Arao Ameny: I think we need to listen to each other

Arao Ameny is a multidisciplinary artist and former writing professor at the University of Baltimore, Maryland. She was also a finalist for the UK-based Brunel International African Poetry Prize and a nominee for the Best New Poets anthology in 2021.

Àkpà: Hello Arao. Thank you for agreeing to do this. There are so many things to congratulate you for. I am really astounded by the work you do and the input. What is your process, and how are you finding time to rest? 

Arao: As far as process goes, nowadays I work from a to-do-list. I read for at least an hour a day. Also, I have several projects I’m working on so I try to work on each project at least 30 minutes a day, whether it’s a poem, fiction story, nonfiction, or arts-related work like reviewing grants for fellow writers. I try to log-off on the weekends and take social media breaks so my mind can breathe. 

Àkpà: Your process seems like one I would adopt. I am spontaneous and it seems to be wearing me down. Out of curiosity, what are the things you’re reading now? Are you taking part in the #SealeyChallenge, and could you share your recommendations with me? 

Arao: I am currently reading two books. The first one is The Witch Bottle & Other Stories by an American writer named Suzanne Feldman. She’s a queer writer and her fiction manuscript recently won The Washington Writers’ Publishing House contest alongside Anthony Moll who won for poetry. The second book I’m reading is called Icina Me Laŋo Apar Wi Abic (Fifteen Lango Folk-Tales); it’s a bilingual book of folktales in my mother tongue Lango from the Lango people in Northern Uganda alongside an English translation. 

I would like to take part in the #SealeyChallenge; I hope I am not too late.

One book of poetry I’d like to read is Romeo Oriogun’s Nomad. I hope to get my hands on it when it’s published here in the US. Some recommendations for the #SealeyChallenge are Romeo Oriogun’s Sacrament of Bodies, Gbenga Adeoba’s Exodus, and let’s see… Mary Oliver’s A Thousand Mornings. There’s more but I’ll stop there for now.

Languages can become ghosts, you know? I think re-learning resurrects them, resurrects us. I go back to folktales because I think as children that’s where language was effortless.

Àkpà: Thank you for your recommendations. Oriogun’s Nomad is up for the NLNG Prize and I am rooting for it. I am interested in the Lango folktales you are reading. I am thinking about literature in our mother tongues and how it stands against colonial languages trying to stifle them in Africa. Do you think maybe one day, if you aren’t doing that already, you’d write in Lango? Are you excited about the possibility? UNICEF has no high hopes for mine, Igbo, in 2050. Do you have any suggestions on what we could do? 

Arao: Unfortunately, I am not fluent in leb Lango. However, I am currently speaking with Lango writers in Uganda about translating my work. I am currently doing language study with the goal of fully thinking, writing, and reading in my own language. On suggestions, I am not sure. In my experience and in my journey, my parents thought they were helping my siblings and I by not speaking leb Lango so we can get a better grasp of English but unfortunately assimilation (to the US) is the loss of a language. Languages can become ghosts, you know? I think re-learning resurrects them, resurrects us. I go back to folktales because I think as children that’s where language was effortless. My mother used to tell me stories in leb Lango first and then in English. However, she would also tell me that a little bit of the language’s spirit left when it went into its new body — English. So I guess, maybe, I have to go in the other direction to reclaim those little bits of spirit that’s lost — the richness, the full meaning, the bits that are lost in translation or untranslatable. For me, it’s re-learning and making space in my mind and tongue for worlds other than English. Otherwise, I am not whole.

By reflecting the current times, I do think one of the duties of artists will always be teaching and re-teaching. I’m not sure where creating ends and teaching begins; I’m still figuring that out.

Àkpà: Recently, Ebonyi State University made Igbo Language a general study course, and also set up an Institute for Igbo Language and Culture. The university aspires to increase exposure to the language and encourage people to study it. Of course, this came after serious deliberations, but one of the wonders of our language is the rich storytelling and how it sharpens and broadens your imagination. It is one reason some students haven’t given up on it yet. Folktales, folklores reinvents language. We are also facing the problem of translating the untranslatable, no matter how hard we try. Maybe we are interested in this because of exposure and being intentional. My challenge has been how to make the language exciting for learners. I mean, it is like poetry, how do you make it exciting for people who have grown dreading it? Begs one to ask, is the duty of the artist the same as that of a teacher? Where do we blur the line, or are we expecting too much? 

Arao: Thank you for teaching me about what is happening with the Igbo language currently. I appreciate this. I learn something new every day. 

By reflecting the current times, I do think one of the duties of artists will always be teaching and re-teaching. I’m not sure where creating ends and teaching begins; I’m still figuring that out.

As a community, I think we need to listen to each other, make space for others’ experiences and journeys, affirm each other, look out for each other.

