On identity, poetry, diaspora and Afropessimism—Kweku Abimbola in conversation with Sreddy Yen

Gambia-born poet Kweku Abimbola, whose award-winning first collection of poetry Saltwater Demands a Psalm was published by Graywolf Press in 2023, joined Sreddy Yen for an instalment of ‘Race from Africa’, a series of Instagram Lives that thinks alongside academic and often United States-centric theorisations of race by examining what ‘Blackness’ means for literary voices who have spent a formative portion of their lives on the continent and/or whose literary practices are critically grounded in Africa. The following transcript, which has been lightly edited, is three-quarters of the entire conversation. Find the full interview on Sreddy’s Instagram page (@sreddyen).

Sreddy Yen (SY): I know you have a bio on your website, Kweku, but there are so many facets to it, so I’m going to ask you to position yourself.

Kweku Abimbola (KA): As far as my identity goes, I always joke with people that I’m the least Gambian Gambian you’ll ever meet because, while I was born in Gambia, my mom is Ghanaian and my dad is Sierra Leonean and Nigerian. So it’s like all the jollof wars … But I would say, now that I’ve been in various spaces in the Black diaspora, I see myself most closely tied to my Ghanaian side, which is very evident in the collection. But also, I see myself as a Black diasporic individual who’s had the privilege to see Blackness in different continents and different hemispheres, and I’m very drawn to how we can reconnect through these cultural practices that we don’t always recognise that bind us together.

SY: Awesome. You’ve just brought up so many things I want to talk to you about, as I’m really interested in the ways in which race has been thought about from the continent and in the diaspora. But before we get into that, I wanted to congratulate you first. It was just announced that Saltwater Demands a Psalm won the Nossrat Yassini Poetry Prize, judged by Camille Dungy. The collection also won the First Book Award from the Academy of American Poets back in 2022. I’m curious about how the collection has been received outside of the prizes.

KA: Thank you so much for the notes of congratulations. As far as how the collection has been received, when it first came out, I was quite anxious. You know, there’s that normal sort of anxiety that is like, has everyone just been lying the whole time? Is it a really good book? Is it really going to hit the same way? Because many of the poems deal with very intimate moments from my life, my family’s history, and so on. And when the people in my community co-signed it, when my friends came out and the elders in the community came out and received the book with such warmth and generosity at my first readings in Ann Arbor and in Detroit, that was enough for me. The book comes from a specific place and it’s for a specific audience. I feel like, as I’ve grown as a poet, it’s impossible to reach everyone. Nor should our poetry aim to appease every audience because this book calls out anti-Black violence, it calls out racism, it calls out homophobia. It calls out all these things. And that might make a lot of people feel uncomfortable. So, in that regard, I find that the people for whom this book was written have received it well. Others who might not identify with the conversations or themes of Black liberation, these themes of Pan-African identity, they don’t receive it as well. And that’s fine with me, because that wasn’t the point. Nikki Giovanni has this funny little line where she says something like, ‘Oh, if your book isn’t banned in 2023, are you really writing?’ So it’s the idea that there is a certain white supremacist gaze that we have to write against, and I find that as a poet who is writing against this gaze, I’ve gotten used to not having a very wide audience, always. And I prefer it that way.

SY: Could you say a little bit more about audience and who Saltwater is for? I mean, it’s been published by Graywolf in the US, right? So that immediately dictates a certain kind of audience.

KA: Yeah, I oftentimes describe myself as reluctantly American because, like, I’ve been here, I’ve grown up here for more than half of my life now, just about. And so much of my language is influenced by Americanisms, you know. It gets to you at a certain point. So I think the easiest answer for my audience would be any individual who either comes from a Black diasporic experience or is interested in learning more. I think that one of the biggest themes in Saltwater is turning individuals who find themselves in the Black diaspora toward each other. Because one thing I find very concerning is that there are all these diaspora wars that happen and I feel like the dialogue can be very binary, it can be very black and white. And there are very real histories behind why there is tension, obviously. But I think coming from the tradition of the Garveyites and Kwame Nkrumah as well as the Black Arts Movement that is reaching toward this global Blackness, right? Not just a US-centric Blackness, not just the West as a centre of Blackness. But it was the idea that we are in a dialectic and for us to really progress, not just artistically, but as a people, as a whole, it requires these cross-cultural and also intergenerational dialogues as well.

