The African Book Review’s Chioma Nkemdilim met with some of the finalists of The Brunel University African Poetry Prize to discuss their poems, inspirations, and hopes for the future of African Poetry. Here’s our interview with Hope Wabuke, whose poem “Leviticus,” provides an in-depth look at the relationship between a parent and child.
ABR: How did you develop an interest in writing poetry and where does your inspiration to write poems come from?
WABUKE: Poetry was my first love, but it took me a long, circular time to be strong in the work. I wrote my first poem when I was six. It was about an elephant named Elephy. More followed. Poetry was a sort of sanctuary for me. In my education, from kindergarten through senior year of high school, we only read white European and American writers, usually male, and finding Brooks and Giovanni and Lorde and Baldwin and Hughes and others gave me something that sustained me. I have played music for most of my whole life, and I was always attracted to the musicality of language. But I studied film and fiction writing in college and graduate school instead. The idea that you could get an MFA in poetry was beyond my comprehension at the time.
A few years ago, I returned to Los Angeles to spend time with my parents, who were both ill, and with my grandmother, visiting from Uganda. My grandmother was 96; I knew that might be the last time I saw her. I became pregnant and began to think even more about my body family—the growing of life brought up so many feelings and memories; it was a paradigm shift too, in terms of what I thought important, in my writing. My baby boy is probably my biggest inspiration. He opens up my world and makes it so much richer, so much more interesting and meaningful than I could have ever thought possible.
ABR: Your poem which is a finalist for the Brunel University African Poetry Prize has an interesting title, ‘Leviticus’ what was the inspiration behind the title?
WABUKE: Leviticus is one of the Books of the Christian Bible, in the Old Testament. It is considered the book of laws. A lot of the Mosaic code—and our modern sense of morality—come from that book. So I was thinking loosely of the law according to my father, what, according to him, are the rules for living. For him, it is working. My father comes from a culture where the measure of a good man is how hard he works. He started working on the family farm when he was three. He is now in his sixties. He has never taken a vacation. Like many immigrants, this is what he needed to do to survive in this country.
In The Body Family as a whole I reckon deeply with the Christian faith I was raised in—the book is organically becoming a feminist, decolonial revisiting of the Bible. When I was younger, I turned away from Christianity—not just because of the sexism and racism I experienced in Christian spaces in my own life firsthand, but also the larger systematic violence that had been done by people in God’s name—the European colonization of Africa, American slavery and other forms of racism, sexism, and genocide throughout history. It was only after I became a mother that I understood the importance of a spiritual belief system, of meaning larger than oneself—of the sacred. I realized, also, that the terrible things other misguided people had done in the name of God had nothing to do with my relationship with God. I did not have to give other people that power over my life.
I understood what it means, in times of terror to have a sustaining belief—for in what moment of first-time motherhood are you not terrified for the well-being of your fragile newborn? And so all this was there.
ABR: The poem itself seems to deal with the tensioned relationship between a father and child, and their own relationships with their work/ chosen paths. Can you talk a bit about your inspiration for the poem and what you think it’s representative of?
WABUKE: When my son was born two years ago, I was prepared for how much I would love him, but not for how afraid I would be for his safety. After my son’s birth, I saw my parents and their choices in a whole new light; my parents were once in the same place I was: new parents, trying to keep their children safe. Only, they became parents during Idi Amin’s reign of terror. Amin’s genocide was based on annihilating British colonial influence from Uganda. This meant massacring those Ugandans who were Christians or educated—those who were adopting, as he felt, “Western beliefs.” Afterwards, of course, he turned his mad violence towards everyone. It is estimated that 400,000 Ugandans were killed during Amin’s seven year reign of terror.
My father, both Christian pastor and college professor, was one of the first to be put on Amin’s lists. He got word he was next and he, my mother and sister escaped across the border to Kenya, then America. I remember asking my father, all throughout my childhood, to tell me about Uganda, about our family. He always refused. My hunger to know my body family was an absence filled with questions. I did not understand then the trauma held within their bodies that stunned them into silence. I did not realize my ability to even ask these questions—the luxury to concern myself with my feelings, to have these chances, was only available because of the good work my father had done. I owe them so much. I am so grateful.
ABR: As a Ugandan poet born in America, could you discuss how both countries influence your work?
WABUKE: I was raised by Ugandans so my culture—my identity, my spirit, my body—begins there. But I was raised primarily in America so there is always a sense of Americaness in my work. I think the best way to describe how these two cultures manifest in my work is my fascination with form. I seem to be preoccupied with liminality—the in between space. Which, as a first generation child of immigrants, as an inhabitant of dual cultures, is where I live.
Uganda, like many African cultures, has a rich poetic tradition. The musicality of language, the spontaneous verse that is made up for village celebrations. The poems that have been passed down through generations for centuries. The twentieth and twenty-first century poets who are working in various languages, both Ugandan and Western. The reinterpretation of Western tropes. The future of Ugandan poetry is about visibility. The literary world has long been centered on Western white writers, usually male, writing in English. Organizations like the African Book Fund are doing great work to open up that conversation.
ABR: Do you have any favorite African books or books by African authors? Any that have particularly influenced you?
WABUKE: Like many, I adore Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie. I enjoy Warsan Shire, Kwame Dawes, Bernardine Evaristo, Ladan Osman, Maaza Mengiste, Teju Cole, Helen Oyeyemi, Taiye Selasi, Senghor, Morowa Yejide, Ben Okri, Noviolet Bulawayo. Not strictly African, but of the global African diaspora, I am enamored of island writers Edwidge Danticat, Tiphanie Yanique and Jamaica Kincaid. Her story “Girl” changed how I thought of fiction.
ABR: Can you talk about projects you are currently working on?
WABUKE: The Body Family, my poetry collection-in-progress which explores my family’s escape from Idi Amin’s Ugandan genocide and the aftermath of healing in America. In it, I reclaim my womanhood, culture, and spirituality from a legacy of violence.
I have just finished a collection of poems called The Autobiography of Blue, which explores love, loss and longing. It is a kind of city symphony of New York, where I lived for several years. I am working on a nonfiction book and revising a novel. Currently, I also write a lot of essays that circulate around issues of social justice relating to the welfare and rights of children, women, and minorities. It is a rather terrifying time for black lives in America and I feel that my part in the struggle for justice comes through words.
HOPE WABUKE was born in America to Ugandan parents. Her essays and criticism have been featured in the Los Angeles Review of Books, Salon, Gawker, The Root, Ms. Magazine, Los Angeles Magazine, The Feminist Wire, Ozy, The Hairpin and The Daily Beast. Hope reviews books for the Kirkus Reviews and has won fellowships from The New York Times, Voices of Our Nations Foundation (VONA), and the Barbara Deming Memorial Fund for Women Writers. She holds degrees from Northwestern University and New York University. Hope is currently the media director for the Kimbilio Center for African American Fiction. Follow her on Twitter @HopeWabuke.
CHIOMA NKEMDILIM is a serial blogger and creative writer, an avid reader, a music lover, a Korean drama buff and a chocoholic in no particular order. Visit her online at ThatIgboGirl.