2020 African Writers Award for Poetry: A Dialogue with Joyce Nneka Duru
Nneka Joyce Duru is a graduate of English at the University of Lagos. She is a prolific writer who has poems, short stories and novels in her collection. Her writing career began at age nine when she wrote her first collection of children’s stories and at age thirteen, had already written her first novel. A wife and mother of five kids, she is an ardent advocate of women and children’s rights. She is a member of the Association of Nigerian Authors, Port Harcourt, Nigeria and is currently the winner of the 2020 African Writers Award for Poetry.
BY EDITH KNIGHT MAGAK
This conversation took place between Kenya and Nigeria, via email and WhatsApp.
Edith: Thank you for joining me Joyce, and congratulations on winning the 2020 African Writers Award for Poetry. ‘Ode to the Blackbird’ is an excellent piece! What does this win mean to you?
Joyce: Thank you Edith. Wow. This means so much to me, more than anyone can ever fathom. First of all, I give thanks to God Almighty for this grace. Second, I give thanks to the judges and everyone who made this possible. I feel highly honored and elated. It is phenomenal. This proves that all my efforts all through the years have been rewarded with success. It shows that I have achieved a landmark in my writing career and I am greatly encouraged.
Edith: It is a landmark indeed! Winning a continental prize, is a big deal. What motivated you to write ‘An Ode to the Blackbird,’ especially as a 4 stanza Haiku?
Joyce: The demoralizing trend of events in the society was my major motivation. It so happened that while I sat at breakfast with my husband, he showed me a piece written by an African President, labeling Africans as unproductive and the continent not so good. The piece got me thinking of racism against Africans as well and the status of the common black man in the world. Suddenly, I turned to my husband and said, ‘A day is coming when the blackbird shall sing. On that day, the impossible clouds shall come down upon the earth and the Larks shall all hide in shame.’ He asked me what I meant and I told him that like Nostradamus, I am only giving a prophecy on Africa. We laughed it off. It was not until I saw the AWA poetry competition with its theme on African identity that I decided to put my thoughts into a poem.
Writing ‘Ode to the Blackbird’ in Haiku was circumstantial. I was looking for a better way to convey my message, showcasing not just the thoughts but literary culture; literature and all its values. I came across a beautiful poem written in Haiku by a Japanese woman. I became drawn to the style and made my poem in like manner.
Edith: This is profound. Talk about poetry being on your fingertips! I’m always intrigued at the different place’s writers get their inspiration from: to imagine that a comment from the president made you write this award-winning poem, that is big!
I remember this one time I was watching a news piece on Al Jazeera about the plight of transgender people in India and all of a sudden, I felt this urge to write about it. When I sat down to, it was just flowing unrestricted. I finished a 1000-word story in under 30 minutes, the first draft of course. Talk about the power of the muse!
And still on the style of this poem; I really liked what you did with it. It’s like a 2-in-1 poem: A Haiku, and also an Ode. What made you decide to write the poem in this form? And by doing this, you crushed the expectation that African writers look exclusively to Western literature for stylistic and narrative models.
Joyce: I chose to combine the two forms of poetry, due to the originality such combination brought in the world of literature. That is marrying ode and haiku together in an African poem— note the African flavor in the poem. After I had written this poem, I gave it a special name, which is the Njodawa poem—a combination of the abbreviation of my name and AWA—though I did not relate this when making my entry into the competition. You see, Edith, it is high time we, Africans, begin to have our originality especially in traditional written African poetry. We can device many forms of written poetry without being restrained by Western rigidities, having local contents and original forms which can exclusively be identified as African. So now we know that Njodawa is somewhere between haiku and an ode. And there is this new form of poetry I wrote, a two-line poetry of eight parts (not stanzas) of a peculiar syllabic scheme which I call Abuabua. Don’t laugh at these names. They are purely African and have their meanings.
