Asmaa Jama is a Somali artist and poet based in Bristol. They are the co-founder of Dhaqan Collective, a feminist art collective of Somali women, centring the voices of women and elders, and privileging co-creation and collaboration. In 2021, Jama was shortlisted for the Wasafiri Writing Prize, and long-listed to the National Poetry Competition. Jama is a Cave Canem 2021 Fellow.
Jama’s work has been published in magazines and journals such as Poetry Review, The Good Journal, Ambit, Ballast and Magma and translated into French, German, Somali, Spanish and Swahili. Their writing has been commissioned by Arnolfini (Bristol), Hayward Gallery (London) and Ifa gallery (Berlin). As a film director, Asmaa was commissioned by BBC Arts to make the interactive film Before We Disappear (2021), and by Bristol Old Vic to make The Season of Burning Things (2021), which was screened at the 17th Venice Biennale of Architecture (2021), as part of 100 Ways to say We. Both films were made with costume designer + director Gouled Ahmed, as part of an ongoing creative collaboration.
Asmaa Jama’s poems have an exquisite touch, charting in intimate spaces how grief tears language open. The poet asks, ‘what are a field of somali boys but a prayer, a snake biting itself and somehow becoming whole’, supplanting what is ‘now-gone’ to explore what lies in its space. The poems move deftly between religious referents and a more roving mystical orientation. An immense familial intimacy, with all its costs, runs through many poems.
one day, in ayeeyo’s courtyard i spilt swahili her real mouth,
i put it on, snake bite to neck, hakuna, it would not seal, mouth,
school children promised to punctuate night with fires in our house,
i had watched minarets burn, knew i could use water, its teal mouth,
dadaab, was never made to be survived, water towers alone,
bore witness to each face entering the earth’s concealed mouth,
awoowe, re-enters my dreams, voice softened from asking for me
he leaves my gullet folds into fabric, say it was real mouth,
bilaal was the only black man allah loved, loved like a loose tooth
let him turn pylon and convene, gave him, his i can heal mouth,
abti archived each voice now gone on tape and i ask to listen,
his palms water. i don’t want to hear his still wet real mouth,
a child named for somebody once living, will be born leaving here.
noone knew till abdul tore his cheek out, no cry from his steel mouth.
a platoon of soldiers turned my uncles into ink every night
i played shadow. played shadow. prayed asmaa, be still don’t reveal mouth.
the archivist, speaks of lament, and demonstrates, by pulling out his gullet until it is a ribbon
+ sits silk on the ground,
touching all the faded places, he whispers the story of the war that turned the earth copper, says : this is the account for the bloodshed, i let their names erode my mouth
later his voice snaps open + the microphone drowns in his grief, someone else strings his words together: ‘one generation is swallowed and another supplants it’, we listen to his sobs corrode his body,
outside i find ibrahim excavating a camera from the ruins crying
: there aren’t enough elegies for those who left and now no pictures either,
camera, choked, copper, everywhere and i want to say rust is water’s way of knowing the thing you loved,
or in the old country when a tree fell, they would plant two in its place, the first still raw in their mouths,
or some other line that sounds like we’ll remember, we’ll remember,
but there aren’t enough words to seal this wound, to promise everything is mourned, everyone remembered
abecedarian asking for witness
awoowe we heard you went into the night like a drone does,
bared bones and still searching for land. i held lamps, and marked our
coordinates for days. until, my palms, lanterned with wound-fluid
drained, and caved. i lay in my room, i won’t pretend i prayed
each day or at all to god. you were his netted koi, he left you
faint + struggling. for months let water turn air turn water again.
god more sore than salvation, more welt than way. i enter the sea
hands aloft, already asking for witness. awoowe, who left as a drone does
in static silence. aabe folded when he heard, and stayed in sajdah whispering give him
janna. his body an archive of before, of the bees, he chased of his brown
knees now mounds from their mouths. didn’t you order him to kneel in the sea. didn’t you
leave him knelt till sun, no longer saving face, bowed, shrunk to lone
moon asking for witness. awoowe you left and took sleep. left palms emptied + shaking all
night lantern-like pressed to throat. then, finding a slippage of silver knives. then, every
open second-floor window. asking for witness. aabe held my arms, in the
psychiatrist’s room, waited as she asked how many times i had wanted to leave, waited
quietly as i lied. marked as majnoon as medicate, we walked home to
rest. to placid lake, to self-containing body. awoowe i was born exiting. i chose to
stay. that day you called, i heard your breath surrender in your lungs for
the last time and i still told aabe stay. i let you slip into your death
unwitnessed. i still see the photo of your body, the
violent blue of your pupils’ old-water. i keep dreaming our bodies are oceans. That
we try to drown each other. i watch you fill my pockets with
xeeb. and it leaves. i dream you want + want + i float anyway
yellowing like a burst starfish, or some
zakat-worthy creature, at loss, asking for witness.