“Mary-Alice Daniel was born in Maiduguri, Nigeria—birthplace of Boko Haram, the terrorist group that specializes in kidnapping the girl child. She was raised in Hausaland and in England. Since adolescence, she has called these places home: Nashville, Maryland, New Haven, Brooklyn, and Detroit. She attended Yale University and was selected by U.S. Poet Laureate Louise Glück to receive the Clapp Fellowship, an award supporting a postgraduate year of poetry composition. She received her MFA in Poetry from the University of Michigan as a Rackham Merit Fellow. Her poems have received three Pushcart Prize nominations and have appeared in American Poetry Review, New England Review, Black Warrior Review, Hayden’s Ferry Review, Callaloo, and several anthologies. Her adopted home is Los Angeles, where she is completing her first full-length poetry manuscript and earning a PhD in Creative Writing and English Literature as an Annenberg Fellow at the University of Southern California.”
Geosi Gyasi: You were born in Maiduguri, Nigeria, the birthplace of Boko Haram. Could you tell me about the people and culture of Maiduguri?
Mary-Alice Daniel: I was only born in Maiduguri because both my parents were lecturers at the University of Maiduguri at the time. The rest of my extended family (grandparents, aunts, uncles, and over 30 cousins) is scattered around Sokoto State, in the Northwestern part of Nigeria. I’m from the Hausa tribe and when I return to Nigeria, it’s to that part of Hausaland.
Geosi Gyasi: What actually took you to England?
Mary-Alice Daniel: My immediate family (my mother, father, brother, and sister and I) moved to England when I was young—my father attended medical school and my mother began and completed her doctorate. I grew up in Reading, a large town an hour’s train ride to the west of London.
Geosi Gyasi: I am curious to know if your poem, ‘Blessings’ was written from a real life story?
Mary-Alice Daniel: Yes, my uncle passed from AIDS after contracting HIV during a dental procedure. What I remember most about his illness was how my father struggled to send him the medications he needed, since he had difficulty obtaining them in Nigeria.
Geosi Gyasi: At what stage in your life did you regard yourself as a poet/writer?
Mary-Alice Daniel: My American adolescence began during a Tennessee heatwave, after many years in chilly England. Hungry to make a home in Nashville, we laid ourselves bare to our new element. Soon, however, discordance crept into our lives. Sometimes we found the neighbors unwelcoming. Sometimes we were called slurs. It’s not that my family had never experienced racism before; I had simply been too young to notice race as an ostracizing feature. During my time in Southern suburbia, I was made to notice.
The effects of this were not entirely negative; my consciousness of racial identity strengthened my sense of self—a self that began navigating life through written expression. Writing helped me work through personal questions: the peculiarity of my name. My ever-changing accent. The way my family left a long, traceable history in Nigeria where everyone was like us to became the “other.”
Geosi Gyasi: Could you specifically explain why Los Angeles is your adopted home?
Mary-Alice Daniel: I moved to California because I decided it’s impossible to understand America without spending time Out West. Answering the question “Where are you from?” has always resulted in a time-consuming explanation, because I’ve never settled anywhere for too long. (After Nigeria, England, and Tennessee, I also lived in Maryland, Connecticut, New York City, and Detroit.) L.A. is starting to feel like a home I’m making for myself, even though I’m isolated from my immediate family (only the five of us are in the US, and they all live on the East Coast). So far, it’s the only place I can return to after extended travel and not feel a hint of disappointment or reverse culture shock.
This city instigates poems attempting to distill its essence and ethos. People have so many misconceptions about L.A.—that it’s a cultural wasteland—and about Angelenos—that they’re vapid, superficial, and vain—but I haven’t found these stereotypes to be true. I love the perfect weather (I’m a creature of sunshine), the diversity, the vibrant literary community, and the endless cultural opportunities. I plan to throw a huge party after I’ve lived here for 10 years, the point at which I think I can officially call myself an Angeleno.
Geosi Gyasi: Did you have a hard time selecting ten of your best poems for the 2016 Brunel University African Poetry Prize?
Mary-Alice Daniel: In this particular case, I struggled with submitting what I thought were my best poems versus submitting the poems that most strongly related to my African identity and background. I ultimately chose a representative mix, trusting the judges with some of my more experimental work. The physical and mythical landscapes of (im)migration compel me to write, but I resist letting my exploration of identity pigeonhole me as a “Black Female Poet.” I labor to create a broadly resonant body of work, then carve a space for it amongst my many inherited literary traditions.
