Wednesday, 21 March 2012

Poetry and Human Rights.... a world day.

 
This year the equinox anticipated one day, so from yesterday is spring in the northern hemisphere and autumn in the southern one even though here in South Africa the weather looks like summer. Today here is Public Holiday, the 21th March 1960 South Africa was under the apartheid regime and the same same day in Sharpeville a horrible massacre took place. A crowd of unarmed people guided by activist Robert Mangaliso Sobukwe against the pass law, was attacked and shot by the police. None public officer was judged guilty for that mass offend.
Poetry Reading at Castel Sant 'Angelo, Rome 2002
Since 1966 the UN, in memory of that tragic event which took place in South Africa,  has declared the 21st March the International day Against Racism. But today is also the International Day of Poetry. And this morning a news went through different social networks and online magazine, Italian Poet Tonino Guerra passed away at the age of 93. Not many people abroad, especially here in South Africa know him, but Tonino Guerra has worked with film director Federico Fellini and this may sound more familiar to an international reader. This day celebrating poetry  all over the world  a great poets who taught the youth that “optimism is the scent of life”, has started a new journey to a mysterious country leaving us with an enormous heritage of culture.
Marcia Theophilo, Florin Mmaka at 4,
 Me and on the right poet Giovanni Tonelli
Lerici 2003
I’d also like to see these two International days: against racism and of poetry, joined by unique link. In the world, so many poets since the past, have fought against injustice through words and many poets have been persecuted for their activism and action letting us aware that words are never neutral, that words always says where do you stand and what do you stand for. I always chose Czeslaw Milosz who said “what is poetry for if not to liberate people”. Yes this is the spirit I could here make a list and quote so many poets who in different ways have been and still are activists, in first line defending human and civil  rights . But it would be unfair not to list them all so I ‘ve chosen one poet, who I personally know, the Brazilian poet MarciaTheophilo. Trying to define Marcia is hard, she is the poet, she is the poet who since she was a young anthropologist started “translating” the myths of the Amazon Forest for the common reader without simplifying but just giving an infinite account of what the language of the Indios with its musical sounds, means for the mankind of nowadays.  The calamity that human being has thrown on the Amazon says how bad human being have been and is destroying the Great Forest. Marcia through her poems first she has brought the great heritage of the TUPI language, the language of the Indios, which could have been lost long time ago; she has brought to our attention the great myths and legends of the Amazon, with all its creatures and colors, scents and sounds;  she has shown that is possible to fight for the right using words;  the cause of the Amazon is the cause of all human being and is not only the destroying of trees and plants, but a great loss of indigenous people who live in close relationship with their environment, and the loss of their unique culture, language, knowledge of which we can't live without.

I met Marcia the first time, after a long exchange of e-mails,  in her apartment-workshop-studio set along the Tevere in Rome, together with her partner Aldo Turchiaro, an amazing painter who had been able with his intense colors and essential lines to translate Marcia’s poetry in images.
I was honored of her preface on my first poetry collection L’Ottava Nota,  and being together in international Poetry Festivals and in that beautiful landscape which is the one of Lerici launching one of my books from  the top of an ancient castle facing the beautiful Mar Ligure.  Marcia thank you for entered in my life, we still have Aldo’s painting on our wall and the little matrioska Florin gazes at when I talk about you….but most of all thank you for your  voice which , even after a long time, still waves in my ears and let me feel the greatness of your words.

This is one of the interview I did to Marcia in 2002. Published on the literary magazine ALICE.
VALENTINA ACAVA MMAKA -Marcia Theophilo, you were born in Fortaleza, on the North-East coast of Brazil, which are your most vivid memories of your Brazilian childhood?
MARCIA THEOPHILO - I grew up with other children, with the multicolored species of birds. I've known the forest from infancy. My paternal grandparents came from the Amazon, where my father was born.
In the Amazon of my childhood the children lived in the villages in total freedom. They played and the playing itself taught them to live, to pick the fruit from the trees, to mimic the sound of the birds and of other animals; to live rain and water as an element of play.

VALENTINA ACAVA MMAKA - In African countries, but also in Latin-America, family symbolizes the solid point in the life of the people. The family is large, people participate in it, they gather together, stay with each other even with little means.
What sort of family did you grow up in?
MARCIA THEOPHILO - Ours was a numerous family. My grandmother was born in the forest, and my father also is a child of the Amazon. The meeting with these proud, extraordinary people sparked the beginnings of my lyrical interests. My mother's family, on the other hand, is of Portuguese origin. They represented the city, the school, the rules of European life for me.

VALENTINA ACAVA MMAKA -  How would you define your childhood?
MARCIA THEOPHILO - I say that the poet is childhood. My childhood was filled with immense spaces, enormous trees and with flowers and fruits of the brightest colors. And all of this is my poetry.
VALENTINA ACAVA MMAKA -Which were the stories and legends were you told when you were little?
My paternal grandmother was the first person to narrate the myths to me. The immense visions of the river, the voices of the wind, the metamorphosis of the moon; stories of sirens and of gnomes. She made me aware of the polyphony of the voices and the sounds of nature where the animals, the trees, the flowers were characters who knew how to communicate with each other and with human beings. She was a grand Indian matriarch who told stories.

VALENTINA ACAVA MMAKA - What are the most beautiful memories you have of those times?
MARCIA THEOPHILO - As I told you, I was brought up in the forest, in total freedom. At that time, at only five years of age, I learned to write and from them on I was elected by my family, by my clan, as the scribe. I was respected for this and my work was given its due acknowledgement. I wrote letters for my grandmother; poetry dedicated to their boyfriends for my girlfriends; stories to perform. I was Marcia the scribe and it's from this precautious beginning that my life as a poet evolved.
VALENTINA ACAVA MMAKA - What did you use to read in your adolescence? Have there been literary characters that enchanted you and left you a mark inside you?
MARCIA THEOPHILO - The first books I read, during my childhood still, were those of Monteiro Lobato: "O sitio do picapau amarelo" (The Farm of the Yellow Wood-Pecker), which is a series of very popular books in the countries where Portuguese is spoken. It narrates stories in which imagination and fantasy are intertwined with reality. All the characters in this book fascinated me a lot but above all there was Emilia, a rag doll who could talk. Later my favorite character was Don Quixote.

