Safiya Sinclair Reclaims the Black Female Body in Cannibal
By Sarah Arnold
Safiya Sinclair’s Cannibal is a poetry collection of exceptional force. It was published in the US by the University of Nebraska Press in 2016 and recently published in the UK by Picador in 2020. Amidst the global effect of movements like BLM, a fight for equality long overdue is finally gaining societal momentum, making Cannibal as relevant as it had been upon publication in 2016. In 2020, alas, there is a larger audience eager to educate themselves and act upon structural inequalities. Feminism and Post-Colonialism melt, as the female body in Cannibal is invaded like bodies of land and water.
A victim of my generation, I messaged Safiya on Instagram expressing my fascination with her poetry, and she replied: “When I began writing poetry, my hope was always to speak to the young women who most needed to hear it. Women like you. Women like me.” This continual force of creative expression and reception is perhaps the most important reason to discuss her work, right here, right now.
Much like Belinda in the popular TV show Fleabag, we come to realise that “Women are born with pain built in. It’s our physical destiny”: period pains, the pain of childbirth, and the pressure imposed on our flesh by society: our bodies reduced to powerhouses of reproduction, or carefully stylised to an artificial ideal of a young and able object. To comply, women are pushed as far as self-mutilation in the poems. Safiya’s language invokes violence, rupture, fragmentation – both figuratively and literally. In “Hands”, the speaker’s mother cuts off two fingers to comply to norms, which is mirrored in the paratextual mutilation of the poem on the page.
Obedience to arbitrary norms of beauty is a major theme throughout the collection and actively conveyed by a framework of complex intertextuality. The bodies in Cannibal, as well as themes like exile from one’s language and the title, allude to Caliban from Shakespeare’s The Tempest, who is often portrayed as a deformed and dirty being, more animal than human.
Shockingly, Caliban is still used as a vessel for comedy (take for instance the RSC’s 2016 production). The silly, grotesque movements and the childlike naïveté are used to generate laughter among the audience. As soon as one takes into account the post-colonial implications of the play, however, the comedy in Caliban’s portrayal becomes painful to watch: the animalistic depiction of a native islander, enslaved by a master, chastised and ill-treated, becomes the expression of the coloniser’s gaze on the colonised.
Safiya invokes these images of a body that is monstrous in the gaze of the coloniser by comparing the black, female bodies to creatures in the way they are perceived and treated (in the collection, we encounter sea monsters, hydras, snakes, among others). Once more, the body becomes subject to violent subordination, both in terms of gender and ethnicity. This is displayed in her epigraphs pointing to rewritings of The Tempest as well, but also by her own act of reclaiming pseudo-scientific discourses on phrenology, in poems such as “100 Amazing Facts About the Negro, with Complete Proof, I”.
But Cannibal does not merely reproduce discourses and mirror the violence endured; through intertextual and paratextual delicacy, Safiya follows a radical agency to subvert common discourses. To reclaim the body, she embraces the monstrosity. Like Caliban, who exclaims “You taught me language, and my profit on’t / Is I know how to curse”, she uses that which is enforced upon her body to reclaim it.
Female sexuality becomes the cannibal that reclaims its body. Similarly, in her sixth poem in the collection, she refashions Eve as the anaconda, who sheds her shell of societal confinement. In ‘Crania Americana’, the final poem of the collection, all of the previous themes blend together to allow Sinclair to “reclassify the very / ape of us” which is somewhere between “Half-fish and Half monstrous” to ultimately reclaim the body.
Cannibal combines the echoes of the monstrous body, the violence it is subject to with the typographical gaps and allusions to the pseudo-scientific account of the Caucasian skull as epigraphs. It all culminates in the final poem, where “nothing  grow[s] politely”. Sinclair reclaims her body as a woman from society and men, and as a colonised from the coloniser by “wear[ing] your gabble like a diadem”. The natural state of the body, determined by genes, is embraced as a beautiful, natural phenomenon, “this bioluminescence”. The speaker in the final poem asks the master: “Dare I / unjungle it?”. Her collection is the answer to that.
Safiya does not only theorise the female body and its relation to violence, but actively engages with it in a ‘liminal space’; she follows an agency that points beyond merely verbalising issues.
Cannibal dares us to follow and unjungle our bodies.