Eliamani Ismail’s short story “Garfield, 2005” appears in Southern Humanities Review 54.4 and follows Izaiah, a young Black boy living in the low-development housing project of Garfield during the emergence of the 2005 cicada brood. In the following interview, Ismail discusses the story’s balance of preteen excitement with the unique brand of American violence imposed on Black youth. Ismail also talks about her Pan-Africanist worldview and how the practice of poetry led her to fiction and film.
Caitlin Rae Taylor: Your short story “Garfield, 2005” intersects the 2005 cicada brood with the life of Izaiah, our protagonist, growing up in Garfield Projects. The story is a snapshot of the summer Izaiah lost his virginity. How did you decide to connect these threads when you were writing the initial drafts of the story?
Eliamani Ismail: I find cicadas and their life cycles both strange and familiar. They stay dormant for twenty years and then come up to fight, breed, and die. It is a ritual that reminds me of the cyclical nature of human beings in oppressive systems. It is certainly just as loud, scary, and ugly. In tandem, I created Izaiah’s virginity, and its leaving, to mark a certain awakening; I think sexual awakenings are often one of the many processes of achieving a full adult consciousness. Izaiah is becoming aware, painfully aware of his surroundings and his slim prospects. This is either the cause or the effect of another painful awareness—that of his own body—how his body is both racialized and sexualized. What his body means in different spaces—both in his community and the world. It made sense to me that during this time he would also explore the extent to which sex potentially offered bodily autonomy. It is his attempt at personal agency. I think in the end he finds he unfortunately doesn’t have much agency at all. Not because of his personal failing, but because—like all oppressed and colonized people—of his space and place. Because of the very ground he stands on.
CRT: “Garfield, 2005” contrasts moments of elation, like Izaiah losing his virginity and a crowd of boys setting off fireworks on July 4th, with moments of horror, like when Izaiah punches Lex or the death of the cicadas. How do you balance these narrative elements to depict a world that feels true?
EI: I think summertime as a preteen is exciting and scary. You are finding yourself wanting and obtaining freedom from your parents, as well as from your prior self—that part of childhood that is almost biologically predisposed to caution and obedience. Those are summers of discovery and emotional intensity. In “Garfield, 2005” I paired this adolescent nature with the additional reality that United States’ low-development housing projects are places of extreme mental and emotional vulnerability. It felt natural to me to have the duality of those extremes because, having grown up in similar circumstances, it was quite natural to see how quickly emotions change and how fast a calm day can turn violent.
CRT: The last image of “Garfield, 2005” is of a carpet of dead cicadas, littering the concrete courtyard of Garfield Projects, their carapaces gleaming in the hot sun. How did this final, chilling image come to you, and what do you hope it conveys about the piece, about the residents of Garfield, about the world outside Garfield, about Izaiah himself?
EI: The conditions they live in, the conditions of most housing projects across the United States, is no place to sustain life nor liveliness. In my childhood, concrete came to represent death to me, or at least the opposite of life. There was a particular episode in my childhood seeing human blood on the concrete near my home—that image made utter sense to me. It made sense to me that if this species could not get back to where they belong, their natural soil, they would die on the unnatural ground that they lay. It is certainly a mirror of my Pan-Africanist ideology.
CRT: You have a degree in Film and Africana from Scripps College, a long resume of involvement in development, diversity, and production from Disney, HBO, Lionsgate, and NBCUniversal. You’re also an accomplished spoken word poet. What led you to fiction writing, and how do you see your work in film and poetry in conversation with your fiction?
EI: I am a poet before I am anything else. I had often shy away from the title because I find it a bit weighty, but the reality is that I started in poetry and that is what led me to fiction and film. With poetry I was addressing a very intense and urgent issue: the pain of my emerging racial saliency as a teenager. In that period, I needed poetry to “write into existence” the person I am today.
