>>Eve Ferguson: Welcome to
Conversations with African Poets and Writers, from
the African Section, African Middle Eastern Division,
of the Library of Congress. Today we’re going to talk
with Kadija George Sesay. Her writer’s name is
Kadija Sesay and we here at the library know
her as Kadija George. Let me give you a light
background about Kadija Sesay. Kadija Sesay is a fellow of
the Royal Society of Arts in the United Kingdom. She is a literary activist
of Sierra Leonean descent. In 2001, she founded
SABLE LitMag magazine which was published for 15 years and for internationally renowned
writes featured on the covers, including Nawal El
Saadawi, Sonia Sanchez, [inaudible], and Walter Mosely. Kadija has edited several
important anthologies by writers of African and Asian descent,
including; Burning Words, Flaming Images in 1996,
IC3: The Penguin Book of New Black Writing
in Britain in 2000. She co-edited with Courttia
Newland, and Write Black, Write British, in 2005. She’s also the manager
of Inscribe Publications for Inscribe, a writer
development program housed by Peepal Tree Press, and
will be editing a collection of short stories set in
Africa for Comma Press. In spring 2013, Peepal Tree
Press published her debut poetry collection, Irki, under her
writing name, Kadija Sesay. She received a research
and development award from Arts Council England for her second forthcoming
poetry collection, Modern PanAfricanist’s Journey, which includes an educational
app on poetry and PanAfricanism. She’s judged several writing
competitions, including Saga, New Black British Novelist,
Young Black Achievers Award, Cambridge University
Creative Writing, Kasa-Kasa Ghana Nottingham Link, John La Rose Short
Story Competition, Non-Fiction competition for
the Pan African Literary Forum, Kwani Prize 2013, from
Kenya, and the 2014 SI Prize. She was the chair of judges for the 2016 SI Leeds
Literary Prize. Kadija graduated from
the inaugural class of the Kennedy Center for Performance Arts
Management, in 2002. She’s created and coordinated
several literary events over the years, from
the British Museum to local community centers and
has received several awards for her work in the
creative arts. Kadija created the first Sable
Literary Festival in the Gambia in 2007, and is now cofounder
of the Mboka Festival for Arts, Culture and Sports
in the Gambia. Her motto is; art is
the heart of the nation. And it’s her long-term
objective to nurture this as a PanAfrican ideology
that starts in the Gambia. She’s currently AHRC/TECHNE
Scholarship student researching black, British publishers
and PanAfricanism at Brighton University and
is a 2019 Kluge fellow here at the Library of Congress. So let me welcome Kadija
Sesay, who will read from her poetry collection.>>Kadija Sesay: Thank you. I would like to read
you a selection of poems from my collection called,
Irki, which means homeland in the Nubian language, which
is a language that is dying out and like on the cover, I have
the father of the Nubian culture and as superstitions go, he
wouldn’t let me take a picture of him with his face so I
had to wait and stand behind, wait until he walked forward
and then snap a photo of him from behind, because that
really was, for me, the essence, one of the essences of the book. So it’s split into four
sections; Letting Go, Rituals, This is an African
House, and Homeland. It’s a migration
story of my parents, migrating from Sierra Leone to
England, growing up in England, and also includes this
slightly strange phenomenon that would happen in England, especially with African
parents, of private fostering. So, I relate some of the stories
to deal with private fostering. So there may be some
mention in my poems of Mom and Dad, and real Mom and Dad. Because I had two of each. Real Mom and Dad, they’re
obviously my Sierra Leone parents, and then Mom
and Dad are my white, working class parents who
raised me from when I was a baby until about 7 years old. So it was a very
important part of my life and my brother’s life
and my sister’s life. So, I’m going to start the
poem with the very first poem which is Ode to [foreign
language spoken], migrating parents
going to England and migration is a
very difficult thing. It takes a lot of consideration
and a lot of thought to say, we’re going to uproot
ourselves and go somewhere else. And my parents left behind their
family, and they were going to somewhere new where they
had no family so, you know, it’s something that people need
to think about when they talk about people having to go home when they’ve really
considered uprooting themselves, it’s never an easy decision. Ode to [foreign language
spoken] and her sisters. I saw three ships come sailing
in [foreign language spoken], vessels built for Liverpool, a
fleet of [inaudible] to ships, signatures of West
African trips. Passenger [inaudible]
packed with dreams began to unravel, slowly in reams. Hopes filtered through
fingers like sand, blown away with memories
of homeland. Minds change with
the English weather but return tickets
were never an option. Headlines, walks, here to stay, maybe they would
return home one day. So the next two poems,
Letting Go 1, Letting Go 2, one of them is representing
my maternal grandmother, who is Muslim, and then
my paternal grandmother, who’s Christian. Letting Go 1; this man is the
one you say will take care of you, feed you, clothe you,
shelter you, respect you. Will not damage you
and be a good father to your children [inaudible]. Okay, then, if you say
so, I will let you go. Letting Go 2; he’s on the
plane going, I can’t stop him. Let him go. Maybe he will be better
off, maybe make some money, send me some pounds sterling. But I don’t know, you know,
about this girl he is marrying from up country,
she’s not Methodist, her family not even Christian, but she did go to
missionary school. How does he know her? I tried hard to meet the family,
I know nothing of her history. Why does my son want
to marry her? She’s not so pretty,
typical [inaudible] face. [inaudible] I know say, he
go pray to the same god. Muslim [inaudible]
I’m not so sure, then say [inaudible]
not the same so– [ Inaudible ] The next poem I’m going to read
is [inaudible] same section is Grandmothers 1. One choose to lie flat on her
narrow wooden bed, declared, “I won’t be getting up anymore.” One tried to lie
quietly in her castle through the terror
of a civil war. Grandmother church,
grandmother mosque, gave up their children
to the empire. One to lie flat on a wooden park
bench in London’s Turnham Green. One to lie on a mattress
to yield babies in exchange for love and dreams. The next poem I’m
going to read is from the next section,
called Rituals. It could have been
called tradition but I think rituals is better because I think families
adopt rituals as they go through the family and
they take on things that then become fixed. So this is with my English
working class family and its family rituals. Bart’s ritual; three little
dark-skinned bodies scrubbed down once a week
in shared water, to remove the scum of ignorance. Ironing ritual; sheets,
shirts, high on starch and fabric conditioner,
towels and hankies folded, but can never get the
corners to meet like Mom can. Roast rituals; lamb
goes with mint sauce, pork with applesauce, beef
with horseradish sauce, bread goes with dripping,
and chips go with custard. [ Ambient Noise ] Of the many uses of Vaseline. His head stuck between metal
railings, it’s splayed broad like handles, neighbor’s kids
