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Ibrahim El-Salahi Pain Relief at The Saatchi Gallery, London

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“Everything that is lost will be given a name…”

Title from asmarani makes prayer, The January Children, p 1; “verily everything that is lost will be / given a name & will not come back / but will live forever”

Below, from her poem, Jasmine.

poetryfoundation 4 poems by Safia Elhillo

Lines by the Sudanese American poet Safia Elhillo, pictured below (photo Wikipedia)

“It’s very important for me to name my people. That could be my family, my countrymen, and really of anyone who has had sort of a third-culture upbringing. I think that’s important because I didn’t come across a lot of that when I was a young reader, and it almost convinced me that I didn’t exist. If no one in literature was having the sort of experiences that I was having in my life, then it was hard to figure out if the experiences I was having in my life were real or valid or deserving of poetry or literature. So now, as a writer, I think it’s very important for me to specify; yes Sudan, yes hyphenated identity, yes immigration”I believe that a poem is an extended naming, a reversed synthesis that takes all of these pieces that have, for eternity, been lashed together and deemed “love” or “sadness” or “trauma” and spills out everything that has been locked behind their one-word name. A one-word name is a means of codification; a multi-word name is a poem.”

Safia Elhillo, interviewed in The Naming of Things

Above, an excerpt from “the part i keep forgetting“, The January Children, p 46″

This week’s blogpost is dedicated to the work of the remarkable Sudanese-American poet, novelist and performer, Safia Elhillo and is based on excerpts from her anthology, The January Children. Scroll down to the end of this post to watch the video An Evening with Safia Elhillo.

“…they called our grandfathers the january children lined up by the colonizer & assigned birth years by height there is no answer we come from men who do not know when they were born & women shown to them in photographs whose children left the country & tried for romance & has daughters full of all the wrong language.”

Read and hear Safia perform more of her poems in poetryfoundation 4 poems by Safia Elhillo

Below, from “to make use of water”, The January Children, p 4

Read about her life, artistic and cultural vision in

Folklore Mosaic Magazine, Safia Elhillo: Interview A Conversation with Safia Elhillo Fieldtested Safia Elhillo Everything Lost will be given a Name African Poetry: Safia Elhillo Q&A: Safia Elhillo The Naming of Things Intersections and White Space Many Muslims: A Review of “Halal If You Hear Me”

You can read more excerpts in “Mothered by Lonely Women”

Above, excerpt from origin stories, The January Children, p10

“I’ve been using this caesura of white space as punctuation, and I started phasing out the period and the comma because it feels so hard and so mandatory. So final. Yeah. I think it introduces an element of silence to the poem that I’m interested in. I don’t like feeling like my poems have too many words in them so this way I can regulate and make sure there is like air in them, there is silence in them, there is space to be able to rest between stops, walls, closets, even. So, yeah. The caesura is my favorite toy. I’m interested in the hesitation, interested in giving the reader a respite for a second and then going back to the language and what better way than to just have it be silent, to be blank for a second, to get a rest for as a long as you want to before moving onto the next chunk of text. And I am not interested in a hard stop, not interested in the hard pause.”

Safia Elhillo, interviewed in Intersections and White Space

Below from “talking with an accent about home (reprise), The January Children, p 47

“So when my grandparents talk about Sudan it’s one thing, when my mother talks of the Sudan of her youth it’s another thing, and it sounds absolutely beautiful, but all I have of the Sudan that I have seen and experienced is the Sudan of today, which is not in such a great shape. And I do understand that it is sort of easy to fall into nostalgia and romanticize the past version of a country, especially a version we didn’t experience firsthand, but hearing about the sorts of freedoms that where afforded my mother’s generation as young people in Sudan, and the exchanges of ideas, art music, culture, that they were able to experience as young people there — that is a beautiful version of Sudan that I can only imagine, But part of what brings up this existential crisis for me is that, that is the Sudan that I long for, but it is one that I have actually never experienced, so I feel this patriotism for a place that no longer exists and hasn’t existed in my lifetime. I think we all have our versions of nostalgia, we all have versions of the past that we think are better than the moment we live in today and it just so happens that my version of the past is wrapped into a sense of national identity.”

The Naming of Things

Below from “to make use of water” , The January Children, p 4. The words is Arabic mean “honey”, “poor /unfortunate” (see below), “by God”, “pharmacy” and “restaurant”.

Enjoy the full poem, recited by Safia Elhillo here:

I think a not uncommon symptom of being a child of diaspora is the privilege and torture of bilingualism. I have access to the two worlds that the two different languages contain, but I’m also never going to be entirely fluent in either because part of me will always belong to the other one. It’s been the source of a lot of shame, feeling not fully of one of those worlds or the other. A new development in trying to exorcise some of that shame is accepting that there’s a third language that forms in the hybrid space between the two of them, and that language is my first language, my native language. What I was trying to do in these poems that have both English and Arabic text in them was just trying to render, as directly as possible, the way that language actually works in my head, or in situations where I’m most comfortable.”

Safia Elhillo, speaking in Everything Lost will be given a Name

Above, from “old wives tales, from The January Children, p 20. Read the poem in full in Old Wives Tales

Below, Bride Price from The January Children, p 19

If you are interested in the issue of early marriage in Sudan, please see Child Marriage

This is a cultural post for

Women’s Education Partnership

See Latest News and At a Glance for more about our work.

Help us to plant the seeds to educational opportunity and knowledge for women and girls in deprived communities.

Below, An Evening with Safia Elhillo

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