To launch this year’s Foyle Young Poets of the Year Award, we published two anthologies of the winning and commended poems in the 2020 competition, entitled You Speak in Constellations. The Foyle Young Poets of the Year Award is one of the biggest competitions for young poets aged 11-17. It’s free to enter and you can win some amazing prizes. Check out the ‘Resources for Writers’ section for inspiration, and enter your poems to this year’s competition by 31 July 2021 at foyleyoungpoets.org
In this resource, we’re taking a closer look at one of the winning poems in the anthology, Indigo Mudbhary’s ‘Brown Girl’. There are activities for teachers using the anthology in the classroom, and for individuals reading the poems in their own time or looking for inspiration for their own writing. Teachers can request a free class pack of the anthology by emailing [email protected] or you can access the online version here.
Content warning: Please be aware that the poem featured in this resource deals with the theme of racism, and contains offensive language and swear words.
Navigate the resource using the links below. This resource features:
- a video of Indigo reading the poem, alongside the text
- a lesson plan for teachers, suitable for Key Stages 3 and 4
- an interview with Indigo about the poem
- points to think about when you’re reading the poem
- writing prompts to help you create your own poem
- an extension activity, comparing and contrasting three more poems by previous winners of the Foyle Young Poets Award. These poems appear in the anthology of commended poems in the 2020 award: Blessing Verrall’s ‘second-generation’, Olajuwon-Alhaytham Abdullah Adedokun’s ‘Shade the correct answers’, and Serrina Zou’s ‘Whitewash’.
(after Jamaica Kincaid’s ‘Girl’)
“The mission of the United States is one of benevolent assimilation.”
– President William McKinley
practice your Nepali three times a day; don’t ever forget your mother tongue; always speak English outside the house or people will think you’re a terrorist; here’s how to fold dough into a samosa; here’s how to make mattar paneer; here’s how to make the perfect momo; here’s how to make the perfect momo sauce; here’s how to make a peanut butter sandwich for school so the other kids don’t make fun of you; here’s how to wrap a sari; here’s where to put your bindi; here’s how to cry during a Bollywood movie; here’s how to smile and nod when a white boy makes jokes about eating with your hands; here’s how to get good grades; always tell your relatives you want to be a doctor even if you don’t want to; never have sex or do drugs until you’re at least thirty-five; here’s how to fulfill your father’s big American dream; don’t worry about slurs because even though they say Paki here they don’t do it too often; here’s how to be an American; here’s how to be Nepalese; always be more Nepalese than American but don’t be too Nepalese or people will think you’re a fucking curry muncher and we can’t have that; here’s how to say namaste to your auntie; here’s how to say namaste to your uncle; here’s how to say namaste to someone you want to be friends with; here’s how to say namaste to someone you don’t like at all; here’s how to make thukpa; here’s how to make a mandala; always buy sand for a mandala from Michael’s because they have the best colored sand in America at least; here’s how to not seem too American when you visit your relatives; here’s how to not seem too Nepalese at school; always laugh politely when someone confuses Nepal with Naples even if it annoys you; here’s how to point out Nepal on a map for white people; here’s how to turn a prayer wheel; never give food to a monkey even if it’s cute; this is where you put your statue of ganesha; this is where you put your statue of ganesha when friends come over; this how you pray to a god; this is how you pray to multiple gods; this is how you ask a god for something; this is how you ask multiple gods for something; here’s how to light a diya; here’s how to be a good Auntie; here’s how to be a good cousin; don’t be mean to white people who say Nepal is basically India, they don’t know any better; don’t be mean to white people; don’t be mean to white men; don’t be mean to powerful white people; just don’t be mean to white people; here’s how to place an offering at a temple; here’s how to receive tikka; don’t wipe your tikka off your forehead even if it itches; stay calm during airport security screenings or else you’re essentially a terrorist; here’s how to explain the difference between hinduism and hindi to a white person but it’s better if you don’t at all; don’t dye your hair it never looks good on brown people; here’s how to whiten your skin just a little bit; here’s how to approach an elephant; here’s how to approach an elephant in the room; here’s how to make the perfect dal; here’s how to make the perfect dal bhat; always finish your food; here’s how to be a brown person in America but really you should just try to be more white because we don’t want anyone thinking that you’re some fucking terrorist.
If you’re a teacher, take a look at a brand new lesson plan on the poem, written by Teacher Trailblazer Fran Pridham. Fran encourages students to use this poem to think about identity and belonging, including the issue of race. The resource also introduces students to poetry in prose as a form.
If you’re coming to the poem as an individual student, you might also find the lesson plan inspiring, or read on for more ways into the poem…
Indigo is seventeen years old and lives in San Francisco, California. She first discovered poetry when she was eight and had to write a poem for school responding to a prompt asking her to write about something she loved. After completing that poem she realized that the thing she loved was in fact creating poems and stories, and she’s been writing ever since! Here, she tells us a bit more about her winning poem ‘Brown Girl’.
