Growing up in America and raised with Nigerian culture, Hafizah Geter found it difficult to fit in.
“I always felt a little outside of every situation, because when I went to my home…[where it was apparent that I had] a very Nigerian upbringing. We ate Nigerian food. We wore Nigerian clothes. My Nigerian cousins would say, ‘Oh, well, you’re not Nigerian enough,’ because my mother did not give us the language. She stopped talking to us in our native tongue when we moved to the states. ”
With fellow poet Cortney Lamar Charleston, the two writers read their poetry on campus Tuesday, opening up to questions about their lives and creative writing in an event sponsored by the first year seminar course Deviance.
Geter’s poetry has appeared in various literary publications like The New Yorker, Tin House and Narrative Magazine, and she is currently an editor at Little A and Day One from Amazon Publishing.
“Un-American” was one of the poems Geter read. The poem comments on being Nigerian-American and the experiences that come with that. With her Nigerian upbringing, her relatives in America did not easily understand how she could fit in with American culture.
“The first people who ever told me to go back to Africa were my southern cousins…what does it mean to be an American?…where does one fit when you’re outside that narrative?” she added.
Charleston’s poetry has also appeared in various publications like POETRY, New England Review, Gulf Coast, TriQuarterly and The Iowa Review. He is the author of the collection of poetry “Telepathologies.”
Charleston shared what inspired him to title his collection ‘Telepathologies’ and where it comes from. The book discusses “the state of race in 21st century America,” and how “the black body is the ground on which war is being waged in our inner cities,” according to the University Press of New England, a distributor of the book.
“The title came from two different light sources in my mind. The first being telepathy—the ways in which things can be communicated without anything being spoken….and then pathology; from the sense of studying illness,” he said. [Thinking about] how we are infected and how our bodies are infected and so, tying these two things together, especially in a social context, with a more magical sense…that’s where the title comes from,” he said.
“[Telepathology] is actually a real word, which is referring to how [telecommunicative] technology is being used to improve the study of pathology. So there’s also that very nice alignment partaking that and to refine it to a social construct,” Charleston added.
A student asked about the possibilities of backlash from readers, family members and community due to the poetry they write.
Geter said that even though her father is supportive of her, she still thinks about her insecurities when it comes to writing about an abusive husband and terrible father.
“My dad is a visual artist, so his idea is ‘well, it’s your art to produce, so I can’t really say anything’, so that definitely helps.” She added, “One of the characters is a man, who is Muslim, who is a [bad] husband, and a bad father. Now, can I do that without people being like, ‘see, I told you about them,’ [and instead show] people that everyone is human and everyone fails.”
Charleston thought Tuesday’s event was “fantastic” and that “the crowd was very attentive and respectful.”
“For both [Hafizah and I], just seeing everyone, [we] could tell that everyone was really kind of keyed into the words as they were coming, trying to do their best to contemplate them as they came at them. Some people in the audience have been exposed to some of the things that were read, and some haven’t, but either way, I still found that type of considerate response across the entire room and across the entire audience,” Charleston added.
Karla Cariño ‘21 says she connected to Charleston’s poetry.
“I felt like I could connect to him in some ways because as I read his poems, I connect [them] back to my own experiences as a person of color walking through the streets of New York City. Cortney was able to put you in his world, and make you feel the experiences that he has gone through, and other people have gone through as well,” she said.
Geter said she has always “loved” reading at colleges.
“I feel like young people deal more with language than older people, it’s like we’re always inventing new words, new phrases…every one asked such great questions so it’s great to have them engaged on the same issues that I’m thinking about.”
Geter advised aspiring writers to never give up.
“I think the main thing is never to give up, I know that sounds corny, but I mean I still get tons of rejection all the time. To be a writer [you need to] stay committed, write the poem, submit the poem. After someone rejects you, just submit it again.”
“Think about what [your favorite writers] do well and adapt from that, borrow from that,” she added. “You know, sometimes that might start as imitation, but that’s not a bad thing, eventually the more you study it, the more it’s going to put you closer to where you truly need to be for your own authentic voice as a writer.”