The University of Iowa

5Q Interview: Shene Mohammed, MFA candidate in Literary Translation

October 21, 2020

In the midst of the coronavirus pandemic, the Writing University has been continuing our series of interviews with writers in the various University of Iowa writing programs. We ask about their work, their process and their descriptions of home. We are posting them now as examples of our shared community strength during this time.

Today's interview is with Shene Mohammed, an MFA student in Literary Translation at the University of Iowa.


Shene Mohammed

Shene Mohammed is an MFA student in Literary Translation at the University of Iowa. She has worked as a translator and Assistant Director at Kashkul. She has worked closely with Kashkul's Founding Director to bring fifteen major Kurdish classical poets of the nineteenth century into English. Her writing has appeared in World Literature Today, M—Dash, Modern Poetry in Translation, Balinde, Chirok and Sulyon


1. Could you tell us a bit about your new book(s)?

I’m currently working on two translation projects. I’m co-translating a novel, House of Cats, written by Hiwa Kader, a prolific Kurdish writer across multiple genres. This book is mostly about the loneliness and sufferings we all share once the distinctions of language, culture and environment are lifted. The characters he creates in this novel live different European lifestyles compared to a Kurd whose living across the Kurdish areas today, but they carry the exact same pain. The time frame in the novel is very short, the wider space of the book is dedicated to imagination. Another interesting aspect of the book is that Kader uses the variations in cat breeds, coat length, pattern and meowing as main devices that shape the novel.

I am also translating a selection of Rafiq Sabir’s work who has been a critical voice in contemporary Kurdish poetry. This collecting would narrate a long, “endless” journey. Sabir’s journeys are narrated from his inner world and through abstraction but are nevertheless journeys we all take when leaving home, returning to home or diving into our deeper self. I’m deeply drawn to his writing because everything he envisions is placed at a distance, in solitude and silence.

2. What does your daily practice look like for your writing? Do you have a certain time when you write? Any specific routine?

I’ve dedicated the few hours before bed and after waking to my readings. Mornings are for class readings and articles; nighttime is for literature. The hours in between are mostly for my writings and translations. Other readings for pleasure and films fall into my weekends. Now of course I cheat on some weekends and work to catch up on things I did not have time to finish within the week, but I try to keep my weekends free of work.

3. What are you currently reading right now? Are you reading for research or pleasure?

It is hard for me to distinguish between reading for pleasure and for research. I look out for elements that can inform my own projects even when I am reading a text solely for pleasure. My eyes always catch words and phrases that my mind link back to Kurdish words, either for sharing roots, meanings or usage, and this gives me a lot of pleasure. I think it’s one of the ways my mind likes to interact with the text I am reading. In Kurdish we say, ‘to look with the eyes of a buyer.’ I read with the same eye, for texts that can become my current or future project companions.

I’ve been recently reading new short stories and poetry in Kurdish. I’m always interested in poetry, probably because it has the longest history in Kurdish literature, or maybe because it is a very telling medium of current views. I find it very interesting to hear what today’s poets say about their world. To me, poetry is a more direct response to our inner needs that is influenced by our outer realities. And since we are sharing the same reality, I’m interested to see how a poet frames the same thing I’m seeing, to learn and dwell in new dimensions.

I’ve taken on a new habit of picking the short stories I like and translating them, and this has become a sort of training for me to move, more comfortably, into translating fiction to/from English. Stories are a more manageable space to get pacing, character’s voice and language right, they also resemble our short daily thoughts that are wonderful to have, and easier to elaborate on later.

4. Tell us about where you are from -- what are some favorite details you would like to share about your home?

I am from Slemani, a rich literary hub in the Kurdish Region of Iraq. So, it feels like home twice, a place I was born and grew up in and the literary atmosphere I like to live within. The city’s beauty is ever more highlighted with its bookstores, cafés and its intellectual’s houses that today are home for exhibiting new artwork. These are places of comfort for me.

My favorite detail about Slemani is its fabric and craft stores. I love how I can navigate these small stores and find pieces of stones and silver that I can assemble and make new pieces out of, according to my own taste of beauty in handmade craft and shades of stones. It is common to design your own clothes from unique pieces of fabric in the bazaar and make clothes you can be comfortable in. No matter how well you know the city and how much time you spend in the bazaar, you can always find a little place in a corner that you haven’t seen before. How exciting are the days you find a new place that makes new ideas possible for collecting small pieces of beauty that turn into a unique necklace just for you or a bracelet that has more history to it.

I am a tea person and I love how Slemani’s streets are filled with tea shops next to tea shops that never run out of tea-drinkers. Your busy days in the bazaar and downtown area is never too exhausting since you can stop for a small cup of tea every now and then (or every half an hour in my case) and observe the rush of life a meter from the shop, and once the cup is empty, you join the movement again, until your next stop.

5. What music are you listening to? Do you have a playlist you'd like to share?

I mostly listen to Kurdish music, and music born from other parts of Kurdistan. Music, for me, is one way to be in places that aren’t otherwise as easy to live in as a Kurd, a way to hear the depth of stories. A depth that has always been constrained from being explored, understood and expressed. But the sound of music, of poetry turned into songs gives me the space to freely look for that depth wherever I may be. I even take pleasure in the level of sorrow I hear in these songs, immeasurable grief but never without hope. Even happy folk songs are balanced with words that describe immense pain.

Here’s a short playlist: Waran Șew by Tara Jaff and Khashayar Rashidi. Ciwan Haco’s Yadê. Ahmed Kaya’s Karwan. Homer Dizeyi’s Du Gurtan. Șiwan Perwer’s Delale. Shahram Nazeri’s Shirin Shirin.

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Thank you Shene!

 

 

 

 

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