When the decision was made to split up Africa into countries demarcated by capitalist greed, whole families, communities and clans were left on opposite sides of the industrialist’s artificial curtain. My family is from the eastern part of Ghana – the old British Togoland – which voted in a plebiscite to join the then-forming new state of Ghana that was wresting independence from the British. This happened in 1956. My dad who was born in 1949, along with all current Ewes who were born before 1956, were born in occupied country. The Germans, after their defeat in World War 2, lost greater Togoland in two halves to the French and the British. My dad’s family, then in the British half, was united with the new state of Ghana under its charismatic leader Kwame Nkrumah after the 1957 independence declaration. The French allowed their other half of Togoland to stand alone, today’s Republic of Togo.

What this demarcation of Togo did was to take a people, the Ewe, and spread them thinner, across a third capitalist construct of state after Benin and Togo. The very fibre of what the new nations of Africa were to be built on, and what they have actually ended up being built on, has meant that the split Ewe communities of these three countries will grow up to be strangers a generation later. In the giddy years post-independence, there were calls to have Africans unite in the way they were before colonialist boundaries were enforced, only this time, under a political structure. This has not happened. The ensuing years of ebb and tide of this grand dream have lasted so undecidedly long as to have French shoots sprout over Beninois and Togolese Ewe, much the same way Ewe children of today’s Ghana will be caught speaking English with their parents at home.

I had a spiritual moment in 2013, on the first of my subsequently many transits through Togo while journeying across the continent. On my hour’s wait to catch an Accra flight, I strolled through a duty-free shop to get chocolates and such-like for home. It did not take long and I was soon at the counter to pay off and go on to check in. I speak rudimentary French, and at the counter, I made my initial conversations in French. The lady turned after taking my orders and to my fascination, spoke Ewe to other helps in the shop.

I had been away in Congo for 5 months. I had heard no Ghanaian language while I was away. I entered Togo with the awareness that this country was more spiritually close to my origins than the Ghana in which I was born. But I had not the faintest idea I will hear people in the airport speaking the language I speak at home. That, standing before, selling me confectionery, were probably a half of my family that stayed behind the industrialist curtain, borne out of capitalist greed and a mad scramble for this our Africa; and a plebiscite that chose the Gold Coast.

We concluded our transaction in Ewe, the sense of otherness more complete, that I could bring this language back across the border into the country from which we were first culled.

Since then, on my travels across Africa, I have stayed alert to the remnant spirits of our collective oneness, long before the colonialists separated us. I felt two of these again today in Congo.

This morning, another three weeks since I’ve been back in Congo, I spoke to an Ivorian. In the middle of our conversation, I asked randomly if he was Akan. After saying yes, he started speaking Twi. For a minute, I was baffled. There was absolutely no difference between his word choices, diction and inflections from those of any Akan on the streets of Accra. I indulged him. We went on and on. All along in my head and my heart, I fist-pumped at another spiritual reunion, a travesty on Ghana’s Western neighbour and us, that the Akan family had been split by these same boundaries. Every minute, I felt closer to this Ivorian when we spoke Akan than when he spoke English to me or when I tried to speak French with him. This is who we are!

On our way to lunch, my Congolese driver asked if I was from Ghana. He knew for sure because I’m quite popular as the only Ghanaian among a host of Nigerians and Congolese, but he had to start his conversation from somewhere. He struggled through his basic English, halfway a cliff where I met him with my basic French. At the point where our communication met, he made it clear he was descended from Ghanaians; that his maternal side, a family of Addos, had traveled to and settled in Congo where they married and never again left. He didn’t know the tree well, but he was related to famous showbiz personality now turned pastor Azigiza Jnr back in Ghana. When he asked if I knew Azigiza, I was more than excited to say of course!! But that response was, inside me, in answer to a burning question, ‘Did I just walk into a spiritual moment?’

Yes and yes. YES!! YEEEEEESSSS!!!! Yes!

I could have screamed.

Are we one across Africa? The blog address up here is afrilingual, connoting that I try here to be fluent in the language of our Africa. Welcome with me to 2015. Welcome to many more spiritual experiences of our oneness.

c

Dreamy shot of my driver and I. Connected over vast spaces, like all of us.

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Spoken word activist Loyce Gayo

Spoken word activist Loyce Gayo

This is the most spiritual poem I have ever attempted to review for this blog.

