November’s Digital Poet-in-Residence Prerana Kumar speaks to poet and writer Malika Booker about the complicated inheritance of rituals, writing about collective historical trauma and personal identity through rituals, and her forthcoming PhD project.
Prerana – Let us start with talking a little bit about you. You have roots in multiple cultures – you have various threads of heritage.
Malika – Yes. I was born in London, moved to Guyana, and came back to England at 11. I was born to a Grenadian mother and a Guyanese father. My formative years were spent in Guyana – my work seems to always circle back to that landscape. I then came back to a Caribbean-centric household in Britain. I lived in Britain outside of the house, but within the walls of the house, you were transported back to Grenada – my mother’s space. Guyana and Grenada have similarities in food but are very different.
Prerana – Your work is full of rituals – cultural, somatic, and intergenerationally transmitted. How has your heritage filtered through rituals into your life and writing?
Malika – Growing up, everything was Caribbean-centric. The physicality of living in Guyana shaped me until I came back here when I was eleven. Here, we had soup on Saturdays, we never had processed food, always food cooked from scratch. We lived in Brixton and Brixton market had all the provisions we needed – had all the food we used to grow up with. We had fish-and-chips on Fridays which was the only English thing. But at home, the way we cooked food from scratch was handed down. My aunt was the griot – instead of watching TV, we would sit down, and she would tell us childhood stories about Grenada. I have knowledge of Grenada not from living there but from spending holidays there and from my aunt’s stories. The place came alive through her stories. These were the formative influences that shaped me as an individual.
Prerana – These rituals and practices became the links that sustained the connection between countries, cultures, and through generations.
Malika – Yes, music was another important link. I would go to a lot of Soca parties. Most of the socializing that I did before I moved to Leeds were through Soca and Caribbean parties. Another continuous tradition is playing Carnival. Playing Carnival at Notting Hill, or going to Grenada, or Trinidad, or Brooklyn. Masquerade and Carnival are also a part of my culture that has been passed down generationally. It has roots linked to slave resistance, gender resistance, and blurs gender roles. It is a tradition that has persevered through persecution. It is often misunderstood, sexualized, eroticized by the White gaze. People see the costumes but won’t see the community endeavours behind them – like Mas Camps where they make costumes throughout the year. This is a community ritual or tradition that carries on in England that I am embedded in. These traditions also become an interesting lens through which to view life in Britain.
Prerana – With Britain tightening its borders, these cultural practices become reclamation and resistance, both personally and communally.
Malika– Yes. I think that xenophobia and racism influence the way white people view our cultures and traditions. It’s never really gone away. Anti-racism laws have been implemented and then receded. All the progress people have made with anti-racism laws has been undermined and overturned. People’s nationalities and identities are shaped by laws. When you supposedly celebrate 70 years of Windrush, you have mass evictions and deportations at the same time. For me, as a black body, as a black Caribbean body, I’ve witnessed it become subtle, but still pervasive. People argue that racism doesn’t exist. In Britain it’s a sleight of hand, almost magical and you wonder if it ever happened, you begin to doubt yourself. Brexit is almost a public culmination of these forces, it has given people permission to respond.
Prerana – I know what you mean about the little microaggressions in everyday life being almost a sleight of hand.
Malika – Little, and sometimes not so little. There is knowledge held within the community. Embodied knowledge. I also think BLM and George Floyd opened up the space for people to react, but this violence has always existed, it’s just that nobody wanted to listen.
Prerana – You’ve talked about inheritance of these cultural practices, and you mentioned preparing food as one of these practices. Rituals can function as conduits of continuance, but the inheritance itself can be ambiguous, linked to the inheritance of trauma, for example. One of your poems, ‘Pepper Sauce’ explores this ambiguity. It explores the ritual of making the pepper sauce, that comes with so many loaded connotations of inherited trauma, gendered violence.
Malika – Pepper Seed, as a collection, explores legacies of plantocracy. On the surface, ‘Pepper Sauce’, one of the poems in the collection, is about a violent act by a grandmother. But this violent act was borne out of practices by slave masters upon slaves, and then slaves upon each other under a brutal system of oppression. The girl in the poem stole. If you stole, you could have your hand cut off, you could be put in stocks, you could be hung from a tree. You could be peppered. Through the act in the poem, it’s looking at what happens on the ground, the spaces, the plantations where the ancestors of these people were brought to (my grandmother was two generations out). These places were places of cruelty. Some of the corporal punishment enacted on children stemmed from corporal punishment enacted on the body. It was almost learned behaviour, but also fearful behaviour. As a girl, if you stole, you could be sold. This learned behaviour stems from an instinct to protect those you love.
There’s a lot packed into that ritual in the poem, I suppose. The book looks at legacies of plantocracy, as well as the personal – that’s my grandmother, my cousin. When you start looking at the history of Caribbean society and plantocracy, then you start contextualising these punishments. You realise that when you were chastised as a child, it was not as harsh as chastisement inflicted on black bodies by slave masters. You start to understand this complicated legacy from an unearthed perspective.
