An Interview with Bitaniya Giday, Youth Poet Laureate
July 21, 2020
By Gabriela Denise Frank
When I watched Bitaniya Giday perform her poem, “Hyphenated Identity Crisis,” I didn’t know I would interview her. The video, which introduced Bitaniya as the 2020/2021 Seattle Youth Poet Laureate, was filmed outside on a breezy day rather than inside a dramatically-lit theater. Bitaniya read from her phone in front of a cream-colored wall whose ivy vines shivered in the wind. As Bitaniya’s powerful words washed over me, I found myself wishing I was with her—not viewing her from my seat in the audience but beside her in the light, in her neighborhood, perhaps somewhere nearby.
Bitaniya’s poem explores selfhood, cultural belonging, the effects of war and loss in ripples that radiate from her hyphenated identity as an Ethopian American. After the event, I watched the video of her reading several times. Something early in the poem caught my attention. In the second and third lines, Bitaniya says:
And I finally am no longer A hyphenated identity crisis
It was the word finally—meaning, at last—yet this is how the poem begins. A journey took place in between the first line—And the American war machine takes on the motherland—and the second. The poem can be read as an unfolding transcript of her exploratory dialogue of selfhood, pinned by a bloody “Made in America” civil war in Ethiopia and its resulting diaspora, which includes her family’s resettlement in America. Here, Bitaniya contemplates the unease of immigration, noting:
I am reborn survival on American soil But I cannot sleep here
When we spoke, I asked Bitaniya what she meant by finally. She said she was trying to figure out her relationship with Ethiopia, what it means to be African American and how she can be both things at once. “That line signals me understanding identity has duality and intersectionality to it and, sometimes, they’re conflicting.”
Her poem, when layered over the world’s multivalent global crises, describes a negative capability many are grappling with. For better and worse, the pandemic has disrupted definitions once thought unshakable. The world is struggling to reconcile a pre-pandemic understanding of nationhood, daily life and self with endless reckonings of change. Answers keep shifting and will continue to, indefinitely. The resulting uncertainty is magnified by our inability to gather as we once did, in community and in person, as a means of defining ourselves. “How can I calibrate myself to the world without being out in it?” the writer Amy Sackville asks in an essay in the Guardian.
“You’re always at war with yourself, but fighting it or choosing is not productive,” Bitaniya says. “We have complicated intersections within us. Accept them, explore them, understand yourself, be okay with it.”
What she’s describing is neuroplasticity, mental fluidity, the excavation of the self in non-binary terms. The goal of this inquiry is not an answer for all time but a facility for self-knowledge that persists amidst changing circumstances—a capacity for nuance and depth, a space for people to be many things at once, and for those aspects to change.
This labor of self-reflection cannot be outsourced to poets or young activists. This is work that each of us can and should undertake, examining our lives in contradiction, so that we can push the limits of understanding and empathy beyond what we imagined possible. As Bitaniya said, “Don’t accept that what is will always be. You are capable of more and you are also capable who you are right now.”
It was not a compromise to hear Bitaniya read her poem from my laptop rather than a stage. The event was an evolution in how we gather and connect, and this, too, will change. Bitaniya’s passion and ideas remain with me, and that is the work of the poet, no matter the method of delivery: to describe from their unique perspective the layers we contain, to urge our deeper thinking with their own, and to remind us how close we really are in our complexity even when it appears we are very far away.
The following conversation has been excerpted from a longer interview. If you’d like to listen to the audio version, click the play button below—or, read a full transcript here.
Gabriela Denise Frank: How did you get started as a writer and a poet?
Bitaniya Giday: I’ve always been a writer. My earliest memory of writing was fourth grade, working with expository writing, writing essays and being creative with storytelling. I had a lot of things pent up in me because English is my second language. I immigrated here from Ethiopia and I struggled learning a new language. I had a lot of thoughts in my head I wished I could express and didn’t know how to. Once I got the hang of writing and speaking in English, I had so much to say and couldn’t stop.
In terms of poetry, I started in eighth grade when I discovered slam poetry and decided I wanted to do my first piece at the MLK Assembly, which I co-organized. Then I discovered Youth Speaks Seattle—shout out to them—and that’s how it took off.
Gabriela: I was touched by your poem, “Hyphenated Identity Crisis,” which you read for the opening of a recent Seattle Arts & Lectures event. How did that poem start and evolve?
Bitaniya: I got the idea after a group piece I did with an amazing fellow writer, Ryan Clifton. The piece focused on Middle Eastern politics. I sat with it afterwards, thinking about my own place of birth in Ethiopia and how intervention by the United States has also caused and prolonged civil war and tribal conflicts there. I realized how important it was for me to bring visibility to that.
I grappled with the idea of being Ethiopian, but also American—and my culpability, and why my voice is necessary in speaking out against it while understanding the privilege I have, being in America and not experiencing conflict, and what war can bring into your community. I finished that piece in a day. I started writing in the morning and was done by afternoon, edited, completed. It came spewing out of me because I had it pent up for so long.
