Malika Booker is a British poet, performer and playwright of Grenadian and Guyanese heritage. Although Booker was born in the UK, she spent eleven years of her childhood living with her mother, father and two brothers in Guyana. This time ignited her love of storytelling and the complex, deeply conflicted relationship she shared with her grandmother has really informed her written work. Her poetry is infused with a vibrant, dialectical rhythm and her energy in performance is remarkably substantial. Her debut stage show, Absolution, was commissioned jointly by the Austrian Cultural Institute and Apples & Snakes in 1999, and performed at the Battersea Arts Centre. In 2001, Booker founded Malika's Poetry Kitchen, a space designed to create a "nourishing and encouraging community of writers'" which runs a continuous series of bi-monthly surgeries designed to help aspiring poets perfect their craft. Currently, Booker is a Douglas Caster Fellow at the University of Leeds, where she is working on her second collection, The Bread of Redemption.
In 2016, Booker served as Chair of Judges for the Forward Prizes for poetry. In that capacity, she said:
This dedication to fostering the work of the fringes has remained a consistent part of her work.
Beyond this, Booker has become known for her dynamic, energetic poetry performances, infusing the spoken aspect of her work with fire, character and the sort of life that is appropriate for an artist who is tied so closely to the theatre. At the same time, she retains a sense of intimacy which makes the listener feel as though they were in conversation with a friend.
Pepper Seed (2013), Booker's first full collection, explores the themes of blood, love, and the brutal truths of heritage. Caribbean culture and rhythms of speech thread through these pages like flashes of silk against a background of cotton, and many of these poems focus on the poet's relationship with her brutally strong, life-hardened grandmother. In 'Pepper Sauce' we are presented with something which seems like an image of mercy:
And Anne dicing, and crying, relieved that no belt has blistered her skin
no knife handle smashed down onto her knuckles
until they bleed for stealing money from grandmother purse.
This grandchild is obviously accustomed to a harsh and painful discipline. With such expectations, it's easy to see why being asked to do nothing more than prepare a meal would seem like grace - but the grandmother is not being merciful. Throughout the book she seems obsessed with scouring away the filth which she supposes is ingrained in female nature. In practice, her obsession with (and hatred of) the facts of female anatomy is brought to the forefront through the methods of her abuse. In this poem, the grandmother forces Anne to participate in her own victimisation:
strung her out naked, like she there lying on a crucifix.
I hear she spread she out, then say,
I go teach you to steal from me, Miss Lady.
I hear she scoop that pepper sauce out of a white enamel bowl
and pack it deep into she granddaughter's pussy,
The desire for love from an impossible source propels the long narrative 'Red Ants Bite' out of the doldrums which can often mire long-form free-verse poetry. In this poem, the young speaker is desperate to receive the smallest hint of affection:
but her mouth was brutal,
like a hard-wire brush, it scraped me,
took skin off my bones, made me bleed
The poem spans approximately twenty years and provides little balm or resolution for a reader hungry for a happy ending. There isn't one. After a lifetime spent abusing her progeny, the grandmother (who is dying in Guyana) speaks of a life plagued by men, desiring the status granted by bringing forth boys. She hints at her rape at the hands of those men, then relates the advice her own mother gave her when she lamented the curse of her life:
they only bring hard ears. Jessie, harden your heart
to them girl. But I tell you, Miss, I never kill no child,
and is one boychild I breed, only one, then pure girls.
I didn't right to vex?
'Red Ants Bite' is a long poem; it spans a full five pages. In lesser hands, it would be easy for the poet to lose control and see the lines descend to sprawl, but the threads are woven thoroughly, and pressed very tight.
The hinted-at abuse the grandmother suffered at the hands of men is fleshed out in the brilliantly graphic poem 'Warning'. Based on the intergenerational relationship between the women in her Grenadian family. Here, folk-wisdom is whispered, mouth-to-ear, so that it filters through the generations:
pepper the food, boil hot water and throw,
use a knife and make clean cut down there,
use cutlass and chop, then go police.
This seeming-brutality begins to make sense when the speaker describes watching women being beaten bloody, right in the middle of the bright-lit street. This heritage which the speaker, living as she does 'safe' in the heart of London, thinks she has escaped, until she has a close call with a male friend:
till that night my friend could not drive
and I offered him my bed to sleep.
I felt something in his look, he and I
alone in that room, and my blood raised up.
The speaker's blood, her rage and her history, surface repeatedly throughout her complex, beautiful work and are echoed and magnified by her dynamic performances.
Breadfruit. Flipped Eye, London, 2007
Pepper Seed. Peepal Tree Press, Leeds, 2013
Bittersweet: Contemporary Black Women's Poetry. Ed. Karen McCarthy. The Women’s Press, London, 1998
IC3: The Penguin Anthology of New Black Writing. Eds. Courttia Newland and Kadija Sesay. Penguin, London, 2000
KIN: Commemorative Tour Anthology. Renaissance One, London, 2004
The Way We See It, The Way It Is. Lynk Reach, London, 2004.
Hidden Gems Two: Contemporary Black British Plays: 2. Ed. Deirdre Osborne. Oberon, London, 2012
Booker’s profile as chair of the 2016 Forward Prizes judging panel
Booker’s profile at the University of Leeds
Interview with Booker by Rhoda Barath at the University of the West Indies
Pepper Seed at Peepal Tree Press
Filmpoem of Booker’s 'The Devil and He Wife’
Booker’s Youtube channel
Podcast of Booker (in collaboration with Emily Butterworth) performing ‘Waiting… in a hairdressers’ with Fuel Theatre