Identity Is Not Destination


New-Generation African Poets: A Chapbook Box Set (Saba), edited by Kwame Dawes and Chris Abani

The eleven poets included in this box set are: Michelle Angwenyi, Afua Ansong, Adedayo Agarau, Fatima Camara, Sadia Hassan, Safia Jama, Henneh Kyereh Kwaku, Nadra Mabrouk, Nkateko Masinga, Jamila Osman, and Tryphena Yeboah. Akashic Books, 2020 Price: $26.21

by Brent Ameneyro, PIOnline staff writer


Poetry and beauty are always making peace. When you read something beautiful you find coexistence; it breaks walls down–Mahmoud Darwish

POETRY IN THE TWENTY-FIRST century has undoubtedly established its rhythm, and its pulse can be found in a chapbook box set titled New-Generation African Poets edited by Kwame Dawes and Chris Abani. These poems are alive—ready to teach humanity how to see beauty again, how to be connected again. In an increasingly divided world, this collection provides a lens to see through the lines that separate us. At the start of the book, Dawes references Toni Morrison’s essay “The Origin of Others” and her declaration that “movement” is the most dominant theme of the twenty-first century—this connection made by Dawes is both accurate and impossible to ignore when reading the collection.

Having spent some of my formative years in another country, I often think of how the poetry I write could serve someone who is not Latinx, or even someone who does not know what it is like to have lived in two different countries and to feel connected to two groups of people. Reading this collection, I realized there is a universal humanness that comes out when exploring our roots through poetry. Every child grows up waiting for identity to form like waiting for the morning dew to clear before running outside to play. Many of the poems in this collection tackle this issue of identity, like the poem “Sujui” from the chapbook Enumeration by Sadia Hassan:

I spent the summer
flushed, finessing men
out of hotel dinners,

perfecting the precise
lift of my shoulders,
meant to coyly answer
the questions:

Wapi Kitambulisho?

Where is my identity?

Hassan is reflecting on the end of her adolescence, the loss of innocence, and the complex, ever-changing nature of identity. Hassan, and many of the poets in this collection, show how challenging the concept of identity is when juggling two languages, two countries, and two homes. This is a defining characteristic of the United States and therefore of American poetry—the melting pot, a concept that is sometimes ignored rather than celebrated. Poetry in the twenty-first century is doing what poetry does best: showing people how to see.

In part two of the introduction, Chris Abani—discussing “movement” and social inequity on a global scale—quotes Homi Bhabha: “identity is not a destination, it’s a state of flux.” Considering how the poets in this collection reflect on their ancestors, their mother countries, and various ways of living, it is apparent that there are larger identities that get incorporated into the conversation beyond just the self: the identity of a country, the identity of a race or group of people, and the identity of humanity. Abani extends the discussion presented by Dawes—movement can be from one country to another, but it can also be from one point in identity to the next. This is explicitly visible in Jamila Osman’s poem “California” from her chapbook A Girl is a Sovereign State:

Imagined ourselves out of the blackness of our skin
and into the wanted blackness of the night

In this poem, Osman tackles both the movement from one country to another and the movement in identity. The speaker takes the reader on a road trip from San Francisco to Oregon, and simultaneously on a journey through adolescence and the almost stream of consciousness nature of identity. She describes a darkness that makes borders that could be seen on a map invisible on their trip—a welcoming darkness that breaks down boundaries, implying her own darkness is unwelcoming and comes with its own borders.

Abani also points out that there are two types of migration: forced and voluntary. My migration was voluntary. My Mexican father brought us to Mexico, and when we were ready to come back to the safety and comfort of our life in the US, we packed up the minivan and came back. This is a radically different experience from those who are displaced, detained, or otherwise experiencing borders in fear or desperation. The harsh experience many refugees face is sometimes explicitly shown in this collection, but other times it appears in more delicate forms like in “Love Never Loses its Way Home” from the chapbook Try Kissing God by Afua Ansong:

You whisper home is a song to the womb
into the green night, your slender fingers
arched around his wanting ears.
He tames your clay hands,
lowers your fingers into his and replies
still you must return to it.

Ansong proves how multifaceted movement can be as a literary theme—concepts like home, the body, and love are all affected by displacement and are consequently in a state of flux similar to the movement found in identity. In this way, movement has been established as a primary theme with many subthemes branching off as poets unpack memories and experiences to transform them into lessons in beauty and understanding.

Movement can happen in a meditation or a memory—the movement in time. When poets explore their roots, there is always a movement in time. Looking through the eyes of a mother, grandmother, or through the eyes of a past version of themselves, poets can shift perspectives and thus show the layers of identity that are responsible for the speaker’s current lens. Nadra Manrouk, in her chapbook Measurement of Holy, imagines her brother as a boy walking “the streets of Shobra,” or herself as a “tired child in Cairo again.” There is a move from the speaker’s present self toward the meditation, then additional movement within the meditation as the imagined child in each scenario explores this part memory, part imagined world.

Movement appears in many forms throughout the collection—moving through grief or suffering, from war to peace, etc. I find myself connected to a larger, more universal idea that I did not see in my own poetry and my own personal journey: how we move from past generations and past versions of self is a human dilemma, not just a Latinx one as it is for me or an African one as it is for the poets featured in this collection. The twenty-first century poetry movement is movement itself. And although poetry might not erase the borders that separate people in the “real” world, it can show how to move to a new perspective—one of compassion, understanding, and connectedness.

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