By Maria Messias Mendes
Yomi Sode's debut poetry collection 'Manorism' presents his experiences of finding himself between worlds. Through poems exploring the complexities of belonging, family and communication, Manorism challenges us to understand with our entire bodies. Sode offers us an invitation, and we must earn the key to open this door.
Manorism is the debut collection of the award-winning Nigerian British writer Yomi Sode. His work balances Nigerian and British cultures in loving, self-reflective, humorous, but also uncomfortable ways. In this collection, Sode presents poems about family, survival, generational trauma, and the complexities of belonging. Through these, he explores the lives of Black British men and boys. Sode challenges us to consider what it means to find yourself between worlds. For Sode, code-switching is central to this, 'the action of shifting between two or more languages, or between dialects or registers of a language.' In Manorism, code-switching means to adapt both one's language and one's behaviour to radically different cultural contexts. This collection opens a door to readers to hear and, most importantly, feel these experiences with their entire bodies. From the beginning of Manorism, there is switching between English and Yoruba, for example in the following exchange: "Aunty N. asked whether you could speak Yoruba. A little bit, but I can fully hear it. From now on I refuse to speak to you in English, so gbo? We all thought she was joking. She wasn't joking. Yoruba bellowed from her mouth like a tannoy:
you looked like you shit yourself." Yet, this code-switching is not only thematic; we see it from the very first page. Sode interweaves Yoruba with multiple dialects of English in the poem titles. For example 'Adura Mama Mi' opens the collection and sits side by side with 'Fugitives' and 'An Ode to Bruv, Ting, Fam and, on Occasion, Cuz & My Man.' Even in the titles we already see, the shifting between languages, registers, and dialects, playing with formal and informal modes of expression. The first poem is completely in Yoruba, apart from two lines: 'God, that makes way for the Israelites on the Red Sea, will make way for you when there's no way.' From this English line, non-Yoruba speaking readers can understand that this is a prayer. Throughout the collection, we have snippets of Yoruba, for example 'òyìnbó',’ 'aláwọ́ igi', or 'I did not tell you about the iyán and ẹ̀fọ́ I ate two hours earlier.' Sode is inviting us in, gifting us partial access to his community. Importantly, Sode identifies and codifies them as his own, separate entities with independence and agency beyond transparent understanding. He does not give us translations or explanations; to do so, would impact the poems' authenticity, warping and stripping them from their innate flavours and meanings. His experiences does not require our observation to exist and be realised. The insight we are offered is a gift. To gain this deeper insight, it must and should be required to actively engage with the context from which Manorism is born. As readers, we need to do this work to gain further understanding; it is not Sode's responsibility offer this to us on a silver platter. Central to Manorism and also the practice of code-switching is considering the differences of impunity afforded to white and black people. Sode draws parallels between this affordance white people are granted in our society through the figure of the Baroque painter Caravaggio, who, as Sode puts it in an interview with The Guardian, 'is both the bad boy and the Bible of the art world.' While his art is lauded, Caravaggio actually murdered people. Sode explores this in 'Fugitives': 'Caravaggio continued painting and bawling, lauded for his works' until he was forced to flee. The poem ends powerfully, pointing out how Caravaggio 'fled because [he] could, crossed boarders at ease because [he] could: because white skin is white skin everywhere; because privilege, irrespective of time, allows a grace period.' The repetition of 'because' and the list-like syntax makes us feel the lack of barrier that privilege provides. In The Guardian interview, Sode links this privilege to police offers today: "[They] are licensed to carry guns, and [...] shoot unarmed black men. Until recent times, many of these police officers have been acquitted of their crimes. Even now they're suspended on full pay while their actions are investigated. This is privilege." Manorism is exploring why this form of graces are not afforded to everyone and how these parallels between historic and contemporary racism have not changed much over time. This is particularly evident in the poem 'Manorism I: On the Cultural Representation of "Black Britain"'. Sode recounts the moment Alex Mann, a white fifteen-year-old, is invited onstage by Dave to rap AJ Tracey's verse at Glastonbury. This event went viral, and Sode explores what happened three days later: "My thumb is two-stepping the remote control, flicking between Alex from Glasto [...] & AJ Tracey. Both are being interviewed on separate channels at the same time. I watch." The language of dance, 'two-stepping', again