Brunel International African Poetry Prize – Shortlisted Poet: A Dialogue With Omotara James
Omotara James is the author of the chapbook, “Daughter Tongue,” selected by African Poetry Book Fund, in collaboration with Akashic Books, for the 2018 New Generation African Poets Box Set. Born in Britain, she is the daughter of Nigerian and Trinidadian immigrants. Her poetry has appeared in the Academy of American Poets, Literary Hub, Platypus Press, The Lambda Literary Spotlight, Poetry Society of America, Nat.Brut, Winter Tangerine and elsewhere. A former social worker in the field of Harm Reduction, she has been awarded fellowships from Lambda Literary and Cave Canem Foundation.
BY NKATEKO MASINGA
This conversation took place between South Africa and the United States via email
Nkateko: Omotara, congratulations on being shortlisted for the Brunel International African Poetry Prize. What does being on this shortlist mean to you?
Omotara: Oh, thank you, Nkateko. I had to take a real moment to digest the magnitude of this question. It is not an honour that I take lightly. As a universal rule, I endeavour not to internalize criticism or praise of my work, because that is a distraction from the work itself, which is so far from the impetus of why I write. From a young age, I learned that if you are fat, or black, or feminine, people will generally look through you, or at you, as society conditions them to do. Regardless of the setting, I repeatedly found myself in situations where my words were considered secondary to my physical presentation. That is, with the exception of the classroom. Although I didn’t have the vocabulary for, or the wherewithal to process these feelings then, lazy thinkers both infuriated and aggrieved me. This served to compel me to redouble my efforts to speak and be heard. If other children, adults or men were going to stare at me, then I would tell them something that would make them remember my name. I never cared to be the center of attention, and still don’t, if you’ve ever witnessed how I walk into a reading making every effort to avert eye contact. However, my childhood experiences have made me hyper-aware that if I don’t speak up, then the spectre of stereotypes will speak out. Before one can speak for oneself, one must do the emotional and spiritual calculus that is necessary to consider oneself (and so too, the world). This is the process of poetry. This is my process. Audre Lorde said it best, “If I didn’t define myself for myself, I would be crunched into other people’s fantasies for me and eaten alive.” What is poetry if not the liminal space between being and thinking? So Nkateko, when you ask me the question of what it means to be shortlisted for this beloved prize that not only embraces, but champions the work of poets, African poets, African poets from across the diaspora who dare to speak their truths on their own terms, my eyes glaze over with recognition. Being included on this shortlist means that my words have not only found their way out of my reluctant mouth, but they have found their way home. As a child, in my loneliest hours of otherness, my mother would tell me not to worry, because “water finds its own level.” This is a Yoruba saying, which loosely means that like recognizes like. Any acknowledgement from the international literary African communities associated with this prize, means that the water that has shaped my life, has now officially claimed me and I am gleefully grateful.
Nkateko: That is fantastic. In your acknowledgement of the other shortlisted poets, “who dare to speak their truths on their own terms”, I am reminded that recently, after you were announced a winner of the prestigious Discovery Poetry Contest (congratulations on this!), you said you were “in good company” and that takes me to what you are saying now, that “people will generally look through you, or at you, as society conditions them to do” but here you are, determined to sit with others, to look with them at the magic they are weaving with words alongside you. Have you always been this affirming of others? Is this something that is cultivated in a good writing community?
