I first encountered Gertrude Stein through her avant-garde poetry in Tender Buttons, an evocative series of short poems that forced writing to its breaking point with sentences like: “Dirty is yellow. A sign of more is not mentioned.” I met her blindly, only through her words, yet I already fell for her eccentricity. I knew there was something wonderful behind the mind that put down on paper the bold tongue-in-cheek yet unbelievably serious statement, “A rose is a rose is a rose is a rose”. I just had to explore her art further. So I began scouring old journals and artist profiles to learn more about her.
Little did I know that the radical art Stein created could almost be rivaled by the art that she nurtured in the artists around her. I found multiple sources that called her the ‘mother’ of modernism, but after getting to know more about her, I am sure that she would scoff at such a title. After all, she left the United States in 1903 to flee the pressures of gender norms. She was also bored with medical school and seeking an outlet to express her eccentric point of view, she settled down in Paris, where she intended to pursue a life free from heteronormativity. She opened a salon in her home for the world’s creative mind, including some of the world-renowned names such as Picasso, Matisse, Hemingway, and Fitzgerald. She was the voice of this ‘Lost Generation, the group of American expatriates flocking to Paris– and even coined the term.
The way I see it, she brought together these esteemed artists and in many ways, elevated them through her no-nonsense critique of their work. I had always internalized that a woman inspiring other artists (typically male artists) was a muse. That term is loaded, as there were often sexualized or romanticized elements typically tied to a muse. Instead, what I admired about Stein was that she was a mentor to the ‘greats’. I see her as a woman that had an undeniable presence in her time, respected by those around her.
Nothing about her was conventional and she embraced her own strangeness, something that drew me to her further. Stein deserves the title of a trailblazer of the modernist period and of queer identity at the time. Stein’s essay Miss Furr and Miss Skeene were among the first story to be published about homosexual revelation, containing the first noted use of the word “gay” in published works to refer to same-sex relationships. She also hosted one of the first avant-garde exhibitions in the United States, funding it with the money she collected from her art dealerships. I have no doubt that every piece of art in the period has her fingerprint.
And she didn’t hesitate to acknowledge her accomplishments either. Stein didn’t believe that women must be modest, proudly proclaiming “I have been the creative literary mind of the century.” She never sold herself short, a habit I found myself doing as I presented my own poetry or other writing. I was still working with my own feelings of inferiority, belittling my stories as ‘just’ relevant to female-identifying communities. While she wrote about women and her partner, she didn’t restrict herself to writing women’s stories. I found it so refreshing to see her unabashed pride, as it reminded me to take hold of my own achievements and to be confident. No matter how unconventionally and ‘weirdly’ I experimented with my creativity, I learned that I could (and should) still demand to be taken seriously.
Regardless of all this, I don’t think she should be idolized. I often like to give powerful women in difficult situations the benefit of the doubt, as do most of the historians and writers that grapple with creating a retrospective of Stein’s life. I witnessed a trend in the way that they wrote about her, that she was ensuring her safety as a Jew in Nazi-occupied France by making these questionable alliances with Nazi figures. As much as I respect her as a feminist and as the backbone of the Lost Generation of artists, I cannot excuse her political affiliations and ironic, confusing pro-Nazi expressions.
At the end of it all, Stein didn’t strive to be accepted or allow herself to be molded by the society around her. She carved her own place into history and I believe it is important to commemorate it, lest she is lost in the shadows of her male counterparts. As a woman in the art world, looking at Stein as an example liberates me and allows me to embrace subversive expressions of creativity.
I love fanfiction. I think there’s something about it that you can’t find in published novels or tv shows, it’s unique and hard to explain. And while it might sound odd, there’s a lot you can learn from fanfics.
Most people don’t realize what’s out in the vast web to be discovered. For example, you might be scrolling through the works of your new favorite tv show and finally decide to brave the uncharted territories of mature-rated fanfics. You’ll click on one with a funny summary and then fall down the fascinating rabbit hole to continue reading more. And in doing so, you might actually learn about sex through fanfics.
That’s what happened to me anyway. You see, I never really had the opportunity to learn about sex in my family. My culture treats sex as taboo and then expects girls to grow up wanting to have babies and get married into a life of pleasing their husband. And all this without telling girls about potential dangers that come with sex or trying to make sex sound appealing.
I went through the basic sex ed in school, but that didn’t explain a lot. Most of what I remember was the teacher telling us to use birth control if it came down to it, but we should abstain from sex. Senior year Biology was where I learned about my body properly; I was finally told about the many changes that the body goes through due to our hormones. But most importantly, I learned about male anatomy. At no point before this had anyone explained what sex is. I knew it was performed between males and females, but not how. Before that class, I thought it was code for lying in a bed with a member of the opposite sex.
And all this without telling girls about potential dangers that come with sex or trying to make sex sound appealing.
And while that class helped clear up some of my more significant questions, it wasn’t enough. But I had nowhere to turn to for learning more. My parents weren’t an option, and asking someone seemed awkward. So I turned to the internet. For the first time in nearly four years of exploring fanfiction online, I dove into what I thought was the dark side and looked at the selection of M-rated fics.
Thinking back on it, they weren’t even particularly spicy fics that I stumbled across. I was jumping back into the PJO (Percy Jackson and the Olympians by Rick Riordan) fandom for like the third time, and I had exhausted my supply of tried and true teen and lower fics. These fanfics primarily served as a way for me to learn specifically about sex and what it was, how it worked, in a setting that wasn’t overly scientific. It was all very vanilla, but that was fine back then.
Then I jumped into some Yu-Gi-Oh fandoms and looked around at the selection there as well. And that was the first time I learned about sex being possible between same-sex couples. Then I switched from my usual fanfic website to a more known and better one, Archive Of Our Own. And this was where things got interesting because there were tags for everything. If I wanted to explore a specific kink, I could check the tag for it and look at all the options in every fandom.
And I did exactly that; I jumped through different fandoms and checked out every type of M or E rated fic that was unique and then added the new knowledge to the ever-growing list of things I knew about sex. I explored lots of different kinks. When Fifty Shades of Grey was coming out, and everyone was complaining that it didn’t show BSDM accurately, I went to fanfics to learn what they were all talking about. I’ve read many an ABO fic and several femdom stories. And I thought by reading all these fics; I suddenly knew everything there was to know about sex.
