Tag Archives: African Literature

Brunel International African Poetry Prize: A Dialogue With Sahro Ali

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Sahro Ali is a Somali-Australian hybrid. Her work explores ghosts of the diaspora, memories and trauma. She is a managing editor at Kerosene Magazine, a fledgling literary magazine created by and for marginalized artists. Her work is forthcoming in an anthology of anti-Trump work called CONTRA, which will be published by Kerosene. She is inspired by the women in her life who encourage and cultivate radical writing. She hopes one day to make them proud. She tweets @sahroaIi.

This conversation took place in the cold, sweetspot of Gaborone, Botswana and the vibrant Victoria in Melbourne, Australia by Email.

Gaamangwe: Sahro, congratulations on being shortlisted for the Brunel International African Poetry Prize. What does it mean for you to be shortlisted?

Sahro: Thank you! I’m still trying to wrap my head around it, there were so many amazing and talented poets who entered. I didn’t really think I’d make the cut. The literary community is huge and it’s easy to get overwhelmed and feel like you’re not really a poet / writer if you’re not churning out something every day. For me it’s acknowledging that I am actually a writer. It’s easy to get lost in your own head sometimes.

Gaamangwe: It’s really exciting to read all of these works. What inspires your poetry?

Sahro: I’m in that early-stage of being a writer where all I can write about is my past experiences and trauma. Which results in crude imagery and language, and I feel like it’s jarring in certain poems. I have a lot of ugly truths to write about and that’s what inspires me to write most of the time. Things that people tend to shy away from and/or are tentative when approaching them. Using soft language to talk about something that’s inherently evil and harrowing is powerful but so is using crude language. It’s like you’re meeting it face to face, and seeing it for what it is, if that makes sense. Other things that inspire me are my friends and how unafraid they are in everything they do.

Gaamangwe: It’s really inspiring and empowering that at the early-stage of your writing, you are already going deep in your traumas. That really takes courage. What traumas from your past experiences are important for you to write about? What do you hope to illuminate about your ugly truths?

Sahro: I’m a daughter of immigrants and watching my parents struggle and try to make a living when I was younger was difficult. Especially as I got older, my parents were convinced I was this Anglicized devil. That’s the subject matter for some of my poems–being stuck between borderlines. To answer the second part of your question, I really don’t know. Right now it’s just acknowledging them and accepting them as they are.

Gaamangwe: Is the conviction that you are an Anglicized devil because of your sexuality? Can you talk to me about existing here and how that conviction affected your personal reality?

Sahro: Yes, but it encompasses everything; me not wanting to adhere to Muslim dress codes, not knowing how to speak my native tongue, being bisexual. I was just constantly never meeting my parent’s expectations and their conclusion was ”Ok, you’re just Anglicized.” But in terms of my sexuality, that’s something that’s concealed in real life. I’ve only come out to my mum this year and before that I was closeted. I couldn’t even say the word ”gay” in real life. So I created my own space online and surrounded myself with other LGBT folk, it’s amazing. But once I go offline I’m hit with this toxic, homophobic environment where I have to control every word and movement. Even now, whenever I compliment women on TV, my mum side-eyes me and turns off the TV. Keeping to myself is something I’ve learnt in childhood, even if it’s the painful option. That’s the reality I live right now, to navigate this space as quietly as possible. Something I know I have in common with other young gay people.

Gaamangwe: That’s a really difficult reality to exist in. You captured this difficulty in your poems; “Daughters” and “Dear Mother”. There is this kind of erasure, where the mother forces or attempts to make the speaker become who she wants her to become. It creates a double-life kind of thing. Did that make accepting your sexuality difficult? What has empowered you to get to the point where you could come out to your mother?

Sahro: Oh yeah definitely, I went through that typical ”maybe I’m not gay, I’m just confused” stage when I was coming to terms with my sexuality. I had to unlearn so much internalized homophobia and it was a painful and uncomfortable process (which is common and inevitable when you’re unlearning anything). It was ten times harder because I’m Muslim and all my life I was fed these ideas that you couldn’t be both Muslim and gay. Once I gave myself a space, however small it was, I was able to explore my sexuality and think and reflect. And being around other like-minded young gay people was all the more liberating. Also, I’m a total coward and depended on twenty seconds of courage, which left me the instant I told my mum.

Gaamangwe: I do think that twenty seconds is all the courage you need. You are brave, because there was so much at stake here. Thank you Sahro, and all the best 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

 

 

Brunel International African Poetry Prize Shortlists: A Dialogue With Rasaq Malik

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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

 

 

Our Everyday African Lives: A Dialogue With Stanley Gazemba

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Stanley Gazemba (Kenya) is the author of three novels: The Stone Hills of Maragoli (winner of the 2003 Jomo Kenyatta Prize for fiction, published in the U.S. as Forbidden Fruit  in 2017), Khama, and Callused Hands. He is also the author of eight children’s books, of which A Scare in the Village won the 2015 Jomo Kenyatta Prize for children’s fiction). A journalist by training, Gazemba has written for The New York Times, The East African, Msanii magazine, Sunday Nation, and Saturday Nation. He lives in Nairobi.

This conversation took place in a green sweet-spot in the cold city of  Gaborone, Botswana and temperamental, chilly ugali-starved Nairobi, Kenya by Skype.

Gaamangwe: Stanley, congratulations on the publications of  Forbidden Fruit. I really enjoyed reading the book. Even though the story is based in Kenya, I resonate with the lives and experiences of the characters in the book, perhaps because I have also lived in the rural parts of Botswana. The poetry and the vivid imagery is also quite incredible. What was the origin story of Forbidden Fruit?

Stanley:  Thank you. I am excited, especially to be published in the USA as an African writer because  I want to be read as widely as possible. I am glad that I have transported people to rural Kenya.  Its really interesting to hear readers from all over the world who also personally relate with the story.

When I started the story I was reminiscing on how Christmas was like when I was growing up. I was writing about things I remember from the Christmas time of my childhood. Christmas was the finest time of the year; there wasn’t much work to do, there was a lot of food and festivities because the harvest was just in. It was rather  a great spirit of celebration. I wanted to capture that. The fictitious village is crafted around a real village that I grew up in, and some of the characters are created around real people that I know. Of course overall the story is fiction. I created some aspects of the story as I saw fit.

Gaamangwe: I did feel that the story is written by someone who has probably lived a life similar to those of the characters or at least someone who has lived in a similar world. Was it easy for you to actually tap into your own experiences?

Stanley: I think that out of all the books I have written it was the most enjoyable and the easiest to write. I was basically immersing myself in a world that I know. So it was not challenging to write the book as compared to other books. Of course there were challenges like getting the plot to move properly and weaving everything together. But I think that is the sort of challenge that every author enjoys.

Gaamangwe: Yes. I also enjoyed how you created a slow-paced and detailed world, which was quite easy for us as readers to believe and immerse ourselves in. What was some of the tools that you utilize to create the book?

Stanley: I have always been the kind of writer who avoids what is taught in creative writing classes. The usual advice of plotting a story and having a skeleton of where and what you are working towards. I think sometimes when you approach writing in that way it becomes artificial, it doesn’t have that touch of something organic. Yes, there was planning but I didn’t do it in a structured way. At the time I was working as a gardener, so I had a lot of time to reflect on where I wanted this character to be, how I wanted the character to look like, what I wanted them to do in the story, and most of that stuff I was doing inside my head.

Previous to that I had been doing a bit of plotting and writing notes but I abandoned it because I realized it was interfering with my creative process. I would advise other writers to try this approach as it can help create a more smooth and natural story.

Gaamangwe: Was the main defining plot points also an organic, stream of consciousness creation or you planned them?

Stanley: I always find it mysterious how a story comes to be because when you are creating a story like that, most of the time the story happens in your subconscious. You are not even fully conscious of what is going on or that you are thinking about the story or the characters. You could be going about your daily job but at the back of your mind you are thinking. So when it comes to the actual writing, all these things start falling in place. How they come about, I think  it cannot be truly known.

I have come to a story before thinking that this is how I want my story to go, and then it never gets beyond the second paragraph. So sometimes you think you have everything figured out but it never gets beyond the first paragraph. So I have ended up abandoning some projects. But for this particular book I didn’t experience anything of that sort.

Gaamangwe: When you think about the aspects of human nature that came through in this story, and thinking about them now after finishing the book, how important are those themes to you as an individual?

Stanley: When you are creating a story you don’t just want to create a story, you want to educate, question and reflect society back to itself. I have heard a reviewer who suggested that the book was a feminist piece but I didn’t set out to write a book about feminism. I set out to paint a story about our everyday lives. So the themes that came out of the story, I didn’t dwell on them. I leave that to the reader to share what they think and what they take from the story. If a theme comes, it’s usually something that is in my subconscious.

Forbidden Fruit flat front coverCover Art by: Michael Choi

Gaamangwe: Is there a difference or some realizations that  you see in your story when you are writing it and when you re-read it after it’s been published? 

Stanley: Writing is strange in that every time you read your work there is always something you want to change or tweak in the story. It is definitely not the perfect book, there is always room to change something here and there. I think at some point during the editing process you learn to let it go. But given a chance yes there are certain things I will like to change for sure.

The thing that really moves me in any story is the humor. So sometimes when I read the parts in the story where Ombima is chatting with Ang’ote I am surprised by how spontaneous it was. The humor in the conversations between the characters was really surprising to me. Its very important to me to find the aspects of entertainment with what I have written before I can hand it over to the reader.

Here and there, I do find some stilted conversations mostly because I was trying to bring out Lulogooli expressions in English. Sometimes you find that some expressions sound too English if you try to look at it from the point of view of a native Maragoli speaker. It is kind of borrowed.  Given a chance, I would have wanted them to speak in Lulogooli but obviously that would have been restrictive because I wanted to speak to a wider audience.

Gaamangwe: I talked about this with  Lidudumalingani Mqombothi, on how because the wider audience are English speakers, we write stories about everyday Africans who are not English speakers. Meaning we write stories about people who will never access those exact stories. 

Stanley: Yes, it’s something that we have to live with. I will recommend that the African writer becomes a bit more bold in the sense that they shouldn’t just pick the medium they have been given and run with it as it is. African writers should try to bend the language and make it suit their needs, they should make their English written stories sound as African as they can.

I think Achebe achieved that. When you read his books, you know you are reading English but you aren’t quite sure if you are really reading english. You are almost reading Igbo! So it’s something that writers have to try to emulate. To write our stories in the english that is our own.

Gaamangwe: This is so true and important. I also think it’s important to tell our everyday lives, which is the essence of your book. What can everyday people teach us about ourselves?

Stanley: I have always been fascinated by ordinary people. Every time I visit a new city I want to live where ordinary people live. Because then I get a chance to experience the real lives of the people where they are in their most natural setting.

Everyday people are ignored all over Africa. In Kenya when you look at the politics; for as long as politicians have been in power, the ordinary people have not been in power. In the campaign period that’s when they realize the ordinary person is important. Only because they want to get their vote, so now they climb down from their pedestals and pretend that they are men of the people. But it’s all for show. Once they are elected they forget about the ordinary man once again.

So it is important to tell the story of the ordinary man because they are the majority, and these stories are important because there are the real experiences for a lot of people.

Gaamangwe: I agree. Writing these stories also reminds us that our everyday selves are important and matter. Thank you for joining me Stanley.

Gaamangwe Joy Mogami is a writer, filmmaker and founder of Africa in Dialogue. She is the curator of Brunel International African Poetry Prize Interviews With Africa in Dialogue.

 

The Politics of Identity and Belonging: A Dialogue With JJ Bola

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JJ Bola is a Kinshasa born, London raised writer, poet, and educator.  He has published three books of poetry Elevate (2012) and Daughter of the Sun (2014). His third, WORD (2015) is his most comprehensive poetry collection.

His debut novel No Place to Call Home (OWN IT, 2017) will be out this June. He is an MA Creative Writing student (Kit de Waal Scholar), Birkbeck, University of London (2017) and Spread the Word Flight 1000 Associate (2017).

JJ Bola’s work is centered on a narrative of empowerment, humanization, healing of trauma as well as discovery of self through art, literature and poetry. Creating the increasingly popular adage, ‘hype your writers like you do you rappers’, he believes that the true purpose of poetry (art) is to expose the reality of this world and how to, most importantly, survive it.

JJ Bola reads regularly at shows and festivals across London/UK such as  Tongue Fu, Vocals & Verses, Chill Pill, The Round House, Ventnor Fringe, Glastonbury etc as well as Universities; SOAS, UCL, Oxford, Lincoln, University of Birmingham, and a mini tour of the US West Coast in 2015/16, LA, Da Poetry Lounge, UCLA, Stanford University and Merrit College in the Bay Area, San Francisco and Oakland, where he won the Oakland Poetry Slam.

This conversation took place in a green sweet-spot in the cold city of  Gaborone, Botswana  and cold, wet, rainy London over a cup of tea by Skype.

Gaamangwe: JJ in an interview with Electric magazine, you said  “Our existence is political”, which I think is a powerful statement.  How has this statement been true for you? 

JJ: Here, the statement “our existence is political” is essentially an observation of how we as human beings fit the society that we are born into, in the world. We often only consider politics in terms of political parties or when it comes to voting and not necessarily; what schools we decide to send our children to, what areas we grow up in, what languages we learn or what music we listen to, but all of these are political decisions and we are influenced by that.

This has been true for me when I reflect on my own experiences in life.  Coming into the UK as a refugee, immediately from a young age, I was made aware that to be a refugee and not have status in a country or society that required you to have legal status, means that your existence is political. But also when you do get that status, that is also a political existence. There are a lot of political elements that exists that really sum up the reality of our day to day lives.

Gaamangwe: How has being a refugee throughout your lifetime influenced the experiences that you have experienced?

JJ: From as far as when I was in school, I was always aware that I had a different reality compared to my friends around me and those who weren’t refugees because of the kind of access that I had to certain spaces or certain opportunities.