Question: What was your motivation or inspiration for writing ‘Brown Girl’?
Answer: For most of my life, I’ve felt like I’ve had to be quiet about my experiences with race. Many people have told me that I’m being sensitive when I talk about hurtful comments and have said that I would face fewer problems if I didn’t draw so much attention to the issue. After publishing an essay about some of my experiences with race, one of my parents’ friends told me that “they didn’t think I felt that way.” That really served as the impetus for me to start working on a poem that laid all of my experiences bare and showed not only the experiences I’ve gone through but also why I feel I can’t talk about them. My piece does that, and it was incredibly cathartic to not only have strangers read this but also know that all the acquaintances and friends who have told me that I’m overdramatic when it comes to race or that I should just be quiet have seen this piece.
Question: What can you tell us about the form of this poem?
Answer: I initially chose the form of a prose poem because I was trying to craft a poem specifically in the style of Jamaica Kincaid’s “Girl” as part of a writing assignment. However, as this poem began to take shape, I realized that the format of a prose poem was perfect for the subject matter because it overwhelms the reader in a way that’s similar to what it’s like to experience both microaggressions and flat-out aggression at a young age. Though the semi-colons separate the different thoughts to make it more coherent for the reader, putting all these distinct experiences and thoughts into a large block of text with one thought after another provides the reader with an extremely overwhelming experience, which feels true to my life. Additionally, the epigraph is important to my poem because, throughout the piece, the theme of assimilation is very important. This quote was crucial for me to include because, in the United States, the idea of the model minority myth causes people to think that Asian people don’t face real issues when in fact the Asian community is a complicated, diverse group with a whole host of different issues it faces. This idea of “benevolent assimilation” exists especially regarding the model minority myth because people believe that the Asian community has been able to see more “success” than other groups is because it is able to emulate whiteness, which is not true at all. The epigraph was really important to me because I wanted to pick apart the model minority myth in my poem and the epigraph gave me a historical starting point for that.
Question: Could you tell us anything about the voice or point of view of the poem?
Answer: The voice of the poem is my internal monologue, which has been shaped by my experiences.
Question: This poem is bursting with sensory imagery and cultural references. Can you give us an insight into why you chose some of the imagery or references you included?
Answer: I wanted to include words from my culture, such as Diya and Ganesha, but in a specific way. I wanted to drop them in the poem without much explanation, because I feel like there exists a double standard in which brown people have to explain their culture but white people do not have that similar obligation when it comes to their cultural practices because they are not viewed as other. I hope that readers noticed that I did not italicize these words, because my culture is not “other” but beautiful, unique, and not deserving of any sort of “othering.” I also wanted to include rich imagery surrounding my culture, because I wanted to fight against a stereotype I’ve frequently encountered, which is that it is primitive. From jokes about eating with my hands to ridiculing Hinduism’s tens of thousands of Gods, I’ve often dealt with this misconception and it’s hurtful. By using imagery to portray a full, holistic image of my culture and my experience of it, I hope I was able to show that my culture is just as complicated and nuanced as any other. People of color deserve nuance too.
- ‘Brown Girl’ is written in the second person, the ‘you’ form. Who do you think the poet is addressing?
- The poem is in a prose format, which means that it does not have a metrical verse structure, but the lines run to the end of the page. Using the interview with Indigo above for clues, how do you think the prose format contributes to the theme or tone of the poem? How might it be different if it were written in verse?
- The poem repeats the phrase ‘here’s how’. Using ‘here’ in this way is an example of ‘deixis’, which is when a word points to a particular place, time, or situation (other examples include ‘there’, ‘then’, ‘now’, ‘this’, ‘those’). What effect do you think the repetition of ‘here’ has? Where is ‘here’ in the poem?
- What do you make of the concept of ‘benevolent assimilation’, referred to in the epigraph, in light of this poem?
If you’d like to try writing your own poem, here are some ideas to get you started. You can submit your poem(s) for free to the Foyle Young Poets of the Year Award at foyleyoungpoets.org
- Indigo’s poem takes an epigraph (a short quotation) by President William McKinley and subtly subverts it. Can you write a poem that responds to a short quotation? It could be something someone famous has said – a celebrity, a politician, or another writer – or a quotation from someone you know.
- Try experimenting with the prose poem format. You could try writing the same poem in verse and in prose – how do line breaks change the tone of the poem?
- ‘Brown Girl’ reads like a set of instructions. Can you write a poem in this format, using only the second person?
- Think about your own cultural identity. What are the features that characterise it? Are they connected to food, clothing, language, behaviour, something else? Do you feel like this identity is prescribed? How does this make you feel?