I think it is abominable for Africans to look exclusively to western literature or to subject ourselves wholly to their own form or standard of writing. This is Africa, an organized entity, and we have the right to shun western dominance in our style or way of writing. Our traditional languages are peculiar to us and we are free to utilize them in our writing. Our way of speaking English can also be employed in our literary works; not necessarily being held down by the use of obscure words or the use of Queen’s English when we can comfortably write the way we speak in our local community. Just as poets have poetic license, African writers should also have scriptic license to write however they will. If Eurocentric critics consider our works as half baked, it is their business not ours.
“We need more African poets to introduce new forms distinctly akin to Africa.“
Edith: What brilliant thoughts here! Reminds me of what the Harriet Editor at Poetry Foundation said:
‘What if we thought of poets as inventors who take language apart and put it back together again in different forms, to see how it works, what it can do or be made to do?’
and right here you are doing just that! I think Njodawa is such a powerful name, and so is Abuabua.
You know some time back Jericho Brown introduced the world to his new form of poetry called ‘The Duplex’, which combines the structure of the ghazal, the sonnet, and the blues on a single plane. And so, go girl! I hope you create and experiment with more of these forms and popularize them. I am delighted to hear that you are doing that. I can’t wait to see the Abuabua, it sounds very exciting. Tell me more about it.
Joyce: I like that you appreciate the innovation African poets are bringing into African poetry. Abuabua is a couplet, with each line a tetrameter and pentameter respectively. It has a rhyme scheme of ‘a a’ and it is a poem of sixteen lines divided into eight parts.
The first part can go thus:
Say yes, Palm trees (a) (4 beats)
Never bend thy leaves (a) (5 beats)
And so on and so forth. This is how Abuabua goes till the end where there is a repetition of the first part of the poem.
Yes, we are moving forward. We need more African poets to introduce new forms distinctly akin to Africa. Like you rightly said, we need to move away from the traditional rigid forms of poetry and create room for flexibility. We can seek to improve on what we already have in poetry by making ‘mixed breeds’ of the already existing forms or create new forms entirely.
Edith: How wonderful, I am flat out intrigued at this brilliance! Not only by your craft, but also the message in your work. In the poem, you talk about larks in the first stanza, then in the second, you mention fair larks, why was it important for you to make this distinction? Because sometimes I think that it’s the ‘dark larks’ that speak against the continent. It’s like we are our own enemies, and it’s in not loving and honoring our blackness that makes others treat us as we treat ourselves.
Joyce: You are absolutely right. In not honoring our blackness, not being proud of who we are as black people we bring down our image before the world. A lot of people have that notion that the black skin is inferior. You give a child a black doll, she throws it away in favor of a white doll. The truth is that we as black mothers and fathers have not done our homework well because as the saying goes, ‘charity begins at home.’ We as adults have the responsibility to inculcate in our children black pride; pride in our color, pride in our culture, pride in our identity. We should discard foreign things that degrade our appearance. I tell my daughter; your black hair is beautiful the natural way it is. You don’t need to straighten it or apply chemicals to it. You don’t need to change your beautiful brown skin. You are beautiful just the way you are.
In the poem, I made an emphasis on fair Larks. These represent those foreign powers putting Africa through neocolonialism that demean Africa as people of inferior race. They also are symbolic of racist powers. The fair Larks as you have said can also refer to the black Larks who are those African leaders that toy with Africa’s destiny and all the blacks that are ashamed of their identity but rather choose white man’s ways over their own. I say again, a day shall come when the blackbird shall sing and all Larks whether black or white shall come down in shame. Africa shall be free at last.
Edith: I always think about this term that you just mentioned ‘Black pride’ because even the term itself shows that Black should be validated. I’ve never heard of Brown pride, or White pride. This goes to show how much our sense of identity and worth has been robbed from us.
Your thoughts on hair and skin reminded me of Lupita Nyong’o. She once said that she struggled with her dark skin tone, and kinky hair and wished she were fairer. And haven’t we all had the same struggle at some point? The skin bleaching industry is reeking millions in profits in Africa because we want to look white.