So when kids talked about where they went for holidays on the summer or when it came to applying for certain opportunities to do with education, I was aware of the fact that I didn’t have a passport or status. This meant that I was restricted from access to a lot of thing. There was also how I felt; you are always reminded that you are on the outside, you’re always on the periphery and that you kind of carry that wherever you go. You carry that burden in so many other spaces beyond whether you are a refugee or not. It happens in so many other spaces and you’re a lot more aware and conscious of the politics of the world.

I remember being aware of the politics of the world at a young and these weren’t things that my friends at school were particularly concerned about. You look at the direction the world goes in, more so recently in the past few years’ people have been talking about a refugee crisis but for refugees around the world, there has always been a refugee crisis. To be a refugee is to exist in a state of crisis all the time because you’re not offered security. So that is really kind of the impact that it had on my life, my family around me and also the community that I grew up in, many of whom were also refuges.

Gaamangwe: How did you navigate living in that space where you are never sure what tomorrow is going to be like?

JJ: I just kind of followed my parent’s examples if I’m being honest. I am really fortunate because I think my parents had a really optimistic kind of approach. They instilled the ethics of  hard work in us, as a lot of immigrant and refugee parents do. They tell their children to work hard, be hopeful and optimistic for the future and that’s what we did. We never defined ourselves by our refugee status or by our political status. We were always aspiring and aiming to achieve our aspirations, our dreams and hopes. All of those things are things that went beyond any kind of label or stigma about being a refugee. We saw ourselves as human beings with value that we can add to the world and that is all that we were really trying to do.

Gaamangwe: Being a refugee means in some way you belong to different places and cultures. Do you identify as British-Congolese or just British or just Congolese?

JJ: That’s a really great question. It’s interesting because I don’t necessarily identify as British. I grew up in London so I identify more as a Londoner that I do as British. Obviously there are places and times when I leave the UK or depending on where I am, where people say “oh you’re British”, so it’s something I have to navigate around. I also identify with my Congolese heritage through my parents and my family back home but often times, politically I am not necessarily allowed to identify with being fully Congolese.

I am not given certain access because of the politics of being a child of the diaspora, you are always kind of removed from your country of origin because the question of authenticity comes into place. How authentic Congolese are you or how much do you belong to that house when you don’t live in it, is often the question or the conflict. I think it’s important to acknowledge the root or the origin of where you’re from but also allow yourself to have the fluidity of being able to belong in different spaces at different times because as human beings we do occupy more than one space at one time. We are fluid in our identity, we are fluid in the way we see ourselves, we are not fixed at all. So I am able to belong to many spaces at the same time and also to no space at all. I think this are  some of the conflicts that come with belonging and being human.

Gaamangwe: I completely understand the complexity of this, especially because we live in a world that insists on labels and ideas of belongings that is tied to one country.  

For me, it is very simple; I am in Botswana, I’m from Botswana and I have lived my entire life here, so questions of identity and belonging are easy for me. Because I belong and understand the nuances of what is it to be a motswana. I am also able to navigate my world and sense of identity easily.

How does having two influences, two cultures and two countries influence the kind of human that you are?

JJ: It is really interesting. For example, one of my cousins back home, we are about the same age, and we have pretty much had similar education experience but he lives in Kinshasa, he was born in Kinshasa, grew up in Kinshasa and never left Kinshasa. Although I was born in Kinshasa, I grew up in London and schooled in London.

For my cousin, he is Congolese and he doesn’t have the conflict whether or not he is Congolese or any of the concerns of being influenced of multiple cultures. His identity is rooted in his congolese identity. But he watches the Kardashian’s and all these reality TV shows and he knows very little about Congolese history, culture, politics, the different cultural groups and so forth. And on the other hand, I know way more about Congolese history, culture and politics because I have been passionate about researching about Congo.

So when we have a conversation, he sounds like the foreigner,  because he is talking about mainstream TV, all these reality show and social media and I’m talking about our culture and our traditions. So, you have to ask yourself who is more Congolese in that situation?  If I didn’t give the location of where each person was, and I just said person A speaks about mainstream culture  and person B speaks about the culture of the country, which person do you think is from this country? People are more likely to say person B is from that country because we often tie our identity to culture, arts, history, and people who have that information or passion are seen as being more authentically from that country or from that place. So it’s always a really interesting dynamic, this idea of how authentic or the authenticity of being from where someone is from. What does that truly mean because when you take my cousin, he has never had to question that because no has ever questioned him on whether he is truly Congolese because he is physically there. Is it enough to be physically present yet be mentally or even spiritually absent? I am not saying he is absent in that way but where do these rules about authenticity come from and when do we ever come from just one place?  Especially when I am looking at Congo, a lot of Congo is defined by colonial borders and again that’s the number one conflict that I have when it comes to nationality and what we are tying ourselves into. It’s a conversation, I don’t know if I I’m presenting the answer, I’m just saying this is the question that leads to more questions.

Gaamangwe: Yes, I also have a lot of questions. How do we define citizenship?  how do we define belonging to a certain country? how do we even define countries? I don’t think it’s as simple as we always want to make it seem, it’s more complex than that.

I realized that there is probably a person who is outside Botswana who knows more about Botswana than I do. I also had an experience where I moved to India and I knew so much more about India because when you feel like you don’t know something you are propelled to do a lot of research and consciously experience that place as compared to someone who is there and takes it more lightly. There is so much gratitude and awareness when you are outside something.

JJ: Definitely, I remember this experience I had that led me to be passionate and aware of  the culture of my origin. This one time a white guy somewhere randomly asked me what country I was from and I was a teenager at that time and this was just after Congo had been named back to Congo, after it was Zaire, so this is a few years after Mobutu’s exile. I said I am from Zaire, because as far as I knew my country was still called Zaire. He said Zaire doesn’t exists, it’s Congo now and he said how could you not know and he went on to tell me about my own country. This guy who was not from my country talked about the history, politics and I was learning so much but I felt a deep sense of embarrassment because there was this complete outsider who knew way more about where I was from and I didn’t even have anything to offer to him as new information. So that really set a deep conflict and I was embarrassed by it,  and so I thought it’s really important to learn. Obviously no one can know everything about where they come from but at least you should be able to offer a certain amount of principles.

Gaamangwe: Definitely. I imagine that you didn’t leave Congo under good circumstances. How did you live with that kind of wound and betrayal from your country of origin?

JJ: Even still now as an adult I can still feel the way I felt when we had to leave. It happened in a way that it was a surprise. Your parents have to make a decision to leave, so they leave a place where they have their lives and where they are surrounded by their family. They make a decision and that’s that but there is no consultation process or any preparation. They barely have enough time to even really pack anything. It’s a really difficult thing especially as a child. So we are looking at issues of attachment, belonging and abandonment. You are taken from a place that you have always lived to a completely new place in a different environment and you are treated differently. It can be a shock to the system. But we were quite lucky  because  London is quite cultural, so all the time there were other people from our country that we were able to connect with here. It’s really important to have that sense of community as well because the community allows you to find yourself, to always recreate where you come from. But it’s really difficult because even now in my adulthood, I realize that there are something that I still take with me. Constantly travelling and moving from place to place, feeling of attachment or dis-attachment and not completely ever feeling settled in one place because you always have to be prepared to leave just in case. That’s always in the back of my mind.  I am always prepared to leave just in case. I guess that’s a symptom of the experience that we have had as a family or that I have had as an individual. But on the flip side, it’s also made me a lot more resilient and given me a lot of strength and determination because seeing what my parents and my community have been able to go through, how they have been able to achieve in spite of the odds really makes me believe there is so much more that I can do and that we can do. Leaving to go to a new country where you don’t know the culture, you don’t know the language, you’re not aware of the systems and you’re poor and still be able to establish yourself and start a life even if it’s just holding down an ordinary job, that’s still a massive achievement. That is something that still does give me hope.

Gaamangwe: That’s inspiring. In your own personal reality, what is the story of Congo?

JJ: For me, Congo is the land of my ancestors. It’s a place that connects me back to myself and reminds me of how small I really am. Those times when I start to sink in my own ego and I see the world as only me, I think and connect back to Congo and I am reminded that there is generations and generations that came before and make up who I am today. It’s like connecting the roots to the tree, it’s always good to remember that you don’t stand alone and that you are connected to other people and also the people where you come from. My being away from home and my country and being part of the diaspora doesn’t mean that I am separated or cut off, it’s just like a branch from the tree but we all have the same root. It definitely reminds me that I am always connected to something that is bigger than just me.

Gaamangwe: That’s powerful. Have you ever gone back to Congo?

JJ: I have been back once in 2014. It was so powerful. I have my extended family that I have only ever been able to see through pictures and only ever been able to speak to on the phone, so being able to hear their voices and see them face to face was such an incredible experience. It opened me up to a part of myself that I wasn’t aware of. To be able to travel outside of the city into the village and connect with my grandparents side of the family, was a deeply, humbling experience. I think it was very spiritual. I would say there was a deep peace that settled in my soul when I went back home in the sense that there was something I was looking for that I didn’t know I was looking for. It definitely answered a lot of questions that I had and it also gave me a vision of myself, in terms of where I can be and what I can speak about in the future. It gave me new language to be able to articulate my reality, and I think that was probably one of the most important things.

Gaamangwe: How do you articulate your reality now especially when you think of it in connection to Congo?

JJ: For me, I have a lot of admiration and reverence for my reality. For who I am as a person, for the journey that I have come from not just as an individual but in terms of the connection that I have with people who come from where I come from. Often times we are conditioned to feel shame about being from Congo and Africa, especially in the diaspora. It really allowed me to connect back and see myself because  while other people are still looking for themselves and the world is still looking for itself, I was connected to something that was already there and visible. Right now people are trying to find ways to define themselves, ways to define their culture, so  being able to go back home and connect with my culture allowed me to  see myself and also see those around me. I was able to now speak about Congo, being back home and give examples of the way things are going that are much more concrete and solid than just what I read in books. A book can prepare you for so much but the reality to be able to see it, live it and breath it is just way more powerful. So this experience was really empowering as it allowed me to speak of myself and my reality in a way that I was never able to before.

Gaamangwe: That’s incredible. So you wrote a book exploring most of the things that we are talking about— the idea of home and belonging— called “No Place to Call Home”. Can you tell me more about this book?

JJ: No Place to Call Home looks at the journey of a family that comes from Congo to the UK to seek asylum as refugees. It tells a story from two perspectives, the parents (the father) and the children (mainly the young son).  Essentially from the parents trying to protect their children, trying to integrate their children into the new society and protect them from the reality of their political experience. But also the children are trying to understand about their reality, where they come from and what they are going through and some of the conflicts that this can bring. It also looks at the parents lives before  they decided to leave the country and have the children; how life was like then, what their dreams and aspirations were, what was lost when they were forced to leave and what was the circumstances that actually forced them to leave in the end. So it tackles the questions of belonging and identity, and this feeling of places and how there isn’t a place for you but also how communities come to form themselves away from the places they feel they belong to and how they survive in different spaces and some of the issues and interactions that go around that. It’s really like getting magnifying glass and going to a community who aren’t really spoken about on focused on a lot.

Gaamangwe: Was it very cathartic to write this book because it seems that you were inspired by your own personal experience?  Was it also a bit difficult for you to go into the depth of your own experience and translate that into the characters of the story in the book?

JJ: It was definitely both. It was cathartic in the sense that there were things that I hadn’t had to think about since I was a child. Some of the things that were long left behind that I didn’t need to address in my adulthood, a lot of it came back to me and I was able to see some of the experiences that we had and it was a release. There was also a lot of the issues and burdens that we still carry as adults and trying to navigate around that.

I feel much lighter and clearer after writing it and I hope that those who read it and have gone through similar experiences will be able to relate but also those who haven’t gone through this experience at all will also be able to relate because I think it’s part of the human story, it’s part of the everyday experience that we all feel no matter where you are from. I think we all feel this idea of places and this feeling of questioning our identity.

When you’re refugee it’s more of an immediate question, it’s something that comes sooner to you because of you status at the moment . But it doesn’t mean that it’s not an a question that doesn’t arrive at all for a lot of us.  At some point or another in our lives we question who we are, who we think we are and how others see us and how we see ourselves.

Gaamangwe: The idea of places and belonging is a huge part of the human experience. There is a sense that not all of us fit places entirely nor feel a sense of belonging entirely, at all times. I look forward to engaging further with these questions and realizations in your book and possibly process my own experiences. Thank you for joining me in this space.

Gaamangwe Joy Mogami is a writer, filmmaker and founder of Africa in Dialogue. She is the curator of Brunel International African Poetry Prize Interviews With Africa in Dialogue.

 

 

The Disappearances of Women: A Dialogue With Titilope Sonuga

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Titilope Sonuga is an award-winning poet, writer & performer based in Lagos, Nigeria. She renders, both in verse and in performance, a remarkable elegance of craft, a quality of rootedness and an unflinching womanhood that makes her one of Nigeria’s leading performance poets. She has graced stages across the country and internationally, and in May 2015, she was the first poet to appear at a Nigerian presidential inauguration. She has authored two collections of poetry, and her third This Is How We Disappear is forthcoming. Her spoken word album Mother Tongue is available on iTunes.

This conversation took place in the cold, sweetspot of Gaborone, Botswana and a quiet sanctuary in the bustling heart of Lagos  by Skype.

Gaamangwe: Titilope, your work is rooted in womanhood, in celebrating  and appraising the woman experience in its entirety. I want to start here;  on your womanhood and why it’s important for you to celebrate, explore and interrogate  it?

Titilope: I didn’t start out knowing that this was how my work would evolve. I wasn’t that deliberate. The rigorous process of stepping into my womanhood, how jarring that was, how it shook the foundation of what I thought I knew, created an urgency for me to go back inside. I wanted to understand, to heal, to be whole and naturally that began to reflect in the work.

I celebrate women to push back against the narratives that say we should do otherwise. I celebrate women not to hold us up as these long suffering beings with an endless capacity for suffering, but to hold us up as completely human. There’s this expectation particularly in this country for women to carry so much and get so little credit for all of that carrying until we buckle beneath that weight, we lose ourselves, we disappear.

