2019 New Voices Award: Q&A with Noor Naga

Noor Naga is the winner of the 2019 RBC/PEN Canada New Voices Award for unpublished writers aged 17-30. The award, funded by the RBC Emerging Artists Project, includes a $3,000 cash prize and mentorship from a Canadian author.

Pen Canada: You were born in Philadelphia, raised in Dubai, studied in Toronto, and currently live in Alexandria. How has this influenced your writing? What has it helped you to notice that you might otherwise have ignored?

Noor Naga: Home is the corner we look out from. It’s a triangulation of walls that we put our backs to when we want to examine the strangeness of the world while retaining some sense of safety. If you are standing in a corner, you can feel the walls behind you; you don’t need to turn and look. There is no surprise behind you. Never having had a fixed home means living without the refuge of a corner, living in a stunned sort of daze. I’m dizzy from turning because there is as much behind me as there is in front of me. Writing is first noticing, and noticing requires, I think, the subtraction of what’s before you from the familiarity of what’s behind you. It’s a newspaper game of spot-the-difference, but in my case, rather than having two images to compare, there are five or six that I am constantly flipping back and forth. I don’t think I notice more than other people because of this disorientation, but perhaps I notice wrongly or oddly (which can be rightly or newly for poetry).

PC: In a 2012 article for the Nation Moustafa Bayoumi wrote that after 9/11 “Simple acts of religious or cultural expression and the straightforward activities of Muslim daily life have become suspicious.” More recently, in the wake of the mosque shootings in New Zealand, he noted that “the number of organized anti-Muslim hate groups in the United States nearly tripled in 2017, a rise that the Southern Poverty Law Center credited in part to the ‘incendiary rhetoric’ of Donald Trump.” How does the current political climate affect the way you think and write about Muslims?

NN: I try not to think about the current political climate when I write. It’s harder (and maybe stupid) not to think about the current political climate when I edit. It’s impossible not to the think about the current political climate when I publish because then people have reactions.

PC: One of your poems says ‘you must never doubt the / imagination of a little girl who lives inside / with only spiders and two married humans for company.’ What fed your childhood imagination and how has this influenced what you write about today?

NN: Loneliness! I was friendless for so long and loveless for even longer, so there was a lot of time to read and dream around. I fantasized then (and now write) endlessly about the hunger for tenderness, touch, longing, belonging, loves that come late or dangerously on time… but let’s not examine this too closely.

PC: You will soon be publishing your first collection of poems. What does this mean for a young poet?

NN: I feel that I’m “coming out” at last, joining the library (party) where my heroes are, all of whom “came out” once too. It’s a rite of passage, a tradition. Also, publishing has its own momentum, so it’s nice to be carried along in its great machine-gears and to feel placid, irrelevant, even helpless. Where are we going? No one knows! It’s terrific.

PC: Your poems feel raw and fast-paced, like a deliberate maelstrom of thoughts. Which poets or writers would you say have had the greatest influence on you?

NN: I hate picking favorites and I’m embarrassed—it seems too big an honor—to claim that my writing could be influenced by these giants. I’ll say instead, these are the authors I love and return to: Michael Ondaatje (particularly Coming Through Slaughter and The Collected Works of Billy the Kid), Anne Carson, J. M. Coetzee, Youssef Rakha, Vladimir Nabokov, and Toni Morrison.