It’s Not Like I Can Adopt a Country: Siew Interviews Majda Gama

David Siew Hii, Shenandoah’s associate poetry editor, interviews poets! To showcase their voices, the questions in the interview were removed, leaving behind only the voice of the writer. In this interview, Majda Gama talks about being an accidental Virginian, what makes a lifestyle, cats from the Middle East, and how poetry and prose party differently. Read her poem Graybeal-Gowen Prize-winning poem, “In Great Aunt Noor’s Salon,” here.

I was born in the Middle East—Beirut—and then when I was around eighteen months my father was given a five-year contract to live and work in the U.S. So, I spent those five years as a kid in Virginia and made friends and put down roots and we just kept coming back and eventually I ended up in the American school system in Virginia and hung around the area. I call myself an accidental Virginian.

I’m originally a dual citizen of Saudi Arabia and the United States. I spent a lot of my formative years in the Kingdom; I also lived in Egypt after my father’s contract ended, and you know, as a kid, this was all a big adventure, a kind of simultaneous life. It’s not a lifestyle. I wish I could say it was a lifestyle. It’s not that glamorous. The jet lag is painful. I haven’t gone anywhere since I came back because it just took me over two weeks to recover from the nine-hour time difference. I call it time travel. I mean, what else do you call something that advances you like twelve hours? Literally, our organs have their own time zones. We arrive and depart and return and your spleen’s over the Pacific, your heart’s over Virginia—it takes a while for them all to get back into the same circadian rhythm. That’s science.

I think I’m more of a Star Trek person. I’d rather have a transporter reassemble my DNA for me.

Once, I did the whole drive from coast to coast with a friend in her car. I remember feeling really afraid in Kansas around 2005 because of my name, my full name on my driver’s license is Majda Talal Gama, which isn’t remotely the kind of name you want to have in the era of the war on terror.

I’ve just kind of felt for a long time that I was in exile writing here in the United States because I can’t assimilate over there either.

I was a poetry editor for Tinderbox Poetry Journal, which I ran by myself for a little while. I did that for as long as I could until I could bring on people who weren’t going to burn out. We had unceasing conversations about how to make this viable, how to pay writers, how to drum up income and still be grassroots in some way.

It can feel degrading after a time because I just don’t know of any other country in the “West” (putting the West in quotes) where writers grub around like this for like scraps. Commonwealth countries have funding, comparatively speaking, for the arts though that’s been decimated because of austerity. The Middle East has a lot of funding depending on where you are—I’m talking about the Gulf States I move around in, mostly—but there are limitations, freedom of speech being one of them. It’s disheartening. Such a tight rope walk. It makes me think a lot about the way the Poetry Foundation has been trying to walk that line, not offending people, but also being representative. American poetry is a very weird space to write in.

There was a spoken word movement when I was in my twenties. That was pretty exciting. It was very colorblind, but there was spoken word scene in DC. When I needed to have living poets in my life I went to open mikes in DC There were maybe some punk shows with open mics but, again, those were not diverse at the time.

I can’t tell you how thrilled I am to have won this prize. It means a tremendous amount to me because I always felt like an outsider voice and I don’t think that this makes me an insider voice, but it makes me feel like a couple of worlds are meeting in a complementary fashion in a way that they wouldn’t have previously. Maybe the poetry world is sort of stopping a contraction process and starting to expand. I feel really, really positive about my own literary life and where Virginia is in the literary world and where the greater DC scene is in the literary world. I think a lot of people who don’t write in New York City feel at sea.

I’m reeling because this is not a poem that I sat with for years and years and years. Shenandoah is one of two places I sent the poem out. It’s still very new. It started off written by hand. I was in a workshop with Max Regan, a Tuesday poetry lab that I’ve been sort of dipping in and out of for three years or four years. When I get stuck, I go to his classes and get unstuck. Just do a little bit of generative writing. I find if I just sit and write for myself that it can get really blue or really indulgent or elliptical. But a little bit of a framework to generate something, a little bit of a container to start with, and I can find the form of a poem or a poem will find its form. So, it happened like that. I wrote it all by hand, pretty much all at once.

