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Swollen Mouths

Claudia Ann Seaman Award

Runner-Up for Poetry

CAS for Database

Sarah Fathima Mohammed

San Jose, CA

The Harker School


All covered up, aren’t you? Well, that’s okay.

I like my girls exotic, a blonde boy murmurs into

my mouth, his fingers palming the flesh

of my hijab. The words blister my throat, a type

of searing heat I cannot swallow. Innocence

escapes my body, now emptied

and hollow. Outside, San Francisco holds bitter

stars in its trembling, gray mouth, glittering

buildings only a parched mist. If Amma

were with me now, she would clasp my hands so

I could feel her hardened calluses between

us like the raised, pulsing valleys she once crossed

barefoot, holding only an extra hijab and coconut

milk that spoiled in the American sun. When Amma

arrived, she had pressed her mouth to hot dust, trying

to hold this country like a second scalding mouth.

A pregnant second passed before a man ripped

the hijab from her head. Get up, you terrorist, he said,

slapping her mouth, which was already burnt

by the land she worshipped.

The man tightened his grasp

on the gun under his belt, an unpronounced threat.

Last summer, Amma and I traveled back

to her tiny village in Kumbakonam.

Vappa shut the creaking

kitchen door behind us, throwing the onions

and cotton thread. The cardamom and raw

branches of turmeric laid thick in front

of our newly arrived bodies, sprawling on the cold kitchen

floor like a burial ground. We were just another

vehicle for housework. We wiped the sweat

off our faces before it entered the masala

we made for Vappa. What love is nestled

in our hometown? What life remains for us,

where the only thing Muslim

women can hold is the water sputtering

out of the kitchen faucet?

Even God's holiest water runs

out. Now, pressed between the boy’s

body and the San Franciscan sky curling

loose fists in the dark, I can taste Mama’s condensed

syllables in the infinite space

between our bodies.  She is telling me

this is why we live in America.

Because freedom comes

before untouched, softened mouths.

If Amma were here,

we would clutch each other like

amnesty, desire and intention spilling

shallow prayers from our crumpled mouths.


Genuine and raw, "Swollen Mouths" tackles difficult topics of discrimination and sexual assault in a seamless and beautiful narrative. 


In a poem that begins with lips swollen from a kiss to lips parched from a grandmother's long journey, the poet ties together two different utterances that tear the speaker with the kind of hurt that arrives brutally. However, the poet offers these two events braided together into a narrative poem with careful couplets and soft turns toward the lyrical.

Sarah Fathima Mohammed is a first-generation, Muslim-American immigrant and emerging writer. She attends The Harker School in San Jose, CA and will graduate high school in 2023. Her work appears or is forthcoming in DIALOGIST, Rattle, Diode Poetry Journal, Apprentice Writer, Canvas Literary Journal, and elsewhere.


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