Illustrated by Steven Gavenas
A GIRL IS A SOVEREIGN STATE
What would happen if one woman told the truth about her life? The world would split open
– Muriel Rukeyser
We learned English faster
than our parents, their tongues
a muscle too old to bend in new shapes.
Our tongues milk leaden,
we didn’t pray like they did,
God didn’t answer when we called.
English teachers tskedtskedtsked
when our words lost letters:
when ending became endin
became the end.
English was a world
we rebuilt with our small hands.
I was a girl, small and dark skinned. Nothing belonged to me except
what came out of this mouth of mine.
When my cousin put his [ ] in my [ ] or
when my uncle [ ] me
in the living room of my home
and the strange man grabbed my [ ] last summer on the train
I wanted to say stop,
but I didn’t know what language to say it in.
In Somalia we speak Somali,
in America we speak English.
Sometimes we speak nothing at all.
All the women I know speak
in whispers. Some stories are iron
in my throat, heavy and rusting.
I bite my tongue and taste blood.
Silence was my first language.
I am fluent in its cadences.
I know the way quiet can pour
out of a mouth, a rush of water
in a season of drought.
I exchange one word
for another, and a country is lost
Every day I am gone
drags behind me like a lame dog.
The days stacked against me,
a vertebrate of years.
I run a finger against my lips,
my uncle’s tongue becomes
a dead fish in my mouth.
Generations of men gorging
themselves on silence.
The body of a girl, a nation
with no flag of its own.
Borders slick as the oil in her hair.
My inheritance a disappearing act,
first girl then ghost then gone.
The first time I go home, the water makes me sick. I am trapped in a cloud of heat.
The mosquitoes are blood mad. Men at the market look at me with a similar hunger.
They call me American Girl. I feel a mountain level inside me. I name its peak desire.
I want to kill the American Girl in me. Rip her tongue from my mouth, undo the dumb
luck of her birth.
All my languages are borrowed or stolen. I am not sure what the difference is anymore.
Some days I am not a girl but a house made of all the wrong words. I peel language back
from the walls like paint. What is left? A home or the poor imitation of one? A girl or only her
In the evenings, my sister and I sit on our grandmother’s porch listening to the radio. The pink
edges of the sky fold in on themselves. The antennae picks up a single station, blares the anthem
of the revolution, songs men howled in underground meetings as the war crested
and the British sniffed at their doors.
We turn the music up and sing as loud as we want to. No one tells us to be quiet.
The only thing a girl can love without shame is her country.
Years ago a customs official asked my girl
mother her name in the Toronto Pearson Airport.
Refugee, she christened herself. Her first English word
an unbirthing. The first lesson she learned: only
what is unnamed can be saved from
the violence that surrounds it.
Lips and knuckles splitting open in the cold
of her first winter, everything in this new
world, a wound.
I try and write everything she’s lost back in its place:
the hyacinths in the yard grow plump again;
Abdi gains back the weight
cancer stripped from his frame;
house keys appear on a countertop;
my sister lives and does not die.
I write my mother a country, invent
a language to bank the river between us.
Jekyll of no nation, I am no place she knows.
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