VALENTINA ACAVA MMAKA - What did you think you would do when you grew up?
MARCIA THEOPHILO - I dreamed of being a poet.
VALENTINA ACAVA MMAKA - You studied anthropology in Rio and San Paulo; what memories do you have of your university years in Brazil? Why did you choose to study anthropology? What did you find fascinating about this science?
MARCIA THEOPHILO - They were incandescent years of great changes. I was interested in the difficult condition of the Amazon-Indians. I wanted to understand their humanity, which is pure at its origin and because of this threatened by degradation and exposed to great peril, in depth. Through my grandmother's tales I learned the meaning of their deep union with the forest, and through my experiences I became interested in the origins of the Amazon-Indians' culture. In my work I tried to make a fusion between emotional memory and cultural memory, between poetry and documentation, between the archaic world and the contemporary world and thus creating a whole in which all these issues intertwine. However, I believe that without the poetry one cannot reach the forest's soul. Anthropology is a subject which in the end favors objects and the material culture. I favor the lighter subject - the soul - poetry.
VALENTINA ACAVA MMAKA - In Brazil you were part of a group of avant-garde artists such as M.Bonomi, Otavio Araujo, Ubirajara, and L. Abramo who were active in San Paolo. What did you talk about when you met?
MARCIA THEOPHILO - I worked with important Brazilian artists: writing poetry for their catalogues and their exhibitions, and, in time, short essays published in a magazine called Science and Culture. Frequenting the world of each of these artists became a regular habit in my life as did the interaction between visual art and poetry. All the poems which I wrote on their work are collected in my first book which was published in 1974.
The historic avant-garde is solely a European phenomenon and was vital only at the beginning of the twentieth century. After that there were movements of neo-avant-garde. This means they have the defect of the neo. On the whole the protagonists of the avant-garde were active until before the second world war. Today I'm motivated by everything that transcends boundaries and slogans invented by the critics and by the market.
VALENTINA ACAVA MMAKA - When then did you become interested in man's emotional sphere and when did you begin to write poetry? Do you remember your first poem?
MARCIA THEOPHILO - The emotional sphere has always interested me. I began writing my first poems at the age of thirteen. They were poems which emulated the romantic writers. At the age of fourteen I sent two haikus to a newspaper's poetry competition, and I won it. The prize was a trip to Petropolis.
VALENTINA ACAVA MMAKA - Did anthropology somehow steer you both to poetry and to the search for a more complete understanding of mankind?
MARCIA THEOPHILO - Poetry brought me to anthropology, not the other way round. Poetry evoked myths and rituals and gave me the possibility of perceiving the spirit of this primary, rather than primitive, humanity in its original and highest state, and therefore close to the myth of origin and the divine according to the animism of the Amazon's tribes. To understand the essence of all this was possible with poetry and with the records of words and images which correspond to unique and irreplaceable beings, because each one of them is part of this marvellous ancient civilisation. Certainly only the latest technology, with its barbarisms, could be so audacious as to penetrate into a forest like the Amazon that had sealed in its core an infinite richness which the blast of the bulldozers is systematically destroying.

VALENTINA ACAVA MMAKA - Literature wise, who are the writers that formed you?
MARCIA THEOPHILO - I began reading the Portuguese and Brazilian classics in my adolescence. For example Letters by Pero Vaz de Camianha, which are the chronicles of the first travels and first contacts between the Amazon-Indians and of the Portuguese; Pilgrimage by José de Anchieta, a seventeenth's century travel book; and other authors such as Eça de Queiroz, Camões, Jose' de Alencar, Gonsalves Dias, Castro Alves. I also read the French and Russian classics. I liked Racine very much, and Victor Hugo, Camus, Tolstoi and, above all, Dostoevski. I also loved the Latin poets like Lucretius and Ovid. The characters which enchanted me are many, I read with great empathy, but perhaps more than anybody I was enchanted by Don Quixote and the Prince Minskin of Dostojevski's "Idiot".
VALENTINA ACAVA MMAKA - You had a deep friendship with the Spanish poet Rafael Alberti, which continued also during the difficult period of his exile. He wrote about you: With a knot in her throat/ Marcia Theophilo shouts,/ Marcia Theophilo sings./ Profound heart vigilant,/ hard voice denouncing/ in clear, open smile. How has his friendship affected you?
MARCIA THEOPHILO - The relationship with Rafael Alberti was born from my admiration for his capacity to fuse painting and poetry, animating the verses with images. Beyond this love for his painting and his poetry what united me in friendship with Rafael was his political involvement in the cause for freedom. It was a great friendship. I have to acknowledge that it gave an enormous input to my work, given that Rafael was a great poet who was also gifted with immense self-expression in his public recitals, and there I discovered that I too could develop a way of communicating to people through performance. But, above all, I understood that my territory, the well from which to draw, was not the prairie of the European culture, but my Brazilian and Amazon one.