Prerana – Did structuring the poem around the process of making pepper sauce help you write about such collective historical trauma through an alternative access point?
Malika – Collective historical trauma and what we inherit, what we pass on, and what is passed on to us. What is in our DNA – what do we do without questioning, what is that thing? The grandmother tied the child spread-eagled on a bed. Where were you tied spread-eagled on a bed? If you look at pictures of enslaved Africans on plantations, this is a common emblematic image. The work critiques and examines these things through a wider lens.
Prerana – There was a generation that directly bore the trauma but as it got passed down generations, it then morphed into various learned behaviours, as you put it. These learned behaviours entered ‘postmemory’.
Malika – Learned behaviours with no link. For a few years, there was no link established– people weren’t taught their history. There was no knowledge about where these practices or behaviours came from.
Prerana – An amnesia? Perhaps that’s the wrong word. An excision?
Malika – Not an amnesia. The fact that you came to a country and everything, all home was beaten out of you. Where you came from was beaten out of you. And what did you become? If you look at textbooks of the time, black bodies were indoctrinated as savages, as animals, as just stock. Plantation records list black people as stock. Mary for a price, another person for a price. The same records had greater value for animals. For several generations, you had no conception of working for a living, and the next generations came into this. With white institutions, we can talk about amnesia. We can talk about deliberate erasure as a colonial practice. A primitivizing to legitimise or explain treating people as lower than animals.
The book then demonstrates what survives through, or despite, this trauma – rituals such as preparation of food become an inheritance of resilience. So, pepper sauce is passed down. Teaching the child how to make pepper sauce is resistance that is passed down as a Caribbean sensibility – but it is a complicated inheritance. For not only the reasons I explained but also because of the Indian indentured community and their influence on these rituals. The practices of all these communities are interwoven with each other. This poem highlights two kinds of inheritance, a creolised inheritance as well as the inheritance of brutality.
What is also interesting is how editors in this country wanted to deal with the poem. They wanted to cut the poem so you wouldn’t hear the child bawling towards the end. It’s representative of a British sensibility and poetics. That poem was uncomfortable for a lot of people and wouldn’t have been published in any journal some years ago when it came out.
Prerana – Would you say ritual, through repetition and acknowledgement, facilitates a witnessing?
Malika – With women and black bodies, people want to look away from the suffering. We want it to be something palatable. This poem is not really about the grandmother, or about victimizing the child. If the poem ended where editors would want to end it, it would be reduced to a portrait of brutality. It’s not about the perpetrator, it’s not about the victim, it’s about understanding what’s happening with this complicated legacy. If the poem ended before this section, we’re continuing generations of looking away from black pain. You have to stay there with her bawling, you have to understand the hoarseness, the witnessing has to be sustained. The pain has to be acknowledged. Violence is inflicted upon black bodies, and they are assumed as being able to take it. Black women aren’t allowed to cry. We’re always told to ‘be strong’, to ‘pull it together’. I wanted readers to stay there in that pain, witness it. Witnessing is also experiencing.
So that poem is looking at rituals, inheritance, what it means to be a recipient of practices from a plantocracy and what it means to pass on rituals that survived and resisted plantocracy. A lot of the ways this is done is through food. And women. Women often hold onto culture and pass it on through food; the richness, the resistance.
Prerana – Rituals can also be containers of joy, tenderness, and nostalgia. In your poem, ‘The Little Miracles’, this comes through most when the speaker and the mother sing together in the poem, and this is one example of how rituals preserve radical joy. Could you tell me more about the process behind that poem?
Malika – It was a commissioned poem, born out of what would happen if you put poets in conversation with therapists. I worked with a therapist who looks a lot at joy, and transformation. Initially, I thought I was going to write about funerals, rituals of funerals. But my mother had this illness, and I couldn’t write about it for a long time, so the project temporarily stopped. I was reading Tranströmer, and I read about storms in his work. I realised what happened with my mother was the storm in my family. I was talking to Karen McCarthy Woolf about parents and illness. And a small conversation was about how when this happens, you are never present. When you sit in front of your parents, you aren’t present because you’re thinking about the person they used to be, or the fact that they’re dying. You’re at a weird crossroad of death, the past, and the future, but never in the present. And people can sense this, it causes them further distress, even if they can’t articulate it. So, the whole summer, I cared for my mother, bringing her food every day etc. and I decided to be present in those moments through these acts of care. That’s when you appreciate the little miracles.
My mother is Catholic, very religious. Her memory is failing, but she remembers whole hymns songs, the Lord’s prayer. Sometimes when she sang, she would forget and get distressed, and I would prompt her after looking up the lyrics online. It’s interesting because in a way this is what happens in Caribbean church, or even at Caribbean funerals, there is a ‘caller’ at the funeral who calls out the words and people respond with singing. Practicing being present meant I could sing with her, and she would have moments of complete clarity. And she would say ‘you can’t sing, please don’t sing’ and it was a joke between us. I was making notes, recording these little interactions with my mother because I was being present, and the poem was borne out of these notes.
