Grief Is A Man: A Dialogue with Loic Ekinga

GRIEF IS A MAN

A DIALOGUE WITH LOIC EKINGA

Loic Ekinga is a Congolese writer. He is the author of the poetry collection How To Wake A Butterfly (Odyssey Books, 2021). Loic has been featured in many online publications such as Type/Cast Magazine, Ja. Magazine, Poetry Potion, Brittle Paper, The Kalahari Review, Agbowò and  A Long House.

His experimental chapbook Twelve Things You Failed at As A Man Today was an honourable mention by JK Anowe for Praxis Magazine Online. He has been interviewed in 20.35 Africa. 

His short story ‘Loop’ has been adapted into a short film. He is a finalist of Poetry Africa’s Slam Jam competition 2020. He is also the fiction editor for TVO Tribe.

You can get in touch with him via his socials, Twitter and Instagram.

BY ELIJAH BWOJJI

This interview took place on a Sunday afternoon at a restaurant with pallet chairs in Ntinda, Kampala.

Bwojji: What does your name, Loic, mean?

Loic: I googled it a few years ago in fact. It’s from Germany. Loic is the French version of the German name, and it means famed warrior or glorious warrior. I don’t think my parents knew its meaning when they gave it to me

Bwojji: In an interview I read, you said that you started writing poetry in French. How was your experience migrating from writing poetry in French to writing it in English? How did you find the rules of poetry in English, especially if you were writing on meter? 

Loic: In the beginning, the translation was quite difficult. At the time, I was learning to speak the English language while also writing poetry. The rules, grammatically, are not so different from the rules in the French language. I guess there is a lot of Latin sentence formatting and semantics in English that you will find in French and all other Roman languages. So, I had to try not to think in French as I was writing my poetry, and that was when I got better at thinking and writing in English. In the past, to say a sentence, I had to first think of it in French and then translate it into English. Over time, I started to think more in English and express myself in that way as well.  

Bwojji: I find it easy to think in Luganda and write in English. I find Luganda so hard to write. With poetry, I have a licence to play with grammar and introduce imagery constructed through Luganda, which I then translate into English.

Loic: Also, what I am doing with my writing is going back to storytelling techniques from my homeland, Lingala. In Congolese music, there is a way songs are written and how messages are conveyed through them. I am trying to learn how to get that style and feeling infused into my English poetry as well.

Bwojji: Racheal Kizza shared with me your poem ‘Up the mountain, down the valley’ as she was preparing for her Meet Your Author Series interview with you. What struck me was the repetition of the prophet lashing the boy verbally in order for the boy to bare himself naked before a God who has turned His back to him, as God did with Moses at mount Sinai. As I read the book, what hit me was that each poem is a line, an image, a metaphor of the larger poem, which is the entire book, the entire collection. Was it your intention to write a collection that is complete within itself?

Loic: This is going to be a long answer, but I would like to walk you through my process. From the onset, my understanding of poetry was that it is a restrictive form of art. It has many rules, and there are so many things you have to do in order to say that you are writing poetry. What I have realised now is that language in poetry is a bit affable for a lot of people because the point is to reach as many people as you can. In the past, poetry was reserved for the educated, it was an acquired taste. Now many people have access to it on their phones, their Instagram, and everybody who can read can relate better to poetry. 

My collection, How to Wake A Butterfly, was written as a story arc because the poems are all true stories about my life. I wanted to write it in a way that the reader is taken on a journey with me. From the first poem in the book, I talk about the day I was born, so I started from the beginning, through the journey of life, to the point where butterflies are awakened. It was a deliberate choice, and if you look at the structure of the book, you will see that there are no page numbers, no distinct chapter breaks. I made it in such a way that feelings and emotions would carry the readers through the whole experience. 

Bwojji: I had imagined that chapter breaks came at the different stages of the metamorphosis: from the caterpillar, to the breaking of the cocoon, and to the butterfly spreading its wings. These were marked in the book at every stage. The book doesn’t begin with the actual first stage of metamorphosis, which is the conception stage. Instead, you created the poem, ‘Origin Story’. You use it as a pause to soften the tone. You gave your imagination on how your mom and father met, and even how you were conceived. In this stage of the caterpillar, you used a reflective tone: I could picture the persona internalising and grappling with the truths that came to light as he leaned into his past trying to understand his present self. This was mostly captured in the poem ‘My father: a lesson in mourning like a man’. In the poems ‘How it almost began’ and ‘How it began’, the reader was put at the centre to experience the chaos of childbirth. In ‘How it almost began’, you wrote:

 

“Has the little boy told you

About the first time his life was saved?