VALENTINA ACAVA MMAKA - Where does your poetry come from?
MARCIA THEOPHILO - It is born from the music of words, not from an idea. Its origin comes from the musicality of the Amazon-Indians' words.
VALENTINA ACAVA MMAKA- Talking about music, you studied the piano for seven years: your mother wanted you to become a concert pianist. How much did this influence your poetry?
MARCIA THEOPHILO - A lot. When I write I associate words to a melody, to a musical motif and often tied to the flute or drum.
VALENTINA ACAVA MMAKA - Through poetry you've chosen to give voice to nature: that nature which lives and reproduces herself, which grows and multiplies, but, above all, to the one who suffers at the hands of man. How can poetry be the messenger for an idea?
MARCIA THEOPHILO - I think that Franco Loi gave a good answer to this in a review of my book I Sing the Amazon: «Certainly poetry does not offer ideologies or easy changes, but it speaks to consciences and souls, and its task has for ever been that of keeping awake the highest sense of correct mission and of true values in humanity».
VALENTINA ACAVA MMAKA - Marcia Theophilo and the forest. Do you feel more mother or daughter? Or maybe it's the same thing?
MARCIA THEOPHILO - My Indian side tells me that man and nature is the same thing. European culture, with its humanistic approach that favours separation, is today in a deep crisis.
VALENTINA ACAVA MMAKA - How then does Western culture differ from the culture of the Southern hemisphere, or more specifically, that of the Amazon-Indians', in its relationship with nature?
MARCIA THEOPHILO -The difference between the Western idea of nature and ours is that in the Western culture a tree is regarded as a decorative element of the landscape, whilst we consider it as being at one with our existence. Today Brazil is divided in two: on the one side there is the bourgeoisie and a country which is progressing, on the other side there are the abandoned children, the trees, the animals and all that which appertains to the emotional world which is not inserted in the economic system and which the powers that be ignore. Only when the system will be able to understand that plants are not only an ornament of the landscape, but sacred living beings, and that they are also life and oxygen; when it will understand that to violate infancy and also put at risk the future of adults, only then things will be able to change.

VALENTINA ACAVA MMAKA - Your poetry speaks of the Amazon-Indians, gives them a voice: describes to us their bond with the cosmos.
MARCIA THEOPHILO - I believe in the culture of origin rather than the academic one (necessary as it may be). Therefore, listening to the voice of my paternal origins, I allowed that which is dictated by my inspiration to flow. We know that the Amazon-Indians had an uninterrupted continuity with the environment and have never sought a separation from it.

VALENTINA ACAVA MMAKA - In your poetry you mix Portuguese and Italian . . .
MARCIA THEOPHILO - I think that Mario Luzi, in his introduction to my last book, Kupahuba - the Tree of the Sacred Spirit, explained my relationship with the two languages well: «Theophilo's Italian translation seems to be a twofold text. And this is not of little value given that the writer successfully expresses the rhythmic and the timbre system of the Italian language and yet, to my mind, without minimally sacrificing the rhythm of the original sound of the Brazilian-Portuguese language».
VALENTIN ACAVA MMAKA - It is said that the destiny or one of the characteristics of a human being is written in his name. In your poetry one meets marvellous creatures with fabolous names .  How important are names in the Amazon-Indians' culture?
MARCIA THEOPHILO - The names the Amazon-Indians have are names of flowers, animals, divinities of the forest. And it's by calling themselves thus that they again reinforce their profound relationship with nature. The less the names are spoken the more they become permeated with mystery, and so the Amazon-Indian names haven't become widespread like those of the European language. Given that they are less known they retain a major force of mystery.

VALENTINA ACAVA MMAKA - You write: the forest is my dictionary, as though it is she who dictates the verses of your poetry. Is that correct? What work do you do on the words?
MARCIA THEOPHILO - The dictionary is considered the collective reference for words, yet it is always limited in its numbers. The dictionary of the forest seems to me to be unlimited, infinite, where there are new words. The sea is also a dictionary as is the sky.
Mine is a work of research. Above all it is a research into my personal memory, in my memories of my family. Then I go directly to the place itself, the Forest, to look for verification. I look for the ancient origin of the names of the trees, the fruits, the animals, the rivers. They are names which already have the rhythms of musical notes in themselves: araracanga, kupahuba, jabuticabeira, ubirajara, mangalo, macaranduba.

VALENTINA ACAVA MMAKA - You've frequented or frequent memory a lot: first as an anthropologist and then as a poet. What is your relationship with memory?
MARCIA THEOPHILO - For me memory does not have borders, it begins from afar going backwards, and then continues from afar coming forwards.

VALENTINA ACAVA MMAKA - In your book, The Jaguar Children, you compare the children who are born and live in the forest to those who are born and live in a different type of forest - the cement one which is the big metropolis. Are there still jaguar children in the forest today? And how are the ones who live in the city?
MARCIA THEOPHILO - The name jaguar is a metaphor to give children a strength which is denied to a lot of them in Latin American cities. In fact they are abandoned in the metropolis and they wander like starving gangs in search for affection and food. It's a warning to those who undervalue their force and their presence.

VALENTINA ACAVA MMAKA - Have you come across awareness for the fate of the forest and the indigenous people amongst the young Brazilian poets? I mean are there others who use their art as messenger for a cause?
MARCIA THEOPHILO -The Brazilian political climate does not facilitate new voices: it's enough to read the political position on the Amazon. Politicians consider the Amazon to be an exclusively Brazilian commodity and that's why they feel that they can administer it in a nationalistic fashion; and this too is right, but only relatively so. That which is lost on politicians and businessmen is that if the oxygen which the forest generates disappears the whole planet will bear the consequences.

VALENTINA ACAVA MMAKA - What did poetry taught you and what is it still teaching you?
MARCIA THEOPHILO - What poetry has taught me is that one must invent it. That one has to invent the rules and not follow them.
VALENTINA ACAVA MMAKA - Can you give our readers the names of young Brazilian or Portuguese poets who deserve to be read, and why?
MARCIA THEOPHILO -I have, in fact, an anthology of Brazilian poets which I've translated to show publishers, but the voices I know are not antiestablishment voices. Let's hope that there are some hidden voices.
VALENTINA ACAVA MMAKA - You've received many prestigious recognitions for your work. You were also a candidate for the Nobel Prize. What would winning this prize mean to you?
MARCIA THEOPHILO - Winning prizes is a dangerous goal, but they help communicate to others what is being hatched inside of us, and this could be helpful to others. Defending trees is today a goal which is of interest to both the planet and man because of the air we breathe.
 