Fiction came after I realized I wanted more space for world building and character for the ideas in my head. Poetry was deeply personal—every poem I wrote was for myself and to myself. Once I no longer had much interest in myself as a character, fiction became appealing because I wanted to start writing about other people and for other people. My friends, family, neighbors, and the voices in my head. It was Beyonce’s “Lemonade” that made me realize I wanted to do film. I remember watching the first three minutes where she is reciting a Warsan Shire poem, and it clicked that words (of any form) are better understood when seen. I’ve wanted to make films ever since that moment.
CRT: You describe yourself as a “Pan-Africanist focused on creating stories, both written and filmed, from and about the global African world that foster familiarity and responsibility for all African persons through the diaspora.” How did the writing of “Garfield, 2005” align with this creative vision?
EI: I think any experience of African descendants anywhere in the world is an African experience and an experience of Africa. I think, unfortunately, it is still considered merely a “curious coincidence” that Black people around the world suffer in oddly similar fashions. What we know as pan-Africanists is that it is of course not a coincidence but quite the natural and logical consequence of having an origin continent (or representing an origin continent) that is still plundered and colonized to this day. We know that the suffering of all Africans around the world will continue until Africa is a home of substantial prosperity. In the end of the story, the cicadas don’t get back home, and the concrete is not a place to sustain life. They die far away from home on strange land.
CRT: What do you want readers to take away from “Garfield, 2005”?
EI: I wanted the reader to experience both the colorful notes of childish imagination and the discomfort of confinement. I wanted them to go through the oddity of hopelessness in the summer. More than anything, I wanted the reader to question what home is and what it means.
CRT: What are you reading right now, and how is it influencing your craft?
EI: I read a lot of political philosophy, more so than fiction or poetry. My favorite fiction writers tend to be political theorists in their own right (James Baldwin, Ghassan Kanafani, Ngūugī wa Thiong’o, etc.), and they write about themes I find crucial to humanity. Right now I am reading Frantz Fanon’s The Wretched of the Earth and Mahmoud Darwish’s Why Did You Leave the Horse Alone. I plan to pick up Ocean Vuong’s On Earth We’re Briefly Gorgeous soon. Both Fanon and Darwish speak to a deep primordial wound I have (and I believe most non-whites of the world have under our current world order) which was the abrupt end of our people and cultures’ natural evolutionary and development process with the advent of European colonization. Darwish’s poetry experiments also inspire my own forms and themes of ancestral interactions.
CRT: What’s your advice to writers who also work in other kinds of media (film, art, acting, etc.)? How do you make time for writing in the midst of all your other creative pursuits?
EI: For me, writing is my base. I think for many people who write, regardless of what else they do, writing is often naturally their base. I find time to write because I make it a part of all my practices. I often take ideas and put them in multiple mediums. If I have an idea for filmed entertainment, I will make it a short story first. Either it will end up as a great exercise in helping me build intimacy with my characters and their world, or occasionally it simply works better as a short story. Poetry is similar—many of my poems become sentiments of my characters or vice-versa. I think I see all the mediums I do as generally art with no need for any strict divisions. I am still early in my career as an artist, but that mindset has served me well so far.
CRT: What other projects are you working on right now?
EI: I am writing for my first poetry collection and filmed entertainment. I also am finding my way to writing fiction shorts again. That is perhaps my favorite type of writing. I am also learning Spanish and Bambara. I am in love with language acquisition.
CRT: Where can SHR readers find more of your work?
EI: I have poems and fiction in Stonecoast Review, ellipsis..., PRISM International among other mediums!
ELIAMANI ISMAIL is a writer and filmmaker from Washington D.C. via Mali and Tanzania. Finding writing in her teens, Eliamani was a youth poet with the D.C. Youth Slam Team. She has performed at multiple venues including the Kennedy Center. After earning a BA in Film and Africana from Scripps College, Eliamani was named a Watson Scholar and is currently undergoing an international project that explores how writing and art engenders communal partiality to non-punitive justice. Eliamani is a Pan-Africanist focused on creating stories from and about the global African world that foster familiarity and responsibility through the diaspora. Her work is featured in PRISM International, Stonecoast Review, and ellipsis . . .