn’t. They don’t just open doorways, they create sustainable change. As someone who has been privileged enough to have access to these opportunities, it is my responsibility and my pleasure to make sure other folks do as well, which is why I advocate as I do.
THE PIN. If you could give your younger self one piece of advice about being in the skin you’re in, what would it be?
RAFEIF ISMAIL. Don’t be afraid to be in the skin you’re in. One day you will grow up and be absolutely grateful to be who you are, existing in every intersection you’re in.