For Girls Growing Into Their Hips
By Hannah V. Sawyerr
Penmanship Books, 2017
Review by AnnaLee Barclay
Growing up, I was told that I would have an easy time giving birth because of my wide-set hips, a concept I found strange considering I was still a child myself. This is an extremely simple, almost humorous example of the adult projections cast upon myself and many young girls as our bodies fluctuate, expand, and take up more space. Other examples tend to be more damaging, often resulting in trauma, and as girls transition into women, we go through a sort of eternal reflection, recognizing the damage these events caused on our psyche, our sense of self, our yearning for and ability to love.
It’s common to hear that one should never judge a book based on its cover, but in the case of Hannah V. Sawyerr’s poetry collection, For Girls Growing Into Their Hips (Penmanship Books, 2017), it struck me right in the gut—the ideas of growing into your own body, developing physical features that don’t match child brains, dealing with a different type of attention from others, and the vulnerabilities that follow. We form endless questions: what is my true self? What is the impact of other peoples’ selves on my own? How can I separate what is really me and what is a result of these things I have endured? And so on.
I’ve been listening to an album by Hop Along on repeat, which is somewhat unique in the sense that there is a lyric, a question, that pops up in numerous songs throughout—“How strange it is to be shaped by such strange men?” Not only are there strange men throughout Sawyerr’s poetry, but there are sweet men, evasive men, Godly men, and monstrous men who sexually abuse girls. There is a sense in this book that, in a way, they are all strange. The narrator is reaching for them, but they are distant—either emotionally, or as complicated memories that she is trying to work through – and Sawyerr so beautifully captures the starvation some young girls and women feel for love. One of my favorite lines from the entire collection is, “His shadow lingers longer / Than his light did”. The impact of the various men that come in and out of her life lasts in the psyche, regardless of the amount of physical time spent with the men, lovers and abusers both.
I’m in my mid-twenties, and I am just starting to grow into my own hips because I have been so distracted by my quest for love and male validation from a very young age. But there is trauma and abuse to work through, there is heartache from losing lovers, and there is a lifetime of navigating a world that seems to encourage women to make themselves smaller—maybe if we become smaller, become less, we will be loved more.
Sawyerr explores this time of coming into yourself as a woman with beautiful prose and experimental form. For instance, there are two poems, back-to-back, that tell female and male versions of what love is—each poem has four characters seemingly participating in a conversation about their individual definitions of love:
Woman in Black Mascara: Love accepts you for your good, bad, beautiful & ugly.
Woman in Old Tennis Shoes: Love can leave if it actually admits I have any ugly.
Woman in Fishnet Stockings: Love is when you actually want him to stay in the morning.
Woman with Pink Butterfly Tattoo: Love is what my parents used to have.
It continues like that for a page. The juxtaposition between not only each character in the poems but the gendered separation of the two poems as a whole is such a testimony to the confusion and complication surrounding love—what is it, how do we get it, how do we keep it, how do I know I’m worthy of it?
Sexual abuse, deep infatuation, trauma, family dynamics—these are things I can relate to in my own way, as many people can, but along with her skillful and sensitive navigation of gender and growing up, Sawyerr also explores these experiences with a constant conversation about race, and how to navigate the black female experience. As a white woman, I cannot relate to this, and I do not try to, however one of the many benefits of literature is the opportunity to enter someone else’s space. Reading is a form of listening, and the words of those who go through life without the privileges of whiteness is a great way for those who do benefit from it to learn on their own. So often, my (usually well-meaning) white peers expect to be taught about others’ experiences rather than turning that responsibility inward and teaching themselves. Instead, as readers, my peers and I should listen and learn, without putting the burden of obligation to teach on the artist, author, poet.
I’m extremely grateful to Hannah Sawyerr, who was the Youth Poet Laureate of Baltimore for 2016
, for sharing her artwork with the world, not because it should exist as a textbook for white people to learn from, but because the powerful poems touched me in ways both familiar and unfamiliar. Her exploration of the idea of dark skin being less beautiful (she poses a lover the questions: “Do you also believe: A. water is too wet for consumption? B. red flowers are too dark to bloom?”) and having to testify before a white male judge are mere examples of the woven narrative between girlhood and blackness that come together as one succinct and powerful collection of poetry.
The infinite questions that are raised throughout a girl’s transition into womanhood don’t always have answers, but the poems hint at possible ones: that being “built for love” includes for love of yourself, that you are a combination of the things that have happened to you and how you’ve dealt with them, and that, yes, it is strange to be shaped by such strange men. But the strong, self-aware voice throughout Sawyerr’s collection reminds us to shape and cherish ourselves along the way and that, by learning to carry that which we’ve endured, we both honor our experiences and move forward into a self-revolution of love.