Geosi Gyasi: How did you hear about the prize? Did you expect to be on the shortlist?
Mary-Alice Daniel: It’s something that’s been on my radar since it began a few years ago. I’ve followed the successes of winners like Safia Elhillo and Warsan Shire, and I’m a fan of their work. In the short time it’s been around, it’s become a huge deal, so I wasn’t expecting to be selected. You can’t ever really expect gifts like this.
Geosi Gyasi: How would you describe your style of writing?
Mary-Alice Daniel: A concoction of 33 houses, 3 continents, 3 religions, and 4 languages makes me the writer I am. My identities—writer, American, African, American writer, African writer—encompass my past. Grappling with this complicated origin story underpins my work. My writing probes the friction created by conflicting cultural ideas at work in my history as they rub against each other:
Islam against Christianity against magic; modernity against tradition;
sacrilege against the sacred; superstition against science;
ghosts against machines; phantasmagoria against academia;
the mystical against the mundane.
As I investigate my strange place in the world, my poetry naturally engages the peculiar. In particular, I explore uncanny themes. The term “uncanny” derives from the German unheimliche—heimliche meaning “homelike” or “native.” The uncanny is the familiar—the home—taking on disturbing, unsettling qualities. The uncanny landscape is marked by superstition and the supernatural. Its inhabitants are ghosts, doppelgangers, eerily humanlike figurines. In my entanglement with the uncanny, I question: What can be familiar to someone of many homes and no home, a true native of nowhere, a foreigner even in the motherland, an inheritor of incongruence, and a descendent of discordant cultures?
Geosi Gyasi: What are your influences?
Mary-Alice Daniel: My poetry is the product of Islamic, Christian, and magical influences. I was raised a Christian, because my grandfather was the only successful convert of missionaries proselytizing in his village, which is buried in the Islamic stronghold of Northern Nigeria. My grandmother defied conversion, holding fast to animistic traditions.
Some of my favorite poets are Nazim Hikmet, Harryette Mullen, Charles Wright, Aimé Césaire, and Anne Carson. A significant literary influence on me is Nana Asma’u (1793–1864), a Hausa poet who was also a political figure and an early advocate for women’s rights. Many prominent Nigerian authors—Chinua Achebe, Wole Soyinka, Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie—hail from its South; my Northern birthplace glaringly lacks representation. Using poems as vehicles for linguistic exchange, I hope to pull the unheard stories I know into our American narrative.
Geosi Gyasi: Do you regard the English language as the best medium to write in?
Mary-Alice Daniel: Because I write in English, a language I had some difficulty learning, I have explored both the limitations of language as well as its remarkable function as a conduit across cultures. English is a language widely understood across the African diaspora, and I mean to create a body of work that lives as a conversation between American and African traditions. For a few years, Northern Nigeria has been too volatile to visit, so I recently engaged the West African diaspora by traveling to Ghana, birthplace of the Pan-African movement. I immersed myself in the literary community of Accra, writing about culture clashes and foreign exchanges: of people and ideas. I descended into the dungeons of slave castles lining the coast and emerged, devastated. I wrote about these journeys—digressions, discursions, descents and ascents. All this purposeful wandering reinforces my ambition: to manifest something new and substantial out of my personal cultural maelstrom.
I also work with translation. To conclude an ongoing oral history project, I’m currently researching and plan to publish a comprehensive mythology of my tribe: the Hausas of Northern Nigeria. Alarmingly, our extraordinarily rich folklore, is at constant risk of being suppressed—or simply forgotten. I will transcribe interviews I previously recorded after giving a wide range of people the simple prompt: “Tell me a story.” The collection will include my translations of traditional and contemporary poetry written in the Hausa language, my native tongue. Together, these myths and translations showcase the trajectory of my tribal literature. This resource will be a boon to myself and other Nigerian-American writers as we look to our canon to inspire globally relevant art.
Geosi Gyasi: Would you be surprise if you win the 2016 Brunel University African Poetry Prize?
Mary-Alice Daniel: I would be honored and ecstatic. And, yes—I would absolutely be surprised.
Visit the BUAPP website to read some of Mary-Alice Daniel’s poems.
Note: BUAPP stands for ‘Brunel University African Poetry Prize’
The winner of the 2016 BUAPP will be announced on May 11, 2016.