Home Is Not a Country

Home Is Not a Country

by Safia Elhillo

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Overview

Notes From Your Bookseller

This beautiful novel in verse follows Nima, a Muslim American teenager who feels like an outsider in every aspect of her life. Vivid language captures Nima’s feelings in an authentic and meaningful way, and elements of magical realism make this book a true standout.

A mesmerizing novel in verse about family, identity, and finding yourself in the most unexpected places—for fans of The Poet X, I Am Not Your Perfect Mexican Daughter, and Jason Reynolds.

Nima doesn't feel understood. By her mother, who grew up far away in a different land. By her suburban town, which makes her feel too much like an outsider to fit in and not enough like an outsider to feel like that she belongs somewhere else. At least she has her childhood friend Haitham, with whom she can let her guard down and be herself. Until she doesn't.

As the ground is pulled out from under her, Nima must grapple with the phantom of a life not chosen, the name her parents didn't give her at birth: Yasmeen. But that other name, that other girl, might just be more real than Nima knows. And more hungry. And the life Nima has, the one she keeps wishing were someone else's...she might have to fight for it with a fierceness she never knew she had.

"Nothing short of magic.... One of the best writers of our times." —Elizabeth Acevedo, New York Times bestselling author of The Poet X


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Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780593177082
Publisher: Random House Children's Books
Publication date: 03/01/2022
Pages: 224
Sales rank: 1,007,734
Product dimensions: 5.50(w) x 8.25(h) x 0.44(d)
Lexile: NP (what's this?)
Age Range: 12 - 17 Years

About the Author

Safia Elhillo is the author of the poetry collection The January Children, which received the the 2016 Sillerman First Book Prize for African Poets and a 2018 Arab American Book Award.

Sudanese by way of Washington, DC, she holds an MFA from The New School, a Cave Canem Fellowship, and a 2018 Ruth Lilly and Dorothy Sargent Rosenberg Fellowship from the Poetry Foundation. Safia is a Pushcart Prize nominee, co-winner of the 2015 Brunel International African Poetry Prize, and listed in Forbes Africa's 2018 "30 Under 30." She is a 2019-2021 Stegner Fellow at Stanford University.

Read an Excerpt

The Airport 

once when i was small  we packed a shared suitcase

of bright cotton  floral prints  & something yellow 

& silken i’d never seen my mother wear 

& for the trip across the country she wore perfume 

& her best red beaded scarf  & we clattered 

into the terminal  my mother  collecting all the light
 

a wedding on another coast  its promises 

of sunlight & gold  & her scattered schoolmates 

& cousins & faraway friends  all crowded 

into a rented hall  making it  with color 

& incense & song  our country 

& it all shone in my mother’s face

  

we approached the counter to check in  the family 

ahead of ours handed their boarding passes with a grin 

before the agent turned to us & his smile clicked shut 

said  check-in is closed  & no 

there is nothing he can do 

& no there is no manager to call & please can we leave 

this counter is now closed

  

my mother’s faltering voice  the soft music in her english 

her welling eyes  her wilting face  her beaded scarf 

& all she said was please  please  i have a ticket 

& i’d never seen her so small  english fleeing her mouth 

& leaving her faltering  frozen  reaching for words 

that would not come  dabbing at her eyes 

with the scarf  its red so bright  so festive 

like it was mocking us

 

& all i could do was reach  for the suitcase with one hand 

her limp arm with the other  & wheel us to the exit 

& in our slow retreat i heard the last snatches 

of that man’s joke  his colleague’s barking laugh 

no way we’re letting 

mohammed so-and-so near the plane 

& that’s why we don’t go anywhere  anymore

  

