Momtaza Mehri’s Fluid Diasporas

Having traversed regions, her poetry, including the Forward Prize-winning Bad Diaspora Poems, interrogates a race- and class-conscious world — and her place in it as a Muslim Somali woman.
Momtaza Mehri for Open Country Mag.

Momtaza Mehri is most concerned with challenging the very existence of borders as “physical and imaginative parameters.” Supplied.

Momtaza Mehri’s Fluid Diasporas

It is the early 2000s and Momtaza Mehri is a kid sprawled on the couch, watching poetry contests on Emirates TV and other pan-Arab channels. Scattered all over the room are her parents’ cassettes, mainly of Gabay, a kind of Somali poetry that is chanted. They live in Dammam, a coastal city in eastern Saudi Arabia that, unlike the capital city of Riyadh, is lackluster, stiff in a way that suggests routine rather than stagnation. So for the family, routine meant, among other things, watching TV. When she finds Buffy the Vampire Slayer and The X-Files, she starts writing Buffy fan-fiction, recreating the characters she loved.

Later, her family migrates to the UK. Having grown up accustomed to movement — the daughter of parents who had traveled and worked in Europe and the Middle East — living no more than two to three summers in a place before moving on, from Saudi Arabia to Syria for holidays and to the UK, and gradually coming to terms with numerous diasporas, her grandmother’s house in Kilburn, Northwest London, becomes the closest she has to a permanent home.

Living in a country whose “maddening class system” ensures downward mobility for recent immigrant families like hers, education becomes doubly prized. At school, she is a solemn biochemistry student and is teased as “the fresher who got off a boat.” At home, she spends her nights reading.

Her parents “struggled to make sense of these transnational rifts in class formation and disaggregation, and I was raised with this sense of permanent destabilisation,” Mehri will tell PEN Transmissions years later.  “I also knew that, had it not been for a civil war and a migration story, I probably would have been an Afropolitan daughter of elites, writing for the same magazines I do now, but saddled with far less student debt. I would be immeasurably more annoying. I would be a terrible thinker and a much more ‘successful’ writer. Instead, I experienced grim housing conditions and accompanying health conditions, substandard educational environments, and a constant lack of resources. I felt very alienated by how class was superficially discussed and intentionally obfuscated in the mainstream, and I think this is common among those of us raised in similar circumstances.”

Bad Diaspora Poems takes on “the concept of diaspora as a series of negotiations.”

Mehri’s history of movement stayed with her, and in her debut collection, Bad Diaspora Poems, which won last year’s Forward Prize for Best First Collection, her verses explore mobility both in form and content. The poems take different shapes and textures, assuming malleability as lyrics, prose, erasures, and text messages. They undertake numerous movements across time and space: from the 19th to the 20th and 21st centuries; from Mogadishu and Naples to Lampedusa and London; from living rooms and balconies to buses and market places.

She told me over Zoom, “I feel that there is a sense of fluidity that I really am attached to: fluidity of movement, fluidity of ideas, fluidity of thinking, and I feel that it’s a really integral part of who I am. And it’s reflected in my writing. I feel that identity is open-ended. It is ever-changing. It is mutable. And I kind of really resist molds. I resist all forms of, I guess, ghettoization; all forms of limitation. So it’s hard for me to see the world in that boxed-off, categorised kind of way. For me, identity is marked by fluidity. Absolutely.”

In the poem “A Few Facts We Hesitantly Know to Be Somewhat True,” it is the fluidity of borders, sometimes disintegrated and other times overlapping. It is in how the images are placed side by side — a child learning Somali “in the laps of women” and the Victorian-era explorer Richard Burton brought together; the poet and the prisoner, the refugee and the lover, all deserving of love letters. The monstrous alikeness of both love and catastrophe calls for a rethink. This fluidity of worlds is summed up in the line: “We are one people of one stock of one language of one religion of one coast of one desire.” The absence of punctuation, of halts and pauses, allows for the swift movement of thought and meaning.  

The diaspora is often characterized by a sense of ambivalence: the stringing along of histories as well as the obscuring of identities. “Diaspora is a severance,” she wrote to me in a follow-up interview, “but it’s also an enduring thread. I pull on it, following where it takes me, even in the unlikeliest directions.”

She put it in further context. “My grandmother was literally a herdswoman. She herded cattle. And she gave birth to a woman who would go on to the university and not know anything about that life, literally an urbanite. And then you have me. And I’m sort of born in the diaspora. So, for me, it’s like trying to hold all these epochs in motion at the same time.”

That sense of twoness appears early in Bad Diaspora Poems, in “Reciprocity is a Two Way Street.” At once, the diaspora is action and redundancy, the disintegration of pain and the reconstitution of it. The poem describes the diaspora as “witnessing a murder without getting blood on your shirt.” Obviously, “your body is the evidence of its absence.”

Mehri’s 2019 chapbook is marked by an absence of order and the ungovernability of thought.

With diasporic poetry, there is a quality of rapid changeability, which is an effect of belonging to different times and places. Mehri strings together the angst of the poet, the immigrant, the exile, the refugee, the runaway, the working-class artist, the translator, and the diaspora kid, all in conflicting states of identity reconfiguration.

“It wouldn’t make sense for anything I’m writing, especially in the collection, to not reflect that disjointed, fragmented sense, but also a sense of resourcefulness,” she said to me. “That is very crucial to diaspora. This magpie approach where you’re taking from here, and then you’re pulling from there, and you’re making something out of nothing. So it had to kind of reflect a flexibility, a fluidity and adaptability. And that’s why the form had to be elastic, you know, in many ways. It had to be allowed to exist with a sense of urgency but also this polyphonic quality.”

