Afro-Italian poet Rahma Nur describes her experience as a member of a diaspora living in Italy, noting how language marks the body and how it shapes one’s sense of loss.
In the step that you take
Between the land that watched over your birth
And the soil that received you
There’s a thread that connects them
Like an IV.
It feeds you words and phrases
Clauses and long sentences
You can’t analyze them
And you let them flow into you
Between the red blood cells that run through your veins
In your epidermis, dark and smooth
That doesn’t allow for speculation
But a final judgment call:
hadaad soomaali tahay maxaad somali ugu hadlin?1
Come parli bene l’italiano!2
Here and there
Muteness takes over
The only sure response
Is a nonresponse.
They say that words are music
They say that words are nourishment
They say that words are art
But they don’t say that words create
In front of other words
They don’t tell you that words are language
That there are many languages
That not everyone owns them
That the mother tongue
Can become the stepmother
And the stepmother becomes motherly
That they are not interchangeable, not always
And that you can spend a whole life
Without speaking one even if
Another two or three languages are in you.
The mother tongue heals
But it can make you sick
If you don’t speak it well
And if you connect yourself with the stepmother one
Like a spring that nurtures you.
When the diaspora
Takes you from one country to another
You choose a transactional language
That lets you get through the gates
Real and imagined
That opens doors
And in the vacuum that you live in
Others are born and grow
And the distance between siblings expands
There remains a single connecting thread
It’s not Somali, Dutch, or Swedish languages
But hands, skin, eyes
Your entire body
To fill that empty space
From one country to another.
It’s the external covering
That tacitly answers questions,
That speaks for you,
Because your mouth is made mute
By all the languages that invaded it.
1. If you are Somali why don’t you speak Somali?↩
2. Wow, you speak Italian so well!↩
“Fili linguistici” first published in Formafluens vol. 2, no. 1, January–April 2020 (pages 17–18). © Rahma Nur. By arrangement with the author. Translation © 2021 by Candice Whitney. All rights reserved.