Interview with 2016 Caine Prize Shortlisted Writer, Lidudumalingani

July 2, 2016
Photo: Lidudumalingani

Photo: Lidudumalingani

Brief Biography:

Lidudumalingani (South Africa) is a writer, filmmaker and photographer. He was born in the Eastern Cape province of South Africa, in a village called Zikhovane. Lidudumalingani has published short stories, non-fiction and criticism in various publications. His films have been screened at various film festivals.

Geosi Gyasi: You are a writer, filmmaker and photographer. Which of these can we most identify you with?

 Lidudumalingani: Writing. Photography too is a form of writing; writing with light, both in its technical understanding of how the light enters the camera and exposes the film and my own obsession with where the light is sitting on an image and what it illuminates and hides in that image.

Geosi Gyasi: How does being a photographer affect your work as a writer?

Lidudumalingani: I am not sure if it does. My approach to both is similar and it is that of a pensive eye, attempting to capture every detail in the frame in a photograph and two, when I am working with words, I write sentences that give the reader enough to evoke images.

Geosi Gyasi: You come from the village of Zikhovane in the Transkei and grew up herding cattle. I am keenly interested in this story. How did you end up as a writer?

Lidudumalingani: Growing up I never had any ambitions to be a writer, largely because I did not know that one can be, even as I read books in school, it never occurred to me that I could be one. I continued to read as the stories were interesting and every now and then I would come across a book that I could relate to. It was much later, leaving high school and going to varsity, when my reading became serious that I began to come to the understanding that the text I was reading was written by a writer. And so I came not to know but to adore writers like Chinua Achebe, Bessie Head, Mariama Bâ, Ngugi Wa Thiongo, Lewis Nkosi, M. Lamati, JJ Jolobe etc. It is a strange thing but I knew nothing about writers and did not care for them, much like it is the case with film directors or music producers, people love the films and music but they rarely know the people behind it, only the celebrities. In the case of the novel, the story was the thing I obsessed about and I think for some people that is still the case, people remember the story and this, in retrospect, is not a bad thing. It was via reading that I took to writing like whales took to water when they evolved from two legged forest creatures 55 million years ago, gradually, and began to slowly become a writer, like they did, shedding legs to become sea creatures. Poetry was my first love, to a large extent, even after everything we have been through, the contempt, the infidelity, the disconnect, poetry is still my love, and the way it seeps into my writing, the feeling is mutual. And now we are here.

Geosi Gyasi: What specifically took you to Cape Town?

Lidudumalingani: The birth of Ubuntu, my son, and nothing about the city itself. This is how people often move around the world, out of necessity, and the lucky, out of pleasure.

Geosi Gyasi: Did you know that you would be on the shortlist of the 2016 Caine Prize for African Writing?

Lidudumalingani: Not at all. I do not think about such things when I am writing, the writing itself is already too much to think about.

Geosi Gyasi: Seeing your story, “Memories We Lost” on this year’s shortlist, do you feel satisfied for the purpose for which you wrote the story?

Lidudumalingani: I only wrote the story because I had carried it for a long while and during this time, it had haunted me. Anything that has happened to it since releasing it to the world, relinquishing control over it, has been out of my control and I am not bothered by it, this is the path art takes and has always taken, it travels, charms hearts or makes enemies. I was satisfied, even relieved, when I stopped writing, everything that has happened since has left me in perpetual bliss.

Geosi Gyasi: Is it true that your story was written out of your own family experiences?

Lidudumalingani: Ah, the infamous autobiographical bandit strikes again. Not true, not even close to being true. There are certainly familiar stories about mental health that I know and were on the back of my head when writing the short story but none of the details in it are from family experiences, only vaguely drawn from familiar cases. This is the case with every fiction work, I would argue, the writer creates much of it but most of it has always existed in people we know.

Geosi Gyasi: Did you have to research anything about “Schizophrenia” before you set out to write the story?

Lidudumalingani: When I was in film school, many years ago now, I began working on a script about Schizophrenia, in which the two characters, the only ones in the film, were in consultation, one the doctor and the other the patient, and the trick was that it was not clear who was schizophrenic. Anyhow, I remembered the research I did for that but not all of it and the details I could not remember were good enough to offer the writing space in which to create.

Geosi Gyasi: How do you arrive by character names like Smellyfoot, Nkunzi, and so forth?

Lidudumalingani: I think the narrative names the characters in the story. I do not ever insist on the names and it has never been a difficult process. Even if I personally think the names are not great, the names always stay because they fit the narrative.

Geosi Gyasi: In this 21st century, I would be shocked to know that things like “baking” as a form of healing exist as portrayed in your story. Does it?

Lidudumalingani: I remember reading about it in a newspaper some years ago and I remember the shock at the images of burnt bodies that accompanied the reporting but also I remember, once the shock subsided, understanding the parents’ decision to put their kids through it, it is the need to heal them, not hurt them. I cannot say with certainty that it is happening now but if it is, this is not shocking, for me at least, this world is capable of worst things, we are not as civilised as we think we are. It is also worth considering that it is someone else’s way of living and easily dismiss it as a barbaric act.

Geosi Gyasi: Did you intend to end the story the way you did: I am actually wondering what must have happened to the narrator and her sister after they woke up from their sleep and after the sun was up and what actually happened to her sister?

Lidudumalingani: Two things happened, submission deadline was nearing and the story, on multiple times, had tried to take, not only sleep from me, but my happiness, and so first I had to finish it to get sufficient editing time and to return to some form of sanity, so the story, like Famished Road, did not end, I stopped writing. I have since thought about where it could have gone if I had not stopped writing and the possibilities are endless but I am not sure if I want to continue writing.

END.


Interview with 2016 Caine Prize Shortlisted Writer, Bongani Kona

July 2, 2016
Photo: Bongani Kona

Photo: Bongani Kona

Brief Biography:

Bongani Kona (Zimbabwe) is a freelance writer and contributing editor of Chimurenga. His writing has appeared in Mail & Guardian, Rolling Stone (South Africa), Sunday Times and other publications and websites. He is also enrolled as a Masters student in the Creative Writing department at the University of Cape Town.

Geosi Gyasi: Do you have any past experience with writing contests?

Bongani Kona: Firstly, thank you so much the interview. I wrote ‘At your Requiem’ for a South African short story competition and when I was working on it the most important thing in my head was just to finish the story. I didn’t care so much for the outcome. It was really a learning experience for me because I had done some journalism in the past but I had never written fiction. And that’s been my only experience with writing competitions.

Geosi Gyasi: Tell me the kind of work you do as a freelance writer?

