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Interview Magazine, April 3, 2019

For the first time in recent history, perhaps ever, the United States Congress is fun to watch. This has been the case since the midterm elections last fall, when a so-called “blue wave” washed in a Democratic sea of women, first-time campaigners, teachers, bartenders, progressive city council members, and, in the case of Minnesota’s Ilhan Omar, a first-generation refugee from Somalia and devout Muslim. During the 36-year-old freshman’s first months in office, she has pushed her way through the House’s staid “decorum” as well as its institutional racism. From her victory speech in 2018, which she opened with the Islamic greeting “As-Salaamu-Alaikum,” to her pushing to overturn a 181-year House rule banning headwear on the floor (Omar wears a hijab), her religious leanings have been an obsession for her detractors, such as the Republican pastor who claimed Congress “is now going to look like an Islamic republic.” The fixation on Omar and her peers Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, Ayanna Pressley, and Rashida Tlaib has obscured the strides they’ve made to bring a new perspective to Congress. In a now-viral clip, Omar grilled President Donald Trump’s new special envoy to Venezuela, a career State Department official named Elliott Abrams, about his past involvement in human rights violations in El Salvador (“Do you think that massacre was a fabulous achievement that happened under our watch?”). As Omar puts it to the Oscar-nominated filmmaker Ava DuVernay, she is simply making “good trouble.” —NATHAN TAYLOR PEMBERTON


DUVERNAY: I read that you caught 11 fish at the Minnesota Governor’s Fishing Opener? Now, listen. I’m from Compton. What is going on with a colored girl fishing?

OMAR: That is the most-asked question. The idea that there are colored girls outperforming midwesterners at fishing is not a thing.

DUVERNAY: I love it.

OMAR: When I was in the Minnesota House, we’d do a big fishing tournament every year. The governor has a boat and the lieutenant governor has a boat. I got invited once, and I joked with them that they just invited me to be like, “Oh, here’s this new member who’s an immigrant.” They just thought that I’d drink my tea and sit in the boat. They didn’t imagine that I could come from a family of fishermen. The country I was born in has one of the longest coastlines in Africa, so fishing was very much part of our family tradition. As soon as I threw my fish hook, it was magic. I think my grandfathers were whispering to the fish and making sure that their granddaughter was defending their legacy.

DUVERNAY: The fish were like, “Let’s help make this happen.”

OMAR: It was the most fish that have been caught by a single person in the history of the fishing opener.

DUVERNAY: When I’m introduced to people, I get a lot of, “She’s the first black woman to have ever had a film nominated for an Oscar for best picture,” or, “She’s the first black woman to win Sundance.” I’ve come to have a really complicated relationship with being the “first” of my kind. Considering that you’re the first of so many things, I want to know what your relationship with being first is. Are you good with it, or is it complicated for you?

OMAR: I have a complicated relationship with it, internally and externally. There are people who don’t celebrate it in good faith and just want to have that be the box you’re in—like a qualifier for your success. There isn’t really much discussion about your character or your qualifications and the worth and perspective that you bring to the work. You get to feel like you’re drowning in it, because you don’t want to mess this first thing up for everyone you want to hold the door open for. It has a negative weight.

DUVERNAY: I’m actually not the first woman capable of doing these things. I didn’t just come off of a star or a moonbeam to all of a sudden be the first black woman who could do this. It’s the time we’re in that created the space for us. But even though we’re first, the goal is to make sure that we’re not the last, right?

OMAR: In a way, it can be seen as people wanting to pat themselves on the back—like, “We got one!” I appreciate the fact that I have the opportunity to do this for the first time. But having that be the focus means that we’re taking away from everyone else who is equally capable, who has a perspective that is beyond their identity. I want to make sure that people don’t think that I must represent all the voices of just Muslim women, or African women, or African people. I want to make sure that people understand that it’s Ilhan who represents these identities. It’s not the identities who represent Ilhan. It’s so complicated. It’s a pile of soup in my head.
Read full interview at Interview Magazine