OTHER INTERVIEWS I DID TO HER  CAN BE READ IN ITALIAN



Thursday, 8 March 2012

Memories of the stage



It was the end of 2004 when I first received a call from Fulvio Ianneo, Director of the Reon Theatre Company in Italy who wanted to put into stage my play I… immigrant… woman  … (original title Io...donna...immigrata ... volere dire scrivere - Published by EMI 2004). I was very excited because it is not common to have the opportunity to see your work  “translated” into another “language”, oral and  body language. I was already happy that my play had been published and we writers know that especially when it comes to plays, first a play is staged than it is published! But things not always happen in the same way!
Astrid Mamina Kayembe and Imane Khalil Combes
I can vividly remember that call, I was then living in a lovely medieval small town between Liguria and Tuscany already a busy mother of three and full of projects.  That call was shortly followed by other calls, mails and finally a meeting.  What liked me of that project was the experimental approach to my work the director had, as if my play was to be considered a workshop and in the end it had really become a workshop testing the expressional and acting skills of the actresses but also the direction has been challenged and my part too, behind the scenes.  
When I first wrote the idea of this play right here in South Africa in the mid 90s. That time I was collaborating with a group of women with different experiences of migration on their background, some were refugees, some were more simply trying to change their lives with all the difficulties of being far from their “home”.
Back to my play, the director’s idea was to set a team of three foreign actresses for the roles of my immigrant women. Wow, I thought at first! Three immigrant actresses? How would have they learnt Italian good enough to be on stage performing the role of migrant women dealing with their displacement, with their loss of  identity and solitude. The experiment resulted fabulous, three French speaking actresses, from different African countries of francophone area (Egypt, Algeria, Congo) did a wonderful work, learning Italian in few  months, rehearsing  in Italian and bringing into stage their perception of what does a migrant woman feel when is far from what she used to call home with its affections, language, culture, memories.
The debut was in a Kaidale Tent, those wonderfully crafted tents Berbers use to live in the Maghreb desert, the tent was installed in a very popular area of Bologna,  in front of a building where 340 different world’s  tribes cohabited together. The venue was symbolic and the people who came  were truly amazing and participative, I believe the play represented in that experimental form has been cathartic for the many of them. 
A few days ago a  friend of  mine dropped in my mail box a bunch of pictures about the day of the debut in 2005 and this reminded me the lovely time I had  and all what has followed the years later, more stages, more theatres, more readings and meetings and workshops. That debut evening I was with my dear friends Soheila Ghodstinat and Valeria Engroba  and of course Imane Khalil Combes and Astrid Mamina Kayembe.



Director Fulvio Ianneo

Astrid Mamina Kayembe and Imane Khalil Combes

"Drasla - Does one have to belong to a place to be a person?  Every day I try to learn new words in this language but I always end up forgetting them the day after. Perhaps I don’t commit myself enough. People expect this from someone like me. They think that the foreigner who escapes from her own country in search of her dream should at least try to  make an effort to form a proper sentence.  I mumble and I stumble over words as if they were stones. When I’m lucky the words are pebbles that slip under the tip of my tongue and  bounce of my palate. I don’t want a dream. I want my reality; the one which the scrap metals of war shattered one cold autumn day."

Astrid Mamina Kayembe and Imane Khalil Combes
 
ALINA - Patience. I was born with patience, I was raised with a sense of waiting without complaining. I’ve  never seen patience as a necessity of the moment, it is just there, inside me. I know how to wait. Otherwise, I would have never come here without knowing how long it would be till I’d have the money to buy all the bricks needed to build my house. It must be a solid construction, not like the houses where I grew up, that the wind can sweep away if it happens to get crazy!


Imane and Astrid among the public


FARIDA - I write for weaving the piece of the tattered memory that wont consider us. Not knowing who we are is a punishment for us, because not knowing what there was before, makes it difficult to create the present. Nobody leaves you in peace, because they are afraid you might create new power for yourself;
I write to not feel a stranger only a foreigner,
I write for you so you can recognise yourself in my diversity;
I write to tell about the other...
W
With my stars
Astrid and Imane with friends of the public

Sunday, 4 March 2012

Trying to question God through poetry ... chatting with brillant poet Gimba Kakanda

When it comes to chat with writers is always an experience of fulfillment. We have read their work and we have already absorbed  their vision of life and when it comes to talk  about life and writing it’s like we are just adding a few particulars. But when it comes to chat with young writers is above all, a revelation, a new mosaic to compose. Gimba Kakanda is a young Nigerian poet and writer who reveals himself with a determined voice, committed in promoting literature as a “free” space where none should compromise his own integrity  because: “A society where writers rely on government is doomed.
It’s impossible to approach his poetical view and his challenging activism without being invaded by his brilliant critic on literature, politics, society. A courageous voice raising from a difficult country for which he asks an act of responsability knowing that "Unless inclination to the intellectual is encouraged, Nigeria, like any other African country, is on the road to destruction".
Born to the Kakandas who inhabit the banks of the River Niger, Gimba is the author of the poetry Collection Safari Pants (Kraftgriot 2010), of the novel soon to be published Book of Night. He edits local magazines and he is the Literary  /Book Analyst of the new literary Agency Blues & Hills consultancy based in  Lagos, Nigeria. His poems, essays, polemics and reactions to topical issues have been published in various local and international media, including the Indian Journal Prosopisia: An Anthology of Poetry and Creative Writing.