shouted and spat in his face, monkey, as he waited
to be rescued. Hands around his waist we tried
to yank his torso from behind, pushing his forehead
from the front. I’m hungry, he said
as I wiped his cheek. Mom, he shouted but
which one I wasn’t sure. Wasn’t there anything
we could use that wouldn’t damage is brain. Vaseline, real Mom had given
Mom a full jar for my dry scalp and crocodile skin legs. We used it all that day on my
brother’s big ears and big head and to hide the stain of phlegm. [ Ambient Noise ] Vicker’s boy; tongue pink
and hanging out, Peter picked up the scissors we used
in arts and crafts class, stuck with [inaudible] bits
of pink and blue sugar paper, cow gum and wallpaper paste,
and put them to my head. He could only reach
the back so that’s where he displayed his artistry;
snip, snip, snip, bald. He rolled my deep black
crunchy curls around in his hand as if playing with a
kitten, tired with a pet. He took the glue
and stuck them back. [ Ambient Noise ] The next poem is
called, Banister. So this is a reflection back onto the white working
class family home. Over the fence, into our house,
seeing our banister still brown, still scratched, still
sturdy; carrying the memories of battles won using balustrades
to hoist up to the landing for the bathroom race. Of battles lost when Maya Angelo
was tossed over to the school of that’s the last, no more
cheek, get out of my house! From an angry working-class mom
who fast clicked, knit, purl, knit, purl, knit, purl,
into rainbow jumpers, who didn’t know, didn’t
care where Africa was, who just wanted to love us kids. No point in tears because no
matter how fast they’d flow, pain is like air;
invisible yet loaded with particles you’ll never see. [ Ambient Noise ] The next poems I’m going to read from the section
three, an African House. And I’m going to read a bit of a nostalgic poem
called Adoring Michael. If Michael ever gets to
meet me, he’ll fall madly in love with me, I know that. Born the same year,
same height, same color. See me with my afro too,
so we’re matched perfect. In time, we’ll get married, have four children,
two boys, two girls. I love Michael and I know
if he could just be allowed to meet me, he will
fall in love with me. It’s tough loving a star, they
have so many girls after them. And some days I think
it might just be better to love [inaudible] instead. But when Michael sings
Ain’t No Sunshine, I know he’s singing just for me. I know everything about
him; his zodiac sign, Virgo, we’re compatible. His favorite colors; red, black,
silver, and gold, mine too. His favorite food, Mexican,
spicy, and vegetarian, sushi, pizza, chicken, fresh fruit,
popcorn, vanilla ice cream with cookie pieces, sunflower
seeds, glazed donuts, Frosted Flakes with milk,
[inaudible], mine too. Michael and his brother’s got
their own cartoon show before the Osmond’s. I’d get up early Saturday
mornings to do my house chores so that my Mom would
let me watch it. She just doesn’t understand that
when he sings Got to be There, it doesn’t me [inaudible] and washing windows
doesn’t mean jack. Michael can dance
[inaudible], we feel sorry for the white girls
[inaudible] at school because there’s no way Donny
and his brothers could be as cool as the Jackson Five. His eyes look into mine from
the poster on my bedroom wall, where I can dream about him at
home and at school where his cut out pictures from Jackie
Magazine are stuck on my math and English exercise books. From where he shines like the
star that he always will be. I just think I know too
many people who were in love with Michael at the
same time as me. Named for her. Sheer, black, laddered, woven
tight into cornrows, ear to ear, forehead to nape, sectioned
like a hot cross bun, parted to show a carameled brown
surface where the sun works with hair grease to
moisten the curly edges that shape her forehead,
brightening her face from matte to slightly shiny. That’s my Mom’s face
you have there. I grinned and silently thanked
Granny for being beautiful. [ Ambient Noise ] Rice; rice is such a
staple food Sierra Leone, breakfast, dinner and tea. So I had to write
a poem about rice. The first time I went back home,
I returned with country rice; small grains that sifted
like tiny diamonds, coarse and flecked with
variant browns like gravel. Not like that old brand that sheds milky white
starch into water. Long grained, fluffy and soft that we eat on Sunday
afternoons. But Mom said, I don’t cook
that unpolished rice anymore. And she threw it away,
a bit like her language. Pink Shoes; pink shoes, first
ones, wedge heel, silver buttons at 40, not 4 years old. My foot steps in easy
like Cinderella’s, except there were no fairy
tale princesses black like me and my storybooks. Like there were no pink
shoes when I was 4. Red dress, first one,
polka dot, sleeveless, at 4 months, not 4 years old. My there walked 14 miles to
work for 4 weeks in 1962; his first snow, because he
spent his tuppance bus money on a red dress for his
pretty devil woman. Now I’m 40 and I will wear
pink shoes, pink lipstick, pink nails with stars,
and a red dress too. So the last section
is called, Homeland. So it’s kind of bringing
back round a little bit to the leaving the homeland. And I’m going to read again, so
I have some grandmother’s poems in here, so I’ll
read one of them. Small as my hand, her face
holds gray and pepper lies, lips small, round and
round like a lychee seed. Wrapped in blanket, earmuffs,
legs warmers, knitted hat, crumply trousers
with sewn in pleats. Brownie beige from Marks and
Spencer, like her daughter wore. She talked much, but we
didn’t understand [inaudible] and her chatter was
a cry to go home. She spoke little, wanting
only to chew her [inaudible] and her stick to keep
her teeth strong. Wrapped in overripe mangoes– [ Inaudible ] Rich red brown, rich
red brown palm oil but colors the meeting of teeth. The scent of a well-worn
but difficult life. Narrow as my hand, her
face holds eyes that dart, switch side to side, day
and night, like the geckos that scratch her roof. [ Ambient Noise ] The Penultimate, no, I’m going to read one before the
Penultimate, the Found. This is a poem called, Found. On a bed of domestic
garbage; cans, bottles, rags, ring [inaudible], bottle
tops, rotten fish heads, serrated [inaudible],
jacket [inaudible] tops, flips without their flops,
mulched thick into a mattress through months of rain
and months of sun, that soaked then baked
her clothes to her body, denying her the ritual of
burial within 24 hours. This was how my grandmother
was found. [ Ambient Noise ] This poem called
No Plans to Return. They came with photos, he said, of an England we had never
seen, sun in Hide Park. they told us they would help
with a place to live, a job, if I went, I could
look after my Mom and sister [inaudible]
who never married. Now our children
here are trapped; no jobs, no homes, no way out. We are old now, going soon. We thought we had
built a foundation for them during Thatcher’s rule. But they’re not benefiting, told
to go back home, just as we were over 50 years ago,
just as we were. You lied to my Papa, she said, you told him everything
will be fine. We would have a dry place to
live, a kitchen for me to cook and a bed to sleep in. And true enough you
provided all of those, but you didn’t supply love. This country is lonely when
you not get [inaudible]. Me, I’m ready to return home,
where things are not perfect but where it is warm,
people are friendly, and my skin is not a sin. We don’t talk about these
