In a world plagued by desirability politics and unrealistic standards for beauty, there’s the need to constantly reassure the girl-child. With exposure to social media, it’s very easy for one to get caught up in a crisis of confidence, or worse still, struggle with self-esteem when they don’t seem to fit into what the world “ demands”. To this end, it’s imperative to have constant reminders to embrace uniqueness, and it would be nice to hear a voice constantly screaming against gender roles and repressive systems.
Funmi Coker, poet and sociologist, attempts to be that voice. In Letter To Lilly, her debut collection of poems published by UK-based outfit The Roaring Lion Newcastle, she takes a break from hiking and shopping for books, and sets off on a social crusade, reminding young women of their self-worth.
The book gets off to a flyer with Identity, a poem that emphasises the need to come to terms with being different. What Were You Told? questions gender-based stereotypes, Burn is a call to be ambitious, and on Every Girl Is A Goddess, Coker admonishes ladies to never lose sight of their divinity.
Even Numbers could be interpreted as a nod to companionship, How Do You Sleep? examines misconceptions about religion and race, Education is a short take on adolescent sex and teenage pregnancies, and the title poem, Letter To Lilly, reads like an oriki rendered in English, a medley of affirmations, amidst lines like “girl, you are melody/you make music soothing/you are the dream, the dreamland/never forget…”
Silhouette runs like a serenade, with lines like “your body is a museum of memories/maybe that’s why you are a mystery/sometimes you are as bold as a Lagos truck driver…” In Epiphany (1976), Coker weeps for a girl whose dreams are stifled by the patriarchial system she’s trapped in. Zaza’s mirror dwells on teenage infatuation, Invention is a dark reminder that in some places girls are still not allowed to go to school, and A Pint Of Madness illustrates how women are undermined in today’s society with lines like “say, a woman has no grit/she cannot connect the dots/she’s too soft for rigor/like snowflakes before the sun/she melts, she’s too weak”.
Coker kicks out at stereotypes again with Ori, a poem that examines how people internalise beliefs from one generation to another. Before The Sun Goes Down is an ode to hard work, Lyrics Of Blood involves verses that protest systemic racism, and The Birth Of Silence is an intense poem that addresses domestic abuse and gender-based violence.
An Anatomy Of Women In My City has the author shed light on how women break from too many expectations, Becoming A Woman addresses child marriage in Northern Nigeria, Catalyst is a short poem on surviving trauma, Treat Her Like A Woman emphasises respect and reciprocity, Watch is an admonition to parents to pay attention to their female children, and Your Body Is A Country, whose title flows from Dami Ajayi’s poetry collection A Woman’s Body Is A Country, pays homage to the female anatomy, drawing allusions to religious ceremonies, altars and temples.
With 43 poems, Coker successfully attempts to draw attention to the issues facing today’s women, including gender discrimination, emotional abuse, neglect and educational disadvantage, among other things. The title of this collection reads like a handbook to the girl-child, but the content proves that it’s a lot more meaningful than that. This will resonate with the little girl in Kafanchan, the working-class women in Abuja, and the black man in Houston. Ladies should read this, and men, who clearly need to understand how women are treated in today’s world, must read this.
The poems in Letters To Lilly are direct and intense, maybe too heavy sometimes, but Coker is not trying to sugar-coat, and she’s taking no prisoners. This is real talk, and she’s choosing to say it as it is. She’s making a statement with this collection, and the world should be thankful for it.