AiW Guest: Rashi Rohatgi.
AiW note: This is the introduction to a series of poetry reviews on the New-Generation African Poets Chapbook Box Set from AiW Guest Rashi Rohatgi. Look for the follow-up reviews of the volumes in this box set in the coming weeks.
For the past five years, Chris Abani and Kwame Dawes have brought together work from up-and-coming African poets; they intend to bring together ten similar collections. The poets featured in this new collection are Leila Chatti, Saddiq Dzukogi, Umniya Najaer, Amanda Bintu Holiday, Omotara James, Yalie Kamara, Rasaq Malik, Kechi Nomu, Romeo Oriogun, Henk Rossouw, and Alexis Teyie.
This year, 2018, the eleven poets’ chapbooks were published by Akashic in a sumptuous box set. In previous posts, I’ve written about the New-Generation African Poets project’s curatorial optimism. Over the next few months, I will explore these chapbooks in a series of reviews. But a large part of what makes this series one to follow is its mediation on the corpus of African poetry. Tano (the Swahili title designating it as the fifth collection) is a point of coalescence, where the process by which the included poets are selected has maintained its overall shape, but in which we also see the selected poets actively responding to the process.
Abani and Dawes mention in their introduction that this year’s roster is predominantly Nigerian. What Nomu, Malik, Dzukogi, and Oriogun mention further in interviews is that this Nigerian consolidation isn’t accidental. They have been entering their work for the Brunel Prize for the past five years, but also creating their own pipeline towards this success through the founding of journals such as Expound and the poetry press Konya Shamsrumi. Neither their poetry nor their goals as poets are uniform, but they’ve used the gathering work of the series as a roadmap, and I wonder if it is one that can or will be followed by young poets in other parts of the African world.
Alongside these continental poets, we have poets of the diaspora reflecting to a greater or lesser degree on the experience of, or collective memory of, migration and the fluidity of the African literary world. Many of these poets could be denigrated by the ridiculous label of ‘sad brown girl,’ including the poet I was most excited to read, Amanda Bintu Holiday. This is the BME artist whose visual art in and since the 1980s has considered and responded to the politicisation of the black female body (for example, in this 1990 video response to Gauguin’s Manao Tupapau). Her poetry, here, treats concerns similar to those of 30 years ago while being completely relevant still. On both sides of the geographical divide, poets use their work to grapple with what it is to write African poetry in a familiar world strung together in new ways.
Dawes and Abani are well-known. In addition to their individual work, they teach together on the poetry MFA at Pacific University. Their editorial board is made up of well-regarded writers and academics also at universities in the US, the UK, and South Africa. They aren’t foraging for hidden poetry, but serving as well-networked magnets—though this phrase may downplay it, I do think of what Dawes and Abani are doing here as a service.
As a result, the Tano collection isn’t revealing hidden gems so much as showcasing what ground has been gained institutionally in the past year. In itself this is neither good nor bad, but of course for someone currently researching failed literary prizes in the African context, the question arises as to what the parameters of this pipeline are and what type of context they create for poets.
Dawes and Abani lean heavily on the Brunel International African Poetry Prize Shortlist (Dawes is on the panel of this prize, just as its chair, Bernardine Evaristo, is on the editorial board here and a judge for Dawes’ Sillerman First Book Prize for African Poets). The Brunel Prize has played a prominent role, of course, in launching the career of Warsan Shire. While success means Shire is not financially beholden to academe (neither cut-off from it), it has also seen her denigrated as a ‘sad brown girl online’ alongside other internet-literate women such as Rupi Kaur and Nayyirah Waheed. For Romeo Oriogun, this year’s winner and author of one of this collection’s most mesmerising chapbooks, it can be said that fame is dangerous. This is because he has been threatened for being openly gay as outlined in his poetry. Interviewed before his win was announced, he said he would use the prize money to travel, but I imagine it is also helpful in another current endeavour – he is starting a queer journal, responding to the institutional nature of his success by expanding, still further, its reach.
There are mentions throughout the collections of a distinct new form of connection: the internet and its reach make several appearances. In an interview, Dzukogi notes that “there is this lingering discourse in the African literary space… that is to say, forbids writers from the use of images and entities which are not available in their environments. But I am fascinated by how technology has reduced the world into my sitting room.” But mentions of technology are outweighed by a more perennial concern: the parent-child relationship. The exploration of mother as channel to the world caught me at a good moment (as a new mother myself) but also seemed to frame the poetry as entrée into an expanded, and expanding, African literary world. Abani and Dawes talk about these reckonings of the connected self as ‘coming out, not just in a sexual-identity way, but in ways in which that part of an African self can have a deep impact on the aesthetics that are needed to express it’. Abani further talks about how this collection, and the context from which it arises, has helped to foster a discussion that was ‘once reserved only for African fiction’ with the self ‘as locus for understanding’ rather than the nation. While these poems certainly illustrate the new, non-national contexts of African poetry, I’m not sure if we’ll see all African poetry go as mainstream as Shire’s, even though I want it to be true.
Grab a copy and join me in the comments here and on the reviews to come.
Rashi Rohatgi is Associate Professor of English at Nord University.