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.