I love saying that I was born and raised in Queens, New York. However, my backyard where I spent most of my childhood felt like another country. I was brought up as if I were living in the small towns my parents grew up in back in Guyana and Trinidad. Our stereo didn’t play The Beatles or Michael Jackson. We listened to Lata Mangeshkar or Babla & Kanchan. Family gatherings meant sitting down together and peeling katahara (jackfruit). There was almost always a time where my grandmother would ask me, “Eh, gyal, yuh nah undastand?”
Most of the time, I didn’t understand. I didn’t understand Creole fully. I didn’t understand some of the Hindi words I sang when I prayed. I didn’t understand how to communicate with my family and belong in my heritage when I had a broken tongue. Language became complicated.
As I became more acclimated to English literature throughout my school years, I had lost the ability to understand Hindi at all. I had also distanced myself from Creole out of shame of my accent and not being considered “intelligent” if I used this dialect. I had silenced myself in more ways than one, not knowing how to express myself or how to reconcile with the traditions and culture that created my identity.
I never liked poetry, in fact, I detested it. I didn’t appreciate the secret messages that were implanted in the lines or the heart of the poem that was so unreachable to me. But it felt like fate when I took Grace Schulman’s poetry class as an undergraduate at Baruch College. My first poems were pierced with question marks, help signs, and dig deeper encouragements when Professor Schulman would hand me back my work. Slowly, she chipped away the silence I caged myself into. With her guidance, I realized the power of the languages I grew up with, the narratives that were enveloped within its history, and the fluidity of these languages encompassing a shared desire for social change.
Finding the richness of my expression as well as a healing with my past and my lineage, I decided to continue my journey with poetry as an MFA candidate at Queens College. There, I met other incredible mentors. Nicole Cooley’s words, “write what you want to write, not what you think others want to hear” constantly ring in my ears. From this inspiration, I found my passion and purpose in advocating for the voices that have been trampled for too long. As a firm believer in the power of words, my life long desire is to assist in helping other writers and storytellers share their experiences, their erased histories, and create needed conversations that are the start to building inclusivity in today’s world.
I’m grateful to be able to intern with Sundress Publications and be a part of a literary community that uplifts the narratives of our diverse communities. We all deserve to be recognized, and we all deserve to take pride in our cultures, but we all need to listen to the struggles and injustices of our friends, neighbors, loved ones, and passersby on the street. Together, we are the driving force that stops ignorance and hate. Together, with the publication of our words, we are breaking boundaries and restructuring the literary canon.
Ashley Somwaru is an Indo-Caribbean woman who was born and raised in Queens, New York. She is currently pursuing her MFA at Queens College to immerse herself in pride for her mixed tongue, religious upbringings, superstitions, and cultural traditions that have made her into the red hibiscus she is. As a storyteller and poet, her work seeks to magnify the voices of women in her community, who have been silenced and abused, and to rewrite the history of her ancestors, those who were forgotten. She hopes to find them. Her work has been published in Asian American Writers’ Workshop, the Spring 2020 issue of A Gathering Together, and will be in the FEED issue of No, Dear.