Àkpà: The pleasure is mine. Speaking about the current time, Mothers haunts me since its publication in 2021. Mahtem Shiferraw in her introduction to the piece, writes: “like a memory that refuses to age, we are embroiled in its thinking too—still, still, as there is still so much mourning to be done.” In October 2020, Nigerians protested the indiscriminate killing of youths in the country. In Uganda, we keep recording police brutality, all over the world black people are either living in fear or are mourning. Reminds me of Chris Ofili’s No Woman, No Cry, a portrait of a mother (made out of Elephant dungs) mourning the demise of her baby. What can we do as a community to protect each other? How can we be there for each other? These are some of the questions this poem asks. I am wondering, what are you doing to distract yourself from the unending sadness, and what do you do to stay happy or reach for joy? 

Arao: As a community, I think we need to listen to each other, make space for others’ experiences and journeys, affirm each other, look out for each other. 

Personally, I have to log off from media or social media to stay sane. All of that is not good for one’s spirit, you know. I try to pull joy from each day. Even if I don’t get anything done, I try to be grateful for waking up. It’s important to pull the little bits of joy from whatever we’re doing to remind us that we’re still alive and here at this moment

Àkpà: You inspire me. Your poems feed my curiosities. There are questions I have asked myself so many times after reading your United Nations’ piece, Home Is a Woman. Some of these include inheritance/hereditary, and really about community. Which members of my community have I looked at as strangers because I feel they’re not like me or that they’re not familiar? Recently on Twitter, some Nigerians living in the country accused Nigerians in diaspora of over-writing the country, by which they mean “exaggerating descriptions of events or places or common things till the point of erasure”. As I prepare to leave here, I grapple with such fears that I might be accused of the same in the future. Have you felt that way? Has anyone ever questioned your authority about what is an “authentic Ugandan/African story”? How do you grapple with the realities of the diaspora and where you call home? What other gatekeeping hurdles have you had to bypass to be here? 

Arao: Thank you for the compliment, Àkpà. Also, thank you for reading my work. 

Yes, I’ve been following the Twitter conversation where Diaspora Nigerians’ authenticity was questioned. Honestly, it bothered me because it discussed some of the writers I’ve grown to love and continue to love. Yes, I’ve been privately questioned or even dismissed but I won’t let it bother me. As long as Ugandans are travelling outside of Uganda and experiencing life, those are Ugandan stories. There is no single Ugandan narrative. When I doubt myself, I always remember what my mother told me, “You were born in Uganda and you’re Lango. No matter where you go, you will remain Ugandan and Lango. Full stop.” For me, home is Uganda even though I’ve lived most of my life outside of Uganda. That is where my memories and consciousness dwell regardless of where my body goes. That is home and no one can tell me otherwise. 

Yes of course, there are many gatekeeping hurdles that I struggle with constantly. When I share my ideas, I may get advice that I’m not the right person to tell a certain story although I’ve experienced the exact thing living in an African/Ugandan immigrant household or community in the US. Or maybe if I use a certain phrase that I’m not expected to know or understand, there is a surprise or a curiosity although that’s how I heard my parents and family speak in our house. So sometimes, it’s a burden having to deal with other people’s expectations. 

Àkpà: I hope this skewed perception of writers in the diaspora ends soon, and such discussions trashed. I have come to know you as the busiest writer in the community, you sit right there with Kwame Dawes [chuckles]. Can you tell me what your new role at Poetry Foundation is/entails? Any new work coming out soon? 

Arao: I just completed a year as a biography writer and editor at Poetry Foundation. I’ve been asked to stay on for a second year into 2023. I write and edit poet bios on the website. I also generate ideas for how to make sure underrepresented poets are uplifted and profiled on the website. (For example, I do get really excited every time I see the name of a Nigerian or African poet!)

I have a set of poems coming out in an anthology published by Yellow Arrow Publishing in December 2022. Also, I have a fiction story coming out in an anthology in Winter 2023. Unfortunately, I am not able to speak about other projects just yet. At the right time, I’ll share.

If you were in Maryland, you may find me in a colourful headwrap or one of the African natural hairstyles. Yes, more than likely I’ll have a book in my hand and a back-up in my bag just in case

Àkpà: Congratulations. I am so excited about your new projects. And that’s amazing work you’re doing there. Jisie ike (well-done). I am wondering, if I am on a street in Brooklyn, and meeting you for the first time, what would likely make me pick you out from the crowd. What’s your fashion sense? What appeals to you in fashion? And do you always have a book on you as well? 

Arao: Thank you, Àkpà. I am now based in Maryland, close to Washington DC. Thank you for teaching me how to say well-done in Igbo; I’ll commit that to memory when I need to congratulate you. 

If you were in Maryland, you may find me in a colourful headwrap or one of the African natural hairstyles. Yes, more than likely I’ll have a book in my hand and a back-up in my bag just in case.

A version of this conversation appears in Igbo. Please click here to read.

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