Then one day, an online friend talked about a time that she was sexually harassed and how some of these fanfictions we read lead her to think that it was normal. And I started to rethink the fics I was reading.
It occurred to me that a lot of the stuff I’ve been reading wasn’t always safe or consensual. These were works of fiction, and therefore not always meant to be an accurate reflection of reality, but I had spent years normalizing the lack of consent that came with some of these stories. I didn’t even realize until a month ago that it isn’t normal for someone to cry during sex or for most people to get off to that. Many of the kinky fics I read also never really detailed much about the relationship outside of the sex, which made for a very twisted view on things.
None of this means that I plan to stop reading smut fics. I’ve come to recognize that most of what is in these stories is simple fantasy. I should have never expected it could replace the learning that comes from talking to people about their experiences or having sex myself.
But if anyone else out there is like me, then now is as good a time as any to look a bit more critically at the fics you read and made the conscious distinction between them and reality. I know it’s awkward to talk to others about sex, and let’s not lie on the internet, it can be dangerous.
I don’t claim to know all the answers, and there’s no right way to learn about sex. But at the very least, I think it’s better not to put all the eggs in one basket. When you want to learn about something you should look at several different places. I’ve begun taking a more thorough route to my own learning, one which involved properly researching whatever sexual topic comes to mind in fanfics but outside as well with the help of google or asking some very close friends who I can trust.
This new system has been working so far, and I find myself enjoying some of the conversations I can have with people about these topics as well.
April is surely the month to celebrate for literature lovers. This year marks the 25th anniversary of National Poetry Month since its first inception by the Academy of American Poets. This month also hosts UNESCO’s World Book Day, which falls on the 23rd of the month. As we enter its final week, it’s time to reacquaint ourselves with the hypnotic power of poetry, one of the oldest art forms in the world that is still very much alive today.
While Anglophone poetry has found continuity and relevance globally in pop culture through new forms such as spoken word, hip-hop, and even taking center stage during the recent Inauguration, non-Anglophone poetry has not received the same amount of exposure in the global scene. Much of this is due to linguistic imperialism, which demarcates readership based on dominant and marginalized languages.
I certainly wasn’t acquainted with poetry outside of my native tongue and the English language until university. Reading works translated from other languages made me realize the importance of literary translation and its role in ferrying ideas between specific cultures. Little did I know, that experience would plant the seed for my current journey as a translator of poetry.
Whether you’re a seasoned reader or a newcomer to poetry, here is a list of five exceptional women poets in translation to help you expand your reading list:
In her short but fulminant life, Argentine poet Alejandra Pizarnik composed scores of hidden treasures that have only just recently surfaced in the English language, thanks to the translation work undertaken by New Directions Publishing. Born to Polish Jewish immigrant parents in Buenos Aires, Pizarnik’s literary life took flight in Paris, the city she imagined would bring her success. The reality was quite the opposite; she lived in the dark margins of the City of Lights, in poverty and anguish. Undeterred by her circumstances, she wrote and wrote vociferously amid bouts of depression and schizophrenia.
The resulting work is direct, unflinching, and non-elliptical, best represented in Extracting the Stone of Madness, translated into English by Yvette Siegert. I’ve never encountered a unique volume such as this, one that showcases a voice that is inimitable in all its bright melancholy, underscored with moments of lyrical tenderness. This work firmly cements Pizarnik’s status as a literary giant in the great pantheon of Latin American literature. Sadly, Pizarnik ended her own life in 1972 at age 36 from a drug overdose after struggling with long bouts of depression.
2. Forough Farrokhzad
I don’t repent.
It’s as if my heart flows
on the other side of time.
– from In Night’s Cold Streets, translated by Sholeh Wolpé
I often bristle at the term “Iran’s Sylvia Plath” that is imposed upon her by Anglophone readers, as Farrokhzad’s poetic voice is distinctively hers, one that could have only germinated from her milieu. She was the mirror that gazed back into centuries of traditions in Persian poetry that had long been the domain of men and their proclivities. Her stunning autobiographical debut in 1954 at age 19—an unapologetic confession of an adulterous affair, no less—would come at a high price to her personal life.
It’s easy to draw parallels between Farrokhzad and Plath: both met death at an untimely age, and both struggled with the conception of the idealized self in their art. In Farrokhzad’s case, hers was a revelatory persona imbued within the poetry of protest. Between lines that speak unapologetically of female sin, defiance, longing, and aspirations, Farrokhzad mastered the unfaltering voice of the feminine iconoclast, even after decades of staunch censorship.
Watch a reading of Farrokhzad’s poems by poet and translator Sholeh Wolpé below.
If Plath and Farrokhzad were embodiments of desire’s relation to language, the leading postmodern literary theorist Hélène Cixous perfected it into a corpus that would forever alter what I would come to understand as ‘the writing woman’. To mention Cixous is to summon her gorgon of écriture feminine (“women’s writing”) as she coined it in her seminal essay, The Laugh of the Medusa. The bold literary call to arms became a new manifesto for women writing the body. “I, too, overflow,” Cixous wrote, “my desires have invented new desires, my body knows unheard-of songs.”
Much like her declaration of the body, Cixous’s poetry interrogates exclusionary structures that have kept women’s writing at the periphery. But she also writes of love, the risk one takes when being in love, and the power it acquires in coloring our everyday presence. This theme is most prominent in The Book of Promethea. Hers is a landscape where the poetic self cannot harmonize with the imposing structure of politicized language, and therefore the way forward is a reinvention in her own terms.
4. Hiromi Itō
The epithet of ‘shamaness’ precedes Hiromi Itō, one of Japan’s most brazen poets who is boundless in her artistry. Having witnessed her performance at a literary festival, I immediately devoured videos of her past performances and poetry excerpts available in English.
Moving with the gaiety and cunning of the kitsune, a mythical Japanese fox, Itō builds upon the rich tradition of itinerant storytellers in medieval Japan in high-octane performances that simply cannot be captured on the printed page. In a society where speaking about the bodily functions of women is still seen as transgressive, Itō writes of childbirth, stillbirth, filicide, broken genealogies, and menstruation, often using clever puns and multiple characters to narrate her stories.
Watch her powerful performance on menstruation below, which plays on the Japanese term for ‘lunar cycle’, thus linking periods with the waxing and waning phases of the moon.