VALENTINA ACAVA MMAKA - How is it to be a young writer in modern Nigeria?
Poet Gimba Kakanda
GIMBA KAKANDA - It’s challenging. For a cynical critic, the place of an aspiring writer is no longer guaranteed. There has been a decline in literary enthusiasm since the collapse of definable publishing houses in the 1990’s. A young or aspiring writer is thus challenged to hone his art to a point that some so-called established writers notice his or her crafts. A young writer is challenged to be adventurous, undergo self-tutorship and subsequently fraternise with his peers before making a mark in the literary cycle. In Nigeria today, the existing publishing outfits are only interested in writers endorsed by the West, writers who have won Caine or Commonwealth or Orange prizes – a criterion of which seems to be celebration of the ‘dark’ stories of Africa. Aside from these, some cynics are worried that the traditional paper publishing may also be hit by the technological innovations of digital publishing which has taken a prominent position in the global market. But a large percentage of Nigerian readers are still in what I called ‘analogue age’, dependent on the printed books. It’s just the privileged few that are used to the e-books. So, the scourge of digital publishing is being exaggerated by a number of Nigerians on the social media, especially those in the Diasporas. I’m not saying that we’re still in the Gutenberg’s age; it’s just that traditional paper publishing is still the hope of Nigerian book industry. However, the decline in readership has nothing to do with the dilemma between the print and digital publishing; the decline is an effect of severe economic weather aggravated by our fallen educational standard. The government-owned schools in Nigeria are eyesores, such that the products of those institutions come out without inclination to anything intellectual let alone literary. While existing Publishing outfits like Farafina and Cassava Republic are only interested in writers who have won a prize or celebrated overseas, a new publishing outfit called Parresia just announced its presence in the Nigerian literary scene, signing on two dissenting voices, Abubakar Adam Ibrahim and Emmanuel Iduma. Obviously they’re set to take over from those who publish ‘big names’ and their friends. Parresia Publishers chose its writers based on merits. The people behind the outfit, Sentinel Nigeria’s Editor-in-Chief Richard Ali and Lagos-based editor Azafi Omoluabi, are not some philistine capitalists one may think are here for any reason other than restructuring Nigerian literature.

   
VALENTINA ACAVA MMAKA - As far as you can remember how old were you when you started writing and what was it about?
Gimba Kakanda and writer Tash Aw
GIMBA KAKANDA - I grew up with books. My father was a school teacher, known for a no-nonsense stance on education. He had a wonderful collection of books in his study; so while growing up he was sick and away for medication. That gave me an opportunity to be sneaking into his studies and stealing books, to an extent that my Mum discovered my theft and was alarmed. I grew up with those books, from an attraction to the pictures in the books to the faint comprehension and then discovery of some styled form of writing which at first I mistook for song lyrics but eventually realized was poetry. I became very attracted to poetry after a long bout with the many novels. So, at a point I began to imitate what I read in the books, I began to have my feelings expressed in verses. But the first effort that I ever considered poetry was written at age 17 when I lost my mother. I was devastated. I tried to question God through poetry. I gave Him alternatives. The poem, though reworked as I matured, is included in my book Safari Pants – a poetry collection.

VALENTINA ACAVA MMAKA - Who do you recognize as your literary models?
GIMBA KAKANDA - I’ve argued with many colleagues that the major tool in the making of a writer is his mastery of the language of expression, and then his imaginative power. For a story to be worthy of my endorsements, creative use of language must be pronounced and then, very importantly, the freshness of the writer’s thematic engagement. I hate banality. It vexes me when a writer panders some trite stories without a fresh or refreshing approach. Everyone is born with stories, it’s one’s special ability to tell in a much stimulating language and yet with peculiar perceptions that make a teller, a writer, a creative writer. But when you try to point some things out, your colleagues think that one is being puritanical about writing. We’re killing literature this way. My models are the Nigerian Nobel Laureate Wole Soyinka for the magnificent language of his non-fictions; Ben Okri, for his heavily imaginative fictions which, sadly, are obscuring and unexciting in his recent books like Starbook and In Arcadia; Salman Rushdie’s elegant narratives are ever my delights; the fictions of Maik Nwosu and Biyi Bandele never stop stimulating me, the former for his adventurousness and brilliant mythicisation of histories and the latter for his convincing depictions through employment of humours and elements of drama. Egypt’s Yusuf Idris is ever a model in short stories. He and Bernard Malamud humour tragic events without becoming comedians. That’s sheer genius. In poetry, my models are just too many. I’ve reached a point that I only admire them, because calling them models means I want to imitate them. I don’t know what they call ‘voice’, actually. But I believe that I’m writing attuned my own pulse. 

VALENTINA ACAVA MMAKA - How is the situations of writers in Nigeria today (also related to the publishing industry)? Writer Taiye Selasi and other like Ben Okri said that young Nigerian writers become popular in their own country only if they have been published first overseas. Do you share this view?
GIMBA KAKANDA - Just as I said earlier, there’s this disgusting exudation of inferiority complex among Africans; we’re inclined to certain beliefs that everything that comes from the West is special. It annoys, but I think that the years of corruptions and nepotism that wracked our polity, especially the alignments with tribes or geography, contributed to the distrusts among Nigerians. For instance, there’s always politics and controversies surrounding award of prizes for literature in Nigeria. It embarrasses, especially when the selected book isn’t the best of the pack. Our literary associations need to wake up to the challenges; they don’t have to lump entries together and heave them on some so-called scholars whose only qualification is possession of the prefix ‘Dr.’ or ‘Prof.’ Many of them are what you called ‘political academics’, they got to those positions through organised politics on play on our campuses. For a scholar to be qualified, we need to see proofs of his reviews or critiques of books by Nigerian writers, old and contemporary. We need to verify that he has actually been following the trends, observing and exacting movements and trends as they unfold. How would a scholar or critic do justice to a book if he’s cut off from the milieu it comes from, the forces that inspire it? Yes I share those writers’ views.