This year, America has dealt with race issues so profound that the black and pro-equity community has given itself no rest in protesting a system that has been crooked from the very beginning of the existence of the United States. The country was built on injustice, and today, many years after it has become the world’s most advanced, there is heartache for why it is not the most equal.

That this poem needs be written at all by Loyce Gayo, a spoken word artist I met in March on the campus of University of Texas at Austin a week after it won her the CUPSI 2014, is a testimony that stands against everything America holds true today. The land of the free is not exactly. When we got introduced by my very good friend and guest blogger on my Ghana blog, @notasinglestory, Loyce may have still been recovering from the emotional roller coaster of this poem’s performance. She later told me “Writing and reciting this piece has been the most spiritual experience I have ever had. It was and still remains a difficult reflection.”

That Loyce, a young poet, not American but Tanzanian, has to find herself in the place where, like a messenger accredited and sent by the motherland, she needs to scream these words to the hesitant listening ears of a systemically near-deaf America, is both heartbreaking and sorrowfully necessary in 2014.
This is the most spiritual poem I have ever reviewed.

Loyce cries when she performs this poem and if you listen well enough, not only will you be moved to perhaps understand a little of the passion she recites with, but a bit of your heart will cry too. This performance was the winning finalist of the College Unions Poetry Slam Invitational (CUPSI) 2014.

This year, Eric Garner, a black father of five minding his own business, was choked to death by a white policeman during an arrest in Staten Island, NY. The legal system found a trial for the offending officer Daniel Panteleo unnecessary. This year, Michael Brown, an unarmed black teenager was shot at least six times, including twice in the head and four times in his right arm, to death by a white policeman in Ferguson, Missouri. The legal system found Darren Wilson, the white police officer who committed the crime, not guilty enough for a trial.

I have included a video of Loyce’s winning performance and a text of the poem, hoping you can follow through as you listen. Afterwards, the review follows and even though it is the longest review I have ever asked you to read, this is important for posterity and one of my most engaging pieces of critical work. Read along as you watch. *I have added numbering to aid review.

HOW WE FORGET

We forgot we were worshipping beings,
We forgot you black Jesus
We forgot the king of kings
We forgot crowns do nothing for kings but put weight on their heads and a target on their backs
5         We forgot they tax our heads and put weight on our back
We forgot Sodom and Gomorrah were leveled by brimstone and divine judgment,
But Mississippi is still standing,
We forgot burning cities,
We forgot cities are still burning
10         We forgot colors are seasonal,
And that this skin will fade too
I forgot my skin,
Or perhaps I just ran out of fucks to give!
We forgot that some kid’s utopias,
15         Is a roof that won’t whisper the night to the sleeping bodies below,
We forgot bodies sleep below,
We forgot bodies float, bodies hang,
We forgot Barbecue Postcards, Strange Fruit and hooded men.
I forgot my rage.
20         And the pulse it leaves underneath my tongue
I forgot my tongue
And how it used to fit so perfectly in my purse next to my womanly duties.
I forgot my purse,
And my high heel stilts,
25         I forgot balancing is no longer an act,
When you’re hiding behind imported hair,
A downloaded smile,
A voice trained to jump through hoops of flames for your snaps and applause,
You don’t get it.
30         Shoot, you already forgot you woke up this morning,
You forgot to close the faucet when you were scrubbing that pot, that
plate, that spoon or your left butt cheek or whatever,
But you remember how that song goes right?
You remember how it went.
35         You remember you wanted your Grande Chai tea Latte with 3 Pumps, Skim Milk
Lite Water, No Foam,
And served at a hundred and twenty degrees.
You remember how spiritual of an experience that was?
I forgot where I wrote this,
40         I forgot if I was just ranting,
Or if I had forgotten to close the faucet when I was scrubbing that pot that plate that spoon
or my tongue, or  whatever
But I remember how this goes
I remember how spiritual of an experience this is
45         I forgot my heart was a burning city
Shoot, you already forgot, I forgot my tongue, remember?
We forgot that some kids walk past their utopias every morning,
Suburban bricks standing tall in proclamation of what statistics say they will never truly attain.
We forgot that some kids try so hard to forget tomorrow is even coming,
50         We forgot that there were kids smiling in barbecue postcards
Next to strange fruit and hooded men
Or perhaps we never had any fucks to give, you know
Sometimes I forget how hard it is to remember.