5. Maria Stepanova
In place of a memory I did not have, of an event I did not witness, my memory worked over someone else’s story; it rehydrated the driest little note and made of it a pop-up cherry orchard.
Nothing has quite delighted me more than discovering the works of Maria Stepanova, a Russian poet, essayist, and journalist who has lived in Moscow for most of her life. Her artistic coming-of-age coincided with the collapse of the Soviet Union in the 90s, which heavily underscores her poetic outlook.
Amid the roaring chaos of the period, Stepanova wove a space where she could intervene between politics and memory, one she termed postmemory. Her body of poetry is brilliant in its expression of the humdrum and peculiar in the post-Soviet environment. However, her poetic prose is where she shines as a memoirist in the truest sense: one who reconstructs memory between recollections and falsehoods.
“Poetry’s work is the clarification and magnification of being,” writes Jane Hirshfield, distinguished American poet, and literary translator. Like many others who retreat into solitary reading to seek comfort during the pandemic, these authors offered vast topographies that nurture the delicate exchange between language and emotion. If you’re currently on a reading binge, what better way to cap off a literary month than reading fearless women who write?
I was eight years old when I tried to write a poem for the very first time. We were just learning how read and write in school, and my teacher asked us to write a short composition. I remember how I reluctantly put pen to paper and drafted some verses that looked more like doodles than text. The topic was about spring, and I wrote about the little things that help you realize that the warmer season has arrived: the chirping of the birds early in the morning and the first bloom of the spring flowers.
Back then perhaps I did not realize it fully, but it was my way of noticing and reveling in my own happiness at the beginning of spring. Those simple rhymes were my smiles and laughter whenever I saw new life coming out of the winter cold.
I can connect every poem I have ever written to a memory and a feeling. When I had my first crush, I was too embarrassed to talk to him directly, so I would turn to my notebook and write. Reading these poems a decade later might be a bit embarrassing, in the way you feel when you’re forced to watch childhood videos. But at that moment, they captured my feelings and helped me process them.
I remember a summer sunset in Seoul, years later. Walking slowly beside the river, until the sun fell under the waves. The nostalgia for my town, and the love for that big metropolis that had welcomed me so warmly. And the realization that came with finally being a “grown-up.” The image is so vivid and colorful in my mind, with the hues of red and orange and the specks of cobalt at the edges.
After coming back home, I sat down on my bed, and tried to think about the reason why it was so clear in my mind. I mulled over it and I could not figure it out. I finally drew my pen and painted that summer sunset the one way I knew would help me. As I stopped to choose the right words, the ones that would build the right rhythm for the main picture, the feeling became clearer to me.
It is a bit like painting. You have to mix the colors on your palette until you get just the right hue for the sky. In the same way, you mix and pick different words and sentences until they form the exact rhythm of the feeling you want to convey. Having to choose them carefully, you are made to evaluate them and think of why one word better suits a context than another. That precise nitpicking is the one that I always found useful, especially when in doubt about what exactly I was feeling. Whether they were negative or positive, poetry has always made my feelings easier to understand.
I remember a cold winter night in Harbin, the snow flurrying around me in a deadly storm, the wind trying to scratch over any exposed patches of skin. I remember feeling lost and powerless, in a world that was too big for an 18-years-old me.
When I put down the pen, the page in front of me was full of doodles and words scratched off. The finished poem lay in front of me. And instantly, I felt very light.
To me, writing poetry is a cathartic process that starts with a picture, and helps me let go of feelings. A bit like when you do yoga and the instructor tells you to relax and let all the worries leave your body.
This what writing poetry feels like.
Letting the words wash away anything that was being kept inside me, and releasing them in another shape, ink on paper.
I’ll admit it, I’m a huge sucker for a show that hits you hard. Firefly Lane is a 10-episode Netflix series starring Katherine Heigl and Sarah Chalke that just released on Netflix early this week.
It’s based on the novel by Kristin Hannah, and if I had known it was based on a book, I would have chosen to read it first. But here we are, two days later and I’ve binged the entire show in two sittings and I have a lot of feelings.
I’m not going to lie – anytime I see Heigl on screen – I think rom-com, Grey’s Anatomy, happy feelings, and put-you-to-bed on a high. With the added nostalgia factor of Chalke from Scrubs, of course, I clicked on the show instantly.
Firefly Lane is centered around the friendship of two girls, Tully Hart and Kate Mularkey, stretched over timelines that tug between their teenage years (teenage Tully and Kate are played by Roan Curtis and Ali Skovbye), their early 20s and their 40s. The transitions between each of the timelines are beautifully done and I’ll give cinematography all the points for that. But while they were artfully curated, they didn’t feed into the story or connect the pieces as carefully as we would have liked. They skipped over, rushed over – brushing past the intimacy that we needed.
But let’s get into what the show does. It’s funny how much the show pulls on literary tropes – Tully the cool girl with a punctured past becomes your iconic central character fuelled with trauma and a goal to escape everything her family put her through (in this case, her mom). And then there’s Kate. Good, wholesome, so typically nerdy Kate who rushes in and saves Tully from her mess of a mother.
And maybe it’s an unexpected friendship, maybe somehow it makes all the sense in the world but their blazing connection and on-screen chemistry worked for me. It was tainted and dark with a silver-lining kind of happy ending feeling that pushed you into believing everything will be alright, as long as they had each other.
One specific moment that comes to mind is where Tully throws rocks at Kate’s window and she comes out to see the fireflies that have lit the night sky. Bright orange and celestial fireflies dot the screen as the pair cycle down the street, time-stretching over and pulling you into their world.
The most powerful timeline and the one that the viewers will probably cling to the most is when the two characters are in their early 40s. Tully plays a famous Seattle talk-show host and Kate is struggling with her estranged husband Johnny (played by Ben Lawson) and trying to get back into the workforce after 14 years.
Johnny is the mesmerizing heartthrob of the show. He’s handsome, driven, ambitious and oh- that accent just gets you. There’s a lot of inner turmoil presented through his character but what the show doesn’t delve too much into is his history with Tully. It seems like she has a big role to play in Kate and Johnny’s relationship and the first time we see him with Tully, it seems like there’s something there that doesn’t reach the surface throughout the series.
