Review of Safia Elhillo's The January Children (University of Nebraska, 2017)

Safia Elhillo's The January Children

reviewed by Logan February

The January Children, Safia Elhillo’s electric new poetry collection, is bursting with nostalgia, rebellion, inquiry & declaration. The title is a reference to the colonial & political history of Sudan, as Elhillo’s dedication tells us: “The January Children are the generation born in Sudan under British occupation, where children were assigned birth years by height, all given the birth date January 1.” One thing that makes this book outstanding to me is Elhillo’s presentation of an African immigrant narrative. Her speaker confesses: “i forget the arabic word for economy / i forget the english word for عسل.”

& so she carries on, weaving Arabic & English together, fluidly. Sometimes she offers a translation, & in other cases, she doesn't. A notable element is the telling of her story entirely in lowercase. I interpret this as an unapologetic expression of a dual self—colonized, but not quite, African, but not quite. This duality creates the tension that drives The January Children; she is both Sudanese & “homesick from safe inside [her] blue / american passport;” both blackgirl & “ب بنت   daughter of arabs.” There is a moment where the speaker concedes: “it’s only that i’m west of everything i understand.”

This is how she tells her story: balancing bravado with vulnerability. The book is opened with a most apt line: “verily everything that is lost will be / given a name,” & this is what the speaker is—lost, & trying to find a name. Although hers is “a story older than water,” Elhillo devises a new, nonconformist way of telling it: navigating the Sudan through a cultural icon, Abdelhalim Hafez, “the loverboy prototype,” “the first romantic.”

Across a series of applications & interviews “for the position of aldelhalim hafez’s girl,” the speaker investigates her identity through the lens of Abdelhalim’s lyrics about a brown girl. She inquires: “i heard the lyric about a lost girl      i thought you meant me,” in response to which she is informed: “you know he didn’t mean that brown you know he didn’t mean black.”

The reader then navigates her Sudan & her America through her. We are with her in the midst of her bad-ass declarations:

“maryland / is my / sudan”
“where i’m from is where i’m from & not / where i was put”
“i am looking for a voice with / a wound in it”
“& what is a country but the drawing of a line i draw thick black / lines around my / eyes & they are a country”

We are with her in her moments of curiosity:

“do you even / understand what was lost to bring you / here”
“sure the / sudanese are / honest people but      what about glamour”
“whose daughters are we if we grow old before our mothers or for their sakes”

We are also with her in her more vulnerable moments of confession:

“i grew / & / my rift grew // & / another / sudan / was / missing”
“i am most afraid of having nothing / to bring back so i never come home”
“the slow finish is in my heart / its syrup trickle / & i don’t mean love / i mean my wet crooked / actual heart”

We witness her as she unearths the tragic fact that Abdelhalim was in fact, never singing about a girl like her, because “black is taking /asmar/ / too literally” & she learns to deal with that. In my favorite moment of this book, the speaker invokes ancestry (the book is laced with references to grandmothers) at the end of a “lovers’ quarrel with aldelhalim hafez,” saying: “look       i’m a sad girl from a long line of sad girls / doesn’t mean you can talk to me that way.”

This grit & confidence makes The January Children unforgettable. Elhillo claims she does “not always survive / across boundaries,” but here, she does.

Logan February is a happy-ish Nigerian owl who likes pizza & typewriters. He is Co-Editor-In-Chief of The Ellis Review. His work has appeared or is forthcoming in Tinderbox, Wildness, Glass, Bateau, and more. He is author of How to Cook a Ghost (Glass Poetry Press 2017) & Painted Blue with Saltwater (Indolent Books 2018). Say hello on Instagram & Twitter @loganfebruary.