CATRIONA KNAPMAN is a Scottish writer and human rights worker. Originally from Glasgow she has lived in eight countries in four continents over the past ten years. She currently works on land and women’s rights in Burma/Myanmar where she has been based since 2012. Her writing has been published in Magma, Guernica, Poetry Scotland, Kweli, Tiferet and The Myanmar Times, among others. She has performed at Open Mic and poetry/music events in Yangon and around the world. ‘Out On The World’, her first solo spoken word show, is part of the Edinburgh PBH Fringe. See more at: https://www.facebook.com/events/619207094909493/ and at:www.luckydiplife.com.
Out On The World will be at Opium Bar on the Cowgate, Edinburgh at 16.15 from the 6-16 August 2016
In Nicaragua I lived in a small town in the mountains called Estelí. Estelí is situated on the PanAmerican Highway. To get anywhere from Estelí you need to ride that road – up further into the mountains, towards Honduras, or downwards, past rice fields and into increasingly hotter temperatures, to the capital Managua. The route to Managua was my favourite as the countryside changed as we drove down the slopes of the mountains. Repeated, small objects became markers of progress – the fallen tree, a particularly steep bend in the road, a small Virgin Mary statue, the rock which looks like a lizard.
I would often drive with Don Silvio, our project driver. A driver for the past twenty years, before that he was a commandante in the Sandinista revolutionary army and is forever devoted to the Sandinista party leader – President Ortega.
As we drove through the Nicaraguan mountains Don Silvio would teach me the art of dating Nicaraguan style, of which he considered himself a master. ‘You need a lover in all the different towns you visit. So if one does not treat you well, you can get in your car and go to the next one’. He was a disgruntled teacher, never satisfied with my love life.
Who wouldn’t say yes to drive the President’s Mercedes?
North from Managua, yes,
South from Managua, yes. A smooth drive.
If the President didn’t snore in the back seat
it might seem yours this Mercedes.
Maybe yes. Maybe no.
You have seen the whole country. Yes.
Bad roads, a stretch of new carreterra. In each town you
have a different mujer,
exotic or plain, gorda or guapa,
she offers you local ways. Yes.
In Jinotega, she is hollow, a black clay jug.
In Tipitapa she bites for a ride: dámelo.
In Matagalpa she is painted like a bow,
her mouth shaped like a ‘no’.
¿Cuándo estaremos solos?
She wants to know.
In San Juan, she sits like a hammered nail.
Beckoned with eyebrows,
you pour your own coffee, roll a cold tortilla.
Wait for her to ask, in her hard voice:
¿y este Presidente?
All of them ask for the future
thinking yes, knowing no. You
say yes. No. Meaning: no!
At the side of the road the poor women cry: when will we live?
and you think: ahora! pressing too hard on the pedal,
maybe yes, maybe no.
Mostly it is waiting by your own door, the street going past three times, maybe four,
the kitchen going
hot and cold. Your wife, half-turned, half-folded,
your child, half-wasted, half-promised.
If you were asked: what way would you have it?
You would laugh, like it is a game. ¿Quién sabe, verdad?
you would say, a whole caramel in your mouth.
Another real woman, another empty bottle,
I was in Revolución, if God want, I live.
the tossed keys already in your hand. A low laugh.
Yes, to everything. No, to everything else.
Then: Mi amor, I go!
carreterra – motorway; mujer – woman; gorda – fat; guapa – beautiful; dámelo – give me it; ¿Cuándo estaremos solos?– when will you be alone?; ¿y este Presidente? – and this President!; ahora! – now!; ¿Quién sabe, verdad? – Who knows, right?; Mi amor – my love
Egypt was still in revolution when I arrived a year after the event. Protests and tear gas. For my work I spent a lot of time writing about the gender dimension of the changes – the way women were included, or mostly not included, in the new Egypt forming before our eyes.
For one piece of research I came across the literacy rates in North Africa. Over 30% of women in Egypt have not learned to read and write and this figure is much higher in other parts of North and Sub-Saharan Africa. The literacy rates are significantly higher for men. I thought about all of the women whose written words we will never know, as they had not had the opportunity to learn to read and write. I began to wonder whether, among these women, there were poets destined to become the next winner of the Nobel Prize for Literature, who, unable to express themselves in writing, had found other ways to become poets.
The World’s Greatest Poets
Amongst the shisha-smoking, camel-riding
women of the Sahara live the world’s greatest poets.
Their days shape in sound, not in ink.
Language grows in sand, in calm weather, a storm.
In the red desert morning these women milk lyrics
from the unwilling udders of goats.
Poems are whispered in the pouring of their breakfast tea.
The soft kisses of their sons and daughters dissolve into verse.
These women feel the caress of a sonnet
as they make love to their husbands, who
hold their wives’ smooth bodies like
romance novels, they cannot read.
The women silence their children so that ghazals may
slip into the kitchen undisturbed.
So that they may rise with the bread, curdle with the milk,
Poems are called in on the dusk, are carried
by the wind to the next valley, where another woman
catches the words on an open door,
welcomes them into her home.
Myanmar (also known as Burma) was also going through a time of great change when I arrived in 2012. After almost 50 years of being a closed country under the control of a military dictatorship the borders of the country were slowly opening, freedom of speech was possible without punishment and the first democratic election was planned. However, unrest was still present in civil war and religious violence between Buddhists and Muslims.
There was an uncertainty in everyone as we went about work, unsure what we could do or say without repercussions and always speculating whether the country was really changing. We were told about change more than we saw it. The changes were most obvious first in increased Yangon traffic and a few new shopping malls. During this first year Myanmar was a lonely place, full of smiling people, who I couldn’t understand.
This is the land where the bottle collectors call
like they are asking for the bodies of your loved ones.
The rain has come and with it wind
that carries birds in wide circles around our homes.
They remove the scaffolding from the pagoda, so its mosaic mirrors reflect the storm.
Reflection breaks us into the small pieces of ourselves.
Hatred grows in strange ways and will
not be scraped away
like mould at the end of the rainy season.
This is the land of closed doors and arm-crossed observers.
Sometimes a feeling like fear,
which hangs overcast like the clouds.
It rains so suddenly.
I am not like that. This is not like that.
This is the land of the legends of trees which once perched on hills.
Hate lingers like a storm.
I long to scream like the rain, to know someone,
who like the sun,
will breathe those words away.
This is the land of the careful myth. Rain falls, cars go the wrong way.
Every part of me is pulled over like traffic.
We are moving they say, but still there is not the feeling of movement.
This is the land of embargo.
Here, I learn to make loneliness my friend. To accept pain
as abstract. Longing for change.
This is the land of the stirring spoons,
where the sun appears only in the evening, to shine
gold light over the flooded streets.
This is the land of the stranger’s smile. You are happy to see me.
We are people who see each other. People who see each other
though these slippery streets and wordless curbs.
We are people who drip
into this country,
spilling ourselves over its cities, hoping
never to be mopped up.
Out On The World will be at Opium Bar on the Cowgate, Edinburgh at 16.15 from the 6-16 August.
- ‘The Ex-Revolutionary’ was published by Magma, Issue 60 – The Freedom Issue.
- ‘Spilt Tea’ was publised in The Myanmar Times, September 2013.