Home is Not a Country
This book, a novel in free verse and written for young adult readers, is a story that delights in countless ways. Written by the young Sudanese American writer and poet Safia Elhillo, it tells the story of a teenage, Muslim, first-generation immigrant girl, called Nima – in Arabic written and pronounced Niʿma, with the guttural consonant ʿayn in the middle. Nima’s parents’ country of birth is not mentioned by name, but the cultural references – dances (such as the raqaba), songs (from Sudan and Egypt), and dress (women’s colorful chiffon tobes) all point to Sudan. Nima feels inadequate, awkward, and unloved in her U.S. environment and imagines a spirit double, called Yasmeen, the name her absent father had chosen for her before she was born. Nima imagines Yasmeen as the girl still living in their homeland, whose Arabic was perfect, who was prettier and more graceful – in short, a better and more lovable version of Nima herself.
Nima’s only friend is her class-mate and neighbor Haitham, the son of another woman, who had emigrated to the U.S. with her own mother. Nima’s thoughts and feelings, her close friendship with Haitham, and her experiences at school, where she is othered, harassed, and even assaulted, are the subject of the first part of the book. Because the language is so authentic to Nima’s character and evokes her emotions, especially her longing for her homeland, as well as the people, places, and things surrounding her, so powerfully and beautifully, this is a joy to read. For example, this is how the author describes Nima’s feelings when she studies old pictures of the homeland from when her parents were young. After describing some of what she sees, Elhillo describes Nima thoughts as follows:
“all of them my people all them unknown
i peer into each face & feel for the first time
that I belong to other people my face just a collage
of all their faces &beyond the gray of the photos [as per the book]
i swear I see my exact shade of brown my exact
eyes each exact coil of my hair inherited
from the bodies in these photographs & now
my body mine my turn with these features” (pp. 128-129).
The story becomes even more captivating when it adds a dimension of magical realism and takes an unexpected turn. In the company of spirit double Yasmeen, Nima finds herself time- traveling to her homeland, to the past, where the unpleasant truths about her own, as well as Haitham’s father, until then hidden from her, become clear. On her return, Nima looks at herself and her life in the U.S. with different eyes. Having crossed and re-crossed the thin line between the human and spirit worlds, she stops chasing the ghosts of her past and becomes more grounded in her own body and person, in the love of the friends and family around her, and in her new environment. Home, she finds, does not have to be the country your parents left behind.
This beautiful book comes highly recommended. It is a literary gem and a profound, moving, and delightful story by an immensely promising writer.
Lidwien Kapteijns, Wellesley College
Published in Africa Access Review (June 8, 2021)
Copyright 2021 Africa Access