Five Female Poets on Identity and Migration

The following writers use poetry to examine geographic borders, as well as personal and national histories in relationship to the female body. Their ability as artists to employ language, landscape and code switching is exceptional. Their poems and perspectives are needed in the public sphere.

Ms. connected with these five poets to showcase their work and ask them about identity, migration and empathy.

Ladan Osman


at a Claudia Rankin reading, University of Chicago, 2011

I enter: carpet, curtains,
large, framed pictures of robed white men,
a glassy glare over a forehead, below the voice box,
students in bland shades.
I don’t belong, the luxury of thinking,
the wealth of talking about thought,
privilege of ease among important people.
I am afraid of them, their smell,
their cotton, their expensive running shoes,
their faces so hard to read
when they make odd-placed sighs
at black people histories. There is not one
bright color. A professor laughs—
quick, self-turning, a paper cut
to his own heart.
I hate myself for the shame of forgetting
the books on my shelf,
the many others read on the floors of libraries,
corners of bookstores where the cashier can’t see me.
Shame when I see all the book spines there ever were,
their colors and textures like women bent in prayer on a high holy day.
My voice is small as it asks,
What will it matter to them if I make a book?
I am one poet. Isn’t there space for me?
And the tears are sweet, completely sweet
as if they mean, even now you don’t believe?
The colonizers couldn’t have dreamed it,
the preoccupation with the heights of my soul,
my intangible qualities, if I am only the silhouette
of a shadow. If this poet is white in third world countries,
what am I here? It’s possible I’m just like the wind in the curtains.
They monopolize part of the eye.
The wind makes its mischief in goose flesh.
A girl closes the window.

Collection: The Kitchen Dweller’s Testimony

Writers who inspire her: Brigit Pegeen Kelly, Mahmoud Darwish, Jamaica Kincaid

Ladan speaks about this poem: “I was writing into negative space, throwing my weight against notions of invisibility and voicelessness. I don’t accept these concepts but recognize attempts at applying them. Poetry and photography are similar in the sense that I can be a friendly ghost. I make portraits, of a person or space or idea with urgency, intimacy. I need the ambiguity of the image to say what I mean, to show that I feel it. Home is immediate but also vast. Poetry is prepared to do that work.”

Ladan on her themes: “Most of my poems are wry pokes at gender-based fallacies. The idea that we can know who or what anyone is, let alone categorize whole populations, is pretty funny. It’s horrible, too. I want to share I’m thinking about how little we can verify, how weak our determinations. I’m thinking about the gaze, bodies, performance. I’m tracing the point of origin, evidence of outside corruption.”

Ladan on representation: “I’ve had colleagues tell me if my name came across their desks, they’d throw out my poem without reading it. I’ve had notable American poets question if I’m against this country (and men), ask what I’m “trying to do” to American poetry. It sounded a bit shrill. It hurt my ears and heart in the past. Resistance has clarified my intentions but it was also strange to finish the book, receive unexpected support. It was tossing myself against a door, and fell into the next room when it opened. My relationship to my subjectivity and the fact of my embodiment can be uneasy. I feel lonely due to race and ethnicity but also lonely in my private atmosphere. I can’t tell where the borders start.”

Ladan Osman’s “Silhouette” appears in The Kitchen Dweller’s Testimony, University of Nebraska Press.

Fatimah Asghar

If Ever I Should Have A Child With A White Person

I’m spending the nine months I’m pregnant
re-learning urdu & watching every Bollywood
movie & soap opera I can find. I’ll cook kalaijee
& not let them up from the table until each chicken
bone is cracked open & all the marrow is gone.
I’ll show up at all their PTA meetings in shalwaar
kameez, snarling at their teachers while I call
them gorrahs, insulting them in their classrooms.
I’ll stain my teeth with paan & naswar, dye
our palms & hair with henna, sugar wax
moustaches. I’ll dress my bucchi in timberlands
& handmade velvet dresses, I’ll sew all their shirts
just like my auntie did for me & wake them up
at 5am every day to read the Q’uran. I’ll send
them to Sunday School with the local imam
while I down bloody maries at the brunch spot.
I’ll brush off their beds with a bristle broom
& make them use a lota & squat toilet.
Every time we get invited to a wedding
I’ll try to arrange a marriage with some doctor
from Pakistan waiting for a green card.
We’ll sit in our house kupri & I’ll oil their hair
with almonds, gather their waves into braids
& whisper don’t lose this. Please, miri jaani
don’t let America take you. This is the only way
I know how to be us. And really, it isn’t so bad.