This is an idea that is at the center of this new collection that I am working on, disappearance in response to trauma or loss, as an act of survival, but also shape shifting as a form of rebellion. The collection began with a handful of poems about the disappearance of the Chibok girls, but grew to become an exploration of the physical and psychological disappearance of women, in Nigeria in particular.

I wanted to look at what it says about our humanity when over 200 girls disappear and no one goes looking. I wanted to explore the second and third disappearances these girls must have experienced as a means to survive. I was interested in how women respond to being pressed in on every side by culture, tradition or religion and the new shapes we take.

I am also particularly interested in this idea of our magic, how we disappear ourselves from the boxes we have been put in, just in time, before the saw comes down. I imagine these tricks as something passed down through generations of women. I wanted to rejoice in the power of being able to leave our old selves behind and reappear as something with sharper teeth and stronger claws.

I talk about our trauma, heartache and grief as a way to sweep the secrets out from under the carpet. I want us to look at where it hurts so that we can start to do the work of reclaiming what we have lost, so that we can ease the suffering that comes from that kind of loss.

My work is rooted in black womanhood and the complexity of what that means, the many different forms that our womanhood takes, because I love us. Because there is something truly divine about a woman stepping fully into herself. I honestly think black women are the closest thing to God.

Gaamangwe: The reality of how women, especially black women disappear on a daily basis is so heartbreaking. Everyday we have to claw ourselves from all these different spaces and borders that we disappear into. How do you try to not disappear?

Titilope: I write to create a pathway back to my truest self. I find myself in the poetry. It always feels like a kind of digging, like I am trying to uncover a part of myself that has been buried. In a sense, every poem feels like I am continuing on this digging from the last. In performances now, I find myself going from one poem into the next and into the next, because I started to see a rhythm in this digging and I knew that I needed the collective momentum of the poems to dig myself out.

There are so many things thrust upon us as black women, as Nigerian women, as African women, that we don’t even know that we are disappearing beneath it until we are already neck deep in it, until we are already gone.

Writing brings me back out of the earth and back into myself. It allows me to remember what I know for sure. Some poems feel like a reminder, some poems feel like salt on a really bad wound, some feel like talking to a friend. So, poetry is the way I unpack, the way I uncover myself again and again.

Gaamangwe: I resonate with that. What are the narratives that are trying to make you disappear?  

Titilope: Every single day there’s a news story about a woman or girl abducted, assaulted, and murdered. For every one of those stories there are hundreds more that we hear nothing about. We are simultaneously negotiating these physical disappearances, these acts of violence against our bodies and carrying the mental burden of knowing that we have to save ourselves.

It is heartbreaking that the people in power to protect us require us to be perfect victims, to explain what we were doing or what we were wearing. We have to constantly explain why we deserve to live. The devastation of having to explain your worth can erode all the courage you can muster to get up everyday.

Nigeria is very slow on the uptake that women are complete and with agency. That marriage and childbirth are not the upper limits of accomplishment. That each conversation about gender equity doesn’t have to boil down to who is in the kitchen pounding yam.

There is also so much shame and pressure on women who choose to live their lives on their own terms. The imaginary goal post is always moving, there’s always something we should be doing, and it is typically in service of holding up men as mini-gods and keeping their egos intact.

It is extremely refreshing to be in the company of women who are vocal, who are pissed off, quite frankly, and who are not afraid to use their voices and their platforms every day. It is also refreshing to meet men who recognize that this imbalance exists and are ready to do the work to move in a different direction, in the very least start to change things within their own circles of influence.

It is a lot of intellectual and emotional heavy lifting, and it gets exhausting. It is very easy to find yourself starting to quiet down slowly for the sake of peace. If you are exposed to something long enough, all of the things you think you know about yourself come into question. Each day becomes a fight to protect your truth.

Gaamangwe: It is so overwhelming to look at all the things that women negotiate on a daily basis. We negotiate the realities of our disappearances and how they are often this is invalidated by the men in our lives and our communities. Our burden does not end with our traumas, we are often driven to educate men in our lives, on how we are traumatized, how they traumatize us and  how the patriarchal community traumatizes us.

When we speak about the presence and influence of males in women reality, I think about your poem  “Speaking Into The Void”. Listening to it,  I got the sense that you’ve been influenced by your father.  How have the males in your life influenced your womanhood and your becoming into yourself?

Titilope: I do agree about keeping your circle accountable and creating spaces for that sort of honest dialogue. There is a lot of room for growth in that kind of space. I also think it is particularly unfair for the entire burden to educate and carry along to fall on women. We have enough work to do. In the same way that we are organizing, calling each other to order and keeping each other accountable, men should also be doing the same in their own spaces.

The people who I choose to keep in my life are doing the work on their own but also with me. I can’t be around men who are misogynistic or men who don’t view me as a whole person. My parents raised four girls and raised us to believe we could literally do anything. I feel super privileged to have grown up that way, with parents who braced me up and made me feel powerful.

That particular poem is centered on my relationship with my father, but both my parents have been huge influences in my life. My father was really strict when we were growing up, he has softened with old age and grandchildren. Academic excellence was such a big deal to him. It puts you under pressure as a child, to please, to use your achievements as a way to draw out the affection you so desire.

My sisters are pharmacists and accountants and I became an engineer, so imagine how challenging it was to say to my parents, to my father in particular, “Hey, this life that I have been living is a lie and I’m unhappy and I want to try something else and I want to try something that comes without structure or stability but it’s the thing that I really want to do”.

I think they were fearful but they had also seen me grow and they knew it was in me. My parents introduced us to literature, art and music. I remember my dad taking us to go watch classical concerts when we were just little girls and we didn’t really understand what was happening. This was in Nigeria, at a time when it was pretty expensive to do that.  We would sit there and try to listen until we fell asleep. He insisted on exposing us to as many different experiences as possible. My mother gave me my first notebook to write about my days while she was away on trips, my first true introduction to storytelling. The seeds had been planted.

I think all parents struggle when their children become themselves and have opinions and full ideas about the kind of lives they want to live, but my parents pushed past their fears and encouraged me anyway. That has been such a blessing to me.

When I talk about women and the way they disappear, I think about my mother a lot because she gave up so much of herself so that we could have the life that we had. I think she is now finally in a place where she is trying to reclaim herself, even in her 60s. There’s something really soft and beautiful about seeing her journey, as a woman myself now, and watching her come to terms with her truth. She is not just this superhuman woman who would do anything for her children, but she is also this person who is doing the complicated work of inching towards the most whole version of herself.

Gaamangwe: I appreciate this wholesome, broad way of looking at how  both the light and the dark has influenced and served your journey. We can always salvage ourselves. But of course, they are some journeys that are far too deep, traumatising and collective.

You wrote and performed an incredible poem “Hide and Seek” which was about the traumas that some societies in your country went through. I was moved by the idea that we need to name thingswe need to name people, we need to name our traumasand we cannot hide all these things from ourselves.

We need to start looking at these things as if they are our own because someone else’s pain is ours, we are all interconnected. How was the whole process of writing this poem?

Titilope: I love this Adrienne Rich quote — “There must be those among whom we can sit down and weep and still be counted as warriors” and often times I sit and think about that quote in relation to myself, in moments when I think I am not a warrior and I don’t know how to fight in that way but I have this language, I have this art and I have this poetry and maybe that is me sitting and weeping and still being counted as a warrior.

It was particularly important for me to say something because at the time when I wrote those poems, there are 3 different poems actually that make up “Hide and Seeks” they are performed back to back as one poem, which is what I talked about earlier and finding the glue in my work and realizing that most of my work doesn’t exist in a vacuum, it exist in relationship with something.

I wrote that poem or those poems because I didn’t know what else to do and I felt compelled to do something. It was almost as though I was sitting in a burning house and everybody else was just sitting and watching television and I was trying to scream and trying to tell them that we are in danger and we need to do something. The poems came obviously after the kidnapping of the Chibok girls, it also talk about the Buni Yadi boys, a group of young boys that were killed at their school. It also talks about the bombings that were happening at the time Boko Haram was at its most vicious. I was talking about all those things at the same time.

I started to think about how we were sort of treating the disappearance of these girls as though it was something casual, a game of hide and seek that we were playing, that we would find them eventually because it was just a game we were playing. It horrified me to think these young girls were out there thinking that the adults in their lives and their country would come through for them. Surely they wouldn’t be forgotten, somebody would find them eventually. I imagined them as the days went on, the slow heartbreaking realization that nobody was coming to save them. How terrifying, to accept that you have been abandoned.

When you give the girls their names, when you think about them as people with dreams and desires, it is more difficult to ignore that these are people’s daughters and somebody came and just took them away.

It’s been 3 years (April 14 2014) since they were taken. They are trickling back bit-by-bit. Some of them are mothers now, some have reportedly been sold off or martyred. We do not know for sure. What we do know is, these girls will never be the same again.

Who are they now, what resources exist within an already broken system to support them. If you hold that in context of how women are treated in this country and the stigma of what they have experienced, what are we bringing these girls back to? How do we ensure that they are not traumatized?

Hide and Seek was written in a time when I felt like we had touched a new rock bottom. Before that I wrote a poem called Icarus about our endless capacity to suffer and smile, how we experience the most horrific things and just keep on going.

It is almost as if the level of suffering that we are used to, the daily hustle for the next meal, a place to sleep, those things are so urgent that mourning and reflection feels like a luxury.

If we can recover from a place falling from the sky and killing hundreds of people, if we can recover from a group of boys being burnt alive for stealing, almost 300 girls being abducted for 3 years, it tells you the state of things.

Gaamangwe: It’s so disturbing how as a continent/world we have all these different ideas/lists/exercises that we implement on how to make money, how to survive a burning building, how to speak to elders etc, and nothing about how to heal the self, how to address one’s trauma. We have a dozens hospitals, clinic and churches but one or two mental hospitals, psychiatric wards. It’s almost as if we say that trauma and griefs don’t exists, and actually don’t matter.

Post traumatic stress disorder is such a crippling disorder that requires intensive and vigorous address. It is really painful and horrible that women disappear not only emotionally but physically too. And very, few people care. Can you imagine how long will it take for the Chibok girls to heal and truly become integrated into their whole selves? A really, really long time. 

But Titilope, how can we not value human life like this? What do you think is the core problem? Why do human insist on having a gender, a race or a religion that is superior? If we look at all wars and all traumatizing experiences, there is always someone trying to be superior, better or more in control than other people. It is all about power. Violence seems to be about power..

Titilope: Power is such a seductive and intoxicating thing. Just look at the way that our countries are governed and how a leader can get into power and decide he needs to be in there for the rest of his life.

A lot of conversations that we have around the dynamics of power is governed by fear. The oppressor is always wondering what the oppressed will do with power once they have it. What happens when we take our heels off their necks, are they going to strike back? This is always the case when there’s an imbalance, whether you are talking about race or gender or class.

There are different kinds of poverty that we experience as a people. There is the not being able to physically sustain yourself and then there is a mental poverty of not knowing who we are, who we have been and who we could be. It is that kind of mental starvation that makes you want to steal more money than your children’s children could ever need, that makes you only think about yourself. It robs you of compassion, of kindness.

I often use driving in Lagos as a microcosm of our larger society. This city is one of the most insane places to drive because everybody is driving for themselves. It is aggressive, it is selfish, it is about “I need to take as much room on this lane as I can and I don’t care if I push you in a ditch or a trailer or your car somersaults, I don’t care. I have to get ahead of you”. That is the way Lagosian drive and often I am in the car thinking; if I am not willing to wait 30 seconds to allow someone in front of me, to wait 1 minute to allow this traffic to get through, to wait 5 minutes to ensure we all get where we are going, If I can’t do that, how can I be the sort of person who gets into a position of power and not abuse that?

How do we change that? How do we become kinder and more compassionate to each other. How do we learn to value each other in a way that is grounded in true and genuine love, regardless of gender or social class, or religion or sexuality?

We are easily the most religious people in the world, there is church on every corner in this city, yet we don’t practice those beliefs in our day-to-day lives. Why is that?

The only thing I know for sure is to keep writing and to keep creating something that holds itself as a mirror that says; look at us, look at what we become and maybe that will create enough momentum for us to start to change.

On the days that poetry feels inconsequential in the grand scheme of things, I remind myself of that one person who sends me a message and says; “thank you so much for writing that, I decided to get out of bed today, it made me feel less alone.” That’s good enough for me.

I’m doing a 3 part performance series in Lagos on June 25, July 16 and July 30, titled Open and it really is about this idea of trying to keep your heart soft, through it all, trying to stay grateful and peaceful. In turbulent times, art is the only thing I know for sure. It is the one way I know how to contribute, how to put a little bit of light back into the world. I want to keep doing that for as long as I live.

Gaamangwe: This has been inspiring, Titilope. Thank you for joining me in this powerful dialogue.

Gaamangwe Joy Mogami is a writer, filmmaker and founder of Africa in Dialogue. She is the curator of Brunel International African Poetry Prize Interviews With Africa in Dialogue.

 

Brunel International African Poetry Prize Shortlist: A Dialogue with Richard Oduor Oduku

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Richard Oduor Oduku is a post-cynical humanist, a researcher, and a poet and writer. He studied Biomedical Science and Technology and works as a research consultant in Nairobi, Kenya. He has been published in Jalada Africa, Saraba Magazine, Kwani? Storymoja, This is Africa among others. His story ‘eNGAGEMENT’ published in the JaladaAfrofutures anthology was longlisted for the BSFA Awards 2015. He is also a Nonfiction Editor at Panorama – The Journal for Intelligent Travel. He is a founding member of Jalada Africa and is also a Co-Curator and Festival Coordinator for the Jalada Mobile Literary and Art Festival running in five countries in East Africa.

This conversation took place in the cold, sweetspot of Gaborone, Botswana and the bustling cosmopolitan, city of Nairobi, Kenya by Email.

