What the Heart Knows: An Introduction

This collection of twenty-five (25) 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. In a sentence, this book is an exploration of, and a soulful reflection on, the complexity of South Sudan. This book is neither a diagnosis of what is wrong nor a 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 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.

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

-Jok Madut Jok

It is best to read this book as a historical record. One 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. Another depicts, Yousif Kwa Makki, the fierce liberator from the Nuba Mountains who dedicated his life and died trying to draw the world’s attention to the suffering of his people. Another poem eulogizes, Kuol Adol, the Ngok Dinka chief slaughtered by the Missiriya of the 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; and at what price.

Some of the poems can be heartbreaking in the story they tell. The poem, “Komiru a Paka,” a 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.

This collection showcases 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 also 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. These poems demonstrate how culture is not an object that refugees forgets or fails to grab at the stressful moment of departure. 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

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. It is 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.

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. It covers different issues, from death to celebration of life, nation to the 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