Book Review: Cannibal by Safiya Sinclair

Cannibal book sits on blanket

By Nina N. Yeboah @gotmyniinaa

It was the cover that intrigued me initially. The face just off-center belongs to a black person. We know this from the dark skin; the head covered with kinky hair and layered with a sheen of glitter. A gold mask that looks like an outdated surgical device covers the top half of the face, leaving open space for the crooked eyes. It’s beautiful and disturbing. It’s signature Wangechi Mutu, grotesque in such a way, it demands more than a glance. With this work on the cover, I knew Safiya Sinclair was preparing me for the engagement that her work demands. Flush left near the bottom of the cover is the title, Cannibal printed in bold red letters. In a short preface to the collection, Sinclair traces the origin of this naming choice. The Spanish canibal is derived from caribal, a reference to Christopher Columbus’ assertion that Carib people ate human flesh. Sinclair concludes “by virtue of being Caribbean, all ‘West Indian’ people are already, in a purely linguistic sense, born savage.” It’s as if she’s saying with a fierceness, “watch what I’m about to do.”  It’s a corrective to the polite description that the publishers offer (an exploration of “Jamaican childhood and history, race relations in America, womanhood, otherness, and exile”). The poems move through space and time with the insight of radical black womanhood. Radical in the sense that traditional or normative ways of being in and seeing the world are refused at every turn. The images that Sinclair creates speak to anyone living in Diaspora and in continual recovery from the violence of patriarchy and white supremacy.

There is this idea that art and other intellectual endeavors have the possibility to serve as a home for those living in a diaspora. We are displaced people living in hostile environments. Surviving is the minimum but homemaking is life-affirming resistance. In Safiya Sinclair’s poems, I found a sister to some of my own work. As if we grew up in the same home and learned in a very visceral way to turn a critical eye to race and gender as systems of domination that work against love.

My only disappointment is that I read this book alone. I want to know what others have found in it. The fourth section of the book opens with these lines from The Tempest: “This thing of darkness I / Acknowledge mine.” About mid-way through this introspection, I wondered if anyone else might find something hopeful about love, as I hadn’t. Similarly, amidst the encounters with whiteness as a black immigrant in the US, I wondered if anyone read the absence of cross-cultural interactions among black people as an intentional silence.

The poems in the first section of Cannibal are about family and home. “After the Last Astronauts Had Left Us, I” is the last of these. The copy I borrowed from the library flaps open at its beginning. I revisit these lines often: “So my siblings and I crouched and waited / for their bombs, never forgetting we too were godless. / Back then we passed one sweaty dream back and forth / between us like a hot bowl. It could have been hope, / our heads two broken calabash halves, / catching the old voices like rain…”The images that precede these lines are of a mother leaving, a hurricane’s destruction, and news media covering US troops during the Gulf War. There are many things to hope for in this moment, to dream sweatily about. A mother’s return is premier among them. I think of the dried gourds that adorn my own mother’s home; all of the artifacts that served to ground our family in the States. I think of how my uncle and grandmother, both buried on the other side of the Atlantic, visit my mother in her dreams. And how when I am in search of hope or some sign to keep going, I try to open myself -- mind and heart to what the ancestors (the old voices) have for me. But the connection feels fragile. Physical and spiritual distance, the static of an imposed colonial language. We can't speak to each other when I'm limited in this way. That's the personal significance of this of this book for me. The images that Sinclair create generate images of my own experience of being a black girl and woman in diaspora. It feels more deeply than finding myself represented in a book, it feels like an intellectual, creative endeavor within which I can find a home.

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