Prose and poetry feel like very different party rooms to me. Like one is a techno floor and the other is like a mosh pit. That’s my literary analysis for you. I came up in a music scene. I really remember when clubs were starting to meld, and I would be on the goth side of the warehouse club in DC bitching about the ravers with their dayglow stuff and their toys that they dance with. And I just did not understand what was happening. Then the music started sounding alike too. So, yeah, that’s how you get prose poems basically.

I like to write about my history and my history might be in Saudi Arabia in 1990 or it might be in DC in 1995 on the dance floor.

I am of half-white European descent and pre 9/11, it was just assumed that Arabs were sort of on that side of whiteness. That changed pretty instantaneously after 9/11.

Everyone knows Naomi Shihab Nye now and there’s a diversity of Arab Americans voices, but the Arab world, the Middle East, the SWANA region is massive and there just isn’t a lot from the part of the region I’m from that isn’t offensive and cliche because we’ve been written about almost exclusively by white women or journalists. So, I feel an obligation to face the tropes and stereotypes head on.

I also come from a part of that world that is more opaque than other parts of that region. I have to write through that. I really do.

I almost feel like I can’t avoid writing about war, but I realized there’s just no decade in my family’s life where that wasn’t a background. I found old dictaphone cassette tapes from when I interviewed my father for a living history program in high school in the eighties. And he was talking about when he was a kid, being raised in Egypt because family tragedy forced them out of the Kingdom for a couple of decades. He was raised in Egypt, and he remembers the Suez War, and I was like, what is the Suez War? Then I was going even further, and I just started writing about living ancestral memory because I have some family members who are older than the country of Saudi Arabia. I started to realize that the absolute privilege of the US is that you’re just not attacked that much, or you get to turn off the war and not have it in the background, but that hasn’t been the case for my family. I would be lying if I didn’t mention it.

Oh, my cat is having an asthma attack. if you hear that sound, it’s a hair ball. Multiple cats. They’re all rescued from different Middle Eastern countries. This one is from the yard of my childhood house in Jeddah.

Beirut? My family spent a lot of time there, but once the civil war happened, I didn’t go back until 2010. It is beautiful. I love it there. I loved it there. My father passed away 10 years ago now, but at the time, he said if there hadn’t been a war—that’s a big theme—that you would have spent your summers here. He said that to me, and that really blew me away because I spent my summers in the US when I was being raised in the Middle East. As an adult, I’ve made the choice to spend more time in the United States. But if war hadn’t interfered, I would have had more roots in the region.

And it’s not like I can adopt a country.

There’s no way I could have become a citizen of Lebanon. But that’s another kind of pain. Like, oh, well, that can’t be a home. So, it would have been a privilege to go and spend the summers there.

My favorite part of being a poet is—say you’re in the United States or in a Western English-speaking country—and you sort of get treated as if you’re a time traveler from the Victorian era who’s just popped up in front of this person or like you’re a bard who just walked out of dungeons and dragons, and it’s all just so alien to people. I’ve had people say, isn’t poetry a dead art? I think my favorite thing is that being a poet unsettles people a little bit.

Imagine that, a poetry festival that’s more Lollapalooza than AWP. Different tents, different dance floors.

Majda Gama is the author of the chapbook The Call of Paradise selected by Diane Seuss as winner of the 2022 Two Sylvias Chapbook Prize. Her full-length manuscript won the Wandering Aengus Book Award and will be published in 2025. She is a 2024 Gregory Djanikian Scholar and her poems appear in the Adroit Journal, Four Way Review, The Offing, Ploughshares, Poetry, Under A Warm Green Linden, and are forthcoming from Prairie Schooner, Tahoma, and