History’s Shadow Will Often Hover over the Future

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 Bernard Matambo, a Zimbabwean poet whose poem “The City,” provides an in-depth look at the relationship between spaces and people.


ABR: How did you develop an interest in writing poetry and where does your inspiration to write poems come from?

MATAMBO: I started writing poetry in a serious way when I was 14. Before this I had always read everything near, and written short pieces for school or for myself. A lot of things were happening in my life at this age, sudden changes that led me to question a lot of what I had understood to be true and factual. Inevitably my understanding and reading of the world seemed to lack placement in the world around me. Poetry became a way of looking, a way of reading and synthesizing what was occurring within and around me at that age.

ABR: Your poem The City which is a finalist for the Brunel University African Poetry Prize seems to touch on issues of history, oppression, reclaiming spaces, and possibly how spaces can be a record/ keep the memories of peoples who have ever dwelt there. Can you share your inspiration for this poem and what you wanted it to be representative of?

MATAMBO: “The City” is part of a circle of poems I started working on in 2008. Part of my objective was to have the poems communicate with each other, thus creating a potential narrative arc when read together. Yet I also wanted each of the poems to standalone and exist without the others.

In this poem I was thinking of reclamation of internal and external spaces.

While the anguish of political oppression can be humbling, it can often too engage us with unsavory aspects of ourselves.

It often becomes effortless to dehumanize each other, for instance. I was thus interested in how a society would go about not only forgiving itself after the harder parts of a prolonged season of anguish, but also reconcile, reclaim and establish new selves. The physical scape in the poem then, is by and large symbolic of what has occurred internally within such a society during this prolonged season that has not quite ended. While it is not always palatable, history’s shadow will often hover over the future.

Continue reading “History’s Shadow Will Often Hover over the Future”

In Search of Rwanda’s Génocidaires: An Interview with David Whitehouse

Journalist David Whitehouse’s new book In Search of Rwanda’s Génocidaires: French Justice and the Lost Decades offers an incisive look at post-Genocide Rwanda, using exhaustive research and interviews to provide multiple accounts of the state of the nation, its prospects for development, and the role of the international world towards Rwanda’s efforts at reconciliation and growth.

David Whitehouse
David Whitehouse

ABR: Rwanda’s reconciliation after the genocide is a topic that has not been explored with as much depth as it could be. What inspired you to write this book?

WHITEHOUSE: I happened to see a brief French TV clip about the activities of the Collectif des Parties Civiles Pour le Rwanda, the association in France which has filed some 25 civil cases in France related to the 1994 genocide. I had just ghostwritten a book, the autobiography of Cambodian opposition leader Sam Rainsy, who had been exiled in Paris. Perhaps naively, I felt that I was capable of writing about genocide-related issues. I felt also that the legal process in France relating to Rwanda was a story that had little coverage even here in France, and was largely inaccessible to the non-expert English-speaking international audience.

ABR: What was the reserach process for In Search of Rwanda’s Genocidaires? Was it easy to find sources and people willing to talk about this subject?

WHITEHOUSE: No it was not easy! The process was to read as much as I could about the subject and find people willing to talk about it. Understandably, many people are cautious about publicly discussing such a complex and emotive subject, especially as I had not previously written about it.

Having said that, after a certain amount of perseverance it became easier. I am of course indebted to Maureen Whyte, the publisher at Seraphim Editions in Canada who believed in the project from the outset and never wavered. So people could see that the book really would happen. In the end, thanks to her, I was able to get all the cooperation that I needed.

ABR: The concept of ‘genocide ideology’ is particularly interesting. Is that rooted in a real fear of the genocide reoccurring? And how does it express itself in the day-to-day realities of Rwandans?

WHITEHOUSE: Speaking as a general observer, it would be very surprising if there was not a real fear of genocide recurring. Yet the political uses of the concept of genocide ideology are clear. It is a formidable tool for preventing or quelling dissent. Post-genocide governments are in a very strong position to construct versions of reality.

That strikes me as being a consequence of genocide. It would be a bit pointless, in my view, for the international community to be overly critical of the current government when it did nothing to prevent the genocide. If the West wants political governance that it can measure against its norms, it should be more decisive in protecting endangered civilian populations.

