When Alexandrian writer Noor Naga won the prestigious Bronwen Wallace Award for Emerging Writers in 2017, she read a couple of poems from her winning project, The Mistress and the Ping, at the Toronto ceremony. She had no idea that the poems, which tell the story of a Muslim immigrant woman who becomes romantically involved with a married man, would later travel across an ocean — digitally — to her grandmother’s home in Alexandria. Naga came home one evening to find her sitting on the couch, a look of concern on her face: “If your character is going to be a Muslim, why make her a mistress?” she asked.
“Muslims can be mistresses too,” Naga responded. I imagine she did not say this defiantly. I imagine she did not say it provocatively. I imagine she said it as if she were about to show someone a small bird cupped in her hands, and so whispers, “look, here.”
Naga’s work, for which she has received considerable recognition in recent years, including the Disquiet Fiction Prize, and the Graywolf Press Africa Prize, and has been published in Poetry Magazine, The Common and Granta, tackles difficult subjects in piercing, winged language and innovative form. Her writing sings and enchants as it grapples with gender politics, depicts diasporic culture, and challenges flat representations of Muslim characters.
Naga’s debut poetry collection, Washes, Prays, published this spring by McClelland and Stewart — and of which The Mistress and The Ping is an excerpt — centers on Coocoo, an Arab-born woman in her twenties living in Toronto. A practicing Muslim, she is convinced her devotion to God will cure her loneliness — until she falls in love with her professor, a married man. In her shock and heartache, Coocoo’s faith wavers.
A verse-novel, Washes, Prays is composed mostly of blocky prose poems of equal size, rendering its pages almost identical. Formally, the prose poem evokes sacred texts, an echo that is especially fitting for a book that deals with matters of faith. Propelling the collection is Coocoo’s journey of spiritual interrogation in the wake of her turbulent affair. In one poem, titled “Washing,” she rehashes different Islamic directives — “there are laws for what to eat … how to eat … there are laws for praying…” — before agonizing: “there are no laws for how / to fornicate or what to do afterwards with the body.” To end the poem, the speaker turns inwards, rooting us in a single moment that embodies her shame:
I washed myself / like the married woman I’m not I picked up my clothes from the floor / I prayed with eyes closed so as not to see the floor I touched my face to.
That the form is facsimiled across the collection does not detract from the diversity of the language, which is expertly figurative and textured. Turning the page, you get the sense that you are entering the same room every time, but the furniture is different. At times, the speaker recalls verses from the Quran, and at others she describes sexual encounters with her lover. Some poems unfold as scenes, complete with dialogue, while others emerge more like vocalized performances of consciousness. In one poem, Coocoo describes the harrowing moment when she learns her lover is married: “this word wife inhales the air / of the world behind him sparrows drop from the sky like turds and my / lungs close wetly.” The plaintive tone often gives way to more humorously surreal imagery: “while he was sleeping I tied one of my pubic hairs around his / incisor I tied it with a tiny bow like a tiny gift (for his wife).”
Though the almost obsessive figuration could stand to unmoor us from narrative cohesion, it does not; Coocoo chronicles her relationship with the professor as it begins, develops and ends, priming the reader for dips into the phantasmagorical landscape unfolding within her. We trust her strangeness; Naga makes sure of it. We are constantly returned to the story, to the form, and to Coocoo’s heartbreakingly lyric voice. When she says: “the wind has teeth and in its / mouth I want to sleep and sleep” we want to drape a blanket over her, give her some tea.
Naga wrote Washes, Prays in her grandmother’s apartment in Alexandria, fresh back from Toronto where she had studied (she received a BA in English literature and religion and an MA in creative writing from the University of Toronto). She barely left the flat for six months; it was difficult to find a job, and she hardly knew anyone in the city. When she wasn’t writing, she would attend cultural activities around the city, often dragging her grandmother along. When I asked if she had a specific writing nook in that Alexandria apartment, Naga said not exactly. “I don’t know if I had a ‘writing practice’ so much as I had depression, and way too much free time.”
In the conversation below, Naga discusses the creative and personal journey that led to writing Washes, Prays.
Sara Elkamel: Okay so I’m obviously very passionate about Washes, Prays. I am really drawn to the speaker/protagonist, Coocoo, who’s steadily falling apart and unravelling throughout the book. I also really admire how you managed to blend lyricism with narrative cohesion. Given your background in fiction, can you tell us a little bit about how you conceived of this project? Did you set out to write a verse-novel?
Noor Naga: So this was an unusual project. Before I started it, I had been working on a novel for five years, and I thought that would be my first published work. I sweated and I rewrote the novel again and again, and then I spent six months trying to find an agent, but nobody wanted to read it. I sent out over 70 individualized queries, until I had to force myself to stop. It was so depressing to keep receiving rejections every day, or to get no answers at all. Prior to this project, I had never written poetry, I had only written prose, but I had become so frustrated with not being able to publish that novel, and I was feeling disheartened with fiction in general. I wasn’t even able to read any fiction; I was living in Alexandria at the time, and I didn’t have access to books. What I did have access to was poetry, because that’s what you can get online really easily. Anyway, I wrote the first poem, and it was very strange because I had no idea what it was about, and then when I got to the end, the word “wife” appeared. I really hate this narrative of “I was struck with inspiration” because I don’t think that’s how writing works at all, but in this case, I really just wrote the first piece and knew immediately what the whole project would be about. It came together very quickly, within six months.
