immigration

Guest post: Her Lost Language by Jenny Mitchell

Today’s guest post is by Jenny Mitchell. Jenny was Joint winner of the Geoff Stevens Memorial Poetry Prize, run by Indigo Dreams Publishing, with her beautiful collection ‘Her Lost Language’.  Paul McGrane of the Poetry Society, described the book as ‘a unique insight into a family history that invites you to re-imagine your own. I love this book and so will you!” You can buy a copy of the book here.

Jenny has given us the title poem from her book; a poignant depiction of life as a woman against a backdrop of terror and kidnap and the lack of refuge for those who escape.

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Jenny Mitchell“The title poem for my debut collection, Her Lost Language, feels a bit like a ‘cuckoo’ in that I usually write about the legacies of British transatlantic enslavement, with direct reference to Jamaica. This seems to be where I find my voice, and can cover subjects from the maternal, food, past, present and future.

But the poem Her Lost Language was inspired by reports of Boko Haram in Nigeria, and their kidnapping/abuse/murder of girls and women, especially those seeking an education.

The articles about them seemed to coincide with more and more reports of a ‘hostile’ environment in the UK for immigrants and asylum-seekers.

I wanted to write about a woman who, having faced inhuman physical abuse, was being forced to endure the trauma of being ‘a stranger in a strange land’ that does not offer refuge.

I often write without knowing exactly what I mean but re-reading the poem I see that it’s very oral, lots about food and the sheer loneliness that can be symbolised in eating alone. I wonder if this is a metaphor for someone who cannot speak her language to anyone – a real language and an internal/emotional one – so ‘compensates’ by eating? Is she trying to cope by stuffing words down with food? Is cooking also a way to ‘recapture’ home?

4636313604_272x428It feels clear on re-reading the poem that the environment I describe is not just ‘hostile’ for the character but for everyone who has to live in it. The phrase, ‘A lift shaped by urine is’, to me, about real suffering – for those that have to endure it and those that cause the offence in the first place. How alienated do you have to be, to literally piss where you live?

The fact that the character has come from a place where the hills are shaped like God says something, to me, about what we have lost – ‘God’ as nature. Instead, the character in the poem looks for ‘God’ in a pastor who is remote, on television and instructing her to Give thanks when she lives and breathes suffering.

It’s always great to know what other people think so if you’d like to send your comments about this, or any of my poems, get in touch on Twitter @jennymitchellgo, or in the comments section below.”

Jenny Mitchell is joint winner of the Geoff Stevens’ Memorial Poetry Prize (Indigo Dreams Publishing). Her work has been broadcast on Radio 4 and BBC2, and published in The Rialto, The New European, The Interpreter’s House; and with Italian translations in Versodove. She has work forthcoming in Under the Radar, Finished Creatures and The African and Black Diaspora International Journal.

You can buy a copy of ‘Her Lost Language’ here.

Her Lost Language

English mouths are made of cloth
stitched, pulled apart with every word

Her life is mispronounced.
She cooks beef jollof rice for one;

braves the dark communal hall:
a giant’s throat when he is lying down.

He’s swallowed muffled voices,
stale breath of food and cigarettes.

The lift is shaped by urine.
The sky’s a coffin lid.

Back in her village, days from Lagos,
hills took on the shape of God,

scant clouds the colour of her tongue.
Now she must walk past ghosts who leer like men,

to eat fast food from styrofoam,
binging to forget her scars

are less important every day,
when words must match

from one assessment to the next.
Back in her block, the lift vibrates

like an assault or panic rammed
beneath her skin by soldiers taking turns.

She skypes to smile at parents
aging in their Sunday clothes.

They say more teachers have been raped.
A baobab tree is balanced on her father’s head.

When the connection fails,
she flicks to channel Save Yourself.

A pastor bangs the podium, demands her Hallelujah.
She kneels to pray her papers will be stamped –

passport wrapped in green batik.
Pastor screams Give thanks.

Mum’s Spicy Chicken by Nafeesa Hamid

Hegel infamously said that history was a process of thesis (the current paradigm) bumping up against antithesis, which then (through war, debate, demographics) becomes a synthesis, a resolve, whether it be chaos or calm. The rite of passage of a child is similar. The typical model is the young child being totally dependent on the carer, living by the values of their parents; they are helped, to walk, to speak, to read, etc.. Then, when reaching their teenage years, they become independent, at least in their eyes; wanting to go out more, liking different things, rebelling even. Eventually, in this theoretical scenario, the synthesis is interdependence, or rapprochement or mutual relationship of empathy; the young adult, gets a job, a family and realises what the other side of the coin looks like. (more…)

Ice-cream box of frozen curry by Jasmine Ann Cooray

four_generations_handsAs we slowly make our way to the voting booth for the EU referendum, what has struck me is the divide between the young and old; opinion polls show an almost equidistant difference between the young who want to remain, and old who wish to leave. But this type of generational divide can be seen in lots of other ways; different histories of course, which then influence the socio-economic and thus political positions of the young and old. One problem, at least the higher income countries, is the gap between the baby boomers who are being blamed for keeping all the post-war socially secure wealth (e.g. pensions), and the millennials who will have to work forever, which is okay because technology will allow us to live that long.

But one of the age old (sic) differences is of culture; especially for those whose parents come from a different country, who may be more conservative or religious, and wish to pass on their ethos to their children, which they feel is the natural job of a parent. From my own background, my friends were made to go to church, but would often just nip in at the start of a service to see who the Priest was, then spend the next hour round the back smoking before going home and saying that Father such and such was the man at the altar to prove their presence to their mother.

JasCooray1Jasmine Ann Cooray’s poem, Ice-cream Box of Frozen Curry beautifully expresses this generational difference from her experience being of Sri Lankan and mixed European lineage. The poem conveys the journey of a newcomer to the country, the people they leave behind (“Dear village leavers/Dear fortune seekers/Dear don’t forget us/Dear whispered prayers”), and the new rules and racism the leavers experience (“Dear name,/Dear get to work/Dear roads and railways/Dear NHS/Dear filthy Paki/Dear bite your tongue”). This is an immense a coming-of-age/rights of passage story that is both funny and sad, matching the older generation (Dear ice-cream box of frozen curry/Dear tiny aunts with iron grip/Dear random portly shouting uncles/Dear grandma wince at dodgy hip) with the ways the younger generation try to create their own identity (Dear make-up practise after lights off/Dear boyfriend legs it out the back/Dear promise I was in the library/Dear shaving threading bleaching wax). (more…)