Bongani Kona: All sorts of things. I’ve written profiles, reviews, essays, interviews and some long form journalism.

Geosi Gyasi: Where were you when the news reached you that you’ve been shortlisted for the 2016 Caine Prize for African Writing?

Bongani Kona: It was late afternoon on a Friday and I was on my way to a book shop in Cape Town which I go to quite regularly. The news really took me by surprise because I had no idea the publishers had entered the story and even if they had let me know, I wouldn’t have bet on making the shortlist.

Geosi Gyasi: What do you make of the other writers on the shortlist?

Bongani Kona: I think it’s an incredible shortlist and I really feel honoured that my story was chosen as one of the five.

Geosi Gyasi: What were the technical details you considered in writing “At your Requiem”?

Bongani Kona: The most important thing for me was just to finish the story. I say that because like a lot of beginning writers, I don’t have a lot of confidence, and it’s quite easy to abandon things midway. Sometimes even after a couple of paragraphs. So getting to the end was important for me. It was important to me not to give up on myself and just keep going. The other thing I had to consider was how to move forward because the story begins at the end.

Geosi Gyasi: What was the most challenging aspect in writing “At your Requiem”?

Bongani Kona: The sexual scene that’s in the story was really difficult to be honest. Although the story began as a purely intellectual exercise I started to feel really deeply about the characters – Abraham and Christopher – and that scene was really hard emotionally.

Geosi Gyasi: Did you intentionally set out to write about a brother’s death in “At your Requiem”? In other sense, why ‘death’?

Bongani Kona: The spark for the story was a poem I read with the same title. I don’t remember the poet’s name but like the story it begins at a requiem and it’s actually a conversation between a woman and her late father. So I wanted to do something similar and I had these two brothers in mind.

Geosi Gyasi: What do you personally think of your chances of winning the 2016 Caine Prize for African Writing?

Bongani Kona: To be honest, none of that stuff really matters. The thing I’m thankful for is that it’s given me the encouragement to keep trying. I think the thing most aspiring writers need is encouragement and criticism that will build you.

Geosi Gyasi: What inspired you to study creative writing at the University of Cape Town (UCT)? How has studying creative writing helped you to become a better writer?

Bongani Kona: It was something I really wanted to do. I’ve always admired the work that’s come out of the creative writing department at UCT and thing I’m grateful for is that it’s given me a space to experiment and a community of like-minded individuals.

END.


Interview with American Writer, Carine Topal

June 6, 2016
Photo: Carine Topal

Photo: Carine Topal

Biography:

Carine, a transplanted New Yorker, lives in the Southern California desert. Her work has appeared in numerous journals throughout the U.S. and Canada such as The Best of the Prose Poem, Scrivener Creative Review, Caliban, Greensboro Review, and many others.  She was nominated for a Pushcart Prize in 2004, was awarded residency at Hedgebrook, and a fellowship to study in St. Petersburg, Russia in 2005. She won the 2007 Robert G. Cohn Prose Poetry Award from California Arts and Letters, from which a special edition chapbook, “Bed of Want,” was published. Her 3rd collection of poetry, “In the Heaven of Never Before,” was published in December, 2008, by Moon Tide Press.  In the same year she was honored with the Excellence in Arts Award from the City of Torrance, California. In 2014 Carine won the Briar Cliff Review Poetry Contest and her new chapbook, Tattooed, won 1st prize in the Palettes and Quills 4th Biennial Chapbook Contest. Tattooed is forthcoming in Summer 2015. She teaches poetry and memoir in the Palm Springs and Los Angeles areas.

Geosi Gyasi: Do you remember your earliest writing as a child?

Carine Topal: My parents never saved any of my writing. There may not have been anything to save! I was more interested in the visual arts, in particular, photography. My mother was an artist. I didn’t start writing seriously until I was 15 years old.

Geosi Gyasi: Were there any signs as a child that you would one day grow to be a writer?

Carine Topal: Really no signs that writing was in my future. There were, however, indications that I’d be some sort of artist-in-angst! I always wanted to be a photo-journalist. Travel, shoot, and write.

Geosi Gyasi: How does it actually feel to be a writer?

Carine Topal: I don’t know what it’s like to feel other than a writer. I am proud of the art, of its power to heal, to resolve what the conscious mind is often incapable of resolving; I am always stirred at how poetry moves people in unexpected ways.

Geosi Gyasi: Do you have any regret becoming a writer?

Carine Topal: I earned an MA at New York University in the 70’s. My one regret is that I didn’t study at in the writing program with Galway Kinnell and Sharon Olds. At the time I went for my MA, I didn’t know that I could possibly make a living from writing/teaching poetry

Geosi Gyasi: Born and raised in New York City, do you think the city has changed in any particular way now?

 Carine Topal: Actually, the city has changed in many positive ways. When I lived in the city, many areas of Manhattan were dangerous, filthy, untended to. The city is safe now, gentrified in places I’d never go to at night or during the daylight hours. There was a raw quality, however, that was grand and bohemian, and full of abandon; a quiet riot in the West Village, where I lived, but the nervousness was subterranean. Now that is gone or hard to find. But I do love the changes that make the city pedestrian-friendly, and the unexpected discoveries like the High Line that gentrified so many parts of the city. Of course, I could not afford to live in Manhattan anymore, and I’m not certain that I would choose to if I were a rich poet. (Is there such a person?)

Geosi Gyasi: Are there enough writers coming out of New York City?

Carine Topal: NYC has hosts an abundance of fabulous writers. Dave Eggers is one. He founded a poetry project in Brooklyn; there are poets, screen writers and novelists. Such as Eileen Myles and novelist T. Cooper. NYU has an extraordinary writing program with Sharon Olds at the helm. Sonia Sanchez, a veteran writer, is the quintessential New Yorican voice; the writers coming out of the New York Writers Workshop: Jacqueline Bishop, June Clark, Gail Eisenberg, and Doug Carr; and the New School writers, who are staples in the community and beyond. I studied with Colette Inez when the New School was not credited and called itself The New School of Social Research. Then there’s the NYC Poetry Festival, The Poetry Brothel, The Typewriter Project and The Poetry Society of NY which bring so many talented writers together from acound the boroughs.

Geosi Gyasi: Do you belong to any group of writers?

Carine Topal: I have been part of a group that meets monthly. Dorothy Barresi, a professor from Cal State Northridge, leads the workshop The group members are smart, accomplished poets. I’ve been a part of this group for several years. My thought about writing groups is that no matter how accomplished, how well-published, there is always a need for a second or third opinion; a need for forward movement in your craft. I get that inertia from the members of this group.

Geosi Gyasi: You have lived in Jerusalem, Israel, where you worked with Palestinian merchants. What actually took you to Israel?