SEK: So it was your frustration with trying to get the novel published that made you turn to poetry?
NN: Yes. I think it was a frustration with the form itself. One of the things that happens when you write fiction—at least in my experience publishing short stories and excerpts—is that there’s a lot of pressure from editors to “de-weird” it, and sort of get rid of anything that’s incomprehensible, or anything that’s slightly vague or unclear. I think that was part of what was happening with the novel I couldn’t publish. So I thought well maybe if I just called this new project poetry, and did exactly what I do anyway, then people might be more accepting of its weirdness, and I wouldn’t have to straight-jacket it, you know? Like if I could’ve called Washes, Prays a novel and been able to sell it that way, I would’ve done it, but nobody would’ve taken it.
SEK: The collection is composed mostly of equally sized prose poems, their lines broken up by intermittent blank spaces. In addition to the slight resemblance to pages of fiction, this form makes the poems look like aesthetic objects, at least to me. How much were you thinking of how the words would physically sit on the page?
NN: I was very particular about the spacing and the typography of the poems. I wrote the first poem in this form, and it basically came from an exercise I sometimes do for myself. I like to think of writing as problem-solving, so if I can sort of get myself into a box — in this case a literal square on the page — and be forced to write within those confines, it helps me.
SEK: The syntax throughout is gnarled and fragmented, with the ruptures in the prose blocks often opening up multiple meaning-making possibilities. I’m thinking, for example, of these few lines from “Bargaining,” and how the space complicates the word “virgin” here:
standing lamp or wheelchair hello hello please hi my name is extraneous
extramarital extra virgin olive oil pressed against the windowpanes of
lovers’ rosy hell-lit houses can I come in? if no good comes from me if
In a way, these spaces work to let the reader in, and in turn, to make us complicit, as though we were part of the story. The language and typography also mimic the speaker and her experience, who is being broken apart by desire, loss and her relationship with God. So I was curious how you justified the device of the white space.
NN: I think about the spaces in many different ways, including on a purely technical level — you need them as line breaks, and also as accelerators or dividers. I like the way they can change the tempo. But I was also thinking a lot about this literary concept that Anne Carson has talked about: “leaving a space empty so that God could rush in.” I think for Coocoo, her crisis of faith has a lot to do with seeing her relationship with God as transactional. So, ‘If I give you these devotional acts, or my religious practice, then you give me back these other things that I want in my life’ — like love. And that exchange doesn’t actually leave room for God to act; you’re effectively binding him and then surprised when he doesn’t extend a hand toward you. Similarly, language is binding. It limits possibilities, which isn’t to say that a word can only have one interpretation — it can have many — but not as many as an empty space. So I was trying to leave openings in the poems for someone outside of myself, someone like God, to speak. I’m really uncomfortable being the sole authority in the work, so I’d much rather diffuse the blame.
SEK: In the acknowledgements, you mention studying with Laury Silvers at the University of Toronto, and how that experience “changed your conversation with God.” Can you tell me more about those classes?
NN: Well I grew up in Dubai, and we attended these Quran classes that were run by Syrian women from Al-Qubaysiat organization — you know the ones with the white scarves and the trench coats. And what we got was this really sanitized version of what the Prophet and his companions’ world looked like. This was the early 2000s so it was the classic sort of post-revivalist Islamic mood, a lot of emphasis on “returning” as much as possible to a “purist” form of religion, as represented in accounts of the early Muslim community. Anything they considered to be borrowed from Western culture was bad (including birthdays, wearing pants, speaking English, etc.) and anything Arab or traditional was good (including gender segregation, abayas, rote memorization, etc). Everything we were learning was weirdly divorced from history, though. We were given this idea that there was one Islam, and that everybody around the world practiced in more or less the same way, and that it had always been that way. And what Laury Silvers’ courses did was show me just how historically and politically contextual Islam has always been.
She really humanized the Prophet and the companions for me, as well as the ulama who I used to think of as untouchable and beyond critique. One of the taglines from Laury’s courses is “There is no Islam, only Muslims,” by which she meant that Islam is not a monolithic concept that exists outside of space and time; rather it is something interpreted and narrativized by humans and therefore politically and culturally responsive. The four religious schools (madhaheb) we think of as legitimate, for example, are just the ones that were backed by the wealthiest sponsors at the time. So religion is power. If you want to understand the rituals that we practice today you have to also understand who has been in power for the last fourteen hundred years. That idea was really life-changing for me.
SEK: As someone who’s read the Quran tens of times, I found many of its elements echoed in your book; both in content and in style. For example, we see some lines repeated throughout the book, in different forms, in a way reminiscent of the holy book, where similar ideas are expressed over and over with variations, and reframed. I think this repetition also makes your book feel both exhausting and exhaustive, as if you were writing to the very bottom of something. It reads like an excavation, almost. Also, some poems get very technical about the laws of Islam: the types of prayers, for example, or the foods Muslims are allowed to consume. So I wanted to ask, how much did you consult the Quran or other religious texts as you wrote Washes, Prays?
