Alison Flood in The Guardian:
Emtithal Mahmoud was brimming with rage and misery when she sat down to write her poem Mama. Her grandmother had just died in Sudan, her mother was on a plane to the funeral and she felt consumed by anger. “I wrote it in one of the darkest times of my life,” she says. “It felt like my grandmother had survived everything, the war, famine, and in the end it was not just cancer, it was lack of access to proper medical research. It was a very dark time. And that poem helped me get through it.” Hours after writing Mama, Mahmoud – also known as Emi, who was born in Darfur but moved to the US from Yemen as a four-year-old – performed it at the 2015 Individual World Poetry Slam Championship in Washington DC – and won the competition. Full of fury, Mama opens as a man asks Mahmoud: “Hey yo sistah, you from the motherland? … ’cause you got a little bit of flavor in you, / I’m just admiring what your mama gave you.” It becomes a paean to Mahmoud’s mother, who “can reduce a man to tattered flesh without so much as blinking”, who “walks into a war zone and has warriors cowering at her feet”.
“Don’t talk about the motherland unless you know / that being from Africameans waking up an / afterthought in this country. / Don’t talk about my flavor unless you know / that my flavor is insurrection, it is rebellion, / resistance,” Mahmoud recited, bringing the audience to their feet and receiving a perfect score
In London on a flying visit to the UK – she’s been in Birmingham speaking on Philanthropy Age’s How to Do Good tour – Mahmoud is overflowing with charisma. She has so much to talk about, from working in refugee camps in Greece (she pulls out a wallet made from a life jacket a boy on Lesbos gave her) to meetings with the Dalai Lama (“He said: ‘There’s a lot of pain in Darfur and in Sudan’ and I was like, ‘There is’. He held my hand for a bit and I said, ‘I’m working on it and we’re with you.’”) But she’s getting ahead of herself. She turned 22 shortly after winning the slam, at which point her life started to become a little surreal. Still a student at Yale, where she was studying molecular, cellular and developmental biology and anthropology, Mahmoud was chosen as one of the BBC’s 100 most inspirational women in 2015, and wrote the poem The Things She Told Me to mark the honour.