Journeys in poetry: Migritude

The year 2017 so far has been a year of introductions. One introduction that was made to me this year was the world of poetry influenced by migration. This is not solely written by and about immigrants, but also poetry written by descendants of immigrants, and the continuing effects of migration in their lives. The first poems I read about migration were by Warsan Shire in her collection Teaching My Mother How to Give Birth and I was blown away (I’ll see if I can gather my emotions about that book enough to form a blog post.) I began to scour the internet for more of the same thing, like an addict searching for his next hit. I found nothing that satisfied me. Then one day, as I scrolled down my Instagram feed, I came across a poem someone had taken a picture of from a book. It was a fragment from Shailja Patel’s poem ‘Dreaming in Gujarati’ from her collection named Migritude. The fragment read:

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Part of the appeal of this poem for me was the ‘solid ancestral pride’ Patel wrote of, my mother tongue, Gujarati. It is a language I rarely see mentioned, as South Asian focused literature mainly uses Urdu, Hindi and Punjabi. Gujarati is a minority language, with “only” 46 million speakers, and as my uncle once told me, it is a dying language. In the poem, Patel talks about how she struggled to speak the language, being mocked by elders as a result. This was something I could relate to deeply, feeling as if I am missing a part of my voice. She touches on the internal identity crisis caused by not being fluent in one’ mother tongue, but being fluent in the language of the people who colonised her ancestors, the people who attack her for her race.

Their tongue – or mine?

Have I become the enemy?

 

In her poem ‘Shilling Love’, Patel portrays the grim realities of the migrant experience, explaining how her parents displayed love to their children.

 My mother propels us through / tutors, exams, scholarship applications / locks us in rooms to study / keeps an iron grip / on the bank books

Fifty shillings to the pound / we cry over meltdown pressure / of exam after exam / where second place is never good enough

 They snap / their faces taut with fear / you can’t be soft / you must be strong / you have to fight / or the world will eat you up

Although their parenting methods may seem harsh, for migrant parents, harshness is a necessity. To ensure their children had a better life in the long run, they had to be tough with their education to ensure they held high qualifications. Education meant opportunity in the West, meant that their children would never have to have hands callused by decades of hard labour. The love of migrant parents is sharp and hard to swallow, because they did not have the security that many of us enjoy.

Love is a luxury / priced in hard currency.

 

In her poem ‘The Making (Migrant Song)’ Patel fuses the immigrant experience with musings on colonialism and modern imperialist culture. She reveals the bleak moments of cultural integration (We cringe in silent shame for you when you don’t offer food or drink…Insult us without knowing.) Her rage against the exploitation of black and brown bodies is almost tangible, and she does not shy away from recognising injustices that still exist in the world today.

We all love to see bodies from Africa that move. We all love to move our bodies to rhythms from Africa. But we are terrified of African bodies that speak.

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Migritude draws from history to form a collection of creative work on race, ethnicity, immigration, and colonialism. It is at once a work that one can relate to as well as learn from, and even if that is not what you are looking for, it is still a shining example of stunning poetry and prose.

 

The Book Thief: A Review

“I have hated the words and I have loved them, and I hope I have made them right.”

bookthief

I’ve changed my blog name from ‘ecrivante’ to ‘wreaderwriter’, because first of all, I wasn’t keen on the original name anyway, and second of all, I want to start doing book reviews on this blog! I think it’ll help me to think more about the things I read.

Rating: 5/5 stars

I picked up The Book Thief by Markus Zusak in a charity shop over a year ago, and have finally gotten round to reading it. The story takes place in Nazi Germany and follows the tale of Liesel, a young girl sent to live with foster parents in the town of Molching. One of the many interesting things about this novel is that it is narrated by Death. Not the most common omniscient being to tell a story, but it made for a morbid reminder just how prevalent death was at the time. Death is a great narrator, witty and poignant in all the right places, but for large parts of the novel you forget that he’s there. We see Liesel growing up in the midst of a war, with her awareness of her situation growing alongside herself.

Spoilers from here on

If I told you that the first chapter has a death and the last chapter has a death, you might guess from the cyclical storytelling that the book is about death, death, and more death. And you’d be right. But although it is about death, death, and more death, this story is far from depressing. In fact it leaves you with a sense of hope for those facing adversity. The reason for this is because Liesel finds strength in words.

When Liesel arrives on Himmel Street, to the home of her new foster parents, she is illiterate.  Her foster father, Hans Hubermann teaches her to read and write. It is a long and arduous process, and at the age of nine, being unable to read is embarrassing. Despite this, Liesel is unfazed by the difficulty of learning to read, and tries her hardest because she had lived without words and knew how powerless she was without them. She eventually grows to love books and reading. She learns the importance of words, how they can be used for good and evil. She learns how bad words can be used to mean something good from her foster mother Rosa, who constantly throws around ‘saukerl’ and ‘saumensch’ (translation: pig, for male and female respectively) often enough that Liesel starts to call her friend Rudy a ‘saukerl’ affectionately.

The use of her words ranges from petty to powerful. Her peaceful fight against the hate in Nazi Germany begins when Max Vandenburg, a Jew, comes to live in her basement. She and her foster parents keep him hidden, in return for Max’s father saving Hans’ life during World War One. Max is Liesel’s first real introduction to the dark end of the Nazi regime. It seems silly to say that now, when we know that the entire regime was dark and terrible, but most Germans were unaware of the realities of it until the war was over. Max turns up on Himmel Street holding a copy of Mein Kampf. As Max and Liesel’s friendship grows, he paints over the pages of Mein Kampf, and writes stories for Liesel. In the first story he makes, he details his own ‘kampf’, and in the last, titled The Word Shaker, he writes how words have affected his life, from the hateful words of Hitler, to Liesel’s words of love and friendship.

I loved the symbolism of this, how words of hate are simply painted over to create peace. But this wouldn’t be a great book if it had a happy ending, so of course one day Max is forced to leave for fear of the house being searched by Nazi officers. They hear nothing from him until one day, when a parade of Jews are being marched down Himmel Street towards a concentration camp, Liesel spots him amongst the crowd. Transformed from a man who dreamed of fighting Hitler in the basement, to a bedraggled, malnourished thing, Liesel’s reunion with him brought a tear to my eye.

The bombs fall in and around Molching, never hitting Himmel Street until…they do. And that heartbreaking moment begins the end of this book. Liesel, sat in the basement reading through the story she has just finished writing, survives the bombing, but her mother and father, her best friend Rudy, and all her neighbours do not. Here is where the beauty of Zusak’s writing truly shows itself. When Liesel is rescued from beneath the rubble, Death’s narration is slow and dreamlike, much like Liesel’s initial thought process before she realises what has happened. It is utterly realistic, and in reading it you can’t help but throw yourself entirely into the story. You walk down Himmel Street  alongside Liesel, you cry with her as she sees the dead, tangled bodies of her foster parents, and you grieve with her for the life she had gained and lost.