NN: I wasn’t doing research of that kind for this book. All the Quranic references, as well as the references to Sunnah and Sharia, were already part of my worldview at the time of writing it. Because I grew up very religious — I myself wore a hijab for nine years — I was very steeped in Islamic teachings. Then when I got to university, I did a double Masters, in English and in religion, with a focus on Islam. And I was already reading a lot of Al-Qushayri’s risala, which is this incredible compendium of Sufi anecdotes. It’s got all these wonderful references to different Sufi saints, and amazing stories about them. Like “he was so holy that he didn’t eat for nine days because he would just wake up and look at the sky and see God’s light and that would be enough nourishment.” They’re all insane miracles and really fun to read through.
For some reason, people don’t get the impression from me that I was/am religious. I recently had one poet friend ask me something to the effect of, how do you think practicing Muslims will feel when they read a book like this? And I didn’t answer at the time, but I keep thinking well, why would he assume that I wasn’t a practicing Muslim? I pray five times a day, and this is also my world.
And one of the things I’m kind of frustrated by, in English literature and even in contemporary Arab literature — and maybe you have some experience with this, I don’t know — when writers come to write a character of faith, there are very particular kinds of stereotypes that they end up with. It’s like, very sexy to represent characters as atheists and to have them drink, and have lots of promiscuous sex. Which is fine, but it’s very performative, and it’s very political. You hardly ever get three-dimensional textured characters that have real relationships with God. Maybe one of the exceptions is Nael El-Toukhy, who does these beautiful and sympathetic portraits of religious women; he completely respects their integrity.
SEK: Yeah I definitely think that historically, there’s been a flattening of religious women, or religious people in general. But I think at least in contemporary poetry, this is being complicated a little bit. For example, we’ve been seeing more nuance in writing by immigrant Muslims in the West, particularly post 9/11, and then another wave post 2016, where writers have felt compelled to do something with their identities through literature; whether it’s to assert their identity, or bring some nuance to it. There are so many people writing in that direction today — I’m thinking specifically of Safia Elhillo, Kazim Ali, Leila Chatti, Kaveh Akbar and many others. So I think there is some motion. Who did you read and feel inspired by as you were writing this book, when it comes to Muslim writers?
NN: To be honest I wasn’t reading many Muslim writers when I was writing this; I wasn’t thinking about the book as part of a larger Arab anglophone conversation. I was reading more so in the family of verse novels, particularly Michael Ondaatje’s Coming Through Slaughter.
SEK: And now, after the book has been published, do you think it has a place within the larger Arab anglophone conversation?
NN: Well there’s something I’ve been thinking about lately, because I was telling a friend here in Egypt about the book. He asked me what it was about, and I said it’s basically about a woman who is a practicing Muslim and wears hijab, but then she has this affair, and she has a crisis of faith and is confused about what to do and whether to keep praying. And he didn’t get it. And he kept asking me, well what’s the problem? Where’s the conflict? I kept trying to explain: well she’s a hijabi and she’s having sex with this married man, and again, he didn’t see the issue. He’s not the first person I’ve had this reaction from, but it made me realize to what extent this is an immigrant in North America story. This is a diasporic story. Because I feel like, in the diaspora, so much of who you are becomes wrapped up in these identity markers, and in this really essentialized version of what it means to be Muslim. There isn’t much room for paradox, while in the Arab world contradictions like this are much more normalized.
I don’t know if you ever feel that the tradition that you’re writing in is shifting slightly depending on whether you’re writing in Egypt for Egyptians or in the West for Egyptian-Americans, which is a whole other category and a whole other audience. I’m wondering if you’ve had this experience also.
SEK: I have yes, even in very simple ways. Like, I have this poem called “Besmellah” and one of the lines says: “They said that hiding in a pomegranate is a grain that opens the gates to heaven. / Habayet el-janna or grain of heaven.” Looking at the poem a year after it was published, I thought to myself, what do you mean “or grain of heaven?” Who am I speaking to? Who needs this translation? Then I realized in retrospect that what I was doing was explaining this story to a reader who is an other—and that really made me question my own positionality. I do think that when it comes to religion, or language, your position as a writer is uniquely put into question, but I also think it’s a poetry thing in general — who are we talking to? But for me, the issue is really when I feel I have to explain this tradition, or the significance of specific actions or rituals, or else be met with someone who reads the world you’re writing as strange and inaccessible.
NN: I do think it’s always really exciting to be able to recognize yourself in someone else’s work, especially when the majority of the work that you’re reading, because it’s in English, is not necessarily speaking to you. I always feel like we’re eavesdropping on someone else’s tradition. But when I read your poetry and you reference things that are part of the furniture of my life, then I feel I am witnessing you witnessing me. Especially when you don’t over explain the furniture. Then I feel privileged, that I am your special reader and that you’re writing for me, and it’s for each other that we are doing this work.
This conversation has been edited and condensed for clarity.