The sun has just risen, but the early morning humidity freezes every sweaty face. On a Saturday, the café is crowded and therefore noisy; a woman cheats on her love for Hedy Lamarr, while horns scream Caribbean-style melodies, their shrill complemented by the rubbery sound of shoes tapping on dirt floors. This is Diaspora Cafe: DCa collection of melodic and lively poetry edited by Jeffrey “Great intimate” Banks and Maritza Rivera and published by Day Eight. The poems evoke a colorful café where all are invited to live and learn, a communal space established by and through Afro-Latin creativity, set to the often melancholic and rhythmic soundtrack of the Black and Brown experience in the region of DC.
Diaspora Cafe: DC celebrates and preserves difference, acknowledging the breadth of Afro-Latin people who “embody many shades of a ‘Brown'”. Banks and Rivera have collected 34 poems by 14 writers in this intimate anthology depicting the dynamics of the region Afro-Latin culture. In an editor’s note, Banks states that “this collection features often misunderstood ethnic populations”. Her goal for the anthology is to elevate black and brown voices, dispel offensive stereotypes, and achieve understanding for all readers. The poems are written by and about Afro-Latin creators, and the collection, so intimate and honest, generously welcomes unknown readers to a fictional cafe bustling with life.
Joy “Sista Joy” Alford, the West Indian girl, dances and hums a melody of her excellence. Its celebration gives way to the mystical reveries of Jane Alberdeston Coralin, whose edgy verses and vivid imagery are rooted in Puerto Rican soil. Stories of loss turn into cries of joy, and the voices, each distinct, harmonize in the song of the diasporic mix.
Arranged alphabetically by author, the poems are largely in free verse, allowing poets like Saleem Abdal-Khaaliq to abandon flat poetic vanitas in favor of bold spacing and offbeat verses in his innovative and brilliant “Muse/um”. Although prolonged exposure to a poet gives a stronger feel to his voice, which Diaspora cafe captures, the editors are missing an opportunity to facilitate conversations between the poems in this alphabetical arrangement, preventing the very communication the collection purports to maintain. Fortunately, even without speaking to each other, each poem presents a story to readers in a unique and deeply personal, if sometimes awkward, voice.
Readers must bring their own voices into the mix, activating text with speech and adding to the din of the cafe. The animation of the verses lays bare the influence of oral tradition and communal gathering that underlies the entire collection. Turns of phrase that seem awkward on the page ring naturally. Christine Williams‘ love poem “A” asks to be read; to join Williams in exclaiming “I love it when you do that shit!” is pure bliss. Spanish words and AfroLatinidad references may not be familiar to all readers, but anyone who comes across Diaspora cafe learn about a thriving culture and the challenges faced by its members’ Afro-Latin communities.
Themes of discovery, youth, loss and anger color the heartfelt stories woven by local poets who recount the joys and tribulations of life in and around the nation’s capital. Refusing to be forgotten, the poets whose voice colors Diaspora Cafe: DC confront the systemic erasure of Afro-Latin populations with powerful stories – some lived, some inherited – that testify to the richness and wholeness of community. An antidote to the hollow promises common in the overhyped American political arena, the verses in this anthology are generous, honest, and welcoming.