This month saw the publication of The January Children by Safia Elhillo. Kwame Dawes wrote an excellent forword to the book; here’s a little taste of what you can expect:

There is in Safia Elhillo’s January Children a mythic enterprise rooted in historical and political fact that reminds us inevitably of Salman Rushdie’s project in Midnight’s Children, where he inscribes into the imagination a sense of nationalism that is fundamentally an act of assertive imagining. For Elhillo, the January Children of Sudan, those she describes as belonging to the “generation born in Sudan under British occupation . . . all given the birth date January 1,” mark the transition from two traumas—that of colonialism and that of the postcolonial struggle for a sense of identity and place. But they are a people, a coherent body that can be traced, critiqued, celebrated, and, importantly, imagined. An act of erasure, thus becomes a source of the imaginative act of regeneration:

verily everything that is lost will be

given a name & will not come back

but will live forever

(“asmarani makes prayer”)

But where a novel might engage this subject from a distance, this collection of poems immediately avoids that. Elhillo is writing within the lyric tradition that is giving shape to a new African poetics that finds a way to engage the traditional lyric while not losing sight of a poetics that could be called political, engaged, and ideologically aware. Elhillo’s speaker is fully present as the voice in search of meaning when faced with the challenges of migration and nationalism, and the complications that come with broader gender issues. In this sense, her collection explores themes that are critical to her senses of self, of place, and of identity.

Very early in the collection, Elhillo reminds us that she is negotiating cultures, geographies, and languages, and these negotiations define her relationship to the idea of exile and the idea of home. For her, separation by wind and by love become one and the same because of the peculiar nature of Arabic, and yet there are sonic contradictions, where “home” and “stuck” are one and the same and yet profoundly separate. Elhillo does not demand that we have command over Arabic—instead she unveils the possibilities in the linguistic intersections that are part of her aesthetic. At the same time, it is a deeply personal concern of the immigrant who reprimands herself for forgetting the Arabic word: “/stupid girl atlantic got your tongue/” (“to make use of water”). The quarrel with self is intensely complex because it is rooted in the geopolitics of exile. It is a world for her in which her “blue american passport” somehow separates her from the ability to empathize with those she has left behind: “do you even understand,” she asks in “to make use of water,” “what was lost to bring you here[?]” Indeed, very early in the collection she lays out the condition of colonialism and exile. Her grandfathers “do not know when they were born,” and she is one of the daughters “full of all the wrong language” who spend their time wondering if it is appropriate to pray in a language other than the one that they should have learned.

She finds meaning and grounding in her fascination with the late legendary Egyptian musician, Abdelhalim Hafez (1929–77), who functions as an imaginative construct, a source of fantasy that is sensual, yes, but that is profoundly related to her sense of her identity. She speaks to Hafez, quarrels with Hafez, offers accounts of his life and death, quotes from his lyrics, and positions him as a necessary bridge between her mother, her grandmother, and herself throughout the collection. And in all of this, Elhillo is fully aware of the contradictions inherent in this act of fandom, and it is this complexity that allows her to explore her sense of identity. For Elhillo, this identity is inextricably connected to her language, her politics, her race, and her gender. She confesses to him her alienation and her failure to be Sudanese enough, but she also speaks to him of the way he allows her to feel a part of the imagined sense of nation: “i heard the lyric about a lost girl i thought you meant me.” It is Hafez who she tells that “my mouth is my biggest wound”; it is he who hears her confession that she is being objectified by the orientalism of white men who ask her to say their name in Arabic. All of this, along with the sense of trauma within her body caused by her movement west to America, becomes part of her “application for the position of abdelhalim hafez’s girl.” Her sense of self is part of an ancient narrative when offered to Hafez: “mine is a story older than water.”

At the same time, however, it is clear that Hafez offers her a special opportunity to trace a personal history that takes her from Sudan through Egypt and Geneva, but which, at the same time, makes her think of what she looks like and how she finds her sense of self. In the cleverly inventive “callback interview for the position of abdelhalim hafez’s girl,” the second of three, Elhillo makes brilliant use of the strange elliptical possibilities inherent in dialog to complicate her sense of self. She first identifies with men—as if she is a man, and then it is clear that she is speaking about the men that form part of her life, and thus she is speaking about her tenuous relationship with Hafez: “haunted men/dead men/men marked to die.” When pressed, she confesses yet again, that she imagines herself to be the girl that Hafez is singing about. The exchange is marked by a certain evasiveness. The interrogator pushes her, but she is not willing to be tied down. Hafez’s girl—the one in the song—is brown, and the question of black and brown becomes of particular importance here. Elhillo does not make it easy for us as we consider how we fantasize and how we form our senses of desire and identity:

then you do think you’re the girl from the song

i guess i see the parallel        i am brown like her    i am always halfway gone

like her   i’m not as cruel but i have tried       it’s just like the lyric says

i can’t sing but it goes    فيه الغربة إيه عملة األسمراين طمنوين

reassure me how is the

browngirl what has distance done to her

At the end of the poem, the person answering the questions asks her own question: “does that answer the question[?]” She knows that it does not. She has avoided the question. It may well be because she does not have an answer. But Elhillo wants us to see the flawed nature of this speaker—her unreliability.

Reproduced from The January Children by Safia Elhillo by permission of the University of Nebraska Press. Copyright 2017 by the Board of Regents of the University of Nebraska.

If you enjoyed this taste, there’s so much more to discover in the book, available now online.