Carine Topal: A lone survivor of the holocaust, my mother’s cousin, whom I call my Auntie, sailed on a ship in 1945 from somewhere in Italy to Haifa, Israel. She settled in Rechovot where she married and had two children. I visited twice a year for many years. I was close to the family and felt a part of the nation of Israel. I’m not a religious person, but I’m proud of my heritage. I traveled throughout the country and fell in love with the culture, which is not so much Jewish as it is Middle Eastern and Mediterranean. After graduating college, I announced to my parents that I would be moving, forever, to Israel. Upon saying good-bye to my father, he slipped me a $50.00 and said “Here, spend this on the Palestinian children.” I will never forget that. And so I did. I worked in the Palestinian souk (market) and lived in the Israeli world.

Geosi Gyasi: Could you briefly describe Bethlehem and West Bank where you worked and lived?

 Carine Topal: Off-white buildings spotting the Mount of Olives. Jerusalem stone, as it’s called. Everything built from stone the color of sand. I remember the Palestinian workers breaking stones by hand; I remember the souks, the open markets, where lambs’ heads hung like hideous piñatas over make-shift racks. I remember the figs and dates and spices laid out like gemstones on a wooden table. I remember the photo I took of an 8 year old boy sitting beside his grandfather, wearing a Muslim cap and a long gown, behind them piles of watermelon for sale. I recall thinking that the grandfather’s head looked like the watermelon. I told him so, and it was translated into Arabic. The old man laughed a toothless laugh and shook my hand. Once I heard a bomb blast while I was dancing in a bar in Jerusalem. It came from Bethlehem, a few miles away. No one in the crowd looked startled.

I often visited homes in the West Bank with my boss/friend Omar Imam. He bought museum quality dresses from women in the villages. I went to their homes: clean, dirt swept floors covered here and there with colorful carpets. We sat on the floor, crossed our legs and drank tea with mint which was poured from 3 feet up, so it flowed like an amber waterfall. We were offered dates and goat’s milk. It was unkind and rude to turn anything away. You ate what was offered. I heard baa-ing from upstairs where the goats were being milked, and moments later, a small girl appeared down the stone stairs and brought me warm milk. I remember the people being kind, working hard, always trying to work a good bargain. They were proud but I knew they had been oppressed and stateless people for so many years. Working in the Old City in Jerusalem many years ago instilled in me a sympathy with the Palestinian people of that day. Of course, things are so different today, but I still believe in an autonomous Palestine. A two-state solution.

Geosi Gyasi: In your view, how would you describe New York City as against West Bank or Bethlehem?

Carine Topal: I can only compare them by saying that there are lots of Jews and lots of Arabs in all three places!

Geosi Gyasi: Do you have any affinity for children with special needs?

Carine Topal: I earned a degree to teach severely emotionally disturbed children. For more than 20 years it was magic. I did write poetry with these children, those who could speak, and all through the years I anthologized their poems which were published by different school districts. So, actually, I reconsider my previous answer about regret and writing: I would not undo my career choice. Working with special needs children changed my world. And I put poetry into theirs.

Geosi Gyasi: Your first poetry collection, “God As Thief” was published in 1994 by The Amagansett Press. How long did it roughly take you to put the collection together?

Carine Topal: I wrote “God As Thief” over a period of 7 years. It was my first book. I look at it now as a reminder of how poetry saved me from a very deep sadness which paralyzed me. I was very proud to offer my parents this book as a way to communicate to them what was too difficult to say.

Geosi Gyasi: Why the title, “God As Thief”?

Carine Topal: We were 3 children in my family, including myself. My brother Russell, and his wife, just gave birth to a baby girl. Russell had a very rare form of cancer that even today could not be cured. He was 35 when he died, two weeks before his daughter was a year old. We were close in age, and close. He was a funny, loved, generous man. His friends called him Buddha. Six years later, just after giving birth to my son, Russell, my oldest brother, Brian, who suffered from diabetes for years, died at the age of 44. He married late in life, adopted two daughters, lost the use of a kidney, lost vision in one eye, and his body shut down on Labor Day. For many years, even after writing all these poems, poems that I still write today, that whoever god was, wherever god was, god stole the essence of living from my parents as well as my brothers. I carried this sadness and anger for many years. It followed me and I pulled it along like a little red wagon.

Geosi Gyasi: What do you regard as your best poem in “God As Thief”?

Carine Topal: My best poems are not necessarily my favorite poems. My favorite poems are like my children who remind me of something important; something I didn’t know I knew. One such poem is “Mr. Fisher Feeds the Boarder Babies in Harlem.” I wrote this after reading a Life Magazine article about an elderly man from Harlem, who, every day, would volunteer to care for those infants who suffered the effects of drug withdrawal. He himself was physically challenged, but living alone he felt the need to be close to young lives. Hopefulness is what I found in this poem. Charity. Compassion and patience. I learned a great deal after I wrote this poem, and even more when I read it aloud at a performance.

Another favorite poem in the book is “The Netting,” which I wrote for my brother’s daughter, Michelle. This poem was a gift to my niece. The poem helped me connect to my niece and connected her to her father. It was a love poem to my brother and for his daughter.

Available on Amazon

Available on Amazon

Geosi Gyasi: Do you have any found memories about your participation in the 2005 Hedgebrook residency?

Carine Topal: Memories of those weeks in spring, on Whidbey Island are vivid. What I loved was the convergence of what I was writing ((letters from Emily Dickinson) with the surroundings of sweet peas, pine trees, freshly grown vegetables that were picked for the meals. I collected flowers each day and brought them to my cottage, a craftsman cottage, one of 6 built to house the writers. I remember the meals we ate together and the long writing days of silence and concentration. One early morning, I sat at the window seat, looking out at the forest. A deer was nibbling on something a few feet away from me. We stared at one another for what seemed to be long minutes. I blinked first to get my camera and the doe ran off. This city girl had a country moment. Hedgebrook was a glorious experience. The women were writers from all over the U.S., diverse and talented. I wrote every day and left with a feeling of great satisfaction.

Geosi Gyasi: How different is your book, “In the Heaven of Never Before” from “God As Thief”?

Carine Topal: “God As Thief” was written out of a terrible, but necessary drive to relive my brothers’ lives somehow. The writing of the poems threw me into a protracted sadness that lasted beyond the publication of the book. “In the Heaven of Never Before” incorporates poems about the loss of both parents, reflections on what it means to be an orphan, a mother, a woman without the brothers she loved. But it does not have the sadness of “God As Thief.” “In the Heaven” also speaks to the immigrant shadow cast over me via the lives of my parents. All the untraceable history of our people. It is a larger book in scope. A more mature view of the world.

