Leila Chatti is a Tunisian-American poet. She is the recipient of scholarships from the Tin House Writers’ Workshop and Dickinson House and prizes from Ploughshares’ Emerging Writer’s Contest, Narrative Magazine’s 30 Below Contest, the 8th Annual Poetry Contest, and the Academy of American Poets. Her poems appear in Best New Poets, Ploughshares, Tin House, Narrative, The Georgia Review, The Missouri Review, West Branch, The Rumpus, and elsewhere. She lives in Provincetown, Massachusetts, where she is a Writing Fellow at the Fine Arts Work Center.
Geosi Gyasi: You were born in 1990 in Oakland, California but you’re also connected with Africa. Tell me something about your relationship with Tunisia?
Leila Chatti: I am a dual citizen—my father is Tunisian and my mother is American. My parents met when my father came to the States for school, and I was born while he was completing his PhD. My father is one of seven children and was the only one to leave Tunisia. Perhaps understandably, then, we spent every summer overseas; it was important to my father that we maintained a close relationship with both our family and our country. All my life, I’ve spent the winter months in the United States, and the summer in Tunisia; it’s a rhythm that feels not only natural but essential now. Anything else would leave me feeling off-balanced. I don’t think of myself as being from one place or another—I’m from both. Both countries are fundamental to the person I am and the life I lead.
Geosi Gyasi: Are you Muslim? Tell me something about your religion and whether you write predominantly on religious issues?
Leila Chatti: I am Muslim, and was raised Muslim, and religion has always been very important to me. It shows up frequently in my work, whether I will it or not; I have a fixation with God, and am interested in the push/pull I feel towards Him. I am interested, too, in religious stories, rituals, and rules. My favorite ritual, or the one I most frequently return to in my work, is fasting. I began fasting for Ramadan when I was seven years old, and the experiences associated with that act—hunger, restraint, obedience, resilience, lack—are ones I return to, experiences that have had a significant role in molding me into the person I am.
I should also note, my mother is Catholic, and so aspects of Catholicism also appear in my work. My full-length manuscript, for example, utilizes both Catholic and Muslim scripture and practices, and examines in particular both faiths’ depictions of Mary, mother of Jesus. I am interested in the ways these two faiths overlap and interact in my life.
Geosi Gyasi: How did you get into poetry?
Leila Chatti: I’ve always been interested in language; as a baby, I was drawn to books instead of toys and learned to read very early. I first started writing poems when I was five years old. I was raised religious as well, and I was particularly drawn to the musicality of the Qur’an—those rhymes and rhythms tuned my ear for poetry. I wrote and read all the time, as soon as I was able, and progressed from poetry for children (Shel Silverstein and the like) to the poets I love now (Sylvia Plath and Margaret Atwood) in adolescence. I was lucky to have teachers who noticed my constant scribbling in notebooks and encouraged me, by introducing me to more poets and organizing independent studies for me to further pursue my interest in poetry. I’ve been very blessed along this path with teachers and mentors who have seen what I was doing and told me to keep it up—I wouldn’t have had the knowledge (or courage!) to get where I am now without those gentle nudges by many teachers over many years.
“I was horrified by the seemingly unending stories I was encountering of refugees risking their lives to escape their homes, and the stories that struck closest to home were those of boats capsizing in the Mediterranean Sea.”
Geosi Gyasi: Did it come to you as a surprise when you first heard that you’ve been shortlisted for this year’s Brunel International African Poetry Prize?
Leila Chatti: Yes! I had been too shy to submit last year, but I was determined to try this time. It’s an honor and a dream to be on the list, and I feel particularly touched to be the first North African—it means a lot to me to (I hope!) do right by my country. I am very proud to be Tunisian, and so it is important to me that I am recognized as being an African poet as well as an American one.
Geosi Gyasi: Looking at this year’s shortlist of the Brunel International African Poetry Prize, do you feel you’re the best poet to win?
Leila Chatti: I feel honored to be among such talented writers. There are many powerful poems here, and I know any one of us would be deserving.
Geosi Gyasi: Is/Are there any special reason/s why you wrote your poem, “upon realizing there are ghosts in the water”?
Leila Chatti: I was horrified by the seemingly unending stories I was encountering of refugees risking their lives to escape their homes, and the stories that struck closest to home were those of boats capsizing in the Mediterranean Sea. I had a sudden aversion to the water I had grown up adoring; I began to see the sea as a weapon. The shock led me to examine my privilege—I was able to enjoy the same beaches that served as a dangerous threshold for people very much like me, and the primary difference was the absurd luck of where I had been born. This haunted me.
Geosi Gyasi: What often excites you about writing poetry?
Leila Chatti: I love that poetry has a great deal of freedom. You can make a poem look however you like, you can take giant leaps or toy with language, or squeeze a swell of story or emotion into a very small box. I enjoy how poems are distilled; brevity and potency appeal to me. A person can memorize a poem, whereas it is very difficult to memorize a novel or a film in its entirety. A poem can be kept in a pocket and carried always. A poem can change a life in less than a minute. That’s power.
Geosi Gyasi: How do you make a living as a poet?
Leila Chatti: Frugally! I’ve had to be very creative; between 2015 and 2016, I was living out of a suitcase, moving around frequently between opportunities (and couches) and piecing together earnings from prizes and journal publications. This year, I had it a bit easier, as I was supported by a fellowship at the Fine Arts Work Center in Provincetown, for which I am very grateful.
Geosi Gyasi: What is your biggest dream as a poet?
Leila Chatti: I hope it is not only a dream but an achievable goal, but I hope to one day publish a book! I have been working on my first book manuscript and it is almost done, so the end is in sight. Soon, I’ll have to take the plunge and begin sending it out. Beyond that, one day I’d love to make a living teaching poetry—I was a high school teacher before I began pursuing poetry, and teaching is one of my great loves. It would be great to have a hand in inspiring a new generation of young poets.