In tribute to poetry month, I decided to highlight an anthology that is near and dear to my heart. Edited by Mahogany L. Browne, Idrissa Simmonds and Jamila Woods, the second volume of The BreakBeat Poets introduced me to several talented Black Women Poets that I continue to follow today. The review below was originally posted on GoodReads on February 7, 2018.
I remember when I first heard Sonia Sanchez speak – the cadence of her voice, the punctuated rhythms of her staccato verse. Like a full bodied wine, the flavor of her words lingered. My body hummed. Somehow she knew my story. She was a griot dispensing a herstory of resilience, defiance and strength. The black woman instead of being confined to one singular definition was appreciated as a diaspora of resplendent colors each owning her individual experience. I walked away that day feeling as if the mantle of power had been passed.
Nikki Giovanni, Audrey Lorde, Rita Dove, June Jordan, Ntozake Shange, bell hooks, Sapphire, Maya Angelou. Reading their words is like a baptism of water and fire. I am cleansed. I am renewed. I am filled.
Black Girl Magic is written in this rich tradition. Edited by Mahogany L. Browne, Idrissa Simmond and Jamila Woods, this anthology continues where Breakbeat Poets: New American Poetry in the Age of Hip Hop left off. This second volume addresses the oversight of African-American women’s contributions to the art that is Hip Hop and fills this void with resounding pieces that rejoice in the splendor and beauty that is the Black woman. These new voices declare that our story is not history but a glorious future filled with hope and promise.
Brief But Spectacular by Mahogany L. Browne
Instead of my usual photograph, please enjoy this living testament of Black Girl Magic:
The critically acclaimed and Whiting Award–winning author of We Love You, Charlie Freeman returns with an unforgettable story about the meaning of freedom.
Coming of age as a free-born Black girl in Reconstruction-era Brooklyn, Libertie Sampson was all too aware that her purposeful mother, a practicing physician, had a vision for their future together: Libertie would go to medical school and practice alongside her. But Libertie, drawn more to music than science, feels stifled by her mother’s choices and is hungry for something else—is there really only one way to have an autonomous life? And she is constantly reminded that, unlike her mother, who can pass, Libertie has skin that is too dark.
When a young man from Haiti proposes to Libertie and promises she will be his equal on the island, she accepts, only to discover that she is still subordinate to him and all men. As she tries to parse what freedom actually means for a Black woman, Libertie struggles with where she might find it—for herself and for generations to come.
Inspired by the life of one of the first Black female doctors in the United States and rich with historical detail, Kaitlyn Greenidge’s new novel resonates in our times and is perfect for readers of Brit Bennett, Min Jin Lee, and Yaa Gyasi.
Libertie is an historical fiction set in the late 1800s. Our titular character is named for her dying father’s wish for her to know true freedom. But Libertie, although intelligent, well spoken, and beautiful will struggle to be released from society’s strongholds. In the book her mother’s character is loosely based on Susan McKinney Steward, the first black doctor in New York state. Although this bit of history is interesting, Libertie is not focused so much on the mother’s accomplishments but on the relationship between mother and daughter. Throughout the book we are asked to consider what freedom is in all its nuances and to examine the chains that hold us captive.
The book opens with Dr. Sampson raising a man from the dead. Libertie stands in awe of her mother and begs her to teach her how to heal. But she soon realizes that this man — although he escaped the shackles of slavery and the grip of death — he is not free. His undying devotion to a dead woman leaves him haunted by her memory and Libertie skeptical about love.
Libertie’s mother is able to get her medical degree as she passes for white. But she knows this option is not open to her dark skinned daughter. She goes about trying to find a way to ensure her daughter’s agency in a new unsure landscape where freedom has just been won for the slave. But in her doing so, she ends up thrusting her aspirations upon Libertie.
Despite her status and fair skin our doctor is still bound by other women’s perception of her, their judgment and their fickle natures. She is confined by grief over the loss of her husband and family and fear for the safety of her daughter. Her tongue is tied every time a white patient shuns Libertie or remarks on her color.
When Libertie travels to Haiti we are able to see the contrast between the two countries. Haiti gains its independence early on and is under the rule of black people. But there still exists a separation between those that serve and those that are in authority.
Through these experiences Libertie comes to know that freedom is not just escaping that which binds you, but knowing who you are, what you want and finding the voice to proclaim it boldly.
Kaitlyn Greenidge’s debut novel is We Love You, Charlie Freeman (Algonquin Books), one of the New York Times Critics’ Top 10 Books of 2016. Her writing has appeared in the Vogue, Glamour,the Wall Street Journal, Elle.com, Buzzfeed, Transition Magazine, Virginia Quarterly Review, The Believer, American Short Fiction and other places. She is the recipient of fellowships from the Whiting Foundation, the National Endowment for the Arts, the Radcliffe Institute for Advanced Study other places. She was a contributing editor for LENNY Letter and is currently a contributing writer for The New York Times. Her second novel, Libertie, will be published by Algonquin Books on March 30, 2021. She lives in Brooklyn, NY.
When body parts are found on the banks of the River Thames in Deptford, DI Angelica Henley is tasked with finding the killer. Eerie echoes of previous crimes lead Henley to question Peter Olivier, aka The Jigsaw Killer, who is currently serving a life sentence for a series of horrific murders.
When a severed head is delivered to Henley’s home, she realizes that the copycat is taking a personal interest in her and that the victims have not been chosen at random.
To catch the killer, Henley must confront her own demons – – and when Olivier escapes from prison, she finds herself up against not one serial killer, but two.