SY: I absolutely love that. Thinking about being in the diaspora as being in a dialectic, I’m really trying to work through that idea. Could you say a little more about that and whether Pan-Africanism or global Blackness are perhaps the synthesis that is imagined in this dialectic? And could you also describe, for those of us not in the Black diasporic community, what the diaspora wars are about?

KA: I got you. So I’ll start more with Pan-African identity and I’ll end with the very fiery diaspora wars. My entrance into Pan-Africanism, I think, the earliest memories I have are the little family reunions that we’d have where the kids are playing and the adults, especially the uncles, are sitting on the porch after a long meal and just talking about politics. And that’s when I’d sneak in and hear these conversations and learn the history of the dictators and the coups and the migrations and all of that. Then, when I was an undergrad at the University of Virginia, I was blessed to take a few courses in the Black Studies department, and that just shifted my worldview, because it made me realise that so much of the Africa that I knew, the independent Ghana, the independent Gambia, these great leaders who would come up and attempt to change the country, they were being inspired by the Black Arts Movement and by the Black Power Movement in the late sixties through early seventies. A prime example of this is Kwame Nkrumah, who was Ghana’s first prime minister and also one of the first champions of this idea of Pan-Africanism. He was educated at an HBCU [historically black college or university], right? And the Black Star that is proudly in the centre of Ghana’s flag is inspired by the Black Star Line, which was the unfulfilled brainchild of the Jamaican–American civil rights leader Marcus Garvey, right? So there are all these little connections to the point that there isn’t this separate history happening. Like, there is no idea of an independent Ghana if Kwame Nkrumah isn’t attending an HBCU and hearing these ideas from [WEB] Du Bois and from other great thinkers of that time. So my idea of Pan-African identity is one that appreciates that the nations that we have inherited are fictions, that these borders that we have are all the byproducts of colonisation, of the Berlin Conference in 1885 where all these lines were drawn to separate tribes and people for the benefit of European powers. So when we start to see ourselves beyond these national strictures, which are very artificial, that’s when we begin to understand, okay, how can we appreciate and grow together? Because many of the struggles that we see, whether it’s police brutality happening in the West, it’s also happening back home, with Nigeria and the End SARS movement being an example. So again, it’s less about our national differences and more about the joint struggles that we see happening across the diaspora. That’s how I envisioned the Pan-African identity: moving beyond nation and toward this idea of global Blackness, joined both in culture and in this idea of resisting a certain type of colonial oppression.

Now to the diaspora wars. I think there are two layers, right? You have the cultural differences. Ghana and Nigeria, jollof versus jollof, Black Stars versus the Super Eagles in soccer. But apart from the cultural differences, there are also political histories as well. In 1983, you have the famous expulsion of Ghanaians from Nigeria in ‘Ghana Must Go’, and you have similar tensions where, in Ghana, Nigerians were also expelled. So you have these geopolitical tensions that then melt down into different cultural tensions as well. And I think what I observe here in the US, what might be West African immigrants coming and having certain preconceived notions about Black Americans here. There are all these stereotypes that folks on the continent carry based on the media that is pumped into West Africa and, as a result, there can be negative stereotypes that West Africans come in with. And vice versa, right? There are also negative stereotypes that Black Americans or folks who have grown up here might have about Africa being poor, undeveloped, and so on. So again, one thing that I keep trying to get people to see, both in my conversations and also in my work, is who does this diaspora war benefit? Because it’s not us. If we’re arguing about these things and we refuse to see each other in the ways that we are meant to be seen, we can’t join together as a people and we can’t appreciate all the shared things that are actually uniting us. I feel like that requires much more dialogue. I think that our generation is the one that can do it, mostly because of technology. We have the ability to interact across time and space because, for example, during the summer of 2020, after the murders of George Floyd and Breonna Taylor, you saw African Americans protesting for the Black Lives Matter movement here, you saw it back home as well. And the same thing in October 2020 for the Lekki toll gate massacre. You saw activists here in the US talking about it as well. So for the first time, we’re really appreciating the fact that we have more in common than we have in difference and that we can unite around these very real remnants of white supremacy that are impacting and messing up the Global South in many ways.

