Girls That Never Die

Poems

About the Book

NATIONAL BESTSELLER • Intimate poems that explore feminine shame and violence and imagine what liberation from these threats might look like, from the award-winning author of The January Children 

“Incredibly moving . . . Every single poem is stellar.”—Roxane Gay, author of Difficult Women and Hunger

In Girls That Never Die, award-winning poet Safia Elhillo reinvents the epic to explore Muslim girlhood and shame, the dangers of being a woman, and the myriad violences enacted and imagined against women’s bodies. Drawing from her own life and family histories, as well as cultural myths and news stories about honor killings and genital mutilation, she interlaces the everyday traumas of growing up a girl under patriarchy with magical realist imaginings of rebellion, autonomy, and power. 

Elhillo writes a new world: women escape their stonings by birds that carry the rocks away; slain girls grow into two, like the hydra of lore, sprouting too numerous to ever be eradicated; circles of women are deemed holy, protected. Ultimately, Girls That Never Die is about wrestling ourselves from the threats of violence that constrain our lives, and instead looking to freedom and questioning: 

[what if i will not die]
 
[what   will govern me then]
Read more
Close

Praise for Girls That Never Die

“Fearless . . . has the makings of a breakthrough.”—Los Angeles Times

“Amidst moments of personal trauma . . . [Elhillo’s] poems dig deep into how shame is passed down generations of women. . . . With these conversations comes power. And the title of Elhillo’s new book sings of the autonomy she imagines for her girls.”NPR

“Rebellion, liberation, multitudes.”—Ms. Magazine

Girls That Never Die is an incredibly moving, and well-structured collection of poetry about being a Muslim girl, about shame, about the silent hurts women carry, about the pressures of cultural expectations, about dangerous silences. The writing here is incisive and intimate and eloquent. Truly, a stunning collection of poems. I particularly appreciated the range of forms across the poems and the structure of the book as a whole. Many of the poems end in ways that will leave you gasping. Loved this book. Some standout poems: Ode to My Homegirls, Zamalek, and Orpheus but really every single poem is stellar, no skips as the kids say. Also, A+ cover.”—Roxane Gay, author of Difficult Women and Hunger

“When I open a new book by Safia Elhillo, I know there will be fearlessness and beauty. There will be a voice that contains multitudes and yet is original and memorable in its daring. There is always lyricism and nuance, and memorable speech that knows how poetry opposes history. Indeed, Girls That Never Die is a book that gives us courage, despite all the despairing records of history. How does Elhillo do this? Perhaps by letting these pages be the space where witness and a new kind of mythology meet. And this meeting gives us strength. Why? Because there is in these poems an endlessly compelling voice that is unafraid to be vulnerable in order to tell the truth, a voice that walks against the current, walks between cultures, between languages, bridging them with honesty. Elhillo’s is a voice that walks into the future.”—Ilya Kaminsky, author of Dancing in Odessa and Deaf Republic

“Safia Elhillo traces the ongoing devastations of patriarchy while simultaneously making a refuge out of language, kinship, and sound. Electric, violet, plural with girls, this work pulses with memory and refusal, awakening language with its lucid imagination. Girls That Never Die is a book of resuscitations. Brilliant. And fierce.”—Aracelis Girmay, author of The Black Maria

“I am rapt, finding here the hurt and the heft of girlhood. All the old silences, all the unuttered shames are ruptured, tended to, and—finally—named. Elhillo is a poet of wisdom, rigor, and vindicating care. Girls That Never Die is an astonishment.”—Tracy K. Smith, author of Ordinary Light and Wade in the Water
Read more
Close
Close
Excerpt

Girls That Never Die

ORPHEUS

Mold blooms on the yogurt, furring the edges
in ancient colors. My body is something I have worn

for other people. Even five years ago
I would not recognize myself today, married, gallon bags

of animal bone and corncobs in the freezer to boil for stock.
I am far away from the cities of my girlhood, cool concrete

of their stairwells. The new therapist wants a list of compliments
I’d give myself on behalf of those who love me,

and all I can come up with is resourceful. For a time I believed
myself in love with Orpheus, which only meant I loved

what I could make if I were free from what happened to my body.
That man who would never touch me, kept distant and without danger 

by the barriers of fiction. Then I believed the work would save me.
I have no real use now for those Greek myths, their dead girls,

women raped by men and animals. Today the door is locked. Today nobody
is outside. Muscle cramping mid-lap in the dark blue water.

Now I embroider flowers in dim colors in my new country of flowers,
clumsy stitches through the stencil of an orchid, remembering

my younger mouth pressed to a flute, unable to release the breath.
I’d liked that he was a musician, fingers long as spring onions.

As a child I ruined my sweaters, the sleeves tugged down to cover
my hand before touching any doorknob or handling coins.

Teenaged, loitering, urgently lonely. The cotton t-shirts curled
at their sliced hems. Now I am thick-fingered and practical

as my mother and her mother, smell of bleach against ceramic.
Gone is L’s humid little apartment, violent stain on the bathroom tile,

a bottle of crimson nail-polish shattered long ago and leaving
streaks like blood. Her dirty living room where I slept

for nights on end, though my own apartment was nearby, cleaner—

I can’t imagine them, the poems that softened the hearts of gods,
the poems that changed anything.

That night, metal of the fire escape against my bare legs, I accepted
my first cigarette and she allowed me to tell the entire story

without using the real words. The night cooling and gathered close.
The way nothing ever feels truly clean

in summer. And all I know about Eurydice
is that she died. My every other fact about her is about him.




YASMEEN


i was born i was planted

at the rupture the root where land became ocean became land

anew i split from my parallel self i split from its shape refusing root in my fallow mouth

the girl i also could have been cleaving my life neatly

& her name / easy / i know the story & my name / taken from a dead woman

all her life / my mother wanted to remember / to fill an aperture with

a girl named for a flower cut jasmine in a bowl

whose oil scents all our longing

our mothers / our mothers’

petals wrung wilting

for their perfume garlands hanging from our necks



POMEGRANATE

Because I am their daughter my body is not mine.
I was raised like fruit, unpeeled & then peeled. Raised
to bleed in some man’s bed. I was given my name
& with it my instructions. Pure. Pure.

& is it wasted on me? Every moment I do not touch
myself, every moment I leave my body on its back
to be a wife while I go somewhere above the room.

I return to the soil & search. I know it’s there. Buried
shallow, wrapped in rags dark with old & forgotten rust,
their discarded part. Buried without ceremony,
buried like fallen seeds.

I wonder about the trees: Date palms veined
through the fruit with the copper taste of cutting.
Guavas that, when slit, purple dark as raw meat.

I have to wonder, of course, about the blood orange,
about the pomegranate, splayed open, like something
that once was alive & remains.

About the Author

Safia Elhillo
Safia Elhillo is an award-winning poet and author. Her debut YA novel in verse, Home Is Not a Country, was longlisted for the National Book Award and received a Coretta Scott King Book Award Author Honor and Arab American Book Award. Sudanese by way of Washington, DC, Safia is a Pushcart Prize nominee, co-winner of the 2015 Brunel International African Poetry Prize, and listed in Forbes Africa’s 2018 “30 Under 30.” She lives in Los Angeles. More by Safia Elhillo
Decorative Carat