Tariro Ndoro’s Poems Speak About Unbelonging

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Tariro Ndoro’s debut poetry collection tackles issues of identity and xenophobia. She turned her creative writing master’s degree thesis into a book. The Daily Vox sat down with the Zimbabwean poet and storyteller to chat about her book Agringada: Like A Gringa, Like A Foreigner

Grace

This drought is not your first drought - you survived a famine
eleven years ago, when you were barely a year old. When you
suckled on a mother that should have been emaciated.

You survived because she willed it; she survived by the grace of
God. You were born raising your fist to the world.

The doctor asked your mother: one must die.
Which will it be? You both lived.

At the beginning of the collection, Ndoro wrote down the definition of agringada. The word means “resembling a foreigner.” 

As for where she found the word, her master’s supervisor lent her the book Woman Hollering Creek and Other Stories by Sandra Cisneros. In the book one of the characters, a Mexican immigrant living in America finds herself caught between dual identities and languages. It was thinking about that story and while reading an academic paper on language and what determines how people speak their home language that she found the word. 

“It’s kind of this thing where you’re being caught by two opposing sides where one is like you need to learn our culture. The other one is who are you we don’t recognize you. It’s that sort of thing,” she said. 

Throughout the conversation and in other interviews Ndoro has done, she’s spoken about struggling to find her experiences represented. When asked about the importance of representation, she paused before answering. 

“I think someone has spoken about writing yourself into existence. But for me, I think with the process of writing you can tell lots of stories, but there’s always a story that is deeply personal to you that needs to be told,” she said. Ndoro said reading stories and works she can relate to is about knowing she is not alone “and someone else is going through the experience.” 

Ndoro’s book is divided into four seasons. It begins with winter and ends with autumn. Each of the seasons or chapters resonate with a particular theme and time period Ndoro examined in her poetry. While most of the poems are written in the traditional manner, some of the poems are written horizontally. This forces the reader to shift the book around to read through the book properly. 

While Ndoro initially hesitated to explain why she did this, she went on to say that the poems were written that way to keep the shape of the poem. “I wanted to space it in such a way that it’s a line break but it’s not. It was also to keep the shape,” she said. 

Most poets find inspiration in the work of others and Ndoro is not different. For Ndoro, she feels like Catalina Ferro’s poem Manifesto is Ferro’s way of telling the world not to prescribe how marginalised people should react to oppression. “I can always relate to it. With Zimbabwe and its many problems, people always say why don’t you do this without having lived it,” she said. 

Ndoro counts Sudanese-American poet Safia Elhillo as one of her main inspirations. She said she is yet to read a poem by Elhillo that she hasn’t enjoyed. 

With poetry, Ndoro has found an avenue to express herself. “I think the beauty of poetry is that for instance, I’m reading Arab poets like Elhillo, and they don’t live where I live. But they’re on the internet and in the book so I can access them. Poetry is not just about identity. I think with the writing it gives you certain privacy [to express trauma and sadness].” Ndoro said. 

As a final word, Ndoro took the opportunity to impart some advice for young, aspiring poets. Her advice is to simply just start writing, and embrace failure because success will follow. 

Ndoro’s book is published by Modjaji Books and is available online and at all good bookstores. 

Featured image by Fatima Moosa

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