SY: I think you’re absolutely right that the histories that were entangled somehow got separated, and the work that Saltwater is doing is trying to reconnect those conversations, which is what I absolutely love.

KA: ‘Adinkrahene’ was definitely one of my favourite poems to write and one of my favourites to perform. I just like to think about how we can channel more through sound and try to capture this idea of a communal Black enjoyment. It requires this more call and response format, which I also tried to encapsulate in the poem.

SY: In your Indies Introduce interview with Nikita Imafidon, you say: ‘Black joy is. It is not a response to oppression, nor is it a temporary band-aid for the wounds of anti-Black racism. Our songs did not begin on the cane fields or within the hulls of slave ships. As such, I was so adamant to centre joy in this collection because America’s media landscape has become overrun with images of Black trauma. It is one thing for Black writers and creators to critically engage with the traumas of Black history, it is a separate discussion when our media outlets begin to normalise Black trauma as a singular defining characteristic of Blackness.’ In the poem ‘Adinkrahene’, you use the phrase ‘Black joy’s plasticity’, which is such a beautiful formulation. I’d love to hear you talk a little more about Black joy and what you’re thinking about.

KA: One thing I was thinking about is the communities that I felt most seen in. I had the privilege of living in Detroit after I graduated from the University of Michigan and that was my first real Black community that felt like I was back home. I thought that so many of the rituals that make Detroit so special really bled into the poetry as well. It was never like when you’re in that community, we don’t do things because we feel like there is this white supremacist machine that is constantly attacking our lives. We do these things because we want to. Like, we’re more complex than that. I feel like at its worst, sometimes the images and the movies that get produced, especially historically, show the Civil Rights Movement or these very key movements in Black history and it’s a very simplified dynamic where these people are oppressed and because they are so oppressed, they turn to pastimes. It goes all the way back to the image of the genial Uncle Remus or Uncle Tom who after a hard day’s labour is playing his banjo. And it’s in that sort of stereotypical vein that everything is done because there isn’t agency in other places, because there’s a denial of agency there must be some outlet. I feel like we are more complex than that, and our histories show us that these rituals of joy existed long before these very real traumas, whether it be enslavement, colonisation, and so on. So in the modern sense I’m really drawn to these more nuanced depictions of Blackness like Atlanta or even Insecure that show us that when you’re in a Black community, when you’re in a Black space, there isn’t always this obsession with what could happen with the danger that might be surrounding us. But it’s just like, okay, we are complex individuals who might deal with this from time to time, but that’s not just our response, that our response isn’t joy. Joy is more organic and doesn’t have to have an inciting incident for us to then heal from as a whole.

SY: There’s a question in the chat from the audience as to why this collection was the first one that you released and what it means for it to be the debut?

KA: It’s funny. The first collection is the one that folks say you spend the longest time writing and this collection came together over the course of five or six years.

SY: Was it part of the MFA project?

KA: Yes, so eventually, it sort of had to be. I think that’s the funny thing about poetry, or maybe creative writing in general. It’s that there are certain deadlines that you have and, because of these deadlines, you have to get something together. I will say that Saltwater, as we see it now, this is very different from Saltwater that was my MFA thesis. The order’s completely different, and I think that the process of putting the book together required many more eyes and hands. You know, there’s a whole saying: it takes a village to raise a child. That’s how this book felt, because some of the poems were from undergrad, most of them were from the MFA programme, different classes that I would take and had to do different suites of poetry for ten or fifteen pages here and there. And then some of them came after the programme as well. You know, I see it now as more like a DJ set where I’m compiling different influences and I’m putting things in an order because I’m trying to tell a story, and more than anything, I’m trying to make the audience feel. There’s this idea of a communal feeling that I want to conjure throughout the work. So that’s how it felt for me to release it. And I’m like, okay, this is my playlist. This is my compilation. And the process of organising the poems came through many, many different revisions and many different inspirations and many different questions that I hadn’t asked. And I’m really grateful for all of the communities that made this book possible.

