WORDS BY SOFIA HAAN
What does it mean to hold an identity? Who gets to claim an identity and belonging in a community? How do external structures like colonization influence how we view identity? For Mizna, the Twin Cities–based creative platform that amplifies and elevates the voices of Arab-American artists, the answers can be examined through one’s own lived experience. That’s why, in the upcoming release of the organization’s art and literary journal titled the “Black SWANA” issue, Black contributors have the opportunity to explore and claim their SWANA experience on their terms.
For some, the term SWANA, or Southwest Asia North Africa, might be unfamiliar. But, as Literary Magazine Coordinator Ruba El Melik explains, the title is actually a more apt way to describe the area and people of this large. incredibly varied area. “SWANA is a decolonized term for what people normally think of as the Middle East and North Africa,” she says. “[SWANA] is a more accurate geographical representation and a more accurate way to refer to the region. It has a lot of meaning behind it for the community in terms of how we think of ourselves and expand terms to be more inclusive of all of the diversity that exists across this large part of the world.”
For this issue, the magazine spotlights the varied experiences of Black people in the region. “It’s not typical for our community to think about Blackness, especially those of us who are Arab and SWANA people who are non-Black,” explains Lana Barkawi, Mizna’s executive and artistic director. “There’s a sense that this is a Western construction of race and identity, and that it doesn’t play a role. There’s a real erasure. [By] claiming Blackness as a part of the SWANA community and having an issue focused on that, we think it could lead conversation and be a legacy-making moment.”
To properly represent the community at the heart of the magazine, a Black takeover team stepped in: A journal production team composed of all-Black SWANA members took on creative and editorial roles, including guest editor Safia Elhillo, an internationally-recognized Sudanese-American poet and previous Mizna collaborator. Members of this production team, as well as Black SWANA content and associate editors, formed the selection committee to read and review the prose and poetry submitted by contributors both from the SWANA diaspora in the U.S. and internationally. Together, the group curated an expansive collection of stories from more than 20 writers.
“A huge focus for us was to have a larger type of diversity in the writing itself and not just have diversity be one of the keywords for the artists we were selecting,” El Melik says. “The journal itself, in terms of content, is incredibly varied, and that really reflects all of the different Black SWANA writers that we’re representing.”
The magazine comes to life with a reading at St. Paul’s Amsterdam Bar and Hall. The lineup features a mixture of local and national contributing writers, including Romaissaa Benzizoune, Marlin M. Jenkins, Sagirah Shahid, Vanessa Taylor, and guest editor Elhillo. In addition to the readings, DJ Yasmeenah spins tunes throughout the night. “We’re having a mix of reading and also kind of a party vibe,” El Melik says. “I feel like it really captures the essence of the issue…to reflect how we feel about this issue and how the contributors and readers and the community should feel about themselves.”
With the help of the infrastructure and existing platform of Mizna, the organization hopes to use this issue as a springboard to a larger conversation about recognizing and celebrating Blackness in the SWANA community. “This production is the loudest way we could get the attention from the community and recognize that Black SWANA people exist and are plentiful…and have these incredible stories to offer and make up a huge part of this community.”
WHEN YOU GO
Black SWANA Lit: Reading and DJ
February 23, 7:30 PM
Amsterdam Bar and Hall, 6 W. 6th St., St. Paul
Black SWANA is available at independent booksellers Magers and Quinn, 3038 Hennepin Ave, Mpls., magersandquinn.com.; and Subtext Books, 6 W. 5th St., St. Paul, subtextbooks.com