VALENTINA ACAVA MMAKA - Have you ever thought that it would be easier to be a writer outside Nigeria than in Nigeria? As a poet and writer do you find it difficult matching your expectations as an intellectual in your own country?
GIMBA KAKANDA - Recognisable Intellectuality and literary enthusiasm would only resume if two things are restored. First, the harsh economic climate that came with the misplaced policies of Nigeria government and the fallen standard of education, in a system where a graduate of even literature confesses that he or she doesn’t like reading. Literature is not the endangered; it’s the larger intellectual realm. Everyone is after what translates into instant cash, largely because of our economic system and anti-intellectual mentality acquired in school. You see, before you say that a fellow doesn’t love poetry, ask about the number that hates mathematics. Majority of Nigerian students read only to pass examinations, after which they abandon their field of study and go searching for money. Yes, it would be easier to be a writer in a milieu that intellectuality or literary enthusiasm is celebrated. 

VALENTINA ACAVA MMAKA - Can you tell me about the last MBA Literary Colloquium which took place in Minna last year? How is it difficult to maintain a link with the Nigerian writers of the Diaspora?
GIMBA KAKANDA - The MBA colloquium is a product of the literary exercises and energy in Minna, the Niger state capital. Minna has been on the map of Nigerian literature not just for being the birthplace of the renowned novelist Ben Okri, and the older novelist Cyprian Ekwensi whose children thriller series are the attraction of many Nigerian junior secondary school students. Minna has been the place of residence of many known writers, and a battalion of aspiring writers. Fortunately, the book-loving Governor Dr Mu’azu Babangida Aliyu is a pillar of support for the writers; he spiced literature in Niger State. The colloquium named after him was sponsored by his administration to assure the world of our literary heritage. It’s instituted to go on as an annual event. As for the link with the Nigerian writers in the Diasporas, the internet has made communications and fraternity quite easy. Only that some of them are withdrawn. A number of my colleagues have shared experience on how this and that writer refused to reply their mails. Some writers are quite humble, while others are conceited, but that’s a normal human proclivity.   


Gimba Kakanda during Occcupy Nigeria Protests
VALENTINA ACAVA MMAKA - In your hometown, you led a group of Nigerian citizens to protest the removal of fuel subsidy by the Nigerian government during the recent Occupy Nigeria awakening, what’s the relationship between writers and government in Nigeria today?
GIMBA KAKANDA - Association of Nigerian Authors (ANA) is the largest body of writers in Africa, but I’m not a fan of the body because of its exuded conservative stance, especially during the fuel subsidy protests. For a group that ought to be the brain of the nation to maintain an obvious neutral stance, enjoining Nigerians not to take to the streets during the most important moment of change in the nation’s history, I felt my membership of the body is useless. H. Ross Perot has it that “If you see a snake, just kill it. Don't appoint a committee on snakes". Flaunting conservatism in the middle of a threatening mess is a strange case of hypocrisy, especially where your decisions ought to be a salvaging twist. Yes, it's not better than maintaining a neutral stance. And clamping down on the 'radical' for stepping out to face the destructive force is a disquieting practice, a shame. The national ANA body’s position, despite being inexpedient, is better than the Niger state branch that flaunted that the Governor won’t be happy to see its banner among the protesters, just because of his supports. That’s the worst degree of bootlicking mentality I’ve ever witnessed. And because of my stance, they’ve been going round the town, informing the city’s elites that I’m now a rascal – that’s their word for ‘radical’. They expect that if disowned I'll lose my cardinals. I must have made mistakes in my life, but participation in the fuel subsidy protests & renouncement of ANA membership are two of my best decisions in life. They can go and ask even the Governor to declare me persona-non-grata. I've moved on with my life, carried on with my causes. As for the charge of disrespect which seems to be heaviest charge they throw at me, I want them to know that nobody is older than Truth, so if torn in dilemma, the answer is obvious. If I stand in city of Minna today, a phone call can have at least 500 residents gathered around me for a quest for justice. Now, can they do the same? No, they've sold their integrity. Money is not everything; the politicians won't be there forever. So, for some of them trying to teach me 'life and living', I'll rather end in abject poverty than lick boots in detriment to my society. I do not have a godfather. I only have a God and a father - a fine man of blessed memory. I do not need a literary fraternity, especially a dysfunctional one, to make a good writer. My editors, who do not even know ANA, are ever there to flog me to shape. A society where writers rely on government is doomed. Nobody kicks against the writer-government romance, only that it must never be to the detriment of the essence of literature and art in the society. A writer ought to mirror society, without bending to the dictation of the government, especially one that has failed the larger masses. We must understand that the government was not being any philanthropic by those supports for literary activities. It’s the tax-payers money, our own money, that’s being spent for resurgence of literature. We ought to be the frontline critics of government, we ought to celebrate it when it carries out its responsibility and rebuke it when it fails. When a collective of the intellectual and literary minds endorse bad government, a nation is dead!   

VALENTINA ACAVA MMAKA - There is still a long way to come over, but we all know and also experience the prejudices and stereotypes on Africa and Africans in the north western world, do you think this affects somehow also the young generation in Nigeria in raising their potential in many fields? Being always seen in the wrong way doesn’t compromise their perception of their identity?
GIMBA KAKANDA - Prejudice, especially on racial line, is a type of animalistic instinct. But I’m always baffled that this stone-age practice made it to the modern world. As for me, I’ve never been intimidated by a racist, I’ve never felt below my worth before people of other race. I’ve come to realise that the racism of modern time is often a case of an inferior person trying to exact his importance through his privileged descent. Yes, prejudices have dampened many spirits. But, you have to understand that home-based Nigerians don’t know racism. A Nigerian is one fellow that can visit a racist enclave walking shoulder high. We didn’t experience racism in our country. The only racist issue I notice is that practice among expatriates, where they have their houses at a secluded part of the city in the name of establishing community. The Chinese are on the forefront of this practice, with their Chinatowns and whatever all over the place. The fact that they don’t want to integrate is a show of some ridiculous superiority. We’ve to encourage racial unity.

