In Review: Born in a Second Language by Akosua Zimba Afiriyie-Hwedie

Born in a Second Language by Akosua Zimba Afiriyie-Hwedie published by Button Poetry is a remarkable work of writing through in-betweenness of body and nation, mind and mother-tongue. Afiriyie-Hwedie balances the languages and nations her self has touched so carefully in this collection.

The collection encomapsses an impressive spread of form and style — Afiriyie-Hwedie does an incredible job composing gorgeous prose blocks with breath-stealing syntax like in “Brenda Fassie wakes the dead” which sit so well alongside the more careful and lyrical works, like “Birthwrite // Mantswe”; the unifier of this collection is its investment in origin, and its identification of audience through its navigation of such. Afiriyie-Hwedie constructs an immediately devastating relationship between origin and language, triangulating between various parent tongues & the colonial result; I think the diasporic writer producing in English and publishing in the US often possesses some sort of tension—if we are reproducing the traumas of migration or colonialism and their intersections, in the language that triggers that trauma, who is the work for? But, what if it is the only language in which we can produce this work, for a myriad of reasons? Afiriyie-Hwedie immediately tackles that question of audience in the opening, densely titled, “for those for whom this need not be translated.” Forgive me for being heavy-handed, but “translated” resonates both in language and sentiment. The poem reads:

“my parents met in English / a language learned / alongside each of their mother tongues / this is to say i was born / in a second language / born because of English”

The collection’s eponymous line appears here, poignant and appropriate to color the rest of the poems to come—but I am more interested in the isolation of the lines “a language learned” and “this is to say i was born”: a language learned as opposed to one born into. The poet constructs this distinct relationship to English, both the way it brought together her parents to produce life but the way it domineers over heritage languages to facilitate that permeating longing. This juxtaposition is heart-wrenchingly well-balanced, and present page after page.

Distance—from both homelands and self—is facilitated via the poet’s fluencies; in the opening poem, the line “i am three languages short of knowing myself / i only know one language well enough to miss you in it” articulates this well. “Long distance” expands on that sentiment:

“Over the phone, my aunt says: / Since I’m in America, too, / I thought I should call to see how you are doing. / She’s in Boston now though she lives in Zambia. / She never calls. But being in America seems to make the difference.”

The matter-of-fact scene setting unfolds so artfully into the repetition of “I wonder” framing the phrase “what has being in America done for us?” in various states of fullness; different words are removed as the phrase mirrors down the page, a thought experiment or the static of a call coming in and out. This moment feels in conversation with blurber Marwa Helal’s “if this was a different kind of story i’d tell you about the sea”in which italics appear on a different word each time the sentence is repeated as a block across the page, flexing what a simple emphasis can do; here, the sentence dissolves down and back into itself. Afiriyie-Hwedie masters a word economy, layering the poem through with these questions constructed from each other. “Long distance” plays on its title both in content and form; the languidness in which the phrase “what has being in America done for us?” appears down the page creates physical distance from the the inciting moment, as well as the irony in the moment itself of a relative calling only when they are in closer proximity (not to mention international calls fees). The sort of erasure tactic is so visually stunning, especially when thinking back to the line “i am three languages short of knowing myself”—and so, the poet uses a fluency so its fullest; the impact of each English word is made only more prominent when repeated, especially when accompanied by the distance of each caesura.

what has being in America done for us?

what has              America done for us?

                                             what has            America done?

                                             what                                         for?”

Continuing on the theme of distance and selfness, the collection ends with “Call me by my name,” as yet another breath-stealing lyric. The punctuation and breaks in this poem are fascinating, producing the most interesting start-stops of thought and fragments: “When God called the animals, / two by two. Each came / foreign unto itself.” In between the break and “two by two” there is a gentle alluding to more, a fragment followed by a call; “When my mother calls from a distant continent. / I must travel her voice to come into myself.” Again, a fragment and a call. The poem ends, “I know calling makes one return.” and so the poem reads a little differently a second time through; the return of a keyboard to produce the line break, the end-stop of a period to replicate the sharp finish of a changing thought; all of these come to mind when knowing, “calling makes one return.” Born In A Second Language does not necessarily end in actualization but “Call me by my name” is determined and seeking, it has a mission. It does not resolve but it does take on much of what the collection has unfolded in its understanding of unfinishedness or incompleteness, and makes that craft.

I could have written about every poem in this collection for pages—like “Long distance,” “I beg Botswana back” has such complementary form and content; “How to rebuild me when I fall apart” is striking, both the contrapuntal-aspects and the fact that you have to rotate the book to get its fullness; “Outdooring ceremony,” so tight and concise but building with its questions; and more, and more. Afiriyie-Hwedie constructs such a wonderful collection, moving through her relationship to Botswana, Zambia, Ghana and her distance from such in the brightest of ways.

(Button Poetry, July 2021)

You can keep up with Akosua Zimba Afiriyie-Hwedie 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.

Vagabond City Literary Journal

Founded in 2013, we are a literary journal dedicated to publishing outsider literature. We publish art, poetry, and creative nonfiction from marginalized creators.