Omotara: Well I happen to think it’s an exhilarating time to be a poet. Moreover, it’s an inspiring time for fiction, personal essays, short stories, translation, playwriting, journalism, cross genre, etc. I mean, c’mon, it’s an exciting time to belong to a book of the month club! I’m simply reflecting the generosity and literary citizenship that has been modeled for me by more established writers. My excitement is a product of bearing witness to this extraordinary time and reaping the gifts of those vibrations. Has there ever been a time in literary history where the work of black female writers and poets has been so publicly appreciated? From Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie to Robin Coste Lewis, Nnedi Okoroafor, Yrsa Daley-Ward, Taiye Selasi, Vievee Francis, Lola Shoneyin, Alexis Okeowo, Akwaeke Emezi, Upile Chisala, Tracy K. Smith, Safia Elhillo, Donika Kelly, Lesley Nneka Arimah, Nicole Sealey, to name a few, we are living in a time where black womxn are not only in positions of sharing and creating narratives, but we are receiving acclaim for our journalism, for being literary influencers, and so much more. To address what it is that I affirm, I affirm work that is authentic, hard-fought, generous and affirms me. And although I am grateful for these amazing writers who are doing the work and carrying the torch, we need more representation and not less. We need to uphold each other and not for one second allow or voices, narratives and hard-work to be used by others to undermine each other. That is participating in the work of those who want us to fail. We cannot fail one another. We need to occupy more literary spaces and to create our own: across Nigeria, across Africa and across the world. It is only in telling and exposing the truth of our particular stories, that we can reclaim our God-given kinship. There are forces in this world who will do whatever they can make sure that black women remain silent. Seen and not heard. They will write over us with their own narratives, stereotypes and projections. Now, I am not going to name these socio-political forces. They get more than enough press, but you know who they are. Affirmations are not only tools of self-care. They can be used to uplift community. In my experience, healthy writing communities are spaces where we are not only encouraged but challenged to read widely and voraciously. Challenged to acknowledge and engage with the work that came before and makes space for our work, work that gives us agency and courage to assert our personhood through our words. We are talking about existence here. My fat, black, queer body is coming for the canon. #sorrynotsorry What is more daring and dangerous to your oppressor than love of oneself and one’s community? Nothing. Respect is my aesthetic. More than affirming, respecting one’s literary lineage is highly African, isn’t it? In 2019, in addition to celebrating our literary elders, we can support the hard work of our contemporaries across the diaspora. That, too, is the work.
“Being included on this shortlist means that my words have not only found their way out of my reluctant mouth, but they have found their way home. As a child, in my loneliest hours of otherness, my mother would tell me not to worry, because “water finds its own level.” This is a Yoruba saying, which loosely means that like recognizes like.“
Nkateko: In “Mirror Talk”, you say “when she cried all the fruit dried/& the days got shorter/& you got fatter with brokenness/fatter with predators/your thighs/expanding into the night” and this reminded me of the week I left New York and came back to South Africa. I had gained a lot of weight during the months I spent in the U.S. and nobody at home wasted an opportunity to let me know that. At first, I would laugh it off and eventually I got mad and would respond with, ‘Do you think I don’t see my own body?’ The words “you got fatter with brokenness” in that poem resonate with me most because their comments didn’t inspire to lose the weight but to gain more. I had left a lover in Brooklyn, was eating to forget and remember her (she is a cook), was eating to not imagine myself on the B61 bus to Red Hook in downtown Brooklyn, texting her when I arrived at the bus stop at 4th and 9th Avenue to remind her that I was on my way and ‘don’t forget my food.’ In “Self Portrait As A Queer Block Party” you speak of dancing “until you find the body you abandoned // measurements ago // You travel it with your partner”, which took me back to a memory with my own partner, at a block party at Quincy with her friends. There is a version of my body that I left in Brooklyn and this poem gave it back to me. So, I want to say thank you for this (and please stop reading my diary, haha!) The way you use language to give the story back to the reader by saying ‘you’ instead of ‘I’ has healed something in me. Is this intentional? Is it a response to being stared at, a way of saying, ‘if you look at me long enough, you will see yourself’?
Omotara: Wow. I am gratified by your generous reading of my poems. I promise that I have refrained from peeking at your diary, although I’m sure it has many tales to tell, lol. Your ability to identify with the speaker is the greatest of all compliments. Thank you. That’s the point of poetry isn’t it, connection? I’m heartened that you were able to locate threads of your narrative within mine. Whether I turn to literature to get lost in it or to locate a piece of myself within it, neither can exist without my being able to connect to the language. So when you inquire about my use of the second person “you” rather than employing the lyrical “I,” certainly you are correct in your instinct that it is a move to include the reader. I have always found that intimacy requires not only consent, but some offer of admission. In this poem particularly, I use the second person to implicate the reader, as the speaker offers her heartache without equivocation. The speaker offers her experience not as a cautionary tale, but as a way of saying: what happened to me, could happen to you and has already happened before me. She is not made extraordinary by her pain. In that way, the speaker understands that her pain is not precious nor even uniquely her own. To paraphrase the old expression: a burden shared is a burden halved. The speaker of the poem is reaching out to the mirror, who is also the reader, in hopes of connection. Those are inherent to the stakes of the poem. In this way, the poem acts as the mirror, creating space for empathy, which is the vessel of all connection. Within the conceit of the poem, the speaker sees herself as might the reader, (hopefully), even if it’s just a sliver of self and only for a second.
