An Inheritance

Listen to the Poem in English

Safia El Hillo — Original Text

Did our mothers invent loneliness or did it make them our mothers?
Were we fathered by silence or just looking to explain away this quiet?
Is it wasteful to pray for our brothers in a language they never learned?
Whose daughters are we if we grow old before our mothers? 
For their sake they called our grandfathers the January children,
Lined up by the colonizer and assigned birth years by height
There is no answer because
We come from men who do not know when they were born
Who married women shown to them in photographs
Whose children left the country and tried for romance
And had daughters full of all the wrong language

Notes

Safia El Hillo (1990-present) is a Sudanese-American poet and the author of The January Children (University of Nebraska Press, 2017), which received the Sillerman First Book Prize for African Poets and an Arab American Book Award, Girls That Never Die (One World/Random House, forthcoming), and the novel in verse Home Is Not A Country (Make Me A World/Random House, 2021). Her work centers on themes of cultural identity, home, belonging, displacement, womanhood, generational trauma as well as the Sudanese diaspora. Her writing describes in sensory detail the experiences of her ancestors as well as the conditions of those living within the diaspora. Her work continues to be influential and healing for her readers.

Sudanese American woman in the center of a bustling city.
photo by Aris Theotokatos

Historical Notes

An Inheritance begins by embracing the reader in recognition of generational trauma and its impact on families. It raises important questions that provide moments of comfort for the reader to grieve within. She refers to The January Children, which she defines as “the generation born in Sudan under British occupation, where children were assigned birth years by height, all given the birth date January 1.” Sudan declared independence from Britain and Egypt in 1956.

Sources

The Persona as a Portal in The January Children. https://blog.pshares.org/the-persona-as-a-portal-in-the-january-children/. Accessed 26 Dec. 2021.

The January Children (Kobo EBook) | The Dock Bookshop. https://www.thedockbookshop.com/ebook/9781496200075. Accessed 26 Dec. 2021.

See Safia El Hillo’s entire performance AT CUPSI 2016

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Fanni is Radnóti's wife
Located near the Tang capital city of Chang’an, site of the modern city of Xi’an in Shaanxi province, in central China.
Soldiers of that time commonly wore a white head cloth, similar to what is still worn by some peasants in China today.  The implication is that the conscripts were so young that they didn’t know how to wrap their head cloths, and needed help from elders.
Before China’s unification under the Qin dynasty in 221 B.C. there were several competing smaller kingdoms.  Han and Qin were two of these kingdoms. Han was located east of famous mountain passes that separated that area from the power base of the Qin dynasty, with its capital in Chang’an. The Qin dynasty itself only lasted about 15 years after unification due to its draconian rule, but soldiers under Qin rule retained a reputation as strong fighters.
The area of Guanxi, meaning “west of the passes”, refers to the area around the capital city of Chang’an.
This is an alternative name for a province in western China, now known as Qinghai, which literally means “blue sea”.  Kokonor Lake, located in Qinghai, is the largest saline lake in China.  
Before China’s unification under the Qin dynasty in 221 B.C. there were several competing smaller kingdoms.  Han and Qin were two of these kingdoms. Han was located east of famous mountain passes that separated that area from the power base of the Qin dynasty, with its capital in Chang’an. The Qin dynasty itself only lasted about 15 years after unification due to its draconian rule, but soldiers under Qin rule retained a reputation as strong fighters.
Oulart Hollow was the site of a famous victory of the Irish rebels over British troops, which took place on May 27, 1798. The rebels killed nearly all the British attackers in this battle. (Source: Maxwell, W. H. History of the Irish Rebellion in 1798. H. H. Bohn, London 1854, pp 92-93, at archive.org)
The phrase "United Men" is elaborated upon in the Notes section below.

Ghetto


An Italian word meaning “foundry.” It originally referred to a part of the city of Venice where the Jews of that city were forced to live; the area was called “the ghetto” because there was a foundry nearby. The term eventually came to refer to any part of a city in which a minority group is forced to live as a result of social, legal, or economic pressure. Because of the restrictions placed upon them, ghetto residents are often impoverished.

"You’re five nine, I am do-uble two"


A reference to the year 1959 and the year 2020.

"The Currency"


Meaning US dollars - this is drawing attention to the fact that Cuba is effectively dollarized.

"Sixty years with the dom-ino stuck"


This sentence is a reference to the Cold War notion that countries would turn Communist one after the other - like dominos. Cuba was the first domino, but it got stuck - no one else followed through into communism.

رحلنا


رحلنا, or "rahalna," means "we have left."

Habibi


Habibi means "my love."

Ra7eel


Ra7eel, or "raheel," means "departure."

3awda


3awda, or "awda," means "returning."

أهلاً


أهلاً, or "ahalan," means "welcome."

a5 ya baba


a5 ya baba, pronounced "akh ya baba," means "Oh my father."

golpe


Treece translates "golpe" as "beating", which is correct, however misses the secondary meaning of the word: "coup".

Carlos


The “Carlos” referred to in the poem is most likely Carlos Bolsonaro, a politician from Rio de Janeiro and the second son of Jair Bolsonaro, Brazil’s current president. His and his father’s involvement in Marielle’s murder has been questioned and investigated.