Born in exile to Ugandan refugees, Hope Wabuke is now a writer based in Southern California. Her poetry has appeared or is forthcoming in The North American Review, Kalyani Magazine, Fjords Literary Journal, Potluck Magazine, Ruminate Magazine, Salamander Journal, Literary Mama, Weave Magazine, Cease Cows, Split This Rock and Joint Literary. Her essays and criticism have been featured in the Los Angeles Review of Books, Salon, Gawker, The Root, Ms. Magazine, Los Angeles Magazine, The Feminist Wire, Ozy, The Hairpin and The Daily Beast. Hope reviews books for the Kirkus Reviews and has won fellowships from The New York Times, Voices of Our Nations Foundation (VONA), and the Barbara Deming Memorial Fund for Women Writers. She holds degrees from Northwestern University and New York University. Hope is currently the media director for the Kimbilio Center for African American Fiction. Follow her on Twitter @HopeWabuke.
Geosi Gyasi: Could we start with your poem, “Leviticus”? How did you come to write it?
Hope Wabuke: When I became pregnant with my baby boy, I began to think a lot about my personal and cultural history. I thought a lot about my parents, my grandparents–what it must have been like to be live through genocide, trying to keep your family safe. I began to remember things–some I think I had been told, some I don’t think I could possibly have known. When I talked to my mother, afterward, she said she hadn’t told them to me. Nor, of course, had my father. It was all very interesting to me, very pressing to understand. Scientists have proven that, when women are pregnant, the baby’s cells migrate into the mother’s blood, body and brain, and vice versa of course, permanently changing our bodies and psychology. So my mother’s experiences and unsaid memories were held inside me; my son’s as well. Mine inside him. It was then that I began to write the poems that form my current poetry manuscript, The Body Family, of which “Leviticus” is one. These poems explore my family’s escape from Idi Amin’s Ugandan genocide and the aftermath of healing in America. In it, I reclaim my womanhood, culture, and spirituality from a legacy of violence.
Geosi Gyasi: Did you know at the time of writing “Leviticus” that the first line would start with “At work still when the day rises”?
Hope Wabuke: I did not consciously know that, no. My father had just gotten hurt and I was trying to sort my own feelings on the page so that I could then be a better support for him. I had in my immediate mind the image of my father, hurt, and, I suppose in my mind too was the image of my father that had always been there before: at work. He was always working during my childhood and adult life up until his injury. I don’t think he has ever taken a vacation. Like many immigrants, he thought this was what he had to do to make a life in this country. And he is from a country, too, where one works every day from before sunrise until sundown on the farm. Even the ninety year old grandmas and grandpas, working. Once, I asked my grandmother what the mark of a good man was. She said: he works and supports his family. So there is that. All this, then, in my mind, and the opening of the poem became my father, working, still, as he has done since he was three years old and grew big enough to fetch and carry water from the river. Still working, even when the doctors say what he needs is only rest and care.
Geosi Gyasi: How do you often end a poem?
Hope Wabuke: The ending of the poem varies with the subject matter, which or course, is married to form. It is impossible to give a universal answer to that. But I think, like all poets, I strive for resonance, the embedding of thematic weight and meaning. If you think musically, the end of the poem is the last chord that one wants to echo out, haunting the silence.
Geosi Gyasi: Is it difficult at all to write a poem?
Hope Wabuke: It is very difficult, it is very easy. The poem is there, always, waiting to be found. The task is being silent enough to hear it, aware enough to discard the extraneous and chisel away to the essence.
Geosi Gyasi: Do you have a particular “style” or “form” in which you write?
Hope Wabuke: Generally free verse, blank verse or the ode. Sometimes prose poems or visual poetry.
Geosi Gyasi: How did you hear about the Brunel University African Poetry Prize?
Hope Wabuke: I discovered their excellent work through the prize for fiction they have. The African Book Fund is an amazing organization. They are creating awareness and support for African literature, which is vastly needed.
Geosi Gyasi: Did you expect to be on the shortlist of the 2015 Brunel University African Poetry Prize?
Hope Wabuke: When one applies to these things, one always hopes one’s work will be recognized. But there are so many talented writers doing important work out there that it is always an honor to be included in these shortlists and awards.
Geosi Gyasi: You’re the Media Director at Kimbilio Center for African American Fiction. Could you specifically share with us about the work you do at the center?
Hope Wabuke: Kimbilio is really the genius of David Haynes, the founder and Executive Director. He is extremely giving and committed to creating a community of writers of the African diaspora. I say that purposefully because the term African American, or even often does not encompass the different cultures of Africa, America, Europe, the Caribbean and South America where Black people have found ourselves. I help David with the website, PR, social media and a few other special projects.
Geosi Gyasi: Why did you choose to study creative writing at the New York University?
Hope Wabuke: I was twenty-one and very young and in love with the idea of New York City–James Baldwin, jazz, Brooklyn, the whole romance of it. I was fortunate in the support from the fellowship they gave me and from the faculty while I was there. The new director, Deborah Landau, has also now done amazing thing with the program in creating a community of writers and intellectuals. In retrospect, I think I would have been able to get more out of it if I had waited longer to mature after finishing undergraduate program before applying. But then, perhaps the business of life would have swept me away and I would not have taken the time out for an MFA in creative writing. Such an impractical, marvelous dream. I was all set to be a lawyer.
Geosi Gyasi: What is the best time to write?
Hope Wabuke: When my two year old is sleeping.
Geosi Gyasi: Could you tell us something about the fellowship you received from Junot Diaz’s Voices of Our Nations Arts Foundation?
Hope Wabuke: The experience at VONA was revelatory. I had never before had the privilege of being in a space where I was not the only black writer in the classroom, where my experience was normalized through numbers. The faculty there are so giving and intelligent. They are completely committed to the craft of writing and to nurturing writers of color.
Geosi Gyasi: How important is poetry to the world?
Hope Wabuke: With poetry, we give rise to the deepest part of ourselves–we get closest to truth, to beauty as we can in writing. There is hope for understanding, for moments of grace. It is an awareness, an awakening.
Geosi Gyasi: You were born in exile to Ugandan refugees. Do you mind telling us something about your parents?
Hope Wabuke: My parents escaped Idi Amin’s Ugandan genocide to give a better life–life itself–to my family. They are two of the strongest, most complex, most beautiful people I have known. Every day I am more grateful for them.
Geosi Gyasi: Are you happy as a writer?
Hope Wabuke: Yes. Exceedingly.
Geosi Gyasi: What are your future writing plans?
Hope Wabuke: I am revising two books of poetry. I also have a nonfiction book in my head and a finished novel in a drawer, which I need to revise. When my son is old enough to go to school, I would like to return to teaching poetry or creative nonfiction. I taught writing at NYU for seven years, and I enjoy the spark of thinking through language with students.
Geosi Gyasi: What are your expectations for the 2015 Brunel University African Poetry Prize?
Hope Wabuke: It would be lovely to win.