What the Heart Knows: An Introduction

This collection of twenty-three (23) poems is set in South Sudan’s turbulent past and present, land and people. The poems cover an array of topics ranging from the author’s life as a refugee, a record of war in South Sudan and Sudan, nationalist sacrifices, a tribute to important personages in the recent history of South Sudan and beyond, a commentary on the political and social systems, a diary of events she has witnessed, a prayer for the survivors of wars in Sudan and for the souls of the dead who left this world due to human cruelty and many more issues. In a sentence, this book is an exploration of the mind, a soulful reflection on the complexity of life. The book is neither a diagnosis of what is wrong nor prescription of how to fix a broken society, but a presentation of the beautiful mess we call life, of what the author has seen about this particular society. It is a protest of sorts, a celebration of life, a tribute, a caution, a plea to humanity to be more human than the record has shown so far. It is about death, renewal and continuity through a variety of ways. Above all, it is a meditation to heal and renew oneself, to remind others of their rights and responsibilities and to dialogue with the surroundings.

In a sentence, this book is an exploration of the mind, a soulful reflection on the complexity of life.

-Jok Madut Jok

It is best to read this book as a historical record, as some of the poems pay homage to John Garang de Mabior, South Sudan’s liberation hero who died exactly six months after he ended 20 years of war with Sudan, Yousif Kwa Makki, the fierce libratory mind from the Nuba Mountains who dedicated his life and died trying to draw the world’s attention to the suffering of his people or Kuol Adol, the Dinka Ngok chief slaughtered by the Arabs of north Sudan for insisting on staying on his ancestors’ land. All these poems reflect the moral challenge of how far man needs to go to achieve “freedom,” what kind of freedom, what one has to destroy in order to rebuild, at what price. But one should also keep in mind that this book will make you shed both angry and happy tears, when you read of how friends, families, neighbors, teachers, doctors, shopkeepers, administrators, soldiers, priests, land surveyors, judges, government ministers, members of parliament, laborers, real estate people and handymen who repairs furniture, all feature so prominently in our lives beyond their specialized professions, doing so with honor but also in not-so- honorable manner. Are we really our brothers and sisters’ keepers that we ought to be, asks the book, though not in so many words, or are we just condemned to race to the top and care not about those who get crushed in the stampede?

Some of the poems can be heartbreaking in the story they tell. The rendition of the tragic story of land grabbers run amok in the town of Juba is humorous and mournful at once. The incident in which the author’s maternal ancestral land was seized to the point of eviscerating the burial grounds where her grandmother had been laid to rest not so long before captures a familiar story, a tragic colliding of a mismanaged state and individual rights. I shudder just thinking what happens to a country that erases its own past through these hasty programs that are driven by individual greed.

This is a true journey, not just the physical flight that the author undertook as a child, together with part of her family, to escape the brutality of a regime in Sudan, but a journey of the mind and heart thereafter. The heartache of the limbo in which refugees find themselves, caught between the physical refuge and spiritual presence at home is unmistakable. It so artistically paints the predicament that every refugee person will be familiar with, that of physical absence from home and the constant intellectual and spiritual commute back and forth between the birth home and the not-so-home of refuge. As refugees or internally displaced persons move, it is often lamented how little of their possessions they are able to take with them, how much they leave behind, what they lose of the fabric of their culture, of their identity. But this book demonstrates how culture is not an object that one forgets or fails to grab at the stressful moment of departure, like a traveler might forget her toothbrush or a favorite item of clothing. Instead, of all the things a fleeing person cannot really leave behind or forget, one’s culture, memory, identity and creativity are primary.

The heartache of the limbo in which refugees find themselves, caught between the physical refuge and spiritual presence at home is unmistakable.

-Jok Madut Jok

However, the extent to which the poems in this book are a testament to the resilience of culture, regardless of the physical location and the size of the community, whatever people do under extreme conditions of rapid change is going to be both a survival mechanism in foreign lands, in communities undergoing rapid transition due to war, as much as it can be a liability for some members of the community who have a utilitarian view of culture. It can be as much a mechanism for coping and as it is something that can run its course and should not constrain people in a straight-jacket. So is cultural change a bad thing, since constant change is the only thing culture does? Since the primary goal of culture is to prescribe behavior, help people adapt to circumstances or to celebrate memory, identity and values, is it change itself we are afraid of or the type of change we end up with? The book navigates that question beautifully through several poems, including Guiltiness, They Called Me Kush, Beloved and others.

For readers who see language, the crafty use of words, as an art form, people who find beauty, hear music and song when they read or listen to poetry, this book will come as a bit of surprise, simple and yet captivating, using the unlikely material to speak of weighty subjects and above all, coming from an unlikely literary person, a young career civil servant. The author is a diplomat by profession, but one that has carried her culture, historical sensibility, love of a country and pride in her ancestry, and has used this cultural baggage, for lack of a better term, as the backdrop to her poetry. To be a public servant is indeed to be a student of culture, as interactions with the public afford an opportunity to understand people and why they act the way that they do, which is the central question in social science’s quest to understand the human condition.

The author is a diplomat by profession, but one that has carried her culture, historical sensibility, love of a country and pride in her ancestry, and has used this cultural baggage, for lack of a better term, as the backdrop to her poetry.

-Jok Madut Jok

This book is not unique in the sense that most South Sudanese writers in different disciplines come from similar backgrounds and use that background as the material for their literary creations. But this book will be one of only very few books that converses so eloquently with the everyday, covering disparate issues, from war to love, death to celebration of life, nation to village, government to people, the telling of lies and of the truth, betrayal and caring, songs and jokes, memory and forgetfulness. For this reason, it will most probably be more readily accessible to people who are in tune with the cultural and historical context of South Sudan, though readers from other parts of the world will find something in this book that will intrigue, inspire, enlighten and entertain them. It is certainly one of only four books of poetry of its kind that I have been privileged to read closely and to find utterly invigorating.

Jok Madut Jok, Juba 2018