times, he said, they’ve passed. We came to better our
lives, better ourselves, take care of family back
home, the never ending family that swells with
each monthly check. This has become a tiresome
life, nothing is moving, no one is progressing so I’ve
decided that when I’m ready, what I’m going to do
is to say to my wife, I don’t want to live anymore. We will lie on our bed,
hold hands, and drift away. My one wish is that we go
together, I brought her here and she should leave with me. Maybe it’s time to let go. We have no plans to return. No plans to return
home, we are old now and used to this way of life. My eyes are failing me,
I can still see fine but if it gets worse,
I don’t trust their [inaudible] medicine. If my wife gets sick,
where do I get help to take her to hospital? If her other hip goes,
I can’t lift her alone. Maybe when they get
electric we’ll reconsider. When I left everything
ran perfectly. Now, neither gas nor petrol,
no clean water, no rice, I hear [inaudible], it’s as
if colonialism was our savior, political independence
[inaudible]. Economic independence, Satan. Were Africans not
the first people on this earth, yet
look at us now. We live as though we’ll
be the first to go. Have we no pride left? We gave the British PM our
highest honor, Paramount Chief, but his embarrassment,
our shame. He refused our [inaudible]
and the world saw it all, we have not moved on,
we’ve thrown ourselves back into captivity, never
left mental slavery. We’ve no plans to return. [ Ambient Noise ] I’m going to finish on just a
slightly more positive note. And this poem is
called, Temporary Home. In England you can always
tell where black folks lived. Houses painted baby pink, sky
blue, marigold yellow, colorful, welcoming, smiling,
brightening their spirits. Warming their chilled
bones, the only way to get through the winter of ’62. These are their homes, until they can return
to their homeland. In Egypt, we approached
Elephantine Isle by boat. Houses of mint green, strawberry
ice cream, daffodil yellow, embossed with alligators and the
yellow flowers of friendship. They sit and settled in hills and along the shore
cut off before the dam. These are their homes until they
can return to their homeland. And these are my people
from the same continent from the same breath.>>Eve Ferguson: Thank
you very much, Kadija, those poems were beautiful.>>Kadija Sesay: Thank you.>>Eve Ferguson: And they
seemed so very personal and we can talk a little
bit about that later. But the first question
I want to ask you is, when did you start
writing and what were some of your earliest ventures, and when did you realize
you wanted to be an author?>>Kadija Sesay: I think I
first started writing for me as I thought it was
seriously maybe when I was about 12 years old. And I was in secondary school
and, you know, when they say that a good teacher
always makes a difference and we had an English teacher
who was, she was from America but she was our English
teacher, and she was just very, very encouraging,
encouraging to us so even though we didn’t have
creative writing classes, we had English literature
and English language, so I suppose English language is
the nearest we’ve got to that. And I just loved even writing
summaries, I just really loved. And there was a competition
with a national distributor, paper distributor, and
book distributor you know, calling for young children,
children to write poems, I think it was something
like 12-16 years old, and I submitted my first poem,
I didn’t get anywhere with it but I was just, you know, I
was just kind of glad I did it and I was just carrying
on from there. Yeah.>>Eva Ferguson: Okay,
what or who are some of the major influences
on your work?>>Kadija Sesay: I would
definitely say [foreign name] because he has just so,
I’m, because I’m one of those children who
their families migrated and those times at end of
’50s, beginning of the ’60s and the [inaudible]
was like we need to make sure our children
whenever they’re in England, they get the best of the best
and so they wouldn’t allow us to speak African languages. Now they realize that that was
not a good idea and so I love it when [foreign name] and
as he calls himself, a language warrior,
encourages people to do things in their mother tongue
and things like that and that has become
increasingly important for me and it’s something I
increasingly encourage people to do, and especially when
I’m working with writers and they are multi-lingual,
I encourage them even to mix the languages
even in one poem. That to me is really,
really important. Another thing that’s important
are just women of color writers, because when we were growing up, we didn’t even realize
that there were any. So writers like [foreign
name], a Nigerian writer who then she moved to
England with her husband and she had five children and
you know, she had five children by the time she was like
22, and then all of a sudden at the same time she was looking
after them herself and you know, she ended up writing about
20 books and then of course from there, we moved
on to them finding out about African
American writers like the great Toni Morrison, who unfortunately we’ve
just lost, and Alice Walker, but with so many and then
writers like [foreign name], so you kind of know the writers
are like by the ones who are on the covers of Sable
LitMag, because it’s like that writer is amazing
and these are all writers who are also activists. They didn’t just write, they
weren’t the kind of writers who would be writing
in an attic and felt that they were apart
from everybody else. They fully involved
themselves in the community and in whatever they felt was
really important in the world so that is the way
that they kind of shared their writing as well. And that was important to me, so I think in some ways
it’s a good way to know who had good influences on me and who I felt were not just
important for me, but who I felt that other writers
needed to look at to see this is what it means
to be an important, effective, efficient, and giving writer.>>Eva Ferguson: Wow,
it’s amazing that you talk about Buchi Emecheta, because
she was the first African writer that I read. My sister gave me the Joys of
Motherhood when I was a teen and I went on to read the Bride
Price, and so many other books by her and that she was my
entree to African literature, so it’s good to know that she
was widely loved even though not as well-known as maybe
[inaudible] is now, but very important
to the foundations of African, women writers.>>Kadija Sesay: Exactly,
and they all admit that she was a role
model for them. They have all said that
publicly, and for me as well. And I think I was fortunate,
I think I was the last person who did an interview with
here and took photos with her and I couldn’t find these
photos and when I found them, there’s me sitting at her
feet, literally sitting at her feet, interviewing her. So I’m really pleased
and really proud that I was able to do that.>>Eva Ferguson: And she
passed away about 3 years ago.>>Kadija Sesay: That’s
correct, yes, yeah, yeah. Yeah, it was her 75th
birthday just on July the 21st, and she had been as a
Google Doodle of her.>>Eva Ferguson: Oh, nice. So, let me go, some of the
questions may sound kind of redundant because
you’re going into some of my further questions,
but you know, we’ll move on. Why did you choose to write
poetry as your creative outlet?>>Kadija Sesay: I do
write fiction as well.>>Eva Ferguson: Okay.>>Kadija Sesay:
And I write them, I actually thought I was
