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The Arts

Charting the geographies of self

In ‘My Body, My Country’ at Landmark College, three poets search for meaning in an ever-shifting landscape

For more information about “My Body, My Country,” contact MacLean Gander, professor of English and journalism at Landmark College at mgander@landmark.edu or (802) 258-1652.

PUTNEY—In recognition of National Poetry Month, Landmark College will present a poetry performance on Thursday, April 18, at 7 p.m., entitled “My Body, My Country, with Desmond Peeples, Shanta Lee Gander, and featured poet U-Melani Mhlaba-Adebo.

Mhlaba-Adebo describes herself as a “Leominister, Massachusetts born, Zimbabwean-American grown” poet, author, actress, singer and educator. She has performed nationally and internationally in Zimbabwe, South Africa, Nigeria, Portugal, and Ireland.

Her poetry collection, Soul Psalms, published by She Writes Press, has been characterized by David Updike as “written in a fearless female voice tempered with optimism and healing possibilities of love.”

Joining Mhlaba-Adebo is Peeples, the founding editor of the literary arts magazine, Mount Island and current consultant for Green Writers Press. Peebles’ fiction, poetry, and nonfiction have appeared in Five [Quarterly], Big Bridge, Goreyesque, and Hunger Mountain.

Gander, the third author reading, is a diverse writer whose work includes poetry, prose, investigative journalism, and photography.

Her writings have been featured in Rebelle Society, on the Ms. magazine Blog, and in The Commons. She is the co-author of Ghosts of Cuba: An Interracial Couple’s Exploration of Cuba in the Age of Trump — Told in Images & Words, which will be published by Green Writers Press in September 2019.

Realms of identity

My Body, My Country will take place in Landmark’s Belle Brooks O’Brian Auditorium in the East Academic Building. The event is free and open to the public.

The evening will consist of readings structured around the idea of what “in this day and age we mean when we talk about identities,” Gander said. “Are we speaking internally or externally, geopolitically, or how such an idea relates to different communities of people?”

“Mhlaba-Adebo has written about the ways that our bodies are our home,” Gander added, “In this light, here we will read works that explore how bodies relate to our identity, as well as the ways in which our bodies are owned and for whom.”

The artists elaborate on this concept in their press release for the event.

“In every era, there are some bodies that are more policed or ‘owned’ than others, which makes exploring and defining our internal and external geographies challenging, an exploratory journey separate from the various social pressures on identity, being, and becoming.

“We ultimately are our own countries and we carry our geography within us. The event will further explore the lines of distinction in terms of who has the freedom or choice of their body while also posing the question: How do we begin to explore the self as topography?”

These issues are central to the work of all three writers, but especially that of the featured speaker, Mhlaba-Adebo, who was born in the U.S. but raised in Zimbabwe.

“I definitely would say have these two backgrounds inform my writing,” she says. Half whimsically, she suggests that she was born to be a writer. “My mother was a librarian and my father a professor, so you could say that I was immersed in a book culture my whole life, that writing was built into my DNA.”

After many years in Africa, Mhlaba-Adebo returned to America for two reasons.

First, she wanted to follow the intellectual paths of her parents by going to some of the same schools they had in America.

Her second reason for returning was to get to know her father and to explore the land where she was born. Her parents were divorced when she was young. She went to Zimbabwe with her mother, while her father stayed in the U.S.

Perilous profession

Her return to America proved especially fortuitous for pursuing the perilous profession of poetry.

“Let’s just say my success as a poet and educator was through a lot of luck and divine intervention,” she concedes. “I was afforded lots of opportunities.”

She took advantage of every opportunity at hand. When Mhlaba-Adebo went to college in Massachusetts, she joined theater companies, writing groups, and jazz clubs where people read their own poetry out loud.

“It was in a jazz club I first publicly read my poetry,” she says. “Unbeknownst to me, a friend signed me up on open mic night. Although I had been writing poetry all my life, before then it never occurred to me that anyone would care to see what I had written. That was in 1996, and I haven’t stopped since.”

Although pursuing a career as a poet hasn’t always been easy, Mhlaba-Adebo has a strong sense of purpose about what she does.

“An artist’s job is to push the boundaries of thought,” she says. “Consequently, my family has not always received well what I write. But I believe an artist must be faithful to your perspective of truth, to bring light to dark places.”

Mhlaba-Adebo says the title for the reading at Landmark, “My Body, My Country, came from conversations about her work with other artists.

“I explored in a work entitled ‘American Made, American Grown’ that I have roots in two continents,” she says. “As an American-African, I have a hyphenated identity.”

That does not mean that she thinks herself singular.

“Everyone incorporates some kind of hyphenated, disparate identity, because everyone has diverse narratives about themselves to tell. We all find ourselves, especially in these times, asking who belongs, who is an immigrant, who do we let cross borders. In such a climate, I began asking myself do we really own anything but our bodies. Our bodies are our only sure country.”

Mhlaba-Adebo is excited and grateful to be able to read at Landmark, where her book Soul Psalms will be on sale. All proceeds will go to the International Rescue Committee to aid victims of the recent Zimbabwe cyclone.

She writeson her website that she is “a Zimbabwean artist and educator, presently U.S.-based, deeply connected to my country and fellow brothers and sisters who have been affected by Cyclone Idai. I spent half my life there, have family and friends; the continent is deeply woven into the fabric of my being.

“I know communities that have been personally affected in Zimbabwe. Over one million people have been displaced, lack food and medicine, and so many have lost their lives in Malawi, Mozambique, and Zimbabwe. I’m raising money to benefit the International Rescue Committee, which is sending medical supplies, food, and dignity kits to the affected people, and any donation will help make an impact.”

To help those affected by Cyclone Idai, contact Mhlaba-Adebo at umelenimhlaba@gmail.com.

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Originally published in The Commons issue #506 (Wednesday, April 17, 2019). This story appeared on page B1.

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