Nasra Adem unfurls emotional journey in first book of poetry

Photo of Nasra Adem by Autumn Beemer Photography

When Nasra Adem speaks, they form more than words and sentences. There are entire emotional worlds in the tenor and cadence of their voice. Adem, who lives in Edmonton, identifies as a queer, Muslim multidisciplinary artist.

"My throat is always the first thing to go, when I'm under stress," says Adem in an interview with rabble.ca. It goes back to their time as a 16-year-old struggling in Edmonton's school system, dealing with anxiety and ADHD as well as trying to sort out their relationship to their parents and to Islam. It was too much.

"I developed a thyroid condition…and now that I'm investigating dis-ease and the spiritual map of my body, of course, it's the throat chakra! I couldn't express myself in the ways that I needed to."

Needless to say, Adem has come a long way. They have just finished a term as the Youth Poet Laureate of Edmonton, helped launch the Black Arts Matter festival last year (Alberta's first all-Black festival) and is curator of Sister 2 Sister: an artist collective for/by femmes of colour.

Adem is currently the star of an Alberta Treasury Board commercial dedicated to entrepreneurs and, is also an artistic associate at Workshop West Playwright's Theatre in Edmonton.

On March 16, the day they turn 24, Adem launches their first book of poetry, A God Dance in Human Cloth.

Born in Calgary, growing up in Toronto and Ottawa, and then relocating to Edmonton at the age of 12, Adem has had to sort out a lot -- in Ontario, they spent time around a lot of African and Middle-Eastern families but arriving in Edmonton, they felt like an outcast. Eventually, in high school they ended up hanging out with a group of people who were focused on dance. This gave them purpose and focus. They went on to study musical theatre at Grant McEwan College -- they finished the program but didn't graduate -- before turning their focus on poetry and spoken word.

Adem spoke to rabble.ca in the middle of the second Black Arts Matter Festival in Edmonton. This interview has been condensed and edited.

You had been practicing spoken word and posting videos but then you finally performed in 2013 with I am not a Poet. Can you recall that experience?

It was at the Rouge Lounge and I saw the poster for it. I thought, "Stop talking about doing the thing. Do the thing." I was in a healthy [state of] mind. I invited my two friends from university, my mom was super supportive. I saw the poster and saw it was run by two Black people [poet knowmadic, a.k.a. Ahmed Ali, and Titilope Sonuga]. I thought, What?!!

I was a ball of nerves. I thought maybe I'll forget everything. It was the energy in the room, I sucked it up, and through the poem, I took it all and shared it back at the end. I remember the afterwards mostly. Titi came up and grabbed my shoulders and said: 'You have to slam -- it's spoken word but it's competition. You have to because you're Black and you're a woman!'  I was crying and shaky.

They really helped me. Titi showed me -- this is what you want? Then, this is how you get it. She's amazing. She's now back in Lagos on a TV show, advocating for girls in STEM. Ahmed and his wife spent years doing it together but it is now run by other poets in the collective: Liam Coady, Charlotte Cranston, Nisha Patel, George and many others!

You can choose the experiences that you want. I seek the relationships, not the product.

Describe the poetry that's in your book -- is there a focus?

It's a lot of reckoning, reconciling. It's about the last three, four years of spiritual and emotional work I've done to find out where that voice went that was swallowed up. What made me, what un-made me. My sexuality, the intimate intersections with growing up in a Muslim household, coming from the places that I come from.

My father's side is very religious, my grandfather is an imam, all my uncles have memorized the Qu'ran. I really loved Islam. As I was coming to my art, it was not a place that supported me so I was very confused and I had crying fits with God: You don't want me to do this?!

Once I started this other thing [dance, poetry], I realized it made me feel the way I had about Islam. Creation is creation. It was before religion.

I was dealing with my anxiety, finding out I had ADHD, the medication caused me to gain weight quickly and it was difficult to manage all the changes. I prayed hard. I embodied that on stage. Spoken word gives you the time to speak, to move the way you say.

The title came from a freestyle I was doing during a photo shoot. It became a caption. I thought yeah, this is kind of how I feel about myself: a God dance in human cloth.

It's about understanding the way I move and flow. The poems are ones I've done over the last three years like, I Am a New Brand of Shiny and Victory -- which is about my name. They are bold affirmations.

The book is closing that chapter of discovery. I have chosen myself in all forms, in all ways.

What did you learn from your tenure as the Youth Poet Laureate?

I had to thank [the title] for giving me legitimacy to the institutions that tried to kick me out!

I left high school early because I was dealing with the thyroid [condition], the medication, my struggle with so many things. I couldn't churn out the numbers or essays that they required, I started failing and skipping classes. And I had been an honour student, I got student leadership awards. The school system doesn't support art. I could see the brand new gym, the money that went into sports and sports teams at school.

Going into the schools, it's incredible. I have a lot of energy and there's this beautiful, visceral feeling of seeing young people see themselves. I walk in there with this fancy title and it's like, "Yo, I gotta be here huh?" There's nothing like watching a bunch of Somali girls, who could be my cousins, really excited when I show up. I see how deeply invested the students are in each other. The solidarity among the students in classrooms is BIG. And I'm chilling with them and bringing my reference points, talking about music and lyrics. Then, we have these natural conversations that occur because you're there and you honour where they are.

The best classrooms are community. There is no power dynamic. I've had the privilege of seeing that happening. The teachers, staff members, principals are raising people's children!

In the end, what do your parents make of this?

I didn't finish that theatre degree and technically, I could go back and my mom always asks if I could. And I think, why?  I'm already doing the things I want to do.

My dad, he's got this magazine with my face on it and a five-page spread about me and he says, "I don't understand why you're doing this." Well, it's not your job to understand. We come from different tool sets.

I'm first generation. I'm coming out of my parents' expectations. I honour their survival but I'm not here to tailor my ideas, the truths of myself to them.

A God Dance in Human Cloth is available for purchase here. The book launch takes place March 16,  6: 30 p.m., $15, CKUA Performance Space, 9804 Jasper Avenue NW Edmonton. For more info, click here.

June Chua is a Berlin-based journalist who regularly writes about the arts for rabble.ca.

Photo: Autumn Beemer Photography

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