Interview with 2017 Brunel International African Poetry Prize Shortlisted Poet, Yalie Kamara

Yalie-KamaraBrief Biography:

Yalie Kamara is a first generation Sierra Leonean-American woman and native of Oakland, California. Prior to becoming an MFA candidate at Indiana University, she worked in the field of social justice specializing in educational access and arts facilitation. She holds Bachelors of Arts degrees in Languages and Creative Writing from University of California, Riverside and a Masters of Arts degree in French from Middlebury College. Yalie’s writing has appeared in Vinyl Poetry and ProseEntropy Mag, and Amazon: Day One. She is a 2017 National Book Critics Circle Emerging Critics Fellow. Her forthcoming chapbook, When The Living Sing, will be published by LedgeMule Press in Spring, 2017.

Geosi Gyasi: I am often confused when writers are associated with two or more nationalities, like in your case, Sierra Leonean-American. My question is, where do you actually belong?

Yalie Kamara: That’s a really, good question, and I hope my response isn’t even more confusing. I think that sometimes when you’re born in one country and your parents use the values of another (their homeland) to govern their home life and shape their social and political ideologies, etc., you turn out one of three ways: either you completely reject your parents’ culture and viewpoints, you completely absorb your parents’ culture and viewpoints, or you’re just kind of stunned by all of the contradictory cultural messages between home life and school, that you grasp a handful of each culture. I am from the latter category. I think the children of immigrants fall into whatever category fits their disposition at the time and I think it can be a fluid identity, as well.

I don’t think that I am American enough in America, and in Sierra Leone, I would not be considered Sierra Leonean enough. I think that’s even clear in speech—there are idiomatic expressions and words that I don’t know in either English or Krio. There are gaps in both my American and Sierra Leonean cultural knowledge. I don’t see it as a deficit; I find it more charming than embarrassing. I love what I know and I love that I have familiarity with more than one place. But if I could cite the hyphen as a nationality, I honestly would. Being a first-generation American means that I inhabit the most citizenship in liminality. I find comfort and home in that space, and for that reason, I resist privileging one nationality over another.

Geosi Gyasi: When did you first consider yourself as a writer/poet?

Yalie Kamara: I remember thinking that I was a poet near the end of high school when I was participating in writing workshops on a pretty regular basis and competing in national poetry slams. For about a decade after that, I did a lot of writing but didn’t really embrace the possibility of becoming a writer. While I enjoyed writing, I (kind of) tried to fulfill my family’s dreams of either becoming a doctor, lawyer, or engineer. I didn’t really do anything with as much joy as I did writing, but I had a real reticence and hesitation around identifying as a poet/writer.

I started really calling myself a writer about maybe two years ago? I think it was at the point where I could fully articulate with words the tingling/ecstatic/painful sensations that I experience when I encounter art that moves or troubles me. But I guess I never had a choice in the matter when I really think about it. My name Yalie is derived from Jelimuso, a term for the caste of West African female storytellers. Jele is also a Mende word for “blood,” which evokes notions of lineage and keeping stories and culture alive.

Geosi Gyasi: It’s quite interesting knowing the meaning of your name, Yalie. Have you ever asked your parents about why they gave you that name?

Yalie Kamara: I have inquired many times about why they named me the way in which they did, and from what I gather, it wasn’t intentional. I think they were more concerned with the music of my first, middle, and last names than with their meanings. I think it’s still a really generous way to name a child and I’m pretty pleased with the end result!

Geosi Gyasi: You seem to write so proficiently in English that I so much admire. But you speak both English and French. Do you write in French as well? 

Yalie Kamara: Thank you! English is the language that I have “lived” the most “life” in, in terms of my upbringing, educational background, and artistic practice. Though I would like to one day produce poetry and prose in French, at this point, my relationship with French exists in the context of conversation, reading, and literary translation as a result of studying the language since I was 13 and spending some years living in France.

Geosi Gyasi: I am often confused when writers are associated with two or more nationalities, like in your case, Sierra Leonean-American. My question is, where do you actually belong?

