Marwa Helal’s Invasive species would be worth reading if all it did was give readers a deep look at the United State’s complicated and deeply racist immigration system, which it does quite well, and which I’ll talk about in more detail later on. But I’d be remiss not to note that this collection does so much more than that, and a good bit starts with the title.
Before I tell you more, a quick reminder that in order to receive your early copy of Invasive species, read along with the Poetry Book Club, and participate in our exclusive chat with Marwa Helal, you’ll need to subscribe by October 20!
In south Florida, where I lived for a while and where I return regularly to visit family, the term “invasive species” is generally used in connection with animals who have made new places for themselves in a local ecosystem. It doesn’t matter whether they hitched a ride on one of the tropical systems that regularly ride through the peninsula, or whether they’re former pets—like the Burmese pythons currently wreaking havoc in the Everglades whose owners decided an eight-foot-long snake that could easily kill them wasn’t such a great animal to share a house with after all. I always found the term “invasive species” odd because humans are, after all, obviously the most invasive species in the area—and on the planet, really—pushing indigenous life (animal, vegetable, or human) to the side to suit our own purposes, one strip mall and gated community at a time.
In the poem titled “I,” from the second section of Invasive species,” Helal gives us dictionary definitions of “naturalization,” the second of which reads: “to introduce (organisms) into a region and cause them to flourish as if native.” This section is titled “Immigration as a Second Language,” which is that deep look at the US immigration system I mentioned above, and it’s this rhetorical contrast which drives much of my appreciation for this book. The metaphor the US government uses to describe immigration is similar to that dictionary definition, as if immigrants into the US are samples of flora and fauna gathered from all parts of the world, introduced into new habitats here where they can flourish and be a source of joy to the local population.
The reality is much different, and has been for some time. The Trump administration may be notable for the loud and proud way it enforces its immigration policy, but the structures that drive it have been in place for decades, and Helal’s experience really drives that home. One consular officer tells her, “I’ll refuse you for the fun of it,” and another, after being asked for her name, “turns to leave while shooing me away with a wave of her hand, a snotty ‘Buh-bye.’”
The thing about invasive species is that they often thrive in their new environments, outcompeting the species already existing in that niche and creating a new ecosystem, no matter what humans try to do to stop them. And that’s the tone Helal strikes in the poem “Epiepilogue,” excerpted below:
Homeland Security’s terms: ‘legal’ or ‘illegal.’ Both end up with many of the same consequences: soul loss, loss of familial ties, and in some cases, loss of native culture and language. Both terms inherently deny the immigrant’s humanity.
So I’ve made my own term: I, Invasive species.
Now that I’ve told you my story, I can truly begin returning now. There will still be mornings when I wake up and think I am in Egypt, but that’s okay. Because the America I return to is not the America I left.
The America I return to is the one we are making together.
There’s so much more going on in this book, too. There’s amazing humor, killer craft and wordplay, and a quote from the song “Da Dip” by Freak Nasty (which completely took me by surprise because I can honestly say I never thought I would see that song referenced in a poem).
I’d love to talk with you about this collection and all the great writing within it. Please join me in November as we read and discuss Invasive species, first together and then with Marwa Helal in our exclusive online chat. Subscribe to the Rumpus Poetry Book Club by October 20 to make sure you don’t miss out!