REVIEW
This poem is to the ear what a deliberately-mistaken sensory perception like an optical illusion is to the eye. All through, the poet tell us a series of things we forgot, in a way, reminding us of them as though we should remember them now, and then a few lines later, hits us with the reality that we just forgot again! The resonance of this style with the reality of America’s amnesia of race issues is deeply and tragically concise.

The poem begins by reminding us ‘we were worshipping beings’, and I find this a necessary line in introducing lines 2 – 4, which come to us with multiple layers of imagery. In line 2, we are reminded of ‘black Jesus’, a good time to bring our minds to the fact that this poem is going to be about race and black. In line 3, ‘We forgot the king of kings’; in the bible, Jesus from line 2 is known as the Kings of kings; but look across the landscape of American civil rights and you see a king, a King, Martin Luther Jr.; and then immediately you get a sense that this poem addresses an issue as grave to the poet as the story of the Bible.

In line 4, we forgot that with being a leader (denoted by the use of ‘crown’) for the civil rights movement, Martin Luther King Jr. bore the mark of a target. He was assassinated in the course of doing his ‘biblical’ assignment of leading black America to equality: isn’t it rather, leading white America to sense? Jesus, 2000 odd years before Luther, had borne a crown of thorns and had been himself a target in his mission to lead a lost humanity back to oneness with God. This line packs so many layers of meaning. Martin Luther and the leaders of the civil rights movements were some sorts of Jesus.

In line 5, ‘we forgot they tax our heads and put weights on our back’, evoking the burden of being black in America. The imagery of ‘weights on our back’ conjures the biblical episode of Christ having to carry his own heavy cross on his back on the way to being crucified. We are kings to bear this burden like the king of kings, like Martin Luther King, like Jesus, because this is what crowns do for kings.

Sodom and Gomorrah, a city so wicked that it gave English language the word ‘sodomy’, was leveled by fire and brimstone. It baffles our poet that Mississippi, not any less guilty, is still standing (line 7). What is the sin of Mississippi? The Ku Klux Klan’s most militant and violent chapter, The White Knights, was from Mississippi. Atrocities too evil to fathom were meted to black people in Mississippi. Black people’s hell in the days of the civil rights movement was Mississippi.

But we forgot! We forgot cities that burned (line 8) and that cities are still burning (line 9). More light is thrown on this line further down when the poet calls her own heart a burning city (line 45); the hearts of all black people still suffering violence and discrimination are burning cities; cities burning with rage. We forgot colours are seasonal (line 10) and eventually all skin will fade (line 11). Even then, before we were done talking about it, the poet had already forgotten her skin (line 12). We probably had too. Or maybe it wasn’t forgetfulness but just a defiant loss of steam for fighting for something so important; perhaps she had truly just run out of fucks to give (line 13). Why keep worrying when nobody listens and nothing changes?

The poet goes on to tell us about the fact that all some kids want to attain (their unattainable) is a proper roof over their heads, which is not the open sky that will ‘whisper the night to [their] sleeping bodies below’ (line 15). A fallen body with the sky whispering down on you night like you will whisper night to a child going to sleep right before you turn off the lights; only this time, night is a reference to death and sleeping bodies is a steely attempt not to scare you, because those bodies are asleep forever, dead. ‘We forget bodies sleep below’ (line 16), a subtle reminder that some have died for a skin that fades. In lines 17 and 18, brazen cruelty is euphemistically shared with us in a way that will shock you when you understand it. You have no idea what it is until you refer again to Mississippi and the KKK. This is where Loyce, in her performance, probably recalling her own personal experiences of hate and racism, lets tears tumble. “We forgot bodies float, bodies hang/ We forgot Barbecue Postcards, Strange Fruit and Hooded Men”. Bodies float, like birds on a current, because the KKK (hooded men), hanged black people by their necks, like Strange fruit dangling from trees. There is an original poem titled Strange Fruit (published 1937) that was written by Abel Meeropol and set to song by many different artists. The most famous version of that song was sung by Billie Holiday. The lyrics are contained in an International Journal linked here.

She forgets her rage (line 19). The rage that makes her heart a burning city and which she now tells us leaves a pulse underneath her tongue because she is a black woman (making it all the more of consequence), who the system expects to keep her mouth shut! She creates this effect by saying her tongue fits so perfectly in her purse beside her womanly duties (line 22). And guess what: she even forgets the purse that holds her tongue. Beautiful use of words for a tragic cause.