A different poem, “By Such Honorifics, You Attempt to Summon the Old Country You Have Never Seen,” taps into this polyphony through a cluster of descriptions for the country in hindsight:

Flat wishbone/ Depository of guilt/ Tally of defences/…/ Get Out of Jail Free card/ Father’s belt/ Ideological crutch/ Cartographical mirage/…/ Lovable bastard/ Unreliable host/ Enduring headache/ Bad joke.

The bringing together of these different images is how identity configuration takes place, how the persona strives to learn of the “old country” that they have never seen — and the conflict in not knowing and trying to know is where the diaspora comes in. It is a common ambivalence in Bad Diaspora Poems.

“I wanted to really interrogate the concept of diaspora as a series of negotiations, betrayals, contradictions, and really just unspoken sorts of affinities,” she said. “And I felt as if a lot of the work that I was drawn to or inspired by came from this sort of diasporic subjectivity. There was this idea of, I guess, like, fracture or dispersal and rapture, and I really wanted to pry into those themes and just pull them apart and see how that has manifested in my life, but also in the lives of people around me, and also really just dig into this very feeling that, I guess, has always haunted me, which is a feeling of obligation and responsibility, but also a sense of being a bit, a sense of yourself as the writer, or the role of the writer, as that being quite similar to that of a vulture. You know you’re picking at the bones of other people’s stories. And I think, particularly with people who’ve experienced generational effects of, let’s say, refugeehood or displacement, some of these stories are not really yours. But they are yours in a very different kind of way, right? And it’s really just trying to grapple with that.”

These thoughts predate Bad Diaspora Poems. Her 2019 chapbook Doing the Most with the Least is marked by an absence of order and the ungovernability of thought. In a poem titled “Iqama,” the persona has been:

both the call to prayer & a permit paper/…/ been who I need to be which is exactly who I am not/ been the first scent of petrol/ been the first blister of love.

In her debut chapbook sugah. lump. prayer, from New-Generation African Poets Chapbook Box Set Series, fragmentation and continuous dispersals trail the trio of poems titled “Transatlantic”:

Here, in the country of your birth, we cross the Persian Gulf,/ and I know even less,/ except our feet hanging off a hotel bed;/ a geologic upheaval.

Like her other works, sugah. lump. prayer reflects “that disjointed, fragmented sense, but also a sense of resourcefulness.” 

Mehri’s poetry first reached a bigger audience in 2018, when she was named the Young People’s Poet Laureate for London. A month later, in May, she received the Brunel International African Poetry Prize, alongside the Ethiopian Hiwot Adilow and the Nigerian Theresa Lola — the first time that three poets had been jointly awarded. Another diasporan peer, the Ghanaian British poet Victoria Adukwei Bulley, has said that her poems “revel in the slippages of belonging and identity and strive for something greater, something closer to a revolutionary kind of love.”

Yet before then, Mehri’s work as a curator was already influential. In 2017, she created the Black Muslimah Toolkit, a free Google document filled with playlists, articles, and reading lists catering to Black Muslim women, who deal with the narrow categorizations of their identities in British culture. In an interview with The Black Muslim Times UK, she explained its feminist orientation: “They’re all bound by trying to understand, work through and address the condition of Black women everywhere. . . This continuing work of theorizing about and around ourselves is one way of being kinder to each other. Of understanding what’s behind the violence we sometimes enact on ourselves. It’s theory but it’s also a door of light being thrown open in a windowless, cramped room we call the world.” The document has been offline, being updated.

Mehri, who is trilingual, in English, Arabic, and Somali, told me that she wanted to do some translation of lesser read African writers. “I want to see African literature move in unexpected directions. More digging up of writers from the sixties and the fifties and the latter half of the twentieth century. There’s a lot of writers to be dug up from various parts of Africa that have yet to be translated, not just in English, but also in various other languages. I’d love to see more African literature translated in Arabic and vice versa. I’d love to see more interplay between those two.”

What moves her is the interplay in her personal history. She once shared a childhood story of her parents driving on a shoddy bridge linking Saudi Arabia and Bahrain. As they approached it, her father joked, “Buckle up, stay in your seat, we might die tonight.” It took her growing up to understand that the crossing of dreadful borders, as that one, was expected for so many people in the world. When she first related that story, she ended on an instructive note: “That’s the kind of gamble that many people take just trying to make it from one side to the other.”

Now she is more concerned with challenging the very existence of borders as “physical and imaginative parameters.” “They are obstacles to movement,” she argued, “to slippage of all kinds, but they never fully succeed in preventing the flow of people, ideas, solidarities, poems. We have to recognise how the logics of the border inform our interactions and relationships. How we shelter in our cloistered refuges, how aggressively and uncritically we defend our own. There are other, freer ways of relating. Artists, of all people, should be the last to defend their circle in the sand.” ♦

“Momtaza Mehri’s Fluid Diasporas” appears in the forthcoming second issue of The Next Generation Series, an Open Country Mag project profiling rising African writers and curators, edited by Otosirieze. The groundbreaking first issue, featuring 16 voices from nine countries, was released in April 2022. The second will be published in 2024.

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She told me over Zoom, “I feel that there is a sense of fluidity that I really am attached to: fluidity of movement, fluidity of ideas, fluidity of thinking, and I feel that it’s a really integral part of who I am. And it’s reflected in my writing.”

...

“It wouldn’t make sense for anything I’m writing, especially in the collection, to not reflect that disjointed, fragmented sense, but also a sense of resourcefulness,” she said to me.

Iheoma Uzomba

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