And that’s why I love the 3rd stanza ‘Ho, Blackbirds gyrate….’ just visualizing this is powerful! That we can show off our Blackness in pride, without shame. But that is easier said than done, don’t you think? We want to conform, and in the world of globalization where we tweet, wear, and watch the same things as people in New York, or Sydney, or Hong Kong, how do we still gyrate to our tune without borrowing the tune of others?
Joyce: Truly, this is quite demoralizing that we have never heard of white pride or whatever ‘color’ pride. This is the reason a caricature was made when blacks swung the slogan ‘Black lives matter’ and the whites also ran theirs ‘white lives matter’. Yes, it is very clear that black lives have been unduly wasted in the western world, yet fun seems to be made out of the whole situation. Quite pathetic indeed. The extent of retrogression of the black man’s situation is quite overwhelming. Imagine the psychological and emotional torture one has to face for being black! Imagine the tears and pain for a coat of dark skin which one’s creator deemed it fit to bestow upon one! Why should Lupita or any black person go through pains for what is no fault of theirs and why would it be a fault? How has the dark skin become a fault, a crime?
The lines “Ho! Blackbirds gyrate! Play to us the beaded gourd, let earth sing your praise” is an emergent, awakening call to black people to arise. The beaded gourd, Ichaka, is an Igbo musical instrument that is openly beaten with both arms raised in the air. Africans should be happy for who they are and be unashamed to openly display their culture; material or immaterial, for the world to see. Like you said, it is easier said than done. Yes, what with the mad chase for the dangling sweets and fineries the western world flings our ways. But no matter the circumstance, we should never forget who we really are. It is sheer foolishness to mindlessly throw away our African languages, traditional dresses, hairstyles, local cosmetics, food, dances, and education, to the mud.
It is like turning your back on life to embrace death. Africans should all work as a team to further develop themselves and their heritage for a greater African nation. We can make it if we try.
Edith: I love this ‘It is like turning your back on life to embrace death.’ But tell me, how do we draw the line (That is, if we should draw a line) between what to keep and what to let go of? Because not all of African culture can be danced to. Some parts of the song need to be edited, some even flat out deleted. And who gets to make this call, because Africa is a huge continent, with thousands of cultures. What do you think is your role in all this? And not just you, but all African writers. Is writing about Black pride or the African identity enough, or can more be done? If there is more, what is the more?
Joyce: Yes. A lot of cultures in Africa still need to be edited. I tell my friends: your forefathers made laws according to the trend of their times. Now you are in a new era. You have seen better; brighter days and you know how to move your people forward for better life. Why do you still refer to those outdated laws that say a woman in her menstrual cycle should not eat meat? If she must, the meat should be sun dried or smoked and not boiled. Why are you as women afraid to discuss land issues with male members of your community because you are afraid you will die if you do so? To the men I say, why do you turn your own blood brothers away from your family compound because you feel as the first-born son you are the sole bona fide heir of your father’s compound? Why do you avoid your fellow human being like a leper because he or she is termed an Osu outcast? Why do you give out young innocent virgins as wives to old priests in the name of slave wives of the gods? You say it is traditional custom. You cannot let go, even despite the fact that Africa is a revolving continent.
It is quite disheartening. Africans need to move forward but who will lead the team of the progressives? Who will bell the cat? The savior lies not only in African writers but every breathing African! We must all come together to move our continent forward and away from laws and customs not good enough for our growth. However, as writers, we must never cease to write and to write on the truth because definitely the truth shall set us free.
Edith: Your words are powerful. I agree with you. We must certainly continue to write, and write about the truth. I remember having a conversation with a friend of mine who was applying for a scholarship abroad, and in the essay, she was submitting she had written about how she has struggled for an education and had to wake up at 4 am to go to the river and fetch water, then go to school. After school she had to stop by the forest for firewood before going home, walking to school barefoot. This essay painted a picture of so much struggle. And while I know that unfortunately this is a reality for some, in this case my friend was lying. She told me that it’s the picture of a suffering African that will enable her get the scholarship. It’s not just her, I’ve seen so many people painting an exaggerated picture of the horrors of Black life to either get a grant, or scholarship or support from the White gaze.
