I have carved out my own space and found a community that doesn’t need to ask me if i’m ok
if my Black were to be haloed by one truth
it would glow James Baldwin gold
“The place in which I’ll fit will not exist until I make it”
I have been carving out space for myself for as long as I can remember. As an energetic and dreamy little Black girl, I took pride in making my spaces resemble whatever I needed “safe” to be at the time. Whether that meant sticking glow-in-the-dark stars on everything I owned, or draping my closet hideaway in Hoyoo’s scarves, I was constantly finessing my way into comfort. Now, as a multidisciplinary artist and activist I share and exchange this survival tactic with anyone who needs it. Curation and creation have been the means through which I define home and myself. It makes interacting with the idea of nationalism a lot more autonomous and fluid. The journey, however, has not always been so empowering.
In 2007, at the age of 12, I made the move from Ontario to Alberta. It was a reluctant move on my part and I was bitter for at least a handful of years after that. Edmonton was white. Very, very white. My new school was also very, very white. And wealthy. Everything the government subsidized, like the brown and Black community I grew up in, wasn’t. It frustrated me how little that whiteness (although I didn’t know that’s what it was at the time) was felt and, if not felt, acknowledged. I was frustrated with how different I suddenly was and immediately began to turn myself inside out. I changed my hair, my clothes, the music I listened to, the way I spoke. I did what I thought I needed to do in order to fit. But all that started to shift when I got involved in leadership and the arts. I was back in my power and slowly reconnecting with my ability to make home out of nothing.
High school, however, set that back. My mom remarried to a man who required we wear the hijab. I began dancing competitively (in a hijab). I was in a relationship with someone who preyed on my insecurities and I was emotionally invested in all my friends’ issues. I was performing a lot and gaining popularity in school but had only a few people who knew who I really was. I was filling journals with things I had no space for during the day. I was worried my God and my family would disown me if I followed my dreams. I was crushingly bored and I was starving myself creatively, mentally and physically. The artistic spaces I thought I could see myself in saw me as an anomaly. I didn’t believe anyone could hold all of it, so I let my journal bear the weight. And for the first time, it felt like I couldn’t create a space in which I fit. So I left. In my Grade 12 year I was pulled out of all of my classes except fourth-period drama, which I would frequent a few times a week. I had developed a thyroid/throat chakra problem that heavily affected my depression and anxiety. Now, as I study the spiritual reasons for disease I understand what was happening; I had quite literally stifled my voice.
I was able to graduate with my class but attended a continuing school for the remainder of my credits; this is where my relationship to education shifted. The teachers at this school were creative and energetic and deeply committed to engaging their students. They had to be. They were working with students who came from traumatic and complicated backgrounds, students who had their innate intelligence devalued by a structure that worships production over ingenuity. They saw through my self-sabotaging behaviour and acknowledged the girl who needed to trust herself. The girl who needed to speak. Cue the beginning of my wavering tolerance for Edmonton, Alberta.
After graduating, I took a year off and weighed my options for school. My mother realized my mental health was largely contingent on whether or not I was creating, and supported me in auditioning for the musical theatre program at MacEwan University, where I learned about Edmonton’s thriving theatre community. I was in a class of artists with varying relationships to theatre and creativity but quickly realized I was still an anomaly. The only Black person in my program and one of three or four Black people in the whole arts campus. Not only that, the majority of the shows I was going to see rarely had a person of colour contributing to any part of the creative process. I began to realize that my education was going to have to serve me differently from the majority of my classmates.
This institution had no room for my Blackness. And the world was making it very clear that it did not either.
THEN THERE WAS MICHAEL BROWN, AN UNARMED Black teenager. In 2014, when I heard that a grand jury announced it wouldn’t charge the man who killed him, I spent an entire vocal performance class waiting for my opportunity to collapse in private. I remember only just making it to my locker before letting out a cry that disturbed the rehearsal next door. My chest collapsed into itself after the first “Are you OK?” The weight of having to explain the unexplainable was a loneliness I wished on no one. So I left.
i ask the country that thinks it gave me my magic
a few questions about government housing
and immigration paperwork
and entry-level jobs
that define entry based on how it’s pronounced
i ask why it thinks that because i am fed
i am whole
OR ALMOST LEFT.