Chapbook: After

Writers who inspire her: Danez Smith, Ross Gay, Angel Nafis

Fatimah speaks about this poem: “The poem cycles through several symbols of home, and can’t really decide which one to go with. The poem to me, is rife with confusion, and uncertainty, especially when it comes to defining what home is, both in terms of a physical and emotional home, as well as the home of the body. One of the central questions that I was grappling with when crafting the poem was thinking about how to pass on ideas of home, of culture, of tradition. What does it mean to be of a certain race or religion? And in that it was a want to re-create a home that was similar to my childhood for my hypothetical children.”

Fatimah on identity: “Growing up as a South Asian Muslim in America I often felt very misunderstood. Like my culture and traditions were not celebrated. I think that created a lot of shame in me around some of my culture and traditions, and it took a while to let go of that shame and really be able to embrace all the complexities of who I am.”

Fatimah on art and empathy: “I think all art offers entry points into stories of migration and identity because art often seeks to humanize people, or to take a zoomed-in view of something. For example, the conversation changes when you are talking about abstract numbers or something as big as war, to when you zoom in on a particular family, living in a particular neighborhood during a particular day during a particular war. We see the story, the nuance, the people as people. That’s empathy. Or even a range of emotions – I can’t tell you how many times I’ve read something or seen a work of art and felt like an artist put voice to something that I had felt many times but wasn’t sure how to articulate.”

Fatimah Asghar, “If Ever I Should Have A Child With A White Person” was first published in The Nashville Review. It is not featured in After.

Safia Elhillo

origin stories

i was made out of clay          out of time           the quran says we began
as a single clot of blood       & i keep digging the wound it’s warm inside
some things you lose to mark the time           yes men of course but also
some hair       handful of teeth       is what i am told but all i lost
is a language     but i keep quiet & no one can tell

my grandmother tells me to shred dill
by hand     she means to teach me patience             she calls it length of mind

i hear prayer called by a voice thick with something hurting
like a croak but i do not mean that it is ugly
it is dawn in khartoum & i am two days arrived       everyone kisses
my cheeks & asks       if i am returned or visiting & i think
they mean to be kind           i sleep through gatherings & feel
there is too much blood in my body       & that my name is my
name is my name is my name is

in khartoum’s bright yellow morning my grandfather brings me
the season’s first mangoes             & tells me it is time to come home
they are firm & green but on the inside all sunlight           i use my hands
& spill the juice all down my front         i fill my mouth & i do not answer

Collection: The January Children

Writers who inspire her: Kaveh Akbar, Angel Nafis, Hanif Abdurraqib

Safia speaks about this poem: “origin stories is probably the poem of mine that underwent the greatest number of drafts—I wrote and rewrote it for months, and scrapped so many versions of it. The version of it that ultimately became the poem started as a series of journal entries from my visit to Sudan in January 2016, where I was staying with my grandparents and wanted to keep a record of everything I was hearing and smelling and feeling, to hold on to those sensations later when I left. So that’s where the vignette element of it comes from—these are all small moments from that trip, that I didn’t even know at the time that I’d put in a poem—I just wanted to remember them.”

Safia on representation: “For so long, I wasn’t seeing my particular intersections of experience represented in the literature I was reading, and this sometimes made me feel like I didn’t exist. The more we make our stories public, the more we have a record that we existed, the more we can continue to dispel the obsolete notion that only old white men have experiences deserving of literature. The obstacle, in having so few previous examples of stories like ours, is feeling like we are starting from scratch in creating this record, and feeling tokenized and treated as a representative of our communities at large.”

Safia on space and silence in a poem: “As far as the spacing element of the form, I am obsessed with the caesura as a form of punctuation, in that it is more a hesitation than a mandatory pause in the way a comma or a period might be. So I like to use caesuras instead of commas and periods, in the way they soften the pause, and also in their visual enactment of little silences. I feel like they give the poem some air, some little windows, and it helps me feel like the poem is less crowded with language. I don’t ever like to feel that I’ve used too many words.”

Safia Elhillo, “origin stories” first appeared in The Breakwater Review. It also appears in The January Children, University of Nebraska Press.

