Book Review | A Fire Like You

In her third book of poems, A Fire Like You, Upile Chisala writes about the personal and the political. She moves from love and intimacy to race and issues around womanhood.

Malawian storyteller Upile Chisala has mastered the art of writing about devastating issues simply. Through poetry that is not oversimplified or alienating to readers, she explores love, displacement, sisterhood and blackness. Chisala is part of a generation of poets who have gained popularity through sharing their work online, while creating a new, short form of the genre, rooted in their particular experiences of the world.

In a landscape of rapidly published Instagram poetry that mostly appeals to a young adult audience, Chisala has found a sweet spot and has gained a wide group of readers. She is read alongside celebrated writers like Warsan Shire, Ijeoma Umebinyuo and Morgan Parker. Their styles, though distinguishable from one another, are connected. 

Her recently released collection, A Fire Like You, published by Andrew McMeel Publishing, home to poets like Rupi Kaur and Njewa Zebian, is the last book in a trilogy that began with Soft Magic and Nectar. It acts, in a way, as the closing of a circle.

The many forms of poetry

Poetry has worn many jackets over the years, from the poems taught in English literature classes, which required dictionaries, cross-referencing and discussions, to the slam poetry popularised by Def Jam. In recent times, poetry has become widely popular on social media, particularly on Tumblr and Instagram. Writers have taken to penning short emotive poems that easily pass as captions on images. The form has revived and renewed the genre, sparking interest in young and older readers alike. 

In the evolution of the artform, it is important for each form or source of poetry to be seen as legitimate. Still, the new online form has come under a particular critical fire.

Some critics say that the saturation of instapoets will lead to the death of poetry as a respectable art form. This is largely because there is a heavy concentration of poets whose work is easily shareable using simple, accessible language, and artsy images. This criticism is often harsh and rooted in the traditionalist consideration of poetry.

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E. CE Miller, writing for Bustle, confronts the legitimacy of the disdain for these poets, writing: “They’ve been accused of everything from unoriginality to blatant plagiarism; critiqued for their accessibility, shareability, and marketability.” 

In their defence, she says: “These Instapoets are also meeting a certain set of values held by the modern reader – in the same way that poets like Frost, Whitman, Eliot, Keats, Plath, and Ginsberg engaged the values of the poetry readers of their respective generations.”

Criticism also arises from the hyper-similarity of the work in theme and execution, approach to sentences and punctuation, that has seen allegations of plagiarism.

This landscape of criticism has been difficult to navigate because the ones who bear the brunt of the scrutiny are often women authors. Their age and gender are weaponised as a legitimate cause of criticism. White male authors who use similar devices in their writing seem to miss the flurry of shots that poets who are women of colour fall victim to.

The simplicity of language in the poems is important, for the emotive quality of the work and the audience for which it is intended. The form has also become important in democratising writing in general, creating a space for poets from different experiences and backgrounds, outside of traditional publishing and its gatekeeping reputation. 

Those who remember the peak of Tumblr’s popularity can recall how the microblogging website was a portal to discovering writing by young black authors writing from the diaspora. These writers gave language to love, displacement, race, migration, and pain. Writers like Warsan Shire, Nayyirah Waheed, and Yrsa Daley Ward emerged as pioneers of short form poems with vivid imagery.

Creating words as a mirror

In an interview with Shazia Ebrahim of The Daily Vox, Chisala said, “Growing up, I never read books by black women. My school system was set up in a way that we read Shakespeare and other white writers. I never saw myself in these books to the point where I constantly wanted to change my name. I thought, ‘If I don’t see myself in a book, and I don’t see myself on TV then surely blackness and being a black woman is not something to aspire to.’”

This statement illustrates the importance of the existence of multiple writers who serve as mirrors for black girls in society to see their existence and art as legitimate. The necessity for writers, especially women in the Global South, extends beyond the physical descriptors of blackness and body politics to being important for the way their work shows how black women in distinct parts of the world experience life.

Writing rooted in experience

Upile Chisala spent most of her adulthood shifting from space to space. Writing in her adult life became the canvas she used to draw the pain that emerged from displacement and feeling alienated. The poet, who had moved to the United States from Malawi to study, like many black women finding themselves in the diaspora, had angst and turmoil that she had to deal with, emerging from the experience of being black, a woman and a migrant. 

Chisala has crafted an incredible body of work that speaks to women located on various axes of struggle and identity.

She has entered the world of poetry with a trilogy of offerings. Soft Magic, her first, she wrote for herself. It reads like journal entries of her experience. Self-published and unedited, Chisala took comfort in knowing that the book was presented as is, uninterrupted and not interfered with.

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Her second, Nectar, confronts issues of mental health and African families’ reluctance to accept this as a reality. In Nectar, Chisala writes, “Father/Mother/ Grandmother/ Grandfather/ Whoever, your demons aren’t welcome in my house.” 

The growth between writing Soft Magic and Nectar stretches across the pages of her books as she became more fearless in discussing issues considered taboo. 

Her style has evolved from short, untitled and unpunctuated poems to longer ones that linger, allowing the emotion to take up space on the paper. Her poetry, now, rebels against the revered norms, by using short sentences, little to no rhyme schemes and minimal use of punctuation.

A deeper excavation

A Fire Like You feels like the older sister of her other books. With this work, Chisala undertakes a deeper excavation of the deeply embedded issues that black women are burdened with. The mining of the emotion is both raw and refined, as if the storyteller was broken before and now has the capacity to identify pain alongside growth, responsibility and accountability.  

In Soft Magic she writes: “I want to think that God Smiles when a black woman is brave enough to love herself.” In A Fire Like You, in a poem titled Waiting Bodies. Weighty Bodies., Chisala explores the same issue. She writes: “Every time I mean to write about my body, I laugh. How can someone be so un-in-love with this luscious, overflowing Concoction of thigh, And dark, desirable things?” 

The book’s release coincided with Chisala’s move to South Africa, a time when she is also bundled in love: she recently got married. Her words are a gentle reprimand in places, addressing the importance of reciprocity while peeling back the areas where unkindness would exist. 

The beauty of this book also lies in its focus on self-love. Self-care is a consistent theme in the era of digital poetry. In A Fire Like You, self-care co-exists with accepting external love. 

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A Fire Like You was illustrated by multi-disciplinary artists Lulama Wolf and Neo Phage. Their work expresses varied ways of being. This collaboration between the three artists encapsulates one of the book’s key themes: sisterhood, and how womanhood is a diverse experience.

Chisala has grappled with the structure and demands of publishing under a publishing house. At the exclusive launch of her latest book, she said, “As a black story teller, you often have to sell your trauma. When considering deadlines and I’d have to think, shit, what sells?” She then read a poem titled Poetry Won’t Suffer if you Smile Now. Chisala had to negotiate the feelings of nakedness and contend with how she would share her most complex and heavy book yet with an audience. 

In a poem titled Deliverance, Chisala writes: 

If you find yourself very black and very tired
Very tired and very black,
Very woman, and very black and very tired,
Rest and I mean it.

The poet has managed to connect with audiences by reflecting with issues which are pervasive in every region she has lived in. Nectar mentions the Black Lives Matter Movement. In A Fire Like You, in a poem titled Each One, she laments the precarious nature of life as a black woman in South Africa, in light of gender-based violence.

Not only does Chisala write sweetly and softly, she has also shown herself to be a writer aware of the political climate in which she finds herself existing, whether it be in Maryland in the United States or Johannesburg, South Africa.

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