I first encountered Leyla Ahmed’s work online through her short bursts of emotionally evocative prose which made the rounds across social media. When I read her work, I felt like she wrote about experiences and memories that tapped into a well of a collective conscious, an ancestral wound, a generational pain, something extremely hard to find in a world where everyone carrying a Moleskine notebook claims to be a writer. I was deeply intrigued and for more than a year I wondered about both how she was able to produce this work, her process and her history. When I finally got the courage to ask her for a brief interview via email two months ago, I was delighted when she graciously accepted. Her answers, true to her style of writing, are short yet heavy and left me wanting more. For now, in her own words, we discuss her work, her inspiration, and her identity.
Mia Rodriguez: I’ve admired your work for so long because it speaks to the universal condition of being a woman. But I actually know very little about you and your background. Would you mind telling us more about yourself, where you are from (ethnically and geographically speaking), where you are based, how old you are, how long you’ve been writing and what the process is like for you?
Leyla Ahmed: The internet is a strange place- I mean, what is your age and location when we’re discussing such large things most of the time? I was born in Tanzania, my mother is Tanzanian and my father is Somali. I’ve lived in England since I was two and I’m currently based in London for university- I’m 19. I don’t know how long I’ve been writing, the temporality of writing isn’t something I’ve considered. Perhaps the writing has always existed. I wrote a lot of short stories in primary school but how much of that was me committing to the serious work of catharsis I don’t know [laughs]. The process of writing right now is existing and frantically jotting lines down (usually in the middle of a film or seminar).
MR: You talk a lot about sadness and guilt, suffering and loss. I know for myself, as a writer, the act of writing can be our way of coping or verbalizing these emotions. What does writing and poetry represent for you? Does it help you ease these pangs of emotion or does it only bring them to the surface?
LA: I always go back to when Sandra Cisneros said “I put it down on paper and then the ghost does not ache so much.” When I’m writing I know I am giving all of these things that haunt me some air. I used to think writing was what safety looked like but I guess writing isn’t all that safe anyway. Confronting so much that doesn’t want to present itself can feel like entering grief/sorrow over and over again.
MR: The Black, Muslim woman experience is central to your work, with phrases in Arabic weaving into your writing, your homeland often being the setting in your poems, and references to mothers, sisters and grandmothers anchoring your words. What draws you to these female bonds within cultures and communities? What do you hope to accomplish by telling these stories?
LA: I think women are just so truthful. I don’t hope to accomplish anything by telling these stories. I mean, that the women before me have endured and survived and thrived is achievement enough.
MR: A big theme in your work is generational trauma, which, personally, I’m also equally fascinated and burdened by. Do you deal with your generational trauma through your writing? Do you see writing and storytelling as a way to bring healing to ourselves and our families?
LA: Writing is definitely one way for me to navigate generational trauma. For the longest time, I grappled with the question of how sadness kept finding the new body, the body carved out of loss and loss and loss and I guess the ways that sorrow can be passed down is one answer for continuous sadness. So writing is almost like a purge for me.
MR: Your tumblr is also full of images of powerful, black writers like Audre Lorde and James Baldwin as well as images of young black creatives that (thankfully) are becoming more and more prevalent in media. How do you view this new wave of creativity by people of color? Do you think things are getting better for writers of color? As a community, what do you think lies ahead for us?
LA: People of colour have always been creative. Outspoken. (Hyper) visibility is something I considered a while back- particularly the ways in which gazes/audiences can ‘legitimate’ art. I’ve been taking space away from social media myself but I do think it’s beautiful to see yourself and have yourself seen truthfully, wherever that may be.
You can read more of Leyla’s prose and poetry here.
Photography by Leyla Ahmed / Words by Mia Rodriguez