Shauna Barbosa's 'Cape Verdean Blues' Is a Poetic Exploration Of Movement & Cultural Inheritance
We spoke with the Cape Verdean-American author about the experiences that helped shape her stunning literary debut.
The reason we are where we are now is due to the movement of those who came before us.
For children of immigrants, movement—or the act of leaving one place for another—is the root of our cultural identities; the sole reason why some of us identify as Liberian-American, British-Ugandan and for others, Swedish-Eritrean. Shauna Barbosa, a poet born in Boston to an African-American mother and Cape Verdean father, captures the journeys of her parents and the unique upbringing which came about as a result in her stunning literary debut, Cape Verdean Blues.
Growing up in Boston she was physically surrounded by the culture and customs of each of her parents—her extended family on both sides lived on different floors of the same townhouse. These ultraspecific, yet familiar childhood experiences fostered her knack for writing at an early age. Each experience surfacing once again in Cape Verdean Blues.
The introspective poems explore the nature of leaving—channeling the very essence of movement, as it fluidly runs through universal themes of familial love, relationships, sexuality, community, escapism and even social media obsession. All of that means, that though her poems are deeply nuanced and personal, they have the power to resonate with someone who might wear some other hyphenated cultural identifier other than Cape Verdean-American, just as poignantly. "This book is for everybody," says the author.
We spoke with Barbosa about her childhood, transitioning from journalist to author, her love for hip hop—made obvious by poems named after famous Juvenile lyrics, and DMX cuts—and what she wants readers to take away from her work. Read our conversation below.
Photo by Sydney Brown
This interview has been shortened and condensed for clarity.
Can you tell us more about your Cape Verdean American upbringing and what initially drew you to become a writer?
Okay, yeah so my upbringing was pretty interesting. My mom and dad actually met in the '80s. They met at Polaroid. And Polaroid, I don't know if it was headquartered in Boston at this time, something like that. It was like a few years after my dad had come to America from Cape Verde. They met, they had me and eventually, in Boston, there are like three story homes. And they lived in a three story house and it was like my dad and my grandmother, aunt, uncle, cousins on the third floor. On the second floor, aunt, uncle, cousins. First floor was my mom, my sister, and me.
My mom is African American and my dad is African and I always felt like I was between these two worlds. I feel like I had the best of both worlds, the best of both cultures. My mom making Sunday dinner and then my grandmother upstairs making katchupa, which is a traditional Cape Verdean dish. But I feel like, of course, anytime you're in the middle of something as a kid you grow up and you try to figure out who you are and where you belong and who your friends are, so that happened really early on for me. I took to writing. I feel like it happened really organically. I remember my mom found my diaries and I just used to write some crazy shit.
I was always writing in high school. I used to write a lot of poems, but I can honestly say, I never thought I'd be a poet. I never thought that I'd be labeled a poet. I just never thought that.
How does it feel to be an author? That's a huge deal, making that transition from being a journalist to an author.
It's still all surreal. My cousin she teases me. She'll text me 'hey author, what's up.' And I'm like it's still a weird thing because I feel like I'm still in this very new phase. All of this just happened and I'm really just letting it sink in. But it feels good and it feels good because from what my family tells me, I've always said, I'm going to move to New York, even when I was like ten, I was just like I'm going to move to new York and I'm going to move to California and I'm going to be writing or something. I said this when I was like ten, and I lived in New York for five years and now I'm in California. So life really does come full circle and like all the cliche things that you hear growing up from people, it's real.
Yeah, so it feels good. I have younger siblings one 17, one about to be 13, and one 27. I have an older sibling and it just feels good because they see you can do whatever you want.
Photo by Sydney Brown
I want to know why you titled it Cape Verdean Blues. Why Blues?
There are so many different layers to that. But initially, the book was titled "The Genetics of Leaving." There's actually a poem in the book called The Genetics of Leaving it's about that initial time when an African, when any foreigner, when my grandmother left Cape Verde to come to America and start this life. There's a lot of leaving and there's a lot of going back and forth and there's a lot of reaching over these seas for people that you love and even just longing and reaching to stay connected to a culture that you know you can call yours, and making sure that you bring that with you.
After I started putting my poems together, I'm like oh my god, I write a lot about identity, about my black experience, my Cape Verdean experience, it was just all there and I just felt like there's an inherited trauma. I believe that there's inherited leaving.
I really feel attached to Cape Verdean culture and yeah, the blues of leaving, and I started reading Cape Verdean poets once I discovered them, and this one Jorge Barbosa—who I'm not related to by the way—he writes a lot about this land and just wanting to leave and how the sea can either help you or destroy you and it holds all of your dreams. There's just so much music there and then there's also Horace Silver, a jazz musician, the book is named after his album, The Cape Verdean Blues.