ABR: In We Wish to Inform You That Tomorrow We Will Be Killed with Our Families Gourevitch notes that the Rwanda which exists today has never existed before. Your research seems to support the idea that Rwanda is constantly reforming itself and trying to decide what it wants to be as a country, but cannot necessarily call on its tensioned history to aid this process.

WHITEHOUSE: Speaking as a student of history I would say that every society has its history that weighs on the present. Coming to terms with the history has to be part of the answer. It can’t be wished away or abolished no matter how painful it is to confront.

ABR: The New York Times recently ran a visual project about the victims and perpetuators of the genocide living peacefully in the same society. Indeed much of what the West sees and reads about Rwanda show it to be an emerging economy focused on the future while striving to heal past wounds. Are we doing the nation a disservice by choosing to only focus on the good while overlooking some of the tensions the society is struggling with?

WHITEHOUSE: Well there are certainly plenty of critics of the current regime out there, Filip Reyntens is perhaps one of the best-known, and in the book I tried to summarize his critique of the regime in a somewhat simplified way. Reyntjens argues that the current government is a brutal dictatorship that hunts down and eliminates opponents inside Rwanda and around the world. It has made ethnic references illegal, yet this, he says, serves only to obscure the narrow ethnic clique that controls the country. Legal processes inside and outside the country are used to sideline potential opponents. He says the Rwandan government bullies the international community and blinds it to its crimes by using the “genocide credit” earned in 1994.

The problem is that such claims tend to lead others onto a slippery slope of genocide denial, as in the recent BBC documentary “Rwanda: The Untold Story” which has caused a rift between the Rwandan government and the BBC. It should be possible to evaluate whether a country is democratic without denying the genocide that took place in 1994, and organizations such as Human Rights Watch do a good job of this.
A more benign view is given by Phil Clark. In his work on the post-genocide gacaca courts, he stresses their role in reconciliation and social cohesion, even if they don’t meet international legal norms.
So I don’t think there is an unrealistically positive focus among international observers of Rwanda – there is a very full spectrum of views available about the country and the direction it has taken.

ABR: You also use the term ‘pretending peace’ to describe how some of the tensions in Rwanda today are addressed. I’d like to explore what that means. How are they pretending peace? What effect does this have on the citizens themselves?

WHITEHOUSE: The term ‘pretending peace’ asks whether this cohesion is just a surface phenomena and whether violence will recur given the opportunity. I don’t think anyone can honestly claim to definitely answer this question. I do think that suppressed opposition, in Rwanda as elsewhere, tends to create a pressure-cooker and that the concept of loyal, legitimate opposition eases that effect.

One unfortunate feature of Rwanda’s modern history is that French attempts to instill democracy there coincided with the start of the 1990-94 war. People are naturally cautious or scared of it. That doesn’t mean that democracy was the problem, just that it was a failed process that, I think, was overwhelmed by other developments.

In general, human societies do seem to need outlets for opposition to be stable. It would be easier to be optimistic about Rwanda’s future if there was a credible opposition that the government could accept as legitimate.

ABR: You delve into the processes of the multiple genocide trials held in Finland, Norway, Germany, and the Netherlands as well as those occurring in Sweden and other countries. To what extent do you think that reconciliation and moving past the genocide remains an issue for Rwandans and what efforts should the Rwandan government and other countries be expending to aid this effort?

WHITEHOUSE: It’s hard to imagine full reconciliation when many of the people who are alleged to have been among the main players in the genocide remain untried. Even after the trial of Pascal Simbikangwa, there is a large backlog of unresolved civil suits in France. The extreme slowness of the French legal response, it seems to me, has tended to permanently entrench some people in their positions and make it harder for reconciliation to be achieved. France should urgently decide which if any of cases that have been filed are strong enough to go to trial, and other countries should push them to do this. How that fits into overall reconciliation, I think, can only be judged in the distant future. But I feel sure that the French inertia is one big obstacle, one stumbling block.

David Whitehouse comes from Plymouth in southwest England and has worked as a journalist in Paris since 1996. He is a part-time PhD student at the University of London in Paris, researching the impact of missionary activity in Rwanda and Burundi.


