Hiwot Adilow is an Ethiopian-American poet from Philadelphia. She is one of the 2018 recipients of the Brunel International African Poetry prize and author of the chapbook In the House of My Father (Two Sylvias Press, 2018). Her writing appears or is forthcoming in Winter Tangerine, Callaloo, The Offing, and elsewhere, and has been anthologized in The BreakBeats Poets Vol 2.0: Black Girl Magic (Haymarket Books, 2018). Hiwot earned her BA from the University of Wisconsin-Madison where she was part of the First Wave Hip Hop and Urban Arts Learning Community.
I’ma always honor ya name sure you’re a bad man dad that’s facts from out your own mouth how I saw it pan out as a former first born with my own four eyes I sat back and wished for your end when friends said they didn’t have a man who lived with them who stood and cooked in the kitchen or whipped them when they didn’t do good or do enough what I wanted was for love to mean more than a kicked down bedroom door or a sore bottom those small bruisings you’ve forgotten are not thicker than water I will always choose the martyr over you your real first born daughter prolly loves with all her heart I love fickly yelling sickly like you taught remember when you used to walk with me on your shoulders remember when you choked–or back then when you’d fallen and thought it was something rotten caught in your plate let’s face it the brain’s glitch catches up to you today and I pray you stay long enough to know me as your glory I’m still your first besides The Lord you’re my only
Lover, You Should’ve Come Over
I’m in the dimlit cold of my room, too young to keep good love from going
wrong. Always a girlfriend, yesterday. Tucked in the palace of my slumbering
joys, under frost. My solitude becomes a torch. My best love was a daughter
of swampy bloom, mudpuckered flowers, haunted families, flood stains.
The mystery white boy croons forget her and the blueswoman swarms
to the bottom of my cup of tea, right into the honey’s gunk, straight
into a husband’s arms. I reside in a palace full of unseamed gowns.
I’ll do this ‘til death, to redeem my health. No princes, no kisses,
bare-shouldered as the dust collects. Miss Havisham, in the flesh.
I’ll practice love’s traditions by myself: feed my worn body,
oil my skin, kiss my shoulder for a kingdom of my own.
I’m drawing back from invocation now.
I’m leaning in, to the myth/the heresy/the hearsay.
what was it? whatever. what peeled me from the stage
and had me gnashing at the walls.
my tongue drips thick embers across
the floor, burns bridges and monuments.
it ribbons after me like a flag.
the only country I have is my sense
and my senses. the only language I know
is my body and all its flinching notes.
you worry I won’t want you alabaster bashful new translucent man you see the world bloodsoaked
& writhing you know no one will unstitch you for your skin another one like you strung me along
his zipper by the lips & I forgot my colour & my country in his hands & his hands were soft & pink
at the edges like this mucksick sky under which you & I lament Sade’s well documented distress over
white males in her music videos whereupon you say you’d never stress over no white man not even yourself
I ask & lament my own desire to call this guy & sing Is it a Crime? like he’s my lover or has ever loved me
myself I’m a negress I am a nigist I’m naive & a proper lusty jawn I conferred with another white
about his fears or questions or recollections of not being worth the sweat off a different black girl’s brow
& we ponder if it’s worth the politics of stress at this point I know my thing wasn’t love couldn’t be
there’s a whole legacy pinching all of this in the past I suppose you would be unraveled by the right
wraths afterall but most likely it would be me thrown into a ditch my same hue I don’t mean to pontificate
I’m just making up for not thinking at all my nonlover & I didn’t consider any one of the million complexities anyway my sisterfriend tells me I know enough of you to count for four five six black women white men doofing my head & smudging my lipstick like a dick unfazed when I cry never sure you’re listening when I croon
An Interview with Hiwot Adilow
Phillip: Thank you for doing this interview with me. It has been a long time coming but I love these poems so much. I want to first ask what is your first memory of poetry and how do you see yourself as having traveled from then to now? What is your relationship to poetry today?
Hiwot: My earliest memory of poetry is probably the cafe scene from “A Goofy Movie.” After that there were middle school poetry assignments with prompts provided by my music teacher. Once I started writing on my own, or, once I started sharing my private writing, there was a need to move as far away from that cartoony, bongo bumping, turtlenecked image of being a poet–an acknowledgement of it as a trope. Cadence and rhyme are more intentional considerations and less about performing poetry (and the identity of poet) the “right” way. I see more clearly the significance of music, I feel less scared of it and I think part of that has just come from appreciating it as a single element of the work. Today, my relationship with poetry is one of discovery. I imagine the experiences I hoped to gain from academia and the lines of inquiry I still hope to pursue are more viably accessed through my art and close readings of poets I admire. I believe in poetry as a tool to think as well as a vehicle to feel though I don’t consider cerebral and emotional work as entirely distinct from one another. Poetry feels like a place to do critical and difficult investigation.
