Titilope Sonuga is an award-winning poet, writer & performer based in Lagos, Nigeria. She renders, both in verse and in performance, a remarkable elegance of craft, a quality of rootedness and an unflinching womanhood that makes her one of Nigeria’s leading performance poets. She has graced stages across the country and internationally, and in May 2015, she was the first poet to appear at a Nigerian presidential inauguration. She has authored two collections of poetry, and her third This Is How We Disappear is forthcoming. Her spoken word album Mother Tongue is available on iTunes.
This conversation took place in the cold, sweetspot of Gaborone, Botswana and a quiet sanctuary in the bustling heart of Lagos by Skype.
Gaamangwe: Titilope, your work is rooted in womanhood, in celebrating and appraising the woman experience in its entirety. I want to start here; on your womanhood and why it’s important for you to celebrate, explore and interrogate it?
Titilope: I didn’t start out knowing that this was how my work would evolve. I wasn’t that deliberate. The rigorous process of stepping into my womanhood, how jarring that was, how it shook the foundation of what I thought I knew, created an urgency for me to go back inside. I wanted to understand, to heal, to be whole and naturally that began to reflect in the work.
I celebrate women to push back against the narratives that say we should do otherwise. I celebrate women not to hold us up as these long suffering beings with an endless capacity for suffering, but to hold us up as completely human. There’s this expectation particularly in this country for women to carry so much and get so little credit for all of that carrying until we buckle beneath that weight, we lose ourselves, we disappear.
This is an idea that is at the center of this new collection that I am working on, disappearance in response to trauma or loss, as an act of survival, but also shape shifting as a form of rebellion. The collection began with a handful of poems about the disappearance of the Chibok girls, but grew to become an exploration of the physical and psychological disappearance of women, in Nigeria in particular.
I wanted to look at what it says about our humanity when over 200 girls disappear and no one goes looking. I wanted to explore the second and third disappearances these girls must have experienced as a means to survive. I was interested in how women respond to being pressed in on every side by culture, tradition or religion and the new shapes we take.
I am also particularly interested in this idea of our magic, how we disappear ourselves from the boxes we have been put in, just in time, before the saw comes down. I imagine these tricks as something passed down through generations of women. I wanted to rejoice in the power of being able to leave our old selves behind and reappear as something with sharper teeth and stronger claws.
I talk about our trauma, heartache and grief as a way to sweep the secrets out from under the carpet. I want us to look at where it hurts so that we can start to do the work of reclaiming what we have lost, so that we can ease the suffering that comes from that kind of loss.
My work is rooted in black womanhood and the complexity of what that means, the many different forms that our womanhood takes, because I love us. Because there is something truly divine about a woman stepping fully into herself. I honestly think black women are the closest thing to God.
Gaamangwe: The reality of how women, especially black women disappear on a daily basis is so heartbreaking. Everyday we have to claw ourselves from all these different spaces and borders that we disappear into. How do you try to not disappear?
Titilope: I write to create a pathway back to my truest self. I find myself in the poetry. It always feels like a kind of digging, like I am trying to uncover a part of myself that has been buried. In a sense, every poem feels like I am continuing on this digging from the last. In performances now, I find myself going from one poem into the next and into the next, because I started to see a rhythm in this digging and I knew that I needed the collective momentum of the poems to dig myself out.
There are so many things thrust upon us as black women, as Nigerian women, as African women, that we don’t even know that we are disappearing beneath it until we are already neck deep in it, until we are already gone.
Writing brings me back out of the earth and back into myself. It allows me to remember what I know for sure. Some poems feel like a reminder, some poems feel like salt on a really bad wound, some feel like talking to a friend. So, poetry is the way I unpack, the way I uncover myself again and again.
Gaamangwe: I resonate with that. What are the narratives that are trying to make you disappear?
Titilope: Every single day there’s a news story about a woman or girl abducted, assaulted, and murdered. For every one of those stories there are hundreds more that we hear nothing about. We are simultaneously negotiating these physical disappearances, these acts of violence against our bodies and carrying the mental burden of knowing that we have to save ourselves.
It is heartbreaking that the people in power to protect us require us to be perfect victims, to explain what we were doing or what we were wearing. We have to constantly explain why we deserve to live. The devastation of having to explain your worth can erode all the courage you can muster to get up everyday.
Nigeria is very slow on the uptake that women are complete and with agency. That marriage and childbirth are not the upper limits of accomplishment. That each conversation about gender equity doesn’t have to boil down to who is in the kitchen pounding yam.
There is also so much shame and pressure on women who choose to live their lives on their own terms. The imaginary goal post is always moving, there’s always something we should be doing, and it is typically in service of holding up men as mini-gods and keeping their egos intact.
It is extremely refreshing to be in the company of women who are vocal, who are pissed off, quite frankly, and who are not afraid to use their voices and their platforms every day. It is also refreshing to meet men who recognize that this imbalance exists and are ready to do the work to move in a different direction, in the very least start to change things within their own circles of influence.