Geosi Gyasi: What inspired you to send your then manuscript of “In the Heaven of Never Before” to the Moon Tide Press?

Carine Topal: I had faith in the poems from “In the Heaven,” and after a reading performance at Orange Coast College, I introduced myself to a publisher. I figured I could sell my wares as good as anyone else, so I approached Michael Miller, the poet and publisher of Moon Tide Press, who was in the audience and liked what he heard. He asked me to send him the entire manuscript, which I did. Soon after, he responded that he’d be honored to publish it. Working with Michael and his editors was easy, rewarding, and a good learning experience. Michael was patient, had a good sense of how the poems flowed, and had a good critical eye.

Geosi Gyasi: Besides writing, do you do any other work?

Carine Topal: I’m an amateur photographer, preferring black and white to color. I also play classical piano. For 5 years I played the cello, but my teacher passed away a few years ago; my heart was broken, and I never played the cello again. I’m sure Sevan Pegosyan, my teacher, is an unhappy fellow, banging on the harp “upstairs,” trying to get my attention. Pick up the cello and practice! The cello was work but I adored the instrument.

I was brought up listening to all the classical composers, to Broadway music, to Russian folksongs. My mother played the piano and the accordion. My father played the violin. I don’t know if you consider playing musical instruments work, but often times it can be.

I have been teaching a weekly poetry and memoir workshops in the South Bay for more than 20 years. My group of poets have been together for 10 years. Unfortunately, since I’ve moved to the desert, I can only manage a monthly workshop, but I look forward to working with this talented group of poets. I also teach occasional workshops in the Palm Springs area. I miss the regular teaching experience and I’m hoping to start a weekly workshop in the desert.

Geosi Gyasi: Do you even regard writing as work?

Carine Topal: Yes. It is work and it is painful and playful and gruesome and intimidating. But it is necessary. Life blood! I would not have it out of my life. It is who I am. It is what I want to do and have to do. Yes, writing is a job. You must show up!

Geosi Gyasi: Could you briefly describe your new book, “Tattooed” and explain why readers should look for it?

Carine Topal: Because 1/3 of the population surveyed believe that the Holocaust is a myth. Because the perpetrators, some still alive, are responsible and accountable for their sins. Because there are countries who still turn away, as they did 70 years ago, and do not support the capturing of those who killed systematically. Because people must speak out for those who can no longer tell their story. This is not only a “Jewish” story. The Holocaust is a lesson for humanity: do not turn away from what is unjust. Be a witness, bear witness to a social and moral injustice. And never think that it cannot happen again.

Geosi Gyasi: In your view, why do you think the Holocaust occurred?

Carine Topal: Propaganda, ignorance, dehumanization, and the willingness to blindly follow a charismatic leader are all factors for why the Holocaust took place.

It was a confluence of political and societal factors that allowed the Holocaust to occur. In the 1920’s and 30’s, Germany was in a state of economic despair. This allowed Hitler to rise to power and impose his will upon the German people. Over the years, active propaganda against Jews had a dramatic impact on the average German’s opinion of the Jewish people. Nazi propaganda instilled in the average German a general distrust of Jews. The Germans’ general indifference, or their blessing, helped the Nazis with their anti-semitic campaign. .
One final thing to consider about why the holocaust was allowed to happen is a sad fact of human nature. The Nazis had been denigrating and dehumanizing the Jews of Germany for nearly a decade before the Holocaust began. This probably had a dramatic effect on what people actually thought of the Jews. Many Germans considered the Jews to be a sub-race of humans, or barely human at all. This allowed them to feel little to no guilt when forcing them into labor camps and marching them to their deaths.

Geosi Gyasi: Tell me something about the poetry and memoir workshops you conduct in the Los Angeles and Palm Springs area?

Carine Topal: For the last 20 years, I have been conducting poetry and memoir workshops in the South Bay. I taught workshops in Manhattan Beach, Hermosa Beach, and Redondo Beach, and Torrance. At times the workshops were held in the home of one of the students; other times we were housed in cultural centers or libraries. Many of my current students have studied with me since the 1990’s. I also offer online mentoring for those writers who cannot attend my workshops. My poetry and memoir workshops are guided with exercises and prompts. My emphasis is not only on the making of a poem, but the reading of the poem. My thought is that if you truly hear what you are reading, you can train your ear to self-correct language, diction, syntax, and to pay attention to many elements of craft. When a poem is read to one’s self, the poet does not truly hear the dynamic of the piece.

In both my poetry workshop and the memoir workshop, the hope is to have fully realized poems or memoir shorts to submit for publication. Ideally, a chapbook or full manuscript will have been compiled. Many of my students have won prizes and awards; some have published widely in anthologies and journals; others have full manuscripts that have been published.

END.


Interview with 2016 BUAPP Shortlisted Writer, Warsan Shire

May 10, 2016
Photo: Warsan Shire

Photo: Warsan Shire

Brief Biography:

Warsan Shire is a Somali poet raised in London. She was the first Young Poet Laureate for London. Her début book, ‘Teaching my Mother How to Give Birth’ (flipped eye), was published in 2011. She has read her work extensively internationally. Her poems have appeared in Poetry Review, Wasafiri, Magma, and the anthology ‘The Salt Book of Younger Poets’ (Salt, 2011). In 2013 she won the inaugural Brunel University African Poetry Prize. In 2014 she was Australia’s Queensland Poet-in- Residence. Her poetry has been translated into Italian, Spanish, Portuguese, Danish, Estonian and Swedish. She teaches workshops using poetry to explore memory and heal trauma. Warsan lives in Los Angeles, where is she working on her first full collection.

Geosi Gyasi: You immigrated to the United Kingdom at the age of one. How and why did that happen?

Warsan Shire: My father is a writer and journalist; he was forced to leave Mogadishu soon after I was conceived because he wrote a book questioning the government. My parents moved to Nairobi, where I was born. Still in danger – we moved to London. Then the civil war broke out soon after and we couldn’t go back.

Geosi Gyasi: Do you regard the United Kingdom as your home?

Warsan Shire: One of my homes, yes. North West London, specifically.

Geosi Gyasi: When did you first regard yourself as a poet?

Warsan Shire: On some level, when ‘teaching my mother how to give birth’ was published – I had something tangible to reference. I didn’t come from a world where your dreams could actually come true. I wanted to write books, so when this manuscript I started writing at 18, was actually published by Nii Parkes – I had something real and physical to point to.

Geosi Gyasi: So in 2011, ‘teaching my mother how to give birth’ was published by flipped eye. Could you tell me the technical process by which you give titles to your poems?