brings us back to our bodies. This is what Sode watches: on the one side, we have Mann being praised ('I salute you'), whereas on the other we have AJ Tracey ('your videos [...] a shout out to gangs'). Mann is celebrated as a 'role model, the violent undertones deemed suitable for breakfast television'. The language is starkly opposing: salute versus shout, role model versus gangs. Alex Mann is receiving the rewards of someone else's words. As Sode puts it: "the mouth in which the lyrics were born is sealed, upraised, the artist constantly reminded of the circumstances he grew up in, & which he has since outgrown." The two are even divided visually on the page with a line, highlighting the boundary. This also refers to the duality of Britain's history: the shining cities built on the wealth of slavery, the multi-cultural metropolis that in media is often isolated from its fractured and troubled past. Our own institutions code-switch, constructing narratives that benefit them at the expense of communities: diversity and multiculturalism in a united Britain versus black and poor communities perpetrating violence. This rhetoric is often weaponised against black people by Britain's institutions. Very powerfully, Sode brings this to the point by bringing a quote into his poem: "So you think Britain is still racist? - la Repubblica Definitely, 100% - Stormzy" After presenting the dichotomy between Alex Mann versus AJ Tracey's treatment, this question is not one that needs to be asked. Sode has already illustrated how it gets answered in everyday British life. This is particularly painful at the end of the poem, as he quotes David Starkey: "Slavery was not a genocide, otherwise there wouldn't be so many damn blacks in Africa or in Britain, would there?" Manorism I brings in these very real contexts into their form; they are what makes code-switching necessary, switching just as Sode does between channels in this poem. The title of the collection already shines a light on this need: it is a play on how we spell "manners" and "mannerism". It lays bare Sode's interest in these behavioural traits, this code-switching that happens within the black body, specifically men and boys. They are innate to the area in which one grows up (hence the "manor", the area). Those -isms are things carried everywhere, no matter where one is. In consequence of this, the body never rests. Sode told The Guardian how he "[lives] in a constant state of high alert [but is] also mindful of how [he occupies] space, because [he doesn't] want other people to feel nervous either." This is why, as he puts it, "you're constantly code-switching." Beyond switching of language, there is also a shifting of registers. This becomes clear in "An Ode to Bruv, Ting, Fam and, on Occasion, Cuz & My Man.' It lays bare how language can be 'shapeshifting.' Importantly, Sode specifically links this to danger or threat: "whenever in harm's reach." We understand that these shifts do not always come from within. Yet, there are also other words that do, for example: 'Bruv' can be 'Brother' or 'Bro' or 'Bredda'; the list goes on. As readers, we feel the movements of this language, shaping itself to fit different contexts. There is also a strong sense of something 'nameless', the "ting known [warped] in reality of" the community. Sode paints this community as sharing a language "knotted through ancestry." It is a 'dextrous' language, a spiritual one. Sode's 'us' of embodied language further helps us experience what code-switching within the black body feels like. For example in 'An Ode': "We hear its hiss on the wrong tongues, & rattling of bones in its misspeak." Reading this is an embodied experience, we can feel our tongues, our bones. Another moment is in 'On Fatherhood: Proximity to Death', when Sode tells us about "when my eye catches another man's eye on road, Our intimate proximity is timed at three seconds, max." This time it is about physical communication: 'Eyes meet', legs 'rushed into oncoming traffic': again our bodies are awakened. We feel the anxiety rushing through us, emphasised by language of confrontation - 'What bruv!' and 'battle cry'. Again, there is a shift in language, as Sode speaks of his young son, who 'whispers I love you.' The poem ends with language of both love and fear: his son "rests his head on my chest / long enough to brith a new fear of death." Here, "Estimation of risk" is side by side with "a tired squeeze." As readers, we can feel the way they might exist within one body. Manorism is a collection that does not compromise. It unapologetically, and beautifully, shows us the colours and shades of these experiences; experiences that we are invited to feel with every part of us. Sode illustrates the complexities of belonging, and family, and communication, creating a language that enables us to listen with our entire bodies, minds and hearts. Most importantly, we are challenged to consider what this means. If Manorism is the door to Sode's experience, he is handing us the shape of the key. To enter, we must first work to make the key, to earn it. Only then, will we be able to see, feel and hear the sounds of his experience.