Invasive species* by Marwa Helal, an adjunct faculty member in English and Communication Studies, is a hybrid of poetry and prose that strips bare the United States’ stance on foreigners and immigrants as one of racism and white supremacy.
Helal immigrated to the United States from Egypt at 2 years old. In the heart of the book, an alphabetically arranged essay/poem brings readers through Helal’s often harrowing, often infuriating 24-year journey to citizenship. The American system, as well as the employees who enact it and the vast majority of citizens who are complicit in it, are revealed as hostile toward foreigners.
“It’s a system that’s built to make your status precarious,” she says.
The book questions the arbitrary categories that the U.S. assigns to foreigners. Helal identifies in numerous categories, including Arab and African. She points out that the U.S. Census doesn’t have a category for Arabs, and that the category of the Middle East (also absent from the census) is inherently racist, as it’s a region that is constructed based on Western occupation, invasion, and war.
To Helal, the whole question of categorizing foreigners reeks of white supremacy. “Why do we ask where someone is from?” she wonders. “Does it actually reveal anything about them? Or does it put people in boxes?”
Invasive species doesn’t just tackle systems of oppression; it also homes in on microaggressions fostered by those systems. In “poem for brad who wants me to write about the pyramids,” Helal describes a moment when her writing is being critiqued in a workshop. A classmate named Brad criticizes her work for not feeling Egyptian enough.[Brad] “says [he has] heard the pyramids are very interesting wants to see more of egypt in my writing ////// this is where the poets will interject / they will say: show, dont tell / but that assumes most people can see…”
The tone is very controlled and often funny, but an undercurrent of anger and frustration electrifies the work. Still, Helal maintains that Invasive species is at heart an idealistic book, and that any anger comes from a place of love. She quotes James Baldwin from his seminal essay collection, Notes of a Native Son: “I love America more than any other country in this world, and, exactly for this reason, I insist on the right to criticize her perpetually.”
* Astute readers may have noticed that “species” in her title is lowercase. That was a deliberate choice. “It enacts what an invasive species does—it disrupts the title,” she says. It also echoes binomial nomenclature: The species name is written in lowercase. (Her father is a biology professor.)