Warsan Shire: It’s a natural process, sometimes it comes before the poem, sometimes the poem names itself. I don’t think about it too much. Most of my poems have working titles of whatever state I was in at the time of writing. I recently found a freewrite of mine titled ‘WHY IS UR EX-GIRLFRIEND HAUNTING US IF SHE IS NOT DEAD????’. The title can always change later, to something a little bit more subtle, maybe.

Geosi Gyasi: In October 2013, you were selected as the first Young Poet Laureate for London. What were your roles as a young Poet Laureate?

Warsan Shire: A major part was the writing residencies, all over London, from the Houses of Parliament to a shed in a park in East London. I would sit and write poems all day for a year. Too often I would be interviewed by journalists whose only intention, it felt, was to make clear that I was a spoken word poet and not a ‘poet’. On occasion I would be asked if I was also, a Rapper and ‘how did you learn to speak English so well?”.

Geosi Gyasi: As a poetry editor, do you edit your own poems before you send them out to publishers?

Warsan Shire: I edit until life gets blurry, then I work with my editor, who is also a brilliant poet – Jacob Sam La-Rose. Everything I know about editing I learnt from him and my mentor – the beautiful poet Pascale Petit.

Geosi Gyasi: Your poetry has been translated into many languages including Italian, Spanish, Portuguese, Danish, Estonian, & Swedish. How do you feel about this and how many languages do you speak?

Warsan Shire: I look forward to translating more work in Somali, that’s really important to me. I can speak Somali and English fluently.

END.

Visit the BUAPP website to read some of Warsan Shire’s poems.

Note: BUAPP stands for ‘Brunel University African Poetry Prize’

The winner of the 2016 BUAPP will be announced on May 11, 2016.


Interview with 2016 BUAPP Shortlisted Writer, Chekwube O. Danladi

May 9, 2016
Photo: Chekwube O. Danladi

                Photo: Chekwube O. Danladi

Brief Biography:

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.

END.

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.


Interview with 2016 BUAPP Shortlisted Writer, Gbenga Adesina

May 8, 2016
Photo: Gbenga Adesina

Photo: Gbenga Adesina

Brief Biography: 

Gbenga Adesina lives and writes in Nigeria. His poems interrogate love and loss and the miles in between. In his works he seeks to map out the historic in the intimate and the daily. His poetry, essays and reviews have been featured or are forthcoming in Harriet’s Blog for the Poetry Foundation and in Jalada, Premium Times, Open Society Foundation blog, Brittle PaperAfricanwriter.com, One Throne, Vinyl, Prairie Schooner, Soar Africa(OSIWA anthology of new African poems) and others. In 2015, he was an Open Society Foundation Resident Poet on Goree Island, off the coast of Senegal. His first chapbook, Painter of Water, will be published by APBF in the spring of 2016. Follow him @Gbadenaija.

Geosi Gyasi: You live and work in Nigeria. My question is that, is Nigeria a fertile ground to thrive as a writer?

Gbenga Adesina: (Chuckles) Geosi, there are really no stringent binaries to this question, honestly. I think the truer picture will lie somewhere in between a lot of subjective experiences and angles. Let’s look at the net flow of creatives in and out of the country, the continent for instance. There is actually a flight of young musicians, poets, writers, visual artists and other creatives of African descent but born and perhaps bred in the diaspora who are moving back to stake a place for themselves and base their lifework on the home continent. There’s got to be some form of pull, some form of magnetism or “fertility” driving that, right? On the other hand there are lots of young dreamers, young artists here in this country who can’t wait to get out. A true approximation of the truth will be somewhere in between those subjective experiences.

On a personal angle, this is the home of my stories. The human swirl of Lagos, the hum of the other cities, the homeward call of the hinterlands, the raucous but humorous politics of this country, the warmth of the people, the kindness of total strangers. That’s what Nigeria is made of, Geosi. And it is upon this that the cathedrals of my narratives are built. A friend of mine and I passed through the street of his childhood once and he was visibly swept over by nostalgia and the pull of stories. He kept speaking of how these walls wear our faces. How they wear our faces. It is of these things that I write.

On the other hand there are constraints: Books? Libraries? Nah. Right now, I really want to read Ocean Vuong’s Night Sky with Exit Wounds. The logistics for shipping is crazy. So I have to wait till summer for folks visiting from the UK or US or if I travel. And in that regard I’m even extremely lucky and I don’t for one second take it for granted. There is the social space also. Let’s just say being a writer (when you are still unmade, which is in most cases) is not how you engage the Nigerian social space, nobody will take you as a “going somewhere person” except in writerly circles. You use what you studied in school, which is what pays your bills right now. But don’t let us pretend that this does not in a way create a gap of sort between you and your counterpart elsewhere who can give the totality of a life to his or her craft. So when I’m chatting with young poet friends from across the ocean and they are talking about fellowships and grants and residencies and teaching fellowships and all those stuff, I just put my Kendrick Lamar on repeat and nod away.

Geosi Gyasi: Do you regard yourself as a poet or writer?

Gbenga Adesina: (laughs real hard) Geosi, you ask the hardest questions in the world! I suspect you are the one who sets the LSAT! But seriously I’m thinking now that what right do I possibly have to call / designate myself a poet or writer of some sort. This is what I suppose I can say though: Poetry and its inflections play a central role in who I am as a human being. It’s been so for a while now. And I don’t just mean the writing of it but also the pursuit of its elusive ideals: justice, fair shot, kindness, forgiveness, humility, open spaces. These things have a pull on me. I often find myself on the left (or occasionally left of the center) in the politics of things. I’m human first, then a poet, right? And my poetry is an extension of my humanness. The things I feel strongly about as a human being naturally find expression in my poetry. I’m also interested in transcendental language. I don’t remember the last time (may be ten years ago? lol) that I read a book in pursuit of the plot. I’m looking for transport, I’m looking for a language that keels me over, I’m looking for a tongue of water or fire or urgency or something, something elusive, I’m looking for illumination (Everything is Illuminated, right?). And poetry offers that tightness and density to sidestep conventional syntax and cut straight into the soul of things. Poetry takes me to where I want to be in an instant. So even in my fiction or non-fiction (except for the unkind scissors of the editors), it is such language that I still pursue.

Geosi Gyasi: What do you think about literary prizes in general? Do you think a writer ought to rely on prizes in other to blossom?

Gbenga Adesina: I read this somewhere not long ago, and I find it so comforting: Sharon Olds—that magnificent poet of urgency and intimacy and such overwhelming beauty and power, if ever there was one— said she writes as much shit as everyone. I nearly fainted when I read that!