a stronger fiction writer. In some ways I still do think
I’m a stronger fiction writer. But when I looked at my
work, and what I was going to be publishing, oh
actually, I’ve got more poems than I realized and they
stretched over some time. So I do write, I really
enjoy writing short stories and poetry. I don’t think I’m a novelist.>>Eva Ferguson: Okay.>>Kadija Sesay: I think a
novelist takes a certain amount of concentration that
I probably don’t have. Because I’m working
with a lot of writers and I really enjoy
working with writers I know and I probably wouldn’t have
even have published these collections of poetry but I
was getting to a certain age and I thought, if I
don’t publish a book of poems soon, I’m
going to burst. But I was also thinking really
strangely, and you kind of do when you’re an activist,
you’re always thinking of the other writers
first and I was thinking but shouldn’t I be spending my
time working with other writers and helping them
to get published. And then when I did
publish my book, it really did motivate
those who I was working with and for some strange reason, I didn’t think it
was going to do that. So, you know, I satisfied
myself and I, you know, hopefully I satisfied the
people I was working with, because that you know,
kind of meant a lot to me that I was encouraging
them by achieving myself.>>Eva Ferguson: Okay, and
then I just kind of have to frame this question, because
I thought it was so amusing and I’m sure you remember
back a few months ago when you first started as a
Kluge fellow at the Library of Congress, and we were
both attending the conference at Georgetown.>>Kadija Sesay: Yes.>>Eva Ferguson: And I
said to [inaudible]’s son, Macoma [phonetic], hey
I have some good news. And he says, yes you do,
Kadija Sesay is in the Library of Congress and I said, what? I said but this is Kadija George and he said no, that’s
Kadija Sesay. That was the first time
I made the connection because your reputation
had preceded you as Macoma [phonetic]
and I believe some of the other writers we’ve had
during this series, said ah, you should get Kadija Sesay. And so it was an eye opener,
I said wait, she’s right here.>>Kadija Sesay: Next to you, by that time I think I
was standing next to you.>>Eva Ferguson: Yes,
I think you were too. The news I was going to
tell him of course was that we got your father! But I was like, wow, okay,
so here’s Kadija Sesay, sliding under the
radar as Kadija George. So I was really happy to find out that you were right
downstairs from us. So how has your research at the
Kluge Center bridged your work as a poet with your
doctoral studies?>>Kadija Sesay: Before I answer
that question, I’m just going to go back to what we were
discussing about the names, because some people want
to know why I changed it. Now as I explained, my dad
from the Christian side of the family, my mom is
Muslim, and so as I was growing and being a writer and
doing more broadcasts, so I would say Kadija George
like that and then I’d go, Kadija Sesay, and I thought
no Kadija Sesay sounds better. So I had a discussion
with my dad, and my father is a businessman
so I kind of said, well Dad, you know something, if I
change my name to Kadija Sesay, I said it sounds so much
better and that’s a really, it sounds so much more
of an African name, I said I’m sure I’ll
make more money. He says okay, then I think
you should change it. He fell for it, so I
wanted my name to be, I wanted it to be a
completely African name and so that’s why I took
my mother’s maiden name of Sesay actually, that’s
where that came from. So I’m sure I confuse them
in the Kluge Center as well, because you’ve been calling
me Kadija Sesay, they know me as Kadija George, but it’s been
a really great time for me, the researching my PhD around
publishing and PanAfricanism, bringing those two things
together and of course as it kind of went with
me publishing my magazine. But really, I wanted to kind of
get behind it and historicize it because my thing really
is it is important to have black publishers. It’s essential to have
black publishers and so but there is some, it needed
to be historicized I think. I needed to put the question
right there of the importance of having black publishers,
so that’s what I’ve been doing but also doing, not so
much comparative work with African American
publishers, but making this link,
making this a, you know, a PanAfrican umbilical cord as the historian John
Henry Clark would say, between African American
publishers, Caribbean, [inaudible] Caribbean
Underground, Frank [inaudible] Publishers,
and Black British Publishers.>>Eva Ferguson: Okay, and I’m
sure people may be able to tell from this interview, we’ve
spoken before, a lot. And have experienced some
things which really bring all of those elements together, including just yesterday seeing
a movie about [inaudible] and the tie in between
Africa, the Caribbean, European Africans
living in Europe, and it’s very final that, that
history be exposed in order for us to understand
where we’re going forward.>>Kadija Sesay: Well that’s
it, well what really excited me when I got here, I thought I was
actually going to be doing a lot of my research around
because the chapters I have in my thesis cover independence
and apartheid [inaudible] so of course when I got here, and one of the previous
fellows said oh, you need to go to the Africa Middle East,
[inaudible] because you’re going to find so much great
stuff on Africa. And I wasn’t actually, that wasn’t actually
my intention initially. I thought my focus was going
to be looking for the links on anti-apartheid because
I knew there were a lot between African Americans
and with South Africa. And in fact, most of my,
the research the really, really great stuff, has been
around the independence issues and that whole, again,
that whole language and the way the language
was changing from the time of colonialism to
post-colonialism, and then the way that
the new governments had to grapple with that. So then of course, how
that comes out in education and in writing and with the
publishing, and then low and behold the links with Walter
Rodney, my third chapter was on around publishing the
books of Walter Rodney, again, that link with [inaudible]. Again, I didn’t realize
at the time that one of his most famous books, How
Europe Underdeveloped Africa, was published by
Howard University Press.>>Eva Ferguson: Wow.>>Kadija Sesay: And
then I knew the librarian who was there before so I kind
of put two and two together, oh my gosh, if [inaudible]
Miller was actually the librarian there, and then
Walter Rodney was there, he must have known him. And I just picked up the
phone, [inaudible] do you want to talk about Walter Rodney? Sure, when? And it just all came together
for me, totally amazing. And then there’s been this
great film called Hero, again which was linking
PanAfricanism and the Caribbean, and then I was meeting people
who knew people from that era that all, again, ties in with my
research so I’d say to myself, I’m only going to go out whilst
I’m here if it’s got something to do with my research. So here [inaudible] I’m
going to the movies. There were all these great films
and then I’ve got something with now, you know, talking
about our history much more in a documentary fashion
but also in both feature and documentary and that’s
all feeding really, really, well into my, into my research
so I’ve still got loads of books to go through and but as
well I’ve also been able to document the different