VALENTINA ACAVA MMAKA - Access to books is one of the biggest gaps to fill in almost all the African Countries, here in South Africa. In Kenya, Tanzania, Ghana, Senegal books are quite expensive; libraries are not always well organized. How much does this affect people in developing their self- awareness?
GIMBA KAKANDA - Access to book is indeed a challenge for the African countries, even Nigeria. But I think our people become less perturbed because of the internet revolution, which hasn’t taken over the rural parts of the country anyway. Very true, our people are kept out of the loops of the happenings around the world; intellectuality is replaced by frivolity - the anti-intellectual chaos one witnesses on the social media and some internet fora. Many are misleading, because a number of many such rants on the internet discussion fora aren’t backed with convincing facts and figures, just assumptions and mischief. This has been a great worry for Nigeria, especially during our many political turmoil, sectarian crises and terrorist activities. The analyses that follow such unrests are heartbreaking, where you’ll see a reputed scholar or writer lumping lies and half-truths together in the name of analysis. More hurting are the analyses of some ethno-religious mischief-makers who discuss the state of the nation on the social media. Obviously, you’ll realise that they don’t use their brain, they think through their keypads and keyboards. Many of their hoaxes have been the source of tensions between the southern and northern Nigeria. Unless inclination to the intellectual is encouraged, Nigeria, like any other African country, is on the road to destruction.    

VALENTINA ACAVA MMAKA - It’s now the second month that Nigeria touches our mind being in the middle of a huge terror time due to the last attack by the Boko Haram Islamic militant sect on Christians last Christmas and ongoing attacks on security operatives by the sect’s suicide bombers. Do we have to refer to these disorders as religious and ethnical “intolerance and hate” or apart from these, is there more to say?
GIMBA KAKANDA - A people tried to justify that the Boko Haram insurgency is the fallout of our social injustice. But, I’m not inclined to that belief. Much as I consider a rise against Nigeria’s obvious oligarchy a just cause, the Boko Haram militants lack any ideology likely to win sympathy. And the fact that they carry out their terrorist activities under the banner of Islam is enough reason to get me and other Muslims in Northern Nigeria sleepless. I’m a Muslim, but hate and intolerance on religious line have never occupied my mind. And there are millions other Muslims in Nigeria annoyed by the many attacks. For instance, on the 8th of January this year my Muslim friends and I stood guard for the Christians during a Sunday service. Now, where’s the hatred? It’s just unfortunate that every social misfit carries out his psychopathic exercise under the banner of Islam. The dilemma is our security operatives have proven that they’re overpowered by the militants. Nigeria is in terrible mess, and the earlier we understand this, the faster we ally to stand up against this irrespective of religious differences. One thing that hurts me is the annoying stereotyping among analysts especially those abroad that the Muslims in the North abet terrorism. I hate stereotyping; the world seems adept at this.  

VALENTINA ACAVA MMAKA -What sort of activism is now on in NIgeria in reducing violence and promoting human rights? What are we supposed to expect next?
GIMBA KAKANDA - The recent nationwide OccupyNigeria protests which brought about tremendous expose of corruptions inherent in our government had Nigerians across walks of life, from the so-called middleclass to the lower-class, united for a single cause of saving the nation. It shows that Nigerians are tired of the years of misrule by the clique who, from their fathers, holds sway since independence. So, there’s an interesting awakening going on amidst the several terrorist attacks in the country. Nigerian masses have realised that the political leaders colour ethno-religious sentiments on their ride to victory, they play ethnic and religious games with the deluded citizens, thereby setting them against one another. Even though the process is being forestalled by the Boko Haram insurgents, there’s a miraculous force holding Nigerians together. Similarly, so many rights activists and non-partisan groups are up for these save-Nigeria campaigns. The future is not entirely bleak. Serious sensitisations are on now to channel our votes to the right candidates in the 2015 elections.

VALENTINA ACAVA MMAKA - On one side Nigeria in Europe is talked about for its civil war, for its oil and on a much lower daily basis, for its people who have never had a good reputation outside. In the 80s and 90s Nigeria meant prostitution, in the 2000 and today Nigeria means drug dealers. How to change this vision from inside and outside the country? What Nigerians should/can do to recover its cultural greatness?
GIMBA KAKANDA - Statisticians could be mischievous. And the world seems to pander the stereotyped image of Nigerians being ever venal and fraudulent. First, on Nigerians’ involvement in crimes and organised frauds, embarrassing as this may be, we must understand that Nigeria is not the only base of such activities in the world. There are criminals and fraudsters in every country, but the world is ever conscious of Africa, here being the most populous of black nations expectedly has the highest figure. The probability of having more criminals in a country of 150 million people is ever higher than that of a nation with eight or ten million. That’s what happened to Nigeria. And it gets to an extent that every criminal caught oversea is at first labeled Nigerian before his actual origin surfaces. You see, corruption has two ends; Nigerians pushing drugs have accomplices in other countries, non-Africans and non-Blacks. But the hammers always fall on ‘Nigeria’ when a crime is detected. Who’re those at the receiving end? The white drug addicts and barons waiting for the delivery, aren’t they too of similar charge and offence? Just like in corruption and other business, prostitutions by Nigerian girls trafficked to Europe were abetted by the Europeans. They needed the ladies to fuck away their time. If they never patronise the ladies, prostitutions wouldn’t have been in practice to that extent. And another thing is their borderposts. How did those girls get into their country without tougher restrictions by their immigration officers? So, when we talk about such issues, we have to be elaborate, we have to know that there are accomplices who are Ghanaians, Libyans, Italians, Caucasians, Jews, Blacks, Whites – whatever label fits in!  Yes, our economic woes, high unemployment rates exacerbated by bad governments are partly the reason why a number of Nigerians go into crime; another reason being the pop culture quest for easy fortunes. Everyone wants to live like that larger-than-life character on TV.  The only way out now is for the government to get its priorities right, to stop messing the life of its citizens up with some unpopular policy. You can see what the fuel price hike as a result of removal of subsidy caused. Nigerians have been living from hand to mouth, hence the reasons why they came out en masse to rally against removal of fuel subsidy. So, we need a government that understands the conditions of the citizens. We’ve had enough of the Cabal - the clique of upper-class technocrats who pour fuel on an already burning nation.   

