Edited by Ruth Sutoyé and Jacob Sam-La Rose
(flipped eye, 2022)
Review by Maame Blue
‘And so they began. And so we were destined to live.’
Hibaq Osman – ‘Isn’t That How It Goes? When Everything You Love Is Bound to Leave, Don’t You Reach for the Door First?’
Take your time with this one. It calls for pause and reflection.
They are the requirements when reading this poetry anthology, Before Them, We, carefully curated by its editors, Ruth Sutoyé and Jacob Sam-La Rose. Writers from across the African diaspora reach back towards their migrant elders – to those they have met and others who exist only in stories, through half-truths or by a reconstruction from historical facts. Through this lens, using the language of poetry, the reader is presented with multiple ancestral experiences. The words are also refracted through Sutoyé’s eye as a photographer; the images become an illustration of the vibrancy humming beneath each poem, framing generations side by side in thoughtful, questioning, sometimes joyful poses.
‘and in nairobi, didn’t my grandmother hold our mouths open to water, as if it was the sea being cut out of the air, and didn’t we bleach our sheets white, clean after the cats, fill our scars, call it salt and a blessing’
Asmaa Jama – ‘learning to swim’
The poems featured here traverse the familiar and introduce new themes. They connect significant and often traumatic experiences that those before us endured so that we might be here. These fragments of lives and relationships are not delivered in an onslaught of information for the reader to try and digest at once. Rather, they unfold in doubles, with each poet given the space to focus on two aspects of their chosen elders – a reminder that no migrant journey or experience takes place in isolation. The works are prefaced by the authors explaining their process, what it took to distil the considered words that linger long after the book is finished.
‘It overwhelmed me, though eventually I remembered that these two people are whole worlds. I’m not sure why I ever thought a single poem could capture them whole. These poems are one single sketch of the space they take up in one single life (mine).’
In some ways, the poems open a meditation on the gaps many of us in the diaspora have learnt to live with when it comes to our African histories. The stories are broken up by the traumas of migration and redistributed piecemeal, sometimes via willing tongues, though often quieted by painful reminders of what was and is not anymore. And there is something to be said for the poets’ ability to tap into a sense of what might be missing, rebuilding and reframing experience so that the essence of it might still be communicated.
‘My mother once said we were descendants of
potters. Withstanding high heat was coded
into our DNA. My mother used to take hot trays
from the oven, bare hands, without flinching.’
Tania Nwachukwu – ‘Oghe’
As with any history ripped apart by colonialism and stitched back together by its people in acts of reclamation and healing, hope persists throughout the anthology, in the unexpected and the traditional, things that ground us in the midst of change.
‘I think of Florence. I think of Grandma, and wonder how she felt the day she locked her ambitions away in favour of love. A different kind of security.’
Yomi Sode – ‘Pepe’