This month, I had the pleasure of interviewing Bitaniya Giday, the 2020/2021 Seattle Youth Poet Laureate, on behalf of Seattle Arts & Lectures. Our conversation has remained with me, and I wanted to share it here with you. If you would like to read the Q&A, hear our conversation or read a transcript of the interview, please visit the SAL/ON Blog.
When I watched Bitaniya Giday perform her poem, Hyphenated Identity Crisis, I didn’t know I would interview her. The video, which introduced Bitaniya as the 2020/2021 Seattle Youth Poet Laureate, was filmed outside on a breezy day rather than inside a dramatically-lit theater. Bitaniya read from her phone in front of a cream-colored wall whose ivy vines shivered in the wind. As Bitaniya’s powerful words washed over me, I found myself wishing I was with her—not viewing her from my seat in the audience but beside her in the light, in her neighborhood, perhaps somewhere nearby.
Bitaniya’s poem explores selfhood, cultural belonging, the effects of war and loss in ripples that radiate from her hyphenated identity as Ethopian-American. After the event, I watched the video of her reading several times. Something early in the poem caught my attention. In the second and third lines, Bitaniya says:
And I finally am no longer
A hyphenated identity crisis
It was the word finally—meaning, at last—yet this is how the poem begins. A journey took place in between the first line—And the American war machine takes on the motherland—and the second. The poem can be read as an unfolding transcript of her exploratory dialogue of selfhood, pinned by a bloody “Made in America” civil war in Ethiopia and its resulting diaspora, which includes her family’s resettlement in America. Here, Bitaniya contemplates the unease of immigration, noting:
I am reborn survival on
But I cannot sleep here
When we spoke, I asked Bitaniya what she meant by finally. She said she was trying to figure out her relationship with Ethiopia, what it means to be African American and how she can be both things at once. “That line signals me understanding identity has duality and intersectionality to it and, sometimes, they’re conflicting.”
Her poem, when layered over the world’s multivalent global crises, describes a negative capability many are grappling with. For better and worse, the pandemic has disrupted definitions once thought unshakable. The world is struggling to reconcile a pre-pandemic understanding of nationhood, daily life and self with endless reckonings of change. Answers keep shifting and will continue to, indefinitely. The resulting uncertainty is magnified by our inability to gather as we once did, in community and in person, as a means of defining ourselves. “How can I calibrate myself to the world without being out in it?” the writer Amy Sackville asks in an essay for The Guardian.
“You’re always at war with yourself, but fighting it or choosing is not productive,” Bitaniya says. “We have complicated intersections within us. Accept them, explore them, understand yourself, be okay with it.”
What she’s describing is neuroplasticity, mental fluidity, the excavation of the self in non-binary terms. The goal of this inquiry is not an answer for all time but a facility for self-knowledge that persists amidst changing circumstances—a capacity for nuance and depth, a space for people to be many things at once, and for those aspects to change.
This labor of self-reflection cannot be outsourced to poets or young activists. This is work that each of us can and should undertake, examining our lives in contradiction, so that we can push the limits of understanding and empathy beyond what we imagined possible. As Bitaniya said, “Don’t accept that what is will always be. You are capable of more and you are also capable who you are right now.”
It was not a compromise to hear Bitaniya read her poem from my laptop rather than a stage. The event was an evolution in how we gather and connect, and this, too, will change. Bitaniya’s passion and ideas remain with me, and that is the work of the poet, no matter the method of delivery: to describe from their unique perspective the layers we contain, to urge our deeper thinking with their own, and to remind us how close we really are in our complexity even when it appears we are very far away.