It’s a short story, really.

It involves 

Sharp tools, a man, a little girl

And a doctor with a conscience.”

 

Was it deliberate to write and use poetry in this way?

Loic: When I wrote the collection it was as an exercise to understand my pain at the time. The best way I thought I could do that was to go back to the experiences in my life that I think contributed to where I was and how I was feeling then. The things I speak about (as you say, I put the reader in the moment) are the things I am very sure of, and this is how I remember them. The points where I am reflecting, I am wondering, could this be the reason why? Could this be a contributing factor to where I find myself and how things are going in my life? When I put the poems together, it was a systemic thing that I wanted to do. I think when I was writing the poem, when I thought of the situation, I was like, this situation happened. Does this have any bearing on who I am today? Let me write about that experience so that the reader in their own way can ask themselves about experiences they have forgotten and not thought of as so significant to have played and still play a role in the person they are today.

“The universality of grief is what connects us.

Bwojji: What was this pain you had that made you discover its roots through poetry?

Loic: I have always been writing poetry. Earlier on, I used to create narratives in my poems to convey the human experience, but I never thought of myself as being the speaker in those poems. However, at a certain point in my life, I realised that my poetry has to be more about me. When I started that exercise, it was baby steps towards trying to undo layers of my own personality and experiences. While practising the exercise, my relationship with my fiancée  ended. I was dealing with that hurt when the pandemic started, and there was no contact with people. I moved out of the place I was sharing with my partner at the time and rented a room somewhere in the neighbourhood. I was locked in that room for two–three months, and I was like, let me write. I was trying to understand this pain of losing a relationship, but there was so much pain in my life that I had not dealt with, and I felt the best way to deal with them was through poetry, and out of that How to Wake a Butterfly came about.

Bwojji: It seems molestation happens to men in hindsight. When they get older and think about how they were introduced to sex, they realise that they were molested. But as a boy, those were bragging rights. Is this because a man is demanded to know what is supposed to be done in the bedroom before he gets a partner? Reading the Likasi poems, which are six, each tells us something different about the lady, about the experience as it happened, and also about the lens through which you view the experience as you write this collection. Reading the first poem of Likasi, I was celebrating your enjoyment, for in the streets I was raised in, not how my parents raised me, but rather the other influences, the experience in the Likasi poems was to be celebrated. But it is the last poem on Likasi that holds me still and exposes my heart to the injustice I have lived through, which you have also lived through. So I read all the Likasi poems again.

 

“Likasi… I think I am over it now.

Yesterday:

‘I am sure all the girls in your class want you, if only they knew.’

Today:

Pornhub search bar: ‘MILF videos.’”

 

Most of the men in my age group got their sexual awakening between ages 12 and 15, with women older than them, and it’s hard to convince them that they were molested. And this is captured in the poem ‘Phone conversation with a hint of the old denial’.

Loic: I didn’t know until a phone conversation I had with my current partner. We were talking  and I told her about this experience. She asked if I knew I was molested. And I was like, was I… was I? She was like yes, this lady was 27 years old, and you were a minor; she knew she was using you to fulfil her sexual pleasure. I never thought of it like that. I thought I was scoring back then. It turns out I was the puppet in that situation. The realisation hit me.

Bwojji: This part of the book is in the cocoon. How did you get to write about this? What was the struggle? Was it to understand the pain that drove you to start writing this book?

Loic: Maybe, to a certain degree, but explicitly linked to the pain I was feeling. This was in the framework of understanding the experiences I have gone through that made me the person I am today. And the molestation episode was something, you know, that chiselled me as a person, as a man. After having that phone conversation, I asked myself if this has played a role in the person I am today, in the way I see women, and in the way I relate to my own emotions? Because this was something I had put at the back of my mind; each time I spoke about it, I dismissed it as ‘one of those things’. There are certain impactful things in my life that I think so lightly of, so they lie dormant in my mind and in my soul. This experience is one of them, and I just felt like I should put it out there. Since then, I have only read this part of the book with Racheal at the Meet Your Author Series interview. After I completed the book, I left it there. My editor never asked questions, so we just moved on. I knew my mother and my brother would read this book. Regardless, I put it out there. At least I have spoken about it and acknowledged it for what it was, and it was wrong. We move.

Bwojji: Cocoon has a few poems, and it starts with the poem ‘First day in Lubumbashi’, which details your arrival in this town with your mother and your stepfather. Who was the mountain?