Prerana – Being present became something you consciously practiced and nurtured during this time.
Malika – Yes, it was transformative. When someone’s personality begins changing because of illness, you grieve the mother that is absent, but you don’t get to know who she is now. It was profound, being present. You notice the richness as opposed to the lack. It’s sacred, sacramental, and the poem captures a lot of this. My mom was in the choir in the Caribbean all her life and always leading the prayers. For her, singing was the anchor. Also, what she was singing was profound because it was so pertinent to what was happening to her. Writing autobiographically is interesting, as the poet in you records and observes these things as they happen.
Prerana – What about your future work? I’d love to hear more about your upcoming project.
Malika – For my PhD I’m looking at creolising the King James Bible. What happens if the people, the language, the geography, and the social fabric is Caribbean-centric? I want to explore those gaps in the text as it is now. How are these stories retold from a black body, from a Caribbean body, from a body that is critiquing this space through a gendered or colonial lens? What does it mean to bring up same-sex relationships or explore gendered violence in this landscape? How does that reflect ecological and gender violence connected to the Caribbean or the Caribbean diaspora today? This is what I’m interested in. It’s a translation project in a way – allowing characters who exist in the peripheries to speak, understanding what the characters would be doing in a particular space. I focus a lot on the women. They’re speaking their own history, speaking themselves back into the Bible.
The Bible is about utterance. It is the ultimate patriarchal blueprint, but also the book used in the colonial project. Reconstructions or biblical art make it seem like the bible is set in Europe. There is a white Jesus, but if you look at the people from the region where the Bible is set, they are brown. What happens when someone takes everything from you and the only thing they teach you is this text, this Bible? You have no history so how do see yourself in those stories? As a woman, I’ve always been critical of, and disturbed by the amount of erasure and gender violence in the text. If you placed these women who are silenced in a society shaped by plantocracy, how are they going to articulate what they’ve experienced?
What if Samson’s mother, who is not named in the Bible, wrote her own story? How would she feel about being deprived of a name? A lot of marginalised bodies are reduced to footnotes. To be deprived of a name is so dehumanising. Karen McCarthy Woolf has invented the coupling form, and I am experimenting with merging that with sonnets to facilitate a speaking back. There is a biblical line, and you have the woman’s voice responding to that line and pushing it forward, engendering her own narrative. It allows a rhetorical space for argument.
Prerana – So a constant speaking back into existence …
Malika – Yes, and it aims to explore legacies of plantocracy, with the Bible as the core text. I want to articulate myself into classical literature.
Prerana – This also sounds like a project that will contribute heavily towards decentering or deconstructing the established canon of Anglocentric work. Going on with that, what advice would you give to writers who are attempting to untangle difficult questions of identity, memory, trauma, and complex legacies?
Malika – Read people who give you permission. If I wasn’t looking at Toni Morrison or other writers of colour, I would never have had the permission to push and write some of the stuff that I did. Don’t worry if nobody understands. If people in your workshops say it’s a bit violent or too much, which is often said towards this kind of work, stick to your truth and what you’re trying to articulate.
Also, take your time with it. ‘Pepper Sauce’ took me eleven years because when I first started writing, I was not ready, or talented enough to be able to pull it off. I didn’t even know what I wanted to pull off at first. It was just an autobiographical poem about this thing that happened in my family. You need to trust that you will know. You need to read read read – read Eastern European writers, read native American writers, read other writers of colour, read widely across the board. Ask yourself who you’re in conversation with but be careful not to pigeonhole yourself. Lastly, use your desk as an experimental space and create a desk ritual. My new ritual at the moment is lighting sage before I write.
Have your own rituals, break the boundaries between everyday life and the experimental space of your desk. These rituals might change from time to time, but what’s important is you establish that continuance.
About Malika Booker
Malika Booker is a poet and theatre maker, who currently Lectures at Manchester Metropolitan University. She is a British poet of Guyanese and Grenadian Parentage and the founder of Malika’s Poetry Kitchen. Her pamphlet Breadfruit, (flippedeye, 2007) received a Poetry Society recommendation and the first poetry collection Pepper Seed (Peepal Tree Press, 2013) was shortlisted for the OCM Bocas prize and the Seamus Heaney Centre 2014 prize for first full collection. She is published with the poets Sharon Olds and Warsan Shire in The Penguin Modern Poet Series 3:Your Family: Your Body (2017) and her poem Nine Nights, first published in The Poetry Review in autumn 2016, was shortlisted for Best Single Poem in the 2017 Forward Prize. Malika hosts and curates New Caribbean Voices, Peepal Tree Press’s literary podcast. A cave Canem Fellow, and inaugural Poet in Residence at The Royal Shakespeare Company, Malika was awarded the Cholmondeley Award for outstanding contribution to poetry (2019) and won The Forward Poetry Prize for Best Single Poem (2020).