Of course she was just being kind.

But I have learned now to wear my inadequacies as a badge. How I fail at these things, how words often fall under the weight I put on them. My point is that even in the private space there is often so much uncertainty with what has been produced. So how on earth can anyone possibly rely on external forces (like judges of competitions/Prizes) to bring that work to light? Geosi, the name of this game is uncertainty, that’s what we do: doubt, to be unsure, to occupy liminal spaces. But you keep hammering on, right? You keep soldering on, what Elizabeth Gilbert called the sheer stubbornness of the human spirit. And by the way, the greatest gratification of art is art itself. I have come to discover that. When in my struggle with a poem or a line, I suddenly come into some form of breakthrough: a word, a phrase, a burst of songs like light that is a point of turning, where what has been an average meld of words suddenly becomes a force that changes the world. You jump! You shout! You are the new Ben Okri of time! Of course you wake up the next day to discover it is total trash. But don’t worry. That’s what we do. That’s what we do.

Geosi Gyasi: You were the 2015 Open society for West Africa foundation resident poet in Goree Island. Do you mind telling me what this residency was all about?

Gbenga Adesina: Well, the idea was to create an assemblage of sort of young and not so young African poets to “rethink or re-imagine” Africa. Now, I really loved this at the idea level. It appealed to the young dreamer in me who is fascinated by the sociology of thought patterns. But it was in the capacity of a poet that I was invited, so our fort was narrative. And it was not to recreate the African narrative as it were, rather it was a call to look differently, a little more mindfully as poets and writers at the essentially complex realities of our people and how they defy, if you care to observe, the limiting pigeonholes and clichéd binaries of the media. I loved every single bit of it. Breyten Breytenbach is a human being divine. He spoke deeply and movingly about poetry’s power to change the world. He spoke about humanness and the human condition. But he wasn’t just about Breytenbach. There was Veronique Tadjo, Dominique, Harry Garuba and Akwe Amosu. Excellent people, all of them. We had a couple of orientation exercises and then we forked into different workshops (French and English). We spent most of the time writing or rewriting in private and then coming together for revisions and comments; break fasts and dinners, a tour of the land etc. I discovered my poems in the mouth of others for the first time ever. Because some of those people were excellent readers, I fell in love. But I think what really did it for me was that soil, Goree itself, the Island. It’s a land made for poetry. On stepping foot on it, I cannot explain it; I became a burst of songs. Poems came in full, the structure, details and all that. Everything. I don’t remember ever experiencing anything like that before. I didn’t bother to write them down immediately. And that’s unusual. I met excellent poets from across the continent: Lekpele from Liberia, Renaud from Togo and a host of others and Fatamouto, a lithesome poet of immense beauty and power from Niger, of a voice that sometimes still come to me in the dark, whose eyes, it strikes me now, were/are in a way open cities.

Geosi Gyasi: How much does the element of metaphors feature in your poetry?

Gbenga Adesina: I fantasize a lot, right? So I have always thought about how I might one day come to write a monograph tentatively titled “The Death of Metaphor or the Resurrection of it”. You must have noticed, I’m sure, that there seems to be more propagation of the experiential writing as against or over say ekphrasis or the meditative or contemplative form of narration in all genres. And poetry is no exception. These days, readers, it does appear want the stuff of your life or your perceived life. And they want it now. They want it to be intense too. They want it to be haunting, to stick to memory, to jar and be jarring in its aftertaste. So poetry can seem confessional a lot these days, poetry can seem like direct narration. But that does not in any way negate the centrality of metaphors. Metaphors are the horses of narration, they travel through human psyche in ways words fail to.

So they are key to me. I curate them, I cultivate them, I watch out for them, no matter how subtle. I love them, how they lead to multiplicity of meanings and misreading (if there is anything like that) which are the pathways, I believe, that often lead readers to the discovery of truer things.

Geosi Gyasi: In just a paragraph, tell me about your chapbook: “Painter of Water”

Gbenga Adesina: Kwame Dawes asked me to come walk on water, that’s the central idea here and like Peter, not the Apostle, I followed him.

Geosi Gyasi: What is it about ‘love’ and ‘loss’ that you often write about in your poetry? Is there a specific message you want to convey to readers through these themes?

Gbenga Adesina: I have to admit that I didn’t come to this light by myself; that it was my readers, friends who pointed this out to me. And I have always relied on them to tell me what my poems are saying. But again I find myself returning to what I said about being human first and then a poet and how my poetry is an extension of my humanness. Of course like John Burnside said, I dare not speak for mankind (humanity)/ I know so little of myself. However in writing essentially as an attenuation of my own aloneness, I find myself connected to the broader geography of aloneness in a world outside me (story, story. Lol).I try to be susceptible in my craft to the things humans are susceptible to in their lived lives. Everydayness is the single most important quality to me in writing, I’m irremediably moved and susceptible to human narratives and I try to display a certain fidelity in rendering them. And what is human story, these plots that write us if not love and loss.

And perhaps I should add that the poets and writers that move me the most move me in this direction: Oswald Mtshali, John Burnside, Kwame Dawes, George Szirtes, Gabriel Okara, Yusef Komunyakaa, Okogbule Wonudi, Frank O’ Hara, Sharon Olds, W.B Yeats (But I, being poor/ have only my dreams/I have spread my dreams under your feet/ Tread softly because you tread on my dreams.), T.S. Elliot and lately Sarah Howe and Mona Arshi and others.

Geosi Gyasi: Could you tell me about your process of writing?

Gbenga Adesina: Things speak to me powerfully. To a point that response becomes inevitable. The wirings are set up inside me subconsciously for some time. Then one day, I pick up my pen or gadget and start to write. I tend to write sequences around the same idea for a long stretch until I have fully responded to whatever ignited me in the first instance. Because meaning making is not really my pursuit, heightened meanings by rendering language in music is what I think I seek after, so songs, especially in foreign languages that I don’t speak and don’t even comprehend (Swahili, Spanish, Hindi, Hebrew etc.) are often my ready companions.

Geosi Gyasi: What is/are your future literary ambitions?

Gbenga Adesina: One cannot really say, right? I’ll like to write a couple of anthologies that try hard to move the equation forward. I really want to write a significant book in my lifetime as impossible as that is. And I really want to teach. I love teaching: the pull and pull of ideas, the openness of mind like water and that joy that cannot be touched to know that people are kinder now, better now because you led them to words.

Geosi Gyasi: Are you optimistic about winning the 2016 Brunel University African Poetry Prize?