The entire poem is an attempt to draw America’s mind to the greater race issues of its life which it has conveniently thrown away just so it can live out its fake life more bearably. In which case she forgets her high heels stilts (line 24), a deceptive façade that makes her look as tall as she is not, while she hides behind imported hair (line 26) that makes her look as hairy as she is not, a downloaded smile (line 27), because face it, many times when you send those Laugh Out Loud emoticons, you’re not even smiling. Balancing is no longer an act (line 25) when we wear our fakeness. Balancing becomes our reality. The crookedness becomes our straight.
But we remember songs. And our long order for a cup of tea to the very detail of its flimsy temperature; trivialities. But Loyce dares us, as if we were not going to admit it, that this triviality was for us so spiritual an experience (line 38). Is this what we call spiritual? An order for a cup of tea? We’re left embarrassed, but the poem isn’t done.

She forgot where she wrote the poem and whether it was just a rant, or whether she had closed the faucet while scrubbing everything and her tongue but she remembers this poem even as she recites it, and that this poem is for her that most profound spiritual experience (line 44) which we seem to have misplaced and replaced with an order for a cup of tea. By properly forgetting the wrong things and rightfully remembering this poem, she sets our foolishness straight. She is on an unmistakable mission to thrust our forgotten dire race issues back in our faces and on our lips, as this poem has thoroughly and masterfully done.

When Loyce says she forgets her heart is a burning city (line 45), it feels definitely like she hasn’t really. Because after all, she has spent the entire poem till now showing us that burning heart. There is an epiphany when we’re smacked in the face next with the fact that we ‘already forgot [she] forget her tongue’ (line 46). This line is the hard-hitter that makes us see that even right now, we’re guilty of all she has been accusing us of since the poem began. We’re guilty of the poem. We couldn’t even remember she forgot her tongue a minute ago. How could we remember black men who died yesterday? Or last month? Or last year? Or last decade? This has been the driving message of the poem – Loyce uses examples loaded into her own poem to catch us forgetting. That America forgets so much that, it has let black people die without anything close to a national memory working for their protective honour and preservation.

The remaining lines are a call-back to lines 14 to 18 about kid’s utopias and hooded men and barbecue postcards with a background of strange fruit. The only addition, very poignant, is the fact that in this call-back, she tells us there were ‘kids smiling in barbecue postcards/next to strange fruit and hooded men’ (lines 50 -51). There were no smiling kids in lines 14-18. I will show you the picture of the premise of these words from a Ku Klux Klan postcard. Step this way to a page of KKK lynchings and hangings and find for yourself that one picture that shows smiling, young white kids posing in front of the camera, while KKK stood behind them and black men hanged. Did America ever have any care for this? Where is the proof? The caucus against says there has never been any care. Because there has been Tamir Rice. Then, Eric Garner! Then Trayvon Martin! And this whole list of blacks killed by cops since 1999, while the (in)justice system supervised!

Another addition which Loyce herself stresses is important to add to this review, are lines 47 to 48, in which “We forgot that some kids walk past their utopias every morning/Suburban bricks standing tall in proclamation of what statistics say they will never truly attain”; effectively a lie about the economic perspective of privilege. She says, “Minorities are at socio-economic disadvantage. And yet the American dream, so loudly professed, still doesn’t spare a second to ALSO remind black bodies, this was and never will be for them”.

Her closing line is an attempt to sympathize with our forgetfulness. It is the poet who has remembered all the important things while we forgot. But she turns the spotlight back on herself, in a certain self-indictment that gives an excuse for our forgetfulness: “sometimes I forget how hard it is to remember” (line 53)! Unspoken, but attempting to say, ‘I’m sorry, it’s ok if you forget. I’m being hard on you by demanding you remember so much. Asking you to remember that our skin colour made us different before you and the law, asking for equality, asking for space because #WeCantBreathe, asking you to probably finally find a couple of fucks to give!’

This is the most spiritual poem I have ever reviewed.

Warsan Shire

Warsan Shire

If you have been following new, exciting African poets, you have surely heard of Warsan Shire. My introduction to her poetry came in 2013 when she became the inaugural winner of the Brunel University African poetry prize. I had applied to that prize so I followed it keenly. Also, the fact that it was an African poetry prize initiated by Bernadine Evaristo “to draw attention” to poetry from Africa, gave me more than a little joy. Warsan has moved on in leaps and bounds since winning that award.

