December 27, 2021–January 2, 2022
Eliamani Ismail is a writer and filmmaker from Washington, DC, via Mali and Tanzania. After starting to write in her teens, Eliamani was a member of the DC Youth Slam Team and has performed at venues including the Kennedy Center and the National Planned Parenthood Festival. Her poetry and fiction have appeared in PRISM international, Stonecoast Review and elsewhere. Eliamani earned a BA in film and Africana studies from Scripps College and is currently a Watson Scholar undertaking a project that explores how writing and art engender communal partiality to nonpunitive justice. She is a Pan-Africanist focused on creating stories, both written and filmed, from and about the global African world to foster familiarity and responsibility for all African persons across the diaspora. This past summer, she was named a Brooklyn Poets Fellow for study in Robert Balun’s Ecopoetics workshop.
Last week, she was bullied at work by a man I say is crazy. She says she is fine, but sometimes she comes home and goes to sleep without fussing over the still-there dishes. She tells me she only ever wanted to be a mother, but we are now too close for her to be my mine.
I am nine and Oumou Sangaré sings lyrics I do not understand. It is the only burned CD my mother keeps in the car stereo. I cannot tell if it is happy or sad but the woman sounds like she is crying and we both recite without an accent.
Musolou. Mali k’ana Musolo.
[There’s a saying: you let one man kill you and a hundred will bury you.]
My mother gets her dark gums bloodlet in the house of a woman whose husband will die of a disease they haven’t found a name for yet. She is 16 and there is a man with a gap somewhere in Canada who will one day tell her to give him a child with a mouth of pink gums and white bones. My grandmother beats gari for dinner and expects to speak the same language as her grandsons.
N’kanu taara yòròjanna. Ale ma sòn seginma.
[There’s a saying: the curse of being the youngest child is that you are your mother’s and her mother too.]
I am 23 and confident. Educated and always away. I use large words in borrowed languages and vow to never marry through my black gums.
I am peerless among men; I have no last name. My father is not from where me and my mother are from. I called him the child of a lesser God. I could belong to his country, but I hate men. I want my country to be my country and I want to burn it to the ground for what it did to my mother. My mother says Mali is more hers here than there.
N Jarabi, n makoko yan.
[There is a saying, but the ant I tried to smuggle from the nation died during take-off and now I can’t remember anymore.]
In our desert, me and the women in my family go to Girls Only night at the local club. The griots sing-cry their ordinary anguish, and it is earth like rocks. It finds its way to ache in my throat with the swallowed hairs of the men I love.
Every woman in the audience gets serenaded by family name. A country is just a country until its people decide to be rid of its people. Until the ethnicities war, until the women are raped, until the babies are born of hay and rainy bones. I have no last name, I am let be. I let the smile on my mother’s face be my only epithet. I imagine the griot sings;
Tell us about the making of this poem.
The poem works off a Bambara musical genre called Wassoulou. Growing up, perhaps my first impression of my culture is that Malian women were always singing, and always singing directly to you. As a girl I believed that Wassoulou sounded the way fairy tales read. The string instruments are sure but delicate and there is usually a call and response that creates an enveloping echo. It’s a very warm and dark type of style; it was the source of much of my childhood awe.
I think many children, and especially daughters, reach a time when they want to investigate the pre-maternal days of their mothers. Wassoulou was an essential instrument in the past and present relationship I share with mine. Understanding the lyrics of Wassoulou made many of the women in my family finally make sense to me. Even the manner that my mother both praises and scolds me happens in the same lyrical/thematic universe as this music. The poem was an exploration of both what we share as Malian women as well as our individual aspects as narrated by Wassoulou.
What are you working on right now?
Completing a fellowship, writing for various projects, learning some languages. I’m absolutely obsessed with language acquisition.
What’s a good day for you?
A day I’ve spent in a city near water, prayed, and cooked myself a new dinner recipe. I actually don’t think my cooking is that great, but I prefer it over anyone else’s.
Where’s home for you? How long have you lived there? What do you like about it? How is it changing? How does it compare to other places you’ve lived?