Mama

 

my mother is so often sad  so often tired & wants mostly 

to sit quietly in front of the television  where we watch 

turkish soap operas dubbed over in arabic   

their sweeping landscapes & enormous romances 

until she falls asleep 

chin pointed into her chest & glasses askew

 

on bright days she plays music  pitches her voice high 

& sings along to all the ones we love  abdel halim 

& wardi & fairouz  sayed khalifa & oum kalthoum 

gisma’s open throaty voice & frantic percussion 

to which mama claps along  tries sometimes to teach me 

the dances  the body formed like a pigeon’s 

the chest arced proudly upward  head twisting helixes 

against the neck  in a surprise to no one i cannot dance 

but love to watch her  love that she tries anyway 

to teach me 

& sometimes  rarely  by some magic  the movement 

will click fluently into my body  & she’ll ululate & clap 

while i twist my head in time to the song  mama’s voice 

celebratory & trilling  my nima  my graceful girl

 

Haitham

 

is smaller than me  three weeks younger & always 

a little disheveled  always dressed in something that 

someone else wore first  & laughs 

the most enormous sound

 

haitham passes me a drawing  during arabic class 

full-color cartoon on the back of a worksheet 

of our horrible teacher  spit flying from his 

large mouth  with a speech bubble that reads 

WE ARE NOT AMERRICANS! YOU SPEAK 

ZE ARRABIC!  eyes bulging & his bald patch 

glistening in the light

 

i press my fist over my mouth to keep the laugh inside 

& it builds until i think my eyeballs might burst 

until the sound threatens to come pouring from my 

ears  from my nose  until my face is wet 

with tears

  

& haitham swipes the drawing  crumples it 

into his notebook  right as the teacher turns 

& thunders over  spits a little while asking 

what on earth  (the only way teachers are allowed 

to say the hell)  what on earth is wrong with me 

i only manage to choke out    allergies 

& haitham  from the row behind  offers me 

a tissue with a grin

 

Pyramids

 

once  in arabic class  excited that the new girl’s name 

luul  reminded me of the song i love  the pearl necklace

 

i sang a little of it when she introduced herself 

& watched her smile falter  confused  before she finally

 

excused herself  & by the end of the day everyone 

was giggling  nima loves old people’s music  pass it on

 

so even here among my so-called people i do not fit 

here where the hierarchy puts those who have successfully

  

americanized  at the top  i’ve marked myself by caring 

about the old world  & now i hover somewhere

 

at the bottom of the pyramid  (while our arabic teacher drones about ancient times  & the little-known fact

 

that our country has 255 pyramids remaining today) 

the bottom of the pyramid with those recently arrived

  

dusty-shoed & heavy-tongued  & though i’m born here 

though my love of the old songs & old photos

  

doesn’t translate to my spelling  my handwriting 

my arabic pronunciation  or grammar  or history 

or memorization of the qur’an  i recognize 

in their widened eyes  that feeling  that shock

 

of being here instead of there

 

Haitham

 

lives in my building  which isn’t actually surprising 

since it seems everyone from our country immigrated 

to this same block of crowded apartments 

 

it’s saturday morning & he’s ringing the doorbell 

frantic    & falls inside when i answer 

sweaty & rumpled & still in his house shoes  coughing

with a little joke in his eye

 

his grandmother opening his t-shirt drawer to put away 

the laundry  found his secret pack of cigarettes  which 

he doesn’t even really smoke  which he tried to explain 

away  while dodging the slippers aimed at his head 

who knew mama fatheya was so athletic 

everything always so funny to him 

she chased him out with cries of 

DISKUSTING!  DISKUSTING!  & where else 

was he going to go

 

my mother hasn’t left yet for work  & makes us tea 

boiled in milk  poured into mismatched mugs 

& hands us packs of captain majid cookies she gets 

from the bigala that haitham & i call  ethnic wal-mart 

where we buy everything  from bleeding legs of lamb 

to patterned pillow covers  & cassettes 

covered in a layer of dust

 

she never seems old enough to be anyone’s mother 

so pretty & unlined & smelling always of flowers 

she clears the cups & wipes the crumbs from the table 

& our faces in quick movements  pins her scarf 

around her face & leaves for work

 

haitham isn’t wearing shoes so we cannot go outside 

we instead spend the day playing our favorite game 

calling all our people’s typical names out the window 

into the courtyard mohammed! fatimah! ali bedour! 

to see how many strangers startle  & look up 

when they are called

 

