Book Review: Seven New Generation African Poets
Of the poets, three live in Africa: T. J. Dema in Botswana, Clifton Gachagua in Kenya, and Len Verway in South Africa. The remaining four live elsewhere: Tsitsi Jaji and Ladan Osman in the United States, and Nick Makoha and Warsan Shire in the United Kingdom. All seven self-identify as African, and all write in English; there are no translations. This allows us to experience their work directly without asking how much the work was “interpreted” by translators.
The title Seven New Generation African Poets immediately raises the question of how similar these poets are and what characteristics identify them as African. One of the exciting discoveries is that these poets exhibit a strikingly wide range of aesthetics and styles. All are accomplished writers whose work ranges from straightforward narrative to experimental.
Their subject matter identifies them as African. Each poet offers glimpses into an individual life rooted in a home country. Sometimes the details are subtle. In T. J. Dema’s Mandible, the first four poems have no geographical references; the fourth, “Our Man in Gaborone,” simply mentions the capital of Botswana in the title. In contrast, Nick Makoha’s The Second Republic focuses entirely on the devastation in Uganda under dictator Idi Amin.
Another element, a surprising and troubling one, unifies these poets. At some point, every poet writes of extreme discrimination and oppression; many write of brutality. Given the specificity of so many of the details, much of this seems to be coming from personal experience. These poems add urgency and intensity to the collection.
I discuss each poet’s work below. Collectively, the chapbooks accumulate into an excitingly diverse, complex, and provocative collection.
The Second Republic by Nick Makoha
Makoha speaks directly of those in power. His is the poetry of casting blame. These poems recount the difficult and violent history of Uganda as it moved from colonialism to the brutal dictatorship of Idi Amin. Makoha’s focus is on the messages, spoken and unspoken, especially as Amin took control. As he states in “Highlife”:
Presidency can buy you celebrity.
Wrap your hand around
the right man’s throat
and you can become a member
of the elite.
It is clear that Amin’s efforts were not about liberation but about power. Makoha’s voice is relentless as he details the carnage in poem after poem: heads torn from their bodies, a man hung from barbed wire by his genitals, corpses left to be eaten by hyenas. This is a crude and completely unmediated existence.
As in-your-face as these poems are, they also offer complication and subtlety. In “The Last Ugandan,” he reminiscences: “My mother bought me a plane ticket to flee Idi Amin. / He was a powerful man loved by many women. / Mum say she see my father in him.” This is a surprising revelation. It would be easy to distance himself from the monster that Idi Amin was.
In “Resurrection Man,” which may be the most difficult poem in the entire collection of chapbooks, Makoha speaks as an observer watching a girl who is pulled from a taxi and stripped; her head is shaved, and she is dragged by the arms to a deserted area. The speaker addresses the girl in the last moments of her life:
One lit the match, another peeled the blindfold, the
rest poured gin on your face. I know you saw me
in the hollow of a tree. I wanted to run to you,
but their bullets would have easily caught up with me.
I stood firm, learning to hide myself in the dark.
A man must have two faces: one he can live with
and one he will die with. The second face is mine.
We cannot fault the speaker for not taking action, but there is a hint of cowardice in the description. I can’t help but think that Makoha may also be implicating the readers of the poem. It is as though he wants all onlookers who watch and do nothing, including his readers, to stop and question their culpability in the face of atrocities such as these.
Seven New Generation African Poets is a brilliantly conceived project. These chapbooks constitute not a poetic sampler but rather a collection of seven complete works. Each poet has significantly more room to show their work than a typical anthology would allow. Our experience of these writers is larger and more fulfilling.
This collection demonstrates a wide range of aesthetics and provides a glimpse into lives that are rich and textured, though faced with almost incomprehensible challenges. As co-editor Kwame Dawes says in his preface to the collection, each of these poets is committed to “finding a voice and idiom that manages to reflect a quality of modernity operating in African cultures.”
The goal of the project was to present talented poets who are at an early stage in their careers. Only two of these poets have previously published a book of poetry. Given the talent displayed here, it seems that publication and much wider attention for these poets is only a matter of time.
To read full article of to the TriQuarterly Review