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Literary Analysis Of Muna Abdullahi Poem The Unwritten Letter From My Immigrant Parent

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“The Unwritten Letter from My Immigrant Parent” is a border poem written by Somali-American writer Muna Abdulahi in which she presents the struggles and aspirations of immigrants forced to reside in America. It is a slam poetry written in first-person narrative from the perspective of her parent. While she does not explicitly mention the gender of the parent in subject, the closeness and the tone used implies the possibility of it being the mother.

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Abdulahi’s journey kick-started when she was still in seventh grade, taking English Language learning classes where the importance of being able to communicate effectively really struck her. In 2015, she was chosen to go to Washington as a page for U.S. Sen. Al Franken after being urged and recommended for the position by her school principal; he had seen her development from the ninth grader asking for help to understand the world to an eleventh grader who could influence the world positively and easily bridge differences between people.

In this poem the writer maps out the ontological struggle that the parent is going through and their feeling of displacement and alienation. For immigrants, it is more than just not fitting in. They have left their home and a life they knew well and found comfort in for better conditions after being forced into worse economical and mortal conditions.

The title of the poem, ‘The Unwritten Letter From My Immigrant Parent’, immediately lets the audience know that it is a border poem. It is about a person who had important things to tell their child after they had to move to a different land. The fact that it is ‘unwritten’ tells us that these things never came to be written by the parent; however, they did communicate them to their child anyway. The title also informs that the poet is not the original source of the thoughts presented because it is ‘from their immigrant parent.’ Abdulahi could have chosen to title it ‘An’ instead of ‘My’, because it is a struggle that most such parents go through; her choosing to state their muse shows a sense of her own protectiveness and pride for her parents showing through.

Some of the themes this poem shares with other border literature are:

  • the idea of home
  • imagined homeland
  • belonging
  • constant strife
  • parental love
  • culture
  • sleep / lack of sleep
  • self-individualization
  • linguistic anxiety
  • loneliness
  • spatial anxiety
  • religion
  • self-respect and honor
  • prejudice
  • politics of inclusion and exclusion.

The overall mood of the poem is melancholic, painting the individual’s emotions and struggles. However, it shifts through several sub-moods throughout. The opening mood is sad and the parent’s anxiety palpable as they remember their conflicted feelings upon realizing their young, naive daughter idolized them. It frightened the parent that the one they were trying to ensure got the best out of life wanted to be like them. Then the mood turns almost frantic, as the parent runs through the most glaring obstacles they’ve had to face without going into too much detail, showing they still want to shelter their child.

The articulation of language is used in the poem is quite colloquial. It does not read like a poetry filled with flowery language or carefully placed imagery, but flows more like the narrator monologuing their stream of thoughts, wanting to convey their thoughts quickly and without room for misunderstanding. The use of simple language and lack of imagery does not take away from the effect the poem has because it is raw and honest, and holds the audience interest.

The tone also changes minutely throughout, though overall it remains one of honesty and clarity that a parent wanting to caution and advise their child are wont to have. The poem starts off with a possessive tone, the parent addressing their daughter directly when they say ‘My daughter.’ The parent is unabashedly proud of the girl. In the incident the parent reminisces about, the girl was five years old. It is a very tender age, where one is impressionable and naive and blissfully innocent.

Since punctuation is used sparingly, it gives a sense of urgency, like things are rushed and the tone fluctuates according to the internal thoughts of the narrator; the rushing emotions shown by the flowing language, each sentence falling into the next. ‘My heart dropped …wasn’t my daughter’ shows a sad, thoughtful tone. The parent remembers the worry and anxiety that one desire ignited in them. They did not want their daughter to experience what they did, and still does not want to. As a child, Abdulahi had been inspired and awed by her parent, like most children are, and wanted to be just like them when she grow up. Apparently having not witnessed the pre-border-crossing and the crossing itself, she had a more positive outlook than her mother and any child that crosses a border. Her mother “couldn’t bear to tell her at five years old” that they were not each other and that she wished her daughter would never know the hardships that she struggled with. Like any parent, they wanted to and strived to provide their daughter with a luxurious life; ‘are too you and too spoiled’ shows that despite their circumstances, they must have succeeded to some point in their endeavors.