Warsan Shire was born in Somalia in 1988. She became popular in 2011 when her poem “For Women Who Are ‘Difficult’ to Love” (video with voiceover by Warsan) went viral. She moved to London with her family when she was still young and has traveled extensively for her poetry.

Warsan’s poetry is very simple yet very deep. Many of them, if not all, portray a woman who is fundamentally feminist. I have tried on countless occasions to review a poem of hers but much of her poetry’s depth makes it difficult to do full justice. She is the first poet I will review, whose poetry came to me as so beautifully difficult and this work is one of the easier ways to introduce her to anyone who has not read her work. It has taken a couple of days to decide on which of her works I can comfortably review. Not to be taken wrong, her poetry is very simple to read on the face but when you try to review, to interpret or to translate, you find that you are dealing with layers, layers and layers of meaning and thought. She became the first young poet-laureate of the city of London in 2013. In my previous post about the depth of Somali poetry, I have reviewed her in the same lights as Hadraawi, Gaarriye and K’naan; the first two, classical, the latter two contemporary poets in a glittering Somali poetry culture. Read here my review of The Kitchen published in 2011 by Flipped Eye in her chapbook with the title Teaching My Mother How to Give Birth.

The Kitchen

REVIEW

The title and setting of this poem by Warsan are a sort of deflection from a deeper story that is woven throughout the poem. How many great poems have been written about kitchens and cook books? I have seen few. But as the poem opens, your mind is cast unto delicacies of the palate, what with ‘Half a papaya and a palmful of sesame oil’ (line 1). In the second line, the poet sharply turns to address a woman whose ‘husband’s mind has been elsewhere’.

The third line, like a forgetfulness of the second and a reminder of the first, tells of ‘Honeyed dates, goat’s milk’, before it continues to address our woman in line 4 about her wanting to ‘quiet the bloating of salt’.
Our addressed woman’s husband has come to or has always been in the kitchen because in line 6, he kisses the back of her neck at the stove and in line 8, she offers him the hollow of her throat. There is some romance going in the kitchen interspersed with the preparation of what sounds like a coming romantic dinner with coconut and ghee butter (line 5) and cayenne and roasted pine nuts (line 7).

In line 10, Warsan gives us a hint of our woman’s suspicions; she has decided that her husband is seeing another woman but she doesn’t ‘ask him her name’. She lets him lift her by the waist (line 12) and lay her down on the kitchen counter (line 14). The melody of food continues interwoven with this woman’s story like a story sandwich with a hint of saffron and rosemary (line 9), vine leaves and olives (line 11), cinnamon and tamarind (line 13).

The poem winds down and the woman is told her husband is hungry (line 16). He had forgotten the way she tastes (line 18) but upon all his infidelity and wanderings, his other mistress could not and ‘cannot make him eat, like you’ (line 20) his wife. There’s some intertwining in these last lines that makes the poem endlessly complete. The man is in the kitchen because he is hungry. In the kitchen, he does not taste the woman’s food but seeks out pleasures of her body. He has forgotten how the woman tastes, not her food. The other woman could not cook him a better intimacy than his wife does and that is why he is back to his wife, whose ‘food’ is better. The fact that this poem takes place in a kitchen is just a subtle cover for something deeper that brewed underneath – underneath every line of this poem that reads food, every line staggered away from the edge of the page like an afterthought.

Do one thing for me before you’re through reading this review. Go back up and read every even-numbered line of this poem only. Forget the first lines and read the second line of each couplet. That is the story Warsan has been trying to tell us. Beautiful poem, isn’t it?

Edit: This post is quoted here on The Guardian UK.

Golden Baobab Prize Logo

Accra, Thursday, 11th September – The Golden Baobab Prizes for African children’s literature have revealed the 14 stories that made it onto their longlist for 2014.

Selected from a total of 210 stories received from 13 countries across the continent, this longlist showcases some of the finest African writers and African children’s stories today. With four writers each, Ghana and South Africa are the four most represented nationalities on the longlist. Other countries that had writers on the list were Egypt, Kenya, Zimbabwe and Nigeria. The longlist represents stories submitted to the Golden Baobab Prize for Picture Books and the Golden Baobab Prize for Early Chapter Books. No story from the Golden Baobab Prize for Rising Writers made it onto the 2014 longlist.

