Tunisian American Poet Leila Chatti
Photo Credit: Leila Chatti Website
My Poetry Corner December 2019 features the poem “Confession” by Tunisian American poet and educator Leila Chatti, published in the anthology of poetry Halal If You Hear Me: BreakBeat Poets Vol. 3, edited by Fatimah Asghar and Safia Elhillo.
Born in 1990 in Oakland, California, Leila Chatti is one of four children of a Tunisian father and American mother. Her parents met when her father came to the United States to study for his PhD. Her father, the only one of seven children to leave Tunisia, maintained a close relationship with relatives by having his American-born family spend the summers with them.
Raised a Muslim by her father, Chatti began fasting for Ramadan at seven years old. Her experiences associated with fasting—hunger, restraint, obedience, resilience, lack—played a significant role in shaping the person she has become. In her poem, “Fasting in Tunis,” she recalls:
My God taught me hunger
is a gift, it sweetens
the meal. All day, I have gone without
because I know at the end I will
eat and be satisfied. In this way,
my desire is bearable.
Fascinated by books and words at an early age, Chatti began reading at three years and writing poems two years later. Eleven years old when the World Trade Center fell, the poet came of age in a country that despised her as a Muslim. In her poem “Muslim Girlhood,” she writes:
… I watched TV like a religion / I moderately believed. I watched to see how the others lived, not knowing / I was the Other… / I took tests in which Jane and William had / so many apples, but never a friend named Khadija… / I hungered for Jell-O and Starbursts and margarine… / I prayed at the wrong times in the wrong / tongue…
In her February 2018 essay, “On Fear in the Year of Trump,” Chatti shares her mother’s fear: “My mother is afraid because we are Muslim, we being her family—her ex-husband (my father) and four children. We are Muslim, and Arab, and she is not. She is white and so American, a real American, in a way we are not and will never be.”
Beginning in high school, teachers and mentors along the young poet’s path encouraged and nurtured her love of poetry. She earned a Bachelor of Arts degree from the Residential College in the Arts & Humanities at Michigan State University. Then, in her early twenties, she moved to North Carolina State University for her Master of Fine Arts degree. During this period, she became very sick with what was thought to be uterine cancer. Suffering from daily, intensely unpleasant symptoms, she poured her pain and suffering into her poetry. Her work that year gained her the Academy of American Poets Prize.
As a religious person, she turned to her faith for answers to her suffering and found kinship with Mary, “who had been young and female and also had little say in what happened to her body.” Growing up among her mother’s deeply Catholic family, Chattti understood that Mary, who also appears in the Qur’an, was the ideal woman—chosen by God above all other women to bear His son, Jesus.
In 2016, Chatti won Ploughshares’ Emerging Writer’s Contest for the featured poem “Confession.” The poetry judge, Marianne Boruch, writes: “It’s the first I’ve heard of anyone having an honest-to-god point-of-view about Mary whom many of us grew up numbly staring at on a holy card… [T]his poet has managed to both honor and upset convention in a most kickass-lively way… It’s memorable. Which is a feat.”
In one long sentence of 24 lines, Chatti expresses both envy for Mary and shame for her own feelings of inadequacy as a young woman who would likely be unable to bring a child into the world, much less a boy-God.
Truth be told, I like Mary a little better
when I imagine her like this, crouched
and cursing, a boy-God pushing on
her cervix (I like remembering
she had a cervix, her body ordinary
and so like mine)…
(oh Mary, like a God, I too take pleasure
in knowing you were not all
holy, that ache could undo you
like a knot)—and, suffering,
To read the complete featured poem and learn more about the work of Leila Chatti, go to my Poetry Corner December 2019.