Letter to Liu Xiaobo

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I wrote this letter three years ago, perhaps misunderstanding our student activist assignment to write letters of protest to oppressive regimes. Reading it now, my words seem so inadequate, especially given the recent news that Liu Xiaobo has died a prisoner of conscience. Did I even send it to the correct address? Likely, not. Was I mostly thinking of myself, my own woes, as I wrote it? Probably so, and struggling with how to reconcile my art with my activism. Reading it now feels a bit like a child’s school report. And yet, writing the letter changed me for the better. Rest in peace, Liu Xiaobo. (1955-2017). 

Liu Xiaobo

Dear Liu Xiaobo,

I am writing this letter to express my sadness and anger that you have been imprisoned, and also to extend a few humble words of support for your life and work as a poet.

I’m sitting in a café in Greenwich Village with two fellow writers. We met here today to each write letters as part of PEN’s Defending Writers campaign.

I can’t say that I’ve been an activist in my life. And yet, I have made a commitment to a life of poetry. In my mind, that is also a commitment to a life in search of the truth, and bringing that truth out into the light of day.

Wanting to learn more about you, I stumbled upon an essay by Nick Admussen, published in Boston Review a couple years ago. I read the words Lia Xia, your wife: “I have not come to view Xiaobo as a political figure. In my eyes, he has always been and will always be an awkward and diligent poet.”

As I complete my graduate work in the next couple of weeks, I will return to both those words and the poetry you have written. I will strive to be more “awkward and diligent” in my own poetry. I will also draw inspiration from these words, the final stanzas from your poem “Experiencing Death”:

Countless nights behind iron-barred windows

and the graves beneath starlight

have exposed my nightmares

 

Besides a lie

I own nothing

These lines draw something new into my world. Reading them changes me in some fundamental way I cannot yet understand—the power of lies. To recognize a lie can mean intellectual freedom. It can change a person’s life and a country’s future.

From New York, I send gratitude for your work and urgently call for your release from prison.

Yours truly,

Safia Jama

4/18/2015

New York City

 

 

My Conversation with Howlarium

about childhood

I am trying to remember that feeling of being completely present and alive. Moments of say, turning over a rock and staring at the worm, the roly-poly bug, and just being enthralled. I will admit that I ate junk cereal and watched a lot of cartoons. I loved the Smurfs. Yet like all kids, I had a rich inner life. Some kids are left to their own devices more so than others, and then the imagination flourishes in a kind of benign neglect, like coral reefs that flourished off the coast of Cuba.cropped-lady.jpgRead the full story, Go into Yourself: A Conversation with Safia Jama.

Eleven Years Late

We walked all the way downtown,

past the church,

past the policeman’s frown,

’til we neared that cordoned-off,

hollow space, the ashes long

since blown away.

 

I read a sign that said closed for the day.

And if you wish to visit,

you’ll have to reserve

a space

to mourn your loss

and shed your tears;

a grief neglected

must be paid in arrears.

 

Now we walk around the edges

and peer

through the cracks, and hear

the low rumble

of subway tracks.

 

The protesters in Zuccotti Park

make a half-hearted cheer;

walking past the firehouse,

I shed 343 tears.

 

We stand at the memorial’s entrance,

and see the tops of a few trees.

 

I guess I had hoped

for more than these

hotel bars & blaring TV’s.

 

I know, I should have called ahead.

 

Still, I wish there was a place

to go and grieve at odd hours,

without a pass

or an appointment.

*

September 17, 2012

 

Ode to Facebook

Blue whale swallowing the world.

24-hour hotline: Occasional no answer.

We show our wares and want to be well-liked.

This first-born, we place in your blue box.

Walls made of war and Happy Birthday.

Humanity, mashed up with a fork.

This video has no sound.

This sad dog will not go out for walks.

May his tears deepen the intensity of your blue frame.

batman

 

The Safia Jama Experience in The Offing

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The Offing’s Aricka Foreman spotlighted my poetry in “I Slay: 11 Women Artists To Get Us Into Formation.”  Foreman writes: “To be a rebel woman, in the simplest of terms, means to speak for herself, of and for her life, honestly.”  For the record, I love this definition. I wrote and posted my poem, When They Ask About Your Summer, here on this very blog two summers ago.  I recall feeling a need to share my poetry without having to submit my work to an institution. I like how Foreman splices artists of various disciplines, together,  forming a virtual collective of rebel women. Foreman eschews the usual hierarchies: No one is listed under a number, and multiple genres are represented.  Several of my heroes, like Zadie Smith, Edwidge Danticat, and Maxine Hong Kingston, are featured alongside writers I look forward to getting to know, like Gala Mukomolova and Meredith Talusan. Much gratitude to the Offing for recognizing the work of women writers and artists making their own respective paths in the world.