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First-generation experiences and familial relationships: Q&A with Sheila Sadr on debut poetry book “Birthday Girl”

I first encountered Sheila Sadr’s work back in 2018 when I was trying to familiarize myself with Long Beach State as an incoming freshman. I searched a combination of “CSULB” and “poetry” and found videos of Sadr performing and it was captivating. The emotions she poured through words and through her body language; I remember thinking in awe, “I want to be like her.”

Sadr, once a student in CSULB’s creative writing department, has work published in BOAAT, Tinderbox Poetry Journal and Nat. Brut Magazine and has performed for the Segerstrom Center of the Arts, House of Blues and Write About Now. Sadr placed first at the 2018 Jack Rabbit Poetry Slam as well. Currently, she is a teaching artist with youth poets at Get Lit Words Ignite and pursuing a master’s degree in clinical psychology.

Most recently she won a publishing deal with Not a Cult and her debut book of poems “Birthday Girl” was released November 2020. With vulnerability and tenderness, Sadr details the loss and love that intersects her experiences of womanhood, queerness and being a first-generation Iranian American.

We sat in conversation over Zoom about her newest book, “Birthday Girl.” This conversation has been edited for length and clarity.

How did you come across the name for the title of the book? Was it something that organically popped out or did you already envision the name being “Birthday Girl?”

Yeah, the book title actually was the beginning of the process of even realizing I had a book that I wanted to do. Things kind of become way bigger than I anticipated because initially it was just going to be a chapbook, and I got the idea in the shower [and] was like, “Oh. Birthday Girl.” I could write so so much off of just that kind of concept. Then as time passed, I became a finalist for the [Notacult] book contest. That idea and that concept became way bigger than just a chapbook. It was definitely taking on a new life so the shape of the book really came off of the title.

My fun fact about myself when I was a kid was [about] my birthday and I always found birthdays to be just powerful moments and in my family, birthdays are a really big deal. Every member of the family is expected to be there. Then also, there was this push against being a girl, the experience of girlhood, and I just felt it all connected.

I love how you put the title in the context of celebrating one’s self. As I was reading your book, I received such strong themes of girlhood, womanhood, motherhood, daughterhood, queerness. If I were to think of your book as a musical composition, there were these major themes as they were minor themes, as the song of your book was playing. Was it your intention to group poems around these concepts?

It was intentional at first but then became very unintentional. I had a trajectory and storyline at first which is still there, but I got really good editing feedback. “Keep the poems that you’re proud of, and that you feel capture the writing and the writer that you are now.” That ended up making me scrap a lot of poems that were mainly in there because I needed to tell a story. I kind of hit that point where I was like, the themes that want to shine for the reader will shine. Whatever the reader is picking up, that was meant to be there for them. I let go of the need to control the themes in the book as much.

It was very freeing. I was enacting or projecting, the way I would mother onto like a child, which is really really rigid. Things that I had experienced growing up, expecting the book to be perfect. [I was] not [giving] it space to be flawed and to breathe and to be authentic.

I really got into working on the book once the pandemic hit, because I was running away from dealing with a lot of the anxiety that I had while putting the book together. I realized that this book was not the same to me emotionally and spiritually as a poem going out in the world or a performance. It was like an entrance into a literary canon. It was something that was going to live past me. And then my children and their children’s children could find and pick up.

It is also enshrining my history and my family’s history very permanently. That was really frightening for me because I didn’t want people to think I didn’t love my family. I didn’t want people to think that my family had been evil, or want people to think that the narrator’s relationships were purely terrible. The relationships are complicated so I felt really hesitant to share the duality of being hurt by people you love and still loving them.

You mentioned talking about family, the struggles between relationships. It’s a very vulnerable place; other images I resonated with throughout your book were blood, water, ocean, diaspora. The feeling of being children of immigrants cradling the edge of two cultures, two worlds and I felt like this book was at the intersection of those experiences. There’s been so much erasure and forgetting in the process of assimilation.

I think it is the pinnacle of an immigrant experience or a first-generation experience. You have to consider the nuances and the generational trauma in the lineage. A lot of this wasn’t talked about there were other things that were happening, a revolution. I really wanted it to explore the dichotomy and the intricacies of being a first-generation person in America. The conflict between not being completely a part of one culture, and also not being completely a part of another but also learning from both. I got a really flawed education system from America which means I’m American. But my Iranian part is like the education I got in my household, and in my community.

I also saw that subtle reference to K-ming Chang. [laughter] Poets know that she’s a very prominent and rising queer Taiwanese American poet and fiction writer, but some of that reference to queerness is perhaps lost on readers who aren’t as familiar with her work.

I hide so much in my writing anyways, like the queerness theme is so small and so delicate and so it’s important that you catch it. Or the fact like changing pronouns to instead of “he” or “her” to “they.” For example, “Home Key” is a poem I came out in. But you would never know that unless people go digging.

I’ve just done a lot of reflection and I think it’s okay to not come out. A lot of people don’t come out for really good reasons. And I think that there’s a very Western pressure, to come out, then to be celebrated when there are some dire consequences in brown communities for coming out. So, I feel fine coming out in my writing quietly where some queer baby will pick it up.

Even in a visibly heterosexual relationship, I think queer people have a right to be like, “It’s not your business.” I’m speaking about queerness now because I want people to know that is something that’s important to me. You don’t have to be out, especially if it puts you in danger and there’s no shame in that.

There are so many interesting, inventive things you are doing on the page; these are the type of poems that I look to for inspiration. The contrapuntal is a type of poem that can be read in three different ways and I love how you utilize that form in your work.

I really like using form to surprise myself. As writers, we get so distracted of what we’re trying to say and what we’re trying to tell people, we don’t make self space for ourselves to discover. Making a form and creating a container for writing for me personally, distracted me so that I would discover something new about myself. “Date Night,” has a form container and that one surprised me. “Things they say– this is not a confessional” which is a big block, which I’m shy to say, is a form I invented. I don’t think I know everything. I didn’t want it to seem like I was imparting wisdom. It was mainly that I wanted people to see my processing.

This is your coming of age story! Or the fancier literary term to label your book is Sheila Sadr’s “bildungsroman.”

That’s exactly what the book is! It’s really clear in the book that there’s like this sense of graduation phase of your life. I still hold a lot of those memories, and I still process them, but it was really good to put it down on paper. I like it’s weird that I miss it because it was so hard. It was like three-year labor; I had an elephant birth essentially. There was a lot of processing that I had to do and I don’t want to blame the world on this. But I don’t think capitalism gives a lot of space for you to process things that are happening to you.

What I see your poetry doing is also bending against assimilation in terms of leaning into otherness and centering it. The literary establishment tries to center certain narratives and storylines, so it’s cool to see you doing the stuff that you’re doing with your work right now.

I don’t want it to seem like it’s not an American experience. This is very much an American experience and anyone who thinks otherwise is very wrong. The experience that we’re talking about being a multi-generational multilingual, family, multiracial family; it’s distinctively American. And it is distinctively beyond being American. Everybody thinks of American culture and they think like NASCAR, football and meatloaf. And that’s not what I that’s not what my America is. Right? But like my experience is Iranian American, and I really wanted to explore that hyphen.

“Birthday Girl” is available for purchase at online retailers.

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