Photo of Dunya Mikhail by Cary Loren

The PEN Ten is PEN America’s weekly interview series. This week, guest editor Randa Jarrar speaks to Dunya Mikhail. 

Born in Baghdad, Iraq, Mikhail came to the United States in the mid-1990s. She is the author of The Iraqi Nights, Diary of A Wave Outside the Sea, and The War Works Hard. Her honors include a Kresge fellowship (2013), the Arab American Book Award (2010), and the UN Human Rights Award (2001). She was shortlisted for the Griffin Poetry Prize in 2006. She currently teaches Arabic at Oakland University in Michigan.

When did being a writer begin to inform your sense of identity?

During my teenage years in Baghdad, I wrote poems as gifts for my friends’ birthdays. They called me “the poet.” At home, my mother used to mention to our guests that I was busy writing “feelings” as an excuse for me being in my room and not with them. She called the poems “feelings” because in Arabic the two words are close; we call poetry “shi’r” and feeling “shi’ur” and she made her own plural of both words. But my identity as a writer can be traced to a particular time: September 1980. That month, the Iraq–Iran War was announced. All men who could bear arms were called to the battlefield (jabha). “Are they taking women too?” I asked. No, I learned. The reason I asked with concern was that I really wanted to continue my poetry discoveries and be left alone with my writing and not be taken away.