Poetry is my presence in this world: An Interview with Ali Znaidi

Ali Znaidi is a Tunisian poet whose work has appeared in magazines and journals worldwide. His poems use experimental forms to explore issues of the human condition. The African Book Review had a conversation with Ali about his experience as a Tunisian poet of English expression and his recent poetry collection, Experimental Ruminations.

Ali Znaidi

ABR: What influences your poetry?

ZNAIDI: I was born in a mining town in the south of Tunisia where I spent all my childhood… I had no solution to escape the confines and routine of living in a town with scarce outlets and cultural activities but to delve into reading whatever came across my hands…Consequently, I started practicing my own stories, initially scribbling notes and thoughts in Arabic on copybooks and scraps of papers…Writing is in a way, always expressing a certain presence. And I was always driven by a need to tell something, especially in an implicit and symbolic way from my own perspective, and that’s what poetry is.

Poetry is my presence in this world.

ABR: What influenced your decision to write many of your poems in English instead of Arabic?

ZNAIDI: I had been writing or scribbling notes since an early age in Arabic which is my mother tongue. When I joined university, I switched into English as a medium for my creative writing. Being a Tunisian poet who writes in English and who lives in a little town in the south of Tunisia is really a big challenge because of the scarcity of readership, but I also like to transgress the borderlines. I like to demolish boundaries. So another language (In this case, English) becomes a bridge through which experiences can be experimented with and expressed. In this sense, English opens the possibilities to see another version of the world and to go through other territories of existence because at the end, language creates worlds and our perceptions to them.  Whether we like it or not, English is a global language and I really want my voice to be heard globally.

I love my mother tongue and I am fluent in it. But I always like to swim in other seas. Writing in English is synonymous with being able to voice out ‘the repressed water’ inside oneself. It is also letting go and freeing oneself because freedom manifests itself through speech.

Writing in English has also helped me see poetry as something filled with fathomless possibilities of experimentation. I love to experiment and to take risks, regardless of the outcome. And writing in another language is really synonymous with taking risks because you never know the results.

 ABR: As a Tunisian poet, how has Tunisia influenced your works?

ZNAIDI: Tunisia is a beautiful Meditreanean country which is anchored in a rich history and civilization. The problem is that contemporary Tunisia is characterized by centralization and dictatorship which means marginalization of the inner towns. Hence the senses of frustration and the continuous hope for liberation [found in my poems]. Besides, the place where I live is characterized by its raw nature, the omnipresence of the colour grey, and the scarcity of trees. It is a town surrounded by mountains that opens onto the desert. That’s why my poetry is oftentimes written in a raw language…and in some of my poems I express that want for an outlet, perhaps a fresh Tunisia where the marginalized can have their share of the beauty and wealth of the country.

ABR: Sonnet 2 and Sonnet 4 in Experimental Ruminations talk about escape and reality. I liked the lines “this content is obliterated/ as the sun’s lights void/ the murk of the night” in Sonnet 2 and “The colour grey harmed the eyes./ The eyes wanted to see other colours diluted w/ desire” in Sonnet 4. There seems to be a longing to escape reality in both poems…

ZNAIDI: I always try to express dichotomies in my work. Dichotomies keep us confused and make us oscillate between two extremes. They vex us and trigger us to question the status quo. Each one of us is searching for light in each other, in religion, in the arts, in nature, etc. The search for light and for noble values like justice, freedom, and peace is something I have attempted to express in my work through the themes of liberation and escape.  In both poems I intended to communicate the stagnant harsh reality and how to avoid its monotonous colours; something akin to Tunisia where we are raised under one colour, one party, one thought, one routine. And I would even say my choice to be a poet, is to express an anxiety against standardized linguistic constructs and ‘prefabricated’ stereotypic narratives.

ABR: The spacing in your poems is very interesting and unusual. In “Against Suffocation Theory” for example, were you trying to communicate something in terms of the structure?

ZNAIDI: With the proliferation of digital media, poetry becomes more visual. In “Against Suffocation Theory” I chose to arrange the poem the way I did to experiment with the lines and to try to communicate something in terms of the structure at the same time. Besides, I wanted the poem to have a special shape on paper and on the computer screen.

ABR: What do you think the role of poetry is in African society? And what would you like it to be?