Place, especially as it relates to home, has been the central question of my life these last two years. All my work is working on this question. I don’t have a real answer. I was born and raised in Washington, DC, and there was a time I felt that was home. Gentrification has changed it so drastically I no longer feel any familiarity being there. Ongoing imperialism has taken “home” from me and generations of Africans in countless ways. I don’t think it’s possible for me, as someone of majority African blood, to really find a home outside of Africa, yet I currently have no physical or linguistic home there. I have that in other places, sure, but I don’t think it’s healthy to name places constantly trying to kill you “home.” I have places I am familiar with, places I am more comfortable in than others, but they are not home. I’ve come to accept that anywhere my mother is may well be the most “home” I’ll have in this life.
Spent any time in Brooklyn? If so, when and where? Share with us your experiences, impressions, etc.
Yes, I spent two consecutive summers there when I was in college. There was this Afro-Caribbean-French fusion restaurant in Prospect Heights I was really obsessed with. I would drag my friends there like three times a week just to get the exact same order. I also grew really fond of the Walt Whitman Library. It was my first habitual library experience in NYC and I took some fiction workshops from some incredible writers there.
What does a poetry community mean to you? Have you found where you live? Why or why not?
People who are willing to read and criticize, and those whose writing you respect as well. I think it also requires people who are familiar with you and your style. Who can tell you when you aren’t writing honestly or pushing your pen. I have gathered some very precious poetry sisters from various places.
Tell us about some Brooklyn poets who have been important to you.
Robert Balun. I took his workshop and it’s been essential in the way I treat, read and write about land and natural space in my work.
Who were your poetry mentors and how did they influence you?
I’ve had two that were pivotal mentors for me. The first was Hanan Seid, who is a poet based in Virginia and a former high-school classmate. She was the first person I ever saw recite a spoken-word piece. I worked with her a year later on a joint spoken-word performance and haven’t stopped writing in some fashion ever since. The second is Elizabeth Acevedo, who was my coach while I was on DC’s Youth Slam Team. She taught me the difference between writing and self-exhibition and that is a constant consideration in my poetry.
Tell us about the last book(s) and/or poem(s) that stood out to you and why.
I’m always impressed by novels that lack protagonists or use nonlinear stories. Even more impressed when they manage to do both, so I found myself rereading A Visit from the Goon Squad by Jennifer Egan. Lately I’ve really liked Home Is Not a Country by Safia Elhillo, In Other Rooms, Other Wonders by Daniyal Mueenuddin and Men in the Sun by Ghassan Kanafani.
What are some books or poems you’ve been meaning to read for years and still haven’t gotten to?
It is really quite unacceptable that I have only read one Octavia Butler book. I have a lot of things from Frantz Fanon and C. L. R. James on my list as well.
Describe your reading process. Do you read one book at a time, cover to cover, or dip in and out of multiple books? Do you plan out your reading in advance or discover your next read at random? Do you prefer physical books or digital texts? Are you a note-taker?
I have to finish one book before starting another. I’m a cover-to-cover reader. Absolutely every word in a book has to be read or I feel like I didn’t actually read it. I also have to read with a pen. One of those Pilot G2 Ultra Fine pens. If I have not marked a book to hell, I have no clue what I just read.
What’s one thing you’d like to try in a poem or sequence of poems that you haven’t tried before?
A pastoral poem as a symphonic piece.
Where are some places you like to read and write (besides home, assuming you like to be there)?
Lately I’ve been finding bars with outdoor patios that open to busy streets and getting semi-drunk while reading African political philosophy and history. Sometimes you have to be a bit inebriated to stomach it.
What are some Brooklyn spaces you love? Why?
There was this playground across the street from my first apartment in Brooklyn that was always full of kids and played family-friendly films on summer weekends. There was not a single morning I wasn’t awakened by very sharp kiddie laughter. Some mornings it was pretty terrifying, but I grew to really enjoy and miss it.
Fill in the blanks in these lines by Whitman:
I celebrate yesterday’s laundry,
And what I forgot between the airport and burnt rice you make into a song,
For every time you call me as good as God wants you.
It can be hard to find poetry communities that are constantly pushing you as a writer and Brooklyn is one of those rare and precious spaces.