Living in The Ghetto of Eden
Not too long ago, I was able to interview Jasmin Oya about her recently published book of poems entitled The Ghetto of Eden. Defenitly a must read, I strongly suggest y'all get your hands on a copy ASAP! Like the book, the conversation took on a depth that caused me to reflect on things like family, love, race, and identity in ways that I hadn’t before. Here's what went down during our conversation.
Rachael: So what were the events that led you to becoming a published poet? How did you feel during the journey?
Jasmin: The journey started actually three years ago. Prior to freshman year I was a slam poet performing and competing on stage. I realized I wanted to see what I could do with my voice on page. So I started chronicling and gathering my poems and began to write more poems that had to be read in order to be understood.
I think that the more you read the better you write, so I began to read more poetry to understand different styles. It was a three-year process where I kind of just delved into literature, and I took more time off from the stage. Taking that time off helped me focus on my writing more instead of using performance as a crutch.
Because I always knew I wanted to end up with a book; that pushed me in the direction to publish. What really made it something that had to be done was my father’s passing last August. It was like something in me that was just kind of like, I have to get these words out there just because. Literally to just write for whoever needed to hear it; write for myself and for him.
R: While you were writing, did you experience any challenges in expressing a thought you had? Did you ever feel like you had to censor or filter yourself?
J: The process became slightly nerve wracking, at times because I was a little afraid of how it would be received by my church family since I also knew a lot of them would be buying my book. It was a little weird because I wanted to stick to my vision, but at the same time, I didn't want to sacrifice self for the sake censorship.
I think what I ended up doing was honestly just following self. I believed that God was going to speak through me no matter what, and whoever needed to hear it would hear it. Those who were distracted by words or language I could have used or poems that could have been “too much” for them, I don’t think it was needed for them to hear. So I had just had to find solace in that reality, I kind of had to stick to my guns.
R: I feel like we live in a time where people are very ready to share everything about themselves or their lives through Snapchat, Twitter, Facebook, and social media. It’s usually not something of depth or something very personal about their life. Those moments do come, but they’re very far and few between which is why I like that as a poet you were very transparent with the experiences you had. Was there ever anything you've written that you kind of realized at the end where you were like nah this is too personal or too special? Like a moment where you said, “You know what I’m going to keep this one for myself.”
J: Yea there were a few poems. I think not everything that was written should be read, and there are a few poems that were just for me that I haven’t shared even with friends whom I always share my work with. There are some poems that I just have to keep close to me because it was written for me. It was written for my expression and written for my moment and just for me. So yes some of those poems were kept and I still have them. The book does have a lot of poems that are missing from it because I just needed to keep it to myself.
There are poems in there that are very personal for example “Barbie’s Closet.” It is probably my most personal poem that I wrote in 2012. Initially it was written for a slam I was competing in but I never performed it, I always punked out of reading it. I just wasn’t yet, but also I knew it was a story I needed to get off my chest and that possibly somebody else needed to hear it which is why it’s in the book. So even though it’s personal, it’s still necessary for others to hear.
R: So the theme that ties the book together is a Garden of Eden type theme, and you use a lot of analogies between Eden, creation, and life experiences. What steered you in the direction of using Eden in that way? Did you write poems with that theme in mind or did it naturally progress in that direction?
J: The story of Adam and Eve is actually my favorite love story, weirdly enough. It’s probably on of my favorite stories of all time. Because I think something special happened in that story that still affects us today. How I turned it into the Ghetto of Eden was basically me saying is that there's a there is a representation of the black church and present day life that is kind of dwindling. It’s not only the black church but the black ghetto. It’s not just an outfit to wear, or music to listen to, but there are people who actually still live in black ghettos in America who are living that life and still living the “thug life.” There are people who still go to church on Sundays with their grandma you know like that old school black living, that reality.
