The Sweetest Debut: Mahtem Shiferraw Writes Poetry of Migration and Displacement and Binge-Watches ‘Scandal’


Welcome to The Sweetest Debut, a regular installment in which we reach out to debut (or near-debut, we’re flexible!) fiction, poetry and nonfiction authors working with presses of all sizes, and find out about their pop culture diets, their writing habits, and their fan-fiction fantasies.

To begin 2017, I simply had to reach out to my talented MFA classmate and friend, Mahtem Shifferaw, whose book of poetry, Fuchsia, won the Sillerman First Book Prize for African Poets in 2015 and was published last year. Kwame Dawes said of her work when awarding the prize: “Shiferraw’s verse is elegantly formed work that explores with sophistication the complexities of exile and return, of memory and hope in the future through sharply-honed images, and through a vulnerability that is haunting and disarming.” Read three poems from the collection at Numero Cinq — and find out about the author’s pop culture and writing proclivities below.

What is your elevator pitch to folks in the industry describing your book?

Fuchsia explores conceptions of the displaced, disassembled, and nomadic self.

What you tell your relatives it’s about?

I try to be vague: “Fuchsia is about many things.”

How long was this project marinating in a draft or in your head before it became a book deal?

The poems were written in the course of five years, more or less. Some took years to write, others showed up in a day.

Name a canonical book you think is totally overrated.

Infinite Jest. I mean …

What’s a book you’ve read more than two times?

The Bluest Eye (Toni Morrison); I read it at least once every year.

Is there a book or other piece of art that influenced your writing for this particular project?

Stories of migration & war inspired this collection.

What’s your favorite show to binge watch when you’re not writing?

I have too many, depending on my mood, and writing stage. I just finished watching Trollhunters (the animated series); I’m fascinated by the meticulousness with which the monsters are created. (The series was created by Guillermo del Toro). I loved binge watching Scandal. Anything by Shonda Rhimes, really.

What’s the last movie you saw in theaters?

Doctor Strange. I’m a fan of Marvel stories.

Do you listen to music while you’re writing? If so, what kind?

Not really, I find it distracting (unless it’s playing somewhere in the background).

Who is your fashion icon?

I don’t have one. Silly me. But if I did, I’d say Janelle Monáe. Zadie Smith is quite elegant too.

If you could buy a second home to be your writing-only retreat anywhere in the universe, where would it be?

Somewhere in the woods, a cabin with no wifi, overlooking the ocean. Wouldn’t that be nice?

Do you prefer a buzzing coffee shop or silent library?

Both! Depending on what I’m writing, or the level of thinking I have to do while writing. If the poem or story is spilling out naturally, I prefer the buzzing coffee shop, but if I’m still brainstorming or rearranging things, I prefer a quiet space.

Do you tend towards writing it all out in one big messy draft and then editing, or perfecting as you go (or something in between)?

I’d like to think it’s a bit of both, but it’s mostly a messy draft, then grueling revision. I love the first part; it’s all so exciting, before I have to wear the editor’s hat.

How do you pay the bills, if not solely by your pen and your wit?

I wear many hats at Otis College of Art and Design.

What is your trick to finding time to write your book while also doing the above?

Sleep less. I try to prioritize too, but when something is bubbling under the surface waiting to be written, I must allow myself some time to focus on writing, or reading, however I can manage (I’m very stingy with my time). I try not to force the writing, but wait to be inspired and let the words take me. It sounds idealistic, but it’s quite effective. Then I write as much as I can and endure sleepless nights and early mornings before my mind goes into lethargy. It’s working so far.

If you could write fanfiction about any pop culture character, real or imagined, who would it be?

Annalise Keating (How To Get Away With Murder).

Care to give us a few sentences of micro-fiction about that character?

The sour taste of fresh tears reached her upper lip and drizzled down her neck; Annalise felt her body shaking, and knew it happened again. The smell of it was everywhere: blood, purling like a silent river, its familiar warmth unspooling quickly throughout the space, and onto the next body.