Loic: Lubumbashi and Likasi are towns in Katanga province in DRC. My mother got remarried to the man referred to as a mountain. We moved to Lubumbashi with them. He was a very aggressive man, and Lubumbashi set the tone for the rest of our lives with them, which I actually didn’t speak about. I felt there was no point in speaking about it. But I do speak about it briefly in my new work. It was in Lubumbashi I experienced and witnessed domestic violence, something I never experienced with my actual parents when they were still together. We had a conversation, my mother and I, about that violence. She apologised because she could understand how it looked to us, her children. Everything seemed fine at home, and suddenly my mum was getting a divorce and leaving my father. And we were just like, what happened? If my parents were fighting and there was a conflict, we should have observed it, then we would have understood. But now we didn’t know who to blame for the breakup, for the divorce, we didn’t know. But she gets married again to a man who actually shows us what domestic violence looks like. For a boy, it’s a strange situation, a strange experience. Then he moves from Lubumbashi to Likasi in a few years’ time, gets molested. It’s a chain of events, and this child is still in a cocoon because he’s very much still a child. In a space where he’s supposed to be developed, there is so much damage that is happening. 

Bwojji: You grew up in a Christian family. In ‘Growing up, there’, you wrote:

 

“…when the devil ended his stay

on my grandmother’s roof

I asked Ya Makiadi what happened on that day

he smiled and as if he thought I didn’t already 

know

said

‘nothing.’”

 

The narrator in this poem captures different tones of each speaker without giving them an actual voice. The narrator captures the tone and also communicates the emotion of the subjects he is interacting with without letting them speak on their own. ‘Growing up, there’ is a poem whose power is in sound. What I mean is, it needs to be voiced out for one to understand and appreciate what you were able to achieve. How did you achieve the constant tone laced with sadness?  If this collection was a meal, sadness is one of the spices used, just in the right amounts. The book is layered with sadness and grief, not the kind that overwhelms the reader. Rather, it’s a window through which we see a man grieving his boyhood, his mother and father’s relationship, a man grieving old friends as seen in the poem ‘Adrien, back home; in the mud’, grieving his loss of innocence in the poem ‘Mwana moninga mawa te’. We also see a man grieving a relationship coming to an end, a man grieving a time when he couldn’t cry, yet when given permission to do so, he is caught in a situation that doesn’t permit him to cry. How were you able to achieve a balance so the grief doesn’t overwhelm the reader?

Loic: Ah, language. My use of language, and if I am to tell you, I don’t know how I came across that. I think this is from the work that I read. When I wrote this poem, this collection, I was a big fan of the Japanese-American poet Phil Kaye. Phil Kaye, for me, is a master. He tells stories about his family. There is a poem, ‘My Grandmother’s Ballroom’, about his grandmother succumbing to Alzheimer’s, and in it, he speaks of his grandmother’s mind as a ballroom. The people in this ballroom are memories. He describes every person in the ballroom as a certain memory. There is so much beauty in it, so much sadness, and I absorbed all of that. I could see how a person could take beauty and write it in such a way that a reader can relate. I never lost a parent or anyone to Alzheimer’s, but the universality of grief is what connects us. For the tone, I think the poem allows the reader to insert themselves into it. And how you are speaking about Ya Makiadi’s response, you will be surprised that most of it is how you interpreted it in your head as well. If you’re in this situation having a conversation with this man, this would be the appropriate response. This makes sense because this is where the story has been taking you. And I think the effort I made while writing this story was to invite the reader in, use language and words and pacing in the poem so that the reader, even if they have never been in an exorcism before or anything, can understand the boy’s perception and point of view and insert themselves in the poem. I suppose this is from years of practice, but it’s something I have always wanted to do and achieve, and I am glad you picked up on it as well. 

Bwojji: Are you a Christian, or do you still believe in God?

Loic: I wouldn’t say I am a Christian. I had stopped believing in God, but I have started believing again. I feel like I have no reason for not believing now. I have questioned so many things, which I think was a very necessary journey for me to take, to let go of how religion was taught to me from the day I was born, and to when I moved to go look for God myself and not find God, and not believing in him, and then realising that I have no reason not to believe in God. So, I am at a station in my life where I am coming back. I was having a conversation with a friend not so long ago, and I was telling him that I want to embrace a version of God that… I don’t want to say that makes sense to me, but there is a softness in human nature, there is a softness in men and women and children that comes from love. And God is love, that’s what the Bible says. So, it doesn’t have to be ritualistic, it doesn’t have to be a service on a Sunday, it doesn’t have to be praise and worship, as long as it’s love, looks like it, feels like it, and doesn’t harm you, that’s where God is. I read somewhere that every truth is God’s truth, and that is my religion now. If there is truth in it and there is love in it, that’s where God is. That is what I want to practice in my life. It is a bit complex and I am trying to put it in words that I find in experiencing giving love.

