The Poetry of the Observable World: A Dialogue With Liyou Libsekal

Liyou Libsekal is an Ethiopian poet living in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia. She grew up traveling and living mainly in East Africa. She won the Brunel University African Poetry Prize in 2014 (now the Brunel International African Poetry Prize). Her chapbook, Bearing Heavy Things is part of the 2015 African Poetry Book Fund’s New Generation African Poets series. Her work has appeared in Missing Slate Magazine, Badilisha Poetry, Elsewhere Lit’s African Poetry edition, Expound Magazine’s The Woman Issue, and she has curated an African Poetry e-chapbook for Cordite Poetry Review.

This conversation took place in the warm, sweetspot of Gaborone, Botswana and the lively, summer city of Addis Ababa, Ethiopia by Call.

Gaamangwe: Liyou, you are a self-professed observer—why are you drawn to observing the world, particularly the environment that you see?

Liyou: I think it’s probably because I am an introvert. I like to take things in. Naturally, I don’t just jump into any situation. I step back and watch what’s going on first. I think it helps me to understand the world a little bit. I like to watch, even when I am speaking to somebody, I prefer face to face interactions. I like to see and read situations.

Gaamangwe: What aspects of the observable world are you particularly drawn to?

Liyou: People and people’s interactions. For example, here in Addis Ababa, like other places in Africa, things are changing so fast economically, socially, politically and so on. When I came back from college I was thrown into this world that was very different from when I left. Everything was growing and changing and booming. So that was really interesting to me because I was experiencing being at the cusp of that change. I couldn’t help but notice everything that was going on especially in the city.

It’s really interesting to watch how people’s lifestyles and values are changing. Just walking the streets I see so many changes happening compared to when I was growing up. This is sort of a silly example, but when I was growing you didn’t really see boys and girls holding hands on the street, and now it’s everywhere. And that’s just in a span of ten years. It helps me understand where we are going and where we came from. You see so many people’s lives changing and you see so many people who are stuck in the same sort of situation that they were in before or worse, because the disparity is more pronounced. It’s something you can’t really avoid. You cannot avoid observing.

Gaamangwe: That same rapid transformation has been happening in Gaborone as well, and I have been particularly more aware of the changes after I came back from living in India.   Do you also think that living in different places all across East Africa and outside the continent, has allowed you to particularly pay that much attention to the environment, the country and the world?

Liyou: Yes, that definitely plays a part in it. I have been to both developed and developing countries but when I came back home I started to see how bad it really was. But also I think all my experiences abroad have made me more critical. You’re trying to mitigate this view that you have about how the world should be with the  understanding that there are 80 million people in very poor conditions so it is not so simple. You see all the little things that play a part in why things are going wrong and why things are going right at the same time.

Gaamangwe: There is definitely that aspect of also noticing the privileges that one’s country has after travelling abroad. Especially if you’ve been to other places where some basic stuff are quite difficult to access.  So I wonder, what are some of the things that you are appreciative of in your home? 

Liyou: Well, there are a lot of things I appreciate because I have chosen to make a life here. Because, first nothing is like home. There is no place where I feel more comfortable than when I am here. Life is slower and calmer here. I have people around me and there are just a lot of things that you understand within your community and culture that you can’t completely assimilate, in a few years, in another place. So I appreciate just being around my people and my culture. Having a support system that I didn’t have somewhere else, and also learning all this stuff that I missed out on when I was a kid growing up someplace other than home. I definitely appreciate the culture and family and community aspect. Just being around your own traditions and being able to make a life in my own home is a big deal for me.

There are a lot of things that can be improved, but I wouldn’t live anywhere else. I am comfortable here and it’s not that growing up I wasn’t comfortable, but there is a difference when you are somewhere else and when you are home.  Just having that support system and big family and having people to go to.

Gaamangwe: The subtle ways that we belong to our countries, people, customs and traditions. How has travelling influenced you?

Liyou: I think that now I try to understand people and the world. When you are plucked from your environment at a young age and thrown together with different kinds of people, it makes you a more inquisitive person. I want to understand where people are coming from. I am always coming from a place of “How can you put yourself in this person’s shoes”. For a lack of better way to put it, I am curious about human beings, how people think and how their backgrounds affect what they will react to or what they experience. So I think that comes from always going to international schools and always being exposed to different people from a young age.

But also I think that in some ways, it disconnects you from your own culture and background. There are little things, like jokes that you don’t fully get when someone is telling you something or when you say something that you think is a perfectly normal thing to say and you offend someone. And that’s just from a different cultural perspective, right? For example when I moved back here, we are a very conservative people but you can like wear whatever you want. I never had any issue with that when I was here for three years in high school, because also I was living in a bubble with people who had a similar background. But I moved back, and I stopped wearing shorts, because I realized the reaction I was getting on the streets.  So things that are minor issues that you don’t think are such a big thing and you go like “Oh wait, I haven’t been paying attention to this stuff when I came here for summers”, you grow up and you come home and there are all this frustrations that as an adult you have to deal with, that you didn’t have to deal with in other places.

So there is a period of adjustment to little cultural nuances that you didn’t pick up on when you were younger. And it’s the same for a lot of people that I know that have lived abroad and come back here – as an adult you sort of have to be re-introduced to things you didn’t think about.

Gaamangwe: The gift of travelling is that there is this level of invincibility that you are kind of afforded. Because your language and culture, half of the time you don’t fully notice and experience a lot of things going on. The curse is when you leave the bubble and come back home, you are fully alert and aware and you notice everything. 

