Kadija Sesay can perhaps be described as the literary equivalent of a one-woman band: in addition to being an award-winning poet and short story writer, she edits Sable LitMag, co-directs a writer development programme for Peepal Tree Press, teaches creative writing and journalism, and has earnt recognition as a tireless champion of other writers. In the latest instalment of our Poet of the Month series, she talks about how the various strands of her life “dovetail together”, the importance of “homeland(s)”, and how to address the under-representation of Black artists and writers while living on “a small island, [which] thinks it can only handle one successful Black artist at a time.”
The biographical section of your website opens with a couple of lines that seem to encapsulate your personality: “When people ask me, “What do you do?”, I usually say, “Too much!” Yet, I enjoy all the things that I do – immensely.”
In addition to your writing, you’re a literary activist, an editor, a teacher, a mentor… Are there times when it feels impossible to knot together the various strands of your life?
Well, they do all knot together — seemingly seamlessly! That is one reason why I probably do too much: one aspect often dovetails into another activity/another writer.
So I had to be really hard on myself to get my collection out. It meant that I wasn’t so available to people, but I didn’t want the writers I work with to feel that I was neglecting them. I think I did OK, as the outcome was that some of them said that the fact that I had got my own book out — eventually — inspired them, and I hadn’t thought of that. So now I use my achievement as a motivational tool: if I can, then you can — and I really mean that…
In ‘Letters to a Young Poet’, Rilke tells Franz Kappus that “there is only one thing you should do. Go into yourself. Find out the reason that commands you to write; see whether it has spread its roots into the very depths of your heart…” In the very depths of your heart, are you a writer or an editor, or a teacher or an activist? Or everything at once?
Of course, I would say everything at once!
I love being an editor (maybe it’s a power thing!) but that does also feed my own writing; working with other people’s work, I learn a lot. It also teaches you to be patient, to be humble and to be mindful of other people’s hearts — after all it is their creative baby that you are handling. It’s delicate.
I love writing and I think I’m a better writer because I enjoy editing my own work. The process of putting a scalpel to it is like sculpting, really. That’s why I don’t really understand it when people don’t consider writing as art, alongside other art forms. When I see the phrase ‘writers and artists’ (?!), it’s baffling and annoying to me. A writer IS an artist!
Activism makes my heart beat faster when I’m working on a project that I am passionate about. When my heart stops pumping and the adrenaline dissipates, then I know I should quit at that point, although I don’t always.
Teaching… I would probably put last, only because of the admin that comes with it. I thought my favourite age group to work with was about 14 – 20, but then I had the opportunity to teach a group of primary school kids of about 9/10 years old, and that was so much fun — so maybe I’ll have to consider putting teaching on a higher rung!
Recently I’ve been thinking that I should semi-retire and just read books and write and research. But that was yesterday…
Via his twitter account, Inua Ellams recently suggested that Warsan Shire’s success “only happened because she left these [British] shores.” In the same thread, Roger Robinson wrote that “Britain does not like black anything unless it’s Europeanised. Black actors, novelists, singers…” I’d be very interested to know how that fits with your perception of the literary scene in Britain. Is it necessary for young poets to leave Britain in order for their voices to be heard?
Firstly, I’m so pleased that Warsan is being recognised and brought to increased prominence in this way. Yes, of course, this could have only happened in America. Would Beyoncé have known of her had she been elsewhere?
Warsan is very talented: she comes from a family of wordsmiths. Her uncle edited a Somali newspaper in England and people who know about Somali poetry know that it is a powerful medium of the people. Somali poetry events can attract hundreds of people, rather than the tens we often get at poetry events in England.
Regardless of ‘Lemonade’, Warsan has the talent and the charisma to be recognised for her work. Things may have taken a different turn, but I feel strongly that Warsan would still have become very prominent as a poet. She was already walking that road when she was in the UK, but being in the US at the right time probably sped up that process.
But we know about the situation regarding Black people not being recognised in Britain until after they have left these shores — it often happens. The question is, what can we do to change this? Britain is a small island, and (it thinks) it can only handle one successful Black artist at a time and that one Black artist in a genre represents all others. (In that case, thank goodness it’s Warsan Shire heading up the poets! She is a lovely, warm, talented woman; a woman embedded in her roots and a woman who always honours her literary forerunners.)
The same thing happened to Chris Abani, an award-winning poet and novelist. Chris and I worked together before he went to the US. He knew he was a brilliant writer and destined for greater things. He had his first novel published when he was 16, yet the UK moved too slowly towards him. He was not even shortlisted for the Caine Prize. (I think he entered it in year one or year two, possibly both.) Today he is teaching in a university in the US, lauded, several books of fiction and poetry published, and in April 2016 he delivered a powerful and thought provoking keynote at the prestigious African Literature Association annual conference in Atlanta. Would this have happened for him in the UK? No. (UK academics and writers — RUN!) Chris, like Warsan, still acknowledges those who supported him on his rise and his Igbo roots are deeply embedded in him and he ensures that his readers and audience are aware of this.
Another good poetry example is Floetry. Their rise was speedy in the UK, but speedier once they took the opportunity to be based in Philadelphia. There’s a sharp contrast between the image created for them in the US and their grass roots beginnings in England. Floetry would not have had the same stunning impact in the UK. America ‘polishes’ artists. But that doesn’t mean you have to lose your direction as a person or as an artist in the process. So maybe, that is the good thing about starting in the UK — it grounds you. At least give it that.
Building on the importance of being grounded, the title of your collection is ‘Irki‘ (which I understand to mean ‘homeland’). How important is the idea of a homeland to you, as a poet and as a person?
For me, “being grounded” is aligned to awareness — awareness of where you come from. Is that the same as homeland? It can be. I see homeland in various contexts: as a physical location; being in the space of those people closest to you; a place where, as a person, you feel most comfortable and relaxed. Therefore, one person can have three different locations that they describe as homeland(s): I know that I do. To me, there’s a distinction between ‘home’ and ‘homeland’. ‘Home’ is the place that I live in — again, there can be more than one. ‘Homeland’ is made up of emotional, spiritual and ancestral attachments.
Being born in Britain has led to my restlessness and my nomadic nature. I’ve never defined it as a homeland, and I constantly searched for homelands elsewhere. I have always travelled, trying to escape a place where I could never settle.
When I touch down in The Gambia, that feels and smells like home to me. I don’t know why and I don’t feel that I have to give a definitive reason why — it just does. Sierra Leone, where my parents are from, is also my homeland and I always claim it, but it feels different to me than The Gambia. I have ‘family’ in Washington DC, so that’s another home for me. I can write in DC, whereas I don’t write that much in the UK as it is a functional place for me. I edit but don’t create new work whilst I’m there, but there are many people there that I love.
Homeland has become increasingly important to me as a concept in writing and in reality. As far as I’m concerned, the continent of Africa is my home and I can ‘own’ any country anytime and call it a homeland. I’m a staunch Pan-Africanist. I remember the first time I went to South Africa, a few years before Mandela was released. The South African people that I met didn’t believe I was from the UK as they didn’t believe that there were Black people in England. They asked me why I hadn’t been to South Africa before and why other Black people from the UK (if they really existed) didn’t visit South Africa. “Because of the apartheid regime,” I explained and they simply scoffed at me. “What has that got to do with it? You are an African. How does apartheid stop you from coming to meet fellow Africans?” I felt ashamed that for years I had allowed myself to be dictated to by white media to inform me and to limit my expression and my opportunities to travel back to my ‘homeland’ and meet my people.