K. Eltinaé is a Sudanese poet of Nubian descent. He is a proud alumnus of the Faculty of Arts, the University of Khartoum where he graduated first of his graduating class specializing in English Literature. He taught briefly at the English Department before moving to pursue his higher education in France, Greece, and Italy, earning a triple masters in European Literary Cultures. His favorite smells are sandalwood, amber, and Japanese yuzu. He also loves cheesecake, the oud, the kora, handmade foutas, old school rap, Sufi literature, Greek mythology, and Sarah Vaughan. His poems have appeared in The African American Review, World Literature Today, Xavier Review, Muftah, Jaffat El Aqlam, Sukoon, Solidago, Rigorous, New Contrast, Poetry Potion, TRACK//FOUR, Word Fountain, The WAiF Project, Baphash Literary & Arts Quarterly, Scintilla, among others. He currently resides in Andalusia, Spain.
BY NKATEKO MASINGA
This conversation took place between South Africa and Spain via email.
Nkateko: K.Eltinaé, congratulations on being shortlisted for the Brunel International African Poetry Prize. What does being on this shortlist mean to you?
K.Eltinaé: Being shortlisted for the Brunel African Prize is a huge honor and privilege. It is an honor because the collections of so many previous winners continue to influence and inspire me to this day and have been my close companions since I left Khartoum. At the same time, it is a huge privilege to be nominated amongst such a diverse group of talented and brilliant voices. Having the pleasure of being introduced to their work and tracing their journeys through their verses has been both an uplifting and enlightening experience.
Nkateko: You mention that the work of previous winners has been a source of inspiration and companionship since you left Khartoum, and this made me think of a review of Safia Elhillo’s The January Children in The Rumpus, where reviewer David Thacker says “Despite the omnipresence of the Sudanese Diaspora, the movement of the book is from absence to presence.” Your own work also speaks of movement, so when you write about leaving Khartoum, do you feel that you reflect a move from presence to absence (“On the morning a traveler set out, / he left two footprints behind” or from absence to presence (“Sent back to a place I fled / but never escaped”)? In other words, is your poetry moving towards home (presence) or away from it?
K.Eltinaé: I think my poems move both towards and away from home. At times they feel covered in dust and domestic and perhaps itinerant at the same time. I enjoy playing with space in that regard, using a once-displaced voice and speaking through distance. In the lines ( “Sent back to a place I fled / but never escaped”) I find inspiration in how some overwhelming events stay with you in a haunting way throughout your life, but at the same time one can step back and see how ephemeral it all is, like a pattern in the sand before winds pick up.
The lines from the poem Tirhal, (“On the morning a traveler set out, / he left two footprints behind”) were inspired by an Ancient Nubian Tradition which dates back to Pharaonic times. It is roughly translated as the “Traveller’s Blessing”; a simple mound of sand collected from the dunes of home and placed inside and outside the main door of a home before embarking on a journey. This sand was then kept in old copper vases in the entrance of a home to ensure a traveller’s safe return.
“Tirhal” is an Arabic word for decampment, the act of leaving your place for another, the state of moving, travelling in the Bedouin, nomadic sense from place to place. Tirhal can also mean leaving not because you want to, but rather because you have to. I wrote these poems to address my back-and-forth relationship with an African identity and heritage.
“I think my poems move both towards and away from home. At times they feel covered in dust and domestic and perhaps itinerant at the same time. I enjoy playing with space in that regard, using a once-displaced voice and speaking through distance.“
Nkateko: You speak of “tracing their journeys through their verses” in response to reading the work of fellow writers, and I love the image of “tracing” because when I read contemporary African poetry I see so many traces of home, and this perhaps hints at the continent being a huge poetic influence for all of us. Are there any sights, smells and sounds in your current environment that remind you of home and inspire you to write about it?
K.Eltinaé: I think it is very important to mention that Khartoum is one of the many places I consider home. Having grown up as a third culture kid, attending International schools where diversity was the norm, home naturally becomes much more than the physical household you are raised in or the nationality you are born with.
The city I call home at the moment, Granada, has yearlong sunlight reminiscent of Africa, blooming jasmine of North African gardens in the summer and the timeless shrine Alhambra, engraved with poetry and talismans and the ghosts of countless poets such as Lorca and Ibn Zaydun. When I first arrived, I heard a story about a sultan who had a brilliant son. He was so overprotective of him that he did everything in his power to protect him from the suffering of love. Over time, his son learned poetry by heart and everything that could be taught about beauty. He even learned to speak with birds and through them learned about the delights of love which eventually made him suffer.
However, as we all learn in our own way to discover love and beauty, one must also know the pain of its absence. Granada has greatly inspired the poems I’ve written about places that no longer exist as I once knew them. Aswan and Khartoum are two examples of cities whose histories resurface in my poems paying homage to letter mysticism and magical realism which are so widespread in Muslim, Hebrew, Greek, and many other old-earth traditions.
Nkateko: “…as we all learn in our own way to discover love and beauty, one must also know the pain of its absence.” This is beautiful.
Your poetry reflects that we cannot know all there is to know by relying on what currently exists in our visual field, and I especially love the imagery in the lines “There are boundless events,/which precede that first cry before a new life/bursts forth and the cord is slashed” in ‘Tirhal.’ It reminds me of the poem ‘You Cannot Know the Fears I have’ by Shabbir Banoobhai, where a father speaks to his unborn child about “the music of other worlds, your earlier home.” How important is it for you as a writer to learn about (and write about) what exists beyond here and now, to acknowledge those “boundless events” of before? In the absence of inspiration in the present environment, is this where you search?