Gabriela: Do you feel, as a young person, you’re able to express this in different ways from women in your family who belong to different generations?
Bitaniya: My expressiveness in politics comes from the women in my family. My understanding of immigration came from the stories of my mother, my aunts, my grandparents. They were the ones who made the trip out. I am first-gen—I was born in Ethiopia, but I don’t recall what the transition was like. They’re the ones who crossed the Sahara Desert, who fled to Saudi Arabia then made their trip here. My family is spread across the globe, from Sweden to London to Germany. Most of those people who were telling stories are the women in my family. They’re the ones who’ve talked with me so that I could write about them. A lot of my poetry is about women and womanhood, immigration, blackness and how we navigate those relationships.
Gabriela: I am curious about a line in your poem: “And I finally am no longer a hyphenated identity crisis.” This seems like a moment in which something shifted or changed. When did the crisis become something else?
Bitaniya: That’s a good question. Prior to me trying to understand what my relationship with Ethiopia was, I was trying to figure out what it means to be African American, and how I could be both things at once. That line signals my understanding that identity has so much duality in it, so much intersectionality and, sometimes, they’re conflicting. You’re at war with yourself, but fighting it or choosing is not productive.
Humans are complicated and have complicated intersections within us. Continuously push yourself to make sure every part of you has visibility, has its own story that you’re honoring. I think that was my understanding—the acceptance of how complicated we are.
Gabriela: When you think about the different definitions of what home means—it can be a physical place, a mental space, a feeling—do you find multiple pockets of home in the world or within Seattle?
Bitaniya: Absolutely. With finding different homes, you find different versions of yourself you didn’t know you had within you. That’s the amazing thing about poetry. There are many different spaces in which poetry exists and communities within poetry occupying space and doing work. To me, slam and written poetry are two very different things.
Being a part of the YPL [Youth Poet Laureate] cohort is a different experience than being on a slam team and being competitive and writing pieces that are for a stage versus something meant to be read in a book or on paper. We all are different writers in different places, and we all are different people in the different homes we find.
Gabriela: As the 2020/2021 Youth Poet Laureate, what do you imagine this coming year will look like?
Bitaniya: In terms of the cohort as a whole, we’re having dialogue around what we want to see, what has been done, and what we want to continue. We’re experimenting with getting to know each other right now, writing as a group of leaders and understanding our voices. There are a lot of amazing activists and organizers within our cohort, and we’re trying to understand what it looks like to mobilize through poetry, how to use poetry to bring healing, to bring community, to bring liberation, to bring resistance. The best way of doing that now looks different than if we had this discussion a couple months ago, pre-pandemic. I think the virtual space is as powerful and even more accessible to people. We’re trying to understand the best way of bringing our work into a virtual space.
Gabriela: There’s a lot of crossover of community and activism in your work—and you’re also a Youth Ambassador for the Gates Discovery Center, right?
Bitaniya: Yes. At the Gates Foundation, we’re launching Teen Action Fair workshops for the summer where we bring in youth from the community to understand how to develop their organizing work. We’re launching a virtual space for performances and conversations around other organizers, such as Black Lives Matter, here in Seattle.
So much of the work, especially the youth spaces, is interconnected. That’s one of the best things about Seattle: we find spaces to gather and be in community and make sure people have a network of support. Work needs to be done outside of the virtual space, too, and youth are part of that movement. We have student art spaces and the Black and Brown Minds Matter Movement that are on the streets, providing food and access, and youth are doing it. Youth are active in this city. It’s amazing to see and be a part of it.
Gabriela: What inspired you to apply to be the Youth Poet Laureate?
Bitaniya: It’s a tradition for those of us in Youth Speaks Seattle to apply. Azura Tyabji, the Youth Poet Laureate a couple years ago, is one of my closest friends and mentors. That was part of the reason, having a mentor say, I believe in you and I think that you could occupy that space. The other is, a book deal is hard to find. A lot of conversations in my family are through women, and there’s so many intersections between immigration and blackness that I’ve wanted to thematically put into a book of poems. That was the biggest reason I applied, to have an opportunity to put a book together.
Gabriela: How do you imagine this experience will change you?
Bitaniya: The number one thing is, I need to become a better writer on the page. I’m a really good performer and I want to develop my style and structure as a poet. We were talking about how water moves on a page, and how we can communicate without words in the way things are placed and what symbols we’re using. One of my favorite all-time poets is Danez Smith. I look to their poems, not to replicate but draw inspiration and experiment with how I can use poetry to communicate things without being super direct. In slam, things are very direct. On paper, it’s multifaceted. I want to do that work. I want to grow in that way.
Gabriela: Who or what inspires you?
Bitaniya: Oh, that’s a good question—the spectrum is broad. The number one thing I draw inspiration from is music. Solange is someone I really connect to. There’s a lot of local artists, like Nikkita Oliver. I read Nikkita’s book of poems and understood how to be local with your activism and poetry. She helps me understand my place in that.