Tully’s character, from a young age, emerges with a force. She’s a go-getter, ready to take on the world of journalism with a storm. From reporting a story after she’s been shot, to taking every advantage to step into the role of the anchor when the host of the show is injured. She’s outwardly self-assured, vivid, confident and yet when you break past the exuding magnetism of her persona, you discover a deep yearning for human connection within her… one she’s pushed away all her life but desperately wanted from her eccentric and drug-addict mother, cloud (played by Beau Garrett).
She has star power, as everyone tells her from a young age, but you know secretly all she wants is some love. It’s tragic and conflicting and Heigl does what she does best – draws you deep into the disposition of her character that you’re rooting for her to have it all.
Meanwhile, captivating Kate is more inclined to be the sidekick. She takes a backseat while Tully shines bright. Her lack of confidence, neurotic behavior, and grappling relationship with her daughter Marah (Yael Yurman) all just isn’t done well enough.
There’s too much missing within the scenes that jump back and forth that we aren’t given enough to cling to. Her marriage ended because of an emotional affair, and she falls quickly for a photographer and shares a steamy kiss with him in a restaurant alley. But then she ends up in an almost relationship with her PTA crush which just leaves a sour taste because we’re rooting for her and Johnny since their chemistry is everything.
The most recent and final timeline takes place at a funeral, where Tully and Kate are no longer friends. It’s thrown in so randomly, and brushed over that we don’t get enough time to take it in. There isn’t even build up, or enough back story for the ending that crashes into an awkward and uncomfortable confrontation between the two besties (soulmates).
That’s not to say the show didn’t touch upon a lot of important elements. Ranging from rape, when Tully is assaulted in the woods at only 14. To the predators of the media industry when Tully is in her 20s and trying to move up her career ladder. To speaking about menopause and miscarriages, transitioning back to work as a single parent, dating post-divorce.
There’s a lot wrapped into the 10-part series and as much as I want to say the show was great, it did lack something. It made me cry, a lot in a way that everything Heigl stars in does. Maybe it was the whimsical nature in which the show collided into emotions that warped you into believing it was creating a connection between two women that would be long-lasting.
There’s a certain poetry to the show. It’s dolled up in costumes and a nostalgic score and dreams manifesting into reality. Of things happening for the better. And the overwhelming feeling of hope rushing through you. And that’s probably why I kept watching.
It’s the light kind of show that gets you through the horrors of reality we all cling to at a time like this. You shouldn’t expect the world from a show that relies heavily on being watchable. But you can expect to feel good, temporarily, lost in the realism of it all.
For stories of Black history and excellence, check out our Black History Month series. Celebrate with us by sharing your favorite articles on social media and uplifting the stories, lives, and work of Black people.
I first heard about the Harlem Renaissance when watching Black Nativity, a retelling of the Nativity story with Black characters.
The Harlem Renaissance was a twentieth-century African-American movement in art, culture, literature, politics, and music. Creativity and intellectual life flourished at this time for African-American communities following the Great Migration, where hundreds of families migrated from the South to the North for economic opportunities and to acquire cultural capital. Major players include Langston Hughes, Adelaide Hall and Bill “Bojangles” Robinson.
The name Langston was a frequent recurrence in the Black Nativity and I thought to myself, “who was this man?” After researching, I found out that Langston Hughes was an exceptional poet who contributed immensely to the Harlem Renaissance. However, as great as Langston’s poetry is, I began to think about the countless Black women who must have had an influence on the birth of this new African American identity.
It was not limited to only Black men or just Harlem. Despite being centered in Harlem, it was a diasporic movement with Black Francophone writers in Paris being influenced.
As mentioned above, the Harlem Renaissance has been known to be about the emergence of new forms of art and literature by African Americans living in Harlem, New York. After the First World War, artists such as Meta Warrick Fuller were influenced by African themes and this was reflected in her artwork. She was the first Black woman to receive a federal commission for her art. One of her most notable sculptures, ‘Ethiopia Awakening’ (1914) catalyzed the resurgence of numerous African themes in the Harlem Renaissance.
Jessie Redmon Fauset has been described as the “midwife of the Harlem Renaissance” due to her position as the literary editor of The Crisis, an NAACP magazine. Her position as editor gave her the opportunities to promote literary work relating to social movements of the era. Fauset was ahead of her time as an editor! She discouraged writers to write about their struggles being Black in the early 20th century but rather encouraged them to speak about positivity, ensuring there was positive representation of Black identity in the magazine.
It’s interesting to see how even back then there was a collective understanding of what constitutes Black joy, Black identity, and why it must be preserved for future generations. It’s just bittersweet to see that up until today Black people are still writing about struggle given our experiences in the world. I wonder what Fauset anticipated for the future of Black writers. Would they be writing about joy and positivity?
Her influence during the era was unmatched, she bolstered the careers of figures we now know to be Langston Hughes and Nella Larson.
Remember Betty Boop? She was inspired by Josephine Baker. Dubbed the trendsetter and fashionista of the Renaissance, she served as inspiration for Black women and white women at the time with her outfits. Even across the Atlantic, she was causing a commotion. I mean, this is nothing new.
One of the most notable aspects of her career as a dancer is her refusal to perform for segregated audiences and this speaks volumes. By refusing to do so, she acknowledged her worth and respected herself enough by not doing so. I guess not everything is worth the bag. Her fashion influence left people copying left, right and center. Josephine was an influencer before her time.
After shining a light on three prominent women during the Harlem Renaissance, I’ll remember that there are so many stories out there and sometimes you just have to find them.
Because of British colonization, women’s rights were nonexistent in 19th century India; women were largely confined to domestic roles and were not allowed to receive an education. Despite such patriarchal restrictions, Savitribai Phule, an Indian teacher, and feminist, established the first school for girls in India in 1848 with the help of her husband, Jyotirao Phule. Savitribai’s trailblazing in women’s education is a testament to the resilience of feminists.
Like most other married Indian women, Savitribai was not literate at the time of her marriage at age nine. After being educated by her husband and his friends, Savitribai enrolled herself in training programs for teachers at two institutions, the Normal School and an institution in Ahmednagar.
Later, she began to teach alongside Sagunabai, another revolutionary Indian feminist. Eventually, the Bhides and Sagunabai founded their own school at Bhide Wada, the home of Tatya Saheb Bhide, a man who was inspired by the work of the trio.
