L. S. Mensah was born and raised in Accra, and lives in the UK.
Five Questions with L. S. Mensah:
1. Like last week's featured poem, this poem is based off a Nigerian book - in this case, Olaudah Equiano's slave narrative, The Interesting Narrative Of The Life Of Olaudah Equiano, Or Gustavus Vassa, the African. The main difference between this and Achebe's Things Fall Apart, of course, being that Equiano's book is autobiographical. Did the fact that the source material for this poem was “real” change how you approached its composition?
I didn't immediately see the Nigerian connection, but they really are cracking writers. The book's authenticity has been a point of contention since it was published in the late 18th century, and Equiano himself responded to critics in his own day. That era is of course long gone, and today the questions that remain are posed in the interest of scholarship. Paul Lovejoy, a historian of African slavery, has raised questions (in Autobiography & Memory: Gustavus Vassa, alias Olaudah Equiano, the African). He claims there are records which show Equiano was born in South Carolina instead of Essaka in Igboland; though Lovejoy himself concedes that most details are correct. On the other hand Catherine Acholonu, a Nigerian poet and critic, has undertaken some wonderful work in The Igbo Roots Of Olaudah Equiano. Equiano's Travels (as it is published by Heinemann African Writers Series), opens up the problems of how we should approach our past, and what happens when the boundaries between autobiography, historiography, travel writing and the larger work of memory itself collide. Even libraries are faced with the problem of its classification; my borough library places it on the autobiography shelf, while back home, I expect to find it on the literature shelf.
My approach was influenced by the fact that every captive, including Equiano and his sister, left family behind. The (real life) slave narratives that have come down to us are filled with people who search for their relatives, including children, and in cases where they are able to trace them, they make efforts to redeem them if they are relatively well off. However that aspect of the history is rarely discussed, and there are reasons why. In Ghana, you find that it is often a taboo to talk about the slave past. The truth is that in some areas, the chiefs and traditional authorities took active part in the trade, and would rather the subject not be opened up. Also, the descendants of those who were enslaved (at least in Ghana) do not necessarily want to dredge up their ancestors' past. Even today, it is spoken of only in hushed tones. When I was a child, a lady once asked for her marriage to be dissolved; the reason being that her husband's relatives had referred to her as the descendant of slaves; never mind how long slavery had been abolished. Her request was granted; but the curious thing was that it was to her husband’s family to which her ancestors had once been enslaved, and then absorbed after the abolition. They should have been the last to raise such an insult. We also know that some of the Diaspora Blacks who travel to Ghana do so not only to see the slave forts, but to trace their family’s original home.
2. Both this poem and last week's take the perspective of mothers who do not figure significantly into the original narratives as presented by Achebe and Equiano. Was your primary goal in writing these poems to give a voice to these women? If so, why did you find this to be important?
Thanks, you have a way of asking questions which forces one to either re-think, or to look again for new insight. Yes, by refracting the experience through their eyes, I give voice to the women, but now that you ask I believe it is also broadly about the children. Both the fictional Ikemefuna and the real life Equiano had relatively easier lives before they were taken away from their mothers. Okonkwo expected first his own son Nwoye and then Ikemefuna to work almost as hard as he did on his farm. Though Equiano paints a relatively romantic picture of his childhood with his parents, he was put to work (in the domestic slave trade) almost as soon as he was captured; as for example, working the bellows for a (gold)smith. Lovejoy, quoting Eltis and Engerman, says that between 1663 and 1867; a period of just over two centuries, about 421,530 children were enslaved.
Ama Ata Aidoo's Anowa, a play about the slave experience, picks up the issue of the unaccompanied slave child. The lead character has no children, yet is the only one who expresses any concern about the slave children in her own “big house”. Herself “a child of several incarnations,” Anowa strays from the path her Mother Badua had mapped out for her:
I want my child to be a woman
Marry a Man,
Tend a farm
And be happy to see her
Peppers and her onions grow.
A woman like her
Should bear children
So she can afford to have
One or two die.
As a child Anowa's own questions about the legacy of the slave trade was met with some reluctance by her grandmother:
Shut up child or your mouth would one day twist with questions
You frighten me, child,
You must be a witch, child,
No one talks of these things any more
All men and women try to forget
They have forgotten.
Whatever the grandmother's protestations, she answers Anowa's questions; something denied to the slave twins Panyin-na-Kakra, who fan Kofi Ako's empty chair. Kakra, when questioned by Anowa, cannot remember their mother, and has no recollection beyond the fact that they came from “the house in Tantri”. This leaves Anowa to wonder about the unknown mother:
“… who is she? Where is she sitting while they stand here fanning an empty chair? Let someone go and see how she suffered bearing them.”
What we have in each poem over these two weeks, (also in Anowa) is an inversion; i.e. for whatever reason, a parent either outlives or is separated from a child. The older generation in the (child’s) original community, is unable to pass on its mores – and so what starts out as a break down of the family eventually results in cultural suicide.
3. We've now seen two “mother” poems of yours over the last two weeks. Are these part of a wider series? If not, are you undertaking one in the future?