Gaamangwe: Richard, congratulations for being on the Brunel International African Poetry Prize shortlist. What does it mean to you to be shortlisted?

Richard: It is a good feeling to know that somebody enjoyed what I wrote. Going through hundreds and hundreds of submission to find one or two or three which sparks enough to light one’s fire is a difficult thing, and so I’m grateful for the honor of being named alongside contemporaries shape shifting the landscape of writing within the continent.

Gaamangwe: Your poetry is indeed illuminative. What narratives are you trying to explore with your poetry?

Richard: I speak with many voices. I’m fluid enough to flow into any conversation, and drown into so many floods. It is the curse of the vain. The relentless pursuit of knowing, the chronic insatiability. But I have always been interested in meanings, in the boundaries of things. Where does one thing begin, where does one thing end. What is mixing with what to create what and how?

And to know, I have to hear and see. One can say my poetry, at least now, is an experiment at seeing and hearing, much clearer than I was doing before. I’m trying to absorb so much that is good in the world, in the vain hope of becoming a better self.

So what I’m exploring now is just how to see better, how to hear better, how to feel my footsteps and how to hear my words before they reach an ear other than mine. I’m doing this to try to reclaim my innocence.

I was listening, the other day, a TED talk by Lidia Yuknavitch, and she said something like we have the ability to reinvent ourselves, endlessly. I want myself and my poetry to be solid enough as the roots of a huge ober tree, but I also want the ability to reinvent myself endlessly, and this means that my poetry will probably feature things, places, and people in an endless process of reinvention, of metamorphosis.

Gaamangwe: That’s powerful. What are you reinventing yourself from, and to what?

Richard: That is now a difficult question. I don’t know how to answer that. How much do we know about our own lives? How much of the narrative we have created for our lives is true?

So maybe when I talk of learning to see and hear better, as a way of knowing myself better, as a way of giving myself countless opportunities for reinventing myself endlessly, I know it looks like a process of moving from point A to B, what I mean is that by being acutely self-aware, the process is also the result, the departure is the destination.

What I mean, if I’m to borrow, some words from the movie Waking Life, is that “the idea is to remain in a state of constant departure while always arriving.”

Gaamangwe: So reinvention here, is merely re-encountering the self with a new light or understanding. Nothing is being erased or re-made in a new form. I love that. What are the speakers in your poetry being acutely aware of and arriving to?

Richard: Yes! You’ve said it rather beautifully! The speakers are the many voices I talked about. For some time now I have been intellectually interested in psychogeography, injecting a little playfulness in life and willing to drift, or as Guy Dubord would say, to escape the spectacle of modern life. I think we are living in an age of distraction, and life has become an immense accumulation of spectacles. In this age of inauthenticity we risk passing through life asleep. We’ll become spectators, watching our own lives race by. So in living, as in writing the poems, I have become more interested in what I’m seeing and what I’m hearing when I navigate my existence in different spaces and environments.

So the speakers in the poems are just observing and taking notes. Some of these observations, these notes become poems. Some fall on the wayside like a half-heard conversation when one cuts Nairobi’s streets like a laser beam. Some are memories of a life lived, a life observed elsewhere years ago. Such recollections sometimes demand the privilege to be written, to be preserved between pages as poems. Some are tapped, conversations one wasn’t supposed to be part of but have, with much mischief, become their chronicler. There are many voices. My work is just to be self-aware, to be unclogged enough to allow the rivers of humanity to pass through my processing system.

The poems, including the few that were sent for the prize, came from these many places, bearing many witnesses, conspiracies, and hallucinations.

Gaamangwe: I also think a lot about how geographies influence people. What of my psyche, and my life, is merely a result of the placement and the realities of the places I inhabit. What are your thoughts on how the realities and history of Nairobi and Kenya has influenced your life and your poetry?

Richard: You know I was reading an interview done in the Paris Review. I think it is the Art of Fiction 225 and it features Herta Müller who was awarded the 2009 Nobel Prize. In the interview, she complains that language is so different from life. How is one supposed to fit one into the other? So she says that the first thing one has to do is to take everything apart, that you cut out the reality and then you use language to create something completely different. If one is lucky enough, they may produce something that is much closer to the reality they wanted to capture before artificiality set in. We succeed, in the end, in writing half of what we intended, the other half remains as silence. Silence too, is a form of speaking.

Your question reminds me of that answer Müller gave, that we must embody creation, become the creator. In a way, there are things that wake up history in us. Take for example Nairobi or Kenya. These are places with very complex histories. Sometimes the history you have been taught is not it. Is not the truth. So whatever you meet, whatever history I’m meeting, I have to try and take it apart. There are times when such a process allows me to see what was inscribed beneath, what has been covered by new paint. Most times it is unpleasant. I’m uncomfortable with any kind of history until I have laid it on my surgical table, dissected it and known what is stored in places one cannot see if they don’t cut. I’m cutting open and recreating as I go. My hope is that I find the language each time I see something I should immerse myself in. The reality is that most times I don’t, but I try.

Gaamangwe: Immanuel Kant, the German philosopher, did say that reality exists independent from us. The human mind is translating our experiences as it passes through reality. There is a certain loss of translation too, also because we are perceiving too many stimulus at once, especially now. It creates a certain restlessness. But also, we are passing through new experiences, unique and different from the others, and that demands a different language.

But, do you think language is the only thing making translating life difficult? How else can we fill the gaps that exists in our histories?

Richard: Kant was right. And we are a medium for so many things. We are actively involved in translating the world, and giving meaning to experiences. Language is one of the biggest tools we have to do this job.

I do believe we, and I do not singularly refer to writers or historians, we have a responsibility, in our own individual ways to fill the gaps in our histories. A recent IBM report reported that we are generating 2.5 million terabytes of data per day. In Wikipedia alone, there are more than 5 million articles in the English language. If you add all the 293 languages, we have 40 million articles on so many diverse topics. Over 27 billion words on Wikipedia alone. These are the modern forms of keeping the translated histories, knowledge, memories, and imaginations of the world.

We can decide to be tangible, and ask ourselves: how many of our, I mean African, languages are represented in these expanding repositories of global memory? Very little, if any, of anything existing online today has been captured by our languages. And not only African languages, African people. We need to be more involved in translating the world through our own unique experiences.

There is a project on Languages and Translations that Jalada Africa has been running. The idea was to have one story, from a renowned African voice, and translating it into as many languages as possible. As we speak now, the project has translated Ngugi wa Thiongo’s story, Ituĩka Rĩa Mũrũngarũ: Kana Kĩrĩa Gĩtũmaga Andũ Mathiĩ Marũngiĩ (The Upright Revolution: Or Why Humans Walk Upright), into 63 languages. 47 of these languages are African. Now imagine that we have more than 2500 languages in Africa! Try to imagine how many stories are hidden in these languages.

In essence, I think that to bridge the gaps, we have to be part of the global community of knowledge generators, that way we leave our footprints on the world, even if we pass on. It is the surest way of, ensuring that our histories don’t get lost in translation, of being heard, of bridging the gaps in our histories.

Gaamangwe: The Languages and Translations projects is such an important project. We really need more archiving, more translations, more engagements with our own languages, experiences and histories. But with Jalada Africa, and other literary magazines, and historians and storytellers, we will get there. Thank you Richard, 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

 

Poetry of the Human Body: A Dialogue With Mahtem Shiferraw

Mahtem Shiferraw - Author Photo copy

Mahtem Shiferraw is a poet and visual artist who grew up in Ethiopia & Eritrea. Her work has been published in The 2River View, Cactus Heart Press, Blood Lotus Literary Journal, Luna Luna Magazine, Mandala Literary Journal, Blackberry: A Magazine, Diverse Voices Quarterly, The Bitter Oleander Press, Callaloo and elsewhere. She won the Sillerman Prize for African Poets and her full length collection, FUCHSIA, was published by the University of Nebraska Press (2016). Her poetry chapbook, BEHIND WALLS & GLASS, was published by Finishing Line Press. She holds an MFA in Creative Writing from Vermont College of Fine Arts.

This conversation took place in the warm, sweet-spot of Gaborone, Botswana and the  yellow-hot of Los Angeles, USA by Email.

Gaamangwe: Mahtem, I found your reflections of your poem “Blood Disparities” on Poetry LA, quite striking. You said;

“I am very interested on the human body. The way it works, on the very small or simple level. Like the cell, and what it does. I find that there is so much poetry in the human body, and the way it also works with the mind. And the body of the mind or the mind of the body. So there is a lot of exploring to do.”

Let’s start here, on your fascination of the human body, and the poetry you are unpacking and discovering in your exploration of the human body?

Mahtem: This is a great question. I think a lot about the human body, and how it moves in the world. How we, as human beings, are affected by the things we experience, and how differently our bodies react to our experiences. We know the body as an inherently biological element, but what do we know about its psychology? And how does the body inform the things we do, the way we react to certain things? These are all fascinating things to think about. The body is filled with small poems, whether you’re thinking about flesh and blood, or the resilience of scars, or the magnitude of certain organs … I can go on forever!

Gaamangwe: I have never thought about the psychology of the body! Just fascinating.  What ideas do you have about the psychology of the body?

Mahtem: Memory comes to mind. The first thing I know about the body is: it remembers things. The mind does too, of course, in a logical sense. But the body has a memory of its own; as do parts of our bodies. A simple example: hair remembering how to curl or uncurl under a toothless brush. Or the body refusing to fall asleep because of a quiet distress, the body sweating in fear. The thing is, we are accustomed to the body and mind being in synch; but at times, they’re not, and we, are left in the middle, questioning our decisions. These bodies remember everything: the sound of a specific laughter, the smell of a new season, the rumbling of a dropped bomb. They can distinguish between the fear of longing, the fear of anticipation, the fear of death. How many times do we actively think and categorize our fears? We usually don’t. But the body does that for us, among other things. It labors quietly to help us exist in the world as we do.

Gaamangwe: I am now thinking of the way the body also exists in spaces of dis-ease, constrictions and violence. How the body contains grief and sorrows, which are some of the themes that you explore in your poetry.  What griefs and sorrows within the body are you interested in exploring?

Mahtem: Exactly! I write a lot about grief-stricken bodies, it is a fascination of mine. Not because I take pleasure in the aching, but because I am marveled by the beauty and perseverance that occurs within our bodies. In Ethiopia, when a loved one dies, we show our grief explicitly: women shave their hair, wear black for at least forty days, they turn their netela upside down. These are all things that signal grief. But the mourning, although communal to some level, is also quite private, personal. In times like these, the body moves as it ought to be; although our mind is shut down from trauma, the body gets up, fixes things, prepares food, arranges the wake, etc. The body shows up; while the mind meddles in sorrow. I think I’ve said too many times that I am the keeper of sorrows, which is a pretty grim profession. But I consider it to be worthy, mostly because a lot of sorrows go by undocumented, and some fester within us without our knowing. How can then someone claim to be a poet, and not bear witness to such things?

Gaamangwe: As I grow older, I understand how wise our ancestors are, in the way that they have created and kept what might seem as elaborate and unnecessary cultures of grieving. These long days of mourning that seem to be for communal purpose, yet on closer inspection one sees how this communal practice of funerals allow us to individually integrate our loss, to move from shock, to not crumble. On cultures, do you also marvel at how bodies react and navigate different geographies; countries and lands that hold our greatest joys and greatest pains?

Mahtem: Our ancestors were SO wise. I think a lot about my ancestors these days, connected, inherited, longed for – all of them. They have woven intricate ways of living so we could continue to survive.

Navigating different geographies is a source of joy and sorrow for me, which is why I think and write a lot about the immigrant experience. I just wrote a poem about our bodies being maps – each limb part of a land we crossed and uncrossed, each organ hiding a different flag, these feet used to running and running. Ultimately, our bodies just want to be – whether in America or in Ethiopia or in Botswana. But the lands we cross have an anatomy of their own – they give us different names, they place us in a specific social strata, they expect less from our intellectually driven minds. By this, our bodies come close to disintegrating. How can we not? But something keeps us going – a glimmer of hope, whether in the shape of a loved one, or lost ones, or, the will to live and make something of ourselves over and over again. This hope does not let us wallow in our sorrows. And so our bodies know this, and they learn to muster sorrow or grief or longing or whatever is thrown our way, and adjust to move within new boundaries. It’s as if they protect us from the ugliness of a world that chooses to see us as destructive. And this, I take to be a gesture of grace, learned from ancestors, from God, from others.

Gaamangwe: On speaking about the anatomy of our lands, cities and countries and world bodies, I am also vigorously learning to seek and find the poetry here. Because as you said our bodies are so endowed with a beautiful grace, and if we think about the sources of our sorrows, these things that try to disintegrate us, and how they enable us to see this beautiful grace, perhaps then there must be poetry in them?

But I speak as someone who knows only a small fraction of the immigrant experience, but I do wonder if you find poetry in all the countries you belong to? If your body has created a magnificent poem out of existing in different geographies?

Mahtem: That’s a very interesting thought. I never really considered myself as belonging to any particular land, though I develop strong attachments to each, for various reasons. I would hate to romanticize it too much because the experience of the immigrant is turbulent at the least, and continues to be so. Meaning, the experience does not become suddenly pleasant because you have set roots in a different land; the journey is not the only harrowing thing. Some of us adjust better or more quickly than others, some don’t. And I’ve heard different versions about the immigrant who belongs to many lands, and therefore is better because of it. Although we are better for having been traveled, we have also to be realistic about these experiences. I think I’m one of those few who don’t really feel the belonging, and always seeks for it. I belong more to water than to land, which is to say, belonging has nothing to do with physicality. The first time I was kicked out of my birthplace, I felt betrayed, I mourned for the white city. And refused to set roots elsewhere because I did not see myself anywhere else. Thus, the body must have been in mourning. But I can see how bits and pieces of the body must belong to different lands; my hair is from Addis, my chatter from Asmara, the food I cook from both, my first poetry from Rome, the blue I crave from San Francisco, and so forth. And by leaving pieces of itself in different lands, the body becomes a geography of its own; a map of our collective histories.

