The Past Is Present: A Conversation with Tracy Fuad

By Meg MillerMarch 11, 2024

The Past Is Present: A Conversation with Tracy Fuad

PORTAL by Tracy Fuad

I READ Tracy Fuad’s first book, about:blank (2021), while sitting on the shaded banks of the Müggelsee, the largest of a string of lakes that ring Berlin. I had met Tracy in a German class in the months before, and she’d invited me to a reading at an art space in Wedding, where I’d bought the book. I wasn’t sure exactly what to expect from her poetry—language classes have a way of boiling all conversation down to the basics—but I was immediately taken with her wry observations on technology, her meditations on identity and alienation, and the unique language of the poems, which seemed to glitch and fracture, mimicking the splintered attention of the internet. About:blank takes its name from the empty web page a browser pulls up when it has nothing to show; I like that its title is virtually ungoogleable. 

As Claudia Rankine, who selected about:blank for the Donald Hall Prize for Poetry, put it, the poems in Tracy’s first book “overlap the poet’s Kurdish identity with cyberfeminist codes.” Tracy is American, and her father is Kurdish; she grew up in suburban Minnesota. When I met her, she had moved five times in as many years. Her new book, PORTAL, is set in Berlin, where she has lived since 2020. The language of PORTAL is somewhat different from that of about:blank—less fractured, more elongated and meditative. Her poems carry you along with plainspoken language and description that at times can almost feel dissociative, a little distant. Then a sharp observation, an unearthing of layers, an unexpected swerve into humor. A subtle buildup into something moving. In the backdrop of PORTAL is the pandemic, pregnancy and the coming of parenthood, the looming ecological crisis, an artist residency. In the foreground is the feeling of being new to a place, and all the observational acuity it affords you—that different kind of attention, and what it makes clear. 

Part of why PORTAL resonated with me so deeply was the way it describes Berlin. Familiar places make familiar appearances: grilling in Tempelhofer Feld; the Schrebergärten along the train tracks; stacked stairwells in a Hinterhof, lit up one by one. The way some poems play with words across English and German reveals how language is a framework for seeing and understanding things. There are lines like the one about Germans’ habit of ending sentences with “or,” “a softening at the end of every sentence,” or how “worm,” the nickname she gives her child during pregnancy, has a similar root as the German word “werden,” meaning “to become.” Oftentimes, literature, movies, or TV shows that are set in the place where you live run the risk of feeling cringey, too close to home—someone else’s translation of what you know too well. PORTAL wasn’t like this for me because of the quality of Tracy’s noticing and her ways of revealing what is not immediately apparent, which is also what makes the book resonate more widely. Ultimately, as Tracy notes, PORTAL is a book about the things we inherit—memory, language, culture—and how being in a new place can cast these things into a different relief. 


MEG MILLER: We met—I can’t remember what year it was. You must, because you were pregnant with Marin. 

TRACY FUAD: So it was 2022. I had just gotten back from a seven-month residency in Provincetown, was six months pregnant, and was really trying to hit the ground running in Berlin before I had the baby, which felt like literally the biggest looming deadline. [Laughs.]

We met in German class. It was advanced intermediate, but from what I remember, we were getting into really technical grammar. It was kind of like, What am I doing here? Trying to learn these very specific tenses of German at this moment in my life.

Yeah, they say that B2.2 is when the grammar starts to go beyond what you would actually be able to use in everyday speech at that level. Like, when will I need these six tenses of passive voice? 

The grammar was far exceeding my ability to use the grammar. [Laughs.]

So much of PORTAL seems like it was written right around the time that we met. What were you thinking about at the time? What were your main preoccupations that you were bringing to the page?