Gbenga Adesina: Being on that list is a blessing. A big one. I’m still trying hard to believe it. Some of the most amazing amazing poets of our generation are on that list. And I don’t take that for granted. These guys have done incredible things with their gifts; they have touched the world, touched the skies, gone to the best schools in the world and have excellent pedigrees to show for it. But, Geosi, ours are the stars too, right!

END.

Visit the BUAPP website to read some of Gbenga Adesina’s poems.

Note: BUAPP stands for ‘Brunel University African Poetry Prize’

The winner of the 2016 BUAPP will be announced on May 11, 2016.


Interview with 2016 BUAPP Shortlisted Writer, Chimwemwe Undi

May 7, 2016
Photo: Chimwemwe Undi

Photo: Chimwemwe Undi

Brief Biography:

Chimwemwe Undi is a poet of southern African descent living and writing on Treaty One territory in Winnipeg, Manitoba. Her family origins are in Zambia and Zimbabwe and she spent some of her childhood living in Namibia. As a spoken word artist, she has been featured at the Canadian Festival of Spoken Word and Spur Festival, where she shared the stage with Dr. Cornel West. Her work has been longlisted for the Cosmonaut’s Avenue Poetry Prize and appears or is forthcoming in several publications, including CV2, Room, Prairie Fire and Lemon Hound.

Geosi Gyasi: Could you tell me about your African roots?

Chimwemwe Undi: I like to say that my family is from the bottom bit of the continent. My parents are Zambian and Zimbabwean, and I spent the first dozen years of my life in Namibia and South Africa. Being African is important to me, and influences not only the way I write but the way I live. That being said, I try not to discount my impact on the colonized land I now live on, and it’s impact on me. I am a settler of colour living on Treaty One land, and I take seriously the responsibilities associated with that.

Geosi Gyasi: What inspires you to write?

Chimwemwe Undi: Writing is how I process everything. Translating experience into finely tuned poetry or prose forces me to spend time with those memories, to unfold them and examine them, in a way that I find necessary and healing.

Geosi Gyasi: How did you hear about the Brunel University African Poetry Prize?

Chimwemwe Undi: I’m not sure I remember not knowing about the prize. I try to read the work of young people of color, especially those of the African diaspora, and the Brunel shortlists have been a fine source of names to remember, as well as a reminder of the quality of work to which I aspire.

Geosi Gyasi: Do you have any rituals you do before you sit down to write?

Chimwemwe Undi: I think good art is as close to actual magic as we’ll ever get, but I don’t find treating it’s creation as one driven by whims or muses or some intangible inspirational energy is particularly productive. I respect the craft of writing, and as such, I treat it as a skill which I am constantly improving. I try to write daily, to read widely, and to challenge myself by writing what is difficult, whether emotionally or technically.

Geosi Gyasi: How long did it take you to write, “The Shadow Machine”?

Chimwemwe Undi: Quite a while, and most of that time was trying to find the entrance into the experience which needed to be processed. It is a poem about loss and the complicated ways we grieve, and the ways our grief looks different from our predecessors’ grief, in this case because of the nature of the internet. Finding a way into that took longer than writing my way out of it.

Geosi Gyasi: In writing, what are you most concerned about?

Chimwemwe Undi: It depends on the form. A thing I love about poetry is how much can be said with so little. I love to see how few words can be used to convey a feeling.

Geosi Gyasi: Could you comment on these lines from your poem, “The Shadow Machine”:

“the internet is a cemetery
where nothing ever dies”

Chimwemwe Undi: There are several allusions to online media in the poem, this first line to a podcast, others to comments on Facebook, Instagram captions and tweets. Like the less fortunate poems, these kind of contributions in the world wide web are quickly forgotten despite their theoretical immortality.

Geosi Gyasi: What does the future hold for you as a writer?

Chimwemwe Undi: I’m not sure. I will continue writing and performing, and hope that the response to my work remains as positive as it has been, and my relationship with it as healing.

END.

Visit the BUAPP website to read some of Chimwemwe Undi’s poems.

Note: BUAPP stands for ‘Brunel University African Poetry Prize’

The winner of the 2016 BUAPP will be announced on May 11, 2016.


Interview with 2016 BUAPP Shortlisted Writer, Saradha Soobrayen

May 6, 2016
Photo: Saradha Soobrayen

Photo: Saradha Soobrayen

Brief Biography:

Saradha Soobrayen was born in London and studied Live Art, Visual Art and Writing. Saradha is a passionate advocate for Human Rights and the preservation of archives, libraries, and indigenous heritage. Her poetic inquiry: ‘Sounds Like Root Shock’ is a melange of arts activism, cultural transmission, Kreol dialect, political rhetoric and song lyrics that chronicles the forced removal of the Chagossian Community from the Chagos Archipelago and their ongoing fight for the ‘Right of Return.’

Saradha received an Eric Gregory Award in 2004 and was named in The Guardian as one of the ‘Twelve to Watch’, up and coming new generation of poets. She represented Mauritius at the Southbank Centre’s Parnassus Poetry Festival and won the Pacuare Nature Reserve’s Poet Laureate residency in 2015. Saradha’s poetry, essays and  experimental short fiction are widely published in journals and anthologies. Her much awaited debut poetry collection is long overdue. Her website is www.saradhasoobrayen.com.

Geosi Gyasi: You were born in London and studied Live Art, Visual Art and Writing. How vibrant is the literary scene in London?

Saradha Soobrayen: There are a variety of literary activities in unlikely venues such as poetry slams in church hall, cafés, and pubs as well as the usual established performance venues. Often key literary events such as book launches are happening simultaneously.

Geosi Gyasi: Could you tell me about your African roots and where your parents come from?

Saradha Soobrayen: My parents were born in Mauritius and came to work in the UK in the 1960s. Mauritius itself is a melting pot of many cultures and languages and yet there are distinct characteristics to the Mauritian sensibility perhaps due to being an island culture that has prospered and due to it’s commercial activity it often described as a jewel in Africa’s economy.

Geosi Gyasi: At what age were you introduced to the library?

Saradha Soobrayen: My earliest library experience was around the age of 6 or 7 it might have been earlier.

Geosi Gyasi: As a writer, what influence does libraries have on modern societies?

Saradha Soobrayen: It is often quoted that ‘libraries are the cathedral of the soul’ they are the the natural habitat for writers and allows our humanity to be read in all it’s diversity and contradictions.

Geosi Gyasi: You’re a qualified Writing Coach, Creative Arts Mentor and Action Learning Facilitator. My question is, what is the role/duty of a Writing Coach?

Saradha Soobrayen: A key factor is the ability to reflect back a writer’s creative process and to ask open questions to allow the writer the time to discover the way forward.