ZNAIDI: I think poetry in African societies should be more important than its current role. It has to draw the attention of African readers to big issues in the continent and also has to come up with a vision for Africa, short and long term, through asking thorny questions that vex the people and leaders alike. Yes, it is difficult to change the world with a word. But, as writers and poets, we have always believed in the power of the word and in its reverberations. I would like African poetry to thrive and to contribute more to the human experience. A contribution that would bring great writers and introduce new voices to the international scene. I hope I can play my part in doing that.

ABR: Who are your favorite poets, and do you have any favorite African writers?

ZNAIDI: I read lots of poetry in Arabic and French. As for poetry written in English, I do not have special names to mention because I love to read as much as I can and to explore many experiences. However, I must admit that I have penchant for the works of  Walt Whitman, William Carlos Williams, T. S. Eliot, Wallace Stevens, Ezra Pound, E. E. Cummings, just to name a few. As for contemporary poets, I love the works of Ron Silliman, Charles Bernstein, John Agard, and Benjamin Zephaniah. As for African writers, I love the works of Abou el Kacem Chebbi, Chinua Achebe, Ngugi wa Thiongo, Wole Soyinka, Léopold Sédar Senghor, and many more.

ABR: What projects are you currently working on?

ZNAIDI: There are always things simmering in my mind. Right now, I am working on some poems about Sappho.I am translating some more poems by American poet Catfish McDaris into Arabic. I am also trying to better my techniques in visual poetry.

Ali Znaidi (b. 1977) lives in Redeyef, Tunisia where he teaches English. He graduated with a BA in Anglo-American Studies from the University of Sfax for the South. He has authored four poetry chapbooks including Experimental Ruminations (Fowlpox Press, 2012), Moon’s Cloth Embroidered with Poems (Origami Poems Project, 2012), Bye, Donna Summer! (Fowlpox Press, 2014), and Taste of the Edge (Kind of A Hurricane Press, 2014). Links to his published and forthcoming works can be found at aliznaidi.blogspot.com.

Fiona Leonard: An Interview

The African Book Review hosted a live interview with Fiona Leonard, author of The Chicken Thief on Saturday, July 5th. Here’s a condensed version of our interview, filled with Fiona’s playlist of African songs she listens to when writing, the inspiration behind The Chicken Thief and her plans for her next books.

Fiona Leonard

ABR: We’re hosting a live interview with ‪@FionaJLeonard author of ‪The Chicken Thief, a fun tale involving chickens, politics, & revolutionaries. Hi Fiona, you’re in Ghana right?

FIONA: Hi ‪@AfricanBkReview thanks so much for suggesting this! Yes, I’m in Accra, Ghana. I’ve been here for almost 5 years.

ABR: I know you’ve travelled around the world a bit. How did you land in Ghana?

FIONA: My husband is Ghanaian (& Filipino). We’d been travelling for a year in the US & Canada and decided to…come to Ghana and spend some time here with his family. We originally thought it would only be for a year or so, but then we stuck around! It’s been a very creative 5 years for us


ABR: Especially with you just publishing a book! Tell us a bit about The Chicken Thief

FIONA: It tells the story of a young thief who accidentally rescues a war hero who has been held prisoner for 25 years. That sets in motion a chain of events that threatens to bring down the entire government

ABR: I think that’s what captured my attention when I first read the book, the intersection of harmless chicken and serious politics. I suspect there’s a funny anecdote behind why Alois (the main character) steals chickens? Why chickens? 

FIONA: One day when you have time Google ‘how to hypnotise chickens.’ I found it by accident and it really appealed to me. I loved the idea of someone who could do that. (Apparently Al Gore is a chicken hypnotizer of note!)

ABR: Wait what! I was a bit mind-blown by all the chicken-stealing details! And they’re all real? That’s awesome.

FIONA: Well, I can’t say I actually tested them, but everything I’ve read and watched suggest it’s possible!

ABR: So what was it like doing research for The Chicken Thief

FIONA: I lived in Zimbabwe for 3 years and travelled a lot in the region. I read widely especially about liberation struggles so that was a big part of it. And a lot came from talking to friends and people who had lived through those times. Plus the Internet is a godsend to writers!

ABR: Did that play a role in why ‪it’s set in Africa? 

FIONA: Definitely! There were so many stories I wanted to capture in some way.

