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from the March 2019 issue

From “White Monkey”

Adrian Perera reflects on the stereotyped expectations faced by immigrant poets. 

Interview. Time: 15:42

The journalist says she gets it.

“I have a friend from Africa.
I want you to know,
I get it.”

I crawl inside myself, 
past my sweaty pits
and hear myself say 
I’m not accusing her
of anything.




What’s in a name? she asks,

with her blonde hair,
and blue-eyed gaze,

her memories of summer cottages,

rhyming clues for Christmas gifts and debates over Finland’s
official languages.

“What’s in a name?”

She says
we ought to take my mother’s name
and pave the way for the future.

To show the name belongs
on book covers
and voting ballots.

And not just on the sign above an ethnic restaurant. 

Easy for her to say, my mother says.

“She doesn’t bear the burden of the name like you do.
For her, the name is a sign of goodness,
of virtue,
a silk ribbon that leaves no trace 
when she removes it.”
I say change is always painful,
someone has to be the first.

Then it’ll have to be someone else, she says.

Can’t the name be one of my virtues? I ask.

She says,
You’ll just be their monkey.



I have no words for how I love my mother
because everything turns to anger.

All I see are her mistakes,
broken thoughts
and language.  

All I hear is her shame
because she can’t be
what I need

and all I can feel is sorrow
because I am never
what she needs

so I say nothing.




My friend leans against the boat and asks
how my mother is doing.

I say I don’t know,
we don’t talk that much.
She just wants to give me advice
about life.

The water is like a window over the seaweed.
A breeze tugs at our shirts,
carries the odor of tar.

My friend says moms are moms

“but your mom has always been

It’s not her fault,
she comes from another culture.

She doesn’t know any better.”



I read poems,
describe a family being crushed by its own baggage.

A publisher says I fill a niche.

“We want to make sure nobody mistakes you
for Athena Farrokhzad.”

She says that many of the poems are good,
but certain ones are
typical immigrant poems.

“You can cut those.

There are, after all, two poets in Sweden
and one in Denmark
writing about those things.”

I ask what people are writing about today,
what is considered new?

“People write about all kinds of things!
The archipelago,
the Winter War,
and alcoholism.”

From White Monkey. © Adrian Perera. By arrangement with the author. Translation © 2019 by Christian Gullette. All rights reserved.

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