Basically what I wanted to do was chronicle that, like bring that feel back. That was the style that I tried to write in and tell a story using Adam as a symbol of black men and Eve as a symbol for black women. The book is basically a big reminder of a life that is forgotten because it's become popularized like a sensation rather than an actual form of living, an actual testament of living. So I try to make it a reality and try to bring the story back to life.
R: So when you mean that you’re referring to cultural appropriation?
R: A lot made sense now [laughs] I read the poems and I get it, but again, thanks so much. This is good hearing it from you, explaining it.
J: Awesome [laughs]
R: So conventional novel writing versus poetry format. I recall you were saying that you kind of got more into reading poetry in order to be able to write it out versus performing it. Do you have a preference for artistic expression? Do you ever see yourself writing a book or a novel?
J: I definitely see myself writing a novel because I started off there, poetry came last. I was actually writing short stories and plays first. I used to be in a play-writing group in middle school, and prior to that I was writing stories that all the girls at church used to read. So I started off there and then I kind of got into poetry writing. In terms of preference, I think it's very hard to choose because for me it's always about reaching whom ever I could reach. A lot of people don't like to pick up the book anymore; it’s kind of an old way of expression.
I like what I can do on the page and how I can express myself in that form. I think when you write for the stage you think about the audience and how things are going to sound, the rhythm; the performance kind of takes over the message. I guess my personal preference is writing on the page. I actually like that way more, but the performance of it I think it's more necessary.
R: Do you have a favorite poem from the book?
J: I think my favorite is probably “Wedding Night.” I think it’s an old way of thinking, you know like a “wedding night” and really imagining that night to be something special, and inviting God to that night. I had fun writing it, and kind of ties in the love story of a modern day Adam and Eve. It is bringing back that old touch of saying wedding nights are still something to look forward to and it is still something for those who are saving themselves because that’s still happening. Those narratives still exist where people are still saving themselves for their wedding, for marriage. So I think it was just paying homage to those who are, and paying homage to that night and to the marriage and to sex being a moment that when they think is right that God will be there in a dwelling. It kind of just brings all that together. So it’s probably one of my favorites. That and “Barbie’s Closet.”
R: Yea I liked “Wedding Night.” It honestly gave me chills. I was reading and thinking, “OKAY this is fire.” [laughs]
J: Awesome [laughs]
R: So a couple poems stood out to me, particularly “Two Hearts Deep.” I really liked that one a lot because I felt like I could really relate. I also find it difficult to fathom the concept of being married to someone, and consistently wanting them and them wanting me. I feel like I don’t want that [marriage], but at the same time I know that is what I actually do want. I’m kind of thinking to myself, “Is it even possible? I guess it is, but then again maybe not?” But I also agree with, as you’ve expressed in your poem that once you find it [love], it feels so natural. Would you say when you wrote that, it was based on an actual experience you had with finding love? Or is it more of a description of what it’s like?
J: Yea, what I tried to do with the book was chronicle what I think it is like to fall in love and all the many parts of it. In the beginning of the book you see a lot of lonely poems, on what it’s like being alone. Then you’ll see with the poem “The Negro” like not being in touch with your own skin, and you'll see Adam being created and he's just there alone. So it’s just this whole idea like you’re dissociated with your skin and a dissociated with love, and dissociated with self. So it’s just this loneliness basically, that is where we are before we found love.
And yea that’s even what I struggle with, I feel you. When you said I want that, like it sounds good in theory but in practice it sounds scary to always want someone there like right next to you always being in love with them. I relate to that idea of where you are before you find love. Who we all are before we find love, were just going on in this life. There are a lot of lonely moments, not that they’re bad, it’s just you’re alone. Then you could find somebody you can be alone with. No makeup on, still over here trying to kiss me. I could be my lonely self with you. I think that’s what true love really does. It allows you to be your lonely self, who you are when absolutely no one is around. Just there you are, but someone else is around finally and they don’t mind your lonely. I think that’s what the poem is basically about, where you are right before you meet that person.