Gaamangwe:I can’t imagine what that betrayal must have felt like, and still feels like. How is the feel or color or texture of this specific mourning? I say this because I imagine that mourning for something that is inaccessible but still exists, and still could possible become accessible someday, is different from say mourning for something that is gone forever?  I am wondering about the kind of space or emotion the body occupies in this kind of sorrow.

Mahtem: I don’t think mourning can be completely gone from the body, at least not without leaving traces here and there. Perhaps the body hosts that emotion and decides to store it somewhere so we can move forward, somehow. It’s very dense, a liquid kind of mourning that continues to scrape your surfaces many years later.

Gaamangwe: You once said “there is a kind of silent existence in the body”, which I have never appreciated before. But then I also started thinking about different kinds of silent existences, beyond the human body.  I thought about silent existences of lands, that we don’t take note of. I resonated with your “Talks About Race”, poem, especially when you said;

“And how to cradle, and contain the disappointment that is

rekindled whenever someone does NOT know

my Ethiopia, my Eritrea.”

I have also experienced that kind of disappointment about my Botswana. In the way that I have to always explain about my country’s existence. Much like the way we disregard the whole poetry of the body, my Botswana, and your Ethiopia, and your Eritrea and many other lands all over the world exists on this silent existence. I am interested on knowing a bit more what is beneath the silent existence of Ethiopia & of Eritrea. What don’t we know and witness about them?

Mahtem: The silences we practice when we leave our birthplace or home are many. But these depend on us always remembering fondly our lands, our traditions, our culture. It’s one thing to be an immigrant and have to explain where you’re from (which is a natural curiosity of people, I assume), but it’s a completely different thing when your countries are erased completely and simply replaced by “Africa” or “African”. It’s sort of an implicit sense of entitlement westerners have; we and the other. Geography was not my favorite subject, but I knew the existence of 50 states in the U.S., the capital city of Venezuela, the ancient Greeks and their city-states, I had a pen-pal from Uruguay, and dreamt about the islands of Malaysia. I don’t know all the countries in the world, but at least we learn the continents. You have no idea how many times I’ve had to correct people about Africa being a continent and NOT a country. This kind of continuous erasure comes with arrogance; and over time, you learn to deal with it. This doesn’t mean I have anything against being called African; I find that very humbling actually. But it’s still disturbing to know  we don’t get to learn our origin stories; Ethiopia was once one of the greatest kingdoms in the world, and yet, I never learned about it in school. Why are our black monarchs any less important than the Romans or Greeks? These are the thoughts that occupy my silences.

Gaamangwe: This is my daily narrative. The way that our histories have been made to disappear is deeply disturbing. Sadly, this erasure is also so prevalent in the continent. Our education systems are deeply Eurocentric. We know far less about our countries and our own neighboring countries.  We have adopted so much that is not ours, and the systems (education and politics) seems to not be bothered by this de-valuing of our experiences and histories. It makes you wonder, who will become the custodians of our existence? What will say we once lived here?

So I am always trying to unsilence myself. I wonder, for you, do you have ways that you try to defy this erasure? How do you un-occupy these silences?

Mahtem: This is such an important question. Our first act of defiance, I think, is our mere existence; we continue to live and exist despite a multi-layered system that seeks to erase us and our histories, one way or another. We continue to question the status quo. We continue to be vocal and reassert ourselves in the history books. Because we matter, because our stories matter. And our elders have bestowed the most important element for our freedom: along with our languages and cultures, oral traditions play a vital role in our shaping. I might not have read books about my kings and queens, but I’ve heard stories about them. I might not have read about folktales, but I know plenty of Aleka Gebrehanna stories to tell my children. And as human beings, but especially as artists and writers, we have the obligation to bear witness to these stories, and continue the tradition of storytelling. By choosing to do this, I un-occupy the silences a bit less.

Gaamangwe: I absolutely agree. Storytelling has this surging outward and inward, physical and psychic flow, that refuses and defies and protest the things that try to make us disappear. When we witness our silences and sorrows, and the world’s attempt to erase us, we can and the future generation can un-occupy what has been done and what is being attempted to be done.

I am given even more energy and faith by this powerful line, from your poem “A Secret Lull” (in your book Fuchsia);  “Now who’s to say / their roar’s strength / does not lie in their sorrow?”

So much power here Mahtem! I live for this line, and mumble it in days when it feels the world is almost winning. So, thank you for this poetry. What else do you hope the readers of Fuchsia discover about human strength, histories and sorrows? 

Mahtem:  I’m so glad to hear that. Many people think sorrow and hopelessness go hand in hand, but the strength of our sorrow is also important. Fuchsia is complicated on itself, but through it, I hope to connect with readers and their unique experiences, I hope to tell the immigrant story, the story of the nomad, and document the loss that comes from such experiences. Thank you for this wonderful and thought-provoking conversation! I do hope to bring Fuchsia in person to Botswana one day.

Gaamangwe: Wonderful! I would love to have you and read Fuchsia in Botswana! Thank you so much for joining me in this space.

Poetry Meets Music: A Dialogue with Tsitsi Jaji

Jaji by Gilliam profile pic

Photo credit: Tanji Gilliam

Tsitsi Jaji is a Zimbabwean American, who grew up in Harare before moving to the U.S. for college. She earned a Ph.D. in comparative literature from Cornell University. She is an associate professor of African and African American studies at Duke University.

 She is the author of Carnaval from a the collection Seven New Generation African Poets (African Poetry Book Fund/Slapering Hol, 2014) and Africa in Stereo: Music, Modernism and Pan-African Solidarity (Oxford University Press, 2014). She was awarded an honorable mention in the African Poetry Book Fund’s Sillerman First Book Prize.

Her poetry has appeared in Prairie Schooner, Boston Review, Madison Review, Runes Review, InTensions, Munyori Literary Journal, Black Renaissance Noire, Bitter Oleander, Illuminations, Eleven Eleven, Poetry International’s Zimbabwe page, and the Center for Book Arts Broadside Poetry Series.  Her poetry collection, Beating the Graves, was published February 2017 by University of Nebraska Press

This conversation took place in the warm, sweetspot of Gaborone, Botswana and the vibrant city of Durham, USA by Skype.

 Gaamangwe: Tsitsi, I am fascinated by how the poetry in your first chapbook, Carnaval, started out as program notes for music you were performing. How did you arrive in this space where music meets poetry?

Tsitsi: My mother is from Ohio, and her grandmother was trained as a professional pianist and so music had been important in her life. It was classical music for the most part even though that grandmother never became a concert pianist. She played in the beginning of jazz in silent films.

I started to feel strange about the fact that I was studying classical music the older I got. When I was younger, I didn’t think about it because you just do what you are told, and I was quite serious about piano at the time, so I applied to go to a Conservatory of Music in the US. When I got in, I was also studying literature and it was the first time I took a class on just African writers because I grew up in Zimbabwe in the late 80s and early 90s when the literature was still very colonial.

In secondary school we read Bessie Head, Wole Soyinka, Ngugi wa Thiongo and one or two Zimbabwean authors. Those were the sum total of set books by African writers at my school. Music was the same – all European composers. So, when I came to the US I started to have a complex about singing western, European music. At one point, I thought about quitting and my teacher said that is not a very smart way to think about it. Why don’t you change what you are playing?

So, I started to play some compositions by black American composers and even to write some music, to set poems I liked to music. When I was about to graduate, I felt like, I don’t know why I started doing it, but it became a way to say that this composer from the 19th century in Germany was my composer.  To claim it and say just because I grew up somewhere else does not mean I have nothing to do with that work than a person who grew up in Ohio. For me, when I hear those pieces of music, there meant a lot to me.

For example, one reason I like this composer, Schumacher, is that he has some mental health problems, some mood disorder and bipolar and I also had some experiences with that. He had these two characters in his music, Eusebius was supposed to represent depression and Florestan represented mania. I felt a certain kind of kinship or resonance with this composer. His composition, Carnaval, has pieces where two of them are named characters, and it’s very literary — he loved literature and he also started a journal of music writing.  So it didn’t seem all that strange at the time but to tell you the truth I have never seen anything like that either.

I feel like the best thing about being a writer from Africa, whether you are on the ground or in the diaspora is that it is a relatively new literature and so we are free to keep inventing forms with the kind of energy that I don’t know if other people in the same platform believe they have. We can take whatever we want and remix it. So, for me some of the poems in their original form were descriptions of the music or how I felt about the music. Some of them where portraying the characters that the music would choose to represent. But after I first wrote them, I didn’t touch them for probably ten years. When I went back to them, I cared about them in a different way. Some of them didn’t change. Like Sphynxes which is dedicated to Cecil Taylor, an experimental jazz musician, who I just love because he is also a poet. He is extremely individual and challenging. I didn’t change that one. There are some poems in there, like Chiarina which became much more African poems. Chiarina is in honor of Yvonne Vera, one of my favorite Zimbabwean writers. Another one is a portrayal of Fela Kuti because he has this fire energy that I associate with that figure and experience of mania.

I found this great quote when I was studying for my doctorate, by Abdullah Ibrahim, the South African pianist. He wrote in a column in the 60s that the piano is an African instrument and it made total sense because pianos used to be made of ebony and ivory, which are materials that were extracted and stolen from Africa. Piano is also a percussion instrument and we know that the whole history of drumming and complex percussion starts in Africa. So, on one hand it sounds like a surprising statement but on the other hand on a fundamental, material level, he has a point. Plus I think that if you play any instrument with your own sensibility you make it your own. And for the piano it has a lot to do with how you touch it, a certain kind of attention. I learnt to do that in Zimbabwe. I would practice with the door open, and I could smell the rain and I could hear whatever was happening outside. For me now, I would say piano in Zimbabwe is Zimbabwean music. I try not to compartmentalize my life too much because these are all just music and poetry and walking and meditation, they all the ways of getting through life.

Gaamangwe: The image of you playing the piano while it rained is incredible. Did the inspiration or the interest in what Schumacher did with his mental disorder and music translate into how you created your work?

 Tsitsi:  Definitely. I would say that the period when I started writing more or less every day, which I don’t do anymore, was in my twenties. That was a period when I really was having a hard time coming to terms with the disruption that I had experienced due to my mood disorder and another autoimmune disease.  I had to take some time off from university and it was tough.  At one point a nurse recommended a book to me that was about creativity. The book was called The Artist’s Way, by Julia Cameron, and it was very transformational for me. It’s like a twelve-step program as if you are recovering from alcoholism. Basically, it encourages you to recover your inner artist because we do live in societies that have some strange concepts about artists– who can be an artist, what your life looks like which is often assumed to be chaotic, broke etc. So anyways, I went through this period, and wrote a lot of poems, which were terrible, I think only one of them made it into the Carnaval series in the book. But at least I was writing.

So what I would do is kind of make a collage, I would cut out images from a magazine and I would write the poem from that because this book encourages you to do things like “artist dates,” where you do something that inspired you. For some reason, taking magazines and cutting out images appealed to me. That helped me to process emotions in a less direct way than talking to someone in therapy.  I think therapy is a very strange and cultural thing, like that closed room and one person who you are paying. But in Shona society (and probably in other parts of Africa) we have family structures where there are particular uncles and aunts you are supposed to be able to confide in. Or ceremonies, which often involve music, that are supposed to make you understand things more holistically or feel better. Anyways, for me poetry was helpful.  Almost my entire life music has really been a powerful way to express emotion and I think that’s true for people whether they make music or they listen to it or they dance to it. It’s powerful.

The one thing I have not done is to put music into my own words. I don’t know if I have ever done that but I find it easier to talk about other music or musicians or to make music responding to other words. I also just like improvising with no words myself. I guess I can also say the same kind of learning, a certain kind of judgmental rationalism, goes to the background and helps let whatever is coming come, it’s something that is a part of my creative practice.

That’s not always how I write and it’s not always how I play but sometimes I feel as if I receive certain kinds of information into my consciousness. Time is a very funny thing; I have had experiences where I write something and I don’t know it at the time but it has something to do with something that’s going to come into my life. And when I look back I realize that the poem opened for what was coming in a way that I can look back to make sense of it. Those poems have been healing for me. I feel real continuity between that and how Shona people think about ceremony, to try and resolve things, where music is important and dancing is important.

A certain kind of formulaic speech is often involved and you can think about being a medium as a kind of performance art. We have different vocabulary in society for these things, and I happen to have spent a lot of time in the global north and so I just try and think about how these things can translate.

That’s exactly how some poems like the ones about family trees and my ancestor, VaNyemba have become part of the collection. Even the title ‘Beating the Graves’ does that — some Shona people think it’s funny and maybe an inappropriate direct translation. There is a ceremony in Zimbabwe called kurova guva and that’s literally what it means, because kurova is to beat someone. Guva is one of the names for a grave. It’s an important ceremony done several months after someone dies, marking the transition between loss and accepting them as an ancestral figure.

It’s complex, of course. I have one American parent and one Zimbabwean parent. At this point I have lived in the US since 1993, which means at this point I have spent more of my life in the US than in Zimbabwe. I live in a space of translation, I can either let myself feel undone by that or inhabit it. At different times, I feel both. Poetry is one of the places where I can try and inhabit all the dimensions of myself.

Many people have helped me with that along the way, but I would say someone who was transformational in talking about this is Chris Abani. I met him through that chapbook, Carnaval. He’s one of the editors of the African Poetry Book Fund. I have known his work for a long time and I loved his novel Graceland and even taught it in courses I was teaching in university. So, when I met him I was terrified but he’s a very generous person. His mother is from Britain and he himself is actually an initiated Babalawo and his first long collection of poems Daphne’s Lot is about his mother. This is someone who is fully Nigerian, fully the son of his mother, fully part of the Nigerian diaspora in the US, and truly an African in a pan-African sense: he lives in himself. He doesn’t apologize for his differences and it makes him a generous and open person. He said something powerful to me sometime because I felt ashamed that I speak French better than I speak Shona. I had started to work on the VaNyemba poems and he said you have lost more than some people have ever had. And it just made me realize that what I still have, culturally, is actually a lot and that I have a lot of memories to draw on and that I shouldn’t spend so much time feeling conflicted and guilty.  These are the stories I have been given by the life I lived.

