In-Depth Look: Muna Abdulahi – “Explaining Depression to a Refugee”
Appreciating poetry is often about patience: sitting with a poem, meditating on it, and re-reading it multiple times. With spoken word, we don’t always get a chance to do that. This series is about taking that chance, and diving a little deeper into some of the new poems going up on Button.
“I wonder why the depression test asks me to rank how often I cry and not why I don’t cry at all?”
While spoken word practice is sometimes framed as creating “a voice for the voiceless,” many writers, practitioners, and thinkers have pointed out why that particular phrase is problematic. There’s a passivity in it, as though some people were just naturally silent, as opposed to silenced— by oppressive systems, circumstances, and people. No one is truly voiceless; society just isn’t always good at listening.
I wonder if a more appropriate framing might be that the poetry slam stage is a space in which we can cultivate dialogue between voices, a space in which stories that do not often get a large platform can be shared, celebrated, or validated. This poem, after all, is doing some important work. We’ve seen a recent rise in poetry about mental health, as more and more people come to spoken word as a way to process, advocate for, and express ideas related to that topic. But in the US, how often is the phrase “let’s talk about mental health” code for “let’s talk about white people’s mental health?”
This poem breaks from that tradition; Abdulahi’s lens/perspective allows her to not just write “about” depression, but to say very something specific about it, in the context of her experience. The language here about family, tradition, culture, and balance; the repetition of the image of “running” (which works both on a literal and figurative level), the fragmented structure of the poem– it all comes together to communicate something complex and vital about the intersections of refugee/immigrant/diasporic experiences and dominant narratives about mental health and depression.