Introduction to 20.35 Africa Vol. V: “An Adoption of Language to Contain This Violence”

These “conversations are as absurd as they are beautiful,” writes the poetry series’ managing editor Precious Okpechi. “This is what literature does: bare life’s absurdity and beauty.”
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20.35 Africa Vol. V

All writing is storytelling. Poetry, with its heightened and condensed use of language, is not exempt from this truth. In my experience of reading and writing, poetry’s solid foundation is its way of portraying the world for what it really is and what it is not, and what better way is there to write about an experience than through the eyes of its observers?

The poems in this anthology hold this truth in the narrative arc they tread. Their plaintive songs are in conversation with both the inner selves and the surroundings of their personae, conversations that are as absurd as they are beautiful, as life itself. This is what literature does: bare life’s absurdity and beauty.

These poems, regardless of the themes they touch and linger on, are daring and fierce in their approach. In “Open,” Sarpong Osei Asamoah writes:

I open with joy and they say watch your mouth. / I learn to make something out of emptiness like bells do… / there’s a long silence—long as Onyankopon’s bleached cock; / as yellow as gun sputum. old as obliteration. / hungry like an empty pill.

Silence is made the nature of grief, in the way it cautions and makes us feel guilty after every slice of joy; in the way it creeps up on us, “quiet like a virus,” creates some sort of craving in our being that is almost insatiable, as its needs are every atom of joy we can muster. This silence is a parasite, a host to grief. What we know of the chaos that ensues is that it is as “stoned as God, as deaf as war,” and it’s demanding still.

These are poems asking—no, stating—how they should be read. A controlled element is visible in their diction, in the set tones, in the pacing, not minding their subjects and the history of the depiction of such subjects. The poems are their own worlds. They invite readers to come with their own related worlds of experience. Come and leave with another life infused into yours. A new understanding. In “Listening to my father read his autobiography,” Asmaa Jama writes:

he first tells me i ask him to recount again, the night sky, because i am not looking laterally, at this memory, we do not discuss, how he slept on tarpaulin, instead i draw new, star signs, unseeing of the ground.

This is how displacement looks from afar. Often, we are drawn to such writing through sympathy, but the poem asks us to ignore “how he slept on tarpaulin” and dwell on the regrets, the loss, the cost of being supplanted. It is a life that “did not live long enough to be transformed.” It is an absence so full, we live with it for the rest of our lives. What we witness—we, spectators of a violence we cannot truly understand without experiencing—is a daughter listening to the history of a people, of her life, and being unable to “inhabit those memories.”

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Fahad Al-Amoudi, in “Aam,” compounds the importance of language in creation. While the poem is set in a house, he uses details spanning from within it to the vegetable garden outside and the “searchlight tearing through the house” to portray a gloominess that one can only assume is transferred from the persona’s uncle who mourns the “echoes of his siblings stealing away in the night.” His imagery is alive and charged and he does not shy away from using even science to achieve this:

The stray cats, who used to brush their fur / against the counter, charging each follicle / with enough voltage to cause a power cut / are gone.

The story of our lives, when recounted, would seem less cruel yesterday than it is today. These stories and their cruelty do not differ by continents in their intensity. The COVID pandemic hit the world and the lives lost were felt by friends, siblings, parents, and lovers alike. In Nigeria, the youth protested police brutality, which cost us more lives, and even now, no one has been held accountable. In Ukraine, lives are lost to the war and families displaced. In Texas, elementary school children died by gunfire, and instead of a decisive legislation on gun control, those who survived are being taught self-defence and active-shooter survival tactics. There is a lot to grieve. The poets in this volume are aware of this, and do not try to make sense of this deterioration. What we see is an adoption of language to contain this violence, a retelling without mincing—creating beauty out of chaos. Ọbáfẹ́mi Thanni does this in “Blessed is the Past, Most Eternal, Most Merciful”:

A man confesses, my country is killing me, and it is forever.

The greatness of horror is in tense. Beauty and terror preening before hourmirrors.

A man confesses, I loved. I loved this land, and his broken heart leaps off the edge

breaking hearts inch towards. A country, then, is a matter of time.

Violence as a two-sided coin is evident in this anthology as a whole. Thanni shows how there is tenderness within its bruteness:

In the dream of my country 

I am a child plucking violets, into a bouquet of trails, for my pilgrimage to the past.

The persona here is taking a pilgrimage to the past to avoid the grief that is their country. How much damage could a country inflict on itself and its citizens that they would rather relive the horrors of its pasts than inhabit its future? The tragedy is potent.

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But what we should not let go of, in reading these poems, is how each of these sides are dangerous. In a poem beginning as lore, simple in its execution, Edil Hassan traces the displacement of women through millennia:

and while some say / the first displacement / was from the Garden / it was actually this: / a woman looked / into water, into shimmering / light, into a wet / mirror, and mistook her face / for the face of a stranger. 

This story is worth grieving. It holds history and myth that have shaped generations of women.

There is a performative act to living and to grieving. This is not to place the two at opposite ends as they are each of the other, an ultimatum to each other. One must live to grieve and grieve to live fully. The poems in this volume thread the line between writing about this performance and becoming a theatre for it. Even in their storytelling, they resist theatrics. It is a testament to portraying the existence of a people without drowning the truth in inconsistencies and self-righteous charade. What better way is there to do this than to have the people write it themselves?

Precious Okpechi,
Managing Editor.

20.35 Africa
At 20.35 Africa, we are committed to a gradual but steady promotion of contemporary African poetry and poets. Our main objective is to grow in being a resource institution for African poets, targeting the needs of both the poets in the center and those at the margin of the scene. To establish the structures currently lacking for the African poet, such as prizes, masterclasses, fellowships, workshops, residencies. To rethink the existing processes of the production and dissemination of contemporary African poetry and come up with innovative ideas for greater efficiency. To utilize digital tools and other forms of new media in capacity building for contemporary African poetry and poets.

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