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Poet Sasha Pimentel On Borders And The Sound Of Language

Poet Sasha Pimentel at the KGOU studios.
Storme Jones
Poet Sasha Pimentel at the KGOU studios.

Even though she doesn’t speak Arabic and is not a Muslim, poet Sasha Pimentel says the call to prayer in Saudi Arabia has influenced her work.

Pimentel was born in the Philippines,  and twice lived in Saudi Arabia as a child, where her father worked as an engineer. Five times a day, when Muslims were called to prayer, she would stop to listen, sometimes from the rooftop of her family’s compound.

“I could hear the music of words, the poetry of words, though I didn't understand the meaning,” Pimentel told KGOU’s World Views. “And I still hold that today with with my poetry now, and how I read it. It's always about the rhythm first.”

Now, as a professor in the Department of Creative Writing at the University of Texas at El Paso, Pimentel teaches her students that the sounds of a language, and how something is said, is what matters first.

“All of that matters and is what creates emotion,” Pimentel said.

Pimentel is the author of the collection of poetry Insides She Swallowed and For Want of Water. The latter is inspired by the US-Mexico border which separates El Paso, Texas from Ciudad Juarez, Chihuahua.

She likes to write in her office early in the morning when the sun comes up because the sunlight begins to distinguish the different landmarks in the cities - the hills, houses and streets.

“When I look out into my office window I see El Paso and Juarez there and it's the same land and you can see that it's the same land and as the lights are twinkling on, only then do you start to see the difference in border,” Pimentel said.

She says the concept of the border is artificial, but thousands of people have died over the idea during the Mexican cartel war.

“That border, that in this culture we insist upon, has brutal, brutal ramifications and it depends on everyone's imagining to believe it true,” Pimentel said.

KGOU and World Views rely on voluntary contributions from readers and listeners to further its mission of public service with internationally focused reporting for Oklahoma and beyond. To contribute to our efforts, make your donation online, or contact our Membership department.


Rebecca Cruise: Sasha Pimentel Welcome to World Views.

Sasha Pimentel: Thanks so much for having me.

Cruise: Well you have an interesting story so you were born in the Philippines and then you were raised in the United States and in Saudi Arabia. What an interesting life that must have been to have seen all three angles. Maybe tell us a little bit about that and how you ended up here in Texas, actually, where you now living.

Pimentel: I was born in the Philippines and a lot of Filipina families will go to Saudi Arabia as a way of earning money to go before, before emigrating to Canada or Australia or the US. So there's actually strong Filipino population.

Cruise: What sort of work are they doing there?

Pimentel: It varies a lot. A lot of our people are nurses, right. And there are custodial positions. I have, I came from a position of privilege of my father and he went as an engineer. So we, he first moved, he first moved us over, and I was in Saudi Arabia at two distinct points in my life. First from the ages of, I think, two years old to 5 years old, and then again from the ages of 13 to 15 we went back even though we were already living in the US. And so when my father first went, he went to work with a desalination plant and then we came back as people from the US and he went back as part of the Arabian American Oil Company.

Pimentel: But one of the things they say all the time about Saudi Arabia is having to do with my work because it's central to my work is when when I went back between the ages 13 and 15, you know, I'm this geeky young woman who doesn't quite know what to do with her own body and I'm a late blossomer so I did have to wear the abaya. And I remember just kind of being by myself in this compound and being on the rooftop of something in our compound and in Saudi they'll have this moment of salat, the prayer. Right. And it's done by sundown, sun up. There given moments for prayer, and the whole city will shut down and they'll they'll broadcast that prayer on loudspeakers over the entire city as it's happening because everyone else is shutting down for prayer. I'm not Muslim, so I didn't shut down for prayer. But instead what I got to do was listen to the prayer without having to participate in it. And it was one of those first instances in my life where I could hear the music of words, the poetry of words, though I didn't understand the meaning. And I still hold that today with with my poetry now and how I read it. It's always about the rhythm first. And one of the things I teach my students is it matters the breath we take or the sounds we make. All of that matters and is what creates emotion. Before you even know what something is you know what what is being said how something is being said is what matters first.

Cruise: So I said that you're living in Texas and you're really you're in El Paso in the area there between El Paso and Juarez. And this has also provided you a great deal of inspiration and thought I imagine in some of your work as well, the the juxtaposition of the two areas and the border between. You write a lot about borders, this border in particular, but maybe theoretical borders or larger borders.

