The January Children by Safia Ehillo is a poetry collection that deals with the author’s woman, Muslim and Sudanese identity. Wait. It’s so much more than that. The title itself opens the reader to Sudanese history and culture. It represents her grandparents’ generation born in Sudan under British occupation, where children were assigned birth years by height and all given the birthday January 1st.
Sofia’s poems waver in the power and limits of language. Although the reader doesn’t need to understand Arabic to digest them. She infuses Arabic into her pieces creating an interpretation she operates in – an imperfect translation of Arabic and English.
Many lines in Sofia’s poems stayed with me. In “Bride Piece” she writes, “We all out live our beauty it’s the currency we trade with men for their names.” What a chilling way to reveal the vulnerability women face in relationships with men. Then in “Talking with an Accent about Home (Second Take) she writes, “it was easier to just be something else.” Each stanza reveals hardships women, men and children faced just for being Sudanese.
The most interesting poems are her imagined conversations with Abdelhim Kafez, an Egyptian singer of the magnitude of Bob Marley. (At least that’s how I understand him I had no idea who this guy was). Poems like “Watching Arab Idol with Abdelhim Kafez,” “Late Night Phone Call with Abdelhim Kafez” and “Why Abdelhim” to name a few show a progressive and changing relationship with Abdelhim. In “Why Abdelhim” she writes, “anyone can be the girl he says brown girl & never says how brown.” This line eloquently conveys the fascination with him that led millions to attend his funeral and several of those people to commit suicide by jumping off the balcony.
Reading her book brought me to a world I knew little about. How escaping the issues that drove Sudanese people to the United States only gave them a new set of problems from “Islamphobia” to being “too black” and “not black enough.” The collection only scratches the surface of what can come from Safia. Especially when identities of Muslim faith, African descent and womanhood are in constant crisis in the United States.
Rashaun J. Allen (@rashaunjallen) received his MFA in Creative Writing and Literature from SUNY Stony Brook. He’s eyeing agents to help publish his coming of age story, Christine’s Dream – A Memoir of Love, Loss & Life. He is the author of A Walk Through Brooklyn & In The Moment and has been published in TSR: The South Hampton Review. When not writing he runs for the thrill of crossing the finish line. Find more of his work at www.rashaunjallen.comBook Review