Jamaican poet and 2016 Whiting Award recipient Safiya Sinclair celebrates her poetry debut this month with Cannibal, a collection teeming with complex mechanisms organized around Shakespeare’s play The Tempest. The Tempest is Shakespeare’s shipwrecked tale: a duke is stripped of his station, put on a boat with his baby daughter, and beached on an island that he soon colonizes -- killing the witch who rules the island, enslaving her son Caliban, and usurping their knowledge and magic.
The figure of Caliban as an enslaved indigenous person and as a representation of postcolonialism is the stuff of recent academic inquiry. After all, just as the original people of the Caribbean and South America and those brought there under enslavement were thought of as savage, backward, and barbarian, in The Tempest Caliban is described as a “freckled whelp, hag-born -- not honoured with / A human shape.”
The fact that Caliban is an anagram for the Spanish canibal (read: cannibal) is not lost on Sinclair. In Cannibal the poet dresses herself in the white gaze that the portrayal implies. With a language beautiful, mythic, and hotly scorching, she inhabits a Caliban-like place until by the alchemy of reclaiming monster, reclaiming savage, reclaiming cannibal she comes upon a fearless fountain of power. Cannibal is provocative, occupying The Tempest in as subversive a way as you can imagine.
Here is Sinclair in “Crania Americana”:
Sibling, Sisyphean. Howl of my unusual,
now we have reclassified the very
ape of us.
Half fish and Half monstrous.
Drowned spine of toothache take us
and barnacled, all crippled filaments
all jawbone [...]
Vexed skinfolk. Unfossiled, hence.
What a brittle word is man.
Self-inflammable, I abjure you.
And wear your gabble like a diadem,
this flecked crown of dictions,
Predator coiled eager at the edge
of these maps.
Master, Dare I
I met with Sinclair over coffee during her stopover in San Francisco as part of her book tour. “It’s like I have a bad affinity for Shakespeare,” she tells me laughing. “I can’t quit him.” Sinclair wears her leather jacket inside Four Barrel coffee in the Mission. She tells me that though she first identified with The Tempest's Miranda (the duke Prospero’s daughter), but once she arrived in the U.S. she began to identify with Caliban.
“I had to think about my blackness in a different way than when I was in the Caribbean," she says. "That’s when Caliban started to make sense to me. More than the monstrous creature in the book that spoke beautifully, I was seeing him for the first time -- as I was feeling invisible for the first time.”
Sinclair is an immigrant -- one who was initially surprised by the recent turn of American attitude toward foreigners, and then not. “It was getting confirmation of what I had already known and experienced," she says. "People like me who are immigrants, who are black, who are women, who are poor, are always going to be least considered in any nation, any space, any place.”
Most of the poems in this debut collection were written while Sinclair was studying at the University of Virginia. I ask her what it was like to write poems about race in that setting. Sinclair says, “Part of that was writing poems about home and feeling very disconnected from home, and feeling very foreign in Charlottesville. There were parts of the book where I directly had to address what I was experiencing in Charlottesville in Virginia—you know, living on a street with a neighbor that had a confederate flag, and finding that the town is very segregated, that UVA was still doing this hero worship of Thomas Jefferson that wasn’t very nuanced at all.”
Sinclair doesn’t mention she was always the only black student in her class, that a white student wanted to enact a minstrel show with blackface, that in a writing workshop a white student crossed out all the Jamaican patois in one of her stories, and wrote in the margins: “Can you say this in English?” “Can you say this in English?” I know all of this from her breathtaking essay for the Poetry Foundation, "Gabble like a Thing Most Brutish," a title taken from The Tempest's description of how Caliban speaks.
I mention to Sinclair that I’ve been listening to a recorded performance of The Tempest by the Marlowe Society and that in it, the actor playing Caliban makes his voice sound rigged and animalistic. In The Tempest Caliban is “civilized” by being taught the Queen’s English, and Prospero thinks of this as a gift to him. Sincair deems this to be part of the European “benevolent cultivation of the savage.”
“I always go back to Caliban himself, who says, ‘You taught me language, and my profit on't / Is I know how to curse,'" Safiya tells me. "It’s that same sense of taking something that has been beaten into you and making it a powerful thing. Finding your own source of magic from that. The idea is that Caliban -- or immigrants, or people who were once colonized -- should be grateful. Somehow we were saved from some darkness, some worse fate. Even here in America, I’ve had people say to me, ‘Well, why are you criticizing America? You should go home. If you hate it so much, why don’t you leave. You should be grateful to be here under any condition.’ It is this idea that many Westerners, Americans, and Europeans have, and that is, ‘Look at what we’ve given you. Be grateful.’”
When I ask after her favorite Tempest passage she quotes Caliban describing his island, "Be not afeard. The isle is full of noises, / Sounds, and sweet airs, that give delight and hurt / not."
“Two centuries’ thorns may break sudden bloom” goes Cannibal, a book of history born into the contemporary, full of variegated wonders from a poet who exhaustively examines what it means to be a woman, what it means to live in exile, and what it means to be other. Cannibal is a veritable jungle peopled with shifting forms that will make you want to reclaim every epithet you were ever called and make your home in unbelonging.
'Cannibal is published by University of Nebraska Press and available in all places where books are sold.