Today is International Mother Language Day and as part of the festivities planned in Manchester, I co-produced, with Nasima Begum and Young Identity, Resistance Is My Mother Tongue, a multi-lingual poetry event.
You can rewatch the event here:
Major thanks to Nasima, Shirley May, all the participating poets, Young Identity and Manchester City of Literature.
The event came out of conversations I had with Nasima and other poets (particular mention goes to Jova Bagioli Reyes and Amina Atiq) about our relationships to our mother languages starting in the summer of 2020.
Often, those of us from migrant, diaspora communities feel divorced from our mother tongues. This affects our confidence: we struggle to be accepted by the ‘host’ culture, and cannot fully fit in with our ‘home’ culture. So Resistance Is My Mother Tongue was very much about accepting the middle ground, the liminal space, we inhabit. Owning it. Positioning ourselves as powerful in relation to both home and host cultures.
Before the event, we held one workshop discussing our relationships to our mother tongues. As I said regarding my own relationship to language, there is pain as an Arab divorced from Arabic – unable to engage with the depth of its poetry to the extent I want to. My great-great-grandfather, Mulla Attiya Al-Jamri, is one of Bahrain’s most influential poets of the 20th century, and his religious poetry is still popularly recited today. I struggle, with my damaged Arabic, to fully engage with it, and I know I cannot write Arabic at his level. I can’t write poetry like he can.
But, I came to realise, were he alive today, he would not be able to write poetry like I can. That realisation gave me a confidence. I’m not claiming superiority to my ancestor, rather, acceptance that we are poets of different qualities, and that is not a bad thing.
There was another part to Resistance Is My Mother Tongue, which was to ask: what if we have a multilingual poetry that makes no apologies, that does not try to translate or cater to an English-only audience?
From this position of confidence, the project fell into place.
My poem In The House of Colonialism kicks off the event. The poem, which begins “severed” in London, surrounded by Jinn – Aladdin, Tony Blair, Harry Potter, Francis Fukuyama – rejects the overwhelming pressure of Western culture and chases after the shadow of Enkidu from the Gilgamesh epic. It ends in Bahrain’s Salmaniya Hospital (“Where the walls remember the blood”) with an excerpt of a Bahrani folk song. (Publishing rules mean I can’t put the text in this post if I hope to publish it in an outlet in the future)
I’m proud of this dense poem. In conversation with my co-host Nasima, we focused on the poem’s attack on Disney’s Aladdin. I suspect that my British community will connect more deeply to the first half of that poem, while my Bahraini community will connect more with the second half. The poem makes no apologies for that and I don’t want it to.
The rest of the event was a pleasure. P.A. Bitez took us in a suitcase to Jamaica; Esther Koch took us to an Irish céilí for song and dance. From one céilí to another, Kayleigh Jayshree gave us an insight into her relationship with Gujarati (“We tick ‘other’ on most forms / visit Google Translate more than Twitter”). Ella Otomewo read a sonnet about her relationship to her two mother languages, Urhobo and Okpe. Meduulla gave a passionate address to Zimbabwe (“Being with you was like loving someone who only kissed me in public / but behind closed colonial doors, we were strangers”). Amina Atiq gave a heart-rending poem about the meaning of “بلادي” – “my nation”, culminating with that dreaded question, “Where do you come from?” Jova Bagioli Reyes gave us an epic poem in both English and Spanish (making no apologies for their Chilean accent), with too many brilliant moments to choose from (“I remember Henry Kissinger … acting as if Pinochet were a bad hook-up from his college years”). Shirley May, Young Identity’s CEO, rounded the night off with a poem from her collection “She Wrote Her Own Eulogy” (“Still I hear my mother’s voice in my head / ‘harsh words stir up strife, while soft words turn away wrath, he that keepeth his mouth keepeth his life'”).
The night was brilliantly hosted by Nasima Bee whose energy brought the entire event together. We worked hard to make the event run so smooth – the little touch that I think brought it to life was our decision to have poets and Nasima “face each other” during the conversation segments – a small touch that I think broke us away from the usual fare of Zoom events, where you the viewer hold unbroken eye contact with whoever is on screen over the course of an hour.
We have plans for a lot more. Nasima’s hinted at performing her own poem at a future follow-up event – so there’s one thing. Throughout, we worked with the value of bringing different diasporas together to celebrate the shared, complicated experience of our conflicted tongues.
Watch this space — and until next time, happy International Mother Language Day!