No one can tell those stories if I don’t open them and give the opportunity for other people to maybe recognize how idiosyncratic they are, and how they also can own their own stories,  because we are all neurotic at some level.  If someone reads and says, “Wow I have never imagined that experience,” maybe they will start to think that even if they don’t see a mirror of their own life in the world they can recognize and value their experiences.

There is no way I can conform to some pre-existing cultural norm because where in the world can I find another mixture of a young person born in a country that no longer exists with the cultural experiences I’ve had? The only other person is maybe my brother — and we couldn’t be more different, now as adults! So, it just frees me to say to myself,  well; I am made up of all those things, all those things belong to me but so does the whole world.

There is another quote I love by Publius Terentius Afer, commonly known as Terence. He said “I am human, and nothing of that which is human is alien to me”. That’s who we are, we are people of the world. Some of it we didn’t even choose to be pulled into. Africa is the continent that life and civilization as human beings started on. And we are people who have loved through colonization and slavery. We are part of the world and the world is within us.

Gaamangwe: That’s powerful. There is a certain liberation you get when you know that you are not the only person experiencing something. But I also know that even if someone hasn’t exactly experienced your experience, our interconnected universality allows us to relate to almost all human experiences.

I was reading the “Book of VaNyemba” and it shook me. It’s such an interesting and unexpected, beautiful creation. Can you tell me more about it?  

Tsitsi: So Book of VaNyemba opens with a true story but at the same time, I am very nervous about this one, because this figure, VaNyemba, really did live and I did not know about her until I was an adult. I call her, “her” but it’s an open question. The way the story was told to me by my aunt was that she was hermaphrodite. But I have also seen versions of this story where she is described as keeping bullets in her womb, which I think it’s a very poetic way one might describe someone who is intersex, with undescended testicles.

I live in the US where sexuality and desire is talked about in different language than in Zimbabwe. I do think that the homophobia that people talk about in the diaspora is based on a fiction of Shona culture. There is a book called Hungochani and the researcher interviews people that live in the very rural areas, who speak Ndau, and they would talk about people who have same sex desire and those people lived with their partners, not necessary in the same household but people didn’t hassle them, they were just quietly accepted as they were.

For me when I heard this story about VaNyemba, I was shocked; it was so different from anything I had heard. I had never heard of it before and this was when I was twenty-six and my grandfather had passed away, and I couldn’t go for his funeral but I went afterwards and I stayed with my aunt who had taken care of him.  She told me this story because she knows a lot of traditional information that my father probably knows but didn’t tell me because he is very committed to the church. So, she told me the story and I just kept it in my heart and it stayed with me all this time. I would research her from time to time so that’s how I know some people described her as having bullets inside her womb. There are certain ceremonies around sexual difference in Shona culture that honor her.

But I was worried that the explicitness of my poems would upset some people including my father. I was very relieved when I showed it to him and he was delighted that I was praising our ancestors. I am also interested in praise poetry, specifically clan praise poetry because it’s one of the high forms of poetry in Shona oral literature but it’s also one of those things that shows that you are good mannered or a well-educated person, especially if you know some of the praise poetry of other clans. My father is very good at that, he will meet someone who is from the Nzou elephant clan and praise them and their horns, their tusks you know. I read some of the praise poetry for the Tembo, the umbrella group for Zebra Clan. I just thought, What would this look like in English? Let me read you a few lines of a translation by Hodza and Fortune, of one of these praise poems;

 

You’ve done a service you who yearn to give

You whose horns grow down to meet together

harmless beast without horns

You striped one, you who love to share

Harmless beast from round there’

So, I think about what that would be like in Shona and nyemba is the word for bean, it’s not a butter bean but I just thought butter bean and sugar bean sound delicious in English, so that’s how I translated it. I just thought if you praised the characteristics of someone you can go overboard. But also, I was raised in a Christian household, and the forms of prayer that I know have a lot of that kind of language. So, it’s trying to weave all those things together. At one point I thought it would be a longer series with more poems but these are the ones that I have so far, the ones in Beating the Graves. It felt great when I gave this reading at the recent Africa Poetry Book Fund event at the Library of Congress. There was a Zimbabwean man who is an ordained priest, and who is also studying counselling for Shona traditionalist, whether that’s their primary religious orientation or not. His name is Father Guria, and he came to the talk and I knew I didn’t make major mistakes with the VaNyemba because afterwards he said this is a great rendition of her story.

These stories of women and female identified persons who are macho are quite heavy but I think its important to remember them and their past and the suffering that they have sustained.

Gaamangwe: Lately I have also been drawn to the idea of telling the stories of our ancestors whether they are myth or not. For us in Botswana we rarely ever teach or at least we were not comprehensively taught the histories of our forefathers. I am quite interested in our own myths and legends as Botswana, and as Africa because they are slowly sipping away, and there are parts of ourselves and our heritage. I think it’s so powerful that you are translating and re-telling those kinds of stories.

On this idea of translating music through poetry, Shona praise poems to English, how are you translating Zimbabwe’s history and current state?

Tsitsi: I think about this a lot. Regardless of how long I have lived outside Zimbabwe, it will always be the place where I learnt language, where I learnt music, where I learnt what it means to be person, where I learnt the concept of what it means to be connected to other people. That’s my foundation, my intellectual, emotional and constitutional foundation. It’s also the place I spend my formative years.

I feel a lot of sadness because I grew up very privileged in Zimbabwe. To be born right before independence, into a family that already had university education, I cannot imagine a better time and place. I went to good schools and I had music and ballet lessons, and my family was very close. The first few years of my life I lived in the rural area in the north-eastern part of the country, because my parents were teaching in missionary schools there. Zimbabwe is where things make sense to me on a gut level:  the correct smell of rain is the way rains smell in Zimbabwe, and the correct look of soil is the way soils looks in Zimbabwe. The correct sound in the morning is the way the doves and the cock crows in Zimbabwe. So even though I have spent a lot of time in other places, the place where everything fits and makes sense to me is Zimbabwe.

Zimbabwe is also a country that’s changed and has become disordered in so many ways. You see that more when you are away and come back for a short period. I honestly feel like the disrepair is just like the potholes on the road. When I first came to the US and people were talking about this undeveloped Africa, I got so angry because Harare is such a beautiful city, it still is, and when I was growing up, the downtown and the nothern suburbs where I grew up were idyllic. But I have also stayed with cousins (in Shona they are my children, not my “cousins”) in high density areas and it wasn’t not idyllic there. It was vibrant and safe but you couldn’t grow up in Zimbabwe without knowing deep inequality existed.

My Zimbabwean grandparents never had electricity or running water even though my father built them a house with separate rooms and all that. They had a hard life. I think it’s part of why they lived into their 90s, it’s because they were strong people. Coming out of that, there is a part of me that feels angry about the economic and political chaos in Zimbabwe. Very angry. But what came before independence was profoundly unjust, truly shocking abuses. Some people will say out loud that Zimbabwe before independence was better but it’s not true. People were not treated like actual people. There were daily humiliations. My grandfather was forced to sleep in the kraal during the war. People will be rounded up at night and there were not allowed to go out. Basically, a concentration camp. So however inexcusable the rule by the same person over nearly the past forty years in a country that calls itself a democracy is, it is also the case that we were building something other than what we went through.

I have loyalty to Zimbabwe, but also, I have a lot of complicated feelings about Zimbabwe because I am protected, I have a US passport so if I criticize the government, I am not really the one who is likely to suffer; I worry that my relatives might well be targeted because we don’t have a very common last name. So, I don’t write things directly, there are metaphors in my poems that if you are from there you do know exactly what I am taking about and I worry about it. But most people would not recognize them. There are animals that are very symbolic for political things. And I can’t stay silent. But what reassures me is that Yvonne Vera wrote about very charged, political things and she was never arrested. Her books were never banned because her writing was very poetic, it was never direct. I feel like the gift of poetry is to bear witness and obviously, I don’t always write about Zimbabwe now because I don’t live in the situation but at the same I cannot not talk about it. As a responsible citizen of the world, there is no way I cannot talk about politics.

Gaamangwe: It is important and valid. The writer can write about the current society and experiences from their point of view.

My high school tutor was from Zimbabwe and he used to tell us stories of Zimbabwe before the war. It sounded idyllic like you said. And when the war broke, highly educated and hard-working people left Zimbabwe and some of them came to Botswana. And when they come here, they don’t get the jobs they are qualified for, many of them settle for menial jobs, and it’s just heartbreaking because people’s lives are shifted, and their lives are not what they could have been if they live in a stable state.

Tsitsi: Its very true. The discourse around immigration in the US is very related to what is happening is Southern Africa. When my parents moved here, my father couldn’t find work as a professor even though he had been heading his department for years. My brother helped him find work as a salesman, but he was too focused on giving people advice – actually counseling them that they were spending too much! At one point, he was working as a janitor in a car dealership. I think about amazing teachers from Zimbabwe who end up doing very menial work in South Africa, Botswana, the UK. It is heart-breaking especially when people struggle so much to get an education and end up not using it. One thing that made Zimbabwe such a strong country was how people valued education and they still do, and for the most part they must, to survive. That’s not mentioning migrants or refugees who are involved in politics — that’s another level of vulnerability.

Gaamangwe: Yes. Thinking about what Beating the Graves means in Zimbabwe, I wonder if this body of work is a sort of a cathartic process of exploring what Zimbabwe is and what she lost, and opening new spaces of perhaps acceptance and healing?

Tsitsi: First, having lived abroad I haven’t been involved in that ceremony for either of my grandparents.  In a way, writing these tribute poems is a way that I can attend that ceremony. It’s considered as an important transition when someone has lost someone and they are not yet settled. It’s the transition when they become an ancestor who can really help you in your life.

So, when I wrote some of those poems, like the one for my grandfather, he had passed away recently. I sent that one to my aunt and she read it at the funeral. Some of them I wrote when my grandmother was still there. So, writing about your country from far away, it’s always about the relationships and people from far away. I guess writing is a sort of ceremony too. It’s a kind of settling and powerful resources of those experiences of loss into the present. I think of Shona culture as an amazing set of technology for moving through the world and I think of Beating the Graves as a gesture of acceptance and of recognizing that even if we people and things are no longer with us, their lives and presence in our lives have power and meaning that continues in death. I don’t have a Shona traditional, spiritual perspective but the way I would express it is that to this day, if I do something that my father is proud of he will say “Oh your grandmother, the things in your head, there!” as if she expected great things, and it kind of reminds me to stay in that kind of trajectory

My grandfather was very gentle with animals. I am probably that way too. And, know that our totem is connected to hunting and farming honey. So, when this happens, even when I see a bee which is associated with our totem I am reminded that all the good things that he did are still good, and they are a source of my own research in a sense of what’s right and wrong. The thing is, that’s a Shona technology but it’s also my technology for understanding the world. I view my American grandparents in the same way. There is a poem in the series about my Ohio family. It’s called Vindication because the newspaper there is called Vindication. Just to remember them and what they did, which is more than a memory, it’s kind of affirming that their lives continue to have meaning and influence in the present.  These are my very loose poetic translations of things that other people might think of in another way.

Gaamangwe: Wonderful. Thank you for being in this space with me.

Gaamangwe Mogami is a writer, filmmaker and founder of Africa in Dialogue.

The Poetry of the Observable World: A Dialogue With Liyou Libsekal

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Liyou Libsekal is an Ethiopian poet living in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia. She grew up traveling and living mainly in East Africa. She won the Brunel University African Poetry Prize in 2014 (now the Brunel International African Poetry Prize). Her chapbook, Bearing Heavy Things is part of the 2015 African Poetry Book Fund’s New Generation African Poets series. Her work has appeared in Missing Slate Magazine, Badilisha Poetry, Elsewhere Lit’s African Poetry edition, Expound Magazine’s The Woman Issue, and she has curated an African Poetry e-chapbook for Cordite Poetry Review.

This conversation took place in the warm, sweetspot of Gaborone, Botswana and the lively, summer city of Addis Ababa, Ethiopia by Call.

Gaamangwe: Liyou, you are a self-professed observer—why are you drawn to observing the world, particularly the environment that you see?

Liyou: I think it’s probably because I am an introvert. I like to take things in. Naturally, I don’t just jump into any situation. I step back and watch what’s going on first. I think it helps me to understand the world a little bit. I like to watch, even when I am speaking to somebody, I prefer face to face interactions. I like to see and read situations.

Gaamangwe: What aspects of the observable world are you particularly drawn to?

Liyou: People and people’s interactions. For example, here in Addis Ababa, like other places in Africa, things are changing so fast economically, socially, politically and so on. When I came back from college I was thrown into this world that was very different from when I left. Everything was growing and changing and booming. So that was really interesting to me because I was experiencing being at the cusp of that change. I couldn’t help but notice everything that was going on especially in the city.

It’s really interesting to watch how people’s lifestyles and values are changing. Just walking the streets I see so many changes happening compared to when I was growing up. This is sort of a silly example, but when I was growing you didn’t really see boys and girls holding hands on the street, and now it’s everywhere. And that’s just in a span of ten years. It helps me understand where we are going and where we came from. You see so many people’s lives changing and you see so many people who are stuck in the same sort of situation that they were in before or worse, because the disparity is more pronounced. It’s something you can’t really avoid. You cannot avoid observing.

Gaamangwe: That same rapid transformation has been happening in Gaborone as well, and I have been particularly more aware of the changes after I came back from living in India.   Do you also think that living in different places all across East Africa and outside the continent, has allowed you to particularly pay that much attention to the environment, the country and the world?

