A poet is, before anything else, a person who is passionately in love with language.
– W. H. Auden
In reading 16-year-old Uma Menon’s debut collection of poetry, it is obvious that W. H. Auden was speaking about her. For that matter, the fact that the author is a teen should not make the reader shy away from her work and chalk up the 96-page volume of poetry to rhymey-rhymes or hip-hop repetition.
On the contrary, Menon’s poems are as well crafted as those written by one twice her age with an equally-impressive and diverse backlog of publication. An exploration of what it means to be a young woman of color in America, Hands for Language is a deep dive into the joys, sorrows, and challenges met by straddling the white world and the land of her birth.
Comprised of 55 tightly-crafted free verse poems, Hands for Language is presented in four parts. Finding, losing, and keeping one’s language is the common thread of the collection.
Part One: Birth primarily moves from her childhood living in India through just after immigrating to the United States. She reflects on her early life in 11 poems, including “citizenship,” “birthdays,” “origin story,” and “at the intersection of the land & sea.”
Part Two: Discovery embraces language and the search for meaning, understanding, and communication while discussing the need to juggle her native Malayalam and the English of her new land. The 14 titles that make up this section include “spoken language,” “i forget,” “the world lies between her two eyes,” and “dictionary: tanpura.”
Part Three: Becoming examines “how to become a beautiful second-language poet,” “portrait of my tongue as a battleground,” “Ode to Debate / Sometimes, After Junior Year,” and “Orphan Tongues.”
Part Four: Rebellion includes 16 poems, including titles such as “revolution in my mind,” “border violence,” “Hand in Mouth,” and “independence.”
Language is the foundation of the collection, but Menon also centers on family: her mother, grandmother, uncle, and traditions they have taught her. As an activist, Menon expresses pointed concerns about hot-button topics such as immigration, current events, gender, nature, and climate change. She is as punctilious in her language as to make the reader forget her age but not her love of language a weapon against injustice.
An accomplished young woman, her writing has twice been nominated for the Pushcart Prize. This debut collection was shortlisted for the 2019 International Erbacce Prize. Alongside her many literary achievements, Menon is a social justice advocate, a nationally ranked debater, and the first Youth Fellow for the International Human Rights Art Festival. As a member of the high school Class of 2020, Menon graduated as valedictorian from Winter Park High School’s (Florida) International Baccalaureate Program, and she plans to continue her education this fall at Princeton University.
Jeanne E. Fredriksen lives in both Carolinas where she is a Books for Youth reviewer for Booklist magazine/American Library Association and a member of WCPE-FM The Classical Station’s Music Education Fund committee. She is working on an assortment of fiction projects.