It is a lot of intellectual and emotional heavy lifting, and it gets exhausting. It is very easy to find yourself starting to quiet down slowly for the sake of peace. If you are exposed to something long enough, all of the things you think you know about yourself come into question. Each day becomes a fight to protect your truth.
Gaamangwe: It is so overwhelming to look at all the things that women negotiate on a daily basis. We negotiate the realities of our disappearances and how they are often this is invalidated by the men in our lives and our communities. Our burden does not end with our traumas, we are often driven to educate men in our lives, on how we are traumatized, how they traumatize us and how the patriarchal community traumatizes us.
When we speak about the presence and influence of males in women reality, I think about your poem “Speaking Into The Void”. Listening to it, I got the sense that you’ve been influenced by your father. How have the males in your life influenced your womanhood and your becoming into yourself?
Titilope: I do agree about keeping your circle accountable and creating spaces for that sort of honest dialogue. There is a lot of room for growth in that kind of space. I also think it is particularly unfair for the entire burden to educate and carry along to fall on women. We have enough work to do. In the same way that we are organizing, calling each other to order and keeping each other accountable, men should also be doing the same in their own spaces.
The people who I choose to keep in my life are doing the work on their own but also with me. I can’t be around men who are misogynistic or men who don’t view me as a whole person. My parents raised four girls and raised us to believe we could literally do anything. I feel super privileged to have grown up that way, with parents who braced me up and made me feel powerful.
That particular poem is centered on my relationship with my father, but both my parents have been huge influences in my life. My father was really strict when we were growing up, he has softened with old age and grandchildren. Academic excellence was such a big deal to him. It puts you under pressure as a child, to please, to use your achievements as a way to draw out the affection you so desire.
My sisters are pharmacists and accountants and I became an engineer, so imagine how challenging it was to say to my parents, to my father in particular, “Hey, this life that I have been living is a lie and I’m unhappy and I want to try something else and I want to try something that comes without structure or stability but it’s the thing that I really want to do”.
I think they were fearful but they had also seen me grow and they knew it was in me. My parents introduced us to literature, art and music. I remember my dad taking us to go watch classical concerts when we were just little girls and we didn’t really understand what was happening. This was in Nigeria, at a time when it was pretty expensive to do that. We would sit there and try to listen until we fell asleep. He insisted on exposing us to as many different experiences as possible. My mother gave me my first notebook to write about my days while she was away on trips, my first true introduction to storytelling. The seeds had been planted.
I think all parents struggle when their children become themselves and have opinions and full ideas about the kind of lives they want to live, but my parents pushed past their fears and encouraged me anyway. That has been such a blessing to me.
When I talk about women and the way they disappear, I think about my mother a lot because she gave up so much of herself so that we could have the life that we had. I think she is now finally in a place where she is trying to reclaim herself, even in her 60s. There’s something really soft and beautiful about seeing her journey, as a woman myself now, and watching her come to terms with her truth. She is not just this superhuman woman who would do anything for her children, but she is also this person who is doing the complicated work of inching towards the most whole version of herself.
Gaamangwe: I appreciate this wholesome, broad way of looking at how both the light and the dark has influenced and served your journey. We can always salvage ourselves. But of course, they are some journeys that are far too deep, traumatising and collective.
You wrote and performed an incredible poem “Hide and Seek” which was about the traumas that some societies in your country went through. I was moved by the idea that we need to name things—we need to name people, we need to name our traumas—and we cannot hide all these things from ourselves.
We need to start looking at these things as if they are our own because someone else’s pain is ours, we are all interconnected. How was the whole process of writing this poem?
Titilope: I love this Adrienne Rich quote — “There must be those among whom we can sit down and weep and still be counted as warriors” and often times I sit and think about that quote in relation to myself, in moments when I think I am not a warrior and I don’t know how to fight in that way but I have this language, I have this art and I have this poetry and maybe that is me sitting and weeping and still being counted as a warrior.
It was particularly important for me to say something because at the time when I wrote those poems, there are 3 different poems actually that make up “Hide and Seeks” they are performed back to back as one poem, which is what I talked about earlier and finding the glue in my work and realizing that most of my work doesn’t exist in a vacuum, it exist in relationship with something.
I wrote that poem or those poems because I didn’t know what else to do and I felt compelled to do something. It was almost as though I was sitting in a burning house and everybody else was just sitting and watching television and I was trying to scream and trying to tell them that we are in danger and we need to do something. The poems came obviously after the kidnapping of the Chibok girls, it also talk about the Buni Yadi boys, a group of young boys that were killed at their school. It also talks about the bombings that were happening at the time Boko Haram was at its most vicious. I was talking about all those things at the same time.