SY: Following on from your music metaphor, it feels like music really has been one of the things that has helped join communities and has travelled in different ways, right? Like Afrobeats and amapiano and the different dance moves that accompany the different styles of music, some of which you write about too. Music has travelled throughout the diaspora in a super interesting way, and it feels like that’s also part of what you’re trying to get at with Black joy, right? There’s a kind of communal sharing in music and in dance that gets to travel in ways that perhaps people don’t or that literature doesn’t.

KA: No, I definitely agree with that because I feel like music … Like, when I talk to my African friends, I’m like, wow, Afrobeats is cool now. You know, growing up, where was the same energy a decade ago? Like when Davido and Wizkid and Tiwa were hustling and couldn’t get concerts in the US. And now folks like Burna Boy and even Tems, they’re selling out stadiums, they’re selling out shows. It’s a very unique moment where I think there is a shift. I think on the global stage, Blackness was very US-centric, the US really dominated that conversation. And rightly so, right? The biggest artists were coming from here. But now we see this shift to where the biggest artists in the US are now latching onto this Afrobeats sound. And Afrobeats is now reminiscent of this idea of a diasporic identity in the sense that we are mixing different genres together to produce this Afrocentric sound.

SY: Yeah, and in terms of sound and music and dance, I think what you also raise here is the ways in which music moves the body. You write in ‘Adinkrahene’ about ‘our lyricful bodies’. I would love to hear you say a little bit about the ways in which the body relates to these questions about joy and movement and language. So much of this collection is about language, right? But how does it all seem to constellate around the Black body for you?

KA: I really appreciate that question because I think a lot about music as a form of communication. Growing up, my dad is a drummer and he taught me how to drum, on a drum set. And my uncle, he’s also a musician, and he taught me how to play the djembe. When I visited Ghana about three years ago—I was there to study at the JH Kwabena Nketia Archives at the University of Ghana as part of a research project—I just happened upon this drum and dance professor and they were doing their finals, the students who were music majors and dance majors. I was like, what’s this? I stumbled upon this final exam and I asked the professor if I could watch the performances. And long story short, I ended up taking an independent study with him, and as a result, I began learning drum language. That’s how I was able to really appreciate that these things that we do, we don’t necessarily always know the historic and symbolic legacies behind them because when he was teaching me how to drum, it wasn’t through sheet music. It’s all memory. One of the things that was really unique is that before each session we had, he would play the name of the drummer who taught him. So every drummer in this tradition—and he’s Ewe, but we were learning an Akan beat—so in this tradition, it is customary to play the name of whoever came before you on the drums. So just that little moment, just those moments of realising that this is more than a beat, like we are actually playing names, we are preserving culture. We are trying to communicate.

Just that experience really inspired me to think about how the body knows what the mind doesn’t. There’s this way that as Blacks in the diaspora, we speak different languages, we have different levels of privilege, but there might be a way that music, given its historic legacies in West Africa and how drumming was a tool of communication, there might be these latent ways that we are still able to commune even when we aren’t cognisant of it up here. So for me, that’s the metaphor that’s throughout the book: the body is a sensitive tool that is looking for these connections. I think of it like radio waves or even dog whistles, how it takes a certain level of sensitivity to hear a certain sound that is happening all the time, but you just aren’t attuned to it. In that same vein, I’m thinking, okay, what does it mean for the body to be in a space where it is so sensitive that it can then be in tune with the myriad ways that the drum or the sound is trying to communicate with it? And I see the dance circle as a metaphor for exchanging language, because I think that the language and the ad libs and the slang that you hear in a dance circle is its own intimacy, is its own evolution happening. That’s a space where you can hear and you can see, and if you can’t learn the language of the song, it might be easier for you to learn the ad libs and moves and so on, and you’re still able to commune in that way.

SY: Everything you’re saying is just so beautifully formulated, and there’s so many places I would love to go. It sounds like you’re saying the body has form, right? But music and dance also give the body form in some ways. I’m interested in how that translates into what happens on the page and what you’re doing on the page. In some ways we might say Saltwater is formally experimental. So I guess it’s maybe a formal question?