Aracelis Girmay

From The Black Maria

The body, bearing something ordinary as light                           Opens
as in a room somewhere the friend opens in poppy, in flame, burns & bears the child — out.

When I did it was the hours & hours of breaking. The bucking of
it all, the push & head

not moving, not an inch until,
when he flew from me, it was the night who came

flying through me with all its hair,
the immense terror of his face & noise.

I heard the stranger & my brain, without looking, vowed
a love-him vow. His struggling, merely, to be

split me down, with the axe, to two. How true,
the thinness of our hovering between the realms of Here, Not Here.

The fight, first, to open, then to breathe,
& then to close. Each of us entering the world

& entering the world like this.
Soft. Unlikely.      Then —

the idiosyncratic minds & verbs.
Beloveds, making your ways

to & away from us, always, across the centuries,
inside the vastness of the galaxy, how improbable it is that this 

of you or you or me might come to be at all — Body of fear,
Body of laughing — & even last a second. This fact should make us fall all

to our knees with awe,
the beauty of it against these odds,

the stacks & stacks of near misses
& slimmest chances that birthed one ancestor into the next & next.

Profound, unspeakable cruelty who counters this, who does not see.

& so to tenderness I add my action.

Collection: The Black Maria, Kingdom Animalia, Teeth

Writers who inspire her: Federico García Lorca, Lucile Clifton, Solmaz Sharif

Aracelis on writing from a personal history: “I wanted to be clear [in my book] that I was writing about migration and asylum seekers from a very particular vantage point. I was born in the U.S. and have never sought asylum. I am always interested in the ways that our subject positions (however flickering and shifting) determine the ways that we think to frame a story or history. I wanted to show my hand, so to speak. To say something about where I acquired my eyes and sensibilities and thought that showing the route-work of my family might be one of the ways to do this. I am interested in heritage in a very broad sense. How each of us carry these intricate stories of places and sounds and gestures and people. I am interested in the ways that our worldview might be shaped and challenged and shaped again by various and new readings of our relationships with our worlds both present and past.”

Aracelis on writing the body: “Some people move through the world with a thorough and constant sense of being strange to themselves and/or feeling the physical limits of their bodies. I have only experienced this in flashes. But my first pregnancy/labor was the first time in my adult life that I felt, in a sustained way, utterly open and stretched, yet differently quaking, limited, and strange to myself. I remember, for example, when my milk came in. That first engorgement. My breasts felt intricately threaded with string, then lead. I remember the relief of my child’s mouth drinking that milk–and always, always the thought of bodies doing this kind of invisible or visible work–utterly physical, utterly emotional and psychological–through the histories, on ships, in camps, in fields, crossing borders, at work, sometimes with their children near but other times far from their children.”

Aracelis on diverse voices in public spaces: “The sharing and challenging of perspectives and ideas can nourish new thinking, new perspectives and ideas. I keep hearing June Jordan here: “We need everybody and all that we are. We need to know and make known the complete, constantly unfolding, complicated heritage that is our black experience. We should absolutely resist the superstar, one at a time mentality that threatens the varied and resilient, flexible wealth of our Black future.” This in mind, I can trace my thinking that I might try to write a poem, or even share a poem with someone else, to the work of Lucille Clifton and Kate Rushin. I can trace my sense of what language might be or do, to my mother and Toni Morrison and Martín Espada… and later to Gwendolyn Brooks, Audre Lorde, Nazim Hikmet. Jamaica Kincaid. We stretch and challenge each other in these ways. If you’re coming from a deeply capitalist culture like this one, then perhaps it’s a counterintuitive equation: the more voices, the more room. We are often taught to fight for slots, for crumbs, for tokens. But there are plenty of people before and around us who show us that there are other ways. Ways to break the gate or challenge the idea of a door at all (I am thinking, now, of a brilliant former student Jamila Umi Jackson… constant challenger of the notion of The Door).” 

