New-Generation African Poets (Akashic Books, $29.95) is an ambitious, vital project that delivers exactly what it promises. As Kwame Dawes explains in his rich introduction to the eight-part set — the third in a series — defining African poetry is more difficult and less useful than showing readers what African poets at home and abroad are writing.
Chris Abani, in his foreword, notes that African poetry, like African music and history, has been influenced by foreign aesthetics and expressions, such as hip-hop, spoken-word traditions and reggae. Likewise, he writes, “many of the African freedom and anticolonial movements had their formations in the slave revolts of Jamaica and Haiti, and later the civil rights movements of the United States. Some of what it means to be a modern African has been shaped by conversations started in the diaspora.” That kind of cross-pollination is evident in varying degrees in this compilation, produced by the African Poetry Book Fund.
“Survival Kit” by Chielozona Eze presents deeply moving poems about the lasting effects and traumas of the Nigerian Civil War (1967-1970), which took the lives of more than 1 million people. Eze understands the nature of memory — described in one poem as a blind dog, a cat, and a tick — and the need to remember the past, no matter how painful. He beautifully captures the humanity and pathos of people who fled their homeland without knowing their destination or who stayed and starved, such as the speaker in “Remember Me” who “makes her face/ an ancient papyrus/ for those who do not die:/ Do not shed tears for me./ Remember, decades from now,/ we weren’t meant to live/ or to die this way.”
Other chapbook writers illustrate the unique struggles faced by immigrants. Hope Wakube’s “The Leaving” draws on biblical imagery to convey her family’s flight from Kenya to the United States, where she often fears violence. In “The Nerve” she asks her father to “teach me how to protect my son,/ myself because they have put in a law/ that says the last man standing can say/ I felt threatened and shoot/ to kill and then walk free.” Kayombo Chingonyi, who was born in Zambia, writes about life and his experiences in Great Britain as being a kind of theater, “where I must flay myself nightly or risk/ the indignity of being seen, in blackness/ as I am or as I’ve been taught, from without,/ I am; an unconvincing Everyman.”
Those who remain in Africa also face arduous situations. Gbenga Adesina shows the fear and innocence of young soldiers and a family’s pain when a soldier-father must leave. D.M. Aderibigbe considers the roles of women in Nigeria and in the speaker’s own fractured family.
Other writers focus more on culture and how it shapes identity. Safia Elhillo explores longing in poems addressed to the late Egyptian singer Abdel Halim Hafez. Nyachiro Lydia Kasese wonders if people see themselves through their own eyes and actions, or through those of others. In one poem she writes, “I think that’s how you saw me./ I think that’s how I saw me.” Kenyan poet Ngwatilo Mawiyoo vividly evokes a sense of place and connection to others, as in her poem “Ngoma for Mango,” where she writes, “You the bitten love, telltale string in teeth, in you:/ old name for drums and song and sweat,/ sweetening flesh between skin and seed.”
As a group, the chapbooks dispel stereotypes about African writing. They also illustrate what editors Dawes and Abani note about the many ways poets can understand or redefine their ties to Africa. These insights are poignant and valuable, especially at a time when millions around the globe find themselves somewhere between new countries and ancestral lands they’ve left behind.
Elizabeth Lund reviews poetry every month for The Washington Post.
Edited by Kwame Dawes and Chris Abani
Akashic. 300 pp. $29.95