Nat Raha

in tourism / they tell
the spanish for gannet is alcatraces [1]

The poems began with the ringing of bells, divine mothers, and a litany of carceral islands both historical and present (Spike Island, Andaman Islands, Bass Rock). Her incantation holds us present in a dark room in Edinburgh, beyond the glow of Fringe fairy lights. We are moving asylum seekers onto the Bibby Stockholm barge. As if to say, the vulnerability of islands isn’t enough, we will suspend you over the water as you sleep. As if to say, the floor is lava.

maternal inheritance, narrator
to witness from the generations that came

in the forge or struggle to live free

In poetry pronouns are critical—when will the writer claim a singularity of experience as an I, when will they call on, or claim to speak for a collective we? These choices are even more acute in poetry that articulates its politics and invites the listener to reflect on their own. As Raha commented, in an interview with Lola Olufemi after the performance, ‘don’t just stand with us, be with us’.

Raha normally favours the first person plural, but here she sometimes used a more vulnerable I. As these poems are structured around the epistolary form, there are lots of you’s too: her two great uncles involved in anti-colonial activism, ‘Ma Sylvia’ (Rivera), her fellow abolitionists, and her trans ‘didis’, ‘ …caught at the centre… of the colonial imagination’. After her reading, Raha spoke about ‘forging intimacy’ through writing letters, not necessarily in expectation of a reply but to address another, to dwell on them as an imagined audience.

The poems also draw on Raha’s experience of being a pen pal to people in prison as part of the Bent Bars project, and thinking about how letters permeate prison walls. In Scotland many people in prison are not allowed access to their own letters, but only versions photocopied by staff. Raha’s work is also in the tradition of public letters, of letters nailed to the doors of powerful institutions, and of seditionist pamphlets. There was a call out after the performance for people to get involved in the campaign against the building of a new prison, HMP Glasgow. Raha quoted abolitionists Morgan Bassichis, Alexander Lee and Dean Spade saying, ‘we know that if they build it they will fill it.’ [2]

against the tyranny of documents, the border in the everyday

These poems get intimate with the ghosts of the disappeared and erased, offering fragmented histories to stoke resistance in the present, pitting the illumination of small fires against the panopticon’s perfect vision.

Raha’s characteristic fracturing and fragmentation of text was present but this work felt more narrative, as if in recognition that stories of control and resistance require a telling that is less vulnerable to misinterpretation. Time and place hopped between the Indian anti-colonial freedom movement/global histories of incarceration and resistance/Edinburgh’s penal experiments, and the uprisings of indentured labourers, pulling the threads together. The need to tell these histories acknowledges a vexed relationship to documents. That we need them for knowledge of struggles and injustices passed, and that there is rage and bitter-gratitude for their record of cursory details (a name listed among the dead)—all that remains of so many lives.

of poetics to unsettle in flourish

Moments which might have allowed for a release of tension or entropy—a discarded script, breathing—were tightly controlled. Her breath shot out, staccato, line breaks and punctuation were audible. This performance blossomed into polyrhythms, Raha moving with the flow of dense layers and loops of words in multiple languages. She sang urgently, with confidence, she self-depreciatingly attributed to listening to ‘too much Gloria Gaynor’ recently. There was tenderness in her body swaying, contrapuntal to the precision of the sound of paper hitting the floor.

The abolitionist scholar and activist Mariame Kaba once counselled a young activist who felt frustrated at the pace of progress, that ‘your timeline is not the timeline on which movements occur. Your timeline is incidental. […] only for yourself to mark your growth and your living. But that’s a fraction of the living that’s going to be done by the universe and that has already been done by the universe.’ [3] This is a brutal but vital insight. We need the poems and stories of freedom to hold on to and return to in times of exhaustion, overwhelmed at how much work there is to be done. I wanted to keep listening long after this reading had finished.


Phil Crockett Thomas is a writer who teaches sociology and criminology at the University of Stirling. She is the editor of Abolition Science Fiction (2022) and of The Moon Spins the Dead Prison (2022) with Thomas Abercromby and Rosie Roberts.

Nat Raha is a poet and activist-scholar based in Edinburgh.

The event attended, epistolary (on carceral islands), was part of Edinburgh Art Festival 2023.


[1] All quotations in italics from Nat Raha, Nat Raha: Epistolary (on Carceral Islands), 18 August 2023, Poetry Performance, Edinburgh Art Festival, 18 August 2023.

[2] Morgan Bassichis, Alexander Lee, and Dean Spade, ‘Building an Abolitionist Trans and Queer Movement with Everything We’ve Got’, in Captive Genders: Trans Embodiment and the Prison Industrial Complex, ed. Eric A. Stanley and Nat Smith (Oakland, CA: AK Press, 2011), 34.

[3] Mariame Kaba, We Do This ’Til We Free Us: Abolitionist Organizing and Transforming Justice, ed. Tamara K. Nopper (Chicago: Haymarket Books, 2021), 27.