R: Another poem that stood out to me was “Nappy Headed” which sort of narrates the experience of a mother doing her daughter’s hair. When I was reading it I felt like I was going through a painful nostalgia because in my head, I’m thinking yes I remember getting my hair combed as a child, and washday was no fun.
But to me the poem kind of meant you got to do what you got to do for beauty as well as love. Was that what you were trying to say?
J: In a way, that poem was pretty much about generational curses between black mothers and black daughters. Not that it’s a personal narrative, my mom and I have a pretty good relationship, but it’s really just something that I have seen where black women have learned to basically let a man love her out of herself. A lot of women think that they actually have to lose themselves in order to gain a man or to keep a man happy. So this poem is showing that deceit held by a lot of black women that when a man enters into a relationship with you, or when love enters your home, you must leave.
There’s something about writing this poem by showing it through a time where you learn a lot of things, which is when your mom does your hair. That is a black woman moment. You getting your hair done and it does not feel good. Just like when you learn about beauty and how it hurts to be beautiful. So “Nappy Headed” was kind of just using the painfulness of getting your hair done. While a mother is teaching her daughter a lesson of beauty and love and how it is painful, it’s also showing you have to do a lot with yourself in order to gain a man. That’s a teaching that I wanted to show. I could have just written that out, but I wanted to show it using imagery and make the whole poem like a scene to get the entire message.
R: Since we are still on the topic of hair. I'm sure you are familiar with the dreadlocks in the workplace versus the U.S. Supreme Court. What’s what's your take on the stance of the Supreme Court?
J: Oooh [laughs]
R: Let it out, let it out [laughs]
J: I was pissed! It is in a way, this hairstyle is a choice but in a way it’s not. This is something that my hair does. I just let it go, you know? If I choose not to comb through it then it will lock because that's what black hair does, and so it is in a natural state. So it is basically saying that to be naturally black is to be inappropriate and that perpetuates is the whole idea of colonization. That anything that is “Black” aka “African” is barbaric and needs to be done away with. So inherently what they’re saying is the way my hair naturally grows from my head, the way that my body comes to be is inappropriate and barbaric.
So when I heard about it I wasn't surprised, I wasn't surprised. I was not surprised because I think that this country has a bad habit of killing everything we don't understand, and one thing they don't understand is blackness. So when they can't participate in it, when it is not natural for them their comfort is threatened. When that happens they have to quickly kill it because it's different, because they can't be a part of it. That’s just America for you.
R: I hadn’t thought of it in that way. When they can’t participate, that’s when they want to kill it. Very true, because I'm also thinking of a lot of instances where they can participate and it becomes like most popular thing. Very interesting stuff.
R: So lastly, what advice do you have for someone that wants to write but never considered writing because the feel that they may not have anything to say?
J: My advice would be to write. That sounds so cliché, but I can't think of a better one. Write and take your voice seriously, even when nobody else does. I was the class clown, and I wanted to be a comedian. I never really thought that much about poetry until my mentor, Jeffery Reese I’ll never forget him. The book is dedicated to him as well. He’s this guy who was a poet. I was about 12 years old and not very interested in poetry. I though it was cool that people could do that, but it wasn’t really my thing. He always said to me, “I see something more in you, I know you have something to say” and I'm like yo this dude is wildin, you crazy. When he passed away is when I started to write. I took a stab at my voice, and tried to take it more seriously even though I was always the one to laugh at myself before everybody else could. It kind of sucks that he wasn’t able to read any of the poems that I wrote, but I think that one of the things I will say is to write and take your voice seriously. Just write, just do it, and see where it takes you. Don’t try to take it anywhere, see where it takes you. It will take you places, it will lead you, and it will guide you. But don’t drag it.
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*Photos by Brianna Roy were taken at FIKA Cafe in Kensington Market in Toronto, Canada.
By: Rachael Joseph