During this time, education was limited to male Brahmins (a caste) and involved the teachings of the Vedas and Shastras. Savitribai’s school was unique in that it taught mathematics, science, and social studies instead of Hindu texts. It was also open to people of all castes, including women.
However, not everyone supported Savitribai’s endeavors; Savitribai would carry an extra sari with her to school because people would hurl stones and dirt at her while she was walking. By educating people of lower castes and women, Savitribai was radically changing the status quo. Knowledge is power, so her work empowered hundreds of people from historically marginalized communities in India.
After being kicked out of their house by her husband’s father for their work in the community, the Phules lived with Usman Sheikh and his sister, Fatima Sheikh. Fatima is known as the first Muslim female teacher of India and opened a school alongside Savitribai. Their friendship exemplified feminist sisterhood and empowerment.
Outside of her educational accomplishments, Savitribai was also a staunch feminist and poet. She authored two notable collections of poetry, Kavya Phule in 1854 and Bavan Kashi Subodh Ratnakar in 1892. Through her writing, she was able to encourage people from marginalized communities to break free from the chains of oppression by getting an education.
Later, she founded multiple organizations to raise awareness for women’s rights, infanticide, and caste-based violence. The Mahila Seva Mandal forged gatherings between women of all castes and encouraged all of the women to sit together on the same mat. In her house, she created the House for the Prevention of Infanticide as a safe space for widowed Brahmin women to deliver their babies and leave them there under her care. At the same time, she campaigned against child marriage and lobbied for widow remarriage.
After her husband’s death, Savitribai chaired a session for the Satyashodhak Samaj, an organization that serves the interests of non-Brahmins. At this time, a woman chairing an organization was unprecedented and revolutionary. Through these efforts, Savitribai also initiated the first Satyashodkah marriage, which is a marriage without a dowry, Brahmin priests, or Brahminical rituals.
Savitribai also founded a clinic to take care of patients with the bubonic plague. She passed away in 1897 while taking care of a patient with the bubonic plague in the clinic. While she passed away more than a century ago, her legacy is honored annually in Maharastra on January 3rd, known as Balika Din (Day of Girls).
Balika Din is a holiday dedicated to educating people about legislation that protects young girls and is dedicated to the welfare of young girls in India. Women are still actively discriminated against in India through sexual assault, sex-selective abortions, and patriarchal gender roles. Savitribai’s work was the first step towards promoting gender equality in modern India.
My aunt died of cancer when I was 17. She loved poetry, and it was poetry that helped me honor her.
People were extremely supportive of me at the time. However, after a few weeks, everyone seemed to forget. After all, she had been sick for a while and I wasn’t that close to her. However, her death still hurt me. I can’t explain why it affected me so much. Perhaps it was because for the first time I was old enough to understand the implications of death, or because she had been sick for so long that I had forgotten the risk that cancer entails. Or maybe it was because I could see myself in her. My aunt was hard-working and intelligent. Like me, she loved poetry and traveling. She was also the one to tell me not to be afraid of following my dreams.
I felt like people wanted me to grieve, but only for a short time, and were desperately trying to make me be happy when all I wanted was permission to be sad- to honor the feelings so that I could move past it. Poetry allowed me to do just that.
Sometimes, I just wanted to be sad.
I will be forever thankful to my senior year literature teacher. She had also gone through a recent loss in her family and seemed to know exactly what I needed.
In the first exam after my aunt’s death, sheasked us to analyze a section of text in which a famous Spanish poet mourned the loss of his best friend. The text talked about friendship and death, about the pain of losing someone that was part of who you are, and the certainty that they will always accompany you. I stared at the text for what seemed like ages. I connected to it so deeply. Eventually, tears started rolling down my cheeks. One of my classmates realized I had not written anything on my paper (which was strange because I was an A+ student) and asked me if I was okay. The teacher then came to my side and asked the same. I nodded, but she didn’t leave. I asked her if I could go to the bathroom and left the class.
When I got to the bathroom, I broke down.
A few seconds later, my teacher knocked on the door and asked if she could come in. She had left a classroom with 30 students doing a final year exam to come to make sure I was okay.
She apologized for putting that text on the exam, but I thanked her. In a way, it made my feelings valid. I shared with her the pressure I felt to be happy again, and that sometimes I just wanted for people to let me be sad. She understood.
The next day she gave me a present: a plastic folder with printed poems. She said they might help.
It didn’t make sense. Yet, I understood.
Reading the poems that she gave me, and then diving into the collections that they had been taken from gave me somewhere to go at times when I felt like I was drowning. It made me feel seen. It made my grief something beautiful despite the sadness, not something to be ashamed of.
Two particular writers saved me. On the one hand, the poems of José Ángel Valente had a simplicity but also a timelessness that captured me.
My favorite poem of his was a short one called Canción para franquear la sombra, that roughly translates to A song to Cross the Shadows and it goes: “one day we will see each other/ on the other side of dreams’ shadow/ my eyes and my hands will come to you/ and you will be, and I will be/ as if we always had been/ on the other side of dream’s shadow”.
In another poem, he says: “I must die. And, nonetheless, nothing/dies, because nothing/ has enough faith/ to be able to die”.
The other poet that really touched me was Mario Benedetti. He is an Uruguayan poet that has a talent for talking about the happiest and the saddest things in life, and the importance of both of them.
Poetry helped me honor her.
In particular, he has a long poem calledDefensa de la Alegría (In defense of Joy). It is a celebration of joy and the importance of maintaining it even when the world is falling apart. He talks about celebrating joy as a trench, as a principle, as a certainty and as a right, and the need to defend it from everything that tries to destroy it, including joy.
“Defend Joy from God and winter/ from capital letters and death/ from last names and chance’s pity/ and from Joy”. Defend Joy from Joy. It didn’t make sense; yet, I understood.
Poetry gave me a safe place to explore my feelings. And, when I was ready, it gave me a place to write them down. I have a notebook filled with poems that I wrote during that time. Some are sad, some are lonely, and others are hopeful. However, all of them were healing. Eventually, I was ready for some of them to see the light of day.
My aunt was also a literature teacher and a school headmaster. After her death, her school organized a national poetry competition. It was anonymous, so I decided to submit. And I won.
Now, I can hold a small book that has the winning compositions of the competition. It has a picture of my aunt in the front and, inside, one of the poems that helped me heal.
