Athena Farrokhzad | White Blight

Louise Bourgeois | No 2 (1973)



My family arrived here in a Marxist tradition


My mother immediately filled the house with Santa knick-knacks
Weighed the pros and cons of the plastic Christmas tree
as if the problem were hers


During the day she distinguished between long and short vowels
as if the sounds that came out of her mouth
could wash the olive oil from her skin


My mother let bleach run through her syntax
On the other side of punctuation her syllables became whiter
than a winter in Norrland


My mother built us a future consisting of quantity of life
In the suburban basement she lined up canned goods
as if preparing for a war


In the evenings she searched for recipes and peeled potatoes
As if it were her history inscribed
in the Jansson’s temptation casserole


To think that I sucked at those breasts
To think that she put her barbarism in my mouth






My mother said: It seems it has never occurred to you
that it is from your name civilization descends



My mother said: The darkness in my belly is the only
darkness you command






My mother said: You are a dreamer born to turn straight eyes aslant
My mother said: If you could regard the circumstances as extenuating
you would let me off easier



My mother said: Never underestimate the trouble people will take
to formulate truths possible for them to bear
My mother said: You were not fit to live even from the start






My mother said: A woman dug out her mother’s eyes with her fingers
so the mother would be spared the sight of the daughter’s decline






My father said: You have a tendency towards metaphysics
Still I schooled you in the means of production
when your milk teeth were intact




My mother said: Your father lived for the day of judgement
So did your mother, but she was forced to other ambitions






My mother said: In your father’s sleep you are executed together
In your father’s dream you form a genealogy of revolutionaries


My father said: Your mother fed you with imported silver spoons
Your mother was everywhere in your face
frantically combed out the curls






My mother said: For a lifetime I envied your father’s traumas
until I realized that my own were far more remarkable



My mother said: I have spent a fortune on your piano lessons
But at my funeral you will refuse to play






My mother took the dream out of my father’s hand and said:
All this sugar will not make you sweeter
Walk a lap around the house before you take the insulin


My father said: I have lived my life, I have lived my life
I have done my share
Now nothing remains of the halcyon days of youth






My mother said to my brother: Beware of strangers
Remember that you have nothing to return to
should they become dangerous



My brother said: I had such a strange dream
That dawn died in my eyes before sleep had cleared
A humanity of sugar and slaughter
When I bid farewell to the light I knew everything






My mother said: From the division of cells
from a genetic material
from your father’s head
But not from me


My father said: From the clash of civilizations
from a fundamental antagonism
from my tired head
But not from her





My father said: If it were possible to compete in martyrdom your mother would do
everything to lose

My mother said: The heart is not like the knee that can be bent at will
My father said: Even the rooster who does not crow gets to see the sun rise
My mother said: But if the hen does not lay an egg she will be served for dinner






My father said: Your brother shaved before his beard started to grow
Your brother saw the terrorist’s face in the mirror
and wanted a flat iron for Christmas


My brother said: Some day I want to die in a country
where people can pronounce my name






My brother said: Do not think it is in your power to offer me anything






My father said: Whose father are you rendering

My mother said: Whose mother are you rendering

My brother said: Whose brother is being referred to

My grandmother said: If you don’t finish chopping the vegetables soon there won’t
be any dinner






My father said: To those who have more will be given
and from those who lack even more will be taken
My mother said: Take some more milk before it turns




My mother said: Wouldn’t it be strange to feel
a single night like this one
my language in your mouth






My father said: One spoonful for the executioners
one spoonful for the emancipators
one spoonful for the hungry masses
And one spoonful for me






My mother handed the glass to her mother and said: Now we are even
Here is your milk back



My grandmother said: Your mother comes from the rising sun
She was named after the bud of a flower since she was born in spring
Your mother named you after a warrior to prepare you for winter






My grandmother said: During spring in Marghacho mint grew along the streams
Does the poem you write reveal any of this
My grandmother said: You snot-nosed little mutt
Come here and I’ll take your measurements and knit you a wool sweater






My brother said: Black milk of dawn, we drink you at night






My mother said: Write like this
For my opportunities my mother sacrificed everything
I must be worthy of her
everything I write will be true


My grandmother said: Write like this
Mother and languages resemble each other
in that they incessantly lie about everything






My mother said: All families have their stories
but for them to emerge demands someone
with a particular will to disfigure


My mother said: You distort the injury with your unfortunate lie
There is a muteness that cannot be translated




My brother said: There is always something imperfect that remains inescapable
There is always something incomplete missing






My grandmother said: Pistachios for the toothless
rosaries for the godless
rugs for the homeless
and a mother for you