Yes, each is part of a wider series, i.e. while the Ikemefuna poem speaks for the colonial experience, the Equiano poem stands for the slave experience; the two overarching crises which sit firmly in the African past. But I believe my interests tend more towards the slave experience, since it was with that subject that I found my feet. If there's anything I'll call a long term project, it is the slavery poems (all others are later accretions), and I take it as a good sign that three have been published so far: “Equiano Meets Mama Lot” in the Sentinel Champions Series; “Equiano Visits Cape Coast Castle” appears in Whispers In The Whirlwind, published by Mensa Press and “The Grand Emporium” in look where you have gone to sit, by Woeli (and the Writers Project Of Ghana).
But I have had my turn. For now let's sprinkle star dust on others who have also taken on the subject of slavery. It was Ghanaian poet and critic Kwadwo Opoku-Agyemang, who in his ambition to fill what he calls a “gap in our history four hundred years long” has done the wonderful work of publishing a collection about the impact of slavery: Cape Coast Castle: A Collection Of Poems. He writes in “Equiano's Retort”:
They scattered the ash and the old people
They killed the young in their yolk
Everything is present in my memory
Even the far future, the buried fury
And in “Equiano: A Mother's Song”:
They snarled him like a beastly thing
Took him washed out in streams of fishy swarm
Scaled and sold him, my flute song
Where his mother can never reach him
My body is streaked with red clay
I will not be consoled.
You can see how my own Equiano poem picks off the crumbs after Opoku-Agyemang. Here on OGOV, Roland Bankole Marke’s “Africa's Shores” is also in that vein, slavery which demands that humans become chattel, is also a question of a breakdown in morality (you can read the comments to see why I took issue with the poem). Finally in your own [ed. note - this interview was conducted by Rob Taylor] “The Slave Castle at Elmina” published in your collection The Other Side Of Ourselves, you describe how as your tour group entered the Condemned Men’s Cell at Elmina, a woman “had felt something flying”:
and sure enough when we quieted down
we could hear its faint cries and sense
its frantic little bird heart rattling in its cage of bones.
You also draw a contrast between the treatment of
of rebellious slaves - how the soldiers
would put five or six of them in and not open
the door again until they were all dead
And the bird given its freedom by one of the tourists:
who waited motionlessly
until he could hear the bird well enough
to find it and cup it in his hands,
carry it out into the courtyard and send it
scrambling into the sky
After all these centuries, the incarceration spaces can still appear spooky. I have seen grown men cry coming out.
4. The punctuation in this poem is very important, especially in the last stanza. Did you play with the punctuation a great deal to come to this version, or was the punctuation, or was the punctuation more or less like this in the first draft?
Punctuation is often the last thing I take seriously, mainly because I’m quite horrific at it. I usually keep to the bare knuckle method of a comma, a comma, until I reach a full stop. With this poem, I started with what became the first and last stanzas (with a change of word here and there), though not necessarily in the positions they now occupy, and yeah, with what became the final stanza I had to turn from my normally long sentences and work in the short lines (the idea of fragmentation was in my head but I was probably unsuccessful with that).
5. What have you been reading of late? Do you have any book recommendations for our readers?
I'll say I'm mostly rereading, but I read James Gleick's The Information: A History, A Theory, A Flood which came out this year. It's a wonderful read, if anyone can get it; especially in light of the recent discussion over the role of the internet in writing.
I'm (a lapsed) Anglican so I've been reading the King James Bible all through this year. This year, 2011, is the 400th year of its publishing. I'm reading it side by side with Robert Alter's The Art Of Biblical Narrative, which treats the bible as literature. I've slowly come to see the Bible as one of the best books with which to learn to write. Before anyone taught writing, the biblical writers knew their pacing, their parallelisms, their allusions, etc. and could handle multiple narratives without losing the reader. Even if you’re not Christian, you might enjoy it, and it could help you get Whitman.
I've been going through C.C. Reindorf's A History Of the Gold Coast and Ashanti. Reindorf was a Ga (half Ga, half Dutch), who became a Presbyterian Pastor, and contributed to translating the Bible into Ga. He was Tacitus without the salacious gossip, and published his book a century after Equiano’s Travels. Read and compare Reindorf’s book with Equiano’s to see how the representation of history and narrative changed in just a century. There is a version of his book online, otherwise if you’re really interested, email me for a copy.
I also recommend Abdulrazak Gurnah's Paradise; shortlisted for both the Whitbread (now the Costa) and the Booker (now the Man Booker) Prizes in 1994. Gurnah is a Tanzanian (born in Zanzibar) of Arab heritage, and his novel is based on the Koran's version of the Joseph story. It is set in East Africa around the beginning of the last century. Yusuf, the main character is another young man without his mother, and just like the Koranic Joseph, impetuous and with too much luck for his own good. His parents were forced to sell him into slavery, and he was never to see them again. The book ends with Yusuf about to join the war effort for the First World War to fight on the side of the Germans. Again, read and compare Gurnah’s book with Things Fall Apart, and see how two novels, set in roughly the same historical time but in different parts of the continent, treat the coming of colonialism, amongst other things.
Also for anyone who wants to know about the slave past, William St Clair's The Grand Slave Emporium: Cape Coast Castle and the British Slave Trade is an excellent read. You don’t need to be an academic or a student to enjoy reading it. I borrowed his title for “The Grand Emporium”, and never gave him credit. Shame on me.
On a lighter note I'm also rereading the Harry Potter novels. The thought of Nearly Headless Nick, Sir Nicholas de Mimsy-Porpington, the Gryffindor House Ghost, (played in the films by John Cleese) not allowed to join the headless hunt fills me with sadness.
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