Emtithal Mahmoud was brimming with rage and misery when she sat down to write her poem Mama. Her grandmother had just died in Sudan, her mother was on a plane to the funeral and she felt consumed by anger.
“I wrote it in one of the darkest times of my life,” she says. “It felt like my grandmother had survived everything, the war, famine, and in the end it was not just cancer, it was lack of access to proper medical research. It was a very dark time. And that poem helped me get through it.”
Hours after writing Mama, Mahmoud – also known as Emi, who was born in Darfur but moved to the US from Yemen as a four-year-old – performed it at the 2015 Individual World Poetry Slam Championship in Washington DC – and won the competition. Full of fury, Mama opens as a man asks Mahmoud: “Hey yo sistah, you from the motherland? … ’cause you got a little bit of flavor in you, / I’m just admiring what your mama gave you.” It becomes a paean to Mahmoud’s mother, who “can reduce a man to tattered flesh without so much as blinking”, who “walks into a war zone and has warriors cowering at her feet”.
Mahmoud will return to Sudan in July, where she has big plans for more community groups and workshops around the country. Mostly she is volunteering, saving the money she makes from events “run by magazines or businesses that pay very well … to do the kind of work you can’t get funding for.”
Mahmoud writes to explore her feelings; she performs, she says, because she has somehow found herself this platform. “A lot of things are said about people like me - young people, black people, Muslim people, women,” she says. “The reason I perform is to answer those things, to be a voice I didn’t really have growing up.”