I called it Echar de menos, which means ‘to miss’.
The morning I met with my advisor to tell her I was leaving my Ph.D. program, I was so nervous I couldn’t eat. I’d been dreading this meeting for the past month. A meeting which was the result of my realization that after two years completing my master’s, and three years working toward my doctorate, I no longer wanted to be a Ph.D. student. After five years focused on what I thought was my singular goal, I wanted out.
After five years of singular focus, I wanted out.
The hard truth was I hadn’t always wanted to leave. When I first arrived in my program, I was eager to be an academic. I quickly turned a first semester paper into a book chapter for a Routledge anthology, became the Executive Director to a film organization on campus, and published poetry and film criticism regularly on the side. When someone asked me to speak on a panel, I said yes. When someone asked me to proofread a paper, I said yes. My weeks were packed with screenings, meetings, classes, and endless emails. I thrived off the hustle and bustle.
But I was also fueled those first three years by the nagging suspicion that I wasn’t actually good enough to be in academia. I reassured myself that if I just did more – wrote more, presented more – then I would avoid being found out as someone not smart enough or capable enough to succeed in graduate school. The façade seemed to work as I accrued more accolades, but so did the mounting tandem anxiety that I was that much closer to being discovered as intellectually inadequate.
Three years passed before I was gently but firmly told by my Department that I needed to cut back on my extracurriculars. Moving forward, my sole focus needed to be my dissertation. I wasn’t pleased by this directive at first. I’d built a reputation as someone who juggled myriad responsibilities with relative ease, and I felt I was losing a part of myself in paring down my focus to simply scholarly writing. But I also knew that my dissertation was why I was in the Ph.D. program and so to squander this time and opportunity was unimaginable.
For a while, I was able to lose myself in the solitary environs of research. However, as the months wore on, I found myself disengaged and disinterested in my academic work. What once felt like smooth sailing now felt like a slog. I grew despondent. My worst fears about myself had been realized: namely, that I didn’t have what it takes to be a true academic.
My worst fears about myself had been realized.
Imposter syndrome is a familiar affliction for many both in and outside academia. A recent article on ABC found that “70% of people feel like they are ‘imposters’ at least once in their lives.” And, paradoxically, many find that with mounting professional achievements there is simultaneously an increasing anxiety that the awards are undeserved.
While I knew that imposter syndrome was a common occurrence, it took me months to realize that while I was struggling to research, I was increasingly writing and publishing poetry and personal essays. It’s not that I wasn’t smart enough to write or research – I was – but, ultimately, what increasingly sustained my head and my heart was creative work, not academic writing. It was this realization that led me to re-evaluate the future I saw for myself and the future I knew I wanted.
When I came to terms with the fact that I wanted to leave my Ph.D. and pursue an MFA in poetry, I was certain my decision would be met with a level of derision by friends and family. But as I told each person in my inner circle of my plans, each friend and family member told me how proud they were that I was finally pursuing something meaningful to me. No one doubted my intelligence or ability to finish the Ph.D., nor did anyone want to see me toiling away to finish a degree that didn’t ultimately inspire me. What had initially felt like my biggest failure became an opportunity to see how others saw me. The unconditional love I received in response was overwhelming.
What one can do isn’t always what one should do.
Ironically, it was leaving my program that allowed me to expel the imposter syndrome that had plagued me so relentlessly for the past several years once and for all. I now value my abilities as both a scholar and a person, but what one can do isn’t always what one should do. Saying ‘yes’ to the unknown is a precarious position to be in, but I’m finally living my life on my own terms, and no one else’s.
Ok, so you posted a black square on Instagram. You retweeted an Angela Davis quote. You ordered How to Be an Anti-Racist from a Black indie bookstore. You signed a Change.com petition. Now, what else are you doing to promote and spread Black art instead of just Black suffering and struggle? Black female poets have been dominating the literary scene for centuries. These are just 21 of the thousands of Black women who are writing about race and social justice.
1. Morgan Parker
Morgan Parker (b. 1987) is the author of three poetry collections Other People’s Comfort Keeps Me Up At Night (2015), There Are More Beautiful Things Than Beyonce (2017), and Magical Negro (2019), the winner of the National Books Critics Circle. Her poems intertwine contemporary pop culture references, Black history, and her personal life. In an interview with The Paris Review, Parker articulated her commitment to capturing the Black experience in her writing: “I am hyperaware of patterns and repetition in society. The way that history repeats and rewrites. It’s a way of connecting with other people who are here, and also with people who are no longer here.”
2. Jamila Woods
Jamila Woods (b. 1989) is both a singer-songwriter and a poet. Once described as a “modern-day Renaissance woman, Woods has released two albums titled Heavn (2016) and Legacy! Legacy! (2019) where each song is named after and dedicated to prominent artists of color. Her poetry has been featured in Muzzle, Third World Press, and Poetry magazine. Woods serves as the Associate Artistic Director of the non-profit youth organization called Young Chicago Authors and helps design curriculum for Chicago Public Schools.
Born in St. Louis, Maya Angelou (1928-2014) was a prominent civil rights activist, poet, essayist, movie director, actress, composer, and more. Angelou joined the Harlem Writers Guild in the 1950s. She worked for both Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and Malcolm X during the Civil Rights Movement. Her poetry collection Just Give Me a Cool Drink of Water ‘fore I Diiie, which was published (1971) was nominated for a Pulitzer Prize in 1972. Angelou was awarded the National Medal of Arts in 2000, and the Presidential Medal of Freedom in 2010.
5. Wanda Coleman
Known as the unofficial poet laureate of Los Angeles, Wanda Coleman (1946-2013) is the author of more than 20 books of poetry, including Mercurochrome, a finalist for the National Book Award in 2001. Coleman’s poetry touches upon Black poverty, womanhood, and racial inequalities in Los Angeles. She received fellowships from the Guggenheim Foundation, the National Endowment for the Arts, and the California Arts Council, and won an Emmy for her scriptwriting.
6. Gwendolyn Brooks
Arguably the most renowned Black poet in American history, Gwendolyn Brooks (1917-2000) was born grew up in the South Side of Chicago. Brooks won a Pulitzer Prize in 1950 for her poetry collection Annie Allen, which details the life of a young Black girl growing up in Chicago, making her the first Black author to win a Pulitzer Prize. Brooks was chosen as the first Black Poet Laureate of the United States for the 1985-1986 term and was the first Black woman inducted into the American Academy of Arts in 1976.
