Hope Wabuke Interview, with Julie Brooks Barbour
Could you tell us about your current project?
These poems are from my poetry collection The Body Family, which explores my family's escape from Idi Amin's Ugandan genocide in 1976 and the aftermath of healing in America. Much of my work interrogates sites of trauma in the global African diaspora, gender, religion/spirituality, and the juxtaposition of personal trauma against a national scale.
These poems offer a breadth and complexity that we often fail to gather from the news. Here, we’re given a living, breathing family who is part of a multifaceted narrative. I'd like to hear about your choice of genre in telling this story.
I don't feel like I "chose" the poetry format for this project. In fact, I don't think I "chose" anything about this project. In my cultural tradition, as in most African countries, we have the figure of the griot, who is the repository of story for the community — kind of like the idea of living books in Bradbury's Fahrenheit 451, which so resonated with me as a child. But the griot is more than the holder of story the way we understand it in the West — the griot holds the stories of the culture, the people, the family lineages, the community, as well as the fictional narratives, parables, and poems. I felt that concept operating as I wrote these poems — so much of them I didn't seek out consciously to write, but I feel rather that the poems came to me and wanted to be told, wanted me to tell them, to bear witness against the erasure. I felt less a creator and more a vessel. I tried to honor that to the best of my ability. I think, too, in a project where I am bearing witness to other people's experience as well as my own experience, any kind of linear sustained narrative becomes ethically problematic. There is no single perspective. So the function of poetry as sustained, short bursts of imagistic experience — this chain of snapshots to create a full picture — this vertical, rather than horizontal intensity — seemed most apt to tell the story. There is also the idea of the fracture and the fragment that is the refugee immigrant experience, and how
the fragment of the poem artifact best expresses that.
I’d like to return to your earlier mention of your work focusing on not only personal trauma but the trauma of a people. These poems bring both of these concerns to our attention, not only in poems like "Breath I" and "Breath II," but also the third poem in this sequence, "Breath III," where violence against the body is present in another country, and a person can still disappear. Could you talk more about these poems?
I am very much concerned with trauma — with the nature of personal trauma juxtaposed against national trauma — with the often intertwined relationship between these two. Often times national traumas, such as war, are a large part of the creation of personal trauma — such as the PTSD of soldiers and other survivors of war who then enact violence upon their family members after returning home. With the poems in this collection, I look at the national trauma of the genocide in Uganda as part of the legacy of colonialism in Africa by European powers, and the national trauma of violence against black bodies in America that has been ongoing since the founding of this country. These two violences are interconnected. There is a global culture of anti-blackness that is manifested, whether in post-British colonial Africa or in America, where the black body is erased, and what is layered upon it are negative stereotypes of blackness. Both are an erasure. Both are a disappearance. A large part of my writing is to get past these layered stereotypes, to unerase the erasure.
One of my favorite poems featured here is “Refugee Mind” : “You must speak. You must let yourself be known / by these new children in all your glorious // tangled mess of becoming.”Toward the end of the poem, there is a reminder that “there are always storms coming.” The necessities of speaking and remembering are elemental here while forging connections in a strange place. The phrase “glorious // tangled mess of becoming” is one I’ve been thinking about since I first read this poem, which seems to shine light not only on a person’s identity but also on how one might heal.
Thank you so much. A lot of my work, such as this poem, deals with the different relationships to the new country that the refugee, and children of refugees have. The refugee parent is adult, has already formed the self, has grown up in a society where he/she was fully part of that society and normalized. The refugee child grows up in an alien society he/she does not understand, and which the refugee parent does not understand, and cannot teach the refugee child how to survive in. The refugee parent's survival skills and cultural capital apply to a society the family no longer lives in. There is a schism, an inability to communicate; a fragmentation of self. In my family specifically, because of the PTSD and trauma my parents experienced during Amin's genocide, they did not want to talk about anything to do with Uganda. But that was all I wanted to know. Growing up in America in the eighties and nineties, we did not learn anything (positive) about Africa, nor did we learn anything (positive) about blackness in general. I was flailing in layers of silence and absence. So I wrote those lines about the importance of refugee parents to share of themselves, their culture, their lineage, no matter how painful or ugly they may think it is; to the refugee child this knowing is the only way to be healthy and safe in the new society; to thrive.
