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Safia Elhillo takes a leap in new poems, writes about shame and the body

Aris Theotokatos
Penguin Random House

Poet Safia Elhillo never used to write about her body. She felt safer writing poems that pointed the reader's gaze away from herself.

"Up until this point, I only knew how to write a neat, tidy and well-behaved book of poems," the 31-year-old poet says.

Elhillo is the author of a poetry collection and a novel in verse. She also has co-edited a poetry anthology, won several awards, and has had her work translated into several languages.

Still, she says she used to follow a firm set of rules with her writing.

"The idea was that if it was not something I was going to talk about, I wasn't going to write a poem about it."

But in her latest book of poems, to be published on July 12, Elhillo takes that leap. It's called Girls That Never Die, in which she writes about the shame and violence that often comes with being a woman.

/ Penguin Random House
Penguin Random House

The poet arrived at this shift a few years ago. It was 2017. Her first book of poems The January Children had just come out, and the poet was starting to gain attention.

"And I was having a really terrible time on the internet just as a woman," she says. "I wasn't saying much; I was just existing on the internet as one does. And I would just receive the most disgusting DMs, like day-in and day-out."

It was mostly men sending her these messages. And some of them were just like Elhillo – they were Muslim, Sudanese and spoke Arabic.

In wanting to speak truthfully about her experience, Elhillo is not trying to perpetuate harmful ideas about her own community. Instead, she says the book is for her community.

"And for a long time I thought it would just be easier to not say anything at all," she says. "... but my silence will not protect me, and it will not protect my community either."

The poet started writing these new poems from a space of frustration and anger. She says she was mourning all of the years she had lost to the belief that she could "play and win this purity game."

"That if only I was the correct kind of Muslim woman and polite enough and well-behaved enough, then nobody would hate me and nobody would want to do me harm," she says.

So she started writing more freely. Where she'd normally written about the diaspora, nationhood, or language, she was now writing about her body and desire.

"This book is for my homegirls," she says of Girls That Never Die. "It's for my sisters, for my siblings, and it's for myself."

Here's an excerpt from her poem "Ode to My Homegirls", first published in BOMB:

An excerpt from Safia Elhillo's poem "Ode to my Homegirls," first published in <em>BOMB</em>.
/ Penguin Random House
Penguin Random House
An excerpt from Safia Elhillo's poem "Ode to my Homegirls," first published in BOMB.

Amidst moments of personal trauma. Elhillo writes of harmful family traditions, honor killings and genital mutilation. Her poems dig deep into how shame is passed down generations of women. She says there's danger in this silence.

Here's an excerpt from her poem "1000" –

i am disappeared      like all the girls
before me    around me 
all the girls to come             
everyone thinks

i am a little girl & still
they hunt me               still they show their teeth        
i am so tired i am
one thousand  years old          one thousand
years older when touched

This tiredness Elhillo writes about is the weight of silence itself.

"I wanted to make a record of having started a conversation with myself," she says. "To maybe just work on my little corner of this big culture of silence so many of us grew up in."

With these conversations comes power. And the title of Elhillo's new book sings of the autonomy she imagines for her girls.

"The threat of death and the fear of death – those are so often used to govern and to control," she says. "So if the girls never die, if the girls won't die, maybe they're free from that governance and from that control. And then what could that look like?" Girls That Never Die answers that question.

Copyright 2023 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Jeevika Verma