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Chasing the kind rhythm

In pursuit of a home centred on love, Edmonton’s 2016-17
Youth Poet Laureate defies the Canadian multiculturalism myth
By Kevin Pennyfeather

Nasra Adem stands at an intersection of identities and cultures. Looking for her home, poetry saved her life. (Photo courtesy Nasra Adem)

ON THIS HOT summer day, Nasra Adem gazes out at the 600 demonstrators packed against a precautionary police line at the steps of the Alberta Legislature, and puts her body where her poetry is. Wearing a traditional orange-and-green African dress that hangs past her ankles, and a matching headdress that temporarily tames the frizz of her thick black hair, she looks out from the podium into the faces of the crowd, and finds sympathetic eyes staring back.

This August rally has formed under an “End Racism in Canada” banner. It is, in part, a reaction to the alt-right extremists who had  marched in the streets of Charlottesville, Va., two weeks before, and, in part, a denunciation of the myth that racism doesn’t exist in Edmonton. Adem leaped – as she often does – at the chance to present her work for an important cause. Not necessarily as 2017’s Edmonton Youth Poet Laureate, but as an affected voice trying to change the world for the better.

Some days, she changes the young, urging them to embrace love and question what they see. Some nights, she changes the old, chipping away at their hardened views from a place of vulnerability. And sometimes, she is blocked by a seething lie that has poked at the Canadian psyche as long as she can remember.

Some mornings Canada is my people
Some mornings Canada asks me to prove it

– Excerpt from a poem Nasra Adem
presented at the End Racism rally Aug. 26

“I shouldn’t have to tell you that I’m just like you – that I love Tim Hortons – for you to respect my humanity, and for you to believe that I should be afforded the same freedoms as you,” she says of the myth of an egalitarian Canada.

At 23, Adem is standing at an intersection of identities and cultures: a black, queer, multidisciplinary artist. She fights to present truth and help others find it, too. And her driving desire to respect that truth in Canadian communities often intensifies when she remembers how fortunate she is to even exist.

Her first moments alive in a Calgary hospital were tenuous.

“I was not even supposed to be here,” she says. She was born 21/2 months premature, and doctors told her parents to “say goodbye to your child.” But she fought, and lived. Today, she says, she draws on the “miracle” of her presence at her spiritual core when she tries to help others.

“In Grade 6, I remember that I created this leadership program in my elementary school, so that we could, like, start to build initiatives to help people in our communities,” she says. “We did a bake sale and fundraisers for cancer research. I’ve always been this kid that knew and could see what’s possible when love is at the centre.”

After several years in Ontario, Adem reluctantly moved to back to Alberta in 2007. While she was in junior high in Edmonton at that time, she says, she practised generosity under the guidance of her mother.

“We’d buy a bunch of bananas from when they’re on sale at the grocery store and then just give them out to the people in our neighbourhood,” she recalls. “Or we’d just get lots of loaves of bread on sale and then literally just go next door and give people bread.”

Adem showed that kindness and generosity to everyone around her, but in high school she faced the myriad changing expectations of a black woman, only some of which were implicit. Others, like her mother’s new husband dictating that she must wear a hijab, were less so. She struggled to find her place within the cliques among which she bounced as a teen. Eventually, she says, her anxiety left her without a place where she fit.

“I was taken out of all my major classes in Grade 12 because I was so depressed,” she says. “I had like one class that my assistant principal kept, just so that I could graduate.”

Her school credited her for leadership and extracurricular work, allowing her to graduate with her class. Yet, Adem recalls that she couldn’t find a place among them to call her own.

“I felt like I was chained to my bed … I was so hopeless, and I didn’t understand the world. I was searching for anybody that could validate parts of myself, but I couldn’t find a group that would honour all of it.

“So I had to turn to myself. I was the only space where I could be all the Nasra. I could be not just a drama kid. And not just a ‘hippie-dippie’ this. Or not just a black girl. My journal was the place where I could be all of it and not have to defend or explain. Or shrink. Or big-up for the sake of everyone else.

