Teeth in the Back of My Neck is the tantalising debut poetry collection from new writer, Monika Radojevic. Radojevic is the winner of Penguin Random House and rapper Stormzy’s #Merky Books New Writers’ Prize, which is dedicated to uplifting a new generation of underrepresented voices.
Born to a Brazilian mother and Montenegrin father and brought up in London, Radojevic explores themes of ancestry, identity and belonging in her work. The collection is boldly political, delving into the topic of violence against women and multi-faceted, intersectional oppressions with urgency and vigour.
Radojevic writes with an uncompromising fierceness, provocation and dedication to the physical body which acts as her most authentic, intuitive medium of expression. She offers with this collection a vital contribution to literature at a time when women’s voices urgently need to be heard. Ahead of Teeth in the Back of My Neck’s release, Huck chatted with Radojevic about her relationship with her DNA, why people need to be angrier and what poetry can offer women.
23andMe, the poem you won the #Merky Books award for, was definitely one of my favourites and I felt it was such a poignant questioning of ancestry and why we pick it apart and make what is meaningful, un-meaningful. Where did the inspiration for this poem come from?
I have a strange habit where I will go to the DNA testing website, 23andMe, and I’ll get so tempted to buy a kit and then, at the very last second, I’ll chicken out and then I’ll just do the same thing all over again. I knew I wanted to find out, and why I was too scared to find out and that’s because I have mixed heritage, my family come from Brazil and Montenegro, and particularly on my mum’s side, there isn’t a lot of detail.
I was born in London, and this is where it feels the most familiar, but this is also not necessarily my home and the two countries that my parents come from aren’t necessarily my home, either, so it’s that sense of feeling like you don’t quite belong everywhere you go. The desire to find out ‘what percentage of me is this and what percentage of me is that?’ is an attempt to answer those questions or address some of that doubt that comes with having no idea.
Do you think that having an answer would actually settle some of these questions?
There’s no point in taking a DNA test because, at the end of the day, percentages mean absolutely nothing. There’s also a lot of racism and colonialism behind those ideas of ‘if you’re a percentage of this, what are the implications of that?’ That’s the tension that I explore quite a lot in the collection: the idea of belonging and identity and how there isn’t really an answer to any of the questions that I think many people ask themselves constantly.
Something that I felt really connected to your poems and, particularly, the themes of identity and ancestry was a very raw, and really gorgeous use of physicality in the body. What dimension does that bring to exploring themes of identity and ancestry?
I like to think of the body in this book as a canvas for everything that I’m mapping out. The title of the book is the idea of a pair of teeth sinking into your neck and keeping you quite held and fixed there, trapped. A person’s body is the vessel that basically defines how they will or won’t be treated when they step out of their door and there is very little people can do to control that.
It was always clear to me that your body is incredibly political and incredibly important in how you move through the world. Your identity is on your skin, and you can’t change that. Also, I’m somebody who feels things on my body to the extreme. Sometimes I have chronic pain that I live with. It would make sense to me that if I’m trying to describe pain or grief or loss I use my body, or I try and express that through the body because everybody understands what pain is. Everyone has felt pain at some point in their lifetime.
I loved the poem, The Right Kind of Blood and the way it addresses the idea that certain types of blood are considered ‘right’ and some considered ‘wrong’. Something about it felt very new, and refreshing.
What may be new is that I just happened to be exploring and presenting [established ideas] in a different way. I think that’s what makes the collection different and interesting. I also don’t really shy away from being angry and negative in the poetry either.
I think the world could do with a little bit of anger because anger is what prevents apathy from settling in. I want people to read the poetry and be energised and invigorated. It’s just the fact that poetry can let you be as dramatic or as melodramatic as you want and it gives you an angle to explore something that you might not be able to in other formats.
Why was violence against women something that you wanted to write about in your poetry?
The greatest threat in the world is violence against women and that violence is just unceasing and relentless and it’s not getting better. We’re moving forward and making progress, but women are still killed every day for the most ridiculous reasons. We have people in power who don’t care about violence against women and an electorate who don’t particularly care either.
There’ll be all these protests and there’ll be weeks of coverage and then six months later, the same thing will happen again. I was just very angry at the fact that I’m 25 years old, and I’ve experienced violence towards me, and I’ve got friends and loved ones who’ve experienced violence towards them, and nothing is changing. If there’s one thing I want people to walk away from after reading this book, it’s that it’s not safe to be a woman anywhere.
The reason why I write about it is because I’m furious. I’m compelled to write about these things because they are a daily reality for too many people.
How does poetry allow women to reclaim a sense of autonomy?
One of the beautiful things about poetry is that you can lean into emotion, and emotion can really take over and you don’t have to subscribe to any other rule of being measured and fact-based and all of these other things that are very rigid. Poetry is the most flexible form of self-expression and most women don’t get to express themselves without some kind of backlash or consequence.
Poetry is incredibly important because it gives women that freedom, that space, to really explore and challenge without being written off as hysterical or emotional. I feel very intuitively [that poetry is like the language of women] because when I want to express myself, poetry is the way that I can do that without it being de-legitimised.
How does poetry allow you to make sense of things?
It gives you that space to question, it gives you that space where you don’t have to worry about reality and truth. Poetry is open to interpretation, open to exploration. There are no boundaries as to what you can write and explore and do.
When I’m writing poetry, the only thing I’m thinking about is the feeling. What do I want people to feel? What do I need to convey? And if you can convey through emotion, I think people will respond to that with emotion too, because we’re emotional beings.
I’m interested in poetry that makes you an activist. I’m interested in that kind of poetry that opens your mind and pushes you into a different space that you may not have found if you haven’t had the time or the privilege to read an academic text. I’m hoping that these are like little bites of anger that will hopefully get people hooked into something. This is just the starting point.
This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.
Teeth in the Back of My Neck is published on 4 May by #Merky Books.
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