I see it even in books and stories. That writers, maybe consciously or unconsciously, writing about the stereotyped Africa where women are suffering, children are dying, there’s poverty and war and trauma. It’s like when you pick a book by an African writer you expect to see struggle. Even our governments use that line to get loans. Again, I know that this our reality and we should write about the things in our environment. But even as we say ‘fair maiden dance on’ to display our identity and culture, and who we are. Do you think we have romanticized our suffering?
Joyce: No one likes suffering, and no sensible human being will use it as a bait to a better life from the western world, except such a person is evil. Indeed, some people use the suffering of others to raise money to enrich themselves. They open fake foundations and solicit for help all over the world yet they do nothing to alleviate the suffering of the people they represent. Others seek for asylum or funding from abroad with lies against their own selves. All these are real facts. I agree that writers, for their own selfish gains, concoct stories about Africa; wild, pathetic, outlandish stories to paint a picture of pain, hopelessness and helplessness but I also feel that there are genuine writers who present the story of Africa as it were; and that Africa is a place where growth can spring up solely with our collective effort without any foreign dominance in our thoughts and in our writing.
Edith: We must commend efforts of organizations like the African Writer’s development Trust, who are endeavoring to promote the African literary scene without foreign promotion. And there are also a lot of local literary outfits coming up throughout Africa. This will enable us to authentically tell the African story without manipulating it to fit a certain narrative.
You talk of collective effort; In recent times there have been more calls for artistic collaborations in the continent? Do you think it’s important for us to work together now more than ever? and if yes, why so? or do you think we can still work alone and achieve growth.
Joyce: The question of collaboration can only be welcoming if there is a mutual understanding between the two parties. Such intellectual intermingling can create rooms for new ideas and opportunities in its universal sense. I will say it is a good idea but the modalities will have to be well defined. No man is an island unto himself. I believe we can do well when we also work with others from different parts of the world. Well, Edith, we can grow without the world but I fear the growth may be slower compared to when we intermingle. However, our intermingling demands respect of our African root: our culture, traditions and creativity. If we are disrespected or termed inferior for who we are, then it is safer to work alone although the growth be slow. We will definitely get there.
Edith: Agreed. It should not just be a collaboration for the sake of collaboration but with well-defined objectives. Lastly, what are you working on right now; assuming that you are. Should we expect to see more of your works soon? (I must confess I am looking forward to ‘meeting’ the Abuabua in more publications)
Joyce: I am working intermittently working on my fifth novel and my anthology of poems which, of course, includes the ‘Abuabua’. Yes. More works are definitely going to come from me and I want to use this medium to say a big thank you to the African Writers Development Trust for this encouragement. Such encouragement makes one want to write more. And I wish to call on publishing houses to come in too. We young writers have great works that need to be looked into. We need their collaboration. Schools should also take a peep at our poems, novels and short stories and not to be too rigid about teaching only the works of precolonial and post-colonial writers and poets. I know they are good but we need to also come down to younger, modern writers and see what we have to offer too. I know we have a lot to offer.
Edith: It’s been an absolute delight speaking with you Joyce, I look forward to having a conversation with you again in the future when the anthology is out, or the novel. Please keep us in mind for that interview!
Joyce: Thank you, Edith, for this amazing conversation. It’s been great talking with you. More grease to your elbow. And thank you Africa in Dialogue magazine. I love you all.
Edith Knight Magak is a creative writer and a 2020 Writing Fellow at African Liberty. Prior publication credits include Brittle Paper, Jalada Africa, Meeting of Minds UK, Jellyfish Review, among others. She lives and writes in Nairobi, Kenya. Find her on Twitter @oedithknight