L. S. Mensah was born and raised in Accra, and lives in the UK.
Five Questions with L. S. Mensah:
1. This poem taps into another piece of African literature as a source of inspiration (Chinua Achebe's Things Fall Apart). Here at OGOV we don't see many poems that take advantage of that rich resource for inspiration. Do you think it is important for African writers to explore and expand upon existing African literature?
I think we should, and like you said, it’s a rich and ready resource for us to mine, but I wouldn’t want to tell others which themes to explore. The moment we pick our pens or sit behind a keyboard, we engage with both the oral and the written work that first opened our eyes to our own literature. At the very least that body of work generates questions in us that we spend the rest of our lives pondering. By engaging with their work we are also able to ask ourselves a million what ifs, and hold ourselves up to the light, to see where the shadows fall.
The response does not need to be to a novel or a play; it could be to a situation or to a poem/set of poems about a particular situation, and our poets are already building what is shaping up to be an impressive body of work on the Keta problem. It started with Kwesi Brew's “The Sea Eats Our Lands” and Kofi Awoonor's “The Sea Eats The Land at Home” to which others on OGOV have responded: Edith Faalong’s “Without Roots”; Kwofie Mathew’s “Keta My Love”; Prince Mensah's “Keta Stories" and Andy Kwawukume’s “Keta”. Let's not forget your own “I Have Gone To Keta: Daytrip” - a response to Kobena Eyi Acquah's “I want to go to Keta”. Keta has become the motif of our national angst, and poets and writers will go on writing about it.
2. Did this poem come to you as a poem bound to Things Fall Apart from the beginning, or did the story of Ikemefuna become wound into the poem as it developed?
Not really, it started out as the best laid plans of a feminist that went awry. At first I thought I'd explore the relationship between Okonkwo and his wives. I ended up writing about Okonkwo himself ("Okonkwo's Beatitude"); then about his third wife ("Mrs Okonkwo the Youngest"), both of which appear in We Come From One Place published by Mensa Press. When I turned to Ikemefuna, I thought to explore him through his mother's eyes because he is the only one who even wonders about her. She is a character in the book, only because her son remembers, but even those memories are at risk, because he knows they become vaguer with time. I also thought I'd tie his fate to the locusts that appear in chapter seven of the book, since that foreshadows Ikemefuna's own end:
“The locusts settled in the bushes for the night and their wings became wet with dew. Then all Umuofia turned out in spite of the cold harmattan, and everyone filled his bags and pots with locusts. The next morning they were roasted in clay pots and then spread in the sun until they became dry and brittle. And for many days this rare food was eaten with solid palm-oil.”
Ikemefuna had lived with Okonkwo for about three years with nothing happening to him, so he thought he was safe, but he dies a day after the arrival of the locusts. Achebe himself tells us that despite his bravery, Okonkwo is a man afraid of being thought a coward, and that fear is what leads him to join the killing despite Ogbuefi Ezuedu’s advice. Should the community let the boy go and risk the wrath of the gods? From my reading of the book, Achebe also raises a point about the futility of the scapegoat. There is nothing to suggest whether Okonkwo’s community would have fared better or worse if they had let him go. Certainly in the real world, that would not have prevented the arrival of the Europeans in his village, and the subsequent trauma the community, and all Africa, was to suffer.
3. When did you first read Things Fall Apart? Has your perspective changed in the intervening years?
I must have first read it sometime in my first or second year of secondary school. I would say my perspective has deepened. The issues it raises are not as black and white as they first appeared to me back then. Things Fall Apart is the classic it is because it offers no easy answers, but we take what we want from it anyway. We tend to pick up the obvious, such as the treatment meted out to the Africans, and we are right to do so. However, Achebe also presents us with a society that regards knowledge and people's place in the world as fixed; one that discriminates against women, strangers and the disabled, and one that sees itself as more civilised than neighbouring communities. Tell me what has changed? And why do we still tell ourselves that we had a near-perfect society in the past? Okonkwo’s community also complained about the world going to the dogs, you know.
4. “Some days all I startle ...” is an excellent opening to a poem. When in the composition of the poem did this come to you?
Looking back, I believe that phrase started life in one of my Congo poems but it always impeded my efforts to do anything with it. It became the starting point for this poem, but even then I wouldn't say the outcome was guaranteed. Seamus Heaney makes a point about how the right opening line can lead one to generate a whole poem, but one does need some luck too. A lot of the time I feel like an Accra cobbler, making shoes out of those worn car tyres, hammering them into place with oversized Kantamanto nails!
5. How many drafts did this poem go through before it reached the version published here?
Over a dozen. Of my million hideous obsessions, the number of drafts of a single poem I go through is probably the worst.
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