In Their Own Words


An excerpt from Chris Albani's Introduction to the fifth set of the New-Generation African Poets Chapbooks, edited by Kwame Dawes and Chris Abani.

From its nascent years, African literature has been inextricably linked to politics and the formation of the nation state. Prior to independence, the work of literature was often to create a sense of nation for West Africa (Fagunwa, Tutuola, Ekwensi, Achebe, Beti, Oyono, et al.) or for East Africa (Okot P'biet and Ngugi), and one can argue that all the books written by politicians like Awolowo and Azikiwe and Macaulay on their ideas for governance included the many movements like Negritude. This literature was driven by the need to create nationalist myths; to establish these new nations against their former colonial masters. While the modernist moments that helped define the nationhood of Europe, for instance, with individuals negotiating against the megalith monolith of state (even in protest, Orwell's 1984 is primarily about the individual human response to the state), African literature was engaged more directly with the nationalist agenda. I offer this not as a criticism of the time, or the writers of that moment, but as a way to suggest that nationalism was an imposing constraint on the way that literature could develop. The tone of the poets of that generation have the epic echo, the larger-than-life conflations, much like, say, Yeats was doing as Ireland fought for its independence. thee new poets have been freed from this constraint by the generation or two before them. Now the poems are marked with a deep modernist sense of the self, as the locus for understanding culture, place, and politics. Gone are the tropes of ancestral drums, replaced with questions about the self.

I must point out here that neither Kwame nor myself are claiming to have much to do with this shift beyond the hard work of editorial curation and the intense work that has gone into creating and sustaining the African Poetry Book Fund (which is of course a group effort of the entire editorial board, the amazing publishing partners that we work with, and the generous donors like Laura Sillerman), but we are grateful to be the conduits, the agents of these new directions emerging into the world.

But I do offer this, and stand by these books, as evidence that there is a new conversation occurring in African poetry, amongst poets, between traditions and culture, between aesthetic movements and impulses, that is now available and accessible to poets, scholars, researchers, and students and fans of African literature, specifically African poetry, that wasn't there before this project emerged. This is a significant intervention, and has revealed to a larger world that poetry in Africa is as alive and as conversation-altering as fiction.


from Acts of Crucifixion
by Kechi Nomu

The boy's body
to pick the stone

and you see how
his body too is a road
with curves,
too many


Once or twice
the bones
of his

Here, a story begins,
rises, falls,
and ends


build a home out of skin
from Armeika
by Umniya Najaer

now i have no address
& every day
try to build a home out of skin
& bones
without bleeding out

i move into a crowded room
& mop the floor
so someone will have a reason
to keep me around

one day i am nauseous
with loss

& paint
with a stick of cinnamon
the memory of gone country
into the doors

& mark
with my knuckles
latitudes of displacement
along the dry wall

i paint joy,
it is brown & streaked

it is a birthmark
with bloodshot eyes

running through the house
like the nile overflowing
in the season of nearby rains


from The Art Poems
by Amanda Bintu Holiday

My father lived
in a skin house,
four flaking walls
pinned together
in the palm of a hand.

My father prayed
that the pins would hold,
that skin was enough
to stop the wind blowing in,
and our family blowing out.


from A Brief Biography of My Name
by Yalie Kamara

The long mot arata is a type of
Sierra Leonean rodent that strikes
its prey in sleep. It nibbles away

at its victims while they are nestled
in deep recline. Its teeth sand down
calluses until they reveal scarlet
and beige flesh.

Though its stomach collapses
under the anvil of hunger,
this mouse has principle.

It takes tiny breaks to purse its lips
and push a stream of cold wind onto
its target's feet, so as to offset any irritation
that may tussle the unsuspecting
out of slumber.

Though I don't know if anyone in my
family could positively identify the long
mot arata in a lineup of offenders,
their certitude of the mouse's
existence is irrefutable; it lies in the way

they express the betrayal they have often
felt at daybreak. They are disturbed by
the scene: short brown hairs flecked
on the bed and maroon paw prints inked
by their own blood.

Not even the simple act of rest comes
without profound suffering.

For most of my life, I have been haunted
by the tale of the long mot arata, and
taught to question my friends just like these
creatures, to doubt the admiration of anyone
who loves me without good enough reason,
to look for punctured heels following any
explosion of praise leaving a familiar mouth.

I had fallen many times from this spell:
the cool current passing over my toes
before seeing a bit of myself hanging
from your smiling lips. My wound, a
trace of your icy-breath desire to
take my feet and walk away from me.

I have gathered all of your forgotten
fur from my nightstand drawer and
plastered it to my body.

The moon makes an indigo silhouette
of your whiskers and snout.
Still and quiet, I wonder just when
you will notice how long you have been
eating yourself in the dark.


from Clay Plates
by Alexis Teyie


A man crying alone is ugly.
Uglier than any flower I have
ever seen in any painting.

The list of men I have loved
is long. I write each name
on a clay plate, lovingly.

I place plate over plate, I
resist the counting instinct.
I run my index over the edge.

The clay is cold now, and
a little dry. Now I have built
something. A steeple, a minaret—

the edifice of unseemliness.
My father was the first man.
A crying father is an impossible thing.

