In these poems, as in most of my work, I am grappling with the things that are supposed to help me identify myself – family history, culture, country of origin – and, at this point, I am not looking for answers as much as I am trying to ask the question exactly as I mean it. I am interested in the ways the answer changes when the question is rephrased. ‘Talking with an accent about home’ is a series of erasures whose source text is the transcript of interviews I conducted with members of the Sudanese diaspora across two generations. Each interview began with two questions: ‘where are you from?’ and ‘where do you consider home?’ The older generation spoke predominantly of the beauty of a long-lost Sudan, while the younger generation focused primarily on their struggles with an inherited nostalgia for a place they have never encountered, that no longer exists.
The younger interviewees all provided versions of the same answers when asked ‘where are you from?’ and ‘where do you consider home?’ – they all answered ‘I’m from Sudan’ to the first question, but their answers to ‘where do you consider home?’ never mentioned Sudan. I find this paradox at the heart of third-culture identity – the dilemma that occurs when where one is from is not the same as where one considers home. In the words of Mahmoud Darwish, ‘exile [is] a misunderstanding between existence and borders.’
One of the older interviewees responded ‘I’m from Sudan, and I made home in Washington, D.C.’ I am inspired by the agency she expresses, where home is not a ready-made location determined by one’s birth, but an active construction. ‘I made home,’ in its expression of activity, is one of the most important resolutions I have heard presented in the face of the third-culture identity crisis. Often, the third-culture kid feels they have ‘lost’ home by being born and/or raised in a host land, and that the host land cannot fully be ‘home’ in that it is culturally and/or geographically disconnected from their land of origin. ‘I made home’ combats the notion of home as a fixed, static location that the third-culture kid can only hope to happen upon if they were to just learn the right language, or tradition, or recipe. It presents the option of home as a portable environment – home as a decision, a project, rather than a country. A country is fallible, is at the mercy of its governments and their wars. A country, ultimately, was once itself created by the drawing of a manmade border.
talking with an accent about home
smell winter scorching the untouched nile
my rift grew
fly home make home
i didn’t go back at all
we went to a restaurant in khartoum
after an hour police arrived
shouting turn the music off
interrogating women & men
i pretended i didn’t speak arabic
they took a whole table of young women
without male protectors
& threw them in the back of a truck
thirty year dictatorship
to ru[i]n the country
& so those who could afford to leave
left either migrated or as refugees
& all over the world
sudanese refugees now
it was easier to just be
I think often about something Ladan Osman said in an interview: ‘the most difficult part of negotiating both identities was not knowing if I was my authentic self, whether I’d be a different person had I grown up back ‘home’.’ In considering these things that, again, are supposed to help me identify myself – family, history, culture, etc. – I consider my alternate self, unburdened of this particular set of traumas, and wonder, without them, what would make this alternate self myself.
The poem ‘second date with abdelhalim hafez’ is, to me, an asking of that question: am I more my worries and aches and traumas than I am myself? The character of Abdel Halim Hafez in this poem, and in the series of poems it is part of, has been a way for me to assign all my feelings of loss and nostalgia and displacement to an iconic figure whose existence, in being well-documented, is proven, is confirmed, in a way I have been unable to prove or confirm the existence of the mythical former Sudan in its glory days, for which I feel homesick but have never actually encountered. Abdel Halim Hafez, beloved by millions, is dead, has been dead since the 1970s, and I fall in love with him secondhand in the same way I fall in love with the old Sudan of my mother’s photographs and stories.
second date with abdelhalim hafez
i understand why you did not call me back i peel & peel & cannot
undress i wear my grandfather & my left eye turns to milk
my grandmother & the curl unravels from my hair i smell of flour
& dill & thick perfume i wear my mother & remember
a garden with magnolia flowers a scarf packs up my heavy hair
i wear my brother & a bullet is assigned me at birth i wear blood in my mouth
where a man’s name or a language should be