covers also, the covers themselves
tell stories. So I’ve been able to get
from the Library of Congress, some of the books,
the covers from all of the different editions so
I can have them there and tell that story as well because
then you have the links between the publishers from
the different countries, like Drummond Speer that
were based in Washington DC, but then starting
up in Tanzania, and Walter Rodney also was then
teaching in Tanzania so all of these links, it
was just amazing. So I’m not really
ready to go yet.>>Eva Ferguson: Well, we’re
not ready for you to go. But speaking of links, I am a
double Howard grad, Howard grad and undergrad, Ethelbert
Miller was my librarian, I would not have graduated
without him and when you talked about sitting at the feet of
[inaudible], I used to sit at the feet of Sterling Brown
in Founders Library and listen to him read poetry to me. So all of these connections,
it’s so great to have somebody who’s
actually drawing the lines between the dots as there’re
dots all over the world.>>Kadija Sesay: There are.>>Eva Ferguson: All over
the African Diaspora, and we need researchers
really, to draw the lines.>>Kadija Sesay: They’re there
and people have been so great. I’ve just sometimes I
just [inaudible] people, I really need to interview
you, like this week. You know, people have been
really gracious about that because I thought I’d done,
finished all my interviews but then like you said, we’re just finding all
these other connections so, and I don’t want to let them go, we can’t let it go,
it’s our history. So even if it’s not even
going to feature in my thesis, I want to have that recorded so
that it is there for posterity so that we’ve caught voices. And when I was interviewing
people, they were all saying, but nobody has actually asked
me these questions before because I really wanted to get behind the
publishing, why publish? People are not always
asking about the history of our black publishers,
they’re documenting our history, but they also got a
very important history that we need to know about. That seems to be skipped over. So that’s why it was really
important for me to find out and speak to the publishers and just trace how
important they have been in you know, in black history.>>Eva Ferguson: Because if
you’re a writer, that’s fine but if nobody publishes you–>>Kadija Sesay: That’s right.>>Eva Ferguson: —
What are you doing?>>Kadija Sesay: And they
often publish our stories without any kind of negotiation. You know, I speak to too many
writers, I work with writers that will, you know, send their, they might be sending off their
work to a mainstream publisher that has a big name, but
if the editor comes back and says you need to
change those names because our readers
won’t be able to pronounce them,
we do get that. Or you need to change
that situation, you know, Muslims marrying Christians? No. That doesn’t work. We think you need
to change that. You know, and things like that
do happen to black writers when they send their work off. When you’re sending it
to a black publisher, all they will maybe want you
to do is investigate it more and give the richer background
rather than telling you–>>Eva Ferguson:
That doesn’t exist. Perfect. Okay, so, I
know noticed in one of your poems you were
reading in Creole. Is that?>>Kadija Sesay: That’s right.>>Eva Ferguson: One
of the major issues in African literature
continues to be writing in the mother tongue
or indigenous languages of African ethnicities. Can you comment on how that impacts writers
coming out of Africa today? And those in the
diaspora as well. I remember that this series
really started as a result of having Chinua Achebe here
for the 50th anniversary of “Things Fall Apart.”>>Kadija Sesay: I came to that!>>Eva Ferguson: That’s funny. So we have met before, then. And he was putting Igbo words
into “Things Fall Apart” which I believe he said
it first, they said oh, nobody can relate to
that, but of course, history speaks for itself. So can you tell me a
little bit about writing in those African languages
and what is your perspective of writing in African languages
and how do writers coming out of the diaspora
then incorporate that into their work?>>Kadija Sesay:
It’s a real challenge for writers coming
out of the diaspora. Since I’m one of those writers
who have those challenges. So like for example, I do
have bits of Creole in some of my poems, and one
of the poems I have between the grandmothers,
I have it, one version in English
and one in Creole. And I made sure I
put the Creole first. I’m just going to make sure you
put the African language first so you’re starting again,
I’m a student of [inaudible], I’m reading all of
his books now. Again, you put the
African language first. And then you put the other
languages afterwards. Because then you build
on your strength. As you build on your strength
and you become stronger, if you develop in your own, in
your own mother tongue first. Because it’s like how
can you build a strength on somebody else’s
language, you can’t, you know? You have to start from there. So I encourage, I was going
to say, I encourage writers who I think have more than
one language, I will try and encourage them to
say there’s nothing wrong with putting more than
one language in your work. And in fact, it enriches it. And so when you have to even
think that when we’re talking about African literature,
what are we talking about? Are we talking about African
literature in African languages or are we talking about
African literature in English? Because that’s two
different things. That’s two different things. But I feel that writers know
more, African writers are taking that into consideration. I really do. Some of them may not
be because, you know, it will still come back to
well, if I want the world to understand me, I have
to write in a language that they can all understand. No, they can be translated into
English afterwards, you know? I’ve been involved in a project
with Gelata [phonetic] in Kenya in which, and [inaudible]
Chongo, he’d a short story in Kikuyu. And then it was translated
into different languages. And I remember him saying
he’s achieved what he wants with this one short story in
all the years that he’s achieved with all of his other work. And that one short story
has now been translated into about 60 African languages. And it’s– a lot of it is online
and it’s all in, you know, it’s all in, it’s all
spoken in African languages so I was involved with that and
we did it in one of in Mandinka for Gambian languages. And we also published a book with four Gambian
languages in it. Not in English at all. I don’t understand it, of
course, but at least it is there so that children can see oh, we
have this great African writer and he is writing
in my mother tongue. It really makes them realize that their mother tongue is
important and that is something to enrich them and
something to build upon. And then they don’t
have to think oh well, I can only read him in
English or it’s only going to be important if I do
it in English first to see that a writer’s been doing this. So now what we’re doing
with the festival in Gambia, every time we have our lead
writer come, we are having one of their major works
translated into a couple of African languages
and they are so amazed and they really enjoy that. So I’m enjoying the fact that
we’ve hit something that’s right and it’s going to take some
work to keep on doing that, but it’s really,
really important that we keep on doing that.>>Eva Ferguson: Excellent, I remember that the
