Shawnee poet Aisha Sharif has recently published her first book of poetry, focus on her experience as an African-American Muslim woman.
“To Keep From Undressing” is a compilation of dozens of works she had been developing since 2003. The poems explore a variety of themes, including how racial, gender and religious identities align, separate and blend. Born and raised in Memphis, Tennessee, as a Muslim and African American has deeply shaped her experiences, she noted.
“Identity is a very important part of the book, if not the book,” Sharif said. “It definitely explores how identity is made, how one comes to accept, reject, struggle, praise and love one’s identity. Specifically, in light of identity, how I came into an awareness of being an African-American Muslim woman from the South.
“The layering of identity is very important in the book and how one identity affects the other identity and how that layering is beautiful and makes you proud to be such a specific type of a person, but sometimes it can also be challenging too.”
Most of the poems are autobiographical in nature, but some of them are based on the experiences of others. She hopes that readers will understand that identity is a process and not necessarily a fixed concept.
“You could, essentially, in one part of your life, feel really challenged by a particular identity that maybe you didn’t have a stake in actually owning,” she said. “For example, you can choose what kind of faith you’re going to follow. In that way, you have definitely this ownership. But there are also identities where you feel they are necessarily you can’t get out of, like race. All of these things and the history of being black in America get placed on you. You can try and avoid it, but you can’t.
“The interaction with one’s identity changes how you feel about your identity. It’s a journey to accept and love. And the challenges are also really beautiful, too. But sometimes within the struggle, there is a lot of beauty and lessons that you need to go through.”
One of her works, the poem “Why I Can Dance Down a Soul Train Line…” was nominated for a Pushcart Prize in 2015. Sharif’s poetry has also appeared in journals like Rattle, Callaloo, Crab Orchard Review, and Calyx.
Sharif spent about three or four years revising her work, sending it out, getting rejected and finally sent it out in 2017 to Spark Wheel Press. Two years later, Sharif published her poetry book through the Omaha-based printing company in January 2019.
“I had been trying to get it published for several years,” Sharif said. “I had been writing poems casually; maybe around 2009 or ‘10 I started to realize, OK these are really poems that need to be collected into a book.”
Sharif has a bachelor’s degree in English and a master’s in creative writing. She teaches English at the Longview campus of Metropolitan Community College, and lives with her husband, David Muhammad, and two daughters.