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1 April 2024

Sylheti for Beginners, as Explained by Your White Girlfriend by Erin Brady

Wasafiri is proud to publish the 2023 Queen Mary Wasafiri New Writing Prize shortlisted pieces. These poems, essays, and short stories detail a range of emotions and experiences, produced by promising new writers from all over the globe. This shortlisted poem by Erin Brady explores the complexities of identity, language, and family dynamics through poignant vignettes.

lenton (n.) – lamp, lantern  XxxxX

(n.) – smile


There was a time when your auntie shooed away the dark with oil lamps. You lay on a pallet with the others, sticky with heat as your cousin-bhai talked for hours. He spoke, and the shadows on the floor came alive and danced, making the floorboards creak. Each summer night you learned a new story and your dreams tasted a little of kerosene. Over time the lanterns dimmed. Now you try to spark a conversation with your mother. Salaam aleikum. You stretch the time with greetings. Aleikum salaam. Your exchange is a floundering match. You’ve forgotten how to say girlfriend, so you say Ekta furee dekhram. I am seeing a girl. Is she English? she asks. Are you happy? Pause. After all these years your mother briefly rekindles her smile.  


basha (n.) – language, dialect XxxxX

(n.) – marble  


At one point you could fill out application forms with bilingual English and Bangla and zero self-doubt. You try to describe what it’s like when one language has partly disappeared. When what you spoke at home was not written in any textbooks. When you were told it was a dialect and had to relearn it. When you lost both versions because you moved countries again and stopped using it. It's not the same as forgetting how to say pencil in school French, or a Japanese phrase you heard in a Miyazaki film. Connection is more vital, and more necessary, and yet unavailable. You still know the script, but have to sound it out. You understand, but in slow motion. You can talk, but it feels like odd-sized marbles suddenly filling your mouth. You start to explain yourself and choke on a conjunction. Small round nouns and verbs and adjectives tumble from your lips and roll across the room, clinking into each other as they race to the walls.


fatthor (n.) – rock, stone  XxxxX

(n.) – tear  


Your father used to ask Ischool kemon ache? Now it’s Kaam kemon ache? Bala acho ni? How is school, how is work, how are you? The correct answer is always Bala. All this is easier than asking Why don’t you visit more? and getting a list of broken things that can’t be put back. He’ll never understand why, with all of education at your feet, you chose to study rocks. But you no longer have the language to explain that stone feels more solid than family. You put your hands in your pockets and take out fistfuls of pebbles streaked with green and copper veins, geodes speckled with fool’s gold. He stares at them in confusion and waits. You say you have to go. He looks at you, tears in his eyes. The door slams behind you as you leave.  


XxxxX (n.) – roof

beloon (n.) – balloon   


Sometimes rain pounded on the tin and tile roofs. When floods followed and the house was spared, there was nothing to do but host the neighbours and wait for the water to go down. You and your friends made a raft out of banana trees, joining the trunks together with bamboo stakes. Setting off from your front door, you paddled between the mangoes and the lychees. Your auntie or your mother prepared the fish you caught as you finished your homework. When you were done you read Harry Potter and let the evening unfold in English-speaking fantasy. A cousin called you over to see the balloon animals he’d made. Dekho! Extra Safe parrots and puppies and tigers bounced around like cheerful ghosts, cawing and barking and growling, their Durex wrappers tossed aside.  


gaas (n.) – tree, plant XxxxX

(n.) – seed  


Today you pass a line of maples on your way to visit, collecting the seeds from the ground for later. When you arrive your father calls you over. He mentions how long it’s been. You listen, you nod, you think Maybe we can talk. You remember how your mother almost seemed pleased. Ekta furee dekhram. You share the piece of your life you have been hiding for months now, longer if you count past relationships. You are inappropriately reminded of your cousin’s white latex animals. Your father stiffens. He asks Why are you doing this? He asks Why are you ruining your life? He asks What will people say? You say things you’ve been holding back for years. The helicopter seeds in your pockets spill onto the ground. Saplings start to sprout through the floorboards.    

Featured image by Getty Images via    

The 2024 Queen Mary Wasafiri New Writing Prize is open for submissions until 1 July 2024. Submit here.

Erin Brady is a self-employed translator who has spent her life moving between places.
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