Malian filmmaker and writer Manthia
Diawara said that oh boy, I don’t know my mother tongue. And so I would assume that
it also was encouragement to revive those languages
and education.>>Kadija Sesay: Yes, it is. I, you know, like in South
Africa they have all of their– all of the languages there, I think they have 11 official
languages so English and– is not the only official
language. And you know, so
all of them are. And that’s really good. Yes, of course, it makes
some things more challenging. But that is really important because you will still have too
many, and I don’t know them all, but I know at least some of the
African countries will say well, the curriculum will
only be accepted and the school will
only be supported if the curriculum is in English. What is that telling children? It is telling them that their
language is second rate. And that’s what we need to
kind of change around so that their mindset is
strengthened in the fact that they are African children
with their African languages and we know that from
when you’re young, if you are multilingual,
it’s so much easier to learn other languages
anyway as you get older. It’s easier to learn
other languages anyway. So having more than one
is great from the outset.>>Eva Ferguson: And of course, we know in Africa most
people are multilingual. Out of necessity.>>Kadija Sesay: Exactly. And when we invited [inaudible]
for our festival in 2017 and it came at a strange time because the government
was just changing, the first one in about 28 years. And people say to us we feel so
sorry for you, you’ve done all of this work and you’re
going to stop the festival. And we said no we’re not. We said it’s important. It comes back to our motto,
art is the heart of the nation. It’s important that
the art’s carried on. So even if some people leave,
we had to stay and show them that it was important
to be there. And for somehow or other,
he’s not a very, you know, he’s a very humble person. If we couldn’t find him,
we’d send people to go and bring our guest in. We lost him. We found him outside
talking to these young men. And then they said to us, do you
know they speak five languages? And we’re like, we’ve
been looking for you. All over the place. And he’s just, so, you know, he
danced with them at the airport. He can see this and everything. And that kind of thing
is really important. Because a lot of
these young people, well not just the young
people, the older Africans, they had been reading
his work at school. It’s like he has come to our
country, our small country, and yes, and we try and make
sure we take our major African writers there every year so that
people can see that people want to be in the Gambia and that
they are important enough for these major writers
to go there. So we’ve also had
[inaudible] Johnson, who’s a dub poet,
amazing dub poet. So you can imagine. And then after I’d kind
of said that oh yes, we’re going to translate
everything into Gambain languages. I then had to translate Jamaican
Patois into African languages. And I was very careful in
explaining to the translators, we’re not going from Jamaican
Patois to English to Wolof. We are going from
Jamaican Patois to Wolof.>>Eva Ferguson: Which
opens up a whole new world.>>Kadija Sesay: It does.>>Eva Ferguson: Of translation.>>Kadija Sesay:
It does, it does. And they did it. And they did it. But also I had a
Jamaican-British person there. And so if there were kind of
phrases that they didn’t get, she would explain what
it meant in Wolof. So again, we were going for
that Jamaican Patois into Wolof. Yeah.>>Eva Ferguson: And
that kind of recalls one of our other writers we had
here, Vera Nitojol [phonetic].>>Kadija Sesay: Yes.>>Eva Ferguson: Who deals
with translation a lot.>>Kadija Sesay: She does.>>Eva Ferguson: And said
that translation is one of the most difficult
aspects of writing.>>Kadija Sesay: Yeah.>>Eva Ferguson: Because you’re
going from a lot of vernacular, colloquialisms in one
language and trying to put it into a language that
it never belonged to. So that is a new world
I’m quite sure it’s going to keep African writers
and translators, because they’re not
necessarily the same thing, very busy in the future. So why don’t we talk
about the future? What in your opinion
is the state of contemporary literature
in Africa now? Are writers still trying to
write in English or French? Have they fully embraced
mother tongue writing? What’s going on with
contemporary writers now? Because I know that you have
your fingers on the pulse?>>Kadija Sesay: Keep trying
to keep them on the pulse. Oh, I have my fingers
on people as well who have them on the pulse.>>Eva Ferguson: Okay!>>Kadija Sesay: I do both. I think literature,
literature in Africa at the moment is so exciting. It really is. Because we’ve got all these
festivals sprouting up. And the festivals will
do things in English and it will do things
in mother tongue. It will do things in
various languages. I think though, I mean there’s
always been books published in mother tongue languages. But a lot of the times,
they’ve just been for schools and they haven’t necessarily
had a widespread audience. So from what I’m getting the
feeling of is that, you know, they’re more discussions,
there are more discussions A, about with African
writers who are in the diaspora publishing their
work with African publishers. I’m very excited about that. And encouraging them
to do that in Africa. A lot of the time,
that is in English. But there are also
writers and writers who aren’t even necessarily
African who want their works
now translated now into African languages. A very good friend of
mine, I’m not allowed to talk about the book yet. He has signed the contract, but
he hasn’t got the press release, so he said I can’t
talk about it. He has never been to Africa. And he said to me, Kadija,
you know, my book’s going to be coming out 2020. I want it in African. And I’m like okay,
which African language? He says you deal with
that, but it has to be in at least one African
language. And I’m going to give it to
you to take care of that. For me, that is really exciting
that somebody who is not, you know, who has never
traveled yet to Africa, his parents are African
American, is willing to look at that, embrace it and
realize why it’s important that his fantastic work,
because his work is absolutely beautiful, is important
for young people to see it in their mother tongue. We might just start with one, I’m not sure how
many we can get to. But it’s a beginning
and it’s a start and that’s the way I think
some of writers are thinking and it will be great
to see more of them go and moving in that direction.>>Eva Ferguson: Okay,
and of course we know that among African Americans, it
was probably [inaudible] Torango who really first started
trying to introduce Swahili into regular African
American life. So of course we have Kwanzaa,
nobody knows the meanings of the words except as part of
the ritual of Kwanzaa for you to say the Swahili word and
then say the meaning in English.>>Kadija Sesay: Yeah. Well it’s like Drum and
Spear, the publishers here, they went to Tanzania
to set up in Tanzania and publish work in Swahili. Not in English. See, so it’s, people have been
working at it for a long time. It’s not a new thing. But there can be some particular
difficulties, you know, and these are kind of
the issues that we need to try and get around. Maybe Drum and Spear went there
as a pan-African publisher, but they’re in a Tanzania that
