Ashna Ali interviewed by heidi andrea restrepo rhodes

Published in SICK issue 4, 2022

heidi andrea restrepo rhodes (she/her) is a queer, disabled, Colombian/Latinx, poet, scholar, educator, and cultural worker. Her poetry collection, The Inheritance of Haunting (University of Notre Dame Press, 2019) won the 2018 Letras Latinas Andrés Montoya Poetry Prize. You can find her on Instagram.

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Ashna Ali (she/they) is a queer, agender, disabled, and diasporic Bangladeshi poet, writer, and educator raised in Italy and based in Brooklyn. They are the author of the chapbook The Relativity of Living Well (The Operating System, 2022) and their poetry has appeared in several journals including Sun Dog Lit, Nat. Brut, Zoeglossia, and Kajal Mag, among others. They hold a PhD in Comparative Literature from The Graduate Center, CUNY, and facilitate a series of workshops through Liminal Lab called “CripLit4Spoonies” on the literature of disability and illness.

In an interview with heidi andrea restrepo rhodes, Ashna speaks about illness under capitalism, historical memory, sick and disabled queer community interdependence, and their new chapbook, The Relativity of Living Well.

HR: One of the most central themes in The Relativity of Living Well is the contention with the fiction of ‘the good life’ that we are conscripted into through the false promises of capitalism and western individualism. What has writing this collection during the COVID-19 pandemic and its ongoingness illuminated for you about what it means to ‘live well’ as a sick and disabled queer (SDQ) diasporic poet of colour in the face of capitalism’s compulsory able-bodiedness?

AA: I wrote this cycle of poems between March 2020 and July 2020 documenting my experiences of pandemic. I did this, in part, because of the phases of unreality that I didn’t know how else to capture, but had to. All of the things I thought were important in the past — achievement, upward mobility, having things, being bigger, better, faster, stronger in all the ways that we are hailed to be by capitalist consumer culture — just fell away. I realised, perhaps for the first time, that my health and well-being matter more than all of those things, and also realised that this should not have been a radical thought or realisation. Living well became about having and making the space and time to nurture my mind and body, choosing my relationships carefully and cultivating them deeply, and living a life of curiosity and creativity rather than ‘achievement’ and ‘success’. One of the ironic gifts of disability is that it teaches you not to take things for granted. A day when the body does not hurt is a gift. A day when one is excited to get out of bed is a gift. A day when there is time, energy, good will, and money enough to go out for dinner with a dear friend and enjoy their mind, participating in their life — that kind of access to joy that so many think mundane reveals itself as profound joy to value deeply. Gratitude has more to do with living well than almost anything I’ve known.

HR: I also see the work in this collection as poetry of witness, social documentation, and archiving of the present as rendered into specifically queer, crip practices.

AA: Thank you so much for that — I certainly hope so. I think documenting the present from the lens of the personal and the social at the same time queers the notion of what has political and historical importance. I’m committed to the notion of narratives of the moment as both social history and art. These are expressions of the series of states in which so many of us live that acknowledges the solipsism of that moment, too. The inside of our homes became our only version of reality outside of our social media engagement. Those of us who were partnered experienced things one way, those of us who were single experienced it another, those who left town or lost people vs. those who didn’t. There is such pressure now to force amnesia of the impact of Covid on our lives that this kind of documentation feels crucial to remind ourselves and each other what we’ve survived and what we continue to have to put up with until we choose not to, anymore. Another way of addressing so many of the problems that arose from Covid were possible, and many other countries approached the pandemic without anywhere near the degree of human loss or economic exploitation. Documentation of the grief and rage of the moment allows us to ensure that these feelings don’t get stamped out by exhaustion or state erasure.

HR: I’ve been spending a lot of time in recent months with Aurora Levins Morales’ essay, “Mountain Moving Day” from her book, Kindling: Writings on the Body (Cambridge: Palabrera Press, 2013.) She maps critical connections between the histories we carry from colonisation and capital’s destructive force upon life and land, and the illnesses we contend with. What particular histories of body and place do you find yourself mapping out in your own writing about or from chronic illness?

