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Inhabiting Many Names: An Interview with Mahtem Shiferraw

Mahtem Shiferraw is the author of Nomenclatures of Invisibility, as well as the author of poetry collections Fuschia,Your Body Is War, and Behind Walls & Glass. Through a personal, historical, and political lens, Shiferraw's Nomenclatures of Invisibility attends to the collective experiences inherited through deeply-rooted ancestry, tracing patterns of movement and migration, sorrow and invisibility, and the resulting complicated notions of home.

In the following self-interview with Mahtem Shiferraw, learn more about the author's thoughts around naming, immigration, and making space for our fellow humans!

How does one think about nomenclatures? What’s in a name, that is not seen right away?

 A name contains a world. A world filled with solitudes, but also a world upon which our lineages, and our histories are weaved through. Naming someone is an act of radical love; it allows them to step out of their invisibility, of their otherness, it allows them to be flawed human beings, to be in a state of vulnerability, without the fear of being persecuted, othered. There are many names one can inhabit; as human beings, we are made by a multitude of things, our consciousness is made of multitudes too, so we cannot be contained in one. Nomenclatures can be earned, inherited, given, bestowed, adorned. But most of all, nomenclatures are inhabited – so they have to be capacious enough to allow for our different selves to co-exist freely.

What does it mean to name someone out of invisibility? What kind of work does that entail?

Naming someone out of invisibility means to see them–-see me, see this humanness in me. The seeing can only occur when one is in a state of surrender, in a state of deep compassion, when one gives in to themselves. Otherness is the anti-thesis of nomenclatures, because otherness thrives on uncertainty, as in, we do not know things, so we fear them. Seeing is also an act of courage, an act of perseverance, an act of endurance; seeing requires love, it requires being able to go beyond what the world tells us about other people, reaching a place of clearing where we can see for ourselves the breadth of our humanity, and the humanity in others. Naming someone out of invisibility also requires the intentional making of space; in order to understand others, and incorporate them into our consciousness, we have to be intentional about making space – for their stories, for their identities, for their narratives, for their mistakes. This kind of work is continuous; it requires us to grow in our learning, and our understanding what humanity is, and what it can do. We must be willing to be moved by it; to be transformed by it.

What about the immigrant or refugee is grounding to the human experience?

The immigrant is a moving being; physically, emotionally, mentally–but also, cosmologically, historically. This movement is both vast, and detailed; an immigrant may find themselves needing to cross a sea, only to step on its shores, and be met by fires. Or an immigrant may find themselves crossing cruel deserts, longing for the sea, and then waters become cruel too, and they may take their bodies. But beyond the geographical markers, an immigrant is always learning how to survive, how to make it without forgetting, how to assimilate, but not too much, how to speak new languages, but not too much, how to learn new cultures, but not too much. This kind of multiplicity does something to a person; it breaks and remakes them, it constantly reminds them that they do not belong in any of the homes they had (the ones they left, the ones they build). An immigrant is strong by nature – they can leave a home and a country they’ve known through different lineages and never look back. Because an immigrant is hopeful; in fact, an immigrant is always guided by hope, this light that never ceases to illuminate whatever path they choose to take.