is just becoming independent and even though their leader
was very much a pan-Africanist, first of all, you’ve got to deal
with the national side as well. So you’re trying to incorporate
both of them at the same time so I’m sure that was a
bit challenging for them. But people aren’t giving up. They kept on pushing
and they kept trying because they know
that’s important.>>Eva Ferguson: Okay. And you talked about the upsurge
in literary festivals in Africa. Why this increased activity
now and then of course, you have your own
literary festival that you cofounded,
the Mboka festival. So can you talk a little bit
about both of those points?>>Kadija Sesay: Yeah. Well there have been, there are
a couple of literary festivals that have been going for many,
many years in South Africa. One of them is a poetry
festival, just regular poetry, I think it’s called, I
can’t actually remember what that one is called. But there’s also one
called Time of the Writer. And you know, we all wanted
to go into those festivals because it’s a festival
in Africa, we want to be there, you know. And so those festivals have been
going on for many, many years. But I think more recently, it’s
kind of a building of elements. You have more prizes. Number one. Both locally and
internationally. You’ll have more prizes. More writers in the diaspora
will be taking their work and because as well
they know best they as well have to market it. And then you will look for me,
I would look at poetry festivals like Calabash in Jamaica, which
is run by Kwame Dawes and it was like this fantastic weekend
of all things literary in this wonderful
place in Jamaica. And it, this is like making, and sometimes you
will get these faces like poetry is the
next big rock and roll. Poetry has always
been rock and roll. Poetry’s always been
rock and roll. But sometimes it has
a little upsurge. And I think the way that
Calabash made this festival just so much fun, and people
thinking literature, having fun, a bit like it would
be a jazz festival. Yes. So sometimes there’ll
be music within the festival as well but not all the time. But it’s almost like okay,
wherever there is word and however that
word is represented, can be part of a
literature festival. So it’s quite natural
then as well that if music and drama all isn’t part
of a festival as part of a literature festival. So it’s taking the narrowness
[inaudible] literature is, because you know, of course a
lot of the times when people are in school, they’re taught that literature is
Shakespeare and that’s it. You know, and so
now we’re saying, we’ve gone way past that. We’ve gone way past that. And look at the different and innovative ways we
are producing literature. And of course, in a lot
of African countries, when you’re putting on
drama, and a lot of times to say what you wanted to
say in a challenging way and to say what you wanted
to say to challenge maybe, without putting it on paper,
to challenge what is going on with the governments, for
example, you’d put on a play. You know? And so
a lot of the work, a lot of the literary work
has come on stage as well. So we shouldn’t forget that. And a lot of these writers
are playwrights first. They were playwrights first. Because that is how they
could get their word out. Because they didn’t have
the publishers at the time. So it’s on stage, in newspapers, a lot of those newspapers
publish poetry as well. If it was short, it could
fit inside a newspaper. So for all of these things that are all coming
together, all merging to one. And I think people found
that this was all possible, technology as well
has definitely helped. In different ways. And so you know, someday
you’ll be having part of the festival even online. And they’re so adept using
smartphones in Africa. Much more adept than
they are in other places.>>Eva Ferguson: Well in Kenya
no money exists practically.>>Kadija Sesay: So you have
to have your phone there to do not just the communication
but for your everyday, so they’re much more adept. So all of those things
have helped I think with the literary festival. And it’s going to
continue to help it build. This is something
that’s really– it’s a really exciting time
to be in Africa at the moment. Arts and culture wise.>>Eva Ferguson: And I think
we really have to reference at this point somebody we
never got a chance to get on camera before he made
his transition, [inaudible].>>Kadija Sesay: Yes.>>Eva Ferguson: Yes. And can you talk a little
bit about him as far as literary festivals?>>Kadija Sesay: Yeah
well the first time– when was the first time? Oh, [inaudible] was
just, he was just– he was just so big on the scene. And he moved so many of
us to get things done. He was incredible. So, I went to Kenya. He invited me to Kenya
and some other writers who we felt would move us in
shakers, including [inaudible]. And some other writers. Because we wanted to kind
of get together a network of literary magazines. Because sometimes that’s
how you get first publishers [inaudible] magazine. That whole project never
necessarily came off but we all met together
and he really, really did something with Kwame. I think Kwame as well, it really
was a kernel to pick up some of these, the literary
scene as well. And so when I did my
first festival in 2007, I invited [inaudible] to come. Because they were also having
the first PEN conference in [inaudible], the
first one that they’d had in Africa for 40 years. So we just made a
big thing of it. We were going to PEN, I was
going to have my festival, I had a writer’s
retreat in the Gambia. In an absolutely
beautiful space. I was having a festival. And so I was having people come
from [inaudible] to the festival and somewhere in the
middle of that I started in getting married as well. [inaudible] festival, it
was just an exciting time. And so [inaudible] was there. And encouraging people. And we had a– I published a
book with Helon [inaudible]. So Helon [inaudible] on
Dreams, Miracles, and Jazz. New Adventures in
African Fiction. [inaudible] was in that. A lot of the people who ever
came [inaudible] were in there, all of the writers
who were in there, hadn’t published a novel yet. Most of them now. Which was really excited. And we actually met, Helon and
I, to talk about this book. At TGI Friday’s in
Washington DC. We literally sat down and
planned the book, you know, and sometimes with writers, you,
and we were at the time then where we knew we were in a space where we could help get
African writers published because Helon had kind of
made a name for himself. I was at the Kennedy Center
at that time, yes this is it, we’re going to do this. And everything. But [inaudible] has always
been there at the center and at the time, people
didn’t know he was gay, he was such a gay activist. And so even at one stage and
I said well, [inaudible], I want to do, I’m thinking
of doing the next festival. I would really love you to come. And especially because I know that you should really
support a lot of young people. And he said, oh just
invite me, I’m coming. Don’t worry about it. And I’m going to be there. And I really appreciated him
for saying that I’m being there. We never got him
there that next time, but he was there the first time. When we first did that festival. So having people like
[inaudible], which [inaudible] because that’s when she was at
that time Doreen, [inaudible], she used to live in DC, but I
think she’s now gone back home to Uganda, came to festival. And it was great, yeah. So I was really excited. And we really miss [inaudible].>>Eva Ferguson: So tell me