Haitham

 

haitham’s grandmother once asked us  suspicious 

what do you two do all day?  & by the middle of the list 

had already turned her eyes back to the television 

as haitham continued to list our every microscopic act 

music videos  snacks  monopoly 

even though half the cards are missing  five-dollar tuesdays 

at the movie theater after school 

concan even though nima thinks i cheat 

& we don’t really know the rules 

& in truth i do not know what we really do 

with our time together 

because it’s always been like this 

my every day is filled with haitham 

his laughter pulling my own to join it 

our nonsense jokes & riffs 

& misremembered lyrics & laughing & more laughing 

i see him every day & somehow still have so much to tell him 

every time one of us rings the doorbell to the other’s apartment 

& crosses the threshold  already beginning whatever story 

already unfolding whatever thought  & he’s never 

joined the other kids in making fun 

of all my strangeness  makes it feel instead 

like a good thing

even when he calls me the nostalgia monster 

he makes it sound like a compliment 

full of affection & pure joy  has never 

made me feel that there is anything wrong with me at all

 

An Illness

 

through the bathroom door i hear haitham singing loudly 

in the shower  stretching each note with a flourish

 

i perch next to mama fatheya on the couch 

while she watches  intent

 

as a woman on the television pulls a glistening chicken 

from the oven  i am so bored  & haitham

 

is taking his time  the mantel above the television 

is crowded with photographs

 

haitham’s mother  khaltu hala  younger & first arrived 

her hair cut short & eyes haunted

  

haitham a bundle in her arms  mama fatheya, 

tell me about back home  she glances up from

  

her program  irritated at first & then softening 

nostalgia is an illness, little one  she says gently

  

turning back to the television  but continues 

ours is a culture that worships yesterday over tomorrow

  

but i think we are all lucky to have left yesterday 

behind  we are here now

  

dissatisfied  i press on  wait, you actually 

like it here?  & she faces me again  a sadness hitched

  

behind her eyes  here i have lost nothing i could not 

afford to lose

 

just as haitham squawks the last notes to his song 

& shuts off the shower  i look at the lost country

 

in mama fatheya’s face  & recognize it 

from my own mother’s face  the face of every grown-up

 

in our community  a country i’ve never seen 

outside a photograph

  

& i miss it too

 

Haitham

 

always laughing & pulling laughter from anyone he meets 

has interests that keep him here instead of dreaming 

of a lost world  for a while he tried to get me 

to play video games  but i could not make myself care 

& now i mostly sit on the plastic-covered couch 

& watch him play while i daydream  & when he’s done 

or tired of losing  he’ll put on one of the old movies 

from the box under his grandmother’s bed  though by now 

we’ve watched them all dozens of times  we each 

pick a favorite character & recite all the dialogue 

long since memorized  & squawk off-key 

to all the songs  though secretly we are each belting 

them out in earnest

 

i think that  secretly  he loves 

this old world almost as much as i do

 

Khaltu Hala

 

haitham’s mother  her hair cut close around her ears 

though in the old pictures she wore it long  puffed out 

around her shoulders  curls halfway down her back

 

i like her  her gruffness & briskness & her short bark 

of a laugh  the books shelved floor to ceiling 

in the little apartment  each one of them hers 

traced for years by her fingers until the ink 

began to gray  the way she coaxes a smile 

from my mother  & clears the shadow from her face 

the way she growls out every letter of my name 

in approval  how i can’t imagine her ever afraid 

though when she is home we don’t watch the old films 

or sing the old songs or ask too many questions

  

my mother never talks about it except the one time 

after khaltu hala heard me humming the song 

about the pearl necklace  &  eyes bulging 

voice hoarse  told me to leave  & go home 

knocking gently on our door hours later 

a little pearl ring passed from her hand to mine 

her embrace bright with the smell of oranges & soap 

apology muffled by my sweatshirt’s thick fabric

  

that night  my mother  voice hushed  told me 

about the officers that cut khaltu hala’s hair  the long scars 

striped down her back  the thousand things 

she will not talk about  in hopes of erasing 

that whole country  & starting again here 

brand-new  & i almost wish she hadn’t told me 

& for weeks after i did not want to listen 

to the songs  & every photograph looked sharper & ugly 

& gave off the faintest smell of copper  of blood 

& now i mostly try to forget the story  & return to loving 

the dream of home  & the pearl never leaves my finger

 

