A Voice for the Voiceless

Today I am starting what I hope will be a series of posts introducing you to one writer at a time. That’s not to say that I won’t go back to book lists on themes or other posts, but I would like to take the time to introduce voices that move me and share them with you.

I had an opportunity a while back to go to the National Museum of Women in the Arts in Washington, DC.  In addition to the artwork displayed in the museum, that night they had a poetry reading featuring three poets.  First on the bill was Nikki Giovanni, a famous poet whose work I had read in literature anthologies, text books, and her own books.  Next was Elizabeth Acevedo.  While I had not read any of her poetry, I had read her then recent release, The Poet X, and had loved it entirely.  The third poet was a writer I had never heard of — Emtithal Mahmoud.

Mahmoud began in a soft and, what seemed to me at first, shaky voice as she introduced herself and talked a little about writing.  Those first words belied who this forceful woman is and her accomplishments.  It also hid the wonderfully dynamic and compelling voice we would be hearing as she began speaking about things important to her and performing her poetry. Her online biography quotes The Guardian, “She has debated with presidents, been comforted by the Dalai Lama, and been called one of the world’s most inspiring women — but it’s as a poet that Emtithal Mahmoud truly shines.” (emi-mahmoud.com)  Both in her activism and her poetry she advocates for refugees, for the disadvantaged, for women.  She talked to us that night about hosting civilian peace talks across Sudan in her “One Girl Walk and Dreams for Peace Initiative” where she walked across Sudan gaining supporters along the way and speaking out on the issues plaguing her country.

Emtithal Mahmoud Shares Her Work Promoting Peace with Poetry ...
Click photo for the article “Emtithal Mahmoud Shares Her Work Promoting Peace with Poetry” which also includes video of her performance.

Hers is a remarkable journey from refugee to America where she attended Yale studying Anthropology and Molecular Cellular Developmental Biology. She became a UN Goodwill Ambassador, a poetry slam champion, and spoke to world leaders in forums from Paris to Davos and The Hague.  She is included on Forbes 30 Under 30 list, the BBC’s 100 Most Inspirational Women, and Harper’s Bazaar’s New Change-makers for 2020.  

I felt that I needed to tell you all of this so that you will know the kind of woman I am writing about here today.  After the first couple of sentences she uttered in DC that evening, I was on the edge of my seat hanging on to every word she uttered.  Her poems of war-torn lands, of refugees, of women, and of her family mesmerized and left me heartbroken.  Her poems are clear and readable, accessible and powerful.  I sat down last night, not for the first time, with her book Sisters’ Entrance.  It is a small book that can be read in one sitting but not digested that quickly.  I devoured it and marked places to share with you. 

I won’t share them all today.  I will share passages from three poems and the entirely of a another which is rather long (the length of some of her poems is part of why I’m only sharing a few lines from the others). And even as I say this I’m thinking, “but what about…” and the words that I really want everyone to read.  I want you to hear her reading “Choir of Kings,” her tribute to a grandmother who fully understood what Barbara Kinsolver writes in The Bean Trees about “How They Eat in Heaven.”  I want you to feel the love of the poem “Mama” and the achingly beautiful “Dad” which echoed in my mind the longing Harry Chapin sang of in “Cat’s in the Cradle.”  But you’ll have to get the book for those (and please do — you will not regret the purchase).

I am sharing some of her words about women.  Passages written which delve into lives women everywhere can recognize.  Passages with advice from a mother and to the reader.  Passages about misogyny and the dehumanizing of females.  Please enjoy these snippets from the book.  Look her up online.  She is an amazing writer and force for good in the world.

from the poem “Why I Haven’t Told You Yet”

…We teach our girls to quarantine their emotions —

isolate heart and reason or risk perceptions of hysteria.

We’re taught that our anger is a misconception,

that our discontent will pass as long as we smile pretty,

clean up nice, and play into this courtship dichotomy.

This twisted game of act and receive

where your role is assigned at birth.

Well, this is me telling you


that the only winning move is not to play…


from the poem “The Things She Told Me”

…She said with a shaking voice,

Learn these things, before they teach you.


Death loves a woman, but we are still here.


And the moon is crying, or maybe singing

and the stars look down in mourning

as we melt hatred and weave compassion, 

gather the waste from each body

and wld resilience.


We do this every day—make a good thing

out of nothing,

be the strong ones,

be okay even when we’re not.


But today, we’re more than okay,

we are women.

So, take my strength, I’ve got plenty.


Take my hands, I’ve got two.