Bwojji: I believe that as boys, we absorb so much from the male figures who are in our lives; we absorb without them telling us who a man should be. We see and copy, and this affects us. One of the things I find in your poetry is this: the grief of a man is passed down from father to son, and the cycle is continuous. You capture this in your poem ‘My father: a lesson in archiving’:

 

“And I snore like he did 15 years ago

I hear my bloodline against my pillow

Like crashing waves and 

Hysterical laughter, the men that came

Before me were all triers and I sometimes 

Think that I need to try to not be those men.”

 

The cycle is that every time you try not to be those men, you continuously become those men. Have you been able to deal with that?

Loic: I think so. I think so because I am writing about it now. First of all, what I did for myself was to redefine what a leader should be. I am a firstborn. I have been in positions of leadership at work. I had to understand that I am a servant before anything else. That changed my way of interacting with my subordinates; saying please, congratulating them, thanking them, apologising to them. To someone else it might be strange. But I could see how this person I became, or striving to become, changed my relationship with people around me. They could trust me more, they could basically do anything for me, and they liked me for who I am because I could understand them at a human level. And that seeped into everything in my life. With my partner it’s the same thing. I have started to cultivate a certain softness that I felt for so long but couldn’t afford to allow myself to feel or to experience because of the men who came before me.

Now, I am better. I struggle with it from time to time, but I am learning this is a lifelong journey, a lifelong process. It never stops. Because of that, I put myself in a position where I don’t have to perform. I am trying to do away with the performative part of my masculinity. I don’t have to beat my chest to prove that I am a man. I can still be a man who speaks softly and apologises and says can you please help me do this. It doesn’t take away anything from me. More than anything else, it’s more human because I am not stronger, bigger or higher than anybody.

This was the beginning of a very long journey. It was a paradigm shift in my life and I am still learning, and I am glad for it. 

Bwojji: Is your father still alive?

Loic: Yes, very much so. 

Bwojji: Do you ever have such conversations with him?

Loic: (Laughs.) My new work will address that. My father is very much a silent man. He is not well-versed in the art of conversation. What I have learnt from observing my father (we met again last year, and early this year I was in DRC) is that he uses his silence as a containment technique. My father lives his life on the edge of his emotions. I believe a lot of men do. A lot of men accumulate so much, and when it reaches the brim, they look for a lid. I think my father uses silence as a lid because if he dares to open it, certain conversations would slip out and he wouldn’t know how to handle the flood. I had that in common with him for so long, and I am still learning how to talk about these things because I don’t know what I am going to do once I let these things out into the world, once I let these things out of myself. So, we had conversations but we scratched the surface. We never really talked in-depth. I could tell there was so much else. The little he said was as much as he wanted to talk about, and I understood, but also I could tell from what he told me that there was so much left unsaid that was happening and that happened in the past. 

Bwojji: Do you think it’s a façade that after a very long time, this is the life he knows?

Loic: Well, yes. It’s very much a façade; however, our education system re-enforces it. I think there is a right way. There should be a right way of dealing with emotions, with dealing with trauma, and that right way could present itself in many ways, but it goes back to the same thing: there has to be a right way to deal with emotions. One of the best ways is to talk about it, you know, to talk about it. Men keeping things to themselves is as a result of the system that my father was born into, and it has affected him negatively. A lot of men are victims of the patriarchy, which is ironic. It’s very ironic.

Bwojji: Yes, it’s a system we are born into, and one which we are not supposed to question. Another misconception about the patriarchy is that it benefits men only. 

Loic: Mothers, aunts, and grandmothers benefit from it too, in a way. It gives them a position of power. 

Bwojji: Patriarchy benefits and empowers women, but not in a progressive way. 

Loic: Yes, yes. I feel patriarchy does not leave room for women to be the best versions of themselves. Patriarchy wants women to be the best at what patriarchy wants them to be. And it’s sad, in my opinion, that certain women actually promote it as the preferred way of living. You can look at it and say, she is humble or she is submissive. That is the term that is used, but is it this person’s nature or is she just playing a role within a system that was created by men? Men are victims of it too, as I’ve earlier said. Our generation is questioning a lot of things now, some of which I see on social media. It’s nice that we are questioning these things. And it has made us realise that our parents, our fathers, have been living a life of suffering, even though they thought it was a privilege. There is a poem where I said “men bleed too”. Internally, mostly. We all know what haemorrhaging does when it is inside. This is what is happening to a lot of men; they are haemorrhaging on the inside.

