Deonna Kelli Sayed

 I am an American, a Muslim, and a writer.


Who are you?

My name is Deonna Kelli Sayed.  I am an American, a Muslim, and a writer. I was born in the rural South back when the cows roamed about and grandmas stood on back porches to holler for them. I was christened Methodist to pacify my paternal grandmother; raised Southern Baptist in the female cadence of my mother’s side of the family. Life pulsated around history, family, and tradition. I was a smart kid – perhaps too smart – and I took my GED in 11th grade to start community college. I hated high school. Once in college, I established acquaintance with international students and became involved with the Palestinian cause. In that context, I met my first Muslims; mostly secular-type activists with Marxist leanings, but still committed to Muslim identity. A few years later, I saw Dr. Syed Hossein Nasr discuss Islam as the place where the heart-bone is connected to the mind-bone. Something just clicked. I took shahada (became Muslim) the way I’ve done most things in my life; alone and without a witness, but in complete sincerity. I worked for a while with an Islamic think tank based outside of Washington, DC; I got married then lived and traveled throughout the Muslim world as a United Nations diplomat’s wife. I raised five stepchildren. I returned to the US, left my marriage for reasons that had to do with personal growth, and I started over yet again. At some point, I managed to write a cultural studies book about why people were responding to paranormal reality TV — shows like Syfy’s, Ghost Hunters, for example. I don’t know what possessed me to start a project about ghosts and hauntings, but considering the writers who have dabbled in such matters (everyone from W.B. Yeats to Walt Whitman), I suppose I am in good company. If anything, authoring that book put me in the “writing habit,” which is one of most important things any writer needs to accomplish. I have an essay in Love, Inshallah; The Secret Love Lives of American Muslim Women, and I am now an editor of the accompanying website. I am currently working on a memoir project, tentatively titled, The Way Will Be Made Clear, with partial support from a North Carolina Regional Artists Grant.


Give us your favorite quote and tell us why it means so much to you:

I came across this well-known poem by Robert Frost during my difficult teenage years. A type of precognitive resonance set in when I first read this, as if somehow I understood my life would be diverse, fragmented, and transcultured. Anyone with an American educational background will be familiar with these lines and this makes my submission a bit clichéd. This poem’s message has sustained me throughout my adult life, for I have traveled on many roads less taken.

The Road Not Taken
Two roads diverged in a yellow wood,
And sorry I could not travel both
And be one traveler, long I stood
And looked down one as far as I could
To where it bent in the undergrowth;

Then took the other, as just as fair,
And having perhaps the better claim,
Because it was grassy and wanted wear;
Though as for that the passing there
Had worn them really about the same,

And both that morning equally lay
In leaves no step had trodden black.
Oh, I kept the first for another day!
Yet knowing how way leads on to way,
I doubted if I should ever come back.

I shall be telling this with a sigh
Somewhere ages and ages hence:
Two roads diverged in a wood, and I—
I took the one less traveled by,
And that has made all the difference.


The “Ten”:

1. What is your favorite book?
No favorite book but favorite writers: Jhumpa Lahiri, Kiran Desai, Sigrid Nunez, Junot Diaz, Gabriel Garcia Marquez, Flannery O’Connor, Truman Capote, William Faulkner, John Cheever

2. Who inspires/inspired you?
This changes often, but right now, I am inspired by Rajae El Mouhandiz, a Netherlands-based performing artist. She’s overcome so many obstacles as a North African immigrant but refuses the victim narrative in exchange for one of hope and triumph. What a kindred sister.

3. What is the best lesson your mother/mother figure taught you?
There is power in feminine strength. Any Southern woman – and any Muslim woman – will know exactly what I’m talking about.

4. What advice would you give your 13 year old self?
Stop those internal voices screaming that you are worthless. They will plague you for the next twenty years. Just tell them to shut up now and opt out of a great deal of future grief.

5. What are your hopes for your son?
I am so proud of my 11 year old, Ibrahim. I hope he grows up to be kind, emotionally mature, and able to love a good woman with the purest vulnerability possible.

6. What is the biggest trial you went through in your life and how has that changed you?
Leaving the safe space of a marriage to face complete financial and emotional uncertainty. I had to start over again at 40 years old, and that included unpacking four decades of insecurities and fears. I am still rebuilding.

7. Any regrets? What’s something that you wish you’d thought about more before you did it?
No regrets. Every road less traveled has taken me to this moment. I am content with who I am becoming; I am always in a state of becoming.

8. How do you stay grounded in your work and/or spiritually grounded?
I do not stay grounded. I am forever hovering on the brink of chaos. But aren’t we all?

9. How do you bring about real change?
Mantra for personal change: All of the things that you are afraid of doing? One day, these will be things you just do. So just do it.

10. What do you hope to be remembered for?
I hope to be remembered, God-willing, as a good mother and a brave writer. I hope to be remembered as a woman who loved deeply and without reservation.


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