In the poem by Grace Nichols ‘Of course when they ask for poems about the ‘Realities’ of black women’, this poem contains certain splits which reflect upon her experience as an immigrant moving from the Caribbean to the United Kingdom and how she collaborates her two worlds together, by using both Creole, the language from her homeland and Standard English. She resists the notions of the black women in a contemporary society through her poetry and is rather fond of her Caribbean heritage and also still being proud of her European custom and seeing it as belonging to her. This space ‘in between’ of being a writer between two worlds, are all geographical, cultural and personal and there is a split that is caused not only by physical migration but by the adoption of new cultural customs, and the personal rifts of identity and agency. Grace Nichols strived to find her voice in London to write about her homeland Guyana, and the pressing issues of black women ideologies.
She strives to be true to the inner language of her voice by fighting against these dogmas that conflictingly were being imposed from the colonial power that is her current homeland, the United Kingdom and she achieves this by creating something new. In her poem ‘Of course when they ask for poems about the ‘Realities’ of black women’ she defeats the black women stereotypes by refusing the historical legacy of the grotesque and patronizing colonial structures of the black women and the black women as ‘frail victims.’ 1 She gets this message across in the poem when she states: “Maybe this poem is to say, that I like to see we black women full-of-we-selves walking Crushing out with each dancing step the twisted self-negating history we’ve inherited Crushing out with each dancing step,”2 this is a split that is caused by the physical migration into a colonial country and her need to express the issue caused by colonial powers.
Fortunately, by being a black British writer, her voice is heard much greater by those with fixed ideologies of black women. And, additionally she signifies that she has not lost her roots and the Caribbean blood still pumps within her veins, she continues to be the voice of her ancestors. In the essay by Stuart Hall, ‘Cultural Identity and Diaspora’ he states that identity is seen through visual arts and cinemas are “resources of resistance and identity, with which to confront the fragmented and pathological ways in which that experience has been reconstructed within the dominant regimes of cinematic and visual representation of the West.” 3 Hence a poem that wants to achieve this requires the experience to tell it. He is also implying that people of the diaspora need to take back their identity as it has been told for too long through the dominant cinema.
Thus, Nichols’s splits of geographical displacement have had a profound impact on her writing across two worlds and she has a strong sense of agency, to be able to go against the norms of her current geographical content and speak out to those ideologies influenced by dominate powers and the “abused stereotypes already in their head.” 4 Referring to the Western systems, the tone in this poem portrays the ignorance of the West. Not only has her diaspora caused geographical splits in her literature but also produced cultural splits. Nichols expresses a diversity of cultural experiences of her migration to Britain and the constant intervention of a black British identity.
Her poem signifies the split of cultural identity, we can see this within her writing on her experience, in the opening lines of the poem she states “Of course when they ask for poems about the ‘Realities’ of black women”5 we get the idea that the industry requests her to write poems about what they assume the black women to be. Thus, asking her to subscribe to those cultural norms, however Nichols resists this request by saying “I say I can write no poem big enough to hold the essence of a black woman or a white woman or a green woman.”6 Nichols’s message is apparent here, that there is no fixed label of a black woman and that the ‘black women’ comes in many different forms not one specific shape. By doing so she challenges the concept of the basic racial or gendered identity.
The ‘Green women’7 is used by Nichols to show the significance of color, that it is not necessarily about black and white but more focused on woman in general, that the focus should not be on the color of skin. Hall states that, “We all write and speak from a particular place and time, from a history and a culture which is specific. What we say is always ‘in context’, positioned.”8 Nichols’s separation from her homeland encourages her to resist the norms of the West and to use her experience and her new cultural knowledge of her new custom to confront the so called experience of the black women that has been reconstructed by the West through cinematic and visual representations. She finds her identity as a black British writer and also uses her multicultural identity, along side with her diaspora experience to her advantage to articulate herself and represent her image as an authentic writer with strong agency. Nichols embraces the notion of split selves and her multicultural identity and it is evident in her poem when she mixes her mother tongue, Creole, her foreign tongue and Standard English.
We capture this essence in line 39-41 “ a piece-a-pussy/ that see the pickney dem/ in the grip-a-hungry-belly”9 she uses a mixture of both Creole and English to send her message across that she will always remain true to her traditions and that she is reclaiming her heritage whilst respectively passing on the legacy. These two languages were constantly interacting and Creole was considered as the inferior language by the colonial power, thus she deliberately uses Creole in her work to defy hierarchical systems and her sense of agency is manifest. Furthermore, Nichols’ personal rifts from her diaspora have left her with an endless desire to return to her lost origins, she scarcely achieves this through her poetry “and yes we cut bush to clear paths for our children and yes we throw spat to catch whale.”10 She shifts between two identities, therefore one cannot say that identities are stable but rather that “diaspora identities are those which are constantly producing and reproducing themselves anew, through transformation and difference.”
Nichols is a writer across two worlds as she is constantly interacting between her past Caribbean culture, and her present British culture, she finds common ground between both. Therefore, her personal rifts of yearning, separation and nostalgia are also what characterize her diaspora experience in her poem. Grace Nichols’s geographical, cultural and personal rifts are what depict her diaspora literature, from physically moving to London from the Caribbean and finding her voice in a place where they are considered a minority, toward learning to conform and adapt to the new cultural values and norms of the British.
Whilst, at the same time remembering your motherland’s traditions and values. We do not lose the sense that she is a Caribbean writer throughout her poem “Of course when they ask for poems about the ‘Realities’ of black women”, because she fuses Creole and English together to form her new identity as a black British writer. I relate to her experience, as I too am a person in between two worlds, straddling two cultures and I too have desires for my motherland Iraq, and the stereotypes of our culture forces one to find a ‘space in between’ to discover an identity suitable in both worlds. Her poem has a sense of hope and delight that one of a diaspora identity can explore and is free to be more than one person, that the black women is a myth, although black women are still exposed to slavery, their courage may lead to a promising future.
Hall, Stuart. “Cultural identity and diaspora.” Identity: Community, Culture, Difference. Ed. Jonathan Rutherford. London: Lawrence & Wishart, 1990. 222-237. Nichols, Grace. “Of course when they ask for poems about the ‘Realities’ of black women” Lazy Thoughts of a Lazy Woman. London: Virago, 1989.
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