I think that, because I was six months pregnant, it suddenly became really hard to think about anything else. Pregnancy has this way of taking over your consciousness, right as another being is literally taking over your body. A sort of possession. My first book, about:blank, had just come out about six months earlier. I was still kind of in the hangover period of that and feeling pretty disconnected from my writing. When you publish poetry, there’s this strange transition that happens. This thing that had been, for my whole life, a kind of private act, one that’s deeply connected to my innermost consciousness, became public. And then I found myself in this minor public-facing role representing that thing that was so personal. I found that difficult and alienating, which is kind of funny because about:blank is so much about alienation and dissociation.

I was still very new to Berlin at the time. In retrospect, I think I signed up for an intensive German class because it felt like there was this hurry to learn German with proficiency before I had a baby, which was also a practical concern of wanting to be able to navigate the German healthcare system. A desire for a certain degree of safety via language. German and English have a strange relationship where, because English is a Germanic language, it sometimes feels to me like German is this snapshot of proto-English. Learning Kurdish had its own other delights. Kurdish is also an Indo-European language—I’m obsessed with that language tree—and also sometimes felt like it contained traces of proto-English. Learning both of these languages made it easier to see English freshly, which is difficult as a native speaker.

Being new to a place and new to a language gives you a different level of observation. That aspect of the book really resonated with me. There are lots of instances in PORTAL where you’re playing with words and language across both German and English, in ways that I found really clever. I’m thinking especially about the poem “Business.” 

I tend to produce a lot of work when I am new to a place, because you do have this heightened sense of attention and awareness of your surroundings and the environment, the culture, the language. You lose that after a certain point of getting used to a place, and things start to become invisible to you. I miss that feeling of being new in Berlin and having this naive awe and interest in the German language and in the city and history of Berlin.

“Business” is also a favorite poem of mine from the book, and a bit of an outlier in terms of form. I wrote it when I was on a trip to Köln, which was the first or second time I’d been to the city. We were talking earlier about moments of total dissociative disembodiment—I definitely had that in a pretty intense way on this business trip. It felt surreal to travel and stay in a hotel in order to teach poetry. That whole trip, I was thinking, My life has taken an odd turn … and I think that kind of dialed into this hyperawareness where suddenly everything became interesting to me: the hotel, the businesspeople staying there. I thrive in a state of being new to a place, and a lot of PORTAL was written in that state.

I’ve thought a lot about the word naive and that I want to reclaim that as a positive mode of being bare to the world, a way to encounter the world in a more unmediated way. Most of our interactions and experiences are so mediated. Sometimes that’s just through routine and familiarity, where we don’t really see the strangeness or the beauty of things. Sometimes other interfaces, or even the sort of mediating structures of inherited models of living.

Also, when I was pregnant, it really felt like being in a new country. You’re in the same place that you were before, but you’re in a totally different state, and you’re in a different state than the people around you. This feeling of being set apart was pleasant and unpleasant at the same time.

You write about your pregnancy in PORTAL, and you end the book with the beautiful poem “Birth.” Are the Planetary Boundary poems also about pregnancy?

No, actually those poems were written before the rest of the book. I think I was still living in Kurdistan but had traveled to the United States and Europe during the summer. I was thinking a lot about translation and legibility and illegibility. I was also experiencing this hyperawareness of being in Western capitalist societies again after being in Kurdistan. It was as if I was observing it from an alien perspective. A lot of times, I felt this profound alienation, especially returning to a Western society—ostensibly, my society—and feeling alienated by it.

I was also thinking at the time a lot about sex and the body, or the body as always being a sexual interface, by nature of it being a body. And then a looming ecological anxiety tainting everything. I remember that summer in Switzerland, everyone was talking about the diminishing glacier that physically loomed above the valley where I spent some weeks. How it had never been so reduced as it was that summer.

This book was written a little bit before ChatGPT was really in the public consciousness. But I’ve been playing around with more rudimentary AI language generators kind of forever, for fun, I mean, and in both the Planetary Boundaries series, which is a series of sonnets, and the Hyposubject series, I was also interested in inhabiting or imagining a disembodied, artificial voice. Or what my own voice would have to say, if I had died. Or what a programmed postmortal version of my own voice would sound like.

