Poet Hajjar Baban Receives Soros Fellowship for New Americans

Hajjar Baban headshot

Poet Hajjar Baban’s parents escaped Afghanistan and Iran, with the family ultimately settling in Dearborn, Michigan. (Contributed photo)

Hajjar Baban’s experience as an immigrant to America exists in all aspects of her work, she says, from “the words that I may obsess over to images that become motifs.”

Baban – who received a bachelor’s degree in creative writing from the University of Wisconsin at Madison in 2020 and is currently a Master of Fine Arts student in in the University of Virginia’s Creative Writing Program in poetry – was awarded the Paul and Daisy Soros Fellowship for New Americans, a merit-based award to support graduate study for immigrants and children of immigrants. Founded by Hungarian immigrants Daisy M. Soros and her late husband Paul Soros, the fellowship program honors the contributions of continuing generations of immigrants in the United States.

“I don’t write because of what happened to me, but in an effort to keep something alive past its memory – living in America and watching my parents live in ‘a different’ America because of displacement, it all means something to me,” she said. “My application to the fellowship followed the idea that this may be a reality for many immigrants, and if it is, I’d like to be in conversation with them.”

An Afghan Kurdish poet who was born in Pakistan and immigrated to the United States with her parents when she was 2, Baban has a lot in her family story about which to write. Her mother fled the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan to Pakistan. Her father, a Kurd, escaped persecution in Iran. The family eventually settled in Dearborn, Michigan, where Baban started writing poetry as part of Detroit-based literary arts program, InsideOut. In 2017, Baban served as the Detroit Youth Poet Laureate.

“My immigrant experience influences the life that I live in America,” Baban said. “Being an immigrant means being at a distance from family that, if not for war, I would have deep relationships with. It means I don’t have family in America beyond my siblings and their children. It means that those who do not understand the history of my position in America have different expectations of my poetry, and at times, none at all.”

Baban said her journey with poetry includes a lot of confession-based work.

“In high school, I began writing in different forms: dream journaling, journal-journaling, even observational lists,” Baban said. “I was interacting with myself through both myth and fact. This is why poetry makes sense to me right now in my writing career.”

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She appreciates the flexibility poetry affords.

“In a cultural sense, poetry seems to be a perfect form to hold my identity as an Afghan Kurdish person. I feel that other forms of writing require a concrete stance on identity and belonging,” Baban said. “I feel less pressured for everything regarding my background to exist in one poem; it’s a form I can continue to change and make sense of for myself.”

Baban’s work has impressed one of her mentors.

“Hajjar Baban is living proof that creativity and scholarly inquiry can coexist successfully,” said Rita Dove, the Henry Hoyns Professor of Creative Writing, who has worked with Baban. “She’s passionate and meticulous – both, in my opinion, essential attributes for the true artist – and her poems ring with lyric energy, even while interrogating the multifaceted ironies of diasporic life. What more could a teacher ask for?

“On the personal level, she’s as open and delightful as they come. A formidable combination.”

“Hajjar mentioned to me that she came to UVA’s M.F.A. program because it was one of few in the country that offered her the freedom to write without burden from the first year, and I hope that the funding from the Soros continues to free her to write more in the future,” said Andrus G. Ashoo, director of the Office of Citizen Scholar Development, the fellowships office of UVA. “The tensions that she explores in her work, which are influenced by her story as a New American, are much-needed in a world that oversimplifies, and I look forward to continuing to read her poetry and talking to her about it.”

Baban is one of 30 Soros Fellows, selected from 2,445 applicants across the U.S., who will receive up to $90,000 toward graduate studies. Baban said this will allow her the freedom from worry to concentrate on her work.

“I get to spend my time focused on the mentorship that the Soros Fellowship will provide while I begin my second year and start working on my thesis,” she said. “As for my future, I look forward to learning all the ways that I’ll be positively impacted by being introduced to other fellows, as well all that can be accomplished in collaboration with them.”

Baban anticipates learning from the other Soros Fellows, as well as sharing some of her experiences and expertise with them.

“I’m excited to be in community with other immigrant and children of immigrant artists,” she said. “Whether they’re poets or not, I have a lot to learn from those who have a similar new American experience and are taking to things like visual art and written word to tell these stories. It’s a great privilege and an important responsibility to be in a position to show other poets that they can hold themselves to a certain standard and level of excellence. I know that seeing poets in recent Soros Fellows lists has directly impacted my belonging in such a prestigious community, and I hope my being a fellow this year can inspire in the same way.”

Baban impressed Ashoo as both a person and a poet.

“Hajjar is a delightful and humble person and an inspiring poet and teacher,” he said. “I’ve loved getting to know her as she prepared to interview, and since. I appreciate the way that she truly loves interacting with the readers of her poetry and has no tendency toward becoming defensive. She uses language and the absence of language with precision and her poetry obviously matters to her, but she gives it freely to her audience and considers it no longer hers once it is out there.

“While I am not sure she truly understands the important contribution she is making, I am thrilled that the folks at the Soros Fellowship did, because she is a perfect fit for this fellowship,” he said.

Baban is already an established poet. She has received a variety of awards, including the Charles M. Hart Jr. Writers of Promise Award; the George B. Hill Poetry Award; the Ron Wallace Poetry Thesis Prize; the Gearhart Poetry Prize; and the Matt Clark Editors’ Choice Prize. She has published two chapbooks, “Relative to Blood” and “What I Know of the Mountains,” and her work has appeared in The Offing Foundry Magazine and Asian American Writers’ Workshop magazine.

Baban said she plans to remain in an academic environment. “I plan to hold a creative writing fellowship after I graduate, a position that will allow me to work on a book of poetry while continuing to teach poetry at the university level,” she said.

Baban is the fourth Paul and Daisy Soros Fellowship for New Americans recipient from UVA.

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Matt Kelly

Office of University Communications