I admire the lineation in these poems as well as the use of white space on the page. These make for an engaging read but also, as a reader, I consider the poems in ways I might not if every stanza were left-aligned. How did the structures of these poems come about?
A friend of mine once told me shortly after we finished graduate school that my one ongoing preoccupation is structure. I love structure. I love deconstructing how a thing is put together; I love thinking about the construction of a thing. The union of form and content is where I begin the conversation of creation as both a poet and an educator. Structure must be organic and thought out. I use the alignment and white space to draw attention to absence, to the fragment of the refugee experience as well as the usual stuff of poetry — for emphasis, for pause, for the lingering echo to haunt line, stanza, or poem itself.
they never speak
of the dead the massacres
at school friends
and family disappeared.
how they got
word they were next.
the crossing to Kenya
to those left behind.
when grandmother listens
my mouth is alien
foreign waters lapping at
a foreign shore
i have only the language of
within, just one small island:
I dream of
lions. They chase.
Lurk below. Jump up
and climb. Kill. Me,
I have never seen a live one.
But my mother
now she tells me
how the lions would prowl
her village and attack.
The pythons also.
It would take ten men to kill
each one. Which was worse?
I ask her. It’s hard
to say, she tells me. With
the lions you would find the dead
later. Mangled. Eaten.
But you could tell whose body.
Parts could be buried. With
the snakes, there would be nothing
left. Just questions.
A Brief History of British Colonialism in Uganda: Part One
Sometimes, father, when you, old
and shrunken and dying
are packing up your shining new house for sale
because you cannot work
and do not have enough money
stop to pick up a treasured object and smile
I see the light in your eyes and imagine
you a boy again of two or three, excited,
having earned enough money
to pay your school fees and learn
the head of the class, the best
runner, you have been called to the headmaster’s
office for reward and told
you are good for a native but
You will never be as good as us
Europeans. You are one of the savages,
subhuman. A lesser species.
There would have been
quotations from Darwin.
I want to tell the little boy
you were then Run. Keep running
away from learning their hate
of you as right, their values
which are nothing
like yours. But instead I see you look
around at this white china and white
furniture, this white marble
two story palace and think
some day you will have all this
too. Some day you will be
best of all. Some day.
You will show them
would be like the banyan tree
rising to spread wide
branches turned down become
root again, grow new life.
But there is work
that must be done
to connect deep and
strong inside alien ground.
You must speak. You must let yourself be known
by these new children in all your glorious
tangled mess of becoming. Your culture also.
Burrow down deep in this. Else,
for there are always storms coming.
Rootless. Apart you break
Father says mother is forgiven.
It is okay the first child is only
a girl because he had a dream and
oldest sister has been chosen
by God, father will give her life
as Abraham did Isaac, father
will show his faith even if he must
also climb mountaintop and sacrifice
this life upon Almighty ’ s altar
to become the most blessed of men
by God, the good and loyal servant
In the years afterward when
father would tell this story in his church
only more Amens would follow but now
I wonder what mother thought back
pressed against wooden pew, head bowed
listening to those long nine months
of belly growing
now taken without
consent because of the words
this man she has married
says he has seen in the dark
each night when she must give
her body to him as ordered
to be fruitful, multiply again? But oh!
How can she want to hold
more of what she knows is most
precious, what he would give
away so easily as if expendable,
an endless supply
like the leftover bits
of food she scrapes from these Americans’
half-finished plates into garbage bin
every night at workday’s end
before coming home to him again?
40 years later and
the police are still stopping you
father, as you walk this block
around your home, back bent,
skin hung thin from this disease
that is killing you.
we need to see your ID. where
you going? where you from?
you are an african
man. you think you have
rights. you do not
we watch the news.
we say the names. we know
we are black in america. we are still
thankful each time
when all they do
is ask their questions.
when they do
*appeared in UCity Review