Liyou: Yes, that definitely plays a part in it. I have been to both developed and developing countries but when I came back home I started to see how bad it really was. But also I think all my experiences abroad have made me more critical. You’re trying to mitigate this view that you have about how the world should be with the  understanding that there are 80 million people in very poor conditions so it is not so simple. You see all the little things that play a part in why things are going wrong and why things are going right at the same time.

Gaamangwe: There is definitely that aspect of also noticing the privileges that one’s country has after travelling abroad. Especially if you’ve been to other places where some basic stuff are quite difficult to access.  So I wonder, what are some of the things that you are appreciative of in your home? 

Liyou: Well, there are a lot of things I appreciate because I have chosen to make a life here. Because, first nothing is like home. There is no place where I feel more comfortable than when I am here. Life is slower and calmer here. I have people around me and there are just a lot of things that you understand within your community and culture that you can’t completely assimilate, in a few years, in another place. So I appreciate just being around my people and my culture. Having a support system that I didn’t have somewhere else, and also learning all this stuff that I missed out on when I was a kid growing up someplace other than home. I definitely appreciate the culture and family and community aspect. Just being around your own traditions and being able to make a life in my own home is a big deal for me.

There are a lot of things that can be improved, but I wouldn’t live anywhere else. I am comfortable here and it’s not that growing up I wasn’t comfortable, but there is a difference when you are somewhere else and when you are home.  Just having that support system and big family and having people to go to.

Gaamangwe: The subtle ways that we belong to our countries, people, customs and traditions. How has travelling influenced you?

Liyou: I think that now I try to understand people and the world. When you are plucked from your environment at a young age and thrown together with different kinds of people, it makes you a more inquisitive person. I want to understand where people are coming from. I am always coming from a place of “How can you put yourself in this person’s shoes”. For a lack of better way to put it, I am curious about human beings, how people think and how their backgrounds affect what they will react to or what they experience. So I think that comes from always going to international schools and always being exposed to different people from a young age.

But also I think that in some ways, it disconnects you from your own culture and background. There are little things, like jokes that you don’t fully get when someone is telling you something or when you say something that you think is a perfectly normal thing to say and you offend someone. And that’s just from a different cultural perspective, right? For example when I moved back here, we are a very conservative people but you can like wear whatever you want. I never had any issue with that when I was here for three years in high school, because also I was living in a bubble with people who had a similar background. But I moved back, and I stopped wearing shorts, because I realized the reaction I was getting on the streets.  So things that are minor issues that you don’t think are such a big thing and you go like “Oh wait, I haven’t been paying attention to this stuff when I came here for summers”, you grow up and you come home and there are all this frustrations that as an adult you have to deal with, that you didn’t have to deal with in other places.

So there is a period of adjustment to little cultural nuances that you didn’t pick up on when you were younger. And it’s the same for a lot of people that I know that have lived abroad and come back here – as an adult you sort of have to be re-introduced to things you didn’t think about.

Gaamangwe: The gift of travelling is that there is this level of invincibility that you are kind of afforded. Because your language and culture, half of the time you don’t fully notice and experience a lot of things going on. The curse is when you leave the bubble and come back home, you are fully alert and aware and you notice everything. 

Liyou: Yeah, you get more critical of your place. It’s like “Wow, I didn’t know it was like this before.” But for me because I was younger, I didn’t notice this things and if I did, I didn’t really understand the full ramifications of it. It’s a whole lot of reality hitting you in the face and you being like “okay I am going to be frustrated by a lot of things.” But you decide if it’s worth it or not and for me it’s absolutely worth it to be home. You just learn how to be a woman in this place and you hope that things will change.

Gaamangwe: Or you become part of those people who are trying to change things. What I found is as compared to before, if someone was catcalling me I will just move on and just pretend not to hear them, and now I am like “No! Don’t talk to me like that.” I am just more proactive about it and I don’t know if I got confidence from living outside or it’s just that I really can’t handle it anymore.

Liyou: That’s so crazy because it’s the complete opposite for me. When I moved back here I used to be like “why are you saying this to me?”  and confront people but then I got into situations where I was like this is going to escalate. I have been in situations where I really thought they were going to slap me in the face. So then I decided to just ignore it and now I walk with a blank face and pretend I didn’t hear a thing —and even that is an issue. If you ignore them sometimes they get more aggressive. It’s not really in my nature to not be confrontational but I do stand up for myself. But here,  at least in Addis Ababa it’s kind of like playing with fire.  It’s like you have to go against your nature in a way. But it is the politics of survival.

Gaamangwe: The politics of being a woman in this time and age. It’s terrible.  Just pivoting a bit to you as a writer, how do all these experiences influence what you write about?

Liyou: My main thing in writing is me trying to understand the world. What is this thing to be human?  How does being from a certain culture or place or background affect how you perceive things and how you behave? I think that’s where the observation comes in too. I think it’s like that for a lot of people but the way I do it is I put things down on paper. It’s a process of explaining the world to myself and how I thought about a situation. It like, let’s let this out and sort of suss out what happened and what I saw. It’s a very internal thing. So I go internal and pack it down.

Gaamangwe: In this moment in time, from your own observation what have you learnt about being human and the way that we are trying to navigate this planet?

Liyou: That’s a great question and it’s something that I think about all the time.I have learnt that no matter what motivates us or makes us different, we really can understand each other. The bottom line is we all have the same desires and fears. So a street kid who is trying to get by cleaning shoes is not going to exactly want the exact things as someone who works at a Fortune 500 company but I think deep down as human beings we are all struggling with trying to understand this chaos that is life. Whatever it is. We all have this thing that binds us together and that allows us to understand each other if we try. And I think that’s what I try to do, not just in my writing but in life.  What is going on? What is up with this place? Why are we here? If we understood that we all have the same core feelings and core fears and core needs then we can understand each other a lot better.

Gaamangwe: Paulo Coelho’s concept of Soul of the Universe in The Alchemist. That despite barriers like language and culture and religion, we will always somehow innately understand each other, because we are innately the same.

Liyou: Absolutely, and I think that’s what the world forgets sometimes.

Gaamangwe:  Sadly true. I suppose it is a part of the human experience. Now pivoting to your poetry, my favorite thing about your work is the titles. Your titles are poems themselves. How do title come to you?

Liyou: I also like my titles more. I think that’s because it wraps everything up, right?  So, I do the titles at the end. I honestly can’t tell you how it actually happens but I think that once you feel a piece of work is concrete enough, it comes. I do think it goes back to what I was saying earlier; poetry is how I understand things that I experience or see or observe. Sometimes you don’t know why something strikes you and at the end of it that’s when you understand and that’s when the title comes.  It comes with understanding that this is why I wrote this.

Gaamangwe: And why did you write, Bearing Heavy Things? A powerfully titled collection.

Liyou: Thank you. I was seeing all the changes and reflecting back on the past as well. Bearing Heavy Things was a poem about a cousin of mine who had a child at a young age, and it made me think about all this young girls, because we have a huge problem with child brides here. My cousin wasn’t married as a child but her experience got me thinking of that. But as I titled the whole thing I think it reflected being back and experiencing something with newly grown eyes. And it was really difficult to sort of like mitigate the person I was before, when I was a child.

I think it suited the whole poetry collection because it really was sort of coming back and realizing all the things I never realized about my country before because I was too young to notice. So it was seeing reality for the first time about a place that I love. I think that title suited that because there are a lot of things that are messed up in this place and it was sort of like me dealing with that for the first time as an adult.

Gaamangwe: The moment I saw Bearing Heavy Things it just really reminded me of us, women, the kind of things that we bear and the kind of wars that we go through. In the spirit of everything, what do you like in a poem?

Liyou: Truth. And it’s not just about poetry, any writing or any work of art that explores something that is a fundamental human truth even if no one has told it or read it  or never talked about it and I read something and I am like “Yeah, I know that, I know what that’s about”, that’s real to me.  That’s what I like. For me, if something links to truth, even if I have never experienced it, it’s gold because it binds you to other people, it tells you “you’re not alone after all”. So truth. I am a sucker for anything that rings true.

Gaamangwe: I resonate with that. I also love this kind of abstract poetry, which you do really well. For example, when you said;

I left Africa carrying my skin.

Who does that? No one does that. But there is something true about this. But of course not literally. 

Liyou: That’s a thing with me too. I definitely tend to like things that are not so literal. It’s funny that you say my stuff is abstract; sometimes I hate the stuff I write because I am like “A,B,C” about it. I feel that the stuff I write is a little too literal. But I guess that’s perspective. So I feel really good that you said that.

Gaamangwe: I understand. I love the kind of poetry that shifts me and changes the way that I look at the world. And your poetry does that. So thank you for your poetry.

Liyou: Oh, thank you.

Gaamangwe Mogami is a poet, filmmaker and founder of Africa in Dialogue.

 

 

On Womanhood and Belonging: A dialogue with Ijeoma Umebinyuo

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Ijeoma Umebinyuo was born and raised in Lagos, Nigeria. She is the author of Questions for Ada, her first published collection of prose poems and poems. Her writings have been translated to Portuguese, Turkish, Spanish, Russian and French.

This conversation happened between the now hailing storm city of Gaborone, Botswana and sunny, robust city of Lagos, Nigeria by Skype.



Gaamangwe: Ijeoma, I read one of your poems where you said –

 “I am writing for the women who were once girls judging themselves through the eyes of souls who couldn’t comprehend their light.”

I really resonate with this because I have been, and sometimes I am the girl who judges herself through the eyes that don’t understand the constellation of my being.  So, I am interested in knowing how you got to a point where you decided that you want to be talking for girls, about girls and their womanhood.



Ijeoma; I started writing when I was about ten. So writing for me has always been in my being. My childhood friends are not surprised that I have a book or I am writing. But the themes of what I write I think started happening around my late teens. It was about exploring everything that I have been taught, from religion to being an African woman, and leaving Nigeria for the first time. I sort of understood my blackness and what that meant for the first time in my life. So I have a lot of stories and you can see it’s not one single narrative. And so many people can see themselves in that. I didn’t know at a certain point that was a beautiful thing.

I didn’t think it was because I don’t really fit into a certain narrative, you can’t really place me in a certain narrative and say “Okay, this is how Ijeoma is”, and “this is how Ijeoma thinks”. I can’t really place myself there and I didn’t. And it was in my late teens that I started to explore and understand what it meant to be a woman. What I began to see did not sit well with me. When I was younger and growing up, there were things I wanted to say, and now that I have an opportunity to say them, I say them and I am no longer scared. So it took a lot of going inward and relearning everything I have been told. Because we have been told that this is what you should think and this is what you should do. And you realize that there are so many things that are wrong with certain narratives.

It came to me when I understood that society benefits when I am being silent, and being silenced. Because the most dangerous thing that I have come to realize is a woman that cannot be silenced. Especially in a society like ours. And when young woman speak up and own themselves and know who they are, that’s very difficult for society to comprehend.

So that quote you said I think I wrote it for me and also for girls to understand that they are not alone. I get messages and girls of different ages telling me that “Thank you for writing this, thank you for making me understand that I am not going crazy, that I am okay, and that I am fine” and these are very important things for a woman to see, especially for a woman who has a name like mine, someone who is like me, someone that has lived in places that someone will tell you women from this place don’t speak up. So for women to see me speak up and write about this things, they are the people I am writing for. My first audience, those are the most important audience to me.

And whenever I receive message that tell me “I breathe better”, “I feel less alone”, “I feel like someone out there understands me”, that’s success to me. These are really important things to me because I understand what it’s like to have these thoughts and feel this way. And someone telling you “you are not normal” and thinking how you are acting and thinking is not normal. So I am writing against that, saying this is totally fine. This is who you are and this is how you think.

It started a long time ago and it’s been a long time coming. I look at this as something normal and should have been there. It’s not groundbreaking in a way but it is
because I write the things that a lot of people are scared to see. Things that women and young girls seat around at night and talk about within themselves but cannot say outside. Taboos like rape, molestation and depression. These are things that affect all genders. And I do write about all genders but I am very particular about the girl child and women, about stories that we tell and that we live, stories that when we are dead and gone people can read, stories that young girls can read and say “I see myself in that”. And it’s so unfortunate that we have such a long way to go regarding womanism or feminism in Africa.

I always say this words ” They always tell men to stand up for power”, like its normalized and men are supposed to stand up for power and run for office but when we begin to see women in complex positions as politicians and judges, so many things like policies change. And that’s vital. I want to say that so much change when women take action. And just seeing African women doing this, it’s so uplifting. You see centers for domestic abuse and you see women understanding the dynamics of being a woman.

I was watching a documentary about women in Cameroon and they were policewomen and you can see the kind of passion that they have for other women who are coming up and saying “this person raped me” or “my husband beats me”. And they are using their language and their own mannerism. All these things are important because for you and I, we can speak perfect English, we are very exposed and we are educated. But these women who don’t speak like us and who don’t even have access to cellphones are making so much change in Africa. And it’s uplifting. Because they make use of the laws and systems in place. Because they have nothing to lose.

It’s very important that we tell these stories.

Gaamangwe:  I deeply resonate with so much of what you just said. I feel like we are at a brink of a revolution because a lot of people and writers like you are really bringing up all these issues up and it’s great because it’s opening up dialogues. The landscape of womanhood and what it means is so interesting right now. You wrote about the importance of women defining the terms and conditions of their womanhood. This is an interesting thought Ijeoma. How can we do this such that we reach a point where every woman understands her womanhood and how she wants to express it in the world?

Ijeoma; Here is my thing, just because I define my womanhood a different way, and just because I am this way doesn’t mean that you have to be that way. Because I think it’s very important for us to understand that the different dynamics of women are very important to feminism or womanism. Because I cannot tell someone else that as a woman this is what you have to do and this is how feminism is defined. We need to be very careful about that. There are so many dynamics of feminism and there are so many ways that a woman can say I am a woman and this is who I am and this is how I show mine.
We need to understand that defining our humanity and knowing what we call being a woman should always be choice.  So defining the terms and conditions of our womanhood is really about choice. Some of us are privileged, where we can say what we want but we have to understand that so many women don’t.