ABR: What was it like, getting people to talk about the liberation struggles in Zimbabwe? Was it difficult? Or were people open?

FIONA: No, people talked about it. And there are great films like Flame, Peter Godwin’s Mukiwa (amongst many others) plus all the fascinating works out of South Africa. My story is all fiction though. It’s not a rendering of any particular event or person.

ABR: Fiction sometimes is able to capture the truths that nonfiction can’t. It reminds me of ‪Juan Gelman and ‪Ariel Dorfman, who wrote poems and stories during the Dirty War and disappearances in Argentina and Chile. It sometimes gets to the heart of an issue the way other sources can’t. Did that influence setting the novel in an unnamed African country?

FIONA: I left the country ambiguous, because I didn’t want people to bring preconceptions to the story, especially because the President is a character. I didn’t want people thinking ‘oh she means Mandela’ etc. He could be any one of many. It gives the reader power over the story. Reading should be a dynamic exchange, if you wanted to read this as a story about the DRC (Democratic Republic of Congo) and someone else (reads it as a story about) Mozambique that’s fine with me!

ABR: Going back to Alois, I loved all the complexities he embodies. What ultimately, does he want?

FIONA: I’ve always felt this was a book about independence, both what it means for a country and for an individual. Alois is searching for that independence, finding his place out of the shadow of his father in particular and working out what he has to contribute to the world.

ABR: All your characters have a great sense of wanting to be more or do more for their country. Was it fun creating each character?

FIONA: Yes, I have a soft spot for them all. My family think I’m insane because I talk about the characters as if they are real, which of course they are. And they seem to resonate with readers. I mentioned on Facebook one day that I was thinking about killing one of them in book 2 and there was an outcry as people discussed who it couldn’t be!

ABR: I’m joining that outcry! Also, there’s going to be a second book? That’s exciting! What’s your writing regimen? Do you do anything to get you in the mood to write?

FIONA: Yes, the second book is finished and I’m a chapter and a half away from finishing the third. I try to write every day, 1000 – 1500 words. I have a playlist to fallback on when I can’t get my head into the write space. There’s a nice unintentional misspelling! I meant right space, but write space is true too!

ABR: SHARE? Please?

Continue reading “Fiona Leonard: An Interview”

Run till you no longer see yourself in other men’s eyes: Nick Makoha

The African Book Review met with finalists for The Brunel University African Poetry Prize to discuss their poems, inspirations, and hopes for the future of African Poetry. Here’s our interview with Nick Makoha, a poet from Uganda, whose powerful poem “Beatitude,” dwells on the pain of refugees forced to leave their country.

ABRWhat inspires you to write poetry and what inspires your poems?

Nick Makoha

MAKOHA: Writing for me has never really been a hobby. It is something that I have done since I was a child. Initially I was inspired by the ability to play with words, to use language as a puzzle. It became my playground, something I did without thinking just for the joy of it. But as I moved from country to country leaving my homeland of Uganda, language became something else: it became a refuge. It also became a place where I could reap the harvest of my emotions….

In my ignorance I assumed everyone wrote poetry. I wrote my first public poem for a math teacher that died of a heart attack at my boarding school in Kenya. I remember crying under a tree and thinking there must be a better way to remember him. He had been a pillar of support and writing a poem was the only way I could find in my 14 year old self to honour him. The poem was published in our yearbook and it was the first time I was called upon by my community to be a poet of the people.

So to answer your question, I would say what inspires me to write is a strong conviction or the welling up of emotion. The skill is to identify these convictions when camouflaged by ego, stereotypes and day-to-day living. My collection The Second Republic was inspired by my need to return emotionally to Uganda. I am describing a metic experience, a foreigner living in a land that is not his own. A person in exile is a person between two worlds, where language becomes the conduit through which emotion is expressed.

ABR:  Your poem “Beatitude,” which is a finalist for the Brunel University African Poetry prize, touches on an everyday (almost casual) violence as the backdrop to a country that is unstable. The lines “Run past sleep, past darkness visible./ Stop when you find a country where they do not know your name,”  are especially powerful. Can you talk a bit about the inspiration for this poem and what it’s representative of?