7. Lucille Clifton
Lucille Clifton’s poetic talent (1936-2019) was first featured in Langston Hughes’s renowned anthology The Poetry of the Negro (1970). Clifton was the first poet to have two poetry books chosen for finalists for the Pulitzer Prize, Good Woman: Poems and a Memoir, 1969-1980 (1987), and Next: New Poems (1987). Her poetry celebrates and discusses the Black female body, motherhood, and family life.
8. Tracy K. Smith
Tracy K. Smith served as the 22nd Poet Laureate of the United States from 2017-2019 and has published four poetry collections, including Life On Mars, the winner of the Pulitzer Prize in 2011. Her poetry has been lauded for its incorporation of magical realism, space, and science to articulate her grief, mundane experiences, desire, and dystopian fears.
9. Audre Lorde
A self-labeled “black, lesbian, mother, warrior, poet,” Audre Lorde (1934–1992) was a poet, essayist, and feminist theorist. Her poetry reflects her work as an activist during the Civil Rights Movement, Black Lesbianism, and her rage towards the injustices against Black people. An advocate for intersectionality, Lorde published several essays and theories on the Black female experiences, the power of sexuality, and differences between men and women.
10. Claudia Rankine
Claudia Rankine (b. 1963) is the author of five collections of poetry, two plays, and an array of essays. Her book Citizen: An American Lyric is a genre-defying collection of poetry and reflection that incorporates images and videos to reflect the violence and microaggressions faced by Black Americans. Citizen won the NAACP Image Award in poetry and the National Book Critics Circle Award in 2015.
11. Rita Dove
Rita Dove (b. 1952) was the second Black woman after Gwendolyn Brooks to win the Pulitzer Prize for her collection Thomas and Beulah, a semi-fictionalized poetical account of her maternal grandparents. Dove’s poetry is both minuscule and omnipresent. Her writing traverses through the banal aspects of her daily life while also providing a reflection on racial and social injustices.
12. Natasha Tretheway
The Poet Laureate of the United States in both 2012 and 2013, Natasha Tretheway (b. 1966) is a contemporary poet and professor. Tretheway is of mixed race and her parents were married illegally in the 1960s due to anti-miscegenation laws. Tretheway turned to poetry when her mother was murdered in 1986. She won the Pulitzer Prize in 2007 for her poetry collection Native Guard, an elegiac reflection of her mother’s life, the racial history of slavery in the South, the Civil War, and her childhood.
13. Anne Spencer
Anne Spencer (1882-1975) was the daughter of former slaves and Harlem Renaissance poet and activist. She was the first Black person and Virginian to have her poetry included in the Norton Anthology of American Poetry. She was friends and worked with authors such as Langston Hughes and W.E.B. DuBois, and founded the Lynchburg chapter of the NAACP with James Weldon Johnson. Her poetry consists of themes of religion, race, the South, and her relationship with the natural world.
14. Nikki Giovanni
Nikki Giovanni (b. 1943) has been awarded for both her poetry and her activism. As one of the most critical and influential poets of the Black Arts Movement, she was awarded the Langston Hughes Medal and the NAACP Image Award. Her writing has been described as “epitomizing the defiant, unapologetically political, unabashedly Afrocentric, BAM ethos.”
15. Sonia Sanchez
Sonia Sanchez (b. 1934) was another prominent figure of the Black Arts Movement. She was awarded the Robert Frost Medel in 2001 for her distinguished service to American Poetry. She is the author of more than a dozen poetry books, including Does your house have lions? (1995), which was nominated for the NAACP Image and National Book Critics Circle Award.
16. Elizabeth Alexander
Elizabeth Alexander (b. 1962), as a contemporary poet, essayist, and playwright. She serves as the President of the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation, a chancellor of the Academy of American Poets, and a Professor of Poetry at both Yale and Columbia University. Her poetry collection The Sublime (2005) was shortlisted for the Pulitzer Prize, and the themes in work include motherhood, political history, and race. Alexander wrote and read a poem for President Barack Obama’s inauguration.
17. Yona Harvey
A poet, professor, and comic writer, Yona Harvey (b. 1974) became one of the first Black women to write for Marvel comics. Harvey describes her artistic interest in “the diverse lives and experiences of Black American women through literature…the visibility and invisibility of Black women, our mental health and self-care, and the evidence of our imaginations in society.” She is the author of Hemming the Water (2013), a finalist for the 2014 Hurston/Wright Legacy Award in poetry.
18. Margaret Walker
Margaret Walker (1915-1998) was part of the Chicago Black Renaissance. Her poetry collection For My People (1942) won the Yale Series of Younger Poets Competition, making her the first black woman to win a National Writing Prize. She is also the author of Jubilee (1966), a novel that details the life of a slave family during the Civil War.
June Jordan (1936-2002) was a bisexual, Jamaican-American poet and activist. She was committed to using Black English and vernacular in her poetry. Her writing encompasses themes of family, sexuality, divorce, and oppression. Jordan was also a feminist theorist and wrote children’s books that touched upon race and social justice.
From sonnets on Black freedom to free verse about womanhood and sexuality, these poets possess a robust and passionate lexicon of emotions and subjects. The range of their artistic capability is incredible, and their grandeur has often been left out of history books. We should forever be celebrating these Black female poets for their impact on Black liberation, and for the sheer beauty of their lyrics.
It would be easy to dismiss Armen Ohanian as just a famous belly-dancer, but she was more than just that.
Ohanian was one of the first women to bring Middle-Eastern dancing to the Western world, but most people haven’t heard about her before. Those who have heard of her only think of her as an “exotic dancer” rather than a gifted, talented, and complex human being. So who was this woman?
Armen Ohanian was born in 1887, originally named Sophia Pirboudaghian. She grew up in modern-day Azerbaijan in a wealthy Armenian family, where she received a vast academic and artistic education. Despite her privileged upbringing, she underwent an incredible amount of tragedy at a young age. She survived a devastating earthquake in her early years, which forced her family to relocate. She later witnessed brutal anti-Armenian pogroms in Baku, which tragically claimed the life of her father. After a brief marriage, Ohanian lived, worked, and studied in Russia, Turkey, and Iran, learning the art of Armenian and Iranian dances.