AA: I’ve been thinking about this idea a great deal myself. My particular set of conditions are all associated with trauma and dysregulation. My parents lived through the Bangladeshi Liberation war, immigration to the United States and then again to Italy. Their parents before them suffered the ravages of Partition, and their parents before them, colonisation. Extreme forms of patriarchy run through these histories and the present, not to mention struggles with poverty, illness, and our various human dramas — so many untold stories. Though my immediate family is now removed from many of those more immediate struggles, from the Global South living in the Global North in comparative safety and security, but under fascism, capitalism, and several interlocking social forces that socialise us into silence, compliance, consumerism and a degree of amnesia. The crushing pressure of normativity imposed on the so-called model minority in the Global North ultimately expresses its damages on the body when the psyche refuses to yield. I think this is particularly true in the United States, which is a toxic and sick place due to state traditions of neglect and abuse. My personal traumas, my intergenerational traumas, and the pressure of our political and social present are absolutely speaking through my body. It’s absurd to assume that life experience has no impact on our bodies’ regulatory systems, but the Cartesian divide has for centuries been one of the most useful fictions for colonial white supremacist heteronormative patriarchy.

HR: In both your chapbook and in your poem “Top Secret Club Abjection” (published on Zoeglossia), community interdependence is documented and celebrated as a vital element to collective sick and disabled queer survival as well as the mediated pleasures we access. How has this sense of interdependence shaped your poetry as specifically “crip”?

AA: American individualism is a toxic ideology that drains the joy from our lives and distance us from the truth of who we are as animals. We’re a social animal that thrives in community and collaboration. Our relationships are crucial to our survival. I think the huge increase in the presence and ethic of mutual aid since 2020 is exactly the kind of effort that we need to see more of. The same is true of our poetics. I think often of Aracelis Girmay’s “You Are Who I Love” and the way Yanyi writes the names of his friends and the authors that are shaping his mind directly into his poems. I feel an ethical responsibility to be transparent about how much disabled folk rely on each other for support of all kinds. People need to be aware that we are actually unable to survive without each other, and that we are failed more often than not by the medical-industrial complex. I also want to contribute to the normalisation of chosen kin for all manner of love and survival. We should be naming our loves — all the different kinds of kinship and interdependence that support and uplift our lives that are often unrelated to the nuclear family or the monogamous romantic pair — and showing the world who we love, why we love, how we love. The more cultural production represents these relationships and lifestyles, the more we are exposed to the reality that the state is uninterested in taking care of us, so we have to take care of ourselves and each other in defiance. The idea of a revolution of care is ultimately not so radical or that difficult to achieve.

HR: Which sick and disabled kin and kindred writers, poets, and texts, are nourishing you right now?

AA: Leslie Jamison is always an important and rich point of return. And frankly, you! Also my dear friend Leigh Sugar, whose erasure poetry in particular is gorgeous. Anthony Thomas Lombardi’s poetry on addiction and recovery always moves me deeply. I just received Sarah Manguso’s memoir The Two Kinds of Decay and I Am Your Book: A Poetic Journey Through CFS/ ME/ Fibromyalgia by Charlotte Jones in the mail, and I’m very much looking forward to diving in. I return over and over to the folio of poetry on disability and chronic illness on Nat. Brut curated by Kay Ulanday Barrett, in which we were both featured. What an incredibly powerful collection of poems! A non-literary but exciting book that I recommend, too, is Gayle Backstorm’s I’d Rather Be Working, about how to survive work and money while disabled.

HR: With this first collection out in the world now, where do you find yourself on the other side of having written and published it? What is on the horizon for you? What are you dreaming up next?

AA: When I return to the chapbook to read from it, I am staggered by all the things I would not have remembered about that period of my life had I not written them, and this has helped me understand myself as a poetic memoirist first and foremost. It is a form of memoir that benefits from metaphor, simile, collected or found language, to express the dimensions of the unsayable that poetry offers while documenting experiences private, public, individual, collective, and cultural. Though every poet’s experience and style is unique, every poet’s story has resonance with a number of readers out there who desperately need to hear it in order to feel less alone, to feel empowered, or less ashamed, or, hopefully, to be inspired toward core truths of their own. In that vein, I am working on my first full collection of poetry, both collecting older work into its shape and writing into it. It aims to show exactly these overlaps — personal trauma, intergenerational trauma, illness, state neglect and social illness — and how art, community, and shifts in perspective toward nurturing the self and the world yields joy. Teaching a series of workshops with Liminal Lab titled “CripLit4Spoonies” has influenced the process greatly, and created a beautiful community with which to think and write. Still, it’s both an exhilarating and terrifying experience so far. Wish me luck!

The Relativity of Living Well is available to purchase at your local bookstore or at