A crumbling face, leathery skin moist,
eyes small and disappearing, fisted
hands. I ran my index down his cheek,

I said, thank you thank you thank you.


from Daughter Tongue
by Omotara James

You must cut your coat by your waist,
you preach, when you catch me
reaching for a dress outside my budget,
as if it were a cookie, which we all

was my first word. Not Mama.
Even when we don't discuss
gastric bypass
we do.

You ask if I am afraid
of the knife and I chuckle,
for I have been long-groomed
for the blade. Anyway,

it is not for me to say
how brave only
that I would peel back
the fresh scabs

like a potato skin,
drag the slotted blade
across the surface
from syllable to line

one at a time
West to East
then West again,
if it would urge you

to grease the pan.
What if the body

is just the throw-away?
The spotted frailty
that barely drapes:
the words

we are unable to say.
The left over love,
no longer appropriate
to plate.


from Ebb
Leila Chatti

When you left I walked
into the ocean. Not to
drown but to be held

by something
to let go. Don't

make this bigger
than it is, which is big
enough to swallow

and civilizations.
I joined

the blue, I was blue.
And when I looked
down, I shattered

and reformed
so many times, you know, I couldn't catch
a clear look at myself.


from Inside the Flower Room
Saddiq Dzukogi

Pilgrim, sit beside me,
in this uncluttered pail,

I shall serve you
my grief as food

& eyes' salty water
as wine. Be ready

like fingers inside a
hollow pocket;

you'll know the inside
of my body,

the sidewalk
everyone tramps,

a lock that welcomes
many keys. Come, pilgrim,

enter the firehose. Know
sometimes keys

do not listen,
just as these keys, my body,

understands. Blunt
or sharp, the teeth

unfasten me;
a bone-faced clock,

a wax with no candle-
thread to burn.


from No Home in This Land
Rasaq Malik

This house will become a haven of ghosts,
a recluse for dead things to reincarnate in
the smell of dust that billows in each room;
in the frames of portraits hanging on the walls;
in the silence that remains after the death
of a beloved. Someday I will lie in bed, lifeless,
my body and my dreams ceased
by the hurried hand of a clock. Someday I will
be no more and this house will remain unoccupied,
a heritage left untouched except by the inevitable
presence of dense silence, by the cracks invented
by time, by the rust created by sun. Someday I
will leave and never return to sit on those sofas,
to watch the TV and giggle, to dine on this table,
to sip water from the jug there, to sleep in bed
as dusk arrives, to laugh at stories sweetened
by the lips of Grandpa, to learn from the mystery
that hides in his grey hair. Someday I will become
a coffin decked with bouquets of flowers; a coffin
bearing sand, lowered into the grave; waved at
by mourners who, after the funeral, will continue
to live, as usual.


from The Origin of Butterflies
by Romeo Oriogun

I do not want to write how lonely
a car parked under the rain
in a deserted road sings,
but I've been on this journey for ten years,
searching for a boy to translate the sweetness in my language;
searching for a door out of the fear sitting inside my throat.
Nothing is constant; birds die & are reborn as clouds,
leaves go into the earth to become songs,
yet my love is passed down as sin,
nailed to the wall in a city where my body
is full of strange men begging to live,
nailed to balls of fire falling from the mouths
of preachers shouting in fields.
At night I sit in silence to hear my body
mingle with the stars in darkness.
I know how loneliness sits in a deserted town
and plays dead songs from parched lips.
I know how a body enters itself
to hide desire behind sadness.
I've been sitting for a long time,
waiting for a boy to heal the confusion
falling in my heart.
The rain keeps falling & I don't know
if the birds rising in my heart
is my body saying it's alright to love
this wildness walking into a city on fire.


REARRIVAL (an excerpt)
from Xamissa: The Water Archives
Henk Rossouw

The loops of telephone wire on creosote poles

copy—in dusk-lit

sine waves—the arcade
flight pattern of the city

starlings. Red-winged, shadow-bodied birds

cloud the stone courtyard of the Dutch East India Company's Slave Lodge

and parking garages and eaves. This is

civil twilight. I have been absent for seven years.

collective noun for the cloudburst of starlings in the early winter sky,

my brother says. Starlings on the telephone wires line the foothill streets of
Walmer Estate. Our roadside perception of the houses and warehouses and lots,
sloping toward the harbor below, has been anchored momentarily among

the crowd on the footbridge,
once segregated (BLANK-
/ NIE-BLANKES) with legislative
sheet metal, and now

a suspended desire line

above Rolihlahla Boulevard —renamed for the president

on the island often
visible from here.

The tarmac with his name contours against the table-shaped mountain as it bisects the city.

Xamissa vs. Cape Town, the city in the brochure, little more than
a summer dress, all air, colour and light, cast off onto

the indigenous peninsula—like a beautiful wet bag over the mouth of.

Hoerikwaggo means, in the crossed out language, mountain in the sea.

The Standard Bank sign on the foreshore

—cement land reclaimed from the sea and the descendants of enslaved
Xamissans, who would launch slender fishing boats there, from the shoreline
now buried under rubble—

flickers on blue against the close of day.

Xamissa, the city at nightfall double-lit
by the artificial and the fleeting.

Electric sunset. The early

sodium-vapor street lamps echo the burnt orange.

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