Our featured poet this month is British Ethiopian writer, performer and human rights advocate Zelly Lisanework. She is a co-founder of Ethiopian LGBTQ+ Human Rights organisation, House of Guramayle. Her creative practice and advocacy work is about centring and amplifying intersectionality within marginalised communities. Through the lens of nature, mental health, social justice, feminism and identity, her work explores the injustices in our world whilst also celebrating the beauty to be found. She draws upon her own experiences, navigating the spaces as an intersectional feminist and queer black woman in the diaspora.
The poem that she is sharing is called ‘British Habesha Girl’. She says, “I wrote it to validate, celebrate and redefine the different parts of my British and Ethiopian heritage.”
BRITISH HABESHA GIRL
I don’t cook Injera meals
But I eat them pretty well
I speak and understand Amharic
But I don’t read or write Fidel.
I don’t go to Bete Christian
For my church has no walls
I don’t rise at dawn to greet the sun
Yet I love to hear the prayer calls.
Addis Ababa planted roots in me
Southwold nurtured me safely
I am a Habesha Girl
I am a British Girl
Existing with my duality
Liberated in my sexuality
Defined by no one.
Habesha – a term used to describe people of Ethiopian and/or Eritrean decent.
Injera – a rounded, sour flatbread that is spongy in texture and filled with air holes. It is the staple food in Ethiopian cuisine.
Amharic – one of 88 languages spoken in Ethiopia
Fidel – is the Amharic alphabet
Bete Christian – is Church; the phrase literally translates as Christian House from Amharic.
What inspires you?
People and places, I am interested in stories and lived experiences and the relationship we have with places. I find I am inspired most in non-binary exchanges with others and being able to explore ideas freely and creatively in places that I love, such as historical towns/cities, the countryside and by the seaside.
How does your Ethiopian upbringing influence your work?
I have a complicated relationship with my Ethiopian upbringing, having been born to Ethiopian parents biologically and being adopted as a toddler to be raised as dual heritage by Ethiopian and English parents. My Ethiopian upbringing lasted 11 years from birth until I moved to the UK. I used to struggle finding ways to allow my upbringing to co-exist with different parts of myself, which in turn impacted the level of influence on my work. I have redefined what it means to me to be Ethiopian, I have written about Ethiopia from a slightly Romanized point of view to preserve the pride and nostalgia I have as a person who hasn’t visited their country of birth since 2016. I have also written about Ethiopia whilst being nuanced and critical about the culture and its influence on my own upbringing.
How does your sexuality influence your work?
My sexuality influences my work very much in the same way other parts of my identity, such as my dual heritage does; it is one of many elements. My Queer Lesbian identity is so intrinsically linked to many parts of myself, which is explored in my work. I write about Queerness through the lens of feminism and intersectionality, and the relationship my sexuality has with mental wellbeing and my Ethiopian upbringing. My work is also a celebration of Queerness, of love and desire as well as a validation of adversities faced.
Why do you write?
I write as I have a strong desire to express as well as to question and explore. Writing is one of my strongest ways of self-expression. Words usually stumble out of me when I speak on the spot, but when I can explore thoughts and ideas in non-binary and non-linear ways through words, I feel most free. It is also very therapeutic, as when my brain is full of thoughts that rattle around, they can go to live on the page once I have written them down.
Do you remember the first poem you ever wrote?
I don’t think this was the first poem I ever wrote, but the earliest recollection I have is of a poem I wrote when I was 11 years old at school. We were exploring the poems of First World War poets Wilfred Owen and Siegfried Sassoon and the English teacher wanted us imagine and write our own wartime poems in a collage format, and so I wrote a poem in the style of a diary entry which was inspired by Wilfred Owen’s ‘Dulce et Decorum Est’. The first poem I wrote that led to me pursing writing was during my final year of university when I was struggling with life, the poem is called ‘Opposites Attract’ and is about Love and Hate personified as they sit side by side watching the day change from morning to night and sharing their reflections.
How do you find your way into a poem?
Many different ways! I always have my phone nearby as ideas spark when I’m out and about or I wake from sleep; sometimes it’s words and phrases and other times it’s ideas for a poem or a poem itself that I’ll work on editing. When I’m commissioned to write and working to deadlines then I usually start with an idea and list things that come to mind before I begin work on a structure.
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