Writer in Residence

A few minutes with ... Bassam

By Dane Swan

Throughout the month, I'll be sharing conversations between myself and authors. Our first author is Bassam. We discuss his current project, race and language. Help make "these pills don't come in my skin tone," a reality by donating to their Indie GoGo page


DS: Could you tell us about your current project, “these pills don't come in my skin tone?” What inspired you to take on such a project?


BASSAM: these pills don't come in my skin tone is a spoken word anthology to be released in Fall 2017 to provide a platform for Black, Indigenous, and People of Colour (BIPoC) from across (Colonially Known As) "Canada" to speak about the social impact of mental health through the lens of racialized experiences. It comes from a need to highlight more BIPoC artists and writers in the predominantly-white "Canadian" spoken word scene, as well as the promotion of mental health narratives dominated other than those by white supremacy. 


I was inspired to take on this project after a meeting of several BIPoC-identifying national spoken word poets at the Canadian Festival of Spoken Word (CFSW) in October 2016.  Quite a few of us had concluded that there aren’t sufficient spaces in our platform that are allowing us to highlight our identities or our struggles.  I was also inspired by how there are insufficient support avenues for mental illness specifically designed for BIPoC folks in general, as mental health advocacy has become quite corporatized by the same institutions complicit in racial marginalization. 


DS: How can people participate, or help? 


BASSAM: We are looking for BIPoC folks to submit spoken word poetry on the topic of mental health, both wellness and illness, through their experiences as a racialized individual.  Even if they don’t experience or struggle with mental health issues, they can also submit work that speaks to how they provide care and support to those around them and in their community.  Until March 31st, 2017, we’re accepting submissions at our Submittable page, which also contains information about how we’re aiming to pay poets and visual artists for their accepted works.  We also have an all-BIPoC team of Community Editors and a Designer from all across “Canada” who will be paid for their efforts as well. 


We’re also running an Indiegogo campaign in tandem with the submissions campaign, in hopes that supporters of poetry, as well as those who recognize the need to highlight more BIPoC poetry (by this I mean so-called “white allies”), will also help in funding this initiative.  Running this campaign alongside the call for submissions was to reduce the fees for submitting poets, and the funds will also help pay the poets whose work is accepted for publication, as well as the Community Editors and Designer.  


DS: You've toured North America as a poet, spoken word artist and advocate. How is your message received in the various cities you've been to. What are the hurdles you've faced?


BASSAM: The short answer is that my overall message as an artist is promoting radical vulnerability: using art as both resistance to real-time, ongoing oppression, and as becoming a conduit for expressing the impact of past oppression (socio-political, emotional, psychological, etc.).  Institutionalized oppression is simply a system of bullying we’re paying for, literally and figuratively.  I would hope that my overall message is received in an empowering way, that we can collectively use our past traumas, as well as our future ones, to grow and heal together in direction far more positive than we have been thus far.  The hurdles I’ve faced are that when explaining my position, and the perspective from which the poetry emanates. 


As a cisgender male who suffers from bulimia nervosa, men who suffer in silence receive my message in a way that counters patriarchal impositions, that men should not speak about their emotions.  However, they often innocently ignore or opportunistically omit that it is, indeed, patriarchy that imposes these exigencies on us.  I have connected with men after performances who have admitted to me that they are grateful that a cisgender male is speaking out about eating disorders.  However, I’ve had to explain to many men that I am not attempting to entitle myself to space as a male with an eating disorder, but as a human being speaking out in hopes that other folks of all genders will grow and heal by doing the same. 


I’ve also faced much of the same ignorance as many queer PoCs like myself have endured; I’ve faced homophobia, racial discrimination, and anti-Semitism (I culturally identify with my Levantine Arab heritage, but my spiritual identity is officially rooted in Reform Judaism by conversion, and have been able to reconcile these two often-misconceived mutual exclusions in my personal political perspective and positioning, alliteration unintended).  As I've been quite vocal about the Israeli occupation, I’ve encountered resistance primarily from right-wing white Ashkenazi Jewish Zionists, who feel themselves that they face many hurdles identifying as Zionists with a sense of pride, given the history of oppression against European Jews.  An obstacle I’ve faced, even here on Turtle Island, is explaining to Zionists that despite anti-Semitism is still a real issue, it is no longer a systemic one imposed in the same oppressive manner (through colonialism, occupation and apartheid) that occurs against Palestinians. 


DS: When I was a kid we didn't have terms like 'erasure,' or 'micro-aggression' in our lexicon. How important is it that language appears to be expanding to more eloquently describe the nuances of discrimination?


BASSAM: The expansion of our language to explain the plethora ways in which we are discriminated is vital to our uprising against white supremacy.  Linguistic malleability is a by-product of awareness, which is a natural evolution that helps us create the necessary tools to defend ourselves against the many ways the oppressors have fought to weaken us over time.  Communication is the greatest weapon we have; our pencils and tongues need constant sharpening. 

DS: Do you have any upcoming books, or recordings that we should look out for, featuring your work?


BASSAM: I’m currently working on my second spoken word poetry chapbook and second recorded spoken word album, my sixth and seventh publication, entitled underglow + aftertowthrough Feather & Anchor.  My fifth publication entitled nil:/per.os_ will be my second book of page poetry and released through GenZ Publishing, sometime this year. 


The views expressed in the Writer-in-Residence blogs are those held by the authors and do not necessarily reflect the views of Open Book.

Dane Swan is a Bermuda-raised, Toronto-based internationally published poet, writer and musician. His first collection, Bending the Continuum was launched by Guernica Editions in the Spring of 2011. The collection was a recommended mid-summer read by Open Book: Toronto. In 2013 Dane was short listed for the Monica Ladell Award (Scarborough Arts) for his poem "Stopwatch."