George Abraham’s lyrical and poignant debut poetry collection, Birthright, was published at the height of global chaos in the midst of the uncertainty of the Covid-19 pandemic. Since then, it has stood out to many readers as an urgent and necessary lexicon in the wake of continued assaults on the Gaza Strip, the ongoing battles over occupied Jerusalem, and the general emotional exhaustion befalling Palestinians in recent years. With an undergraduate degree from Swarthmore College, and an MSc in Bio-Engineering from Harvard University, the Palestinian American is now firmly rooted in the world of poetry. He is currently pursuing an MFA at the Litowitz Creative Writing Programme at Northwestern University in the US.
Abraham’s transition from the sciences to the joint worlds of the humanities and fine arts, feels “unprecedented” and rooted in a form of humanism and care that he had not previously experienced at former institutions. Yet, despite the conviction that now so clearly accompanies his career transition, there were also rocky moments. On the one hand, science and poetry both open the space, the potential, for different modalities of producing knowledge; and on the other, no matter what form of knowledge production one chooses, there are always challenges to consider.
“I had, for example, ethical reasons for not wanting to work in a lab that delivers products to the military,” Abraham told me, “but then also had to contend with the tense history and the role that the university English department plays in the national project.”
Throughout our conversation, we mused over his career options, both questioning the ways in which there is no room for metaphor in a laboratory, and conversely, whether it was possible to marry code with Shakespeare, and if a poem could be written in code, what would Shakespeare or any other lyricist look like in tech speak.
It was precisely this question — the question of language — that compelled me to sit down and discuss revolutionary lexicon with Abraham. In reading his collection several times over the course of the past two years, I found myself swept away by the poems, the lyrical dimensions of political life that his writing provided. I couldn’t but help put Abraham in a place of distinction, as a master-crafter of language rooted in resilience and resistance in a continuously evolving Anglophone Palestinian writing tradition.
Specifically, I felt that his work fits best alongside the 2019 collection of fellow Palestinian American Zaina Alsous, A Theory of Birds, which turns the fusion of decolonial practice and language on its head. When I told Abraham about this, he agreed that Birthright was indeed in conversation with the work of fellow Palestinians, both Alsous and of course, Mohammed El-Kurd and his 2021 collection, Rifqa. Abraham’s collection came a year after that of Alsous and a year before El-Kurd’s, a positioning he finds “comforting because it is very much aligned with the intention for this collection, which does not always end up happening,” despite the author’s best efforts.
“I am interested in pushing this conversation in different ways. I think about the way Mohammed El-Kurd as a Palestinian from Palestine is willing to come into the American scene and write in English and challenge this conversation… I also want to consider the ways in which there is both an Indigenous and Black lineage of art in the US that [set the stage for us] and made my writing possible on so many fronts,” Abraham explained.
Along these same lines, he is passionate about pushing the parameters of Palestinian poetry, in Palestine and the diaspora, beyond the confines of a Western literary canon, which for better or for worse has become universal, into a lexicon of global solidarity and universality. For instance, where I, as a scholar of literature, have as of late found a sense of frustration with the recurrent nature of some Palestinian writing of English (confined to fossilised symbols such as they key, the olive tree and pomegranates among other important but overused images), Abraham gently reminded me that it’s a rite of passage. That is, that Palestinians need to become familiar with and go through a set of symbols to root themselves firmly within a national identity, to write within it first in order to be able to write beyond it later. “The art,” he emphasised, “often needs to reckon with this fractured set of symbols before it can evolve. It’s part of the writing process… One must always ask oneself or any student of poetry, in a workshop for example, why is this word here or… why do you consider what you are writing to be a poem?”
After the debate surrounding the archive of symbols, I found myself in agreement with Abraham and moving on to another more technical note: “Sometimes our ideas just aren’t served by poetry, so if I want to create a poetic mode, the question then becomes, where can I see this poetic mode serving the conversation I want to have?”In fact, on a trip that Abraham made to Palestine with a former educational institution, he found that the sensory experience of returning to the homeland could not be dealt with fully through poetry. In his words, “those feelings had to sit in prose for a while because for me to use poetry, it also means that I have to really unpack emotions that I might not be ready to confront, at least not just yet.”
For Abraham, these emotions are wide ranging, such as failing to understand Israeli logic. “My family is from Palestine. I went on a trip with Palestinians from Haifa who have less access to Palestine than random Americans and Europeans. The question repeatedly came up of: why does a European have more access to my home than I do?”
I asked him if this point of reckoning served as the origin story — the seedling, so to speak — behind the collection, to which he replied that the decision to write a collection is at once “a spiritual and technical process”. In the world of writing as Abraham has come to understand it, writers tend to fall into two camps: prancers and plotters. Prancers are driven by impulse and unexpected inspiration while plotters are more meticulous, they must outline every detail and every point intricately before they begin a writing process. Abraham, in writing Birthright at least, had to learn to become a prancer who gives himself permission to become “someone who is driven by impulse… [He] would often begin to write and let the poem turn itself into a sonnet or something else… [He} tries to make space for that process of discovery.”
This process of discovery is also what made it possible for Abraham to pinpoint, through an experience of micro-aggression, the title for the collection. He recalled a day on the New York Subway in which he was wearing a “Palestinians for Black Liberation” t-shirt and before long, another passenger began to “emit negative energy” and grew increasingly hostile. On his way out of the carriage, the aggressor deliberately pushed Abraham, who realised before the doors closed that the other passenger was wearing a pro-Israel “birthright” shirt.
From there, the desire to unpack and reclaim that word, a word designed to exclude and deny him of his affiliation to Palestine, was born and subsequently gave itself to the collection that took Abraham seven years to draft, re-draft and finalise before its publication.
Not surprisingly, the tumultuous nature of the pandemic, which had an impact on so much travel and activity around the globe well into the beginning of 2022, also impacted many of Abraham’s speaking engagements for the book; they are still ongoing. However, this delay also means that Birthright and Abraham continue to be the recipients of much acclaim — as well as, of course, criticism from detractors — within the world of Anglophone poetry. His writing continues to win awards, the most significant of which was the 2021 Arab American Book Award. During his current residence at Northwestern as an MFA candidate, he is working on several projects and endeavours in both poetry and prose, which will equally and undoubtedly take readers through a continued evolution of language and its many forms.
The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Middle East Monitor.