KA: I think one of the things I hated the most when I was taking my intro classes in English and in poetry was the obsession with form. For example, when I had to write a sonnet, I wrote bad sonnets, because I hated the stricture. As a result, with this collection, I tried to break form and invent form as much as I could. And one of those formal inventions came with the elegies. Like with that first elegy section, which is inspired by the blues poetic form, that AAB rhyme scheme, as well as the indigenous forms of Akan funeral dirges, which signify in many ways: they link the deceased to their ancestors, they link their deceased to nature, and they link the deceased to the body of water that fed them. So I was attempting to resist received Western forms by turning back to, okay, what would a Black form look like? And what would it mean for me to invent forms that tap into different aspects of my own Black poetic heritage? 

I think that the biggest thing that I see now with my attempt to resist form is that I wanted the forms in Saltwater to highlight sound. And that’s something that I find to be a bigger project. There’s this Yoruba phrase that I like that says that you can’t learn Ifa from a book. Ifa being their own conception of the divine, their own conception of wisdom. There’s this resistance, like, what is important for us and our tribe and our people can’t be contained on the page. And in that same regard, I find that because of the themes that I’m working towards, these themes of afterlife, these themes of healing and trauma, so many of them resist the neatness of a form. They inherently resist this idea of being static in page and ink, so how I tried to organise the collection was like, okay, if I’m going to have these forms, I want the forms to amplify sound as much as possible. I see someone in the comments say History of the Voice by Kamau Brathwaite. Yes, Kamau is one of my biggest inspirations for this book, and also Nathaniel Mackey’s ‘Sight-Specific, Sound-Specific …’ essay. Trying again to see, okay, how can these poems exist outside of form and how can form not be something that I try to impose onto the poem, but can happen organically through the text as well?

SY: You mentioned the elegies in Saltwater. So amid what we might call odes to moments of Black joy, odes to stank face and to the durag, for example, you have these elegies interwoven into the collection that are about remembering—and imagining too—the lives of the African Americans who have been victims of police brutality. In your interview with James Morehead you said that these weren’t initially written to be published, but you were working through your own grief and writing these poems was a way to mourn for you. So what motivated the choice to work them into the collection?

KA: Yeah, so I would say that when we talk about race and America, I didn’t know I was Black until we moved here. A lot of my West African friends who are born on the continent or born outside and then moved to the US, they have the same experience because when you’re in Ghana, you don’t identify by race because everybody’s black. It’s more so like either tribal affiliation maybe, or whether you come from a certain city or whatever, you know? So when you move here, then like, Oh, surprise! you’re Black, and America has a way of quickly educating you into what that means. And because public school education with regard to race in this country is so lacking … I fortunately or unfortunately went to public school in Virginia, which was the former capital of the Confederacy. Like, in my high school history class, we were debating as to how it’s possible that slavery could have been a reason for the Civil War when only 25 per cent of Southerners owned slaves. You know what I’m saying? That was the rhetoric. But what was missing was the fact that 25 per cent of Southerners owned slaves because they could afford to and that 25 per cent owed millions of enslaved peoples. So you begin to see the ways in which there is this hidden history that is very much part of this American propaganda that wants to ignore race. Because I wasn’t getting education about race in the classroom, I turned to different outlets. And then I think about the more negative experiences that I’ve had, whether it was being racially profiled, being followed in the stores, being pulled over by police. Those all educated me very quickly when I was a teenager. I’m like, okay, this is what part of this experience means. 

