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Reflecting on the Sweetness of Girlhood with Safia Elhillo

A portrait of the poet Safia Elhillo, who came to campus for a reading at the Hutchins Center.
A portrait of the poet Safia Elhillo, who came to campus for a reading at the Hutchins Center. By Courtesy of Caits Meissner for Jellyfish Treasury / Wikimedia Commons
By Najya S. Gause, Contributing Writer

On Nov. 14, poet Safia Elhillo performed a reading of poems from her newest collection titled “Girls That Never Die” at the Hutchins Center Hiphop Archive. Elhillo’s poetry reading was organized by Harvard’s Black Arts Collective and Creative Writing Collective and took place in the Hiphop Archives at the Hutchins Center for African & African American Research. Elhillo is Sudanese by way of Washington, D.C. and a decorated poet, having received the 2015 Brunel International African Poetry Prize and a spotlight in Forbes Africa’s 2018 “30 Under 30.” She has also received a Ruth Lilly and Dorothy Sargent Rosenberg Fellowship from the Poetry Foundation, a Cave Canem Fellowship, and a Wallace Stegner Fellowship from Stanford University.

“Girls That Never Die” was published in July of this year, and explores the fearlessness, beauty, and danger that come with Muslim girlhood. In her poems, Elhillo questions her family’s history and culture while reminiscing about the sweetness of her childhood. “Where are my sisters,” she asks in one poem. “Where have they gone?”

Toussaint J. Miller ’25 of the Black Arts Collective kicked off the evening with a performance of an original trumpet piece inspired by Elhillo’s poem “Pomegranate with Partial Nude.” Lana J. Reeves ’23 of the Creative Writing Collective then gave a compelling introduction and welcomed Elhillo to the podium.

Elhillo read 11 poems from “Girls That Never Die,” each as powerful as the next. Elhillo often followed her poems with related comments or anecdotes. “The Cairo Apartments” tells the story of her brother hurting himself after tripping over a brick. “That’s a true story, by the way,” Elhillo said, receiving laughter from the audience. Prefacing a much more personal poem, “Tony Soprano’s Tender Machismo,” Elhillo spoke about her inspirations – the show “The Sopranos” and how it reminds her of her uncles. Although the audience expected a lighthearted poem, Elhillo ended with a chilling verse.

“Its debris includes the stories I kept quiet, / everything that was done to me that I will not tell them. / Includes every word tossed about to name women, / how we all thought they didn’t mean me,” Elhillo read.

The small audience was entranced, clinging onto and appreciating every word. Many members of the audience leaned forward, eyes wide open, while some leaned back and absorbed the poetry with eyes closed, as if in prayer.

After reading her poems, Elhillo opened up the floor for a Q&A. Members of the audience took advantage of this time, asking questions about specific poems, as well as broader questions about Elhillo’s writing style and process. When asked about her creative plans for the future, Elhillo laughed and replied candidly.

“I have never made a plan in my life that I have stuck to,” she said. “I hope to have the freedom to pursue things that interest me as they present themselves to me.”

Many questions were asked by Sudanese audience members, some even in Arabic. These interactions created a deeper, more intimate and personal connection between Elhillo and the audience.

“It’s nice to spend time reading the work to who it was written for,” Elhillo said after the event. “There was something charged in the air that just felt really special.”

This special energy was also felt by members of the audience, including Safa K. Babikir — a Graduate School of Education student.

“It’s so important to me, as a Sudanese person at Harvard, to see representation and inclusivity,” Babikir said. “I think bringing diasporic experiences and disciplines into a space like Harvard that can be very exclusive is really powerful.”

Another student at the Graduate School of Education in the audience, Reem Agil, reflected on the importance of Elhillo’s poetry given the current political climate in Sudan.

“She’s basically paving a path to art and, especially with what’s happening in the revolution right now, people like her are actually at the forefront of keeping the fight going,” she said. “It’s really important that she’s here to show that you can do great things with poetry.”

When the reading was over, the crowd gathered outside of the Hiphop Archives as Elhillo signed copies of “Girls That Never Die.” People could be overheard reflecting on the poems or reminiscing about their childhoods. The dedication at the beginning of the collection reads: “For our younger selves.” That night, everybody seemed to be brimming with youthful excitement.

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