Two weeks into the year, and I have read two books and several short stories. Alas, the novels are not much to write home about – despite the fact that one was shortlisted for the Man Booker Prize in 2012 – and most of the short stories have been mediocre. So instead, here is a selection of my favourite poetry from this week. Once again, I have managed to inadvertently make selections dealing with the same themes: race, racism, ethnicity, identity and belonging.
Questions by Catherine Labiran
“our bodies are simply guidelines and our writing is a way to live beyond them”
Catherine Labiran is a Nigerian poet and writer based in the United States. Her poem, Questions, is her own interrogation of her feelings about her identity and culture, as a black, Nigerian, African woman born in New York and raised in London. The poem is a series of questions in which she asks herself when she started noticing the conflicts between her identity and the ways in which that identity is represented (as unsophisticated or undesirable) or not represented (collective amnesia about slavery).
You can listen to Labiran read the poem on her blog. It is a beautiful and forceful reading of the questions she has asked herself, and contains many wonderful lines that capture the way she – and others – often feel about the way they live and talk, and which sets them apart from white and/or Western society: “When did I stop asking my parents to get drunk on English and swallow their tongues without knowing the aftertaste of accent would stain mine?”.
You can also find Labiran on Twitter.
Bilingual by Mariam Zafar
“I remember myself in my teens,
too eager to switch out my pulao for ceviche
and my glass of lassi for some chardonnay,
ashamed of some balding uncle when he would say ek-
scooz me and not excuse me—doesn’t he know it’s a door
and not a darwaaza?”
Mariam Zafar is a Pakistani-American writer and poet who lives between Dubai and the United States. Her poem, Bilingual, is also about belonging, accents and identity, and assimilation. She considers what she will teach her children about their heritage, and ethnic and linguistic background, while considering how she felt growing up. As a teenager, she felt a strong desire to be more like those around her, and embarrassed about the ways in which she stood out as different: the food her family ate, her language and accent, and the way her older relatives pronounced unfamiliar English words.
I’m not a racist by Cortney Lamar Charleston
“I’m just not that into black
girls, personally. I mean, personally,
I don’t SEE color. I’m so sorry, I really didn’t see you there”
Cortney Lamar Charleston is a US poet who writes a lot about racism, class, sexuality and masculinity. His poem, I’m not a racist, is an incisive critique of how easy it is to deny being racist when your ideas of what counts as racism are based on extremes. Many people think of racism as outright hostility or hatred for black people, a lá Penny Sparrow, but it can be much subtler than that. Making assumptions about the criminality of black people, looking for reasons to excuse police violence against them, and denying that prejudice exists are not only forms of racism, but allow more overt and violent forms to proliferate. Charleston writes the poem from the perspective of the “racist who is not a racist”, drawing on the high-profile topic of police shootings of young black men in the United States, showing how racism that is thought of as less obvious or less harmful is directly linked to these deaths through the pervasiveness of racist stereotypes – a topic relevant in South Africa, also.