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Brunel International African Poetry Prize Shortlist: A Dialogue With Kechi Nomu

Kechi-Nomu

Kechi Nomu was born in 1987. She grew up in Nigeria under two Nigerian dictatorships. Her poems have appeared in Saraba Magazine, The ANA Poetry Review, Expound Magazine, Sentinel and Brittle Paper. She writes film and theatre reviews for Olisatv. Her short stories have been workshopped at the Farafina Creative Writing Workshop and the Caine Prize Short Story Surgery. Her fiction and nonfiction have appeared online and in print.

This conversation took place in the cold, sweetspot of Gaborone, Botswana and the busy hub of Yaba in Lagos, Nigeria by Email.

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

Kechi: I am still processing all of what it means, but gratitude is the clearest emotion. The news came at a time when I had a lot of questions. So, it felt like an answer on some level. It is also just stunning to me to be on a shortlist with poets whose works I greatly admire, for the Brunel!

Gaamangwe: What kind of questions are you exploring in your poetry?

Kechi: I am very interested in memory. In the ways that this works for the individual and for people connected to a place (country and community) who have shared history. How certain events move from the center to the fringe of a larger consciousness but may remain very present for some people. Particularly in the ways that these things touched their lives. I was talking to a poet friend about this exact same thing days ago because well, it just is something I’m very preoccupied with.

The ways that a glitch in the day can mean so many different things in a place like Nigeria where things like memory and nostalgia—just the right to say that this happened in my small corner and this is what it means or continues to mean for me—can feel like such a luxury and in some cases, such a contested thing. In my writing, I try to reclaim a space to say these are the things I know that don’t fit into the general story and yes, they happened.

Gaamangwe: I am also obsessed with memory, specifically the collective unconsciousness of our ancestors, and how that affects our lives now. Latent memory. Which specific memories are you exploring?

Kechi: Wow. I had to sit with the thought of ‘the collective unconsciousness of our ancestors’ for some time. The weight of what remains untouched just stared me in the face. It is so important that you do this.

For me, you know, I am never sure what memories want to be told or explored. It is just the ways that memories spill out of places where a lot of effort has been put into containing them. But I am interested in selves or people set up to function outside of the memory of what they have lived and how this effort to contain/shut their memories fail. When a country for instance tries to negate memory with nationalistic slogans and the lid keeps coming undone or does not fit properly and there is a bubbling over. I think in this way, poetry functions as a collector. These are the things I think of.

Gaamangwe: That kind of nationalistic forced amnesia is disturbing. Because a lot of violence is performed within this space, where there is the expectation that people will forget. But memory doesn’t work like that, even when you think you have contained it, most time it’s seeping in unconsciously in daily events. This got me thinking about the memories in my country that we’ve been forced to forget, and also wondering, what memories in your country and personal space have been negated?

Kechi: Very true. I couldn’t agree more. Memory is very autonomous. It belongs solely to the individual. In Nigeria, there is just a lot that has been negated by this collective silence and denial. This, even in the face of the work done, currently being done, to write these memories into being. In our contemporary history, there has been a civil war, there have been dictatorships each with its own specific brand of trauma. In the last decade, terror has had an incalculable effect and there has been a denial narrative consistently put out by the state. Such that, in the face of the relentlessness of this denial narrative, to be sentient, to remember, to claim memory, the ones that space is made for in the larger conversation and the ones that seem not to matter in mapping the big stories, becomes a radical thing.

Gaamangwe: At this point in human history, we really need to be radical. Because accepting these denial narratives is a very dangerous space where our existence is made to be insignificant. Which we cannot and should not have. How are you, and the speakers in your poetry becoming radical?

Kechi: The people in my poems, the poems I have been feeling my way through for a while now (as the poems I sent in for the Brunel International African Poetry Prize reflect) are wondering what love means, what it is worth when the object of love becomes a thing that is dangerous. How do boys love/long for fathers who want to consume them? How do men for whom the love of country/ideas of duty/honor/responsibility/expectation, return when the systems they have given themselves to fail them, what do they return to. How do girls love fathers whose memories they want to discard as much as they want to claim parts of them? How do children love mothers who make memory by the erasure of self, for whom this is what the equation of love looks like. How do people love places that turn on them? How do they carry the memory of these places across geographies, or for people who cannot afford physical distance, across time?

For the speakers in my poems, it is looking at a beast from angles that are familiar. Processing from these points that are true. Claiming the right to start from the confusion of what you are and then working your way to some kind of question.

Gaamangwe: These are really powerful angles of looking at love, especially love that walks on a tightrope. What are you and the speakers discovering about love? What meanings and understandings are you and they making about love?

Kechi: You know, I wish I could say that we have begun to make discoveries for certain, things we can frame with language just yet. It does feel like we are on the road to understanding… there is a way that Toni Morrison frames it that makes sense to me and seems to fit where it is that we are and what it is that we are working through.

There is really nothing more to say – except why. But since why is difficult to handle, one must take refuge in how.

It’s from The Bluest Eye I think. Not very sure now. But, you know, I think to arrive at some point of discovery or meaning, I and the ‘people’ that inhabit me are feeling our way through the ‘how’.