See no evil. Speak no evil. Hear no evil.
Wiser words have never been spoken. But our hero DI Anjelica Henley has seen it all. She’s a young up and coming detective in the Serial Cases Unit who is responsible for taking down one of London’s most sadistic killers. Dubbed “The Jigsaw Man” for dismembering the bodies of his seven victims, Peter Olivier sits in jail serving consecutive life sentences. He is the epitome of an evil psychopathic genius. Think Anthony Hopkins’s betrayal of Hannibal Lecter in The Silence of the Lambs. So when body parts start popping up along the Southern banks with signs of his M.O. everyone is praying that he didn’t have a partner, someone he groomed and trained. Despite the fact that Henley is still suffering from PTSD as a result of her previous encounters with Olivier she is best person for the job. No one knows him like she does.
The Jigsaw Man keeps you on the seat of your pants with all its twists and turns. But what I really appreciated was the character development. I liked that Anjelica is strong yet vulnerable. That her character handles micro-aggressions and outright prejudice with aplomb. That she has loyal people in her corner. Both Stanford and Ramouter were likeable characters that I would have enjoyed seeing more of. Olivier was so bad he was good. The Yin to her Yang; the dynamic between two really kept things interesting. And that ending begs for more. I can see a series with DI Henley and Olivier in the future and I’m all here for it.
Meet Nadine Matheson
Nadine Matheson is a writer of crime fiction, contemporary fiction and occasionally dips into the world of speculative fiction. In 2016, she won the City University Crime Writing Competition with the short story that later became The Jigsaw Man.
When Nadine is not writing, she works as a criminal lawyer and lecturer. She lives in London and in her fantasy life would write comic books for a living.
Nima doesn’t feel understood. By her mother, who grew up far away in a different land. By her suburban town, which makes her feel too much like an outsider to fit in and not enough like an outsider to feel like that she belongs somewhere else. At least she has her childhood friend Haitham, with whom she can let her guard down and be herself. Until she doesn’t.
As the ground is pulled out from under her, Nima must grapple with the phantom of a life not chosen, the name her parents didn’t give her at birth: Yasmeen. But that other name, that other girl, might just be more real than Nima knows. And more hungry. And the life Nima has, the one she keeps wishing were someone else’s . . . she might have to fight for it with a fierceness she never knew she had.
What does it mean to be home?
Is home your country? Your neighborhood? Your house?
For Nima, a young girl born in America to immigrant parents neither country feels like home. She has a feel for the old country through the stories and songs and pictures that she lovingly hoards as the “Nostalgia Monster” but she is not the traditional girl. She doesn’t dress herself up all fancy to appease the aunties. Despite the fact that it hurts sometimes when she overhears them gossiping about how she doesn’t fit the mold. Though immersed in American culture at school, she still stands out and must face discrimination. This is why for Nima home is not some randomly constructed border called country, but the community that she lives in. It’s the people around her. The people who love her and care for her like Haitham.
Elhillo explores borders further through the character Yasmeen. Fans of the poet were first introduced to Yasmeen in a poem about identity:
Yasmeen’s character allows us to venture into the possibilities of life. A lot of times, especially as a teenager, you are trying to figure out who you are and what your place is in this world. Time is spent imagining a different reality. What if I were skinny, rich, . . . whatever, what would my life be like then? What if? Even as adults we wonder how our world would be different if certain events had not happened to us. Yasmeen allows Nima to see what those possibilities could be. Nima learns that she is not beholden to borders whether they be political lines or societal stereotypes. Most importantly, — those little boxes that we draw ourselves into, those self-imposed barriers — can be breeched and hurdled.
Home is Not a Country is a beautiful book both inside and out. I don’t feel as if there are any words that I can say that could capture the wonder and the richness of this work. I first “met” Safia Elhillo in BreakBeat Poets, Vol.2: Black Girl Magic. So when I heard that this book was coming out I immediately requested the audiobook through my library. This gave me the opportunity to read the book in print while listening to Elhillo tell Nima’s story. Besides her cadence, I really appreciated listening to her speak and sing Arabic. This was truly a multi-dimensional experience for me that was heightened by the music in Elhillo’s Spotify playlist.
Safia Elhillo is the author of The January Children (University of Nebraska Press, 2017), which received the the Sillerman First Book Prize for African Poets and an Arab American Book Award, Girls That Never Die (One World/Random House, forthcoming), and the novel in verse Home Is Not A Country(Make Me A World/Random House, 2021).
Sudanese by way of Washington, DC, she holds an MFA from The New School, a Cave Canem Fellowship, and a 2018 Ruth Lilly and Dorothy Sargent Rosenberg Fellowship from the Poetry Foundation. Safia is a Pushcart Prize nominee (receiving a special mention for the 2016 Pushcart Prize), co-winner of the 2015 Brunel International African Poetry Prize, and listed in Forbes Africa’s 2018 “30 Under 30.”
Safia’s work appears in POETRY Magazine, Callaloo, and The Academy of American Poets’ Poem-a-day series, among others, and in anthologies including The BreakBeat Poets: New American Poetry in the Age of Hip-Hop and The Penguin Book of Migration Literature. Her work has been translated into several languages, and commissioned by Under Armour, Cuyana, and the Bavarian State Ballet. With Fatimah Asghar, she is co-editor of the anthology Halal If You Hear Me(Haymarket Books, 2019). She is currently a Wallace Stegner Fellow at Stanford University and lives in Oakland.