Nkateko: “The speaker of the poem is reaching out to the mirror, who is also the reader, in hopes of connection.” That is so beautiful. Thank you so much for creating that connection in your work, for speaking up in lieu of the spectre of stereotypes. I love the work of all the black women you have mentioned in your previous response, whose work also holds the mirror up to our faces and shows us what we are capable of. I also agree with you that we need more representation. However, I feel that attention tends to be skewed in favour of black writers who have had access to opportunities such as fellowships and residencies, most of which are in the United States and the United Kingdom. Does this imply that one must leave the continent in order to have a voice or be publicly appreciated? What about those living in and writing from Africa? Are they represented too? Is the work of writers in Africa to write well and hope somebody from the U.S or the U.K notices and offers them a publishing deal or fellowship? How do we make sure that we don’t fail one another in that sense, when we are silenced by being made to think our stories are only relevant if we are writing about home from the outside?
Omotara: Thank you for honouring me with such an important question. There are many layers and levels of complexity afoot, which are revealed with every day. So, if I am to parse your question a bit, if by “attention” you’re referring to Western or International literary attention, then I suspect that is highly true and that International and Western institutions are more receptive to work created within the confines of their geographical and philosophical base, including (but often not), work of African writers across the diaspora. Therefore, on the occasion that work from any African writer galvanizes the imagination of the literary public, I feel strongly that it is an occasion to be celebrated, wouldn’t you agree? I feel the same about the celebration of black writing. However, I think it important not to conflate the various and layered identities of black writers in the diaspora with African writers in the diaspora. Although we can all trace our roots back to our African ancestry, not all black writers identify as African writers, but there is a spectrum of African diaspora experience that includes: African ex-patriots, to those who were raised on the continent, to those who were born on the continent and left when they were quite young, to those whose parents emigrated before they were born, etc. I find myself and my experience to exemplify these intersections of African and black identity. On my father’s side, we are Caribbean and very much of the generational diaspora. On my mother’s side, most of our family lives and has always lived in Nigeria, or on the continent. And of course every time I would travel back home with my mother, even within our extended family, I am to be viewed as an outsider because I don’t speak Yoruba and am not up on all the culture: no matter how much news I read on the internet, how much Afrobeat I stream, or how much Nollywood drama I consume. It’s not the same. That’s the truth. All things being equal, do I think my voice and experience should be amplified over an African writer who lives on the continent? Absolutely not. All things being equal, one voice accentuates the other. But as you and I well know, all things are not equal. Who am I to say if one must leave the continent for their work to be publicly appreciated, when I do not currently reside in Nigeria? I cannot speak for what moves anyone to write or read poetry who is not me. What I can speak to is attention. I pay attention to the writers’ whose language compels me and whose voices reach me. I read because within me is the undeniable desire to be reached and authenticated in this life. I write because my words are an extension of myself, reaching out into the darkness, with the desire to touch and to hold. And yes, the construction of language is highly influenced by whom has access to education and craft, because poetry is a conversation and does not occur in isolation. Therefore, rather than focusing on the attention as the ultimate validation, I believe it’s inherently worthwhile and necessary to the future of African literature to focus on the opportunities and the education. Attention is a by-product of opportunity and education. This moment in history is an exciting time because, with the success of all African writers, be it on the continent or across the diaspora, there lives the opportunity for up and coming continental Africans to receive attention. This is the work of the African Poetry Book Fund, the African Writers Trust, the Brunel International African Poetry Prize and other institutions. Presently, on the continent, there are fellowships and writing conferences that exist and need support right now. They need attention in the form of money, resources, vision and community. Support of these opportunities will grow literary community, which is where I believe we ought to focus. We don’t have to live on the continent to support the individual artists who are driven and talented with so much to say and require the same support afforded to any artist anywhere who has benefited from educational support and attention that is all too rare, period.
Nkateko: I have been greatly enriched by your poems and by this conversation, and I cannot wait to share the joy with our readers. All the best with the Brunel International African Poetry Prize and with everything you plan to do this year and beyond.
Omotara: Thank you, Nkateko, for the generosity of your questions and your listening. It has been a joy to reflect and discuss poems and privilege with you in this space. May our deeper understanding lead to deeper action, as we continue with our mortal plights. Until we meet again, friend.
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.