Gaamangwe: This speaks to me, Kechi. Thank you, 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 2017 Winner: A Dialogue With Romeo Oriogun

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Romeo Oriogun lives and writes in Udi, a little town in Eastern Nigeria. His poems, which mostly deal with what it means to live as a queer man in Nigeria, have been featured in Brittle Paper, African Writer, Expound, Praxis, and others. He is the author of Burnt Men, an electronic chapbook published by Praxis Magazine Online. He is the Brunel International African Poetry Prize Winner 2017.

This conversation took place in the cold, sweetspot of Gaborone, Botswana and the hilly, little town of Udi, Nigeria via phone call, a week before Romeo Oriogun was announced the winner. 

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

Romeo: I started writing three years ago, so being shortlisted for the prize is a gift. I am still trying to understand what it means. I’ve went through some turbulent times and I don’t expect good things to come, so I don’t know how to respond when something good comes to me.

Gaamangwe: The speakers in your poetry also exists in turbulent time, where the continuum for love is very much weaved with a lot of darkness. Who do your speakers speak for and why is it important for you and for them to speak about these spaces where love meets violence and death?

Romeo: One thing I tried to do while writing these poems is;  I want them to take a voice of their own. Some of those poems I wrote them without even knowing the next line. With that being said, the history of queer people in Nigeria has lot of violence in it. I think with the advance of social media it has escalated, because you have people saying they are protecting their spaces from western influence without knowing that homosexuality has always been a part of African culture and that there are already queer people in Africa. So you have these speakers who try to say; we have been here and this is who we are. Some of the poems have the speaker who tries to run away because the environment makes life difficult, and love is not enough to conquer it. These dark places happen around me, especially because you have the law that has criminalized queer people, and so you have people who are hiding to express and show love.

I think the speakers in my poems are trying to express how best they can navigate this dangerous time, so you have some of them running and some of them staying even with all this danger. But the most beautiful thing about love is that in the end it always wins, it might be difficult and very hard but at the end of the day, love wins. Whether they are running, staying or dying, you have people saying;  “This is us, this is what we are, this is what we feel and you can’t beat it out of us, you can’t steal it out of us and you can’t kill it out of us. We are queer people, we are here and we are beautiful.”

Gaamangwe: I am really disheartened by what queer people go through. How do you approach, think and validate the love experience when it can possibly lead to end of life?

Romeo: The beautiful thing about love is that there isn’t a box that can hold love. It is something that is powerful and boundless, it can’t be changed and can be expressed in different ways. Religion has contributed to some people killing queer people. They say this is not our culture, but what they are trying to say is that queer people cannot be found in a religious context, and that queer people are forbidden in a religious setting. You find them being hunted, lynched and killed. What this basically means is that queer people must learn to navigate this hate.

It’s a burden because you have an individual learning how to navigate hate and love at the same time. There is very little room for queer people, even in the literary world, because they are still frowned upon and pushed aside. We are fighting, writing and documenting but I feel that this is a battle that might not be won in my lifetime. We have to navigate so much and our lives are held in the balance depending on how we navigate these space every day. The thing is we can’t pigeonhole people, we have to allow people to express themselves, talk about how they feel and express love in the way they want to. We are going to find out one day that love is something that is diverse, and that life itself is diverse, and this diversity is what makes everything beautiful.

Gaamangwe:  What is the one thing that you would want to remove in society that would make the queer experience much safer and free?

Romeo: The truth is, the problems facing queer people is not just one thing. It is diverse, but at the moment if you were to ask me I would tell you it is the hatred. If it can be removed and people can look at others with love, and see that these people are human beings and their experiences are valid, then maybe slowly there will be a little bit of a safe space for queer people in Africa.

I wrote into a chapbook called Burnt Man after a queer man was lynched and beaten to death in Nigeria.  Afterwards, I had different people attacking me, it was a very traumatizing time for me because it was the first time I was writing about the queer experience and I had never realized the level of hatred towards queer people.

Queer men are looked at as wicked people and not ‘men enough’ culturally. Africans claim to be religious, we have Islam and Christianity dictating the way we ought to behave and live, and it is in these religions that queer people are frowned upon.  The most surprising and amazing thing is that the white man brought this religion to us, yet the white man is more tolerant towards queer people. At least in many western countries, queer people are safe. I think it has to do with culture, religion and upbringing. I hope that the coming generation will make things easier but for my generation, our upbringing was very different, to the point where queer people hate themselves. They don’t perceive themselves as beautiful and natural. That’s adds another difficulty to this.

Gaamangwe: I wish people experienced religion mostly as life maps or efficient guidelines on how to navigate on life.  Not as the one and only truth. Maybe that way we can understand that they are many ways to cross the forest of life. I can’t imagine how one navigates this betrayal from society, to the point of rejecting oneself.

Romeo: I think for me because I don’t expect much from society, I am no longer disappointed. Immediately after the Brunel Prize shortlist was out, a very good friend of mine said that I support perversion, I am a pervert and I should not reply him again. All this was very painful because even if I do not expect much from society, it still hurts. You expect at least educated people to be a little bit hospitable to us but you find that the hatred and rejection is more from them.