MAKOHA: “Beatitude” is a perfect example of the metic experience. This poem came as one stream of consciousness. I really had to stop myself from writing it. It is a capstone in my poetry collection in that it holds a hidden pain which I really discuss about leaving my country. It also sets up the cinematic landscape of the world I want my reader to inhabit; a world that does not belong to the European consciousness.

It is a world that runs parallel to the world we live in right now.

In today’s culture there is a cynical view of the refugee or the asylum seeker but I wanted to give a clear understanding of what many people around the world suffer in a matter of fact way.

Beatitudes are the blessings that Jesus gave in the bible. I wanted to communicate that for many leaving their beloved it homeland and running to freedom is a blessing at the cost of losing all.

ABR:  As a Ugandan poet, how has Uganda influenced your works, and what do you think the future of poetry in Uganda is? What ideally would you like it to be?

MAKOHA: Most of my life has been spent out of Uganda. So my Ugandan influences are indirect or subliminal. The writing of these poems has brought me closer to my culture as I have investigated my heritage through literature. Early on I read Okot p’Bitek and Okello Oculi. Most useful was leading the politics of many African writers from all genres. People like Ben Okri, Wole Soyinka, Ngugi Wa Thiong’o… their insights are like finding gold in a river.  As for the future of Ugandan Poetry, I hope it is at the beginning of a great journey. A journey that brings great writers to the international stage. I hope I can play my part in doing that.

ABR: Do you have any favorite African books? Any that have particularly influenced you or that you just love for some reason?

MAKOHA: If by favourite African books you mean books that I come to again and again there are many; Of Chameleons and Gods, any play by Athol Fugard as his works hold up to any generation. This week I am reading Jack Mapange’s Beasts of Nalunga.

ABR:  Can you talk about your future projects and things you are currently working on?

MAKOHA: There are few projects that I’m working on currently. My show, My Father and other Superheroes will be touring later on in the year. And my first poetry collection The Second Republic will be out soon. There has been interest in making parts of this poetry collection into a film. I have also been commissioned to be part of a special basketball project on which I can say no more at this point

ABR: Thanks and congratulations on being a finalist for the Brunel University African Poetry Prize.

MAKOHA: Thank you. It is a great honour of being picked as one of the finalists I feel privileged to be among their number.


Born in Uganda, Nick Makoha fled the country with his mother during the Idi Amin’s regime. His debut pamphlet series, The Lost Collection of an Invisible Man was published in 2005 and he is currently working on his first full poetry collection. Nick represented Uganda in the Cultural Olympiad Poetry Parnassus at London’s Royal Festival Hall. His one-man show My Father & Other Superheroes debuted to sold-out performances in London, and a national tour begins at the end of 2014. 

So what? my scars are bigger than yours!- Inua Ellams

The African Book Review met with finalists for The Brunel University African Poetry Prize to discuss their poems, inspirations, and hopes for the future of African Poetry. Here’s our interview with Nigerian poet, Inua Ellams, whose poem “Crime and Punishment 3” revolves around a hilarious joke but also underscores Africa as an emerging world power.

ABR: What inspires you to write poetry and what inspires your poems?

Inua Ellams

ELLAMS: In my first poetry monologue “The 14th Tale,” I wrote about an incident that occurred in secondary school a few months after I arrived in London from Lagos, where I watched the new kid Luis, who’d just arrived from China, who spoke barely a word of English, pee against a wall. We had skipped a lesson and were hiding from teachers in one of the playgrounds in Holland Park School. A conversation broke out on different shapes of excrement (it’s what boys talked about back then) and after laughing, nature called. We lined up to pee against the wall and something curious happen. Whenever I pee (stay with me) I get a tickle, a tremor that travels the length of my spine. Of the four boys who passed urine, only one shivered as I do, as I have always done. Luis. It was a simple, insignificant thing, but to my twelve year old mind, it proved that regardless of race, background, age, culture, Luis and I shared something intensely personal; we were viscerally the same I believed back then. I still believe in the universality of the human experience, I write poetry for that reason, trying to show the many ways we are similar.

ABR: Your poem, “Crime and Punishment 3,” which is a finalist for the Brunel University African Poetry prize, occurs against the background of traditional moonlight tales and seems to suggest a passive struggle between old world hegemonies and emerging African powers.

