EXPLODING THE ILLOGIC:
HASAN NAMIR’S UMBILICAL CORD
This fall, acclaimed Vancouver-based, Iraqi-Canadian writer Hasan Namir published Umbilical Cord, his second book of poetry. An autobiographical free-verse narrative, it documents the challenging, ultimately successful journey that he and his husband, Tarn, two gay men of colour, undertook to become parents through surrogacy. Interleaved between letters that Namir addresses to their son Malek is the story of their love: how they met via Facebook; their engagement and wedding; the difficulties Namir’s father had with his son’s sexuality; the men’s mutual decision to become fathers; the medical and legal ins-and-outs of in vitro fertilization; the longueurs of pregnancy at one remove; Malek’s birth; and the joyous first year the three of them shared as a family.
Born in Iraq in 1987, Namir emigrated to Canada with his family at age eleven, a move “prompted in large part,” according to an interview posted online by Out in 2015, “by rumors that started circulating about his sexuality, even at such a young age.” Namir received the Ying Chen Creative Writing Student Award from Burnaby, BC’s Simon Fraser University, where he also earned a BA in English. He belongs to a new generation of Canadian writers: millennials, often from historically marginalized communities, who write outside the lines drawn by the entitled white, mostly straight settler narratives upon which my country’s literature was firmly if precariously established in the mid-1960s. Prior to Umbilical Cord, Namir published three other well-regarded books in three different genres. Hs debut novel, God in Pink, which won a Lambda Literary Award for Gay Fiction in 2016, gives voice to the challenges of being Muslim and gay during the 2003 Iraq War. War/Torn, his first book of poetry, recipient of the American Library Association’s Stonewall/Barbara Gittings Literature Award in 2020, negotiates the fault lines of masculinity and faith. The Name I Call Myself airs ideas about naming and gender identity in terms chosen to ring true with young children. In 2022, Namir will publish Banana Dream, a second children’s book, this time set in Iraq.
Namir’s two books for kids exemplify how important family is to him, functioning as bookends on either side of Umbilical Cord, which opens with his first letter to his as-yet- unborn son: “Can you hear my whispers? / I don’t know what I did to deserve you / I love you more than anything / I’m learning to be patient / I am still waiting for you.” The use of the past tense in “I don’t know what I did…” subtly points to the decisions that led to the surrogacy that makes the coming birth possible while also striking the first note of gratitude that runs like a mantra through the whole of Umbilical Cord.
In a culture that has been slow to warm to the idea of queer people having anything to do with children, let alone raising them, this path to successful baby-making is arguably more miraculous than immaculate conception.
However, the conditions into which this child is to be born were determined far earlier than conception was thought of or actively pursued when the two fathers first set eyes on each other, as recalled in “It Takes Two”: “April 9, 2011: / The day we met / I saw my whole life through”— this, in a sense, is the true moment of “conception,” in that the decision to have children is not simply about the merging of sperm with an egg, but also about the co-mingling of love. The problem that the lovers (and eventual fiancés and husbands) face in physically conceiving is less to do with lacking a womb than with overcoming prejudice as well as legal and financial hurdles: “Two men can’t reproduce / ‘The baby is gonna grow up confused’ / Shame on us // Sodomy is a sin / … Paying a surrogate is illegal in Canada / ‘Who’s gonna wanna carry your baby?’/ We’ll keep dreaming instead.”
But Namir and his husband, Tarn, weren’t idle daydreamers. As “The Surrogates” makes clear; their dreaming is active: “Four years washed over / Who was going to carry our child? // We asked friend A, B, C, D, E, F, G, H, I, J / We understood their reasons / We were aware of the responsibilities / Why didn’t we remember the K?” K is the turning point around whom the paradigm-shifting elements of this remarkable book cohere like birthmarks. K is Namir’s husband’s sister, Kiran. By agreeing to carry an egg fertilized with Namir’s sperm, she will bring to term a child who shares biological characteristics with both fathers. It is a gift that does not go unnoticed: “KIRAN / KNEW / KIRAN IS / KIND / KIRAN IS A / RAY / OF / LIGHT / KINDRED / KIND / KIRAN IS / KINDNESS / MALEK IS / KING / MALEK / ENDS / WITH / A ‘K.’”
Describing his journey as a gay man to parenthood via a surrogate who shares his spouse’s genetics, Namir is able to explode an annoying vestige of the illogic upon which the straight mainstream, with teary-eyed desperation, sometimes still tries to assert its exclusivity.
In a culture that has been slow to warm to the idea of queer people having anything to do with children, let alone raising them, this path to successful baby-making is arguably more miraculous than immaculate conception. Namir and his husband are not the cliché fathers of the Leave It to Beaver ilk who nervously serve time in maternity-ward waiting rooms while their better halves labour away for hours out of sight in a faraway ward. Instead, as outlined in “Delivery,” they are right there to support their sister and sister-in-law: “We stood near the door, watching life happen in front of our eyes / It was our first time experiencing birth together”— The italics are mine; without doubt, “together” is the most important word in Umbilical Cord— “My mind swimming with thoughts and questions / Kiran’s pain and joy, a roller-coaster ride of feelings on my face / We were at the top just before the drop / My heart almost stopped when she pushed, screaming / Out came Malek and my heart beat again.”
Just prior to Malek’s birth, Namir acknowledges that Tarn’s and his “love broke through / The impossibilities / ‘I’m proud of us.’” It’s as if society’s own water finally broke. Historically, gay men have had great difficulty pushing past the mother-father-1.5-kids limits of what family was at one time religiously, morally, medically, and legally considered to be. Armistead Maupin pared back the prefix from “biological’ to coin “logical family” to give dignity to the “chosen families” that populate his Balzacian Tales of the City series, which to the ongoing enjoyment of millions holds a mirror up to queer life from disco to Burning Man. The children they had with women before they came out or those of their friends and family members were typically the only little people in the lives of gay men until in the 1990s (in parts of Canada at least) queer couples and individuals began securing the right to adopt. (Those pleasures are marvellously evoked in Craig Poile’s 2009 collection of poems, True Concessions.) Describing his journey as a gay man to parenthood via a surrogate who shares his spouse’s genetics, Namir is able to explode an annoying vestige of the illogic upon which the straight mainstream, with teary-eyed desperation, sometimes still tries to assert its exclusivity. In the most loving, least polemical of terms, Umbilical Cord poem by poem spells out why no one can any longer credibly allege that queer couples aren’t capable parents or that their children aren’t fully the physical expression of the love they share.
John Barton’s twenty-eight books, chapbooks, and anthologies include Polari, Seminal: The Anthology of Canada’s Gay Male Poets, We Are Not Avatars: Essays, Memoirs, Manifestos, and The Essential Douglas LePan, which won a 2020 eLit Award. His twelfth collection of poems, Lost Family: A Memoir, a book of sonnets, was published in September by Signal Editions. The Porcupine’s Quill published The Essential Derk Wynand in October 2020. He lives in Victoria, BC, Canada, where he is the city’s first queer poet laureate.