In ‘Brown Girl’, Indigo Mudbhary reflects on race and cultural identity in a unique form and voice. In this extension activity, we’ve brought together three more poems that tackle similar themes, all written by commended poets in the 2020 Foyle Young Poets of the Year Award. These poems are collected in the commended poems anthology, here. Once you’ve read the poems, think about the discussion points, below, comparing and contrasting the texts. The different colours used in the poems below have been added by us, to help you when reading the discussion points.
Blessing Verrall’s ‘second-generation’ (watch Blessing perform it here)
came out running
muzzled and mute
kicking up sand
100 miles from the nearest ocean
against the homesick strand
Olajuwon-Alhaytham Abdullah Adedokun’s ‘shade the correct answers’
Shade the correct answers
There is something always missing
from anthologies of burnt black men.
(c) Their voice
I once told a burnt black man
to run into his dreams
and he buried his hopes in
Here, girls say colour is
why the sun casts its rays
on their cornrows, why
they watch their future
drown with slave ships.
Here, boys say colour is
why they mistake a black
man’s wallet for a gun, his
neck for stools, his hopes
become a butterfly he
dares himself to catch.
Someday, someone with
a burning skin will run
into you and pray you
quench the fire in his throat.
He’ll ask for water, for hope,
for compasses that lead anywhere
but slave ships.
Someday, you’ll carve coffins,
like you’ve done every day.
Serrina Zou’s ‘Whitewash’ (watch Serrina perform it here)
On my head, a braid dark as the pregnant
night sky; in my eyes, onyx layered in
russet. Against the white paper, a canvas
bleached blonde as golden straw drenched
in crayola. I dust my eyes in sapphires, wishing
myself into my 2D creation. If green is the color
of envy I know it now: my coloring companion
blinks & sheds jade tears, the jewels of my
ancestral country. I peel the color from its
label: emerald & sink, drowning into myself.
The teacher pins our portraits on the bulletin
board, pats us gently on the back for painting
the princess in us. For open house that year,
mama strolls through the preschool gallery,
blotting away the corn tassels, paper thin
milk skin, cinnamon freckles. She frowns
& asks for my portrait. I point to the center
at the assembly line of fallen American dolls;
all porcelain plastic, no story to breathe. She
nods, braiding a native elegy in my foreigner
throat. Years later, I unbury the pigment from
beneath the marred scribbles, uncrumpling
the whitewashed folds & color myself seventeen
narratives, one for each year I chose ivory over ebony.
I become the gallery, undiluted with history.
Use these discussion points to compare the three poems, also drawing on what you have learned about Indigo Mudbhary’s poem.
- Looking first at Blessing Verrall’s poem ‘second-generation’, how do you think the title relates to the rest of the poem, and particularly to the phrases ‘womb-box’ and ‘homesick strand’?
- Why do you think the poet chose to indent some lines more than others? Think about this in relation to the verbs of movement used in the poem.
- The poem includes a number of verbs in the past continuous (‘-ing’ form), coloured blue. What do you think the effect of this is? How might it be different if the verbs were in the simple past tense e.g. ran, leaped, kicked?
- Now compare this to the use of tense in the other two poems. Olajuwon-Alhaytham Abdullah Adedokun’s ‘shade the correct answers’ moves between past, present, and future – why do you think the future tense is important in this poem? Serrina Zou’s ‘Whitewash’ is all in the present tense, despite the fact that she is describing a past event. How does the present tense affect the way we experience the poem?
- What is the purpose of the multiple choice format at the beginning of ‘Shade the correct answers’? How does this relate to the title?
- Why do you think the poet refers to ‘anthologies’?
- Look at the imagery of fire and water in ‘Shade the correct answers’, which we’ve coloured red and purple. What is the role of fire and water in this poem? Can you find any references to earth or air?
- How does the imagery of heat and fire compare to similar imagery in ‘second-generation’ e.g. sulphurous, electric? Verrall uses the phrase ‘strike a prayer’ – does this seem odd to you? What else might you strike?
- ‘Whitewash’ is a poem full of colours – how does this relate to the theme of the poem? How does it fit in the context of children drawing?
- It is also a very material poem; look at all the references to precious gemstones and jewels, as well as other materials – porcelain, paper, plastic (highlighted green). How does this root the poem in a specific context? Does this contribute to the narrative of the poem?
- What do you make of the phrase ‘undiluted with history’? How might this relate to the themes of ‘Brown Girl’?
- Finally, think about the voice of the different poems. How does the second-person address of ‘second-generation’ compare to the first person of ‘Whitewash’? Also think about how this compares to the voice in Indigo Mudbhary’s poem.
All the poems featured in this resource were written by poets aged 11-17. If you’re aged 11-17 and you’ve been inspired by these poems, consider entering this year’s Foyle Young Poets of the Year Award. Visit foyleyoungpoets.org to submit your poems.