Across multiple states, universities, and eras of self
Yalie Kamara releases a new book.
The Thursday night crowd packed Oakland’s East Bay Booksellers to hear the poetry of one of their own. A framed painting of a bald bearded man hugging an even taller fish somewhere in a far away field of magical daisies looms behind and above the empty brown podium. Rows of folded chairs are slalomed by small kids and the elders eyeing them. The poet soon to occupy the podium greets the crowd upon entry, with numerous hugs accepted, Kamara repeatedly answering the question, How’s Indiana? to faces old and new. On this August night, Yalie Kamara is back in Oakland for her first West Coast book release reading.
“I wasn’t sure who would be there,” Kamara says. “I had people from elementary school middle school high school undergrad grad school and even friends and community from Indiana as well as folks from Youth Speaks.”
Written across multiple states, universities, and eras of self, When the Living Sing navigates us across worlds through a cast of dear family members, poignant self-reflections, odes to lumpia, dead friends and the American gymnast Gabby Douglas.
With scenes of strong women, promising youths and the diasporas that house narratives as much as spirits, it’s no surprise one of Kamara’s most oft-used images are birds. Think of Kamara’s own flight since leaving Oakland for college: an undergraduate degree in Creative Writing at UC Riverside (a.k.a. the middle of a former agricultural gold mine turned desert), an MFA in French from Vermont’s Middlebury College, and currently an MFA candidate at Indiana University. Between those years were stints on staff at 826 National’s San Francisco offices, working with longtime mentor Dave Eggers.
“So it represented literally every single group—all these intersections of my life. That was really beautiful.”
One of her work’s strongest themes is family, a term that Kamara identifies, honors, and replicates, first with those with whom she shares blood, and those chosen kin grounding her flight into adulthood. While Kamara’s travels have allowed her to make home a mobile, flexible term, back in Oakland, the many faces of Kamara’s assembled family stare back at her, many the lead characters in her book. The book’s epigraph bears a color photo of Kamara’s two young nephews, to whom this book is dedicated and who are also present in the crowd. Reading about loved ones who are physically present, I imagine, can be trying. For Kamara, it was part of the poem itself.
After starting her set with her lumpia-dedicated “Ode,” Kamara composed herself before the podium, a note of self-awareness when dedicating the poem, “Mother’s Rules,” to her mother who, on this night, was equal parts subject matter and audience member. Kamara’s delivers a deliberate reading of the poem, a listicle that reads like a sheet of uranium engraved with rules by an immortal’s hands. The first rule: “If you see me praying in the living room, never sit in front of me. You are not God.” I looked around the audience for an objection, and instead found silence and my own physical desire to kneel to matriarchal thrones. Rule number nine: “You laugh at me now. Like I laughed at my mother. Like she laughed at hers. Like your daughters will laugh at you. And I will live long enough to forgive your folly.”
“I could probably write thirty more of those poems about my mom. I mean she’s been saying these things like over my lifetime and I don’t know if she thought that I was listening or not listening. Those are the things that she said to me that were some of my favorites.” Her sisters agreed with the rules Kamara cites, but also mentioned other rules outside of those in the poem, leaving Kamara to wonder, “Does my mom have a set of rules for each of us? Or are these her universal rules? Or does she tell us these things based on our personal development, you know? I wonder about that.”
Kamara’s work has found increased visibility through recent publications in Vinyl and a finalist nomination for the 2017 Brunel International African Poetry Prize. The newfound recognition has been coupled with newly discovered communities.
“It’s given me the ability to express duality,” Kamara says. “And a place that allowed me to write about not only being African, but being American. That’s been really powerful—to be nurtured, loved and respected for my whole self.”
The diaspora is never far from Kamara’s comments because that’s how far the diaspora reflects: as people of color, a new roadmap is made with every step of our culture’s existence, the strands from ancestor to post-hyphen American traceable wherever we touch. Kamara spoke Krio and English growing up, her parents from different tribes, one Muslim, one Catholic. Bringing an intrinsically layered definition of identity into Oakland public schools, I think about a young Kamara bored to death during those conscriptive classroom readings on the existential lust and affluent dread of Fitzgerald’s Gatsby.
“I don’t know the first time I read an African writer,” Kamara says. “It definitely wasn’t high school. Maybe the middle of college.”
Enter Chris Abani, Kamara’s former Creative Writing professor at UC Riverside and now long-term mentor. “His encouragement stayed with me … he opened me up to a canon of writers I hadn’t known before,” including the Barbadian poet Esther Phillips (Kamara notes she’s “spellbound” by Philips’ imagery) and Ghanaian writer, Kwame Dawes.
“What’s been the most helpful is being in spaces that are nurturing to black artists. It’s also making sure to have a spiritual relationship that I can come back to. And it’s also been about letting go of certain relationships and friendships and alcohol,” she laughs. “And these things have helped me be the writer I am now.”
One of the more experimental poems from the book is, “I Ask My Brother Jonathan to Write About Oakland, and He Describes His Room.” Kamara’s reading of this poem lingered with a loving patience but focused tone, the piece beginning with a list of bullet points: “The yellow pad with the line drawn down the center. Pros and cons of attending either Stanford or Columbia.” The poem concludes with a second set of bullet points of what Kamara thinks Jonathan imagines, beginning with, “Golden poppies sprouting between the novels on the bookshelf,” and ending with, “The squad car driving past him, not using its siren to call his name.”
With the exception of the squad car, many of these images shatter preconceived notions of Oakland, youth, youth in Oakland, and black Oakland youth. And it’s delivered in a subtly subversive format, part survey, part police questioning. But also a reclamation and declaration of identity, a moment of pause; a breath of air amidst madness, anxiety, phones-turned-triggers, and the Town they share.
If we are in a post-Blonde era where Black hippy and Black Lives Matter are on the same college kid’s shelf as Baldwin’s The Fire Next Time, and Toni Morrison and Claudia Rankine, Kamara’s last line finds its root in hope, pride, knowing, and proclaiming: “He finds himself too beautiful to not be in hiding.”
The book’s final poem, “New America,” delivers blow after blow of poignant statements applicable to the age she inherited and the 2017 we will inherit:
“Give me a torch to melt all / of the pennies / saved to buy this / Volvo parked in an / immigrant’s daydream.” The demands continue, with Kamara wishing for, “A black that is steadfast and opulent. Which is to say / dangerous and infinite,” and those images of flight surfacing yet again in the poem’s last line: “A minute to drive towards the blue, a careless twirl toward where I / think I may belong.”
That is the question of our times in the wake of whatever happened in November 2016: who belongs, truly, anywhere? What are countries but I.O.U’s on initial optimistic investments in democracy?
“I think we’re in a really tense time and and it feels unsafe in a lot of ways. But I think if you were messing around with arts and not taking it seriously— now’s the time to take it seriously, and I don’t think we have to labor all the time and be martyrs, I’m not saying that, necessarily—I’m just interested in getting more serious about my writing and I want to encourage other people to do it too, and I also want to do it in the spirit of joy. And so I think that we can work hard and that we can love each other. I just want to make sure that’s at the forefront of what I do. I want to encourage other people to do that too, and however that manifests in terms of the work that I need to do, that’s where I’ll be. And we should all be doing that.” —José Vadi