If we’re talking broader, powerful women in our time like Angela Davis and bell hooks, all of the Black philosophers are super important to me. Liberation texts help my writing, where the work is super optimistic and resilient and gives power back to the people. The feeling that you have power and control over your body and your story helps me bring autonomy into my writing.
Gabriela: Do you talk about poetry with your family?
Bitaniya: That’s interesting. I talk about the politics behind my poems or communicate the messaging around my poems. I perform to my sister, always, first. I introduce pieces to my family before they go anywhere. My mom is my number one critic—she will tell me, honestly, if it is good or bad, does it need this or that. Poetry is a big part of my identity and quite visible in my household. People can hear me yelling into my room as I do pieces.
Gabriela: What would you say either to a younger version of yourself or to a young poet who’s looking for advice?
Bitaniya: The conversation around “Hyphenated Identity Crisis” is something that took a long time for me to understand. When you find a label you think encompasses you as a human being, you outgrow it really quickly. Acceptance is a big thing but not in the way of, like, accepting that what is will always be, but that you are capable of more. Accepting that and giving yourself a break and enjoying everything because life goes by really quick.
Gabriela: Are you reading and writing this summer? It sounds like you are very busy.
Bitaniya: I’m part of the Brave New Voices Festival slam team—it’s an international poetry festival for ages thirteen to nineteen. Last year, I was on the team that got third in the world. This year, we’re writing group pieces and individual poems for that festival, which is coming up in two weeks. A lot of our pieces are centered here in Seattle and what’s been going on.
One thing I need to work on is writing for myself and writing to heal and writing to enjoy the work that I do, rather than always producing something for the sake of accomplishment.
Gabriela: As a young person, is downtime accessible and do you feel you can take it?
Bitaniya: If I’m being honest, I can’t remember the last time I read a book just to enjoy reading. I read because there is knowledge I need. There isn’t a lot of downtime. I’m a rising senior, applying to college, and I’m also an intern at the International Rescue Committee, tutoring refugee children. I say yes to opportunities so that I have fulfillment. It is draining but the work is also important. I feel like I’ll have time in the future to relish what I’ve accomplished, but right now, it’s important that I’m active and, since I can, that I’m giving back.
Gabriela: Are you missing being together in school with your classmates?
Bitaniya: I think other people are missing it more than I do. I enjoy classes online, learning at my pace and having deadlines. For some students, tech access is an issue, like having stable Wi-Fi. A lot of my friends come from different high schools. I see them face-to-face as part of community organizing, food drives, supply drives. We do a lot of Zoom calls, so I’m seeing them a lot. I think that’s not going to go away.
Gabriela: What do you do to feed or nurture yourself?
Bitaniya: That’s a good question. I drink lots of tea. I listen to a lot of music. I like doing photoshoots and conceptual visual art. I try to find space and time where I can be creative. I really like dancing in my mirror for an hour a day. I find small, impromptu ways to feel good.
Gabriela: What role do you see poetry taking in your life?
Bitaniya: That’s evolving right now. I’m trying to understand poetry’s place. I look up to people who use poetry as a way of storytelling on behalf of organizations, like Rwanda Girls Initiative. I look up to people like Mahogany Browne, an amazing Black woman poet who lives in New York. She centers her career around poetry, judging slams, writing books, editing, writing movie scripts. I’ve always been on a traditional path of going to college, studying pre-law, then finding poetry as something that can fit along the way. I think it’ll come naturally. I want to study immigration law and women’s rights and within that there will be space to tell my own story.
Gabriela: What are you excited about or feeling hopeful about?
Bitaniya: I can’t wait for the Brave New Voices Festival. I’m excited to see Trinidad perform. They’re super good. I’m excited about organizers in Seattle and the events they’ve been throwing. People are starting to understand that resiliency and joy are part of resistance. Being outside and community is nourishing me and keeping me going right now.
Gabriela: Is there anything you would like to leave people with?
Bitaniya: Make sure you’re active in your community. Realize the impact of police brutality and Black Lives Matter, how local everything is, how impactful on our community. One of the biggest things I struggle with is understanding the history of gentrification in Seattle, especially with the Black community. A decade ago, Capitol Hill did not look the way it looks right now. Black folks were living in those communities. Wa Na Wari is the last Black-owned house in Seattle. It has taken us until this point to realize the slow, systematic erasure of Black community and Black culture in the city. It’s saddening. So, understand your place in that. Pay your rent to our Duwamish and Salish Coast people—there are resources online. Be active. Be intentional. Don’t be afraid to learn something new or to be wrong. Embrace it and be better for it.
Gabriela Denise Frank is a literary artist whose work has appeared in galleries, storefronts, libraries, anthologies, magazines, podcasts, and online. Her essays and fiction have been published in True Story, Hunger Mountain, Bayou, Baltimore Review, Crab Creek Review, Pembroke, The Normal School, and The Rumpus. A Jack Straw Writer and Artist Trust EDGE alumna, Gabriela’s work is supported by 4Culture, Mineral School, Vermont Studio Center, Jack Straw, Invoking the Pause, and the Civita Institute. www.gabrieladenisefrank.com