Poetry in the face of violence
By Meghana Mysore
“I never wear shoes I can’t run in.”
At a recent conference with the UNHCR, Emi Mahmoud ‘16, poet and activist, was asked to say something about the million South Sudanese refugees who had arrived in Uganda. She remembers feeling paralyzed at that moment, unable to speak. “[The woman who asked the question] asked me to summarize,” Mahmoud said.
The lives of the million refugees cannot be summarized in a sound byte. They are multifaceted, and poetry, she said, is a way to begin to understand their complexity.
On Monday, October 29, Emi Mahmoud spoke at the Yale Law School about her work organizing against violence in Sudan, and poetry as a path towards peace. At Yale, Mahmoud performed with ¡Oye!, a spoken word group affiliated with the La Casa Latino Cultural Center on campus, and in 2015 became the Individual World Poetry Slam Champion. Mahmoud’s passion for advocating for the rights of refugees, in Darfur and worldwide, has taken her to the UN, to working with several different Nobel Laureates and the Dalai Lama around the world. Recently, as part of her One Girl Walk and Dreams for Peace Initiative, she walked 620 miles from Darfur to Khartoum by foot in thirty days.
At the Individual World Poetry Slam, her winning poem was entitled “Mama.” The poem was a tribute to her mother, and is reflective of much of her work at large, which centers on themes of lineage, motherhood and sisterhood within systems of violence. She recently released a book of poems entitled Sisters’ Entrance, which she explained as “the door to the women’s side.” It is an exploration of girlhood and sisterhood, an invitation into the lives of women who grapple with sorrow and genocide and build resilience.
Mahmoud was born in Darfur, Sudan, and moved with her family to Yemen when she was a toddler. In 1998, she came to the United States. She attended high school in Philadelphia and afterwards matriculated at Yale, where she studied Anthropology and Molecular Biology. Now, she serves as a UNHCR Goodwill Ambassador.
“There’s a difference between hearing about justice and seeing it,” Mahmoud said, standing at the front of a large room at the Law School on Monday evening. The room was packed, with some students clustered at the center of the room, and others sitting at the edges.
Growing up, Mahmoud began to realize that it wasn’t her “responsibility to make things better, but to keep moving.” She says that poetry and writing has been instrumental in keeping her afloat in moments of pain and violence in her country. “The reason I write and perform…is to make even one person feel better, when it feels like the world is ending.” She explained that for most people she works with, “the world is truly ending.”
“I keep thinking we’ll turn and see the girls we used to be.”
Mahmoud read this poem from Sisters’ Entrance, and when she read this line, she paused, her voice becoming quieter, softer. Her voice evokes the memory of something lost, something forgotten. For Mahmoud, writing poetry is about acknowledging her movement through the years, and thinking of the individuals at home, in Darfur. Her work meditates on time, the way it warps memory, produces nostalgia for a home you at once loved and ran away from.
As I listened to Mahmoud perform her poetry, I noticed her voice breaking at points, or her laugh when she forgot a word in one of her pieces. Her performances began quietly, then grew to a crescendo, becoming louder as the emotion behind her poetry seeped out. “Poetry helps me work through feelings,” she said, “so that I can then translate them to action.”
Mahmoud spoke about her time at Yale, the pressure she felt, and also the ways in which people would tell her that she couldn’t do something, that it was too far out of reach. She remembers advisers telling her not to major in both Anthropology and Molecular Biology, for example, and how that fueled her to do so anyway, to realize her own potential. She found a sense of encouragement in groups like ¡Oye!, where she felt she could be a fuller version of herself.
“The most helpful thing that Yale did was let me breathe,” she said. “There’s a lot of safety and connections here, but don’t let it inhibit you.” She said that sometimes, the most powerful people do not follow safe routes, and do not rely on those connections.
Further, she told the audience that we must realize that Yale “is not the incubator until life starts,” but that we can take agency in our actions and the paths we choose now.
Mahmoud spoke about agency as also a form of awareness. She said that often people become spectators to violence, watching it happen in countries like South Sudan, watching civilians flee the violence in Darfur on the news, watching the violence, displacement and death there. But no one is merely a spectator to violence, no one is disconnected from it regardless of how far away it may seem.
“Many people think that violence is a third world problem,” she said. Much of her poetry focuses on the production of a subtle but racist language in the United States, looking at the prejudices we hold through our linguistic slips, and the jokes that we easily make. “But [violence] is hiding here, in conversation.”
“What could grow in the desert anyway?”
“Sorrow that turns even the loudest dreams to ashes.”
“People like us.”
“When I was 7, she cradled bullets in the billows of her robes.”
“Tonight he’ll crush the henna blossoms on her wrists/With the same hands the man next door threw at his wife last Thursday/The same fists that taught a daughter to keep her mouth shut.”
As she was performing these last lines from her poem “The Bride,” Mahmoud began to cry. She looked down at the ground apologetically, then looked up, and whispered: “I just get emotional.” She revealed that she wrote the poem about a wedding that occurred in Washington D.C., where she noted that no one knew the bride’s name, and no one understood what she was saying because she only spoke Arabic. This poem is her imagining the landscape of the bride’s mind and the words she might have wanted to say.
Watching Mahmoud begin to cry, I also felt a pang of hurt in my chest as I thought of the life of the girl. I looked down at all the lines I had written down in my notebook from the various poems she had performed throughout the evening. Some were fragments and not full lines, but they were the words that stuck with me most, that even after her performance, I flipped to during class in the weeks after.
“When I was 7, she cradled bullets in the billows of her robes,” Mahmoud wrote about her mother. Mahmoud’s writing has the ability to take something like clothing — the billows of robes — and turn it into something darker. Through her language, we are invited into the mind of the young girl who watched her mother, and her mother who not only had to care for her child but had to fight war, harboring trauma in her veins. We are invited for a brief moment, through Mahmoud’s haunting imagery—crushed henna blossoms on wrists—into the mind of the bride, as she sits next to her to-be husband, dreading his touch. We cannot know the complete geographies of these individuals’ lives, and yet Mahmoud’s poetry offers the possibility of empathy, however painful it might be to try to understand. We become more compassionate, understanding individuals after watching her performance. It is not, however, a performance that we come away from but something that bleeds into reality, becomes part of us.
Emi Mahmoud’s work explores movement in her life and in the lives of South Sudanese refugees. Her poems explore why we run—how many must equate running with survival, and cannot stop running. And her poems explore why, even if our sorrow turns our dreams to ashes, we continue to dream, loudly.
Meghana Mysore is a junior majoring in English in Davenport College. You can contact her at firstname.lastname@example.org.