My father said: Jobs for the jobless
use for the useless
papers for the paperless
and a father for you

My brother said: Cables for the wireless
organs for the bodyless
transfusions for the heartless
and a brother for you

My mother said: Oxygen for the lifeless
vitamins for the listless
prostheses for the limbless
and a language for you






My father said: There were those who were executed at dawn before sleep cleared
My mother said: There were those who had to pay for the bullets 
to bury their daughters





My father said: Do not bury me here
Bury me where all property has been expropriated
Do not give me a tombstone, dedicate your halcyon days to me






My uncle said: The war has never ceased
You have only ceased being the victim of war






My mother said: Do not bury me here
Bury me where the veneer of civilization has peeled
Spit out my language, return the milk to me






My grandmother said: When you are from a place it is inescapable
You can say I changed there
I left the gathering of stones
Or I was never intended for frost-ridden dawn
But you cannot say I am from nowhere
I belong to no place






My father said: The one who travels is redundant to the place they came from
My mother said: The one who travels thinks they are essential to the place they come to
My father said: The one who travels is redundant to the place they come to
My mother said: The one who travels thinks they were essential to the place they came from
My uncle said: The one who travels knows nothing about place



My father said: We are still there, even if time has separated us from the place
My mother said: Our ceilings are as high as the floors warrant






My father said: The farther you move from the scene of the crime, the more you are bound to it
My mother said: The more you care for the wound, the more it festers


My grandmother said: What you lose on the swings you gain on the roundabouts






My uncle said: Do not forget that you walked these streets as a child
Do not forget that all that matters in a revolution
is the daughters’ decisions between the lines of the poem




My mother said: If you do not speak to someone for whom you can abandon
there is no point in speaking


My uncle said: If you do not tremble when you cross a border
it is not the border you have crossed






My father said: Who is speechless in a poem about language
My grandmother said: Who is bared in a poem about desire
My mother said: Who is betrayed in a poem about betrayal




Translated by Jennifer Hayashida


Athena Farrokhzad was born in 1983 and lives in Stockholm. She is a poet, literary critic, translator, playwright and teacher of creative writing. After several years of collaborative poetry projects and international collaborations she published her first volume of poetry in 2013, Vitsvit (White Blight) at Albert Bonniers förlag. The book circles around the topic of revolution, war, migration and racism, and how these experiences condition the lives of different members of a family. Vitsvit has been translated to several languaged and turned into a play.
Farrokhzad teaches creative writing at Biskops-Arnös författarskola, and has translated writes such as Marguerite Duras, Adrienne Rich, Monique Wittig and Nicole Brossard to Swedish. In 2015, her second volume of poetry, *Trado*, written together with the Romanian poet Svetlana Carstean, will be published.


Jennifer Hayashida | On Translating Athena Farrokhzad



In her multi-faceted practices as poet, critic, translator, and educator, Farrokhzad illustrates the relationship of Swedish national identity—the eroding fiction of the Swedish Model—to the diasporic Other, and Vitsvit locates this frequently elided Swedish experience in a globalized and intertextual terrain. However, with narrators who are far from reliable—the assumption of any native informant is quickly upended—the text critiques, even mocks, the notion of an ethnographic or anthropological reading. Instead, we are presented with a rigorously poetic exploration of migration, trauma, and intimacy, and although it may be seen as a document of a particular (immigrant) experience, Vitsvit is above all a work of literature that challenges our notions of Swedish literature in the 21st century.

Global (and domestic) perceptions of Sweden remain wedded to the idea of a largely middle class white population, while increasingly complex racial and economic demographics are the target of xenophobic projects in all areas of society. Such ideological positions are of course most prominently manifest in extreme acts of violence, horrifically illustrated by the 2011 mass murder in Norway by Anders Behring Breivik, yet anti-immigrant parties’ parliamentary representation across the region serve as an acute reminder that hostility towards non-white racial groups is far from a fringe position.

As witnessed in this spring’s “immigrant” uprising in Husby, a Stockholm suburb with a large immigrant population, Sweden is subject to the same globalizing forces and tensions as other industrialized nation states (certainly including the U.S.), and critiques of Swedish exceptionalism demand our attention. Texts by and about non-white Swedes—and especially those that interrogate multiculturalism and the supposedly anti-racist welfare state—need to be available to a global readership, not for any anthropological or ethnographic value, but in order to operate intertextually with kindred works, be they Asian American, Ugandan, Serbian, or Mexican. By creating a mechanism—the translated text—through which non-Swedish-speaking readers can engage with these questions, my hope is to make possible discussions and alliances between critical actors there and elsewhere.



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