Reading Nishat Ahmed’s Brown Boy (Porkbelly Press, 2021) is synonymous with studying the pages of someone else’s journal. Ahmed seemingly gives his reader access to his pages. Autobiographical at its core, this chapbook is a deep reflection of America’s three R’s: race, relationships, and religion. The Bangladeshi-American writer grapples openly with all three, writing with a fierce vulnerability that compels readers to return to his weighty words.
The book opens with “Dear Shaitan,” a series of thoughts Ahmed engages in as he evaluates his existence in his Brown body. He writes, “I remember / picking off every sliver of flesh from my mother’s oil seared catfish / until only its pale skeleton remained, hoping that perhaps the devil / would choke and die and I wouldn’t have to feel as guilty about / the Choco Brownie Extreme Blizzard I couldn’t finish the night / before.” The reality of Ahmed’s dual existence is examined as he details the dichotomy between being Muslim and being American. This is a presence all too familiar for marginalized people; a looming pressure lies in the decision to either assimilate and deny one’s sense of selfhood, or to reject the assumed superiority of American life. Readers are led to interpret “Shaitan” as both Satan and America as Ahmed says, “And dear Shaitan, was that your first time having Dairy / Queen or were all the other Muslim boys in America just as / wasteful as me […] and dear Shaitan, do you have a / special spoon you use when the guilty brown boys bring you America’s favorite frozen treat?” In these words, Ahmed exposes America’s moral, ethical, intellectual, political, social, and institutional control over Brown bodies, which are seen as having no value amongst American soil. This is what Ahmed illustrates: the struggle against assumed inhumanity.
The titular poem, “Brown Boy,” is perhaps the most beautiful depiction of Ahmed’s story. Dedicated to poets Angel Nafis and Jon Sands, readers are guided through the life of Brown Boy, who initially “[…] never knew / he was a Brown Boy.” Ahmed describes Brown Boy as having loved his brown skin, his brown food, and his brown religion. But, in what is perhaps the most powerful line in the poem, “Brown boy, at seven, learned that the only important color was / white: / Pure, clean, white.” Brown Boy’s innocence is what the reader grieves as Ahmed illustrates the loss. This “coming of age” is what most children of color experience as they come to understand their subservient role in America. To survive, “Brown boy hides everything he can under a white veil […].” The reader is not to ignore Ahmed’s intention behind uppercasing the B in Brown and lowercasing the w in white. While “Brown Boy” explores concepts of assimilation and Eurocentrism, Ahmed mechanically defies these concepts by reclaiming power and returning humanity to a group of people often stripped of it. The capitalization of B in Brown is a direct response to the unjust extinction of Brown Boy.
Ahmed closes Brown Boy with “Ode to the Mothers We Could Never Be,” a return to the concept of duality. From his own lens, Ahmed ponders over his mother’s past and present self: “In the morning did you call for her / afraid she wouldn’t recognize you, / too entranced by a life that was hers / and hers alone?” Ahmed’s questioning is reminiscent of the challenge he faces in his dual, racial existence. Throughout the book, readers see him wrestle with which “self” he is to suppress. Ahmed wonders if it is in his mother’s deep sleep that she escapes and returns to her original self: “How from deep sleep / she woke to say I was a kingdom once / only to fall asleep again?” Ahmed leaves readers to think about the versions of ourselves we are pressured to assume. What versions are deemed acceptable and what are not? The nurturing mother or the independent woman? The culturally assimilated American or the Bangladeshi?
Brown Boy provides representation that is not offered in most literary spaces, yet. Ahmed invests in an openness that only urges readers to do the same. The beauty in these pieces lie in their validation of Brown experience. Ahmed gently says to his Brown readers, “I see you, I hear you, and I understand you” while simultaneously and loudly telling his non-Brown readers about both the lonely and the lovely in this type of existence. Still, Ahmed’s poetry is not meant to be left behind. It is key that his words move beyond the pages of Brown Boy and “[… build] the rest of the universe […].”
Brooke Shannon is a published poet, speaker, and aspiring author. She attends Grand Valley State University for a Writing major and minor in African/African American Studies and Psychology. Her work has appeared in Display Magazine (Issue 111), In the Limelight with Clarissa (Fall 2021), and the 4th edition of Joining the Conversation.
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