P: Kaveh Akbar recently selected your chapbook In the House of my Father for the Two Sylvia’s chapbook award. Congratulations! Could you walk us through the creation of this work? How long did it take you to write this chapbook and what inspired its creation? I’m excited to have my own copy.
H: Thank you!
The earliest poems in this chapbook emerged in 2014. Around that time I was responding to a line of Rumi’s–“a thousand half-loves must be forsaken to take one whole heart home.” I started organizing a manuscript around The Four Loves: eros, agape, storge, and philia. It was in the midst of that process that I landed on a translation that described storge, familial love, as a “love of the tyrant.” I started thinking more about what it might mean to love someone who has been tyrannical, to endure and survive tyranny offered up in the name of love. Even though the half-loves project was meant to have four separate sections all the Love I was writing about, even agape, brought me back to family.
In the winter of 2015, I ended up going to Ethiopia for the first time. I went alone, for a month, and stayed with a friend of my mother’s. My father was also visiting the country so we spent time together. I journaled a lot while I was in Addis, and left with more questions about Ethiopia and myself. I realized my thoughts about Ethiopia shifted when I considered it a fatherland instead of a motherland.
An earlier version of In The House of My Father ultimately emerged in early 2016 when I was in a chapbook workshop facilitated by Thiahera Nurse. Callaloo and The Blueshift Journal‘s Speakeasy Series were also spaces that helped me see more clearly what I was writing towards. I think I resisted the specifics for a very long time and those four chapters were a way to compartmentalize my ideas. Love remained the central obsession throughout the whole process but it became much more tangible and possible to explore it when I allowed myself to be a daughter in wonder.
P: I’m interested in this idea of love and tyranny, and perhaps a love of it without trying to move in that direction. We spoke briefly before about the word “negus” and its contemporary use in Black American culture as a recontextualization/reimagining of the word “nigga.” Abel Shifferaw in his article “Kendrick Helped Popularize It, But We Need To Talk About The Complicated Ethiopian History Of ‘Negus'” on OkayAfrica writes, “Negus as nigga continues in a long line of fetishizing a historically inaccurate depiction of a monolithically same Africa. It diminishes the multiplicity, complex history, rich, diverse and vibrant culture of the continent, it’s not a country – in all of its beauty and pain.” Abel then continues to speak about some of the inhumane treatment to Ethiopian citizens at the hands of those with the title “negus.”
Two parts: Could you share your own ideas on this transition, this borrowing? It feels somewhat connected to love, looking for it in whatever form it may take. I’m wondering also if you could speak to your own experiences with connecting love to tyranny, and perhaps tyranny to how you connected with yourself vis-a-vis visiting a country for the first time with these four loves in your mind. Your poem “Father” beautifully and relentlessly tackles this issue.
H: This is a great question and I’m trying not to step into any #diasporawars territory with my answer. The borrowing strikes me as ironic but I don’t think I can really say how Black people in America should try and (re)connect with Africa. I also know its an immense privilege to even be able to have a particular place in mind when I hear the phrase “back home,” even with the vagueness and silences that come with immigration. I think the kind of ahistorical or fetishizing practice Abel is talking about is a well-intended attempt to combat tired racist depictions of Black people (and the African continent) as impoverished and lacking any history of note. Leaning into real and imagined legacies of wealth and power seems like retaliation against white supremacy and antiblackness until you consider all the people who are just regular. This obsession with royalty makes me want to ask if a more likely ancestry of farmers and merchants and teachers–just every day, common people–could be as desirable or redemptive.
I’ve heard a version of this question in a few workshop spaces: What does it look like to have empathy for someone who has caused harm? I started to wonder how do you relate to someone you were afraid of once their power is gone? In watching my father grow old and fall ill, I’ve come against contradictions. I want to spend time with him, I feel anguish when I think of him in and out of the hospital, and I still remember how violent he was. So it’s a project of trying to love someone in their newfound softness while refusing to forget, or being unable to forget, how they were often cruel.
My parents have been divorced for a long time but one of the things I often worried about was maintaining a sort of allegiance to my mother. I was always interested in visiting Ethiopia but as I got older this anxiety around who I would go with got bigger and bigger so I ended up deciding to go on my own. At least, that was the idea until I told my parents and my dad bought a ticket. We didn’t really stay together or travel together but, as fate would have it, I ended up being in Ethiopia for the first time with my dad. Because of his health issues, the time we did spend together was sometimes sentimental. Mostly, I wished I was with my mom and resolved to return to Ethiopia with her. I was there for such a short amount of time but it struck me that I was sharing moments with him, experiencing it as a fatherland instead of a motherland. I knew for a fact that it would be a distinctly different trip with her and perhaps I would have spent more time thinking of Agape. But storge being the word associated with family allowed me to enter these poems where I’m exploring these contradictions about love and devotion in the wake of violence.
