Chekwube O. Danladi was born in Lagos, Nigeria and raised there, as well as in Washington DC and West Baltimore. A Callaloo Fellow, her writing prioritizes themes of teleological displacement, navigations and interrogations of gender and sexuality, and the necessary resilience of African and Afro-diasporic communities. She is currently working towards an MFA in Fiction at the University of Illinois in Urbana-Champaign.
Geosi Gyasi: Born in Nigeria, at what point in your life did you move to the states and why?
Chekwube O. Danladi: I moved to the states in 1997, a week after my sixth birthday. Regarding why, there’s still a bit of confusion about that on my end. I haven’t ever received a concise answer from my family members about how we ended up in the US or why, though I’ve been given some vague responses about political force being the main motivator (most Nigerians will of course remember the tyranny of the Abacha regime). I can’t say with any certainly what happened, but the impact of that mystery has been significant for me. Much of my writing lately is actually about attempting to excavate, through many mediums, these missing pieces, trying to fill in the blanks regarding my history and ancestry. That seems to be a unifying theme for many people of the African diaspora. Black people more than any other group have so many gaps to fill. I find that to be really rich emotional and literary territory.
Geosi Gyasi: Do you have any fun memories as a child growing up in Nigeria?
Chekwube O. Danladi: Fun? Well, I spent most of my Nigerian childhood in Lagos, but also Port Harcourt and Kaduna. As a result, I sometimes loss track of what happened where. Most of the fun memories evolve around food. Living in Kaduna meant eating much kilishi and suya; I remember eating aya and dodo after school in Lagos. Port Harcourt likely meant eating snails. I was a very precocious child, so most of those early memories revolve around getting into trouble. Also my mother used to let us ride okadas to school, which in hindsight might not have been best, but was certainly a lot of fun. I also have fond memories of my family, especially those who have passed since my departure. I’m always surprised by how much I remember, even after almost twenty years.
Geosi Gyasi: When did you found the love for writing?
Chekwube O. Danladi: In some ways I think its safe to say I inherited that love. Both of my parents were writers, having worked in journalism professionally in the late 1980s through the 90s. But they also wrote for pleasure; my father was a poet, and my mother wrote short fiction. As a child, I was eagerly encouraged to pursue writing as a means of expression, especially because I have always tended toward shyness and privacy. My parents both encouraged me to reflect and respond to the world around me through writing, and that is still where I turn to first in the aftermath of trauma or despair, or to process joys and celebrations. The older I get, the more I turn to writing as a source of comfort.
Geosi Gyasi: What is it about Chris Abani’s story, “Benediction’ that inspired you to write, “E tu tu”?
Chekwube O. Danladi: I first encountered that poem in his collection “Santificum,” and that piece broke me. The entire collection is just devastating in its beauty and its precision. Benediction in particular spoke to the social and emotional challenges I’ve face in trying to reconcile my desire to connect to some obscured Nigerian or indigenous African identity with my loss of language. I’m half Igbo on my father’s side, but I have never spoken or had access to the language, and while I was a Hausa speaker as a child, even that language has evaded me with time. Most of what I do with Igbo is play and exploration. “Benediction” was a piece that I encountered at the height of an existential crisis (at age 20, which now is perhaps laughable) where my intersecting gender, sexual, and racial/ethnic identities felt out of reach and intangible. I wept when I read that poem. “E tu tu” is my attempt to describe an evening spent with my auntie on a trip to Enugu some years ago, where those haunting feelings of dislocation surrounded me as ether once again.
Geosi Gyasi: What are your main concerns as a writer?
Chekwube O. Danladi: I’m concerned with exhuming and reimagining histories. I find that poetry allows for a particular intimacy that fiction, my other primary genre, does not. In my poetics, I work to unravel and reconstruct the quotidian and the spectacular into a new iteration that I am better able to understand. I think of writing poetry as a type of mastication, chewing up and regurgitating pieces so that they can be consumed differently. I’m concerned with language and babbling, with navigating liminality without romanticizing it, and with exploring queer notions of space, place, and time.
Geosi Gyasi: Are there any writers you admire?
Chekwube O. Danladi: So, so many. I frequently turn to the work of Buchi Emecheta, Bessie Head, Toni Morrison, Edwidge Danticat, Jorge Luis Borges, and Naguib Mahfouz for inspiration and instruction. Poets who inform me include Marge Piercy, Angela Jackson, Chris Abani, William Blake, Leopold Senghor, Nathaniel Mackey, and Audre Lorde. I also adore contemporary works as well, too countless to name here.
Geosi Gyasi: What motivated you to submit your work to the Brunel University African Poetry Prize?
Chekwube O. Danladi: I kind of just did it on a whim. I guess I wanted to see if anyone could find value in the work I’d produced thus far. To be honest, I was stunned to hear that I’d been shortlisted, especially given the quality of the other shortlisted and awarded poets.
Geosi Gyasi: What’s the inspiration behind your poem, ‘Qui Parle’?
Chekwube O. Danladi: I have been haunted by the deaths of those two boys since first hearing of the 2005 French riots. I was very young at the time, nearly the same age as Bouna Traore. I can’t say for sure why these remained with me, given the frequency with which Black people are killed by the state. Maybe it had something to do with sensing my own mortality, that two kids who I might easily recognize as cousin or friend were killed only to have their characters defamed by media outlets.
The killing of Black people is not new, and has a longstanding historical precedence, so I’m always a bit annoyed when people say they are surprised that this sort of thing is happening. “In this day and age?” people will say. The days where killing Black people and other people of color have been long. Recent attention has been paid to the killing of Black people in the U.S., though most of that attention has gone to boys and men. “Qui Parle” is actually part of a series of poems I have been working on to process the state sanctioned killings of many Black people, especially those who are queer, trans, or from the Global South.
Geosi Gyasi: Are you hopeful of winning the 2016 Brunel University African Poetry Prize?
Chekwube O. Danladi: I suppose I am, though I’m not expecting to. Whoever wins will surely deserve it. I’m in the company of many talented folks.
Visit the BUAPP website to read some of Chekwube O. Danladi’s poems.
Note: BUAPP stands for ‘Brunel University African Poetry Prize’
The winner of the 2016 BUAPP will be announced on May 11, 2016.