Her work became fiction — in verse. The Good Braider is told in short, free-verse poems, each of them its own vignette or mini-chapter. Farish was attracted to "the way [poetry] captured the very unemotional, spare way that people I knew from Sudan talked about their lives. There's no nonsense, there's no sentimentality, and I tried to capture that in the voice that Viola spoke in. There's not a lot of extra words."
Consider this interaction between Viola and her grandmother, Habuba, who is braiding her hair — an ever-present ritual that comes to stand in for Viola's identification as African as well as for her womanhood, and her attempt to weave together different identities.
" 'You have things to do,' " Habuba tells her while twisting gold-colored strips of rag into her hair.
'God gave you long legs
for walking and running.'
She turns me and runs her callused hand
Down my legs to my rubber flip-flops
and the tall arch of my big feet.
'You are a daughter with a quick mind
who learns fast from experience.
You'll learn a tongue gives you power.'
Perhaps, but power is hard to come by when you're a young woman, when you're an immigrant, and when you carry the emotional scars of rape and abuse. Viola's most complicated struggle for power is with her mother, to whom she is both deeply connected and co-dependent. The two women harbor resentments and fears that go unspoken until they boil over. Viola's mother can't accept her daughter's choices if they look like assimilation; Viola can't figure out how to please her mother while also adapting to their new surroundings.
I have been here less than a year,
yet I do not think I can be all Sudanese, all the time.
Already, am I part American?
I don't feel like any one thing.
But then, for a fleeting moment in a car with an American boy, listening to African music, Viola sees a glimpse of who she might be — how all her identities, braided together, might form one complete woman.
"For a minute I am on the edge of knowing who I am," she thinks to herself. Thanks to Farish and The Good Braider, we, too, are closer to understanding.
THE GOOD BRAIDER book launch + performance by OD Bonny | November 8 @ 7 pm | 7th Floor, Glickman Library, University of Southern Maine, Portland | Free | 207.420.1126 firstname.lastname@example.org