Speaking on the prizes’ evaluation and selection processes, the Prize Coordinator, Delali Kumapley commented, “Stories submitted to the Golden Baobab Prizes go through an incredibly exhaustive evaluation process. We have a team of about thirty people from all over Africa and around the world that read and score each story. A winning story for the Golden Baobab Prizes gets evaluated at most six times by different readers. This year’s longlist represents a very strong crop of African writers.”

Now in its sixth year, the Golden Baobab Prizes inspire the creation of enthralling African children’s stories by African writers. To date, the prizes have received nearly 2000 stories from all over Africa. In 2013, to increase its support of the African children’s literature industry, the organization, Golden Baobab, introduced the brand new the Golden Baobab Prizes for African Illustrators. This prize will complement Golden Baobab’s efforts in literature by discovering and celebrating Africa’s most exciting artists and illustrators who are creating images to tell stories to children.

According to the Executive Director for Golden Baobab, Deborah Ahenkorah, “Golden Baobab is dedicated to the mission of championing the finest African stories for children and celebrating the people who create these stories. In 2014, we dedicated $20,000 to our prizes alone. We hope to do even more. We are wildly encouraged by the promise we see in the 2014 longlist.”

The shortlist for the Golden Baobab Prizes for African literature will be announced on 30th October, 2014. The winners for the Golden Baobab Prizes for Literature as well as the winners of Golden Baobab Prizes for Illustrators will be announced on 13th November, 2014.
Below are the titles and writers on the 2014 longlist:

Early Chapter Book Prize
Ricky Dankwa Ansong (Ghana) – Kweku Ananse: The Tale of the Wolf and the Moon
Jayne Bauling (South Africa) – The Saturday Dress
Mamle Wolo (Ghana) – Flying through Water
Mary Okon Ononokpono (Nigeria) – Talulah the Time Traveller
Bontle Senne (South Africa) – The Monster at Midnight
Hillary Molenje Namunyu (Kenya) – Teddy Mapesa and the Missing Cash
Dina Mousa (Egypt) – The Sunbird and Fatuma
Picture Book Prize
Katherine Graham (South Africa) – The Lemon Tree
Aleya Kassam (Kenya) – The Jacaranda Tree
Kwame Aidoo (Ghana) – The Tale of Busy Body Bee
Mandy Collins (South Africa) – There is a Hyena in my Kitchen
Mike Mware (Zimbabwe) – The Big Ball
Shaleen Keshavjee-Gulam (Kenya) – Malaika’s Magical Kiosk
Portia Dery (Ghana) – Grandma’s List
About the Golden Baobab Prizes
The Golden Baobab Prizes for literature were established in July 2008 to inspire the creation of enthralling African children’s stories by African writers. The Prizes invite entries of unpublished stories written by African citizens irrespective of age, race, or country of origin. The prizes have expanded to include The Golden Baobab Prizes for Illustrations to discover, nurture and celebrate African illustrators of children’s stories. The Prizes are organized by Golden Baobab, a Ghana-based pan African social enterprise dedicated to supporting African writers and illustrators to create winning African children’s books. The organization’s Advisory Board includes renowned authors Ama Ata Aidoo and Maya Ajmera. Golden Baobab is proudly supported by The African Library Project.
For further information, please contact Delali Kumapley on info@goldenbaobab.org
Telephone number: +233 505-298-941

Critic: Pic Cred: Cleverboxer.com

Critic: Pic Cred: Cleverboxer.com

During my time away from this page a couple of weeks back, I had been thinking: What Is the Worth of A Critic? This thought may have first come to me when I was asked to be a part of the reading team for this year’s Golden Baobab Prize for African Children’s Literature, somewhere in June.

In arts, a critic is everything. The best chisel of a piece of art work in progress is a critic. The writer’s best chisel is his reader. The poet’s best chisel is his audience. The playwright’s best chisel is his auditorium.

Every story is a critique of some social construct. The first critic of any piece of work is the writer himself. For a writer to write anything you enjoy reading, he must have critiqued the possible questions you will have on his choice of words, his storyline, his characters, his narrative voice, his grammar. Every moment while he writes, he is trying to outwit you; trying to tell you the same story in ways you have never heard; trying to keep you from getting bored, even trying to keep you awake. Critiquing your responses!

