In Review: BINT by Ghinwa Jawhari

I am finding myself more able to reflect on my childhood thus more considering the notion of girlhood. I know this means I am ageing, but it also means I am considering my gender: did I choose girlhood, is there agency in recalling my past as such? And what’s next?

BINT, selected by Aria Aber for Radix Media’s Own Voices chapbook contest, explores these questions as well; Ghinwa Jawhari’s poetic is beautiful, quick and rhythmic, and so effective at rendering visceral moments. The collection is succinct and accessible with some of the most brilliant voltas I have had the pleasure of reading; it is apt that a book that explores girlhood and the transition out of it uses turns in the best way, with resolves leaving me breathless and inquisitive.

The collection begins with “condition” and ends with “conditioned”: a blunt way to assure us that girl is constructed, and the body of work between will inform us constructed from what; girl, then, is a condition; to be girl is to be conditioned. With that in mind, the opening poem is short and harrowing:

“when you had the sterile body of a child / you were loved by your father / now you’re grown / your mother is a stone in your heart / resigned to the kiln she gave you”

Perhaps the most gut-wrenching, three-world volta of all time, “now you’re grown” presents an incredible pathway through girlhood; you were loved, and now you have all of this to deal with. The careful use of “resigned” is a stark choice as an entry-way into the collection–it is, quite simply, a sad first resolve. But the collection rejects this version of truth, with its book-end “conditioned”’s first line: “girlhood an illustrious specter, then.” The simplicity of the “then” punctuates the thought so powerfully. Girlhood is defined by the speaker, then, rather than the dictionary definitions that the collection opens with. In a promotional video for the release of BINT, Jawhari discusses how the Arabic-to-English dictionaries she looked at while working on this chapbook were always by men—American men, English men, German men; we do not get to define ourselves, do not get to explain ourselves in translation. Bint: girl, daughter, virgin, or in a poem titled “counterfeit,” the performance of “girl” as deceit. That performance then, instead, is illustrious–Jawhari offers girlhood as a specter, a whiplash of memory, something that builds us but something we ultimately deserve to interrogate. She asks, “when will you shake that trespass / the sense you belong elsewhere?”

I love “winter of the acned year,” in which the speaker masturbates to a butcher. Jawhari brings an enormous complexity to the premise, the poem beginning, “i silenced with my hands / the loud wet thing that would not let me sleep / pawed myself to dog-panting at the remembered eyes / of the man who had slaughtered a ram before me”—is there a better way to signal sexual repression than the use of animalistic, sort of gross language to depict the build of pleasure? The poem does not so much oscillate between the slaughter and masturbation, rather makes them one and the same. There are poets who see poetry as the economy of language; if Jawhari belongs to this camp, she is in a league of her own. She produces overwhelm through her sharp phrases then cuts it off in a moment, that severance only pushes the poem further. I am so fixated on the turn of the poem: “my mother, returning to the driver’s seat, appetited for its glistening liver / the organ in white paper followed us home.” The haze of pleasure intruded upon and transmuted, “glistening” letting the memory echo into the new space of the kitchen—one sacred, but not private. Jawhari compounds a sort of horror with tenderness to resolve the poem, with “the bleat / its oil swarmed my mouth like a vow.” This poem is absolutely rolling with the tension of pleasure towards sexual expression vs shame we are taught, a false privacy coloring each line. I love the glibness the title brings—acned as a verb—codifying this experience into not just normal but also a phase; Jawhari assigns a temporality—this shame will echo, but its loudness is not forever. Like “condition,” the turn of the poem involves the mother—from girl to mother, the line so direct it is almost an interruption. There is space between girl and mother, but it is obfuscated for so many of us. Part of what I find so appealing about BINT is that through this hurried turn, there becomes a suggestion of an in-between.

BINT is a gorgeous, tight chapbook. If I have not made myself clear already, I will do so quite plainly—it is a collection I feel in my body. It builds so much on works I have already held in moments of feeling like a bad daughter, perhaps a feeling I can identify so viscerally only through the works of other Arab American women. I love that Jawhari says her book is “for the bints,” the English plural localizing and specifying the experiences between the pages as one that is diasporic. As I regress into my childhood bedroom triggered by the pandemic, the paradoxical feeling of isolation and no privacy under my parents’ roof, I have been holding Jess Rizkallah’s “in another dimension I am a good daughter,” close, holding Hala Alyan’s “Asking for the Daughter,” close. BINT provides me with a framework similar to the comfort those poems bring. I see it living on alongside themas an ode to the girls and all of the paradoxes that construction bleeds.

Radix Media, Poetry, March 2021

You can keep up with Ghinwa Jawhari here.

Summer Farah is a Palestinian American poet and editor. She is the outreach coordinator for the Radius of Arab American writers and co-writes the biweekly newsletter Letters to Summer. Her work has been published in or is forthcoming from Mizna, LitHub, The Rumpus, and other places. You can follow her on Twitter @summabis.


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