Yalie Kamara: …But if I could cite the hyphen as a nationality, I honestly would. Being a first-generation American means that I inhabit the most citizenship in liminality. I find comfort and home in that space, and for that reason, I resist privileging one nationality over another.

Geosi Gyasi: With your poem, “Mother’s Rules”, is it really a true image about your real mother’s rules? I was interested in this line: “IV. Your Krio is offensive. When you speak, you sound like Shabba Ranks. Your accent is funny, but keep practicing. It is the only way we will be able to gossip in peace while at the supermarket.” My question is, as someone who identifies with Sierra Leone, did you speak Krio growing up and/or do you speak the Krio language?

Yalie Kamara: I read my mother this question and she got a kick out of the first part! Whenever I share this poem, I usually preface it by saying that even though my mother is usually “right,” about many things, I never tell her. This poem is the moment that I get to show her that I’ve been listening very closely to the things that she’s been saying around me for the last few decades. “Mother’s Rules” is based on 100% of the things that I’ve heard her say—this isn’t the least bit speculative! She’s got a really interesting outlook on life that is as hopeful as it is heartbreaking and as humorous as it is biting.

Krio was my first language; I only learned to speak English when I started going to school. My spoken Krio is proficient, however my listening and reading skills are fluent. Writing is tricky, because as far as I understand it, the language is rooted in orality. My mother only ever speaks to me in Krio and these days, and though I don’t speak it day to day, I have daily exposure to it. These days though, I’m feeling a bit more confident about responding back to my mother in Krio. It could be that I don’t feel as bad about making grammatical mistakes.

Geosi Gyasi: Tell me what readers should expect from your forthcoming chapbook, “When The Living Sing” (Ledge Mule Press in Spring, 2017)?

Yalie Kamara: Thanks for asking! Some of the chapbook’s contents will include some of my poems that are featured on the Brunel International African Poetry Prize website. The chapbook is an exploration of themes of first generation-American identity, Blackness, womanhood, spirituality and how those subjects interact with loss, the imagination, and freedom. I imagine every poem translating into a song as well, which is part of what the title is referencing —you’d have to read the book to get the other half of the reference!

Geosi Gyasi: Which writer/poet inspires you most?

Yalie Kamara: My mother is my favorite poet because of her command of Krio; it’s pitch perfect. It is a goal of mine, if even an asymptotic endeavor, to be able to ply and manipulate English in the ways that she can in Krio. I think of each piece of writing as an attempt. In addition to her, there are many writers that really make me feel. Here are some: Chris Abani, Gwendolyn Brooks, Tiana Clark, Lucille Clifton, Mos Def, Eduardo Galeano, Aracelis Girmay, Kiese Laymon, Toni Morrison, Joyce Carol Oates, Morton Marcus, ZZ Packer, Ishle Yi Park, Morgan Parker, and Evie Shockley, just to name a few. I think each of these writers strikes a really stunning balance between imagery, lyricism, honesty, and narrative pacing that makes their writing so striking.

Geosi Gyasi: Just be so honest with me; who do you think should win this year’s Brunel International African Poetry Prize?

Yalie Kamara: Tricky question, Mr. Gyasi! But here’s what I do know: I am really excited to be on a shortlist with these particular poets because of the sheer talent and brilliance represented. There are so many rich, beautiful, and unique narratives that are shared with such elegance, grace, and breathtaking honesty. Though I think there are many individual winners in this group, I am also enjoying this moment. It’s clear that we all possess remarkable variation in the art that we create, however there is also such magnificence in watching us collectively right now. We shine really well together.

Geosi Gyasi: Indeed, I’m also impressed about the sheer talent with this year’s Brunel International African Poetry Prize shortlist however, there would be only one winner. Who should that winner be? Would it be you?

 Yalie Kamara: First and foremost, I am extremely honored to be on a short list with such luminaries whose careers I am looking forward to following. With that said, I’m confident in my art and the ways in which my writing renders my cultural experiences as a Sierra Leonean-American woman, who inhabits a plethora of identities. I honor God and my humility and I leave it in the judges’ hands to make the decision that best fits the spirit of the Brunel International African Poetry Prize. There are a lot of strong writers to choose from—judging this competition seems both a lovely and laborious task!


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