Each month Catapult Community features a new TinyLetter writer and republishes one of their recent issues. (Previously in this series: Rohin Guha , Laura Goode , Teri Vlassopoulos , Brandon Taylor , Sarah Mirk , Alvin Park .) This month we’re featuring writer Jamila Osman, whose work has previously appeared in The Toast, Boaat Press, Tinderbox, The Establishment, Pacific Standard, and Catapult , among others. Her TinyLetter is called blood songs .
I hope this letter finds you well. It is the middle of the afternoon in Ramallah. This has been an unusually hot week. Camp has begun, and I'm wrapping up my first week of teaching.
My students have been discussing refugee rights for the last few days. The conversation we are having here is slightly different than the one I would have with students back in Oregon. We talk about the irony of being a refugee in one’s own country.
I had a conversation with my students back at BHS a few months before the end of the year about refugee rights. Our conversation was centered around a single question: Does the US have a humanitarian obligation take in refugees? In this classroom, I don’t have to convince my students that refugees are people deserving of dignity and basic human rights. This has made me think deeply about the kind of work I need to do in my classroom back home. Who cares if my students can write a thesis statement, analyze a poem, keep a binder organized, if they think that Beaverton is the epicenter of the entire world? Who cares if my students win scholarships to prestigious universities, write beautiful essays, answer all the questions on a test correctly, if they don’t have a principled understanding of justice?
On Friday IDF forces killed three Palestinian men on the compound of Al-Aqsa. The story goes the men were terrorists. The story goes the men were armed and dangerous. In the public imaginary terrorism is always Palestinian. It is never state sponsored state funded state sanctioned. The story always starts in the middle with an Arab man with a gun. It never starts in 1948. It never starts with the beginning of a brutal occupation.
If you do a quick Google search, you’ll see the story starts by naming the dead IDF soldiers. It makes no mention of the bodies of the three Palestinian men being left out in the sun on the compounds of a holy site. A few days ago, on a political tour of the West Bank, a man named Mohamed waved his arms at the surroundings. “They call this the holy land,” he said. “But there is nothing holy left here.”
My students watch a video about an 18-year-old Palestinian boy named Ahmad who lives in Balata refugee camp, the biggest in the occupied West Bank. What do you notice? I ask them. He is full of hope, they say. These days hope feels like a toy for children. To me it is losing its appeal and allure. I tell them about Somali refugees fleeing their country by boat and drowning in the middle of the ocean. I tell them about family members that have spent years languishing in refugee camps waiting for a country to accept them, family members who have died in refugee camps waiting for a country, any country, to accept them.
A few months ago I asked Nyusha what it meant to be a refugee in solidarity with indigenous rights. This was after the Travel Ban. I was a little surprised at the number of immigrants and refugees I knew that were espousing a strange kind of patriotism. Perhaps it was a form of self-preservation. She said ‘a refugee in solidarity with native people recognizes the primacy of the land.’ I feel this urgently as I travel throughout and learn from Palestinians living in the West Bank. A refugee understands the rights a people have to their ancestral domain. Settler colonial logic sees colonization as the beginning of history rather than a disruption of it.
//A disruption of the natural order of things//
//A devastation of the natural order of things//
The other day Sadia asked me an intriguing question. Where do we go from here? I have no answers at this point. The brutality of the world is staggering. I am trying not to be wrecked by it. None of us are going to save the world. This is our life’s work: to reconcile the fact that we want to with the fact that we cannot.
I am left with a lot to think to about. I'll write to you soon. Wherever you are reading this from, I hope you are doing well.
A chat with Jamila Osman about blood songs :
How long will you be teaching in Ramallah?
August 7th will mark the end of my five weeks in Ramallah. I came to teach, to grow, to learn, and to stand in solidarity with the Palestinian people in their struggle for liberation and self-determination.
When and why did you begin writing and sending your TinyLetter? Where did the name “blood songs” come from?
I began my TinyLetter shortly after the start of the New Year. I knew I needed to be writing more. TinyLetter feels like a conversation between me and multiple people. That feels a lot less stressful than regularly maintaining a blog or a website.
The name blood song is from a line in a shitty poem I wrote a few years ago. It was an overly sentimental piece about ancestral ties and diasporic angst. The only thing salvageable in that piece was the phrase blood songs, which symbolized, to me at least, this idea that blood could be both a praise song and a mourning cry. Something simultaneously beautiful and devastating.
About how long do you spend on each issue? How much do you self-edit before you send?
I spend way too much time on each issue. I get really anxious before sending each issue out! I re-read it one hundred and one times. I send it to myself as a draft and check and re-check the formatting one hundred and one times. The self-editing takes me so much longer than writing the actual issue. I want to take it easy moving forward . . . read through it once, take a deep breath, and hit send.
What do you appreciate most about the TinyLetter format?
My friend Sadia said I should always ‘do the brave thing.’ This feels like the brave thing. Every time I sit to write a letter, it feels like an exercise against self-censorship. For writers of color, for women writers, the world has done such a good job convincing us that our voices and stories don’t matter. I’ve internalized that voice. It is in my head whenever I sit down to write. It tells me that no one will listen to anything I have to say. So writing these letters is my way of affirming my own space and worth as a writer. It is my way of laying siege to the silences that I have learned to harbor.
I also appreciate the fact that writing this TinyLetter doesn’t feel like I’m talking to myself. Writing it feels like I am having an intimate conversation with a close friend. People can write me back if they choose to. Getting responses from friends and people I have never met is one of my favorite parts of the TinyLetter format. Essentially, my TinyLetter is an archive of emotion and memory. It feels like the pre-writing/brainstorming phase of the memoir I’m holding in my head.
Please recommend a favorite TinyLetter or two!
Favorite TinyLetter of all time is Baddie Issues by Sara David.