K.Eltinaé: Thank you so much for your beautiful insights and kind words about my work. I am also delighted with the discovery of Shabbir Banoobhai’s poetry. Your question brought to mind a verse from a poem I adore by Chielozona Eze that states “the past, if forgotten, poisons the village well.” ‘Boundless events’ in Tirhal refer to the legacies passed down and the survival of not only bodies but the ever-present trauma of disappearing languages, landmarks and customs. For example, in many villages along the Nile’s delta, homes were built with a connecting window in the kitchen so neighbors could easily chat and exchange spices during the preparation of important meals. Communities gathered on mats outside their homes so that wandering wayfarers could pause and rest to eat and drink. Simple old-earth customs often resurface in my poems, not only to address and question our collective sense of humanity in our divisive times, but also to honor left-behind experiences that remain boundlessly present.
Nkateko: Is there any literature that you would suggest for younger writers who are struggling to find their voice? In other words, what does one read in order to become a better writer?
K.Eltinaé: Had I not stumbled upon the work of Audre Lorde, Khalil Gibran, C.P Cavafy, Saadi, Hafez, Abu Nawas and contemporary poets such as Warsan Shire, Claudia Rankine, Ocean Vuong, Chielozona Eze and Ladan Osman at different moments in my life, the world as I know it today would be a less meaningful place to live in.
The work of all of these poets possesses a timelessness, a courage and willingness to address truths that both inspire and compel me to write. I am a firm believer that your voice finds you. Ultimately, a poem should leave you gasping for breath, remind you why you are alive and hold you hostage with images that never leave you.
Nkateko: Those “simple old-earth customs” you mention remind me of the close-knit community where I grew up, in a township called Mamelodi. Friends’ mothers were my mothers, every man a father or uncle. Going next door to borrow spices was not uncommon. Where I live now, things are completely different. People don’t greet each other. We are all just ships passing each other in the night. I thought of my first home last year when I travelled outside of the continent for the first time. I took the subway in New York and got hopelessly lost and when I looked at the strangers around me, I saw glimpses of where I live now, in how everyone was just minding their own business. When I missed home in New York it was Mamelodi that I missed; the community, knowing I was known by name and loved by everyone whose eyes met mine. When you speak of “our collective sense of humanity in our divisive times” I think of so many things, particularly social media and how it divides us while giving us the illusion of unity, how we hide behind screens and keyboards instead of talking to the people around us. How does poetry bridge this gap? Sometimes I stumble upon a breath-taking poem on Twitter and in those moments, I know I don’t want to live without social media completely, but how does one find the balance between being engaged with the virtual world and not losing sight of what is real?
K.Eltinaé: Thank you for sharing your story with me, it reminded me of so many occasions when I have arrived to a new city, heart full of nostalgia and hunger for a sense of community and belonging. The daunting process of redefining who you are in a new land, the struggles of preserving your humor and recapturing the essence of your personality in a foreign language are very often oversimplified as a part of adjusting. I remember stumbling across Claudia Rankine’s Citizen, and how for months her voice, the anecdotes in her lyrical essay validated so many of my own experiences in exile, months later I was thrilled to discover Ruben Hernandez’s ¿Y tu porqué eres Negro?, a coming of age memoir based in Spain and my heart was overjoyed to discover both these powerful voices at that specific moment in life.
I think it is vital to reach out and connect with poets/writers/humans who inspire you to not only focus on what is happening right now but also to set an example of what can be done with these tools at our disposal. The Internet has fed us a lot of fake news, misinformation and flippant and dismissive ways to compartmentalize real world issues but it has also given us many tools to collaborate and reach out to one another.
I am personally very wary of social media and the power of algorithms that cage us within feel-good communities. When you align yourself with one way of thinking, one way of viewing the world, you develop a massive blindsight which slowly leads to tyrannical standpoints that encourage further dividedness. For truly ‘diverse’ democracies to exist, we need to develop respect and tolerance and allow spaces for those unlike ourselves to coexist, to have a fuller understanding of one another. I personally love the platform Medium, which offers an amazing range of articulate perspectives on our ever-changing world. Ultimately, one must make honest and educated decisions about the authenticity of what is relayed and dig deeper than what meets the eye.
Nkateko: “…a timelessness, a courage and willingness to address truths.” That is so beautiful, and it is no surprise that the work of the poets you admire possesses those qualities, because it is reflected in your work and even in your responses to these questions. Thank you so much for sharing your knowledge and memories with me. I have enjoyed having this conversation with you. All the best with the Brunel International African Poetry Prize and with everything you plan to do this year and beyond.
K.Eltinaé: I am very grateful for your time and genuine interest in my work. It has been a true pleasure corresponding with you and learning about your life. I wish you all the best with your career and thank you for your professionalism.
Nkateko Masinga was born in Pretoria, South Africa. She is a writer, performance poet, publisher, TEDx Speaker, 2018 Mandela Washington Fellow, World Economic Forum Global Shaper and 2019 Ebedi Writers Fellow. Her written work has appeared in Brittle Paper, Kalahari Review, U.S journal Illuminations, UK pamphlet press Pyramid Editions, the University of Edinburgh’s Dangerous Women Project, and elsewhere. She is the founder and managing director of NSUKU Publishing Consultancy. Her work has received support from Pro Helvetia Johannesburg and the Swiss Arts Council. She is currently a Contributing Interviewer for Poetry under Africa In Dialogue’s Internship Program.