Brunel International African Poetry Prize Shortlists: A Dialogue With Rasaq Malik
Rasaq Malik is a graduate of the University of Ibadan, Nigeria. His work has appeared or is forthcoming in various journals, including Michigan Quaterly Review, Poet Lore, Spillway, Rattle, Juked, Connotation Press, Heart Online Journal, Grey sparrow, Jalada, and elsewhere. He is a two-time nominee for Best of the Net Nominations. His poem was among the finalists for the 2015 Best of the Net Nominations. Recently, Rattle Magazine and Poet Lore nominated his poems for the 2017 Pushcart Prize.
This conversation took place in the cold, sweetspot of Gaborone, Botswana and the dense, city of seven hills, Ibadan, Nigeria via Skype.
Gaamangwe: Rasaq, congratulations on being shortlisted for the Brunel International African Poetry Prize. What does it mean to you to be shortlisted?
Rasaq: I have been applying for the competition, every year since it started in 2013, and as a writer, you always hope that when you apply for a competition, you end up shortlisted or you win. So when I received the message that I was shortlisted, I was overjoyed. Being shortlisted means a lot to me, and my country Nigeria. We are pulling our hearts out and representing Nigeria in a big way, over there. So I am very happy, and truly grateful.
Gaamangwe: That’s interesting that you’ve been applying for the past five years. If you look back at your past entries, what do you think was different about this entry?
Rasaq: I believe that I got shortlisted because of the consistency, and the passion and just refusing to relent. There is a slight difference in a way—even though I have been exploring the tragic and gloomy aspects of what is happening in my country—in my past entries. I think with this application I was a bit advanced and effective with the language I used. I think it’s also because I have been reading new poetry collections and exploring poetry from other countries.
Gaamangwe: As you mentioned, the theme of your shortlisted poems are very haunting and dark themed. What inspired the poetry that you created with this entry?
Rasaq: I am passionate about the occurrences happening in my country. I think as a writer, you have to mirror society. So, I am interested in documenting the lives of the people that are helpless, especially people in the northern part of Nigeria, where you have Boko Haram killing people. I was doing research and watching documentaries concerning the Boko Haram’s attacks. And I wanted to interrogate and document; what it means to live in that part of the country, what it means to be a parent expecting your child to come back from school, only for them to go missing and never come back, and what it means to survive, live and die in that situation.
Gaamangwe: Have you personally experienced what you wrote about?
Rasaq: I believe that everywhere, there is some kind of war. In the South-west of Nigeria, we don’t necessarily experience war, but we have family, friends and our people living in the northern part of Nigeria. In this digital age, we now have easy access to what is happening in our country, and the world, and so, in this way, we are affected. As a writer, you have to write about what’s happening, especially because there are some aspects of what happens, that is not covered by the media. So what I do is; I read about these things, and if I have the chance and support I travel to that part of the country (because I value the need of going there, and seeing what people experience) and document those experiences. So my poems are imaginings based on real experiences.
Gaamangwe: I applaud you for deriving and humanizing other people’s experience with so much tenderness and believability. What kind of spaces and dialogues would you want your poetry to open up?
Rasaq: I think about the realities of my country and of the world, what we endure, through all the wars happening all over the world. In Nigeria, Boko Haram has infiltrated everywhere and it’s where one realizes; it could be you, it could be anyone that we know and love. Different people have travelled to this part of Nigeria, writing about these events, about the massacres happening in this regions and the abducted Chibok Girls. Of recent, we have not heard any news about Boko Haram. Things are getting better, and we are happy about that. So I think if we keep writing about these events, we reach other people, in the rest of the country and the world, and once people know, then change can happen.
Gaamangwe: You are right, because I am in Botswana and I learnt a lot from reading your poems. We need to humanizing war because a lot of people think of war as something that is outside there. Do you think that documenting and writing what happens in our communities and our realities can actually inspire change in some way?
Rasaq: Yes, I believe we can. I believe most human beings are sympathetic. The more we project and write about what’s happening, the more people can be inspired to reach out to people in war-torn places and refugee camps. We have to write about our realities and experiences because these things are happening to us, and we can’t hide that. Our writings can inspire others, even if that’s one person it doesn’t matter as long as one ponders on what we have written down, then that awareness is something. That awareness can lead to many things—some contribution, some development or some pro-activeness towards what’s happening.
Gaamangwe: That’s true. Can you tell me about the space you had to enter to write “We don’t know where we belong”?
Rasaq: I put myself in that position: what my life will be like if I lived in Borno or in Kabino or any other war-torn places. I imagined myself there in that particular state and experiencing this, people throwing bombs and people dying. So it wasn’t difficult for me to exploit that because I would be writing this as someone who was there. I said earlier that it could be anybody, just because I am not living in that state, doesn’t mean I haven’t been affected in my own way.
In the poem, I tried to talk about home, because this country is not the place to inhabit. A lot of people have died over the years and the only the thing we hear is rest in peace, and that’s about it. It keeps happening. So I could enter this space because not only have I witnessed this, I have been affected by these events for a long time now.
Gaamangwe: You did a really great job as a witness, as someone who is affected, as someone who comes from Nigeria, who lives in that world. What do you hope you would create with your poetry?
Rasaq: I believe that art is a continuous thing, you don’t stop living and you don’t stop writing. I am passionate about writing to document, to narrate and to talk about experiences of other people and my experiences. I want to explore the biographies of people of the world, especially those who are unknown by the world. I hope to create poetry that is a continuous portrayer of everything that happens. So I believe that the continuous portrayal and exploration of events will inspire other people to help in a positive way. People will be able to realise that these things have been happening for a long time and will be able to stand up and act. I believe that in this way writing is transformative as it steers people to reason and act, which is what this world needs right now.
Gaamangwe: I completely agree with everything you have said. Thank you Rasaq, and all the best of luck with Brunel International African Poetry Prize and your poetry.
NB: This interview is part of a collective book project with all the incredible and talented shortlisted poets for the 2017 Brunel International African Poetry Prize.
Download the full book HERE: Conversations with Brunel Poetry Prize Shortlist