BooksApril 7, 2019

‘I’m a writer for fun’: Ashleigh Young on a vital new collection, More of Us


Ashleigh Young reviews More of Us, a collection of poetry written by migrants and refugees. 

We greet with
deep pleasure
and confidence,
eyes greeting all over the body,
shaking the hand with a hug.

That’s the first stanza of ‘Greeting’ by Samson Sahele, the first poem in More of Us, a collection of poems written by people who came to New Zealand as migrants or refugees. ‘Greeting’ is a simple, joyful, oddly funny poem, like enthusiastically shaking someone’s hand just as you both realise you shook each other’s hands five minutes ago. It set the tone for my reading of this exuberant collection – a series of voices that are oddly familiar but still very new, like when you’re just getting to know somebody and already share small in-jokes and understandings. Many of these poems gravitate towards home and homesickness, loss, fear, family; some are political; some are romantic. Some are about food. Several are about a love of football and there is one about dogs that I keep sending everybody.

My favourite moments of this collection are the declarations of a state of being or state of longing, sometimes as straightforward as ‘A big house’ by Plae Reh, in which the writer just lists all the things he’d have if he were rich (‘And in my kitchen I would have / a huge fridge.’ I feel this). Every time a poem opened out into such a moment, its understatement and often wryness was strikingly beautiful to me. Its restraint read like the upturn of a patient question, hoping that we’d understood. I’m uncertain whether it’s right to quote particular lines, because there’s a kind of spell when a poem does this and you need to follow it. But I’ll give a couple of examples – ‘The best football day’, in which high school student Mohamed Al Mansour recounts the 2014 World Cup semifinal between Germany and Brazil. The poet is a big Brazil supporter. And Brazil loses, 1–7. While the streets around him rage, with some people crying, even burning the flag, he writes:

I didn’t sleep until the morning.
It was the best football day
in my life.

It makes no sense! But it makes perfect sense! It makes both. It captures the fizzing sensory overload and high drama of being a teenager amidst a major happening. Or when Yazan El Fares, another high school student, writes of a moment of reluctant performance in ‘My dance story’. At first it feels like this can only be a triumphant scene. Then it becomes a moment of bathos.

I take full courage,
stand up for a dance.
I start to move,
but I am like a chicken
with no head.

The most compelling poems to me, and often the ones that made me laugh, were almost all by high school or university students. Anni Pinedo Bone’s ‘The weekend and the carnival’ is a gloriously surly teenage lament about New Zealand’s endless boring weekends. It’s the perfect anti-ode.

In Colombia, it’s the carnival.
There is music everywhere.

In New Zealand, it’s the weekend.
It’s so dead.

It makes me think of the bit in What We Do In the Shadows when Viago and his mates go out on the town. But it’s also cut through with longing (which … I suppose the vampires-on-the-town scene also was). Most teenagers grapple at some time with feelings of exile from their family, hometown, and self; Anni Pinedo Bone does too, only it’s sharpened by the fact of being unimaginably far from home. ‘Limu’ by Mary Lehuanani has a similar low-key saltiness, like everything’s being said through slightly gritted teeth. The poem describes the writer’s brother gathering limu, a seafood in Samoa. Then, the last three lines: ‘Now I eat McDonalds. / It is unhealthy / and makes you fat.’ Maybe I’m not meant to find this funny! But the sense of loss in this poem feels keener for those three deadpan lines. In a recent Slate essay about humour in poems Jonathan Farmer solemnly posits that the goal of jokes is ‘to usher us, however cloaked, however burdened, a little farther toward people we do and do not know’ and while I wish he had put a joke in it, I felt that truth of that here.

One poem I keep coming back to is ‘My dogs’ by Kongpop Puakprom, which concludes with the names of the writer’s six black dogs – a shining, dignified parade, each dog given its own line, like a stage to walk across as we all applaud. The names reminded me of Bill Manhire’s poem ‘Dogs’, the grimmest of all dog poems, but one that dignifies the great dogs by naming them. Bone, Lucy, Adam, Lazarus, Sara … (Poets, you can’t just have dogs come in and wander around in your poems; please, do them and us the courtesy of telling us who they are.) The reason ‘My dogs’ is so good is that it perfectly expresses great reverence for six black dogs. That’s all.

