What makes a good poem? Is it how well it uses rhyming couplets? The structure? Or is it the magical ability to transform and transcend the real world, to beautifully capture the sentiments sounds smells and ideas of the world and the moments that may bring us to our knees.
Historically women of colour are rarely given a voice or a narrative and if this opportunity to speak is given it is often manipulated, white washed and distorted until it fits the dominant account. So how refreshing is it when we hear the words of Warshaw Shire flow effortlessly in Beyonces’ lemonade, to know that her words have reached millions of people and that they are now a part of pop culture history, forever.
As a consequence, in a society where women are silenced, made invisible and unimportant it is even more essential that we recognise the words that may not appear in popular music videos, or do not have a big celebrity backing. But also the words of women who are less likely to be praised or to be given space. Women like Maram al-Masri and Bejan Matur who amid the chaos of both Turkey and Syria paint with words their painful and captivating stories.
Women like the Kurdish Bejan Matur are prisoners of war, civilian casualties, victims of rape, racism, mothers, lovers, refugees. We should have literature that covers every spectrum of this experience, we should lift the voices of those who once believed they had no voice, no right to speak. War is often depicted as man against man, we are now becoming aware that it has never truly been that way, that men, women and children are casualties of wars they had no intention of fighting. As Matur pens so beautifully about refugees: “[…] We believed the birds/in their flurry/that the tribe would not survive/with the tremulous osuld/of all igrant peoples/ we peered about us/First at the mountain/ the the plain.”
Consequently, with the world’s history of immigration and the continuous flow of displaced people around the world, there is also a constant emergence of poetry from women of colour that deal with the ideas of identity. The conflict between what we name home and where we may have grown up or our ancestry. Furthermore, poems begin to deal with the necessity of self love, understanding and strength in order to heal the wounds of the past and present.
Women of colour are hit with a triple dilemma, not only are they asked to attempt to “assimilate” against the racism and xenophobia of their neighbours while perhaps looking out for family and friends. They also have to deal with the culture differences, from basic things such as food to customs and language. Finally, they are confronted with the oppressions and preconceptions western culture has about about women. Some of these preconceptions may be familiar and unfamiliar, such as the idealisation of white and light skinned women in beauty standards and the media.
Safia Elhillo is a Sudanese poet who grew up in Washington DC. Her poetry speaks of home and identity but also appears to evoke a feminist sentiment, celebrating the strength and independence of women who seek to know themselves. “I will say:/ Most men are afraid of me, you know?/ Or, I will say:/ In my culture we do not take our men’s names as our own/ You have nothing for me/ I have my own name/ I know/ now how this body works/ How it will never let a name go until it has taken it into the mouth and fed it to the breath/ I still know by heart”- Safia Elhillo
It is important to let every woman’s voice be heard regardless of their differences. Poetry is one of the instruments we can use to encapsulate the terror, beauty, joy and variety of experiences of women across the globe.