Soukeyna Osei-Bonsu sweeps us off our feet and takes us into flight, where we all come together and feast in the sky or…so to speak. At least, at first glance of Soukeyna’s poetry book, “All the Birds Were Invited to a Feast in the Sky,” that is exactly how I felt. The image of birds flying in a pattern that screams unity, togetherness or inclusivity despite who you are.
One particular poem in the book, entitled, “Khimar,” describes Soukeyna’s hijab journey. One of the first lines is “I looked into the mirror/ draped in a starless sky,” while the absolute last line is, “home at least, return.” She reminds us that in discovering who we truly are by finally embracing our identities, we are not just discovering who we are, but also returning to ourselves. We are becoming who we were always meant to be…that person from within. At least, that is what I interpret from Soukeyna’s poem, “Khimar.”
In her poem, “Wagadou,” we encounter a hero who eventually becomes part of a group, therefore not the same individual: “A nation, printed into deserted textbooks/ and folded into a box/systemic creases now denting the surface of a once smooth page.” I interpret this as how easy it is for us to lose ourselves as soon as we have found ourselves or “returned” to ourselves. We can get lost in the crowd, but we need to hold hands tightly enough with our identities that we don’t.
Another poem that I can relate to is the role of a mother, not just because I am one, but also because I was fortunate enough to have been raised by one. In “Concerning the Sweetness of our Mothers,” Soukeyna writes, “The glow of safety/ enshrouded us/and we were suspended in it / by the time your blessed lips/had finished their plea.” This highlights the importance and power of prayer that many of us are taught by our mothers.
Let’s meet Soukeyna, the poet:
R.Your use of language in “All the Birds Were Invited to a Feast in the Sky,” is beautiful, مَا شَاءَ ٱللَّٰهُ, and has an inspirational flow to it. What inspired this book, this collection of poetry?
S. Thank you! تَبَارَكَ اللَّهُ (blessed is God). The book was inspired by a spiritual transformation I underwent when I began practicing Islam in my late teens. I was trying to make sense of something as ephemeral as this life whilst trying to navigate my path to the next which provided a lot of material to write about. I also wanted the book to be a legacy and means of sadaqah jariyah (continuous charity) for me when I’m gone and wanted to remind people about the reality of Allah All Mighty, as well as evoke a feeling of wonder at the beauty of His creation. I wanted the small reflections I had on the next life to be a mausoleum that people may wish to visit after I have left this realm. Finally, I was inspired by the poets who came before me, including Rumi, Hafez and Farid ud-Din Attar, who canonised the beauty of Allah All Mighty and His mysteries in books available for the world to read to this day.
I suppose that’s my main aim with the collection- though within the second half of the book, I wanted to explore the beauty of Africa; my support for Pan-Africanism and the problems that plague Africa and the diaspora as a result of neo-colonial domination / the legacy of white supremacy. I work in the sphere of Black activism so wanted to express not only the frustrations and struggles that Black people go through, but also the glory and resplendence of Africa and her people.
R.Tell us about the cover design.
S. The cover image was a reflection of the title which was is a line taken from Chinua Achebe’s seminal work Things Fall Apart. The title is also the title of one of my favourite poems in the collection. I wanted the illustrations and the warm colour scheme to evoke a feeling of nostalgia or home in the reader and to remind the reader of earth.
R.Your poem, “Khimar” took me “home at last, return,” to quote the last lines of it. I gathered that the return home, in this case, was more spiritual than physical as you describe your hijab journey. Would you like to elaborate?
S. Of course, I first learned about the fitrah after an anthropology lecture as an undergrad. We had been learning about the enlightenment philosopher Immanuel Kant and his ethical formula ‘ought implies can.’ I was intrigued by this and after some research, found that the closest equivalent in Islamic thought is the fitrah. When I read about the fitrah at uni for the first time, I immediately recognised this as the truth and made it by ambition to return to its inherent purity. So in this poem, I am reflecting on how the hijab serves as a physical manifestation of the soul’s true inclination and how it helps me and serves as a barrier against harm in this life. What I was attempting to convey in the poem was that after years of looking for the truth and soul searching, I was able to return home to God, to righteousness and to the human fitrah (the human predisposition) which is peace, contentment and tawheed (acknowledging and worshipping the oneness of God). Though my soul returned to this, I did struggle with my hijab, niqab and Islam post-writing that poem and even contemplated taking my hijab off due to my own human weakness. However, through the mercy of Allah All Mighty, I have been able to maintain it and fall in love with it and Islam all over again.
R.Could you describe how your book is structured? The structure seems to be a journey in itself.
S.The collection is structured into two parts: ‘shedding weight breathing light’ as part one, and part two is ‘by Africa, the iridescence of her beauty’.
The title of part one, ‘shedding weight breathing light,’ is named after the emotions I felt when I first started writing the collection in 2017. I was in a really difficult and abusive situation so I took to writing as a means of quite literally shedding weight and breathing light as I knew the difficulty would eventually pass. I felt less heavy with time, but needed to do something to diminish the heaviness.
The second half ‘by Africa, the iridescence of her beauty,’ is a line taken from a poem in the collection titled, ‘by the quiver of an arrow’. I thought that line would be a good overarching rubric to encompass all the different ideas I had around Africa, blackness and struggles migrants that face.
R.Tell us a little bit about yourself, your upbringing and how it shaped who you are today.
S. Sure, I work for a black rights organisation so I do a lot of black activism, events, projects etc. I also run a quarterly online magazine that I started with my sister (mzab.co.uk) which explores adventure, culture and spirituality.
Concerning my upbringing, I grew up in London, but was born in France and come from a North and West African heritage. My upbringing was a creative one, I was really into drawing and painting. I also read a lot and loved playing ‘explorer’ (which is probably why I chose to study anthropology!). Childhood was a lot of laughter and fun, and understanding through reading excessively and developing writing skills.
I suppose what I remember most from my upbringing is the kindness of my parents and the peace that constantly eminated from especially my mother. This definitely shaped who I am today as they served as an inspiration and reference point when I started looking into Islam- so, I have a lot to thank them for!
R.Where can we follow your poet/book journe?