Can you discuss the inspiration for this poem and post-colonial Africa, Nigeria specifically, as a world power?  Or is this more a commentary on Nigerians who are finding innovative ways (writing a cheque for a dead man) to announce themselves on the world stage and take advantage of its resources?

ELLAMS: The joke came first. I think it was originally an Englishman, a Scott and an Irishman with a dead American colleague and the Irishman walked away with the cash. When I first heard it, I laughed for one whole week and began to realise that the same culture/stereotype dynamic would exist if a Nigerian was to walk with the cash, perhaps even more fitting given our notoriety, so I reset the joke within that context and began telling it at poetry events that attracted a large African clientele, and I’d make the deceased colleague a Ghanaian. It worked, they got the joke and months later, I attempted to write it down as poem.

The poem is a comment on all of the above, but I primarily wrote is as a response to the ‘Africa Rising’ narrative which is actual and growing so rapidly, we can’t keep up with ourselves. Embedded in this narrative is a growing awareness of how we fit on the world stage, who we were, who we have become, why we are, and the various ways we take advantage of those aspects of our identity.

The poem echoes a trend in contemporary African art: the growing bravery and agency to be unapologetic about ourselves; to show our scars (if any) and laugh proudly ‘so what? my scars are bigger than yours!’

ABR:  As a Nigerian poet, how has Nigeria influenced your works?

ELLAMS: I think the strong narrative slant to my work comes from my childhood in Nigeria, the stories I was told and observing my father talk; the way he would gist with his friends over suya and jollof rice, the mythical yet everyday quality to those early years govern the way I write. My father was a Muslim when he married my mother who was a Christian and I grew up following both faiths. This taught me to balance opposing (apparently) faiths, opinions and worlds from an early age and a lot of my work is about balancing truths and lies to tell a greater truth. It is heart breaking to see how things have deteriorated – that I as a child could hold both faiths in mind effortlessly, yet it is causing such havoc in the country.

ABR: Can you talk about your future projects and things you are currently working on?

ELLAMS: I am currently working on three books and three plays. A pamphlet of poems called Crime and Punishment, another called #Afterhours and my first full collection called Of All The Boys Of Plateau Private School. I’m also working on a poetry and basketball project called ‘Spalding Suite’ with a team of five other poets of which I am a contributing editor. I’m working on another poetry/basketball epic called ‘The Half God of Rainfall,’ and finally, working on two versions of the same play. The first, the hour long version is called Fast Cuts and Snapshots and the second, the two hour long version is called Barber Shop Chronicles – both plays explore contemporary African masculinity, globalisation and fatherhood through the lens of barber shops.

Inua Ellams is a Nigerian poet, playwright and performer. He has published two poetry collections, Candy Coated Unicorns and Converse All Stars and Thirteen Fairy Negro Tales. His first play The 14th Tale (a one-man, self-performed show) was awarded a Fringe First at the Edinburgh International Theatre Festival, and another play called Black T-Shirt Collection was staged at the Royal National Theatre (UK). He is currently working on new plays and poetry collections.  Follow him on Twitter @InuaEllams.

Ishmael Beah: An Interview

We were fortunate enough to get an interview with the author of our first review (A Long Way Gone), Ishmael Beah. We had a great conversation, not only was Beah gracious in accommodating our probing questions into the intense emotionality behind the book, but also astute in discussing Sierra Leone today, his hopes for his country, and efforts to make it a place that matches those hopes. 

Ishmael Beah

ARBWhile reading A LONG WAY GONE, we were both moved and intrigued by the way you wove past and present to provide a fuller narrative. How was the process of going back and sorting through your memories to put the book together?

BEAH: It was very difficult to relive the memories of the war during the writing of the book. It was also the first time that I had allowed myself to delve back fully into what had happened as I needed to relive it again to be able to write it with the same emotions, feelings of the boy I had been in the war.

I wanted the reader come along the journey, to see hear, smell, and be close to what it felt like.

Of course this brought about nightmares and flashbacks again. I am happy that I did though; it is a small price, remembering, however difficult it was during writing, to pay so that people can know the story.

I survived and that comes with a responsibility.

So I wrote all I could remember and double checked the memories. The ones I doubted, I threw out and of course I also decided to leave out some things so that the book didn’t become a celebration of violence but rather showing what violence does to the human spirit.

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