Aracelis Girmay, “The Black Maria, Part VIII” from The Black Maria. Originally in Poetry (April 2016). Copyright © 2016 by Aracelis Girmay. Used with the permission of The Permissions Company, Inc. on behalf of BOA Editions Ltd.,

Safiya Sinclair


Out here the surf rewrites our silences.
This smell of ocean may never leave me;
our humble life or the sea a dark page

I am trying to turn: Today my mother’s words
sound final. And perhaps this is her first true thing.
Her hands have not been her hands

since she was twelve,
motherless and shucking whatever the sea
could offer, each day orphaned in the tide

of her own necessity—where the men-o-war
ballooned, wearing her face, her anchor of a heart
reaching, mooring for any blasted thing:

sea-roach and black-haired kelp, jeweled perch
or a drop of pearl made with her smallest self,
her night-prayers a hushed word of thanks.

But out here the salt-depths refuse tragedy.
This hand-me-down life burns sufficiently tragic—
here what was cannibal masters the colonial

curse, carved our own language of the macabre,
sucking on the thumb of our own disparity. Holding
her spliff in the wind, she probes and squalls,

trying to remember the face of her own mother,
our island or some strange word she once found
amongst the filth of sailors whose beds she made,

whose shoes she shined, whose guns
she cleaned, while the white bullet of America
ricocheted in her brain. Still that face she can’t recall

made her chew her fingernails, scratch the day down
to its blood, the rusty sunset of this wonder,
this smashed archipelago. Our wild sea-grape kingdom

overrun, gold and belonging in all its glory
to no one. How being twelve-fingered she took her father’s
fishing line to the deviation, and starved

of blood what grew savage and unwanted. Pulled
until they shriveled away, two hungry mouths
askance and blooming, reminding her

that she was still woman                    always multiplying
as life’s little nubs and dreams came bucking up
in her disjointed. How on the god-teeth

she cut this life, offered her hands and vessel
to be made wide, made purposeful,
her body opalescent with all our clamoring,

our bloodline of what once lived
and will live and live again.
In the sea’s one voice she hears her answer.

Beneath her gravid belly
my gliding hull
a conger eel.

Collection: Cannibal

Writers who inspire her: Audre Lorde, June Jordan, Sylvia Plath

Safiya speaks about this poem: “The way I see it, the body of my mother is the body of the Jamaican nation. The fact of her orphaned upbringing, the brutal cycle of poverty (our greatest post-colonial inheritance), and her mistreatment at the hands of the unfathered past is inseparable from the history of Jamaica itself. This truth of not belonging to yourself, to be denied the profits of your labour, and to be a stranger in a place you must call home, is both true of Jamaica and of all her dreaming citizens. For me it is nearly impossible to divide these wounds of personal and national histories, as they are both sisters to each other and strangers to themselves.”

Safiya on her collection Cannibal: “The origin of the word “Cannibal” is also the linguistic and historical origin of the word “Caribbean,” which is rooted in colonial violence, and in many ways has come to define the Caribbean person—still—as savage and unwanted. This vile miscategorization of blackness as a threat is not only the original site of our trauma, but is also in many ways our strength. In this way our womb is also our wound. What can be born from mastering the curse of this scarred word we were born under, this idea of being “cannibal”? In an attempt to combat the silencing of our Diasporic narratives, I wrote “Hands,” as well as Cannibal itself, as a way to claim this macabre history as a fundamental part of being Caribbean, while also transgressing it. By paying tribute to the labour of women like my mother whose stories are often unconsidered and untold, and by reaffirming the resilience of black womanhood to survive and thrive under any injury, I hoped to both inhabit and to assuage this hurt by giving searing voice to it.”

Safiya on representation: “When a multitude of traditionally marginalized voices becomes more audible, then our experiences will become less of an exotic site for the Western gaze. When more women of colour are given the space and the forum to narrativize our inner lives in all our complexity and full-bloodedness, then this literary expectation to perform a value, to cultivate empathy, to re-enact our otherness for readers outside of our experience will be also be mitigated. It then follows that the greatest obstacle we face is actually the Western gaze itself; the pervasive ideas of white supremacy, its fixed, narrow, and unchanging world of privilege and the publishing industry, which still go hand in hand.”

Safiya Sinclair, “Hands” from Cannibal used with permission of the University of Nebraska Press. Copyright 2016 by the Board of Regents of the University of Nebraska.


Emily Sernaker is a Ms. contributor and a staff writer for the International Rescue Committee. Her poetry, articles and reviews have appeared in The Sun, The Los Angeles Times, The San Francisco Chronicle, McSweeney's, The Rumpus and more. She is a 2019 Lincoln City Fellowship recipient in poetry.