No Single Mold: An Interview with Abayomi Animashaun

Article by annalia

My experience as an Asian woman in America is being asked all the time, “Where are you from?” The most tiring it has ever been was during my high school career in the Midwest, where white people (always white people) would ask and then refuse my answer. I would say the name of my hometown (also in the Midwest) and be dismissed. They would say, “No, where are you from?” or, “Okay, so, where are your parents from?” Not that asking about my parents helped. They are also from Wisconsin, because they are white and I am adopted. But even when I gave my peers the answer the first time (Korea), I could not satisfy whatever they were looking for, especially as most of them could not name a single East Asian country beyond China and Japan.

Only since I’ve landed in Houston has “Where are you from?” become a question that can spark positive conversation. The key difference is that most everyone who asks me now is also a person of color. Here, when someone asks me about my history, they’re really saying, “I have stories, too.” My closest (foreign) friends are Bulgarian, Malaysian, Kiwi, fellow Koreans, and others.

With OTHERS WILL ENTER THE GATES, poet Abayomi “Abayo” Animashaun presents work by over two dozen immigrant poets from around the world now living in America. When I asked him what moved him to do this project, Animashaun wrote me over email to say, “I think the need to understand.” A Nigerian émigré himself, he writes: “Yes, I identify as an immigrant poet. But, what does that mean?”

In gathering the pieces for the collection, Animashaun “wanted to know how other immigrant poets reconciled elements that continue to shape their immigrant experiences. Why, for instance, does one poet use her first language in her poems and another does not?” In other words, “No single mold can fully speak to the immigrant experience. Multiple voices and perspectives have to be brought into conversation with each other.”

“When it comes to immigrant poets in America, or immigrants for that matter, there is no monolith.”

For the purpose of the anthology, the call for submissions was limited to influences, what it means to be a poet in America, how work fits within the American poetic tradition, and how work fits within the poetic tradition of the (poet’s) home country. Even those parameters, though, proved too broad. “The immigrant not neat and tidy,” Animashaun writes in the introduction to OTHERS WILL ENTER THE GATES. “Thus, instead of squarely fitting in, most of the pieces in this anthology challenge and blur those categories.”

While some poets “simply used one of the four categories as launching pads into more pressing concerns,” others “addressed two or more categories; and so on.” Again, Animashaun was forced to acknowledge that “when it comes to immigrant poets in America, or immigrants for that matter, there is no monolith.” In the finished copy of the book, the essays were separated into five new categories: “Self-Definition,” “Language,” “Influences,” “The Émigré poet in America,” and “A Third Space.”

One notable aspect of OTHERS WILL ENTER THE GATES is that nowhere in the preface or the introduction does it include a definition of émigré or immigrant. Rather, it leads back to the idea of self-definition. In his own essay “Travels through the Dark,” Animashaun writes that “even though I have been an immigrant in America for nearly twenty years, I situate my work within the poetic traditions of the most populous country on the African continent. Thus, I am a Nigerian poet.”

Here, I learned something about myself because—if I can betray my ignorance for a moment—I thought that eventually, over time—let’s say, twenty years—your status as an immigrant changes, from “foreigner” to “citizen.” When I say it now, it sounds ridiculous. Why would you forget another life you had in another country? How could that be pulled from you? Are these the questions I’m supposed to be asking?

With this collection, Animashaun hopes to “broaden our understanding of who an immigrant is and what it means for the immigrant in question to live and work, as a writer, in this country. It also has the potential to contribute to the on-going conversation of what American poetry is and what American poetry should be.” For me, the definition of immigrant only widens when I learn that Sun Yung Shin identifies as an immigrant poet even though she is an adoptee.

Never mind that I have only heard adoptee once before, when I was interviewing Matthew Salesses for his forthcoming novel THE HUNDRED-YEAR FLOOD. The definition of “immigrant” is still expanding. With “legal status as a family of one,” poet Kazim Ali notes that Shin has “complete freedom for self-invention.” And do I? Perhaps this is self-definition in a nutshell: you grant yourself permission.

Anyone who has ever read an acknowledgements page knows that it takes years to make a book, much less an anthology! When I reached out to OTHERS WILL ENTER THE GATES publisher Black Lawrence Press, senior editor Angela Leroux-Lindsey said the initial idea was born in Chicago a few years ago. “[Animashaun] and I got into a conversation about his doctoral research, and I pitched an idea for an essay in The Adirondack Review,” Leroux-Lindsey tells me over email. “Diane Goettel, who lives in Hong Kong, suggested we develop into a full-length anthology of essays. And voila.”

For some background: Goettel is a fellow editor at BLP. How do they work together, especially considering that Black Lawrence Press has no physical office space? “We get everything done via email and Skype and our annual powwow at AWP,” she tells me, as if it’s really that simple. Animashaun, too, does not seem to mind. “I really don’t see much difference between a virtual-only publishing house and a traditional one,” Animashaun writes. “[Goettel] is in such conversation with BLP authors that we never feel abandoned. At least I don’t.”

Animashaun points out that even though “much of the correspondence is online,” the same is “somewhat true for traditional publishing houses as well.” Thinking about it more, it makes sense: in this day and age, when editors want to meet writers about the latest drafts of their manuscripts, do they really meet in coffee shops, the pages smattered in ink? Probably not. I imagine that oftentimes it is done through comment bubbles and track changes.

Still, Animashaun did enter some new territory with this new title. Unlike his two poetry collections published through BLP—SAILING FOR ITHICA (2014) and THE GIVING OF PEARS (2010)—OTHERS WILL ENTER THE GATES gave him the opportunity to try his hand at editing. “It was a humbling experience,” he writes. “When we sent out the call for submissions, the response was overwhelmingly positive.” He also was proud to say that many of the essays included in the collection were written specifically for the occasion.

No one says it to me directly, but beyond the logistical and psycho-social aspects of this book, there’s quite a bit of love in it, the feeling of close collaborators working on something important. There’s history here: Goettel is the same editor that worked closely with Animashaun on both his other books, whereas Leroux-Lindsey guided the anthology into existence. To close his introduction of the book, Animashaun thanks Leroux-Lindsey especially, calling her “an equal partner as she was a co-editor in the long journey of bringing this collection to fruition,” also writing, “Without her, this anthology would not [have been] possible.”

WE SHALL ENTER THE GATES contributors Fady Joudah and Anis Shivani will read at Brazos Bookstore on Thursday, August 13 at 7 p.m.

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