“It is Not Enough to Merely Bear Witness to the Conditions of the World”: An Interview with Abdullah Shihipar

Providence-based writer and researcher Abdullah Shihipar talks ever-changing relationships to writing, community organizing, and working in multiple genres with InvisiBlog’s guest editor Amanda Ghazale Aziz.

Amanda Ghazale Aziz: You were a writer before you were an organizer— you’ve mentioned to me before that writing took a backseat during the years you were the president of the University of Toronto’s Arts & Science Student Union, and resumed after graduating in 2016. What was it like to be away from writing for a few years, and how did that return feel like? 

Abdullah Shihipar: When I returned to writing after a hiatus, it came at a time when I was feeling rather confused, and a time during which I was finding more and more solace in the presence of God. I was coming off a bit of a rough patch, but things were looking up and then the 2016 election happened. All of a sudden, one pitch turned to another to another. Writing had adopted a sense of urgency and I’m not sure if that was my subconscious’ way of processing the weekly news that seemed out do the prior week’s events in terms of shock value.

Do you find that organizing and research work inform your writing now, or inform certain aspects of your writing?

As I began to seriously develop my writing, I found that my experience being an activist really developed my voice. It provided me with perspective with which to write critical pieces and conduct reporting. Writing is fundamentally a form of storytelling, and for you to tell an effective story, you have to have a story to tell to begin with. Organizing allowed me to meet many different people, each who had a different lived experience and brought with them a different set of views and knowledge; there’s really no better way to experience the world. In terms for writing and my organizing and research, I see them as both things that cannot be untangled from each other, while also being distinctly separate. My organizing informs what I write about. It informs what research questions I think are interesting. But they are separate in the sense, that I do not think it is merely enough to write. There’s this popular almost romanticized idea of the writer as being this secluded person who writes alone; rather than being an active member of a vibrant community. It is not enough to merely bear witness to the conditions of the world, a world that is burning; what are we doing to work towards a better world? What are we doing to keep our neighbours, facing eviction, in their homes. What are we doing to protect our neighbours from deportation?

As I try to write more creatively and write fiction, I try to incorporate elements of the dystopian society we live in today, while also envisioning a society where we are all free. I think this is the obligation of the writer— to bring light to the pressing issues of today, but to also articulate a vision, to have an imagination expansive enough to document a future that, at the very least, is hopefully less bleak. Life has been moving very fast over the last few years and by the grace of God, I got into Brown University for grad school, I’ve been writing more and have had access to opportunities that I didn’t have in the past.

How has your relationship to writing fiction changed since writing for a mix of legacy and online publications over the years?

I have somewhat paradoxically had very little time to sit down and give my creative writing the time it needs to grow. This is something I crave and I think about constantly, on my computer there’s a notes file filled with one or two word prompts for creative/fiction stuff that I type down whenever I get a spark of inspiration. Sometimes I will return to this list and find myself scratching my head at some of the shit that I have written down. For example, “Dropping a couch off a balcony”, is one thing on there. But what on earth was I thinking when I wrote this?

I really want to work more creatively, but the demands of capitalism and the never ending fight to improve the lives of people, have left me with few precious moments to write. Still, I’m trying to be more conscious about setting aside dedicated moments of time to write creatively. We’ll see how successful I am at that.

What has the process been like for you to balance and preserve energy to write on your own time, all while being a public health grad student and research assistant at Brown? 

It’s definitely difficult and somewhat exhausting. I find I only have the bandwidth to do one type of writing at the moment. When I do get the time to do writing outside the realm of school, I find myself writing the op-eds and essays that dominate my portfolio. Writing requires a sort of discipline that has to be developed, Toni Morrison wrote for years in the morning before going to her job. Others have worked on screenplays and poems late into the night after a long day of work. I think this is also why you see richer, whiter people in legacy media in particular.

When the need to support yourself financially does not eat up as much of your time, it is much easier to get into the routine of writing. That is not to say that those of us who are less financially privileged cannot develop this practice. Just that it takes a lot more effort and time.

Absolutely it does. Was there pressure to follow the typical writer trajectory of attending workshops and whatnot?

I did consider MFAs at one point. But for me, it seemed like a luxury that I could not afford. But the MFA is also time to write and that is priceless. In the end though, I don’t regret taking the unconventional path that I did— I enjoy straddling the line between art and science, between organizing and writing— as I said it developed my voice. But I think that’s only something I could’ve realized with the benefit of hindsight.

There’s a misconception that writers must stick to one genre only and perfect it, when in fact writing incorporates delving into various genres. As we’ve discussed, you’ve written journalism, essays, and fiction. Also, you’ve most recently had a poem featured in a public art display on the streets of Providence. What made you reach out for other genres?

For me, I’ve always been attracted to fiction and nonfiction. The idea of restricting yourself to writing in a certain genre to me is particularly constraining— there are certain things you can do with some genres that you can’t do with others. Life is short, why must we waste it sticking to one field, to one form of writing, in pursuit of the false god of perfection?

My nonfiction informs my fiction and creative work and vice versa. I’d like to imagine that the little Spongebobs that make up my consciousness are engaged in a lifelong stimulating discussion, one of them is a journalist, another one is a novelist, another one a playwright, and they all bounce ideas off of each other. Whoever happens to be talking at the moment directs my field of attention and so it will move back and forth as the conversation between the brain Spongebob’s ebbs and flows; fiction, non fiction, poetry, plays, visual art, back to nonfiction, and so on. 

What has been on your bookshelf lately?

I’m going to list books that I want to read when I have the time:
Normal People by Sally Rooney
Eyes to the Wind by Ady Barkan
Trick Mirror by Jia Tolentino
Race for Profit by Keeanga-Yamahtta Taylor
Once More We Saw Stars by Jayson Greene
Felon by Reginald Dwayne Betts

As well as many others that I’ve forgotten!

Abdullah Shihipar is a writer, designer, artist and organizer based in Providence, Rhode Island. He is currently a Masters of Public Health candidate at the Brown University’s School of Public Health. Presently, his research focuses on overdose prevention and harm reduction, though he is also interested in the public health impacts of punitive immigration policies and other forms of state violence. As a writer, he has written for publications like The New York Times, The Washington Post, The Nation, Teen Vogue, among others.

You can find Abdullah Shihipar on Twitter as @AShihipar or at www.abshippy.com.

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