P: This seems to tie into “no preponderance” where you write:
“the only country I have is my sense
and my senses. the only language I know
is my body and all its flinching notes.”
This nationhood of sense (mindfulness) and the senses (faculties through which the outside world is apprehended) haunts me as I think of how place can be a changing thing and therefore loyalties to place can be just as changeable. But the body, even though it goes through its own metamorphoses, remains, is available in some capacity even when we might feel disconnected to it. In this poem the tongue is the flag and myth/heresy/hearsay, as opposed to history/orthodoxy/fact, are embraced. What is the cost of being loyal to any place outside of the body? Do you see flesh as easy to remain loyal to or are there also risks in this sentiment?
H: Coming from a very modest Christian tradition, I grew up inclined to reject overindulging the flesh, striving to deny myself of my earthliness and repeating those words from Romans 8:6, “For to be carnally minded is death; but to be spiritually minded is life and peace.” What I’m starting to recognize in my own life is how much my flesh, my body, can alert me to the matters that must be attended to beyond it. How acknowledging and honoring the needs of my body (and the alarms it sets) can bring me closer to life and peace. There are certainly risks to being loyal to just the flesh. What I’m working toward is being able to better recognize the ways that caring for my body and listening to it works in service of my spirit and mind. Any kind of loyalty that extends beyond the body is really only dangerous if the flesh is ignored or rejected completely. In this poem I’m thinking of the sort of dissonance that occurs when one knows something to be true in the body and having that knowledge discredited by others. Ultimately, I think attending to the flesh, learning to understand the body’s reactions to distress, can be a way to become better advocates for ourselves.
P: Can you talk about any times you’ve witnessed regality on Black America’s terms. In thinking about homeland, motherland, and fatherland, I also think of rulers, kingdoms, and sovereignty. How if at all do you see that playing out in America re: Blackness?
H: I’ve been thinking about sovereignty as self-governance and being in control of the story that’s told about you. All of white history and white supremacy was built on rejecting the fact that Black people ever had any power, whether that power is wealth or knowledge or creativity. One of the excuses behind the great violence of enslavement was that, somehow, being ravaged in the West was better than being on “The Dark Continent.” Being able to map a lineage, whether its to a word or a kingdom, even if the map is imagined, is a way to reject that myth. And it’s fair for imagination to take over the space of erasure, to bind severed ties with parts quilted from here and there. While I can see what Abel means by calling these borrowings “ahistorical,” how much does any one of us educated in the public schools of America ever learn about Africa anyway, let alone Black Americans relationship/s to Africa? And how much of what we learn is taught without revision? I’m still reeling over hearing a guest lecturer, in a whole university class, call Black people taken to Brazil via the Middle Passage “immigrants.” That is ahistorical as hell!
BLACK EFFECT off LOVE IS EVERYTHING comes to mind as an example when I think of the cultural richness of Black Americans as a type of sovereignty. Beyoncé and Jay-Z have been called American Royalty before this album but this song is a good illustration of what that entails. Jay Z talks about people biting Black American culture, “they even biting cornrows, put ya scarecrows up…” and mentions his wealth, and purple (the eternal color of regality) BUT Beyoncé’s verse is really what I’m here for. “Stunt with your curls, your lips, Sarah Baartman hips / gotta hop into my jeans like I hop into my whip, yeah / Mobbin’ in a hoodie like Melo / Come up out that pretty motherfucker like Hello, Hello / I will never let you shoot the nose off my pharaoh!” I’ll never let you erase me, I’ll trace myself back with the fragments you hid or with the pieces I’ve gathered up for myself. The bar about Sarah Baartman, who Elizabeth Alexander writes of so urgently in her poem The Venus Hottentot, makes me think of the bodies and beauty practices of Black women being violently scrutinized in one breath only to be lusted after and copied in the next. We see this so often in beauty and fashion trends, the way the looks of Black women, particularly Black women from the hood become mainstream and whitewashed. Music festivals like Coachella are such a hotbed for those continued violations. When Beyoncé walked onto the stage dressed as Nefertiti, when she curated a specifically Southern Black American performance without worrying who would Get It, she honored a sense of home and the regality tied to the places she’s from and the places her family is from. To say and do what you want, what you must! and take space as you’d like, no matter who’s watching, is a powerful gesture.
P: Thank you so much for writing with me. I learned a lot from your generous answers. Please tell us where people can find you if they want to learn more about your work.
H: I’m on Twitter at @hiwotadilow.
You can get In The House of My Father directly from Two Sylvias.