Water Ancestors



Lately, I think a lot about my ancestors.

Ancestor mothers, ancestor fathers,

ancestor children. Perhaps it is because

they have come back to see me, one or

many at a time, carrying on their shoulders

the crisp blue waters of Abbay.


This, I feel inside me, as if

my blood is in fact blue-green.


I know it is.


I, at my best, am traveled water;

I have no resting place.


The lands I go to are all

different, and in them, I too

become someone else, sometimes

unrecognizable, but, at times,

despairingly assimilated.


And, as an immigrant, I find myself

thinking about shifting and moving;


and the breaking that occurs,

is both visible and invisible.


With this, something breaks

open too: the shifting of the self

into another one, the moving of the self

into many, the self as no one, the self

as new, impassible.


I, like many, I suspect, tell myself this:

there is nothing breaking here, nothing bleeding,

nothing festering to see.


How ordinary of me, to reassure myself

in such a complacent way.


Instead, I should be saying:

here, in this body, someone died,

perhaps not entirely, but bits and

pieces left here and there.


The further from my home,

the more the breaking.


When I am asked, where is home,

I say, which one?


The one that gave birth to me

and kicked me out, multiple times?

The one that calls me by a name

I do not recognize? The one that

claimed my tongue before I knew

its marred history? Or the one

that follows me everywhere I go,

small demon on my back,

a reminder incised deeply

into my bones.


These, and more,

home, and yet not.



I carry them with me

wherever I go.


This ancestor who was promised in marriage

when she was three years old; this one

who ached to learn how to read and write,

but never did; this who found herself

among white men, and birthed children

with brown skin and blue eyes;

this who marries a woman that refuses

to give him children; this one, who is a

warrior king, last breath filled

with the smoke of a flying bullet;

this elegance who saw Finfinne

before it was so; and far beyond,

even further, this one, who traveled

many seas to collect the word of God.


These, and more,

I carry on my back,

and my body flattens itself.


So much history,

so little to unravel it with.


The dreams of my father

consume me.


My mother’s too are well-preserved,

small pockets

folded within my skin.



I dream of home

and never live to see it.


The lands I inhabit

are filled with bones;

mine, my ancestor’s

and my son’s.


When I find myself in water,

the dread that devours me is not mine,

but perhaps yours, oh ancestor brother,

and the feeling of having crossed

many seas before is not new, either.


I come to Los Angeles

and find the devil

waiting on my doorstep;


and beneath the horizon

all is old and foreign to me.


My tongue betrays me many,

many times. It calls my name by another,

it changes its curls and whorls

to be released from its original accents.


These languages, too, all coalesce

into chaos: blue, or black, or bleeding

burgundy, they are shadows, following me

everywhere I go.


I walk down the street, and hear myself saying,

hello, how are you, have a good day.

Where, does one go,

to have a good day?



The cities too, are grasslands

of bones and dust. Here I find

bits of others – a bit of Asmara,

a bit of Rome, a bit of Addis Ababa,

a bit of San Francisco; pieces for me

to mend. And when strangers ask,

where are you from, I say, hesitantly,

nowhere, nowhere.



The stories I hold

are made of stones.


Some I throw under

the ocean’s feet, hoping they will wash

away to a new land. Some I carry

in my pockets to keep me from

becoming invisible. Some, I’m afraid,

have replaced my eye sockets, and sit there,

waiting, waiting.


This waiting slowly eats away

parts of me I did not know existed.


This skin sheds

like that of a snake’s.


How many colors

are within me?


Black, brown,

blue, blood.


The wounds

of purple.


I muster the art of invisibility,

the requiem of solitude. In this,

I find comfort, because it won’t ask me

to point towards home.

Home is where the bones

are buried, where the bodies laid bloated,

where the heads hung upside down,

where the smell of flesh is not new.


Home is also cruel;

why do we

forget that.



I am thinking

about water too.


Not the blue,

but black-green.


I must have been born

underneath the Blue Nile,

or have existed beneath

the bed of Lake Tana.


I feel it running in my veins,

as if it was light.


How many shadows

have to exist within me

before I know which light to follow –



In its best days, the Blue Nile

spits white, foaming sunlight

under its teeth.


Here we come to recount our sorrows,

our hopes, our dreams.


This water is wise, having traveled

many lands, having carried with itself

the voices of lost men and women,

having fed many.


It bleeds heavily;

perhaps it sees us,

our misgivings,

our small joys.



I find definition

to be pleasing,





A colorless, transparent,

odorless, tasteless liquid

that forms the seas, lakes,

rivers, and rain,

and is the basis of the fluids

of living organisms.


In this, I can be contained.




I have been described by it, often

seen it rise up to the mouths of strangers,


as if to say, all things foreign – note: referring

to me, or, my body, as a thing; an object – are

made of war, or: things infested by war.


This thing, I also notice, comes within

language: that which we use to define


our own, or not; the knowing we choose

to acknowledge, that which we ignore.


This thing, is also a fruit: thorns on the outside,

bleeding meat on the inside, quenching

a thirst, a cry, nostalgia for simpler days.


War, I find, is also this: constant hiding,

home within invisibility, or worry, or


brokenness. Not knowing what to do

or say to the grief-stricken. Having to explain,

amidst tears, or bewilderment, the difference

between the immigrant, and the refugee. I am

inclined to think: wretched, once there, now


here – lost. The constant loss, coating our skin

like thin ash. Having to beg – see me, see this


humanness in me. The knowing about our new selves:

as an alien – again, a thing, an object. Having to count

our fears too; that of assimilation, that of


unbelonging, that of a new death, that of an imminent threat.


Knowing the gendered histories of our bodies,

and shaping a way to forgetfulness – to survive


this thing – note here: not an object, but a

constant self of being.


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Excerpt from NOMENCLATURES OF INVISIBILITY published by BOA Editions, Ltd. Copyright © 2023 by Mahtem Shiferraw.