“It was the first instance where I felt like I didn’t have to sacrifice who I am. It was, like, a place for me to validate who I was. And when you start to validate yourself for yourself, that’s when your power starts to grow. And that’s when you can stand on your own two feet, because truly no one can give you what you can give yourself.”

As a wordsmith, Adem admits all of that sounds like a cliché, but she emphasizes the importance of the feeling behind it, because she lived it.

“If you don’t love yourself, you can give love as much as you want,” she says. “But will that love be rooted in a sustainable thing? No, because it’s coming from a place of lack. You’re just giving, giving, giving. But what happens when the tank runs empty? And it will run empty eventually. And it will hurt you.

“So the art, the poetry in my journal, helped me love myself. I wouldn’t have said that that’s what it was doing at that time, but now, when I look back, it’s like that true love brings you closer to yourself and your divine power and your magic.”

Some mornings I remember a border is a line
Some mornings I remember gender is a border

Adem is a curator of the annual Black Arts Matter festival, a graduate of MacEwan University’s theatre arts program, and a burgeoning poet, who was recognized officially by the city in 2017 for work she was already doing. And when she refers to her “magic,” she’s talking about the power of her work to be heard in spaces where she might not otherwise be given the time of day.

“That’s why I find it’s always easier to write a poem,” she says. “Because, with a poem, all I have to do is be completely honest, and it’s a good thing. I started sharing my poetry around the same time I started sharing my opinions on certain things, and I always felt safer in the poetry, because, in the poetry, you have to be honest and you have to tell the truth.

“People are expecting that. They’re waiting for it, and sometimes when it’s just Nasra coming out with her stuff, it gives people free reign to discredit me because it’s who I am, or my voice, as opposed to the art.”

That can be frustrating, she says, when she advocates for marginalized voices in debates about aboriginal rights, refugee acceptance and LGBTQ+ protections. But she says it can also comforting at times.

“My art is everything. The art not only allows me to express. It helps me channel the despair and the shit. Like, when I’m angry, it helps me go in in a healthy, healthy way, in a way that is just concentrated into the poem. It’s three minutes long and then I let it go, so I’m not stewing in it. It kind of gives me a healthy container to put that in that still honours the feeling.”

Some mornings this country is a hospital cot of bones
a stick frame of dead things suffocated by fluff and smoke and a blanket of ghost

You wouldn’t detect any signs of Adem’s struggles from the bounce in her step. She smoothly switches gears between the steely activist-poet and the giggly young woman who still sees the best in people. Even when she’s expressing incredulity, the breathy laugh (usually directed at her own slips of the tongue) that often prefaces her statements makes her seem kind and approachable.

Adem says she knows 600 sympathetic minds at a rally on a warm summer day won’t change the world; we have to start a ripple effect in each of our communities to move our culture forward.

“I want us to take the time to listen to each other and to believe each other, and to recognize when your instincts are coming from a place that you haven’t met yet. Because the myth is thick. In Canada, the violence of this myth that we are this magical multicultural place is worse than Trump. It’s fucking worse, because at least they know that it’s all out there. You can’t ignore it. But our stuff is buried so deep.

“So, so deep.”

Some mornings I write a poem and the smoke clears
Some mornings I speak the poem, and the blanket of ghost lifts from my student shoulders

You can’t get much more blatant than white men with tiki torches marching in the streets and calling for “ethnic cleansing” – and that tends to overshadow what happens in other, less excitable countries. That’s why, Adem says, it’s important to be careful in examining our Canadian interactions and preconceptions.

“If this time in history doesn’t make you question everything that you were fed in social studies,” she tells the crowd at the legislature. “Everything you were fed about language, about sexuality. If it doesn’t make you question everything, you’re not awake.

“Be awake, open your eyes, and bring other people to that place.”

Now, reflecting back on her journey, Adem says: “Poetry saved my life. It showed me truly what it is to have agency, what it is to create my own life. Write it down. Manifest it before my own eyes.

“It gave me back my power, and that’s all that is necessary for us to change this whole damn kerfuffle that is the Earth, you know?”

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