I started to think about how we were sort of treating the disappearance of these girls as though it was something casual, a game of hide and seek that we were playing, that we would find them eventually because it was just a game we were playing. It horrified me to think these young girls were out there thinking that the adults in their lives and their country would come through for them. Surely they wouldn’t be forgotten, somebody would find them eventually. I imagined them as the days went on, the slow heartbreaking realization that nobody was coming to save them. How terrifying, to accept that you have been abandoned.
When you give the girls their names, when you think about them as people with dreams and desires, it is more difficult to ignore that these are people’s daughters and somebody came and just took them away.
It’s been 3 years (April 14 2014) since they were taken. They are trickling back bit-by-bit. Some of them are mothers now, some have reportedly been sold off or martyred. We do not know for sure. What we do know is, these girls will never be the same again.
Who are they now, what resources exist within an already broken system to support them. If you hold that in context of how women are treated in this country and the stigma of what they have experienced, what are we bringing these girls back to? How do we ensure that they are not traumatized?
Hide and Seek was written in a time when I felt like we had touched a new rock bottom. Before that I wrote a poem called Icarus about our endless capacity to suffer and smile, how we experience the most horrific things and just keep on going.
It is almost as if the level of suffering that we are used to, the daily hustle for the next meal, a place to sleep, those things are so urgent that mourning and reflection feels like a luxury.
If we can recover from a place falling from the sky and killing hundreds of people, if we can recover from a group of boys being burnt alive for stealing, almost 300 girls being abducted for 3 years, it tells you the state of things.
Gaamangwe: It’s so disturbing how as a continent/world we have all these different ideas/lists/exercises that we implement on how to make money, how to survive a burning building, how to speak to elders etc, and nothing about how to heal the self, how to address one’s trauma. We have a dozens hospitals, clinic and churches but one or two mental hospitals, psychiatric wards. It’s almost as if we say that trauma and griefs don’t exists, and actually don’t matter.
Post traumatic stress disorder is such a crippling disorder that requires intensive and vigorous address. It is really painful and horrible that women disappear not only emotionally but physically too. And very, few people care. Can you imagine how long will it take for the Chibok girls to heal and truly become integrated into their whole selves? A really, really long time.
But Titilope, how can we not value human life like this? What do you think is the core problem? Why do human insist on having a gender, a race or a religion that is superior? If we look at all wars and all traumatizing experiences, there is always someone trying to be superior, better or more in control than other people. It is all about power. Violence seems to be about power..
Titilope: Power is such a seductive and intoxicating thing. Just look at the way that our countries are governed and how a leader can get into power and decide he needs to be in there for the rest of his life.
A lot of conversations that we have around the dynamics of power is governed by fear. The oppressor is always wondering what the oppressed will do with power once they have it. What happens when we take our heels off their necks, are they going to strike back? This is always the case when there’s an imbalance, whether you are talking about race or gender or class.
There are different kinds of poverty that we experience as a people. There is the not being able to physically sustain yourself and then there is a mental poverty of not knowing who we are, who we have been and who we could be. It is that kind of mental starvation that makes you want to steal more money than your children’s children could ever need, that makes you only think about yourself. It robs you of compassion, of kindness.
I often use driving in Lagos as a microcosm of our larger society. This city is one of the most insane places to drive because everybody is driving for themselves. It is aggressive, it is selfish, it is about “I need to take as much room on this lane as I can and I don’t care if I push you in a ditch or a trailer or your car somersaults, I don’t care. I have to get ahead of you”. That is the way Lagosian drive and often I am in the car thinking; if I am not willing to wait 30 seconds to allow someone in front of me, to wait 1 minute to allow this traffic to get through, to wait 5 minutes to ensure we all get where we are going, If I can’t do that, how can I be the sort of person who gets into a position of power and not abuse that?
How do we change that? How do we become kinder and more compassionate to each other. How do we learn to value each other in a way that is grounded in true and genuine love, regardless of gender or social class, or religion or sexuality?
We are easily the most religious people in the world, there is church on every corner in this city, yet we don’t practice those beliefs in our day-to-day lives. Why is that?
The only thing I know for sure is to keep writing and to keep creating something that holds itself as a mirror that says; look at us, look at what we become and maybe that will create enough momentum for us to start to change.
On the days that poetry feels inconsequential in the grand scheme of things, I remind myself of that one person who sends me a message and says; “thank you so much for writing that, I decided to get out of bed today, it made me feel less alone.” That’s good enough for me.
I’m doing a 3 part performance series in Lagos on June 25, July 16 and July 30, titled Open and it really is about this idea of trying to keep your heart soft, through it all, trying to stay grateful and peaceful. In turbulent times, art is the only thing I know for sure. It is the one way I know how to contribute, how to put a little bit of light back into the world. I want to keep doing that for as long as I live.
Gaamangwe: This has been inspiring, Titilope. Thank you for joining me in this powerful dialogue.
Gaamangwe Joy Mogami is a writer, filmmaker and founder of Africa in Dialogue. She is the curator of Brunel International African Poetry Prize Interviews With Africa in Dialogue.