That’s interesting to know, because those poems are pretty different stylistically from the rest of the book. The language and word choice are really rich and they’re a bit disorienting and absurd. The other thing that strikes me about your work in general is that there are often these surprising moments of humor. There’s this line I’m thinking of, where you’re sitting by the canal during the pandemic and realizing everyone has a baby now …

Oh yeah, I know the line you’re talking about, let me find it: “The path beside teeming with infants strapped tightly to the bodies of their parents / As if, in abject loneliness, some bodies had simply begun to bud.”

Yes [laughs]. The canal also shows up a few times in your book. Have you read The Undercurrents (2022) by Kirsty Bell, by the way? 

No, I haven’t.

Oh, I think you would like it. You write in a similar way about Berlin. She’s also interested in the canal. Her apartment looks out over it. And she has a nice way of describing Berlin as a place with a very sedimented history, which still surfaces in the energy of the place. A few places in PORTAL reminded me of this, like when you talk about the bricks laid into the sidewalk that memorialize the wall, or how Berlin is a city with two of everything: zoos, opera houses. 

The past is much more present here than it first appears. Its history has a way of seeping up. I think that’s probably true everywhere, but the traces are still so visible in this city. The wall actually used to be at the end of this street; it cut right through this neighborhood. So you have this memorial to the Berlin Wall that’s kind of everywhere, and I think when you live here, you slowly start to learn to recognize if you’re in the former East or former West. If there are trams, it’s the former East. If there are buses, it’s the former West. You start to recognize the different architecture, and the different demographics.

There are also the stumbling stones, in memorial of the Jewish and other victims of the Holocaust. It’s interesting, both of these memorials—in German the word is “Denkmal,” a funny word that literally translates to “time to think”—are literally built into the ground. So you are kind of forced to remember that you’re walking on the past. You really feel this sedimentary nature that you mentioned, because they’re built into the foundation of the city. I became very obsessed with that, how the past is always still influencing the present. It’s often invisibilized.

In Berlin, of course, there have recently been these huge new influxes of capital that are rapidly gentrifying the city. One of the “remnants” of the wall is empty space—an absence where there had been the wall and these security structures around it. So there were these open, empty spaces, and in this neighborhood, some of those spaces have been filled in with massive new luxury condos. It feels like traces of the past are being hidden a bit in the city. In the book, I write about a very literal instance of this with the grocery store that I shop at daily, Edeka. The name is an elongation of what was an acronym: the letters EDK, which stand for Einkaufsgenossenschaft der Kolonialwarenhändler. It’s literally a company with “colonial” in its name. It’s kind of shocking how effectively that’s hidden in plain sight.

Germany is also a country that has focused so much on what they call “memory culture,” on memorializing the Holocaust, that there’s been very little attention to German colonial history, which includes multiple massacres in Namibia that Germany finally acknowledged constituted a genocide, a little more than a century after they occurred. I recently learned that in Namibia, a majority of the private land is still held by Germans. So it’s also that these things are not purely historical. They also continue to the present. It’s in this way that I think the Denkmal—the stumbling stones and the bricks—are so effective, because they force you to see these things that have been disappeared, but the ramifications of which are still reverberating through the city.

Germany’s memory culture has been scrutinized recently, particularly in the context of Palestine/Israel, the German government’s unequivocal support of Israel, and its suppression of anything that can be seen as a criticism of Israel. It feels parallel to what you’re talking about now—which histories are revealed and what’s kept hidden. And I know you’ve been outspoken about how this is silencing artists and the cultural space in Berlin.

It’s been absolutely appalling to witness the way that cultural organizations in Germany have responded to the unfolding genocide in Palestine. There have been very few cultural institutions that have spoken in solidarity with Palestinians, and the ones that have, like Oyoun, have been swiftly and drastically punished and defunded. And many other literary institutions have responded by canceling events and readings by Palestinian writers or artists and anyone who has spoken publicly against Israeli atrocities, including anti-Zionist Jews. I think it speaks very directly to this question of how we use our memory of the past in the context of the present.

