‘Tunsiya/Amrikiya,’ an anthology by poet Leila Chatti

Subjects of Chatti’s poems include fasting, memories of summers spent with cousins, religious hypocrisy and Tunisia’s summer heat.
Sunday 22/07/2018
Cover of poet Leila Chatti’s “Tunsiya/Amrikiya.”
Personal investigation. Cover of poet Leila Chatti’s “Tunsiya/Amrikiya.”

In her anthology “Tunsiya/Amrikiya,” poet Leila Chatti explores the nuances of multicultural identity, the need for family and the permanent search for belonging. She delves deeper into the psyche of women belonging to different worlds and different cultures, dissecting, comparing and at times mocking some of what she considers to be irrational traditions and beliefs.

Chatti’s anthology provides a unique and personal investigation of the perpetual exile that comes with being separated from an essential part of oneself.

Powerful and well-crafted, Chatti’s work tackles the duality of being a Tunsiya — the Arabic world for a Tunisian woman — and Amrikiya — Arabic for American woman. Other dualities are explored throughout the punchy anthology, including the contrast and connection between south and north, male and female and religiosity and loss of faith.

In her poems, Chatti describes what it is like to be a Tunisian woman by depicting the attributes of her mother and grandmother with vibrant detail. However, it is her mockery of her mother’s mentality that is most amusing. In “My Mother Makes a Religion,” Chatti makes fun of her mother’s belief in horoscopes, fortune cookies and magic.

“She follows horoscopes like commandments, tells me Leila, you’ll be lucky in love this month but watch out for the eyes of strangers, whatever that means,” Chatti writes. “She insists on fortune cookies but only believes the ones she likes. My mother stays wary of magic, forbade me late-night Ouija conversations (with spirits) but once paid $30 for a psychic to summon her (dead) sister, then cried.”

Chatti admires her mother for being trustworthy and noble. “Anything she tells me, still and radiant as a painting of a saint… my mother the miracle that will save herself,” she writes.

In “Muslim Girlhood,” Chatti describes her sheltered life growing up in America. In the evenings, she “watched TV like a religion” and “watched to see how the others lived, not knowing I was the Other.” Her sense of “Otherness,” she said, was felt when she took tests “in which Jane and William had so many apples but never a friend named Khadija.”

Chatti describes her relationship with God in “When I Tell My Father I Might Begin to Pray Again.” Her father, she says, raised her to be religious and for “21 years he bowed before the bed, us children in a row behind him crushing our foreheads earnestly to the floor.”

She lost contact with God, saying she “can’t remember the last time (she) clasped (her) hands above (her) breast and yearned for God in that formal way.” Later, Chatti needs God again, pleading: “God, I want so badly to speak with you — not for aid or for proof of my goodness but to feel again your presence in my life, undeniably there like my father’s hand on mine in this still and inscrutable dark.”

Other subjects of her poems include the discipline of fasting, memories of summers spent with cousins, religious hypocrisy and Tunisia’s summer heat. She dedicates poems to political issues, such as the refugee crisis, the Orlando, Florida, shooting and US President Donald Trump.

However, it is her admiration of the women in her family and the love for her brother and father that convey the depth of her kindness and bring her words to life.