Pimentel: Utterly of course. I mean I'm an immigrant myself. Border border is kind of everything to me. I still have memories of what it's like when we as Filipinos, you know we weren't U.S. citizens what that's like to be a Filipino immigrants who are somehow suddenly now again in Saudi Arabia trying to get from Saudi to Bahrain and being at that border. But the border that matters to me most of course is the border between El Paso and Juarez. And the reason that matters to me so much is I'm very lucky I have a university position. And my university office, I like to work there late at night or in the early mornings when no one else is there. And before the sun comes up, I love that time to write because the sun comes up and distinguishes things, right. You know the difference between hill, land, house, street. Suddenly there's noise. But in the early morning you can hear the trains passing through the night, cutting through it and everything looks the same. So when I look out into my office window I see El Paso and Juarez there and it's the same land and you can see that it's the same land and as the lights are twinkling on only then do you start to see the difference in border. You can and you can see the wall you can see the materials that are different on you know on on the sides of the borders. And it reminds you of that kind of like that kind of pre-dawn time reminds you that the landscape is the same. The Chihuahuan desert spans to Arizona and way above Texas and goes down all the way into Sonora. And like that's the Chihuahuan desert the landscape itself is undivided.

Cruise: I know the borders are manmade whether they are physical or not physical.

Pimentel: Exactly. Right, this idea of a nation state is an artificial imagining upon which life people will live and die. But it's artificial. I know people are like, ah, the Rio Grande, the Rio Bravo. I call it the Rio Bravo. They're like, "Well, that was there. That divides North America." So does the Mississippi. So does like late you know so so many. And some people will say, "Well that was a border." But at some point the US was reimagined to where that was one country that was one space that was one land. It's all such brutal imagining border, especially when given the context of the war, the cartel war, which was which is so much of the thrumming landscape of my book. You know in over five, what is it, from 2007 to 2011 of over 48,000 people were died that we know of in the cartel wars between themselves and in the cartel wars against the Mexican government. But that happened because of the notion of border. That happened not because Mexicanos love to kill themselves. That happened because you know like brown bodies in the South were fighting for access for bodies in the north you know to buy their drugs. I mean the border's in the news all the time. That border that in this culture we insist upon has brutal, brutal ramifications and it depends on everyone's imagining to believe it true.

Cruise: Yes. I wonder too given your history as an immigrant but not an immigrant from Mexico or South America that provides you a unique perspective perhaps?

Pimentel: Maybe. My kind of immigration is the kind of immigration that's across an ocean. So maybe that makes me a little closer for example to my students who a lot of my students are immigrants who can't go back because you know if the crossing was what's considered illegal they can't go back and forth to family. And because my my home country is so so far away, it's, it costs so much to be able to go home. And so something that immigrants who are immigrants across oceans are something that immigrants who are immigrants because of legalities understand is that you live your life watching people dying without ever really getting to see them, you know. And that's how we mark time. Oh this person I loved is dead now. Oh this person I loved is dead now. And suddenly you're just supposed to click in your head that idea. You know you know like suddenly suddenly my grandfather who raised me who my love to him who I still dream of who I've dreamt of all my life is dead now. And you get that as news so hopefully that makes me understand my students from Mexico in a way because you understand how much you can't go home and how much that hurts.

Pimentel: But there are things that I know I cannot understand and there are ways that I try. Like I've learned Spanish and I teach in a bilingual program in Spanish and English every week. And when you learn a language you understand the consciousness of that language. So I hope in that way I understand my students more but I hope, too, that I never colonized an experience that isn't my own. Knowing the limitations of my understanding.

Cruise: You've obviously been writing about these issues, about the borders, about gender other really kind of heavy issues raised those sorts of things. And I think that and correct me if I'm wrong but literature has always been an art form that kind of pushes the envelope and gets us to think about these sorts of things. But it seems in the last say five or 10 years we really have been enjoying new voices, the voices of those that haven't always been heard. Is this correct?

Pimentel: I guess it's true and it isn't, you know, because those voices have been writing all along. The question is they haven't been advocated up.

Cruise: That's true.

Pimentel: And those voices still aren't being advocated up in ways that they need to be. When when when. It seems like it more than ever and a lot of that is happening because of writers like Gregory Pardlo and he's the person who selected my book for the National Poetry Series. And you can see him quietly at work on the National Book Award Committee. It seems that on almost everything where you see a person of color being winning something suddenly there's Gregory Pardlo. And so I think I think if that seems like it's changing it's because there are people behind the scenes who are making sure that the choices that we make for those big things, and those big things change a life, a book, a prize, a residency, a job, all that. And those people are all at work.

Cruise: Absolutely. I look forward to seeing what comes next. These are as you say incredibly important issues and they should force us to think about where we are and and what we are creating, be it borders or art or whatever it might be that we all we all play a role. So thank you so much for your time.

Pimentel: Thank you for your work and for your time.

Copyright © 2016 KGOU Radio. No quotes from the materials contained herein may be used in any media without attribution to KGOU Radio. This transcript is provided for personal, noncommercial use only. Any other use requires KGOU's prior permission.

KGOU transcripts are created on a rush deadline by our staff, and accuracy and availability may vary. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Please be aware that the authoritative record of KGOU's programming is the audio.

Jacob McCleland spent nine years as a reporter and host at public radio station KRCU in Cape Girardeau, Mo. His stories have appeared on NPR’s Morning Edition and All Things Considered, Here & Now, Harvest Public Media and PRI’s The World. Jacob has reported on floods, disappearing languages, crop duster pilots, anvil shooters, Manuel Noriega, mule jumps and more.
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