When I read any piece of writing, my mind goes into critic mode: probably the reason I am typically slower at reading than most. I unconsciously pick out words, pick apart sentences, perform reconstructive surgery on battered expressions in my head, all while I read; perhaps because, I want to write better than I read. I want to be the best writer I can be.

I started work on a book. It won’t be out soon but I hope it won’t wait forever. As I write, there is a little sprite that constantly comes back at me, pointing a finger at that sentence I wrote, asking why I used an extra word, made the sentence sound so cliché, made the paragraph run so long, kept the wording so terse and uninspiring. Isn’t there a better way to put that phrase? Do I really need that entire sentence? This word here is going to turn readers off. I criticize myself.

For eternity, I have been critiquing other people’s poems, even long before I started to put it out here on this blog. The reason why I do it for poetry is that it can hardly go wrong. Poetry is correct even when it is wrong. Poetry transcends some measure of judgment.

These past weeks have been filled with reading some exciting stories as part of the reading team of the Golden Baobab Prize and I have realized that a critic can be wrong too. Sometimes, going back and forth, reading a story over again and benchmarking a story against one’s own view and imagination of the world makes the story more open to you. You owe it to every writer whose work you read, to be as thorough, liberal and accepting of change and difference as a fair critic can be. If your view is narrow, your critique will be narrow. If you have seen enough of the world by traveling or by diverse reading, you will appreciate better those quaint twists in a story set in another part of the world. An art critic is not typically a judge; he is more of a supporter in the stands, maybe even the coach, urging on his players (the story, the writer) to a winning end. It may not have crossed many minds but the critic critiques because he is cheering you on to a win.

At this point of reading, there is one conclusion I can draw about the next generation of stories on African kids’ library shelves; they will be bold, they will be fearless and they will tell the story of today’s African. I know this because I have felt the roller coaster of emotions that writers have told their stories with. All of those stories, some affected by true (and oft times, harsh) African political, economic and cultural inflections, are the real reason why Golden Baobab’s grand vision will succeed. The African has been given another stage to tell his unheard story to the world.

One of these stories will go on to win. When it does and you hear anyone mention that it has achieved ‘critical acclaim’, just remember the critic. It all started with a writer who second-guessed the story he wanted to tell, who listened to his characters lie to him in the first and the second and the third drafts, and who, regardless of the odds, outwitted the judges, answered their unspoken questions and critiqued his way to triumph. In this game, only the best critic wins.

Thank you all who keep reading this blog. To reward you, as much as I can, I will continue to inform of African Poetry Prize announcements as I receive news so we can all stay winning. The Glenna Luschei African Poetry Prize is another product of the African Poetry Book Fund and Prairie Schooner. If you’ve read this blog long enough, you will know APBF and Prairie Schooner from my brief post on my first meeting with Prof. Kwame Dawes, the Brunel University African Poetry Prize Announcements and the Sillerman First Book Prize for African Poetry. Get with your publisher and apply for this one. The deadline has been extended from July to October. Get more info on this announcement page. All the best :)

Glenna Luschei African Poetry Prize Guidelines

The Glenna Luschei Prize for African Poetry, under the auspices of the African Poetry Book Fund and in partnership with the literary journal, Prairie Schooner, is an annual award of USD $5,000. Named for the literary philanthropist Glenna Luschei, this Pan African Poetry Prize is the only one of its kind in the world and was established to promote African poetry written in English or in translation and to recognize a significant book published each year by an African poet.

Each year, the prize is judged by an internationally renowned poet. This judge for the inaugural prize is Nigerian poet and novelist Chris Abani.

• Books must be submitted in the year after their publication, which means that books published in 2013 must be submitted for consideration between May 1 and October 1, 2014.
• The 2014 contest is open to any book of original poetry, in English, published during 2013 in a standard edition by a full-length collection of poetry written by any African national, African resident, or poet of African parentage with roots from any country, living anywhere in the world. A standard edition is 48 pages or more in length.
• Books of translation are welcome and eligible for consideration for the prize.
• Self-published books are not eligible.
• Publishers may submit as many titles as they wish. The publisher should send four copies of each book to the Academy, postmarked between May 1 and October 1, 2014.
• There is no entry fee but an entry form is required for each title submitted. The winner will be announced in December.
• The African Poetry Book Fund will award the winning poet $5,000.
• Books published by the African Poetry Book Fund will not be eligible for consideration.
• Uncorrected galleys and PDF galleys of books will be considered as long as the publication date falls within the period of eligibility.