Geosi Gyasi: Could you briefly tell me about your poetic inquiry project, “Sounds Like Root Shock”?

Saradha Soobrayen: The project focuses on the Chagossian Communit who are based in London, Crawley and Manchester, they were forcibly removed from the Chagos Archipelago in the 1970’s to make room for a US Base. This is an important year for the community as the 50 year lease  comes up for renewal towards the end of 2016.  The original islanders and their families are still wanting to return home. The campaign is ongoing see http://chagossupport.org.uk

Geosi Gyasi: Could you comment on the lines below from your poem, “Listening Out For The Musings Of The Hawksbill Turtles”:

“to answer the same timeless, complex and simple questions:
how to survive, how to endure, and how to be one and all.”

Saradha Soobrayen: There is a degree of ambiguity in these lines as it forms part of a sequence that looks at collective consciousness and the relationship between humanity and the natural world.

Geosi Gyasi: Would you be surprised should you win the 2016 Brunel University African Poetry Prize?

Saradha Soobrayen: It is always wonderful for poetry to be celebrated and a great boost for the writer.There is often a tension between the need for the writing to be seen and the need of the writer to remain in the dark privacy of the writing process and so perhaps there is an element of surprise when the creative work eventually makes an impact.

END.

Visit the BUAPP website to read some of Saradha Soobrayen’s poems.

Note: BUAPP stands for ‘Brunel University African Poetry Prize’

The winner of the 2016 BUAPP will be announced on May 11, 2016.


Interview with 2016 BUAPP Shortlisted Writer, Mary-Alice Daniel

May 5, 2016
Photo: Mary-Alice Daniel

Photo: Mary-Alice Daniel

Brief Biography:

“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 unheimlicheheimliche 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.

END.

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.


Interview with 2016 BUAPP Shortlisted Writer, Momtaza Mehri

May 4, 2016
Photo: Momtaza Mehri

Photo: Momtaza Mehri

Brief Biography:

Momtaza Mehri is a biomedical scientist, poet and writer who remains unsure which world came first. Her parents are of Eritrean, Somali and Yemini origin. Her work engages with inheritance/ psychosomatics/ ugliness/ biopolitics and digitalised diasporas. She has been active in the zine/journal underworld for some time, featuring and forthcoming in OOMKHard FoodCecile’sWritersPuerto Del Sol, Elsewhere and other delights, as well as contributing to MediaDiversified. As an editor of the digital space Diaspora Drama, she is fixated by the capacities of cyberspacepoetics. Her work has seen her perform in universities, festivals and the usual dimly-lit haunts. Anthologised in Podium Poets, as part of the London Laureates long-list, her debut collection will be published in 2016. Her heart yawns in three continents, London being its current owner. She loves the tension in that.

Geosi Gyasi: You’re a biomedical scientist, poet and writer. How much of your profession, as a biomedical scientist, do you bring to your poetry?

Momtaza Mehri: A lot. Which isn’t as technical or distant as it seems. One of my favourite poets, Rafael Campo, happens to be a practicing doctor. To him, biomedicine ‘appropriates the narrative’ with its cell counts and scans. Poetry hands the narrative back to the body. Imagine a forensic technique confirming the ink brand in a father’s pen and proving the forgery of a will? That’s a good poem right there. Finding the space between has been a process, especially as a poet studying the sciences.

Geosi Gyasi: When did you first begin to write poetry?

Momtaza Mehri: I grew up surrounded by jiifto cassettes, a form of Somali poetic chanting that would reverberate from our family car windows. Poetry was never unapproachable, never sterile, not to me or those around me. It was always Friday sermons and throwaway proverbs; the kind of ritual you never take seriously until you do. Having said that, I definitely began writing regularly in my early teens. The usual juvenile stuff that, looking back, still came from a truthful place.

Geosi Gyasi: In your view, what is the role of poetry in the modern society?

Momtaza Mehri:  Poetry is a kind of breathing aid. I really believe that. That space that allows for those made invisible to just breathe, to have the luxury of specificity. ‘I see you’ – that’s the most radical sentiment a writer can channel. A good poem is a long exhale. Maybe that won’t tear down any walls but it’s a start.

Geosi Gyasi: Briefly tell me about the work you do at ‘Diaspora Drama’?

Momtaza Mehri: First, I have to give props to Isaac Kariuki, a brilliant digital artist, for founding this platform. I’ve been lucky enough to work with him and co-edit this treasure trove of art, photography, storytelling and poetry. We centre immigrant people of colour and their creativity which isn’t always synonymous with suffering or obligatory ‘diaspora tears’. The ‘Drama’ eludes to this project being somewhere our communities can be as bitchy or tender or as hilarious as they want. It’s a global online basement party.

Geosi Gyasi: Could you explain the term, “Cyberspacepoetics” as it often appears in your biography?

Momtaza Mehri: I love meme culture. I love bad Photoshop and cat pictures and Egyptian chat-room language. I also love Instagram and Tumblr poetry, the kind that gets dismissed as cutesy motivational fluff. “Cyberspacepoetics” is the only meritocracy this planet has. If your three-line, space-bar poem resonates with people, it’ll be shared endlessly. It doesn’t matter whether you’re a published poet or not. My writing tries to draw from these digital worlds and their intelligent humour. The African diaspora is engaged in the ultimate URL call & response and I want to reflect this in my poetry.

Geosi Gyasi: Do you have a purpose for why you write?

Momtaza Mehri: To add to a community of writers speaking in a language aimed directly back at who we write about. This isn’t always possible given how I mostly write in English, but I’m still going to try anyway.

Geosi Gyasi: Do you engage in poetry performances?

Momtaza Mehri: Yes. I used to get the jitters especially since I was terrible at the whole spoken word thing. Now I see it as just another way of giving life to the work. I love performing amongst poets I admire and hope to do more of this.

Geosi Gyasi: Do you know why you were shortlisted for the 2016 Brunel University African Poetry Prize?

Momtaza Mehri: I really have no idea. I’d like to think the judges saw a sincerity in my work. Honestly, I’m still in shock considering the calibre of the other shortlisted poets.

Geosi Gyasi: What are your future literary ambitions?

Momtaza Mehri: I want to write and edit more. At this point, I’m concentrating on my manuscript which is trying to kill me and will probably succeed. I want to find new ways to bridge digital language with more traditional forms. Mostly, I want to remain honest in my intentions at least. Anything else is beyond my control.

END.

Visit the BUAPP website to read some of Momtaza Mehri’s poems.

Note: BUAPP stands for ‘Brunel University African Poetry Prize’

The winner of the 2016 BUAPP will be announced on May 11, 2016.


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