The only reasons I stayed being the Breath In Poetry collective and two educators who understood what I could do outside an institution. I came back for a second year, but only after establishing a home for my Blackness on BIP’s tiny open-mic stage. Every Tuesday at 9 p.m., I practiced speaking my truth, wrapping my innermost frustrations and dreams of love in a voice that I always knew was mine.
my mother is whole
in a way that I am too privileged to understand
my hunger is not her hunger
my poverty; a belly half full
my freedom; an overstep
a challenge to her sacrifice
when i am loud and in the streets
asking for more
(truly, i am just asking for enough)
ON THAT STAGE I WAS BLACK. AND A WOMAN. AND Muslim. And eventually, on that stage, I was queer. It was undeniable, and equally important and crucial not only to my existence but to anyone who was working to turn their quiver into a bellow. I wanted to live on that stage. So I stayed.
I found the people that wanted to hear me scream about injustice and joy. I found the spaces that didn’t look like me but wanted to. I found an Edmonton that doesn’t need to ask me if I’m OK, but instead ensures that I am. I built a family of weirdos who were passionate about excavating the truth by any means necessary. I found my mirrors. And I knew that it was my job to ensure artists of colour found their mirrors as well.
i remind her that i protest in honour
of the sea and the people braving its depth
each day i sweep up the language and forgotten children
from its murky bottom
and i mourn
SO I BEGAN TO VISIT THE PLACES WHERE PEOPLE HAD been masterfully creating the spaces in which they fit. That’s when I began to carve a little Nasra-shaped hole in New York City. Immersing myself in its history of Black and Brown artistic resistance gave me the juice I needed to reshape what we knew as an artistic community in Edmonton. I overwhelmed myself with questions. What does it mean to be inclusive? Who holds the keys to truly healing in our communities? Who’s actually committed to that work? How far back do we start? What does it mean to Indigenize versus Decolonize? If the art is what we have claimed as our identity, what is the art saying? And who is saying it?
i dig and dig inside the well of me for more water
(empathy needs more human homes)
and i swim in its depth and history
let it almost drown me
so i may cherish the breath that comes
if it comes
WITH THE INCREDIBLE MASTURBATORY DISPLAY of Canada 150 nationalism approaching, I knew it was time for everyone in this country to get shaken up and educated. Watching millions of dollars pour into the celebration of a nation founded on the near-genocide of Indigenous peoples, while the effects of these genocidal acts still traumatize their descendants, made me question the true nature of Canada’s relationship to reconciliation. One hundred and fifty years of colonization does not deserve my breath. The liberation of Brown and Black and Queer artists and people of this country does. We deserve to redefine, reimagine and rebuild this notion of home for ourselves. Which is what this country and this world is ultimately trying to do.
because i speak the shiny language
and because my skin has no visible holes
and because i write poems for work
and because I know I am the Dream of so many
THE TROUBLE COMES WHEN OUR ATTEMPTS TO create the spaces in which we fit infringe on others. Borders and binaries have limited our capacity for empathy and compassion. We have become obsessed with protecting ideals that have never served us, simply because we are afraid of change and growth. We are the ones taking from ourselves unjustly every time we reduce each other to a nation, a language, and an arbitrary set of values. This colonial construct that goes against our innate capacity for co-existence has been solidified in our conditioning as producers, winners and conquerors. We have created so much distance between each other that the discomfort of interacting with anything, either intimate or alien, keeps us from building true understanding. And in turn, from building true love and community. That’s where our strength lies: in places where people understand you, or are working to understand you. My commitment to spaces where people prioritize this truth is nuanced, and living a beautifully layered human existence is how I unlearn harmful, limiting conditioning. I acknowledge and honour who I truly am by acknowledging and honouring the truth of who others are.
i remind my body it is its own nation
i remind my art it is its own home
AND AS I CONTINUE TO CURATE SHOWS, FESTIVALS and communal spaces I keep this crucial fact in mind; the place in which I fit is the space where love exists. Canada, Edmonton, New York, my bedroom, the stage; as long as we are speaking and as long as we are excavating truth, we are home.
and it all fits
and exists the way a universe does
Black and ever reaching
This Country Thinks it Gave Me My Magic by Nasra Adem originally ran in the Canada150 issue of Eighteen Bridges magazine, which was a special collection of essays commissioned for Edmonton Community Foundation’s (ECF) High Level Lit project — a partnership between ECF, Eighteen Bridges, and LitFest. The published collection of these essays was awarded Best Editorial Package of the Year at the 2017 Alberta Magazine Publishers Association Awards and was instrumental in Eighteen Bridges being named Magazine of the Year at those same awards. The project was also nominated for two National Magazine Awards, including Omar Mouallem’s essay Homeland for the Holidays, which won gold in the Personal Journalism category. To mark Canada’s 151st anniversary of Confederation, ECF is making digital versions of these stories available to the public.