She didn’t need to be Western to be modern
Eventually, Armen Ohanian accepted an offer to perform in London, and eventually became a sensation throughout Europe. Western audiences were quick to fetishize and commodify her style of dancing, which they only viewed as hypersexual belly-dancing. They reduced her to a sexual object without considering the traditions and talent behind her dancing. In reality, Ohanian was an incredibly gifted dancer and choreographer.
She revolutionized dance by merging modern free-dancing with traditional Armenian and Iranian dances. Ohanian embraced tradition and innovation alike, proving that she didn’t need to be Western to be modern. Some might say that she embraced Western fetishism to further her career. I say we cannot hold her responsible for the Western reaction to her art. Ohanian danced with dignity and pride in her culture. It’s her audience’s fault, not her own, that they couldn’t recognize her humanity.
Armen Ohanian’s talent extended far beyond her dancing. She was also a gifted writer and poet, as well as a political activist.
In her later years, she immigrated to Mexico where she was an active member of the Mexican Communist Party and translated political literature. She also wrote a number of memoirs and poems, which focused on her identity as a diasporic Armenian in exile. Ohanian was not only subversive politically, but in her everyday life. She was likely bisexual and had numerous affairs with both men and women. She divorced and remarried in a time when that was incredibly uncommon. Ohanian lived her life how she wanted to live it, and that’s beyond admirable.
As a woman of Iranian-Armenian heritage, Armen Ohanian is a reminder that Middle Eastern and Armenian women have the power to be both subversive and proud of their heritage. I know firsthand that Armenian society can be very traditional. Seeing an independent, liberated, queer woman like Armen Ohanian gives me hope for other Armenian women. She is proof of the resilience of Armenian and Middle-Eastern women. This is someone who survived natural disasters, ethnic cleansing, xenophobia, and prejudice, but emerged stronger than before. She was a multi-faceted and complicated woman who couldn’t be confined to one category.
It’s impossible to define Armen Ohanian as simply a sexually liberated dancer, or a fiery political revolutionary, or a homesick poet living in exile, or an intellectual writer and translator. She was all of these things and more. I find a lot of inspiration in this incredible woman, who refused to limit herself to one art form, one talent, one career, or even one national identity. She was able to create a name for herself in a world that was hostile to the aspirations of Middle-Eastern women, and she did so with dignity and courage.
Armen Ohanian passed away in 1976, but her bold and resilient spirit still lives on in all of us. We could all take a page from her book and live our lives as she did, fearlessly and proudly, always in search of a better future.
You’ve heard of a Jack Kerouac, but have you ever heard of a Hettie Jones?
The Beat Literary Movement of the 1950s is coined for its explicit subject matter and bohemian lifestyle. Americans in the 1950’s lived in largely suburban towns and felt threatened by things like communism. Men went to work in suits and women stayed home to cook, clean, and tend to the children.
The rebel, beatnik, group of authors that made up the Beat Generation were iconoclastic. Much of their work explored and influenced American culture and politics in the post-war era. They experimented with form and structure while writing about sex, drugs, and religion. Traditional literary houses rejected them and looked down on them as a group as being defiant, untalented, and unprofessional.
I think that their being unconventional was the whole point, though.
They were the antithesis of mainstream American life.
They wanted to publish anything that was deemed inappropriate by society. These people were tired of the routine, and frankly, felt beaten down by the conservative lifestyle that they were stuck in. They were highly controversial in that they were the antithesis of mainstream American life and writing. Many of their works of poetry and prose focused on shifts of consciousness and escaping “squareness.” The stereotype around the Beats is that they were not in favor of what they considered to be straight jobs. Instead, they lived together, packed into small and dirty apartments, sold drugs, had sex with each other, and committed crimes. They are also known for exploring homosexuality, which was a highly taboo topic in 1950’s America.
One of the most iconic, and downplayed, female poets of that time who deserves righted acknowledgment is Hettie Jones.
Hettie Jones published 23 books- and yet, we forgot her
Hettie Jones is most known for her marriage to the famous Beat Poet Amiri Baraka (formerly LeRoi Jones). Few people know that Hettie helped run Totem Press, one of the more important beat publishers, along with her husband. She went on to publish about 23 books, one being a memoir of her time spent with Amiri and the rest of the Beats titled,How I Became Hettie Jones (1990). She has also written for many prestigious journals, lectured writing across America, and began the literary magazine “Yugen.”
Hettie is one of my favorite poets, so I think that her writing deserved to be at the forefront of the Beat movement, right there with the boys who got so much praise for their work.
Hettie’s writing is rooted in practical idealism. She left her family home in Long Island to go to college and to fully discover herself. When she graduated in 1955, she never turned back, and moved to New York City. She met Amiri while working at The Record Changer, a jazz magazine. He was a young, black poet with just as much intelligence and intensity as Hettie. They quickly fell in love and moved in together. They would go to poetry readings at cafes and bohemian bars, where they met many of the other Beat poets.
Hettie deserved to be at the forefront of the Beat movement.
When the pair founded their own magazine, they published the writings of many of the iconic beat players who could not find a home for their writing in the traditional sphere. Hettie was in charge of editing the works that were to be published in the magazine. It was here that she honed her craft and found power in the refined writing that makes her work stand out from the rest.
By 1960, Hettie and Amiri had two children, were married, and lived in New York City. Being a biracial family, though, countless bigoted remarks were directed towards them regardless of the Beat scene. Hettie was on the receiving end of most of these cold stares and was able to see the world through the eyes of her husband and children. This affected her incredibly and eventually became a recurring theme in her writing.
When Amiri became tightly involved with the Black Power movement, he was criticized for having a white wife. They divorced in 1968. Hettie thrived on her own though and made a living with her children while teaching and editing. Her separation from her husband also gave Hettie an outlet to speak up and finally publish works of her own. She has been quoted to say, “Without a him in the house, there was more space/time for her, and I tried to redefine the way a woman might use it.”
To this day, Hettie’s writing is compassionate. She writes about her own experiences in a compelling manner while weaving in the issues that she cares about. Currently, Hettie lives in New York City, and is a writer and lecturer. In addition, she runs a writing workshop at the New York State Correctional Facility for Women where she recently published a volume of writing by incarcerated women.