Everything really came together in the most organic way and that's something that I just feel really fortunate to have—something that really just came together.
Are there any other Cape Verdean themes or references in the book that someone who is not familiar with the culture wouldn't have picked up on, particularly the idea of sodade.
The book actually opens up with this poem called "Let" it just goes into Cape Verdean references right off the bat. The second line is "Or Cesaria Évora's voice on Christmas with Sodade on her lips." Cesaria Evora, she's a Cape Verdean singer and one of her most popular songs is "Sodade."
Then there's an Amílcar Cabral reference, who was a revolutionary for Cape Verde. One of my favorite ones is a poem called "Taking over for the 99 and the 2000," and that's something I think Boston Cape Verdeans will read and be like "wow." They'll know it, and hopefully they will feel it. It's really just about growing up on the street I grew up on and just how the dreams of our parents kind of transformed into an Instagram like. I feel like parents have these ideas and they come here and they want the best for their children—and this is not saying that we're not doing our best—but there's this thing that we are caught up in life. That poem is not just for Cape Verdeans, it's really about surveillance and [examining] the people that we grow into and the people that don't get to grow up from where we're from.
"It's really just about growing up on the street I grew up on and just how the dreams of our parents kind of transformed into an Instagram like."
Okay, so I'm not sure if you've put much thought into this, but was there a poem in particular that was like the hardest to write?
No. It's weird because I don't go to poetry first to work through something. I have before in the past. The first few times that I've taken workshops, if I was going through something, there was something I felt strongly about that went straight to the page.
I wanted to be able to see my feelings and situations, or someone else's. I wanted to be able to see it through a different lens and kind of think of different images that these feelings can convey and can represent. By the time I write a poem, it's not hard for me. It's hardened into me. It's writing. I'm still like working it through, but emotionally it doesn't weigh on me. But it's still difficult to write a poem.
Which is your favorite line or poem from Cape Verdean Blues? Or I can tell you one of my favorites and you can just expand on it if that helps.
Okay, I will riff off of your favorite.
It's called: "There's something so deeply gratifying about welcoming your mother into your home and offering her a meal as nourishment and thanks."
Okay, can I just tell you I got teary eyed. The story of this poem is really lame. This poem is definitely one of my favorites but was difficult to write. I was at this Residency on Martha's Vineyard. I took the title actually from a friend, it was her Facebook status one day. She's also a writer, her name is Leah Veaudry.
I think that in terms of the mother in the poem, and in terms of having parents who come from a different generation, you sometimes learn more than them. You learn differently and your palette is different from theirs. I feel like with a lot of my poems, it really just comes back to the body and image, which then comes down to identity.
I also feel that with a lot of my poems, there's always a mother lurking. That poem reminds me of "Strology: Gemini." With [that poem], maybe the speaker's questioning the mother and the mother is the beginning—Africa is the beginning. The sea is also the beginning for a lot of people. I think that is what really what shaped the book organically.
I just feel blessed to have been able to gather all of these different images and ideas to tell a story. We all want to tell a story.
Photo by Sydney Brown
Another part that struck me from your book were the poems with the title "This Is Not For English Speakers" What's the main idea? What's the message behind that?
Okay, so maybe almost two years ago, Manuel Da Luz Goncalves my god brother's father and I so we're basically family. He wrote the first Cape Verdean Creole to English dictionary. It was monumental on so many levels.
I remember sitting down with it and reading all of these words that I knew, some that I didn't, and some that I would hear my family speak that I had a different definition of. I think sometimes when you're second generation and you don't speak the language fluently, you hear things differently. So [the poems] "This Is Not For English Speakers" were inspired by that, by reading that dictionary. But also, thinking about growing up, or even now if I'm listening to a Cape Verdean song and someone is like "what does that mean in English?" But when you translate it in English it makes no sense.
So say you want to refer a book to someone and you say "oh, I want you to read this book by so and so, but Harry's translation is better than Shauna's," or [vise versa]. [The beauty of that] is something I'm really interested in and that was where that idea came from. And I'm actually working on more poems from that [perspective].
I saw so many other hip hop references in the book as well, like "How Is It Going Down," that's a reference to DMX song. I feel like a lot of the times rappers are considered poets. What lyricists or songwriters do you look to for inspiration?
I would say Nas, Frank Ocean, Amy Winehouse and Andre 3000 are my go to. Amy Winehouse's writing is incredible. I like to listen to the way she can tell a story from something that seems so simple and minute, I want to be able to take moments like that, and that's what I did with this book.
I'm not Cape Verdean, but as a black woman I identified with a lot of the things you said in the book. Who is this book for, who is your intended audience?
I never set out to write this book only for Cape Verdean. I want everyone to be able to go to it and be open to it. I'm a black woman, so it's just about or culture. I think it's layered in may different ways. If you find something in there, it's yours.