Rappahannock Review Contributor Spotlight: Interview with Hali Sofala-Jones
The Poetry Editors, Rappahannock Review: In “Electrolysis,” we were struck by the violence of the word “electrocuted” in the first stanza, along with many other intense images of violence to the speaker’s body. For example, the image of the doctor’s tool is figured as a pen and as a gun, both which can be used to enact violence against others. The final image of the poem, too, is one of “white-heat destroying all it touches.” Can you talk a little about process and how you developed the images in the poem?
Hali Sofala-Jones: This is a poem that I revisited many times before I felt like it was ready. I’d struggled with finding a way into the moment and to voice exactly what was so traumatic about that time in my life. Cosmetic procedures, like electrolysis, are usually discussed in such a benign way these days, as if the lengths to which many women feel pressured to go in order to attain “beauty” is anything but an act of self-elected (and sometimes self-inflicted) violence. With this in mind, I knew I wanted to move this procedure out of the benign, wanted to strip away the language that masks it and show the reality. To this day, I can still recall how the buzz of current felt, over and over again, as it was moved and inserted into each hair follicle. I wanted the reader to have that truth, that shock from the onset of the poem.
This desire to show the malignant side of cosmetic procedures drove the images in the poem, and I also wanted to address how, by engaging in this line of work, the aesthetician and even my mother were actively participating in remaking me into something more acceptable. Of course, the implications being that I was unacceptable and had to be changed. Women all over the world endure procedures much worse than this one, and we do it in some perverse pursuit of an ever-changing standard of what it means to be beautiful, to be professional, to be worthwhile, to be loved, to be seen and to receive care, and this poem is my way of calling attention to the absurdity and pain in those choices, in those actions.
As a woman of color, I also wanted to acknowledge that this standard of beauty, though ever changing, never changes skin color—that normal is always configured as white, and those of us who can’t achieve that normal are nevertheless expected to constantly pursue it anyway. Therefore, representing the electric current not only as repeated pain, but as white pain was an important connection for me to make in the poem. I’ve spent a good deal of my life trying to achieve whiteness, and through poems like this, I have tried to reconcile myself with the violence of what I’ve done to myself and what I’ve allowed to be done to my mind and body for the sake of being accepted.
RR: How did you develop the voice of this poem? Does the poem stem from your personal experiences or elsewhere?
HSJ: When I was fifteen, I was diagnosed with Polycystic Ovarian Syndrome (PCOS), which, among other symptoms, results in an excess of hair growth in some women. Around this same time, my mother began taking me to a local aesthetician for electrolysis to remove excessive facial hair. I’d be lying if I said I didn’t welcome the chance to look more like other girls my age and be rid of what had become a real source of shame and low self-confidence, but in hindsight the process has come to represent to me a humiliating and demoralizing event that signifies the type of traumatic and violent acts that were allowed to happen to me, either by my mother or myself, in the pursuit of achieving a “normal” appearance.
The voice of the poem is a voice that I’ve come into in the years since; it’s one of anger and defiance. I still remember afternoons when I’d visit the aesthetician’s office for electrolysis, and it involved putting a skin numbing cream over a good portion of my face, covering it with plastic wrap (to minimize mess), and having to walk into a crowded doctor’s office and up the backstairs for the procedure, which would take about twenty minutes and hurt like hell. At the time, I thought I was moving towards something better, something more like my white girlfriends, but now I see that what I was really doing was destroying myself.
RR: In the poem, the speaker is positioned between her palagi mother and the white doctor. Can you discuss the importance of addressing family as well as cultural conflicts in your writing?
HSJ: I’m prompted here to say that I have a wonderful relationship with my family. My mother, especially, has come to be one of my very best friends, but there is a certain amount of culpability I place on her for allowing this to happen. What I’m addressing here, and really what I address in a lot of my poetry, is the “in-between” space that I, and folks like me, occupy: not being wholly one race or another. My mother didn’t know how to help me navigate that space, so she did the best she could and in certain ways tried to just pull me over to one side, hoping to make me into something that was easily understood. Even today, she still minimizes the issues I have with being afakasi and prefers to refer to me as white. It’s simple, and she can ignore a lot of issues if she places me squarely in the same box as her, but my reality is quite different. It’s come to be something we don’t discuss often, which makes me feel silenced; it creates distance, but she’s not ready to acknowledge me on my terms yet. Family is inextricably tied to culture for Samoans, however, so when I talk about how I understand myself in the world, I have to talk about how my family is seeing me, and how I am seeing them. To talk of family in Samoa is to talk of culture; they are one in the same.
RR: Do you think that writing is about trying to reach someone else, or are there moments when it has a more inward motivation? How do you see either of these tendencies in your own work?
HSJ: Most of my writing is motivated by my own need to understand, to process an event or an idea or a feeling. I write to help myself make sense of my life and to speak back to moments or people, whether that speaking back is motivated by the need to heal trauma, address inequity, or even to highlight absurdity. Whenever I’ve tried to write a poem with the specific aim of making a political or social statement, it’s always come out hollow. They had all the trappings of a good poem, but they didn’t have the heart. That being said, I do hope that others find something of value in my poetry. Though I write first for myself, it’s been the honor of my life to know others find connection through a poem I’ve written. It’s humbling and gratifying.
RR: The act of writing is figured as potentially destructive in the poem. However, do you think writing can serve as a way of self-healing or self-discovery? How so?
HSJ: Writing can certainly be a means of self-healing and self-discovery; it has been both of those things for me. I didn’t have a healthy relationship with myself until I was in my mid-twenties. It was through the act of writing that I began to work through the wreck of my past, addressing not just my racial identity, but my identity in regards to language, culture, class, nationality, and gender. I still struggle with the aforementioned, but I also have so much more confidence and clarity in who I am today, and it was through poetry that I completed that journey.
To respond to the other part of your question, I’m going to invoke Hamilton: An American Musical, specifically the song/lyrics, “Who Lives, Who Dies, Who Tells Your Story?” Writing can certainly also be destructive, and that’s part of this poem, too. Just as we are told that we have no power in “who lives, who dies, who tells [our] story,” I came to see what the aesthetician was doing, burning and removing a natural part of my body that was deemed undesirable, as an act of rewriting who I was in a way that conformed more easily with standards of beauty and appearance—standards what are largely dictated by white men and women.
In my classes, we address the fact that oftentimes those with the power get to tell the story, and that it is up to the rest of us to do the work of excavation and discovery to find the truth beneath the accepted narrative of history, a truth that is often uncomfortable, painful, and shattering. This poem is that excavation for me; it’s not easy to commit it to the page, but if I don’t tell my story as I know it, the aestheticians “pen,” and all it represented, would’ve been allowed to tell it for me, which I could not allow.
Hali Sofala-Jones’ work appears in Issue 5.1 here.