“My daughter I pray to god every day you don’t understand what it’s like to be me’. The tone here is frantic and shows their anxiety about their struggles one day being shared with their child. The daughter this poem is addressed to is grown up now, but the parent is still protective and prays only to have some sort of assurance that she will never understand their struggles. It is their parental love that allows them to be so generous as to ensure she gets all the luxuries possible and still remain sheltered, innocent of the struggles the parent goes through on a daily basis.

As seen in the border narratives ‘Across a Hundred Mountains’, ‘The Wandering Falcon’, and Manto’s short stories, religion plays a role in the immigrant’s life. Juana’s rosary beads and La Virgin’s constant presence in their lives, even as their belief started to dwindle, shows that despite not actually physically helping, religion does provide a mental support that allows people to push through the daily hurdles. It does not necessarily have to play a major role in each immigrant’s life, but it is there, a constant presence in their life.

The different ostracized groups we met in ‘The Wandering Falcon’ showed the resilience that religion helped the tribal people exhibit in face of economical and physical hardships; their foundations may have been wrong, but what they did know of religion, those people followed with purpose.

The narrator in this poem, the parent, also prays daily, and it helps her psychologically to be able to ask a higher being to protect her daughter and keep her form the same fate as hers. To them, their daughter’s naivety and innocent happiness is fruit of the struggle they go through.

‘How it feels to work endless hours day in and day out” The parent has a hectic, unforgiving life and the tone shows their frustration with the constant struggle in their life. They work hard to all day, and the process keeps repeating every day, to support their family and survive and to prove themself to the society hell-bent on ostracizing the other. The frustration also shows their loneliness and gives the impression of just how exhausted they have become with life. This strife is common in immigrants wherever they are from. It is similar to the case of Adelina and Juana from “Across a Hundred Mountains”, who were always on the move and under constant strife looking for ways to survive in a strange land where they at first did not even have language.

Communication tends to be a major struggle in immigrants, and it is inevitable that they feel linguistic anxiety. This is shown when they say ‘…endless nights… language’, where their feelings of non-belonging are brought to the fore. Language here is more than just words stringed together in a sentence. It is the accent, a culture, a norm, definitive border, and existence. The height of the parent’s struggle comes from these language barriers, because sometimes borders you cannot see are harder to overcome than physical ones. The trauma of a hateful gaze is deeper and lasts longer than a physical sign telling one to not cross.

There is a sense of despondency in ‘…pronounce you correctly.’ There is a lack of basic understanding of one as a person here. It is a dilemma when you work hard to learn a language to fit in and be able to communicate, and are still not accepted till your dialect is perfect; but then the same people you try to accommodate cannot even be bothered to try and pronounce your name right. Asian, African, Latina and other foreign names are made fun of and set aside as being ‘too hard to pronounce’ by natives of countries these migrate to. It still remains to be seen whether it is lack of trying due to sense of superiority, racism, a mind game, or simply their inability to pronounce anything not remotely English. However, pronunciation here is not just about the name. How will there be any understanding developed and mind-border’s bridged if they don’t even try to understand you. It’s the lack of that connection, that level of understanding with others, that leads to this extreme loneliness and edges them to the point of desperation.

Reyna Grande talked about the hardship of not knowing a language and having to learn after moving to a place. She reflected this struggle in Juana, who had to learn English after crossing the Mexican border. There is a strong sense of otherization when you just can’t understand or communicate in a language everyone around you can and neither can they understand what you say. In this poem, the parent talks about their struggle to provide during the day, and how it continues during the night because they ‘still have time to spend endless nights trying to know a language/that doesn’t even know how to pronounce you correctly.’ Similarly, Manto’s character Bishan Singh from the short story ‘Toba Tek Singh’ was so disturbed and shaken up that sleep evaded him for years. The idea of being ripped from his home and the violence with which the people were met at the time deeply disturbed the psyche of many. Toba Tek Singh was no different. Sleep also evaded Grande’s characters in ‘Across a Hundred Mountains.’ Juana and her mother cannot sleep after being separated from her father, and Adelina has to resort to consuming sleeping pills to help her sleep.