Liyou: Yeah, you get more critical of your place. It’s like “Wow, I didn’t know it was like this before.” But for me because I was younger, I didn’t notice this things and if I did, I didn’t really understand the full ramifications of it. It’s a whole lot of reality hitting you in the face and you being like “okay I am going to be frustrated by a lot of things.” But you decide if it’s worth it or not and for me it’s absolutely worth it to be home. You just learn how to be a woman in this place and you hope that things will change.

Gaamangwe: Or you become part of those people who are trying to change things. What I found is as compared to before, if someone was catcalling me I will just move on and just pretend not to hear them, and now I am like “No! Don’t talk to me like that.” I am just more proactive about it and I don’t know if I got confidence from living outside or it’s just that I really can’t handle it anymore.

Liyou: That’s so crazy because it’s the complete opposite for me. When I moved back here I used to be like “why are you saying this to me?”  and confront people but then I got into situations where I was like this is going to escalate. I have been in situations where I really thought they were going to slap me in the face. So then I decided to just ignore it and now I walk with a blank face and pretend I didn’t hear a thing —and even that is an issue. If you ignore them sometimes they get more aggressive. It’s not really in my nature to not be confrontational but I do stand up for myself. But here,  at least in Addis Ababa it’s kind of like playing with fire.  It’s like you have to go against your nature in a way. But it is the politics of survival.

Gaamangwe: The politics of being a woman in this time and age. It’s terrible.  Just pivoting a bit to you as a writer, how do all these experiences influence what you write about?

Liyou: My main thing in writing is me trying to understand the world. What is this thing to be human?  How does being from a certain culture or place or background affect how you perceive things and how you behave? I think that’s where the observation comes in too. I think it’s like that for a lot of people but the way I do it is I put things down on paper. It’s a process of explaining the world to myself and how I thought about a situation. It like, let’s let this out and sort of suss out what happened and what I saw. It’s a very internal thing. So I go internal and pack it down.

Gaamangwe: In this moment in time, from your own observation what have you learnt about being human and the way that we are trying to navigate this planet?

Liyou: That’s a great question and it’s something that I think about all the time.I have learnt that no matter what motivates us or makes us different, we really can understand each other. The bottom line is we all have the same desires and fears. So a street kid who is trying to get by cleaning shoes is not going to exactly want the exact things as someone who works at a Fortune 500 company but I think deep down as human beings we are all struggling with trying to understand this chaos that is life. Whatever it is. We all have this thing that binds us together and that allows us to understand each other if we try. And I think that’s what I try to do, not just in my writing but in life.  What is going on? What is up with this place? Why are we here? If we understood that we all have the same core feelings and core fears and core needs then we can understand each other a lot better.

Gaamangwe: Paulo Coelho’s concept of Soul of the Universe in The Alchemist. That despite barriers like language and culture and religion, we will always somehow innately understand each other, because we are innately the same.

Liyou: Absolutely, and I think that’s what the world forgets sometimes.

Gaamangwe:  Sadly true. I suppose it is a part of the human experience. Now pivoting to your poetry, my favorite thing about your work is the titles. Your titles are poems themselves. How do title come to you?

Liyou: I also like my titles more. I think that’s because it wraps everything up, right?  So, I do the titles at the end. I honestly can’t tell you how it actually happens but I think that once you feel a piece of work is concrete enough, it comes. I do think it goes back to what I was saying earlier; poetry is how I understand things that I experience or see or observe. Sometimes you don’t know why something strikes you and at the end of it that’s when you understand and that’s when the title comes.  It comes with understanding that this is why I wrote this.

Gaamangwe: And why did you write, Bearing Heavy Things? A powerfully titled collection.

Liyou: Thank you. I was seeing all the changes and reflecting back on the past as well. Bearing Heavy Things was a poem about a cousin of mine who had a child at a young age, and it made me think about all this young girls, because we have a huge problem with child brides here. My cousin wasn’t married as a child but her experience got me thinking of that. But as I titled the whole thing I think it reflected being back and experiencing something with newly grown eyes. And it was really difficult to sort of like mitigate the person I was before, when I was a child.

I think it suited the whole poetry collection because it really was sort of coming back and realizing all the things I never realized about my country before because I was too young to notice. So it was seeing reality for the first time about a place that I love. I think that title suited that because there are a lot of things that are messed up in this place and it was sort of like me dealing with that for the first time as an adult.

Gaamangwe: The moment I saw Bearing Heavy Things it just really reminded me of us, women, the kind of things that we bear and the kind of wars that we go through. In the spirit of everything, what do you like in a poem?

Liyou: Truth. And it’s not just about poetry, any writing or any work of art that explores something that is a fundamental human truth even if no one has told it or read it  or never talked about it and I read something and I am like “Yeah, I know that, I know what that’s about”, that’s real to me.  That’s what I like. For me, if something links to truth, even if I have never experienced it, it’s gold because it binds you to other people, it tells you “you’re not alone after all”. So truth. I am a sucker for anything that rings true.

Gaamangwe: I resonate with that. I also love this kind of abstract poetry, which you do really well. For example, when you said;

I left Africa carrying my skin.

Who does that? No one does that. But there is something true about this. But of course not literally. 

Liyou: That’s a thing with me too. I definitely tend to like things that are not so literal. It’s funny that you say my stuff is abstract; sometimes I hate the stuff I write because I am like “A,B,C” about it. I feel that the stuff I write is a little too literal. But I guess that’s perspective. So I feel really good that you said that.

Gaamangwe: I understand. I love the kind of poetry that shifts me and changes the way that I look at the world. And your poetry does that. So thank you for your poetry.

Liyou: Oh, thank you.

Gaamangwe Mogami is a poet, filmmaker and founder of Africa in Dialogue.



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