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Notes from a Cannibal - How to Eat Your Words, Safiya Sinclair

Safiya Sinclair reads at Bookophilia

Safiya Sinclair is the author of Cannibal her lyrical and entrancing debut collection of poems. Cannibalism is not a delicate art, it requires a strong stomach to deal with the entrails and blood. So, maybe it was not so surprising that at her reading at Bookophilia in Kingston, one woman kept whispering, that the emotions rising up in her from hearing the poetry was too much. 

The title easily harkens to The Tempest and metaphors for such are replete in the text. But, what is most intriguing is that when Sinclair speaks of how she approaches words that strike her fancy, she says she cannibalizes them. She has cannibalized words, titles, and experiences.

Sinclair left Jamaica in 2012 and lived in Charlottesville, Virginia.  Charlottesville she said doesn't see itself as a part of the south. She explained that Charlottesville lives in the shadow of Thomas Jefferson and many of the rich white students admire him without contending with any of the horrors of his history. What she learnt was that he had coined the word belittle.

“I decided to cannibalize that,” she said. The result of that is ‘Note on Virginia’. 

Several of Sinclair’s poems engage with her time there and being black in America, as moving to the United States brought with it a more deliberate contemplation of race.

“I didn't really have to engage with the fact of my blackness until I moved to study in America when the fact of my blackness is impossible to ignore,” she said. 

The result of that contemplation are poems like 'Another White Christmas in Virginia’ and ‘100 Amazing Facts About the Negro, Complete Proof I’. 

But Jamaica is not without its own problematic racial relations, and that came out through ‘Prayer for Vanishing’ a lyric poem about bleaching - lightening the skin. 

Cannibal also turns Sinclair’s penetrating gaze on gender, including the poem ‘Hands’ a poem she dedicates to her mother, and women like her whose labour go unsung.

“She is the first person who turned me to poetry,” Sinclair said. 

Sinclair also read ‘Portrait of Eve as the Anaconda’ a poem she said was born while she was taking a class on Victorian literature while studying for her PhD. Frustrated by the rinse and repeat of Dead white men, decided to make her PhD work for her. Learning that men had a problem with women studying botany because it mirrored too closely the vulgarity of procreation. “I thought, I can work with that.”

Through pieces such as ‘Good Hair’ a meditation on black hair which allows for the collision of the pain and the economics turning kinky hair straight, with the pain and economics of racism. 

The reading at Bookophilia was Sinclair’s second public reading in Jamaica, the first, was when she was about 18 years-old. 

“I write this book for people like us,” she would say later in the question and answer segment. “When I read this book in America, they are the other. I like that when I read these poems in Jamaica, the audience gets other meanings,” she said.

“I am very interested in the history of the words that come down to us,” she said, explaining that the interest is also a part of her academic study which focuses on ‘motherlore’. 

It is an interest that also rears up time and again in her poetry, as she takes these words, consumes them and turns them into something else. 

“I’m interested in the fracture of language and the making of words.”

The reading took place on Thursday, June 8, 2017 at Bookophilia on Hope Road, Kingston.