  

“In Gimba Kakanda’s Safari Pants, there are the touchstones of a true allegiance to the artistry of good poetry, original and unpretentious, lines after lines of compelling passion, a lyrical brilliance matched by a commitment to both private and national matters. This is an eagle in flight." Remi Raji







Poems from my poetry collection, Safari Pants (Kraftgriot, 2010)


Homeland


In every elephant’s tummy                         

Shreds wed in rumble

But my country is a tuskless giant

Here folks still dance on reed bridges

And on every junction are warped reeds

Clan-on-clan traps of intraracial carnages


Don’t let my grin be your green

Card to score your migration

I’m a frown fattened by prison pains

Don’t let my dress be your aim

I’m a boutique but in me reside histories

Badges of cannibal frowns


My country is two

Barbed walls taller than apartheid

Spur of statues’ clan

And our valleys the donkeyard

Alone the dwellers of spur

Dine our communal meal

As unschooled we litter the cliffs of flight

Our vaunt of farm

Hedged for famine seasons

But only the sputum of its oases

Sprinkles our parched slab

Yet we have no prod to the communal vault

Only them

Pregnant men and manly women

Lordly fortresses of statuettes

This country masturbates in brothels of abundance

But whenever this clatter from my anvil roars

That we dock our burgled silo

If we’re not handcuffed by fat-book

Fork of laughter fetches our swagger


Pygmy never fits in ogre’s frock


Oh our sweats manure the tillage

Whose harvests we’re denied

Sometimes led by grievances

We too wear black spectacles

To drone from hiding

A pygmy worth million statues



Don’t let my grin be your green

Card to score your migration

I’m a frown fattened by metallic pains

The thieving statues bury electricity in us

They salt our heart

Throw Kilimanjaro on us

That we armless warriors

Grumble through thunders

So they can put on diplomatic neck tie

On crimson bullions

Herding World Bank gigolos

To come and keep our pieces

In the crypt of disgraced history

Just to create space for their noble banditry


In my country

Adults still wear knickers of mirth

They refute elderly medal

In the face of food

In my country

Arsenals are cradles of our fragile senses

Our infirmaries are but weaponry

That maltreat our sleep

In my country

Idle talkers legislate for us

They execute our deaf dignity

Contracting the dumb judges

Who aren’t taller than our harlots

To throw noose on our drums


My country weeps for martyred springs

Far Away From You


Lost in the girth of kilometers

Rattles of your lone fort

Awaken my deserted oasis

Flowing to the eaves of your nectar


In the drift of this absence

I toe no dance but yours

Dances that heighten my fatal thirst


Away from you

I see my chick rambling

To your feathery warmth

Far away from you

The calligraphy on your countenance

Unties my tinted songs

To wake the bees of distance

Far far away from you

My fort weakens to the gale of that gum

That says…

We are but wet dusts apart

My swagger gait is for you

Pacifist of my plundered heart

In you a wonder of finest artistry

My eagle sees a stolen clutch

With you a witch of a gazelle

I wander in the tune of cupid gong

To you a stingerless bee

That honeys the hive of my sweaty heart

I’ll chant true guitars of fidelity

Only that                                                        

Hyenas have sung you this song


Atro-City


I observe

Every sunrise the dollar-clad statues sit

Haggling our twilight                                 

In grammars beyond our school

Souls slip down this hamlet’s Iroko


God I observe

Conspiracy of contempt flung on us

To dwarf our basket-held polls

Donkeys of unrecompensed sweat

That stream cornfields eaten by others



Minority

Even if the ant fumes

Flapping the plumes of her anger

Because her syringe is amputated

How will she avenge

On the buttocks of the garlanded statues

When mercenaries are dressed in cowardice

And rebels stool on mere crow of tinder?


Co-passenger

Stranger

A gatherer of thoughts stays in this garment

Tell me

How many moustaches

Have stroked the nipples of your wishes

Thoughts about you are a drunk judge’s verdict

Life too is a sojourn in the bus

Every one has a junction

Yet stranger

Can ours have the same bus stop?



The Howls of Petra
(for late Petra Afolabi, a friend and poetess)

So much so long
I seek a song so quiet

So much so long
Canticles and elegies collide
Into the tomb of thoughts
Of servitude in this mine of sorrow

So much so long
I tuned not my dead self
To the stereo of laments
I craned not burden so mazy

Until your malarial breeze
Arrives at the terminus of silence

Now all I catch are echoes
Of your musical soul in our band
To the Eden of sleepy poetry

All I hear are happy howls
Of e-motional pulse so loud

All I hear is you
You of no one but this prickly life



Safinatu

The meteorologist is a liar
Don’t house him in your skirt
In this wet season
Your bikinis aren’t the lilies
Of the seagods
Why must the beach always be our shade?