We have a society that tell men that they can do whatever they want to do and they can be whoever they want to be but a woman is defined by so many borders she has to carry. At the end of the day it’s like she does not have a choice in her life. That’s where feminism/womanism comes into play and that’s where people have a problem with it because when you give a woman a choice that’s a problem for society.

It is important to have that choice to do whatever we want and be whoever we want, and have that equal opportunity like any man would. One thing that I think is important is for women to be in political positions because that will make a lot of difference. If we begin to speak from an African perspective, we can see in most cases when women are in positions of power. Because we can see when people are discussing issues that are about women and women are not there it doesn’t make any sense. Nobody knows a woman’s body like a woman does. Things like reproductive rights, financial independence, political positions, ownership of land and inheritance.

So I think that choice needs to be at the cornerstone of being a woman. Because when choice is removed it’s not equal opportunity, it’s not women empowerment.

Gaamangwe: Yes, it’s inequality. And it’s what we are all fighting for. Because most of the time we are not given choices as women, on how to be or how we are supposed to express ourselves. It’s in the smallest of things.

Growing up I didn’t realize the narrative I was being given on womanhood until I started reading on my own and started being my own self. And I read your work and I read other people’s work and the reality is that we have to unlearn so much as women. It’s sad because our counterparts, our men don’t fully understand the world that we live in, the landscape and the personal realities of women. So your work is empowering and resonate with us, your readers because they are things that pass us and we don’t take note of them but they really define our lives and who we are and how we act.

You write about mental health, rape and depression and domestic abuse, which are really difficult things to integrate in the normal African narrative. In the dialogues that we hold even with our friends. I am particularly drawn to mental health and will love for us to explore it further. 

Ijeoma: It’s very interesting whenever you discuss issues like mental health within African societies or here in the diaspora. You can discuss Malaria or kidney failure or anything that a white man can go through that a black man can go through. But when you discuss mental health, it is not something that a black person can go through?

It’s interesting how we think our bodies are supposed to carry a lot of pain without breaking down. And it’s interesting because I have heard Africans who are very educated say “what are you talking about, this doesn’t happen to us, and it’s not part of our DNA”.

I think it’s important that we don’t deny mental health exists.

Once at a reading in New York, a man thanked me for talking and writing about mental health. He said he was telling his people that he is depressed and they were telling him that it’s all in his head, that Africans don’t get depressed.

A lot of people leave home and they don’t fit in. I am not talking about leaving home and feeling sad one day, I am talking about seriously wanting to end it all. Seriously not understanding where you are. You leave home and probably for the first time you are being called black and expected to understand the history of blackness from outside your country where you’ve only been your ethnic group till now.  You experience racism for the first time. And because being black is associated with being bad, you have to stop yourself from internalizing this and this leads to some of the worst cases of depression you can think of. You feel isolated and with isolation comes a feeling of not being able to talk to someone back home. Because they will say you are in America, what are you talking about? You have so many opportunities that someone back home doesn’t have, how dare you be ungrateful. How dare you talk about being depressed, what are you depressed about? So you have a sense of guilt.

Gaamangwe: I am glad you talked about how people in the diaspora experience culture shock and racism. Even in the smallest ways. People always looking at you and how things are no longer concepts. You captured this perfectly in your poem, Diasporic Blues –
“So, here you are. Too foreign for home. Too foreign for here. Never enough for both.”

I want to talk about this. The idea of home and the idea of belonging in a space or a place.

Ijeoma: I wrote Diaspora Blues because I came back to Nigeria in 2013 after a long time. Unfortunately, I felt very much displaced. It was a little bit of romanticizing the past, entirely my fault. I had this idea that I will come back and I will perfectly fit into the space that I left. But it’s always impossible for us to do that. Because there is the fact that I had grown up so much as a person. And understanding the dynamics of who I am and being abroad and people saying “where are you from” and still getting this question after so many years. I asked myself where I really belong.

“Not American enough,

not Nigerian enough,

I am Ijeoma enough. And that’s okay”.

 

That was the first draft of that poem in 2013. When I was writing my book I went back to this poem and felt that it will only resonate with people who are Nigerian and American. I wanted to write something that will include everyone. And it was a very sad poem for me. Short but very sad, it was very personal.

Belonging and the concept of home for a lot of people is wherever they decide home is. But that can be a very difficult thing for refugees and political asylum seekers. Sometimes immigrating to a country and understanding that they don’t have papers that technical recognize them as complete human beings in a society. It is much more than my perspective because belonging is such a complex issue.

A lot of people don’t have that opportunity to come back home like I do. To have a place that they can call home. It might not be exactly what I expected it to be but it’s as close as possible to what I can call home. It is home. Some people leave and they can’t come back.

I explore home in so many ways. In language, food, clothing and our religion. And these are major things that people bring with them. My personal story is I felt displaced. So I have this concept of home and another foreign idea of home and what I can bring back. And I am sort of in the middle. I am bringing from this place. Some things I cannot change. Like the way I talk. Or maybe the way I think now. I cannot change that. It will be sort of regressing from me to go back to how I was before I left. I have changed and I am not going to apologize for things that took me so many years to unlearn. I am becoming this person that I am becoming right now.

Gaamangwe; I think that a lot of people resonated with that because we all experience that, maybe in different formats. I experienced a lot of that when I came back from India. It took me six months to get to a point where I felt like I am navigating this space easily now.  But when I came back I felt like I didn’t know where I belonged because I outgrew this space, and this person and my home. It’s a very sad thing to realize because there is the question, where do I belong now?

I have to say I also really like original poem of Diasporic Blue.  I resonate with that because after everything that’s what you have. You have yourself. The only constant is yourself. So the idea of home can never truly be a place. But you can have yourself as a home. And there is a lot of that in your work as well, you know like as a human you should belong to yourself and be okay with your skin and be proud of your skin and love yourself. Because I think this is the only home you can truly ever own.

Ijeoma: And we can also go a step further and say because society has always told us that home is belonging to a man as a woman. Home is when you get married and that is where you should find your home. And that is something that you should seek and be. There are a lot of people that we see now that are in our society, making terrible decisions staying in toxic relationships because they don’t have that concept of being alone and being home alone, by themselves. I can find home within myself.

Gaamangwe: This is really powerful because I think we need to change the narrative to that. All of us we grow up being told that we should aspire for that. Especially as girls. We should aspire for a husband, and for love with a man. I get so pissed off nowadays if I see those articles about how to make him fall in love with you or how to be a perfect wife.

Ijeoma: Yes! I remember as we were talking and you mentioned how some men don’t acknowledge that they are privileged and how we have to inform them but as ridiculous as I might sound I think we are not here to teach men anything. I feel like we spend so much time trying to lecture or trying to school others.

A couple of years back I was talking to my brother and he said you know the concept of feminism is simple, equal rights for women and men. The idea that a woman should be able to do whatever they want, a woman should be able to think this way, a woman should be able to act this way without being insulted or demeaned, I am not going to teach you that. That is common human decency. I think a lot of time men has this lazy idea that women should have to teach them the basic concept of humanity. Feminism is the basic concept of humanity. It is human right.

Gaamangwe: Exactly. We should focus more on ourselves. Building our own homes. Having the narratives we want to be having by ourselves as women. I think it will start there. It will start with empowered women. And the system will organically change, I think. Slowly but surely. I think we have done a lot of educating and at some point people just then choose what they want to take out of the whole thing then we lose the whole intention.

I think it’s time now for us to focus on ourselves and realize that we are powerful enough, on our own, by ourselves. We should empower ourselves because we are dangerous this way. So now, I want us to pivot to the idea of self-care and belonging to one self. Why it’s so vital right now with all the chaos that’s happening right now in the world.
Ijeoma: I think we sort of lose ourselves in the whole chaos, we have been taught as women to take care of others before taking care of ourselves. It is sort of others first. And it’s then passed on and on. And even when we say no we even question that no. Yes, I can take care of the people but I need to take care of myself first. I need to understand from within what I really want before I go outside. And we praise the always strong woman. This woman who is so empowered and powerful and she sort of doesn’t break down.  Like she is a mule or something. There is the idea that if you put yourself first then you are selfish. And they make you feel guilt for that. That the idea of taking care of yourself is a selfish act. We want women to keep on going without breaking down. A romanticized idea of a strong woman.

But this also reflects in men. Hyper masculinity. I have a friend who lost his father and two weeks later I was talking to him and asking “how do you feel?” and he said “I want to cry but I am a man. I have to be a man”. And I told him “You are a son that just lost his father, do you not understand that it’s okay to cry?” This is the toxic idea that a man is not allowed to weep, to show emotion, and to cry.

Society does such a disservice to young men and boys. This idea that to be a man you have to conceal your emotions. It can be very toxic.

Gaamangwe: Recently I was talking to Gbenga Adesina, in our dialogue and he said that we need to come back to the republic of kindness. To the republic of treating each other as human beings. Before anything else. Before our genders, our races, before whatever system, we can put in defining us. Can we just start from one human being to another?

When you were speaking I was feeling like they are so many systems that are so wrong in our world that we need to fix but also its  kind of overwhelming because what do we start with. Do we start with empowering the girl child or in that way we are doing another disservice to the boy child because our focus is on the girl child? There are so many dialogues and theories and discourses that we have to touch on so we can create a better world.

Ijeoma: Step back. You have to break it down and say this is what I am passionate about, and this is what I am going to discuss and follow through on. But it’s not like you are saying you won’t talk about everything else but rather about what is most important to you. And do whatever you can, wherever you are. That has always been my motto. I wrote something that says start where you are. Just start you know.

I think I could have gotten overwhelmed if I listened to everyone else but myself. I will have gotten overwhelmed if before writing I sort of started following other people’s voices but mine. It’s important to not overwhelm ourselves, that’s where self-care comes in. It’s very important.

For me if I am not focus then I am all over the place. The idea that speaking about the girl child means not speaking about the boy child, it’s very important that we understand that the playing field has never been leveled. It has never been to the advantage of the girl. No matter where you go.

The concept is equal right for women and men. The concept is choice for girls. Historically and presently, women are at the losing end. We can definitely get into this narrative that if we are discussing about the girl child then it means that we are not discussing about the boy child. Or we cannot discuss about the boy child. And it’s very important for us not to do that. Because that sort of narrative is something that a lot of misogynists use. Oh you know these feminists, that’s what they do. But really we are talking about genital mutilations and child marriages in Africa, Asia and Middle East. We are talking about the fact that a girl at the age of fourteen is being married off to a man old enough to  be her grandfather. We are talking about the fact that girls are not allowed to go to school. We are talking about honor killing. And this is happening right now.

The idea that when we are talking about this very important issue then it means we are not interested in talking about the man or the boy. It deviates from the narrative and what we are trying to say.

The concept of an educated woman is such a feared concept in so many places. And you ask yourself why? Why is it that a woman that cannot be silenced is a very dangerous woman?

Gaamangwe; That’s true. I want to now talk about Questions for Ada. Ada means daughters right?

Ijeoma: Yes. Actually Ada in Igbo means first daughter. It means every first daughter of the house.

Gaamangwe: Interesting. So I am interested in what this work set out to do, the dialogues and discourses and seeds it wanted to plant.

Ijeoma: Thank you for this question. When I was thinking about this work I thought a lot about the title. Originally I wrote in Tumblr and I used to ask these questions as poetry. And it started from there. And I started working with Questions for Ada and I shared with my friends and they told me to go with it because it was very authentic and personal for me. The book itself took me so long to bring it together. The book itself is in stages. It goes through different stages.
I was very close to my grandmother and my grandmother passed away a few years ago. My grandmother was an Ada, the first daughter in her house and my mother was also an Ada. A lot of my writings entwines different generations. It included the older generation, our mother generation and our generation. Those three particular generations. At the back I remember I wrote that we are writing for our mother and our mothers of our mothers and for our generations and for generations to come. So it was journey of these different people and writing their stories. I wanted to give voices not only to our generation but to others as well.

One particular poem I actually called Question for Ada. At first I wrote it for me. Then later on it went from that to Ada. It said –

Ijeoma, are you in love?
Yes.

Is being a relationship hard work?
Yes.

Do you write love poems for your lover?
Yes.

Does your lover believe in you?
Yes.
But sometimes I fear that my lover doesn’t comprehend her light.

What do you on those days?

I bathe her. I play her jazz. I feed her. I weep for her.

Describe her in a sentence.
Her eyes carries strength. Her words crush. She speaks love.


Ijeoma, are you in love?
Yes.
Is being a relationship hard work?
Yes.
Who is your lover?
Myself.

So I changed Ijeoma and I put Ada. So that was the questions for Ada. There were tiny questions I asked. There is one where I asked –
Didn’t your mother carry herself well enough to make you feel like a God?

So inside the book there are very tiny questions I asked. The book is very unapologetic. It’s very feminist. In the very beginning of the book I wrote something called Genesis. I wrote –

In the beginning there were women.

So I am not trying to soften myself or play around or present one thing else. I wanted where our generation could read the book and see themselves in it.

That particular poem obviously you feel like you are lost or you understand that the lover is yourself. It feels like it’s very sad. But the beginning of the book is something like a discourse. I wanted a book that an immigrant could read. A black person can read. A woman could read.  I wanted a book that was very true to who I am. And those aspects of who I am added to create this book.

That’s why anyone from wherever can still read it and see themselves in it. I wrote about what to tell your best friend when she is feeling depressed. Using African names. I wanted to write one thing that goes beyond love. I am writing about self-love in a way and so many other things. And the reception has been amazing. I have been very pleased with the love from the reader. I can’t wait to do more. I am encouraged to do more.

Gaamangwe: That’s amazing because I think every writer wants to do work that impacts the readers. And your work is powerful. It can be just one or two lines but when I read and I am altered forever. So you definitely have to keep doing this.

Ijeoma; Thank you so much for this. I am honored. I am honored that so many women from all parts of Africa are resonating and celebrating my work. It’s so exciting to be celebrated in not just one’s country. It’s very encouraging. I can’t wait to do more.