Striking up a conversation
BET puts her on a shortlist of today’s greatest poets; Shanelle Gabriel would probably argue she is just good at conversation. Poetry lovers here can decide for themselves this week.
The Bermuda College Literary Society has brought her here to perform for teachers, students and the general public. Admission is free.
“I like to say my performance feels like a conversation,” said the 34-year-old who has appeared on HBO’s Def Poetry Jam, the Rachael Ray Show and HuffPost Live.
“It will be a mix of a little bit of everything. I am very silly. That will come out.
“It will be my second trip to Bermuda. I was last there in 2015 and loved it. I had the best time meeting people. At the time, I was with other poets doing amazing things. The island is beautiful.”
Singing came first. Gabriel started as a child in church, in Brooklyn, New York. In college, a friend took her to an open-mic night, where she was fascinated by a spoken word poet.
Gabriel took that a few steps further, fusing her own poetry with soulful singing and hip-hop, and the applause started.
“I love people and love conversing with different people,” she said. “I saw myself able to do that.”
Then, aged 20, it was only a few months later that she discovered something else about herself. She had lupus, a long-term autoimmune disease in which the body’s immune system becomes hyperactive and attacks normal, healthy tissue.
For almost a year she had ignored her swollen joints, fatigue and migraines so she could focus on college.
Vanity saved her life. She only went to a doctor because her hair started falling out.
“When I was first diagnosed, it was a bit of relief, finally knowing what was wrong,” she said.
As is common, the lupus led to pericarditis — an inflammation of the lining of the heart.
“It felt like a heart attack,” she said.
“I was hospitalised for three days. That was hard because I’d never been in the hospital before.
“I started looking at things a bit differently. I remember asking myself, not morbidly, what if I was stuck in the hospital? What did I not do? I started thinking about what my purpose was. What was I passionate about? I started thinking less about what was supposed to happen and what I wanted to happen in my life.”
The response came loudly: singing and poetry. The problem was convincing her “very practical and very traditional” Trinidadian family that that was the right road for her to take.
In 2007, she appeared on Def Poetry Jam, and they understood.
She has used her fame to raise awareness of lupus. She also writes a blog, sharing her poetry, songs, her life and challenges.
“People come up to me all the time,” she said. “I was in the restroom at Art Basel in Miami. A young woman stopped me and said she knew my face. She said, ‘When I first got diagnosed, I found your blog and read it and it gave me so much encouragement’. I remember being so amazed by that.”
She also has a health and fitness podcast called Tha Compound Movement.
“That is my baby now,” she said. “I get to really help people, not just people with lupus but especially, people of colour who are more disadvantaged when it comes to health.
“I think a lot of times a lot of health conversations sound so unattainable and unrelatable. I wanted to create a platform for people of colour to talk about things that affect us the most, the small things we could do to be healthy — not meaning skinny — whatever your version of health looks like.”
The difficulty came in finding a way to do what she wanted in spite of her lupus.
“Having lupus did push me to think outside of the box,” she said.
“I thought that if I couldn’t have a normal life, going through a day where I didn’t have to think about doctors and medications, if I can’t control that, what are the things I can control? I am trying my best to control where my life is going.”
• The Bermuda College Literary Society is a student club aimed at promoting literary consciousness. Shanelle Gabriel will give a workshop in the college library tomorrow at 5pm. On Wednesday, she will perform in the North Hall Lecture Theatre at 6pm. All are welcome. See ShanelleGabriel.com or look for @ShanelleGabriel on social media
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