These younger poets also often say the thing plainly, sometimes so plainly that it becomes vital and, at the risk of over-using this word, beautiful. This from ‘The journey of football’ by Mohammad El Fares:

The sun was shining with no cloud,
the birds were standing on the trees,
their heads were darting, but they were singing.

In the next moment the players are all ‘running like hedgehogs / to score a goal’. It’s subjective, obviously, but for me there’s something about the surprise of seeing a hedgehog run really fast that exactly mimics the surprise of seeing a kid run really fast. Then multiply that by a whole team of hedgehogs. The speed is breathtaking.

As you’d expect in a collection that speaks often of family and home, many of the poems are very moving, like Nicole Wang’s ‘Reading poems with my father’, in which the poet recalls her father revising poems he has written (‘If he was unhappy with one word / he would feel sorrow for several days’) and Maha Al Mansour’s ‘The garden’ (‘I felt that the well, the trees, the flowers / were telling us, “Please don’t go.”’). When thinking about the poems that carry strong emotional weight, I’m conflicted about pointing out that, yes, every so often a poem does hit a note of sentimentality. But it doesn’t matter, and I’m curious about why it doesn’t. Partly it’s because familiar turns of phrase often push up against slightly off-kilter ones, and this degree of strangeness brings the poem alive. But mostly I think it’s because these writers are sharing their experiences specifically for a collection about migrants’ and refugees’ lives; that is, specifically so that a wider community can know a little of them. Within this framework, where a poem is clearly a deliberate, generous act for a particular project, sentimentality is somehow repurposed. It is almost as if it is a language of its own. It becomes another way for us to locate these writers in a moment in time.

Perhaps it’s odd to make note of this, but for me one of the pleasures of this collection is the first-person biographical note that follows each poem. We learn things about the poets like: ‘I am interested in going to university in the future to do dentistry’ and ‘I love making new friends’ and ‘I’m a writer for fun’. And then such things as: ‘I was a journalist in Ethiopia when I had to flee for my life.’ These small stories elevate each poem into a greeting. Perhaps it was a basic formatting decision to include the bio note with the poem, but it feels properly respectful. Sometimes, also, the note speaks directly back to the poem, as in Reza Zareianjahromi’s ‘What we be?’, a staccato-like prose poem that repeats the refrain ‘We be pack of crow.’ It’s a terrifying poem, unrelenting in its imagery of war, and one of the few in this collection that doesn’t nod hopefully towards something better. Why should it? In his bio note Reza, who was born in Iran, writes of his anger, sadness and confusion about his war-torn home.

At the launch of More of Us on March 21, almost a week after the attacks in Christchurch, armed officers stood outside the building. The event itself felt intent in its focus and purpose, but also joyful. A number of poets stood up to read. Something about their delivery and the atmosphere made it one of the most moving poetry readings I’ve ever attended. (I have attended many poetry readings. In fact – yes. I should be at one right now!) Editor and Landing Press publisher Adrienne Jansen said that this book, having only just been launched that day, had already sold out its first print run, which surely speaks of a new urgency to hear the stories of refugees and migrants here.

Of course, this book will be read through this acute new lens, post-Christchurch. I’m not alone in wanting to listen to Aotearoa’s refugee and migrant communities much more closely than before. Neither am I alone in wanting to recalibrate my feelings about this country; I want to feel hope. So I read this book with gratitude, to the point where I worried that I was asking too much of these writers. Was I so desperate to feel better about this country, and closer to it, that I was leaning on their words too hard – creating a kind of psychic burden for the writers to carry, the same way that people who have suffered terrible loss can end up comforting the very people who are trying to comfort them? I don’t know. But for the first time I found myself wondering if it was problematic to enjoy a book so much – which, now that I write it down, seems surely ridiculous. I think this anxiety arose from a broader fear of saying and doing the wrong thing, of not responding to this crisis in the right way. But there are so many right ways. Reading these poems is one of them; sharing them widely is another.

More of Us is the fourth book published by Landing Press, a small Wellington-based press headed up by Adrienne Jansen. It’s the companion volume to All of Us, by Jansen and co-writer Carina Gallegos – longlisted in the 2018 Ockham New Zealand Book Awards – which also foregrounds the stories of immigrants and refugees in New Zealand.

More of Us, edited by Adrienne Jansen (Landing Press, $22) is available at Unity Books.

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