Hannah Sawyerr, 21, says she’s been working on her first book “For Girls Growing into Their Hips” (Penmanship Books) since she was 17.
“My senior year of high school, that’s when I wrote the poem ‘For Girls Growing into Their Hips,’ and I remember I told myself if I ever got a book deal, that’s what I would title the book,” she says.
Now a senior at Morgan State University, Sawyerr was able to make that dream actually happen. She won the title of Baltimore’s Youth Poet Laureate in 2016 by performing a poem that uses a simple Sunday dress to address issues of faith and sexual assault. A book deal was part of the prize.
Sawyerr is a young black woman; her father is a refugee from Sierra Leone. So, her very being—her hair, her skin, her dreams and desires—is political, and would be so even if she didn’t choose to confront these facts head-on in her poems.
“America has a way of treating immigrants as if its foundation wasn’t built on the backs of them,” she declares in a spoken word poem delivered in a video published to BBC.com.
She says she writes for other women like her.
“Young black women, but I guess women of color as well just because a lot of the experiences are shared,” she says, “but when I sat down and wrote the book, I’m thinking young women between the ages of maybe 13-25.”
Sawyerr’s poetry also confronts her own experience with sexual assault. In her poem ‘On Testifying Against Your Abuser,’ she talks about what it feels like to have such an intimate, private crime be splayed so openly in court.
“The internet along with my mother have tried to convince me/ that I am some type of heroic super girl/ that all the women back home are looking up to me,/ it’s a bit ironic:/ the sight of his face makes me gag,” she writes.
“Before my term [as youth poet laureate], when I didn’t have people watching me, it was easier to speak about these things,” she says. “Even on my campus there are people who know these things about me and it becomes kind of overwhelming.”
Even though it’s daunting to keep talking and writing about something so sensitive, as the spotlight on her has grown, she’s found healing in doing so.
“I had to realize that activism is healing, and people say that often, but there are so many things that activism is. Like, it’s hurt, it’s sadness, sometimes it’s exhausting, and that’s what I was really learning throughout my term.”
Sawyerr is just one of the artists to come out of Baltimore’s notable spoken word poetry scene. It can be hard to take words that are performed and make them work on the page. However, Sawyerr says that for her, each word must make sense there first.
“There’s something special about reciting a poem orally, and it’s obviously going to be different, but if your work makes no sense or is completely wack on paper, it’s just not it,” she says. “I think people really need to take into consideration that the page is important.”
Lately, she’s been mostly editing mode, prepping for the book’s release.
“I have not started a second book,” she says. “I was actually just telling someone for me it’s so hard, I feel like I’ve been editing for so long and I really need to get into writing new stuff.”
As a graduating senior, she’s also been thinking about what’s next, and wrestling with the idea of writing as a real, viable job and not “just a cute little hobby.”
“I feel like whenever people ask me what I want to do and what I want to be, I get scared to tell them that I really want to be a writer,” she says. “I’m an English major and I want to teach, so education is really important to me, but I want to write. That’s what I want to do. I feel like what I want to do is so specific, and to most people it’s so unrealistic but that’s where my heart is, really.”
“For Girls Growing into Their Hips” will be released Nov. 30. A book release party is planned the same day at the Murphy Fine Arts Center, James E. Lewis Museum of Art, 2201 Argonne Drive, from 7-9 p.m.