Please send four copies of each entry to the following address, postmarked between May 1 and October 1, 2014:

The Glenna Luschei Poetry Prize
The African Poetry Book Fund
Prairie Schooner
123 Andrews Hall
University of Nebraska-Lincoln
Lincoln, NE 68588-0334

Books will not be returned.

For more information, please contact:
Ashley Strosnider
Managing Editor
African Poetry Book Fund
africanpoetrybf@unl.edu
402-472-0911

POET’S PROFILE

Even the most modern of Mauritanian Architecture speaks to the Ages

Even the most modern of Mauritanian Architecture speaks to the Ages

Oumar Ba (1921-1998) was a Mauritanian poet among the most prominent from his country. I chose him for review after visiting Mauritania a couple of months back. It is a hot, beautiful country that is the site of the capital of the Ancient Ghana empire; the empire after which my country is named. So much of West Africa’s ancient history centered around the area of present-day Mauritania and it was good to see descendants of the people who have been noted in history as among the bravest and fiercest warriors and traders. Worthy of note also is the fact that West African poetry from the region of Mauritania, Mali and Senegal has been the toast of students of African anthropology, whether of the musical or free verse. Much of the country is hot, desert Sahara but I enjoyed my short stay. There is a deeply ancient feel about Mauritania.

I usually don’t but I have taken this introduction of Oumar wholesale from Poems for the Millenium,Vol. 4: The University of California Book of North African Literature.

‘Oumar Moussa Ba was one of the major scholar-poets of Mauritania as the country and Africa generally moved out of colonialism. He was born just across the border in Senegal (in 1921) to a marabout family that had always been Mauritanian (he once humorously joked that his village was in Mauritania but its cemetery, just across the river, was in Senegal). A self-educated man who later in his life received a graduate degree from the Sorbonne, he produced an outstanding oeuvre, composed on the one hand of translations of poems, sayings and narratives from the Pulaar language (Poems peuls modernes [Nouakchott: Etudes Mauritaniennes, 1965], published in Pulaar & French] & on the other hand his own writings in French, celebrating Sahelian Africa, its crepuscular nature, its myths, & its great men (Odes saheliennes [Paris: La Pensee universelle, 1978]). He is a true precursor & the first published Mauritanian Francophone poet.’

 

Justice Is Done

Beaten up,
Robbed,
Hospitalized?
And the witnesses?
Many as the grains of the sand:
Kadiel is one;
Ndoulla
Ndyam Bele is one
Even the birds can testify…
But you forget that the chief
Has his son as the judge
And his son-in-law as interpreter.

 

 REVIEW

This poem is a disdainful look at social justice in Mauritania, aptly titled ‘Justice is Done’ as if justice is really done. It is not.

Look at the first three lines: a common man is beaten up, robbed and hospitalized. He is given the most brutal of treatments but by who? We will find out soon

The misdeed was not done in the dark, because Ba tells us that the witnesses (line 4) are as ‘many as the grains of sand’ (line 5). In effect, innumerable. Everybody saw what went on; Kadiel did, Ndoulla did, Ndyam Bele did! He uses first names for the first two people, to show that they were everyday people. He uses both names for Ndyam Bele to conjour the image of a foreigner, not well known in the neighbourhood but who also stands witness. Even the birds, like overhead drones, saw it. Certainly it should be easy to get justice for the victim.

You deceive yourself if that is what you thought, says Ba. Because in the last three lines, he asks whether one forgets that the ‘chief’ (line 10, pay attention to this), has his son as the judge (line 11), and even if you need to have your complaint transcribed into the language of the courts, the chief’s son-in-law is the interpreter (line 12). You are doomed. This is the only justice you get.

The reason I said to pay attention to the use of the word ‘chief’ is because it rhymes with ‘thief’! Read that poem again, substituting thief for chief and the whole poem lights up at you. It is the handiwork of a thief to beat you, to rob you and to cause you to be hospitalized. By making this grand substitution which initially looks trivial, Oumar is escalating a trivial matter and putting his seemingly harmless poem on the corridors of power. The chief is corrupt, he is nepotic and unjust. He is the thief.

That little nuance, achieved upon translation, is the reason I selected this poem for review.  I hope you enjoyed reading as I did writing. Oumar Ba is a talent undoubted.