So when I started writing those elegies, they were initially very angry poems, because I could now see myself as someone who at any moment could have his life interrupted. Because of the history of racism here, because of racist individuals who live around me, it made me incredibly anxious, you know? And there was a period during Covid where I was driving from Michigan to Virginia, because there were no flights, and I got pulled over multiple times on the same trip. I’m like, I’m just trying to go home. But because of these racist officers, this culture of fear when it comes to Blackness here, my trip was turned from this positive thing into a much more difficult experience. So these elegies were a way for me to think about what it means for me to now be Black in America given this threat to my life. When I finished writing the first drafts, I shared them with one of my dearest friends, who’s also a really dope poet, monét cooper. One thing she said to me was, Okay, Kweku, these poems are good, but don’t kill the dead again. You know, there’s this way that I wanted to resist the poetisation of the trauma because I’m thinking about my audience, thinking about me. I don’t feel seen when there is all this detail that goes into the gore that leads to the death. I feel like as a society, Black individuals know already. I think a lot about Mamie Till and her decision to display Emmett’s body, and after Mamie Till has done that, there isn’t really any convincing that we as Black people need to know that this is real. So in that same vein, I was like, there is intimacy in privacy. Mourning should be a private encounter. So as I was writing these elegies, I wanted to honour this right to privacy, this right to respect. Because I feel like with these moments of police brutality and the few that actually get nationally televised, there is a focus on the violence and there is a certain dehumanisation. So it was more an attempt toward healing and toward a celebration of life rather than focusing on putting as much energy into the way that the individual was killed. I feel like that bit of advice transformed the collection. And also drawing from the funerary legacies and traditions from Ghana made it much easier to focus on the elegy as a kind of ode, because funeral celebrations in Ghana, depending on how wealthy you are, can last a couple of days. You know, like, it’s a party. And it’s not a way to celebrate the death, but there’s a belief that we’re celebrating your life and that we’ll see you again. I feel like that level of intimacy and celebration is really what helped to bind the elegies together and it made the experience of writing them a bit more bearable as well.

SY: I love what you just said about the elegy as ode, as in so many of the elegies you try to, to put it in Saidiya Hartman’s terms I guess, critically fabulate the dreams or aspirations of some of the people who have been killed and the insistence on futurity here is so powerful. I want to return to something we were just talking about, about joining conversations. In the US, Afropessimist discourse seems to be so central for a lot of people working in Black Studies right now, and I’m interested in how the work you’re doing offers a different response or vantage point to Afropessimism. Sorry, I’m throwing you into another kind of war here.

KA: No, I had my green tea this morning, I had my honey, so I’m ready. I think it’s a hard conversation because the Afropessimists have so much evidence, you know? For me, I’ve read them, I’ve studied them. I for a long time saw myself within that mode, but I find poetry, because of its insistence on dreaming, because of its imaginative capabilities and because so much of our conceptions of Black poetry are influenced by the poetry of the Harlem Renaissance and Langston Hughes and his insistence that, despite coming from the blues tradition, it is less about wallowing in this type of sadness and more so an affirmation of individuality, an affirmation of life and the idea that, because of what I survived, here is my song. I think that that’s what Saltwater is writing towards, that these two schools of thought, these two realms, don’t have to be separate. And I think that it’s a more honest human experience, to acknowledge that though we are in a realm that is deeply extractive, vicious, violent, depressing … You know, I’ve been struggling to write poetry during this period because I’m like what’s the point? We see what’s happening in Gaza with the genocide there, we see what’s been happening in Congo with these years of silent genocide and nothing is changing. As a result, there’s this apathy and there’s a certain lack of motivation because poetry doesn’t seem to be very important during this time.

What rescues me from that feeling is turning back to what poetry meant for our people before all of this. A lot of the collection deals with the birth or naming ceremonies, and as someone who’s half Ghanaian and named Kweku, I went through a naming ceremony. And to think that these things that we do aren’t just for entertainment, but there is this deeply symbolic legacy that binds poetry to culture. I think that this affirmation that this culture still exists despite the fact that it is being threatened, that’s what gives me hope. I think that my vision of a future is one that doesn’t exist. For example, Audre Lorde’s essay ‘Poetry Is Not a Luxury’, right? It’s through poetry that we have the most radical ideas that can then lead to these changes. So I see myself deeply rooted. We have Audre Lorde right up there [points to a portrait on the wall above him] watching over us. There’s this idea that for me to keep writing, I have to believe. I have to believe in these ideas even if I can’t see them tangibly. And I pray, I hope that one day the world of the poem, the world of the joy in that poem, the world of the insistence of this Black joy can be real, because I’ve seen it be real for me, I’ve seen it be real for those around me. And it’s not real for everybody yet, but I think through this insistence we can get to that place.

  • Yuan-Chih (Sreddy) Yen is a PhD candidate in English at Northwestern University, whose research considers the re-enchantment of humanism in contemporary African literature. They received their MA from Wits University, and post about the books they’re reading on Instagram.

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