Book Review: My Mother Was a Freedom Fighter by Aja Monet

Terrance Hayes says her poetry is “indispensable… These poems are fire.” “Stunning,” declares Angela Davis, “[this] volume reminds us that conflict and contradiction can produce hope and that poetry can orient us toward a future we may not yet realize we want.” With My Mother Was a Freedom Fighter, Aja Monet has definitively arrived and the literary world is about to take notice.

“i earned my poetic license so i could say shit
haunted by the blood in me” — from “the young”

Monet is best known for her performances and her extensive social activist work, a small self-published collection entitled The Black Unicorn Sings, and the collaborative & musical work, Chorus: A Literary Mixtape. She’s the recipient of numerous awards and accolades for her work—she is the youngest person to win the legendary Nuyorican Poet’s Café Grand Slam title. Through all of this, her focus has been telling the stories of female heroics, female lives, especially women of color, and a blistering defense of progressive social justice ideals. Notably, Monet was a featured speaker at the Women’s March in Washing D.C., reading the title poem of this very collection. My Mother Was a Freedom Fighter dives deeply into these passions, leading its readers on a dance through the lives, the traumas, and the triumphs of the modern woman of color:

“…she feeds on her hunger
to know herself. she has not yet been taught
to dim, she sits with the stars beneath her feet,
a constellation of thing to come.
as if a swallowed moon, she glimmers.” — from “the ghosts of women once girls”

Much like Warsan Shire’s Teaching My Mother How to Give Birth, generations of women, fighters all, live and breath in Monet’s poetry. But where Shire carefully lays out her poems in a short chapbook, one piece at a time, crafting tightly her images and lines—Monet has unfolded the lives of sisters and mothers and little girls with a breathless stream of music. Without a doubt, My Mother Was a Freedom Fighter is for them—both a treasure box, and an armory.

prophet proph·et \ˈprä-fət\

  • one gifted with more than ordinary spiritual and moral insight;
  • one who foretells future events;
  • an effective or leading spokesman for a cause, doctrine, or group;

My Mother Was a Freedom Fighter is of three parts: “inner (city) chants,” “witnessing,” and “(un)dressing a wound.” There’s a lot of ground covered in the 160 pages of poetry, a lot of Monet sprawled across the pages, nearly all of her in a rapid pace of breath and music and image.

The scope of the book (with its blistering, beating heart in “witnessing”) is in the prophetic mode of literature. The poems reach beyond national traditions of craft, further back in time, to the very heart of spoken language, to its primal roots: dark, musical, confrontational, dangerous. Like her predecessors Patti Smith & Toni Morrison, Monet uses language and poetry to carve out a voice for the oppressed—calling out the limitations and corruptions of current power, the beatings, the economic abuse, the heavy foot of the politically callous, the ugly indifference of society in its vision for marginalized communities:

“it’s not lost on me
that death is part of life
some die so others live
but who is doing all the dying
at the expense of all this living” — from “dark matter”

This book moves, it breathes with music on every line. This isn’t a professor’s book of linguistic riddles. My Mother is a voice let loose, a long song dashing between rant and sermon and lament and dance. The poetry carries the reader, you don’t want to put it down, every poem a new melody and new beat, new sounds in the ear. Monet’s performative talents are as clear on the page as on the stage:

“we marooned in the projects
hid in the holy hood of our crown
doused our bodies in albahaca water
blessed by sandhog saints
abre el camino
as hellish hipsters sip on Brooklyn brew” — from “an offering”

You want to read these poems quickly, loosely, letting them set the pace. She uses language to carry the reader forward, not to make them pause and puzzle. Everything is delivered with its own musicality, its own pace. Her poetry doesn’t follow technical rhythmic structures, but flows loosely as if they were born first in the ear and second on the page

These strands of prophecy and music come together with great force in the title poem, “my mother was a freedom fighter”. Monet slows down to write in a series of long-lined quatrains, full of daring and beautiful images stacked back to back:

“she testifies a night song on the wooly back of a mammoth,
shadowboxing rivulets, a mother’s cowl falls to her feet,
a fist in the pouch of a honey-hipped negra hill towering
over the country…”

The effect is simply beautiful—the poem is simply beautiful, especially as the previous poems in the section were so burningly specific to our place and cultural moment. Through this ode to her mother, Monet turns us to poetic flight, to the true goal of prophecy: ground yourself in the heroic past to lift yourselves to a heroic future.

“…because the eye of the storm within her,
they called her magic. merely more, she was
a freedom fighter and she taught us how to fight.”

Historically, prophets are not treated well. Only once they’re safely in the grave do we turn back and bestow their proper title—but not so for all the voices rising today, the queer voices, the brown voices, the voices on the frontier of poetry’s future, making camp, preparing the path.

For all it’s beauty and vitality, My Mother Was a Freedom Fighter is not without flaw, and Monet could have likely left out a few pieces without sacrificing the overall effect. A number of poems call out for some attentive tightening and focus—a reader can see the growth to come in her writing as she matures on the page across the length of the book. However, My Mother Was a Freedom Fighter‘s music trumps any hesitations, and these issues are minor in comparison to the overwhelmingly generous scope of what Monet gifts to the reader.

Hers is a voice pressing against injustice wherever it can, singing out accusations, threats—laying bare the realities of the oppressed and declaring their existences unjust. She’s not afraid of any one or any system, and this book is a torch in the dark, a raucous and defiant singing on the horizon.

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