about your next festival.>>Kadija Sesay: Wow, our next
festival is going to be in 2021. Because we’re going to have
a pan-African conference in May 2020. So we’re going to do the
festival in 2021 in January. And what is so nice about it
is I don’t have a lot of money to do the festival and I’m
really trying to break away from always having it funded. Because funding is not
always going to be there. And how do we build that? So I wait until people
get excited when I tell them
about the festival. One of the things I learned
from the Kennedy Center from Michael Kaiser, who was
there at the time was passion. Passion about the
art is what sells it. So I’m passionate
about the festival. And I keep talking about
how passionate I am about the festival. And then [inaudible] saying so
when are you going to invite me? So they invite themselves. I say we’d love to have you,
but you know we’ve got no money but we’d love to
have– oh, don’t worry. Just get me there. And they just want to get there. So I know Helon Habila
is coming. [Inaudible] is coming. And so many writers like, I
just want to be there you know. Which is great. And that helps them
to get there. It helps me to have the net. And so that it really helps the
writers in Gambia where a lot of people sometimes think
there’s no literature in Gambia. But there is. It helps them to realize
that their work is important and that people are, other
writers are recognizing them and once those writers
are there, it helps enrich the writers and
it helps enrich the literature. And it would help them
to have that transition into a larger international
platform. One of Gambia’s most
well-known writers is in DC, Dr. Tijan Sallah. He’s a poet. And he’s a short story writer. We want more Dr. Tijan Salah. We want a lot more. Not only male [inaudible] but
young woman writers as well. So I’m really there encouraging
there’s a few young writers there who are really doing well. And we have to kind of recognize
because there are no publishers of such, in the end
they self-publish. And so you have to
think if somebody, and especially young person,
is going to make a decision with the very little
money that they have, or the very little money
that they have to borrow, to publish a book before
feeding themselves with food, that tells you how important
literature is to them. And it’s no joke and
it’s a serious thing. So they need to be taken
seriously and supported.>>Eva Ferguson: I’m glad
you mentioned Tijan Sallah. He was I believe the
third or the fourth writer in this series, which
is now some 30, I think you might be number 33?>>Kadija Sesay: Alright,
oh, kind of like my age.>>Eva Ferguson: Which
is a great number. But also talking about numbers,
we’ve come to my last question. Which is number 11. How do you see the
future for African and African diaspora writers
and what steps need to be taken to broaden the readership
of African literature to the international community? And I want to just expand on
that and just say and to Africa? How do these writers
need to really develop that African readership? Because I think a lot of African
writers now have international readership, we know that–>>Kadija Sesay: Oh, absolutely.>>Eva Ferguson: —
so, as you mentioned, [inaudible] works being
translated, Chinua Achebe, so many African writers
have been translated into other languages. Including now African languages. But who’s the real target
audience for African writers? Should it be the
international community? Or should it be the
African community first?>>Kadija Sesay: International. And putting African writers
right there in the middle of that international. And I mean, as I said, I mean
I’m encouraged by the fact that a lot of the African
writers I know now, they all publish with an African
publisher on the continent. That’s important to support
the publishing industry. But it’s important as well,
not only for the people to see in Africa that the work of their
established writers is coming in with an African publisher,
that’s really important. It’s, it’s a little
bit more work, I’m saying it’s a
little bit more work, it’s probably a lot more work. But it should only be a
little bit more work, to then, to start looking at
translating some of those works into African languages. Because now we do have, I
know there is like a team in the Gambia, even though I’m
Sierra Leonean, I spent a lot of time, you can
tell, in the Gambia. And there is a team now of
translators who are working on different projects. And when I first met them, it
was kind of like well okay, we’re doing all of this work
for you for bringing this. And they almost felt it
was like almost like a job. And when I actually went to have
a meeting, because sometimes, you know, technology is
not great for everything. And sometimes you have
to have a face-to-face. I said brother, please,
let’s sit down and talk and let me tell you
what the objective is. And when I finished
talking to him he said, we’re doing the same work. It’s for the same boat. What we want is all of this
work here so that it can be and there are around
seven languages, seven main languages anyway
in Gambia, so at least, if we can get the main
four, most people, nearly everybody will
speak at least one of those four languages. He says we’re doing
the same work. He said whatever small, small
cache you have, just give to us. At the end of the day, we have
to get this work translated. We have to get it in the
hands of the children, and it has to be in their
hands in their own languages. So there’s still a lot,
there’s a long way to go. And there’s a lot of work to do
but I believe it will get done. And I think sometimes
people look at what professor [inaudible]
says and thinks, is he dreaming? You know, how can
this all be achieved? But that’s the start. That’s the start. If we’re not going
to dream to achieve, then we’re not going
to get anywhere. We can’t keep saying that
it has to be in English or it has to be in French. Yes, it’s great for it to
be in those languages, too. But even if it’s in
select African languages, that is somewhere. Because as we said, people speak
more than one African languages. And these languages are
grouped into language types. So for one of the, we’re
kind of doing a showcase of Mboka festival
in the UK in August. And we were able to get
with the Igbo conference, link it together with
the Igbo conference. And we said okay, there
must be a link with Igbo and a Gambian language,
let’s find it. And we’ll do a workshop of that. And that’s what we’re doing. You know, so these are
all the things you have to be innovative and try. So nobody’s saying it’s easy,
but I think that we must try.>>Eva Ferguson: And as a
Liberian friend of mine, who was a culinary griot,
she says we have to palaver.>>Kadija Sesay: Yes.>>Eva Ferguson:
We have to palaver.>>Kadija Sesay:
We have to palaver.>>Eva Ferguson: And so on
that note, I want to thank you so much for being a
part of Conversations with African Poets and Writers. And we wish you all the luck
in your future endeavors. And we’ll be looking
to you as a name in the African literature field
who will be moving it forward. So thank you so much,
Kadija Sesay.>>Kadija Sesay: Thank you.>>Eva Ferguson: Sometimes
known as Kadija George. I didn’t introduce
myself, I’m Eva Ferguson. Reference librarian for now
a lot of African countries at the Library of Congress. So thank you so much.>>Kadija Sesay: Thanks, it’s
been great speaking to you.>>Eva Ferguson: Thank you.>>Kadija Sesay: Thanks.