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Poet Hamda Yusuf: Somalia's ‘awkward diaspora daughter’

caption: Poet Hamda Yusuf says Somali poetry 'is the poetry that you have to hear. And you have to hear it from the person who wrote it.'
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Poet Hamda Yusuf says Somali poetry 'is the poetry that you have to hear. And you have to hear it from the person who wrote it.'
Courtesy of Hamda Yusuf

When Hamda Yusuf was growing up in West Seattle, her mom used to recite original poems for her children in the car.

"I remember my dad telling me Somalia is the nation of poets and I always knew this to be true... because I know nobody else's mom is writing them poems," Yusuf said.

Somalia is the "nation of poets"?

If you're not Somali that might surprise you. If you search for Somalia on the internet, you will quickly learn about civil war and bombings, and only rarely about how poetry and art make up a huge part of Somali culture.

Yusuf performs as a slam poet and also writes poetry meant to be read by others. I met her a couple of years ago when I was starting my freshman year at the University of Washington and she was a junior. I always admired her. At UW, a lot of Somali girls pursue science related majors, but Yusuf didn't, and neither do I.

I invited her to speak about her poetry and how she battles stereotypes while staying true to herself.

On her audience:

"I write for people who reject the so-called necessity for defining yourself and for having to define others around you. I write for Somali girls who are annoyed. I write for Somali girls who are tired. I write for Somali girls who have ambition. I write for anyone and everyone who can connect to a piece."

If she had to choose a genre to describe her poetry?

"I would call it 'awkward diaspora daughter poetry.' Or 'awkward longings for home.' I'll write another piece and be like, wow, just another piece about not fitting in here and wanting to go home."

In high school, she often wrote poems in response to microagressions.

"Those poems were often letters to people that I would never send. That's not necessarily who I am anymore. If something racist happens now, I'll write a poem about it, but also I'm going to call you a racist because it was racist."

Watch Hamda Yusuf perform the second poem she ever wrote, “Just Another Towelhead”​(Editor's note: Contains strong language.)

Somali poetry is "the kind of poetry that's not written down."

"Somali poetry is the poetry that you have to hear. And you have to hear it from the person who wrote it. If you hear it from anyone else it's not going to sound right. There's so much good stuff out there and there was so much good stuff out there that was never written down, and then it gets lost."

On her poem "To the Well-Meaning Seattleite":

"There are so many well-meaning Seattleites out there who love Africa, who love Asia, but when it comes to Asian immigrants or African immigrants in Seattle who are being loud, it's like, 'Why are they loud? Why are these immigrants not fitting in to what Seattleites are supposed to be like?'"

On Beyoncé's collaboration with British Somali poet Warsan Shire:

"When I listened to 'Lemonade' I remember hearing the words and I immediately was like, 'Oh my god, this is Warsan. This is her words, this is her!' The night that 'Lemonade' was released, I felt like all Somali girls in the world were partying. We're like, we made it! It was this feeling of solidarity."

Her advice to people who want to write and perform poetry:

"Don't write for an audience. Always write for yourself. Always write what you wanted to hear at the age of 13, what you wanted to hear at the age of 10, what you wanted to hear last year, or last week, or yesterday. Write for yourself, and there are always going to be people who connect with that."

Yusuf lives in Vienna as a Fulbright grantee. She plans to pursue a career in the foreign service. Find her at her blog, Hamda Is Everywhere.

RadioActive Youth Media is KUOW's program for youth age 16 to 20ish. Listen to RadioActive stories, subscribe to the RadioActive podcast and stay in touch on Facebook and Twitter.

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