Review~ Revisiting Home: Language and Identity in Akosua Zimba Afiriyie-Hwedie’s ‘Born in a Second Language’

AiW Guest Victor Zuze.

Akosua Zimba Afiriyie-Hwedie’s chapbook, Born in a Second Language (Button Poetry, July 2021), proves to be rich and complete. This owes to her storytelling prowess. She does not waste words. Her lines are suffused with striking imagery as she playfully mixes shape, lyric, and prose poems to show how language is interwoven into ideas about home, culture, relationships, and identity. 

‘For Those of You Who Are Home, Welcome’, for example, introduces us to Afiriyie-Hwedie’s world: 

In the Botswana
of this world, past the Western bypass,
past the immigration building, past the next
traffic light, there is a house. On the third shelf
of the display case in the living room is a picture
of me in primary school uniform with pigtails
and a bunny-toothed smile that need
not do anything but keep smiling. (p.25)

This is a world in which the meanings of home — what it means to be at home, and how one identifies oneself when traveling through space and time — are recurrent. 

In the opening poem, ‘For Those for Whom This Need Not Be Translated’, the poet-persona shows how being between languages is problematic. Language is highlighted as an aspect of culture, and people identify themselves with and through their culture. And yet “[she] is three languages short of knowing [herself]”. Since she was “born because of English // [she has] voice but no culture”. She is more conversant with English than with her native languages, hence the question: “how come this body does not recognize its own tongue?” (p.1)

To identify with herself, she has to revisit home, for a person’s complete sense of self is only realised through some connectedness with their homeland: not only do you carry home with you, Born in a Second Language tells us how you have to — and Afiriyie-Hwedie’s collection does this in several ways.

She captures memories of home in different ‘languages’, firstly, through the music of Brenda Fassie. In ‘Brenda Fassie Wakes the Dead’, where she has “crossed the ocean to another man’s country”, she portrays her homesickness – as in “Provenance” – remedying it through music from her homeland: 

“This was the music before I left.” (p.2)

Similar reminiscence is revealed in ‘If I Play Brenda Fassie Now’ where Brenda, likened to her home, “[is a] dead woman [she has] been holding onto since [she, Brenda, was] alive” (p.19). 

In ‘For Those of You Who Are Home, Welcome’, the poet-persona remembers and identifies with Brenda’s music as “the music of [her] generation”, along with Oliver Mtukudzi’s music, which she refers to when she says “Mtukudzi and our parents’ music” (p.25). 

In ‘Mama I’ve learnt a lesson’, she endeavours to stay fixated on her Sunday gospel music routine, “the way the day meant it to be”, but Brenda’s music distracts her:

“she force feeds [her] spoonfuls and spoonfuls [of her music] …like [her] mother would serving porridge like Brenda making for [her] a mother” (p.34).

It is through Brenda’s music that she mostly remembers home and feels connected to it. As she sings, “the music makes the day not the other way around” (p.34).

Secondly, the poet-persona remembers home through her mother tongue. In Born in a Second Language, identity is altered through translation. Alternative meanings for words are given not only to understand language better but also to recapture an identity that is fading due to travels.  For instance, in ‘Setswana Lesson’, she translates a Setswana greeting and its response:

Le kae? means how are you?
Also translates to where are you?
I am here Ke teng
Home is there… (p.16)

Although her physical home is far, she carries it with her in her mother’s language; by the end of the poem, “home is what I know // what I am // I am here”. 

The image of the poet-persona’s mother also recalls the idea of home strongly in some of the poems. In the narrative poem ‘What my hands have learned’, the speaker is a third culture kid who must learn to answer English questions. When first asked “Where are you from?” as if “English could unscramble Africa”, she is bereft of speech so she answers by “pointing to [her] house…looking for [her] mother.” (p.9) 

Afiriyie-Hwedie’s persona also explores her body to establish a sense of home and belonging. Just as she says, “home is…what [she is]” in ‘Setswana lesson’, she also marks herself as a place – her home – and personifies Botswana in ‘I beg Botswana back’. She admits that she is the one who “designed [their] separation”, and regrets having done so when she says,

I whispered my hand against your border,
pushed you away,
it’s better to sever the neck on my own terms. (p.11)

 She wants to return to who she was so she asks Botswana to “come // into [her] belly, // into [her] womb // where [they] can recognize each other.” 

This speaker is also compelled to recall particular names; she does not forget to mention Botswana, Zambia, and Ghana in ‘I Know a Place Where I Can Spread Myself Out and Be Enough to Fill a Room’, ‘What My Hands Have Learned’, ‘Long Distance’, ‘It Goes Without Saying’, ‘I Beg Botswana Back’, and ‘Provenance’. These places are all home, and so by repeatedly mentioning them, she reminds us of her origins and therefore of her identity.

The idea that home can also exist in people’s names is aptly expressed in ‘Call Me by My Name’, which is the last, and my favourite, poem in the collection:

A man is called into his name

each time it is spoken.
Or a man becomes more of himself

each time he is called by his name. (p.36)

 The tightly crafted poem closes with: 

I learn

naming is how one becomes a self.
I know calling makes one return. (p.36)

Throughout, by displaying – in several ways – how one can revisit home through memories, Afiriyie-Hwedie calls upon readers, especially those experiencing multiple forms of exile, to be conscious of their identity and self. 

Born in a Second Language – written by and from the perspective of a person trapped between several languages and identities – falls under diasporic literature as it explores the experiences of those who leave home in one way or another; yet the collection suggests, as alluded to earlier, that a person’s complete sense of self, coming to and being at home, is only attained through a close connectedness with their motherland. This is one book you will probably read multiple times and still, each time, discover something new.

Akosua Zimba Afiriyie-Hwedie is a Zambian-Ghanaian poet who grew up in Botswana. She holds an MFA in poetry from the University of Michigan. Born in a Second Language won Button Poetry’s 2019 Chapbook Contest. She is currently working on her first poetry collection. Her work has appeared or is forthcoming in Palette Poetry, PANK, Kweli, Obsidian, Wildness and elsewhere.

Website | Instagram @afrokanomics | Twitter @akosuaZah

Victor Zuze is a writer, mostly writing poetry, from Blantyre, Malawi. He graduated from the University of Malawi with a  Bachelor’s Degree in Education (Languages) and currently works as a Secondary School Teacher of Languages under the Malawi Teaching Service Commission. He shares his work on Instagram, Twitter and Facebook – @TyphusBars.

Born in a Second Language is published by Button Poetry.

“As if somehow my open / mouth and this day’s English could unscramble Africa / and rejoin what was cut,” Afiriyie-Hwedie reminds us of one of the many labors of writing in English: the paradoxical hope that the language that makes you then breaks you over and over will yield itself long enough to build you. Holding trust and distrust in a singular pen stroke, she gives us words that welcome us home despite the persistent threat of refusal. She builds. And is building….

– Marwa Helal, author of Invasive Species

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1 reply

  1. I have enjoyed reading this review. I am so looking forward to grab a copy of the colllection in the near future. 👏

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