Take my voice, let it guide you

and if it shakes, ask yourself:


when the earth shakes,

do you think that she’s afraid?

Mahmoud, Emtithal, Sisters’ entrance. Kansas City, MO: Andrews McMeel Publishing, 2018. 29-30.

from “Classrooms”

…Like I haven’t seen the world end

a thousand times.

Like I hadn’t held my mother as she cried

or my father as he broke over and over again.


Like I never played hopscotch in a war zone

Like I haven’t woken up

on the wrong side of heaven

every day since.


Where I come from, the opposite of learning

is death.  The price of speaking is flesh.

The weight of being a woman scars 

deeper than the most unforgiving of wounds


But not today, not among my sisters,

not in this room, not in the next,

Not in a world where I can stand,

me here woman, proud


speaking like the world didn’t try to erase me.

wearing my wings and vaulting 

fists raised toward the sky


When your existence is an act of defiance, live.

Sudanese-American slam poet and author Emtithal Mahmoud to present ...
Click this photo for a link to ear Emi Mahmoud at a Poetry Slam, an article in The Guardian about Mahmoud, and the poem “Mama” that I mentioned above.

“How to Translate a Joke”

A man walks into the market looking for a date.

He asks the village playboy for help.

The village playboy says,

watch, and learn.


He walks up to a girl selling honey

and says, do you have any honey, honey?

She swoons, gives him honey

and a kiss.


He walks up to a woman selling flowers, 

Do you have any flowers, you rose?

She melts, gives him flowers

and a kiss.


He walks up to a third woman,

Do you have any sugar, sugar?


She practically dies,


gives him sugar, 

and kisses him twice.


The playboy comes back,

your turn, stud.

The man apprehensively walks up

to a woman selling dairy

And says, 


Do you have any milk, cow?


Realize that humor transcends 

all boundaries; that laughter 

is a language that knows no borders;


that this joke I heard in Arabic

makes perfect sense in English,

and French, and any other dialect—


Realize that we call women cows

in every language

Realize that humor leaves little room

for questions, and even less room

for victims and even less room

for apologies.


Realize that in one version of this joke, 

the man is looking to pick up girls,

in another, he’s looking for a wife,

in the third, he’s looking 

for an answer.


And maybe the cow slaps him,

or the cow asks him to leave

and he tries again,

or she walks faster, 

clutches her purse

or maybe she threatens him

and is jailed for treason or maybe


the cow sues him

and the case is dismissed

or they settle




We are willing to say offensive

more than we say dangerous 

as if harm isn’t transitive

as if it isn’t something you do

to another person.


We like to pretend that I am not

as uncomfortable alone 

on the streets of New York

as I am on the streets of Nepal,

that a stroll in Philly or Indiana,

Minnesota, doesn’t bring as many stares 

as in India, or Sudan, or Egypt


That violence is a third world problem,

that it isn’t here, hiding

in a conversation, or a bouquet,

or a market

that not being alone makes a difference.


If they don’t get the joke, say it again,

smile more this time, repeat the punchline,

pause for dramatic effect

use jazz hands.  If you have to, 




In another version, that man walks 

into the market, looking for a date,

and leaves with an unwilling woman,

a bounty.


In my language, I am a sweet,

and if not that, a decoration,

a flower, a gift.


He walks up to the girl selling honey,

she gives him her eyes,

her arms, her silence.


He walks up to the girl selling sugar,

she practically dies.


He walks up to the girl selling flowers,

calls her a rose, strips all her thorns

sticks her in a bouquet,

she fights, he breaks her,

calls her a dead thing,

she melts, is trampled

in the market.


There are four women in the joke,

none of them speak.


Realize that humor transcends

all boundaries; that laughter 

is a language that knows no borders;

that this joke I heard in Arabic


hurts just a much in English,

and French, and any other dialect—

In the last version, the man is foaming

at the mouth with another girl’s jugular

around his teeth, his Adam’s apple

making excuses for him

from all the way

over there.


And the market is cheering,

the girl’s hair a bracelet around his wrist

and the market is still cheering,

or the audience, or the schoolyard,

or the other men

and he asks her name.

She says,


You left a box of your things

in my stomach.

Are you still trying to find

yourself on another girl’s 



Last week, my seven-year-old brother

said that I am the reason he wakes up

every morning.


I give him a hug, he whispered to my mother,

works every time—

I saw fear in her eyes.

We laughed. 

interview quote head over heels
Click the photo to hear more — including “How to Translate a Joke”

apologies for the . between lines in the poems – ignore them if you can – couldn’t get the post to space properly…wish I knew what I was doing…

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