Sara Saleh says she is still “processing” the win of one of Australia’s most prestigious poetry honours – the Peter Porter poetry prize.
“It’s been a bit of a whirlwind and I’ve been so floored and overwhelmed,” the 33-year-old told SBS Voices.
Her award-winning poem, the ‘The Poetics of Fourgetting’ explores the experiences of a resettled Lebanese family from the daughter’s point of view, set on Haldon Street, Lakemba in Sydney’s west. Rich with the tensions of immigrant life, it explores recurring themes in Saleh’s work; there’s the brute force of racism, and the lyrical heartbreak of tussling with longing, desire, transgression and God. (A standout line from her first collection is the line: “hymen thick with truth”.)
For Saleh, who juggles a full-time job and is studying for a law degree, being the first Arab Muslim woman to take away the $6000 prize was “powerful and validating”.
“Definitely it’s nice to get that recognition, it’s validating. It points to a much bigger issue that we are now finally seeing people who look like us in these spaces (and) who are taking up the space they deserve…. that has been really powerful for me as well, as someone who has been deliberately excluded from a lot of these mainstream places.
“Whilst it an honour to be a first, there’s a real history behind it, that is important to understand. We talk about how good it would be if we weren’t first anymore,” she says.
“For us (minorities) we don’t have the luxury...to be mediocre. We don’t have room to be messy.”
It’s embracing the messiness that makes for good art, as Saleh explores coming up against all kinds of gatekeepers in her work, both in white society and within her own community: “As a writer, as a woman, as a Muslim woman, as an Arab Muslim woman – all these things – of course there’s self-doubt. That's because a lot of the way we’ve come up, the way the system is – it’s designed to make us second guess ourselves,” she says.
“It’s the double bind of racism and the violence of the colonial state we face on the outside (and Islamophobia); but also the patriarchy, externally and internally, and we have to have these conversations. It’s a mirror we need to hold up.”
On tackling sex, shame and the body in her poem, Saleh says it was important to go there: “I’m not too worried about that kind of backlash, because those aren’t the people I’m speaking to…the whole point is that none of us can claim to be 100 per cent pure or moral or whatever it is...these expectations of perfection and especially with women, and how, as you would know, around behaving a certain way and being a ‘good nice, pleasant, modest’ woman, I think can be problematic in the ways that they are used.
“Who is deciding how we can be and how our bodies should be as opposed to us having that autonomy?”
“There’s a performance you are expected to put on, even unfortunately with family sometimes and community and by that I mean the people you are around – friends. These expectations, they are very limiting binaries, if you want to be able to question and explore and be true to yourself and understand all these messy lines that don’t divide themselves in a neat way," she explains. “For me it is about figuring out your purpose in a way and writing does that for me and poetry. There has to be that ability to be vulnerable and truthful to yourself, to say things that can be really difficult to say in real life.”
The loneliness of displacement is part of Saleh’s family history. Her mother’s family travelled to Lebanon with Palestinian ID, and then left for Egypt during the 1980’s civil war, where her parents met.
“The thing I love the most when I read a poem, and someone is asking these questions (and) I think, 'I’m not alone in this world'. For me, if someone were to read my poem and think, ‘yeah this is very relatable, I’m not alone’ - that for me is one of the biggest validations.”
Her father, then studying for a PhD in Engineering at Sydney University, met her mother on returning to Egypt after his father’s death in the 1980s. He approached her family in a Cairo park to query their exotic accents - “a nice pick up line!”, Saleh laughs.
The pair moved to Sydney, before her mother jetted back to Cairo to give birth to baby Sara: “I was the first and she was terrified. She had no support here.” Hers was a family which revered words. Saleh grew up listening to the music of iconic Arab female singers Fairuz and Umm Kulthum and reading revolutionary Palestinian poet Mahmoud Darwish. Her grandfather, an Egyptian journalist, had dissuaded her father against studying political science and literature and instead opt for a stable career overseas to avoid being targeted by a regime cracking down on writers and dissidents.
“For me this is a reminder that we do come from these rich histories and it’s something we can’t forget and we can’t let it be erased,” Saleh said.
“[Writing] is a very deliberate act of resistance.”