Mama

 

though the story about khaltu hala hurts  i do not 

want my mother to stop telling stories  she who

 

so rarely tells anything at all  i ask 

about my grandmother  loved flowers  about

  

my mother as a young girl  i wanted to be 

a dancer  & when i ask about my name

  

she frowns a little  squinting as she chooses 

the words  i had a whole other name picked out,

 

did you know?    but when your father died 

i don’t know  it felt like that name belonged to him 

 

& i couldn’t bear to keep it without him   so i picked 

something else  & i feel that old pang  of being

 

second-best  to that other girl  my ghost-self 

     yasmeen

 

Overheard

 

my mother has guests over & i am hiding in my room 

humming to myself & looking through my tin box 

of artifacts  the photographs again  my mother as 

a painted bride  my parents dancing  i put the pictures 

away  the cassettes  & hear my mother calling me 

to greet her guests  hello  fine thank you 

i’m almost fifteen  school’s fine 

arabic’s fine  alhamdulillah  you too 

& i duck back into hiding

 

& i hear khaltu amal with the tattooed eyebrows 

who is not actually my aunt & who always smells like ghee 

purring to my mother  she could be such a pretty girl 

& my mother mourning my unkemptness  sometimes 

she won’t even brush her hair  & i don’t know why 

she insists on wearing that sweatshirt all the time 

i have to pry it away to wash  & khaltu amal again 

her cloying voice  remember when we were girls? 

the daughters we imagined we’d have?  & i hate her 

& her pink-gray face  her still-brown neck she hasn’t 

bothered to bleach to match  i hate her armful 

of clattering bangles  the way she touches my mother’s 

arm & pretends to be her friend  the way she wrinkles 

her nose whenever she enters our apartment  her own 

apartment large & expensive but filled with awful gaudy 

objects  i giggle a little to myself at the memory of haitham 

saying to her  straight-faced 

aunt amal, would you agree that money can’t buy 

taste?  though my laugh dies as i hear her continue 

to mama  remember the girl you wanted to name 

yasmeen?  with yellow ribbons braided into her hair 

such a pretty name  i never understood 

why you chose the other

 

& in the mirror i try to unknot the hair tangled at my neck 

& of course there’s no point  i give up & stare 

into my blurring reflection  my body filled 

with strange static  & see only a smudge where my nose 

& mouth should be  only the eyes 

large & blinking & intact  & when i blink again it’s back 

the same unremarkable face

 

Mama

 

of course i know my mother is lonely 

her days & nights spent mostly in the company 

of ghosts  so much of who & what she’s loved 

she speaks of only in past tense  though mostly 

she keeps quiet  i can’t help but imagine 

that her life was enormous before we came here 

loud & crowded & lively as any party 

& then the final notes of the song  & everyone 

is gone  except me  & i feel my own smallness 

as i try to fill her life’s empty spaces 

though they gape around me like the one pair 

of her high-heeled shoes i used to love 

to play with when i was little  so much of our life 

feels like sitting at a table set for dozens 

who will never again arrive  the two of us surrounded 

by empty chairs  my mother is lonely 

& i am her daughter her only i think that might be why 

i’m lonely too 

The Photographs 

the photographs are how i piece together 

my imagining of my mother’s first life 

when she was aisha  life of the party 

a girl in a yellow dress who was going 

to be a dancer  loved & laughing 

& never lonely  a whole life stretched 

before her in the company of friends 

& family & the man she chose 

who chooses her & knows all 

her favorite songs  who watches her 

with awe  & never dies  his life 

braided tightly to the long bright ribbon of hers

 

i don’t think she even knows i have them 

these pictures  i’ve had them for years 

in the box i keep under my bed 

& she’s never noticed  because she never 

asks for them  because she hasn’t looked 

at them in years

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