The Daily Gamecock

Fall Literary Festival kicks off with reading from Iranian-American poet

The 19th annual Fall Literary Festival kicked off with a visit from poet Solmaz Sharif. Sharif was the first of three authors who will visit USC over the next three weeks as part of the English Department's mission to bring diverse literary voices to Columbia. 

Currently a lecturer with Stanford University, Sharif is an Iranian-American whose work primarily discusses the topics of war and language.

Sharif shared several poems from her book, "Look," and a few additional works to support her discussion on the manipulation of language that distances military organizations and its members from violence. 

After exploring how the dictionary used by the United States Department of Defense separated personnel from discussed missions or persons they deem targets, Sharif used her poetry to tell her readers about the lives and personalities of victims of war, particularly those in the Middle Eastern countries of Iraq and Afghanistan. 

By focusing on the fact that the words used by the Department of Defense are simply "everyday" words redefined, Sharif hopes to highlight violence against language and against human beings. 

"The distance and that language ... the kind of linguistic acrobatics that one has to undertake in order to excuse and explain violence, how there is a violence against language before there is a violence against bodies ... was for me a place that I had to intervene, because I do believe one of the roles of a poet is as a caretaker of language," said Sharif. 

Sharif went on to share poems, including "Perception Management," which includes a list of abridged names of operations from the war in Afghanistan. "Drone" and "Personal Effects" are Sharif's imagined memories of her uncle who died in combat. "Reaching Guantanamo" is a series of redacted letters Sharif wrote to a Guantanamo prisoner.

Following her poetry reading, Sharif accepted questions from the audience, gave writing advice to students and further expanded on her work.

“It’s a plea for a kind of attention to the words that are being used and to the lives that we have to and we love to interact with all the time,” said Sharif. “My desire is that there is an attention that is highly aware of the precarity of everyone that's around us.” 

To close out her reading, Sharif asked the audience a question: 

“What is it that you want from a writer today?” 

The audience responded with several different answers, including “advice on how to write better” and “a sense of trustworthiness.” The final question had an impact on some of the listeners. 

“If you see specifically with the political climate now, the importance of rhetoric, and exactly ... but every word you say matters and how you say it also matters,” said Clare Steiner, a first-year political science major. “It affects how you interact with your community ... it shows what kind of person you are, too ... it affects all your relationships.”

The Fall Literary Festival continues on Nov. 8 with a presentation by Kerry Egan at 6 p.m. in the Hollings Library. The event is free and open to the public.