By Rachel Moulden for Digital First Media
For Oakland University special lecturer Dunya Mikhail, writing is not a hobby but a way of life.
“I didn’t think about becoming a poet, I was born that way, just how I found that my eyes were brown and I didn’t question it,” Mikhail says. “When the teacher asked us what we wanted to be in the future, I said ‘prophet.’ I thought that meant writing an influential book.”
Growing up in Iraq, she didn’t step into writing until her graduation from the University of Baghdad. She started a career in journalism at the Baghdad Observer, where she mainly covered art and culture stories and interviewed other writers. But like other journalists there at the time, she knew she had to be careful about they said and published. Words could cost lives if said in the wrong place at the wrong time.
“One time (in 1993), I wrote about war poetry in Iraq and mentioned that it seems that we don’t have post-war poetry since our war seems endless,” Mikhail says. “That article almost got me in trouble, but then the managing editor cut sections from it to be on the safe side.”
Eventually she faced censorship and interrogation, so she left Iraq. First she traveled to Jordan, then to America, where she would reside in Detroit.
She tried to find a space for herself in Detroit, but admits it was not easy in the beginning. Poetry became her safe space, making it easier to adjust to new surroundings.
Mikhail had been accepted to Wayne State University when she was 18 in Baghdad, but the law prohibited traveling because of the war, so her admission paper expired. After renewing it 12 years later, she came to the United States, where was able to continue her studies at Wayne, and she got married.
Mikhail has written a number of books, including “The War Works Hard,” “Diary of A Wave Outside the Sea,” which won the Arab American Book Award, and “The Iraqi Nights.”
Her honors include the Knights Foundation grant, the Kresge Fellowship, the United Nations Human Rights Award for Freedom of Writing, and a Guggenheim Fellowship in 2018. She also is co-founder of the Michigan community-based Mesopotamian Forum for Art and Culture.
Mikhail’s latest book, “The Beekeeper: Rescuing the Stolen Women of Iraq,” tells the harrowing stories of several women who managed to escape the clutches of Daesh (Islamic State of Iraq). She spent a lot of time interviewing women who’ve have lost their families and loved ones, who were sold and tortured.
She got inspiration for the book in the summer of 2014, when she learned that women were kidnapped and put for sale in the open market.
“I couldn’t just mind my own business. After contacts I made with people there in the area (Sinjar and the surrounding villages in northern Iraq), I found that I was like a midwife who had to witness the suffering of the women to complete the delivery,” she says.
In the beginning, Mikhail initially wanted to write an epic about their suffering, but after listening to their true stories she found an epic in their voices. She spent a year speaking with them and with a beekeeper who created a “hive” to rescue them. After two years of working on writing the book she went back to Iraq — after a 20-year of absence — and met some of the women in person.
Over the years, Mikhail says she has learned a lot from her many years of writing.
“I learned from journalism how to make a story interesting and how to make good beginnings,” she says. “This works for literature in general. I think that both poets and journalists have a third eye.”
Besides writing, she continues to teach Arabic language and culture at Oakland University and enjoys spending time with her family. Meanwhile, she is working on a new poetry manuscript.
Mikhail will appear at Book Beat at 26010 Greenfield Road in Oak Park, for an in-store reading, discussion and book-signing from 4-5 p.m. on Sunday, April 22. To learn more, visit dunyamikhailpoet.com.