I’ve often felt that there’s this looming absence in Germany that isn’t acknowledged enough, and that there would be a very different perspective among German institutions if there were still more German Jewish voices in Germany. As it is happening now, Germans and German institutions are speaking on behalf of Jewish people, and Jewish people who speak against Israel are silenced and canceled on grounds of antisemitism. As an outsider to Germany, I’ve been told that I can’t understand what they call “memory culture” here, and that I shouldn’t be so quick to judge. But I actually feel the opposite in that I’m able to see more clearly the hypocrisy and the absurdity.

At a protest, the police confiscated a sign I made that said “stop genocide.” It’s horrific and terrifying to use a historical trauma to support another genocide. And the fact that this stance in Germany today results in having exhibits, awards, speeches, and openings canceled should disturb us all. It’s a blatant effort to silence individuals and institutions. I’ve heard that there are lots of institutional leaders who don’t support these policies, but because the arts are largely publicly funded in Germany, institutions will lose their funding if they vocally support Palestine or criticize Israel. It is McCarthyism, and it’s bizarrely antisemitic to equate the state of Israel to the Jewish people. I feel like there’s this mass manipulation of language and rhetoric happening, which is all feeding into prevailing currents of rising ethnonationalism and xenophobia. And a mass delusion about what it means to relate to history in the present.

Has this affected your writing, or how you feel living in Germany?

I think all of this has changed the way that I conceive my being here, and made me question how I am really perceived here. Small things. The way my child’s pediatrician asks me where I’m from every time I visit, and when I say the United States, asks if “Fuad” is a common name there. I think what has become readily clear to me, and was clear to many people living in Germany for a long time, is the through line between historical German antisemitism and present day anti-Arab and anti-Muslim sentiment.

My first book is very much a working-through of my own relationship to my Kurdish descent and the name that came with it. I wrote much of it while I was living in Kurdistan, trying to learn Kurdish. My relationship to Kurdistan is complicated. I don’t want to explain to the doctor my entire family history. Srikanth Reddy, one of the editors of PORTAL, noted that Kurdistan appears in the book only twice: once as a place my grandfather no longer lives, and second, as a place a doctor doesn’t recognize, doesn’t comprehend, when I explain where I’d been living.

I think this almost conscious absentia is also a valid way of writing about identity. I don’t think that I’m not writing about it, I guess, even if it isn’t on the surface. It weaves itself in, even when I’m looking at something else. I think that’s often how I experience identity: I’m looking at something else, I’m not thinking about it, but then, suddenly, I am. Even if it is outside the scope of the viewer, it’s still there, and sometimes pops into the frame.

I was curious what you feel the differences in your two books are, and how you came to the language of PORTAL from that of about:blank.

It’s funny because I was kind of surprised to find that I had written PORTAL at all. [Laughs.] The poems were written mostly after about:blank had come out, and during a time when I felt like I couldn’t think and couldn’t write. I think this produced very strange poems in a way, but also poems that were more unselfconscious. I didn’t perceive this big shift or change as much as have it mirrored at me at readings. When I would read a work, people would always remark how different it was from my previous book. My experience is that you don’t really see or know necessarily what a book is about until it exists as this proto-book that you know is going to exist as a book-object. Then it coheres a little bit.


Tracy Fuad is the author of about:blank (2021), a finalist for the National Poetry Series and the winner of the Donald Hall Prize. She is the recipient of fellowships from the National Endowment for the Arts, the Provincetown Fine Arts Work Center, Hedgebrook, and the Berlin Senate Fund. She lives in Berlin, where she teaches at the Berlin Writers’ Workshop.

LARB Contributor

Meg Miller is a writer and editor living in Berlin. She is the editorial director at, and she has contributed writing to The New York Times, The AtlanticFrieze, The Creative Independent, Pioneer Works BroadcastThe Serving Library, and other web and print publications, mostly about the ways design, art, language, and technology shape culture and society.


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