When the system ‘tells them to go back to a country many die to escape from’ they dehumanize them and force that image onto the public through political misuse of media. The struggle this parent goes through, the blatant racism and hate-filled gazes and words, are not easy to deal with on a good day and stable mental health. However, countless immigrants who have been forced into such a position by machinations of the big powers of the world anyway, are subjected to this treatment and worse almost on a daily basis simply because they look, dress, speak differently. Despite the bleak subject matter, the parent’s tone is sarcastic, pointing out to the daughter how one cannot really be at home in another country because to the natives they will never belong there; and thus allowing her to be able to overlook such instances in order for her own mental peace. It’s your home as long as you are concerned, so don’t let other people’s negative comments hurt you.

If, as the parent insists, ‘it was never about the money’, then why do they ‘push her to be a lawyer or a doctor’? Lawyers and doctors are members of the society who can contribute, they can help. It also helps that they have a certain respect attached to their status, and the parent wants to fight against the discrimination of a system that ‘expects nothing but less from the daughter’ by making sure she rises above the prejudices. They want their daughter to not just have the American Dream, but to be able to live it too.

What is the American Dream? It is a social ideal of material prosperity, things that constitute as a good life, shared by all American citizens, including the immigrants. However, many Americans tend to forget that these citizens are also part of America now and thus Americas, like them.

‘My daughter…for you’ is a theme of connecting the old with the new worlds and generations. This country may not be one where the parent belonged, and this life is not what satisfies them; therefore the American Dream was never for them, who value family and everything they brought of their culture. It is, however, meant for and possible to be realized by their daughter who was raised in this country with the values of material betterment ingrained in her. The mother has understood the folding out of events to come and knows that the ancient and the current ideals will clash at some point. Where there was a time her naive child idolized and wanted to be like her, she knows there will come a point of realization in life where she will no longer want to be like her parent. She understands this and can come to terms with the inevitable differences with her daughter, who was raised with so many luxuries, in an entirely different cultural upbringing than her immigrant parents.

Everyone strives for a better life; it is everyone’s right to want and be able to work for a better life. Juana’s father left his family in pursuit of the American Dream, and Juana soon followed. Perhaps not every immigrant’s pursuit of this dream starts before they decide to go to America, but once there, they share the Dream with the rest of the American’s. Despite their struggles, it must however be considered that they cannot live the dream. It is the first generation after the immigration, who are better able to adapt and fit in the ‘new’ home, that is able to do better for themselves.

There is a pattern of some form of concoction of economic, emotional, and physical strife contributing to psychological distress and lack of sleep caused by the trauma in people caught in any form of border strife.

There is a negative preconceived conception of immigrants that ‘natives’ use against them. Strangely enough, whether or not people care about the country or politics otherwise, they suddenly become ‘nationalists’ when it comes to dealing with immigrants. They are made easy targets for law enforcement to harass and people to shun. It is presumed that immigrants are a drain on society and thus should not be “offered” good positions because they cannot work; they are blamed for “stealing” jobs from locals and being given special treatment, when in fact jobs are not offered so much as earned.

The ending of the poem is powerful and encouraging, as the parent tells her to ‘take their culture and their native tongue,’ reminding her to not forget her roots even if all these dreams and opportunities were meant for her. The mother encourages her to remember her parents and to not become like them, but to instead take their culture and language and better herself because those things are a part of her and will always be because they are inherited after all; they will always define parts of her. Since the child has what the parents didn’t, if she is able to use the connection to their roots along with the connection to America, she will be able to have that sense of belonging even if in harsh situations.

The parent tells the daughter to ‘speak, learn, jump, fail, fall, speak, learn, jump, fail, fall, and get back up’ because that is exactly how they survived here in all the hardships, and they know their daughter has the same stamina and capabilities. ‘The best of me lives in you/So speak;’ the daughter has attained the best qualities of their parent along with their cultural background and familiar stability and will be able to face life more resiliently and with better results if she chooses to take her parent’s advice.

09 March 2021

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