Bwojji: In 2020, in the middle of the pandemic, I lost someone, and they died in my arms. I shelved that experience, with all its emotions. Once in a while, I talk about it, but from a distance. Reading your collection, How To Wake A Butterfly, asked me to open up, to remove the lid. But I am not sure how to do that. I am not sure I am even ready to do that. 

Loic: See what I mean? You are afraid of the flood.

Bwojji: In the poem ‘Lunch at Tasha’s’, this is the first time the persona is seen owning up to his tears. The thing he is owning up to is the thing that is used for his rejection by his partner. This is hard to reconcile with, but also this is how we were raised. A man doesn’t cry, so it baffles the woman who witnesses the persona’s tears, this strong macho man she is supposed to marry, letting his emotions show. I think most poets wear their emotions on their sleeves. I felt every line of this poem. Most times, when a lady friend asks me to open up, I feel as if they don’t really want me to come with my emotions to the table. At the slight hint of my emotions, the conversation is shifted to be about the lady. I really felt this poem. 

Loic: The persona in the poem got to a point where he acknowledged that he had to speak about the things buried in his chest. He realised that in order to move forward, he needed to heal from his pain and trauma. I had this conversation as you can see in the poem. The lady was to listen to his outpour of emotions, and that was because she meant something to him. However, she was the kind of person who only wanted to keep up appearances. For her, it was all about, let’s get something to eat, oh when did you become a cheapskate, what is going on with you lately. The persona wondered if the lady did not see what he was going through. The funny part is, this is normally what happens between men and women. It’s usually women who are known to go through emotions and emotional pain. That’s what we believe, but it also happens that men go through emotional pain and want to talk about their emotions too. However, because of how the patriarchal society has influenced us, a woman’s viewpoint could be this: that is a man; there is no way Loic would want to talk about such deep things. It is unfortunate.

Bwojji: Mud is an image that keeps recurring in the collection, and it’s used differently every time it appears. Two times it is used as a material to make toys, and other times it is used to build thick walls to keep the devil out. I was born in the late 80s, so I played with mud in my childhood. But in this day and age, mud is a sign used to separate people into classes: a house with a muddy compound belongs to a certain class, and a road of mud leads to a certain area, mostly a village. We don’t prefer mud, we want clean concert places. Yet here, you remind us that mud builds strong houses, and you remind us of the joy of playing in the mud and creating things there. Were you cautious about using mud as a motif? 

Loic: I write a lot about earth and mud. In some poems, I compare the earth in my grandma’s neighbourhood to that of Lubumbashi. Growing up at my grandma’s place, there was sand and it was very thick sand; very, very thick sand. And that’s how I remember my childhood. Sand and mud connect me to the earth. In the poem, I write about getting off the plane and understanding the need to kiss the earth of this new country. For me, the earth and the sand connect us to the ancestral spirits of the new country. The spirit of the land is our most authentic self. Our ancestral identity is the mud we take to build houses, it’s the mud Adrien and I used to build our childhood. I used that to represent my childhood. I used that to represent me, breaking down to be a strong man. The thing in that poem, when I say “mud is used to build strong houses too”, I speak to myself that if I ever get to a place where I am treated like dirt or mud, I remember that even mud has the potential of building a fortress. The motif for me is earth means ancestry, means grandma, means childhood. The poem ‘Petrichor’ is a love poem. In it, I still talk about dust, and I think it’s something deeper that even I have not understood fully! But I am so attracted to the idea of the earth as placement, as identity, as ancestry. 

Bwojji: One of the memories that live rent-free in my mind is when it rains after it’s been so dusty for a long time; the smell of earth rises in worship, and the world for a moment is filled with placement, identity, childhood games and ancestry. Every single time, it feels like I fully understand myself at that moment. 

Loic: I love that smell. 

 

This dialogue was edited by our Contributing Editor, Zenas Ubere.

Elijah Bwojji

Elijah Bwojji is the beloved son to his mother and father, a storyteller and an avid consumer of literature. He is a member of the Lantern Meet of Poets, producer of theater productions and audio-visual productions. He cofounded ibuajournal.com, an online publishing outfit in Kampala Uganda. He moderates A Poetry Meet, which is a space poets and poetry lovers come every fortnight to read and critique poems they have written. When he is not thinking about why leaves fall off trees to die, he freezes motion to tell stories in snapshot moments using photography.

ELIJAH BWOJJI

CONTRIBUTING INTERVIEWER FOR POETRY

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