When my chapbook came out, a boy from Minna (a northern state in Nigeria dominated by Muslims) sent me a message and told me his father is a pastor and every night he cleanses his body and prays that he stops what he is feeling. He asked if I am a queer person, when I asked why, he told me he wanted to include me in his prayers because whatever I am feeling is a bad thing. He says he is praying against his body every day and is scared of his father knowing he is a queer person. I tried telling him about how beautiful and natural his body was but I knew this was not enough. This is someone who has rejected his body totally because he believes his body is full of sin. He doesn’t know that because the sun shines everywhere, everybody has a space in the world.

Queer people rejecting their bodies is the most painful thing to me when it comes to the whole queer experience in Africa. People hate themselves and some commit suicide. It is very pitiful and sad because people are going against their bodies and rejecting what they feel.. The good thing right now is that we have some people who look at queer people as people and their experiences as valid. Every journey takes time, so if we take a step here and there, we will get there.

Gaamangwe: I applaud you for writing about these experiences no matter how heavy and sad and terrifying it is. The very fact that you are doing this, that is the light. On lighter things, I have noticed that water in its various forms and states, (rainfall, oceans, rivers) comes up a lot in your poetry. What does water symbolize for you?

Romeo: Water for me is something special and it has to do with my childhood. As I child, I lost my dad and I had to live with an uncle. It was a very intense time because my mother was not allowed to take us – there was this battle between my dad’s people and my mum’s people for the custody. During that period, the only place where I could find peace was at a small body of water, a kind of stream. Along the road, you would find peace, birds singing and butterflies flying.

When I began writing I realised that it had taken a very significant place in my life and my writing. Water signifies peace and death and so many other things. It all depends on what I am writing about or the voice I am writing in. If I am writing in a very happy voice, it becomes a happy place and if I am writing in a sad voice, it becomes a place of escape – which is what water is to me.  When the sea is crushing and the waves are going up and down, I feel detached from the world and I am entirely alone and there is beauty in that.

Gaamangwe: That’s beautiful. Thank you so much and all the best with Brunel International African Poetry Prize and your poetry.

Congratulations to Romeo Oriogun for winning the Brunel International African Poetry Prize, and the powerful and important work on Queer experiences. The world is better place because of his poetry.  – Gaamangwe Joy Mogami. 

NB: This interview is part of a collective book project with all the incredible and talented shortlisted poets for this prize.

Download the full book HERE: Conversations with Brunel Poetry Prize Shortlist

Brunel International African Poetry Prize Interviews With Africa in Dialogue

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Introduction 

The idea to interview the 2017 Brunel International African Poetry Prize shortlists, and to package the interviews in one collective ebook came from an instinctual interest in rendering new expansive spaces and understanding to the shortlisted poems, and the poets who created them. I wanted to highlight the power of poetry, in the way that it explores and illuminates narratives, experiences and worlds that exists within the poets as much as the reader. I wanted to engage the poets and possibly discover; who is speaking? who is living here? what hurts here? and what heals here?

DOWNLOAD: Conversations with Brunel Poetry Prize Shortlist

In a span of seven days, I interviewed the ten shortlisted poets, wherein we discussed various topics: Richard’s endless reinvention, psychogeography  and the power of African languages; Saddiq’s defiance to African stories gatekeepers, family tales and the insurmountable power of love; Yalie’s reclamation of her Sierra-Leone heritage, unbecoming invincible and the potentiality  of sincerity to change the world; Nick’s take on Idi Amin’s regime and its impact on Uganda, the disregard to Black death and the importance of writing our African stories as Africans; Kechi’s reclamation to memory, nationalistic forced amnesia, and the road to understanding; Romeo’s violent and dark realities of Queer men in Nigeria, navigating religion and hatred, and the beauty of water; Leila’s perpetual longing, life as an Arab, Muslim woman post 9/11 and post Trump and love as a gift;  Rasaq’s relentlessness, documentation of Boko Haram’s occurrences in North Nigeria, and the activating powers of awareness; Sahro’s power of crude language, navigating her sexuality in a homophobic environment and twenty seconds of bravery; Kayo’s writing beyond language, the lack of assimilation of immigrants and the multi-layers of selfhood.

Here, we learn that the poets are the custodians of our realities and histories. That there is a lot of ourselves in each other. That we live in many worlds; in poetry, in silences, and in each other. And the more initiatives like the Brunel International  African Poetry Prize exists, the more Africa can  speak and unspeak, occupy and unoccupy, learn and unlearn, remember and unremember, heal and heal herself.

– Gaamangwe Joy Mogami, Founding  Editor,  Africa in Dialogue

This is an important collection. I thoroughly enjoyed reading it.  The ideas contained in the interviews will live long in our minds. At Praxis, we’re happy to publish this.  Enjoy!

-Jennifer Chinenye Emelife, Praxis Lead Correspondent

Download the interviews here: Conversations with Brunel Poetry Prize Shortlist