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“My poems come to me like a demon possession” | In Conversation with Harriet Anena

Harriet Anena, A Nation in Labour
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In our previous #SyncityNGLLL Twitter conversation, we hosted Phillip Banigbe who shared his #AbductionChronicles with us. This week, we chatted with Harriet Anena (@ahpetite), author of A Nation In Labour.

Harriet is an award-winning poet and journalist whose works have appeared in the Caine Prize anthology,  Daily Monitor newspaper, and The Observer.  In December 2018, she was named joint winner of the 2018 Wole Soyinka Prize for Literature in Africa for her book A Nation in Labour, published in 2015.


Syncity NG: Do you come from a family of writers? What are your earliest influences?

Harriet Anena: I come from a family of readers. My dad had a packed bookshelf. Still does. My elder sister is a journalist and writes a [literary stuff] bit too. P’Bitek, Soyinka and Achebe were the first writers whose works I read.

Syncity NG: Was there any pressure from your family as regards choosing poetry as your main genre? Some poets have opined that poetry is the least lucrative of the genres. Did your parents tell you to stick to journalism?

Harriet Anena: The course chosen for me was law, but l said no. I wanted to study creative writing, and since it’s not taught here, journalism was the closest. It would make me write. My defiance was an issue of course, but they have made peace with it. Poetry has worked fine for me. It’s my first love. Even after venturing into (non)fiction writing, my poetry still seeps into them. I think every piece of writing can be lucrative.

Syncity NG: Speaking of making peace, we know how African parents can be extra. Did they make peace because you were winning awards for your poetry or because you threatened to run away from the house?

Harriet Anena: First, I got into journalism school on govt scholarship. So there was no choice but to accept it since they couldn’t afford to pay for my uni anyway. Today, you’ll hear my dad say, “We need to write a book together.” I think we are good.

Syncity NG: So all is well that ends well. Let’s speak poetry now. How do you know a poem is ready for public consumption? Take us through your routine from birthing a poem to submitting it for publication.

Harriet Anena: My poems come to me like a demon possession. When it does, l write it down, leave it to ferment for a day, a week, a year (l have two poetry [manuscripts] fermenting), I rewrite, edit then share. When it reads, feels, sounds right, l share.

Syncity NG: There is a heated debate going on in the literary space that lots of poets are beginning to sound alike these days. If it’s not ‘body’ something-something, it’s another cliched metaphor. How can a poet find his/her/their authentic voice?

Harriet Anena: Where’s the debate raging at? Honestly, l don’t have a prescription. Maybe we should work with each other more, find someone who will ring the bell in our face if we start losing our voices and start sounding like the next door poet.

Syncity NG: Haha! Talk about The Nation In Labour and your recent Wole Soyinka Prize for Literature joint win. What’s the back story?

Harriet Anena: A Nation in Labour was self-published in 20I5. When I launched it in Nairobi in 20I6, I met one of the Wole Soyinka Prize staff who encouraged me to submit it for the prize. I did and got the pleasant surprise of a joint win in 20I8.

@mystiquesynn: What would you say it takes to make a good poet? What are some of the things you have had to do in order to get to this point? Also, how do you handle rejections?

Harriet Anena: Thanks for the questions @mystiquesynn. I’ll answer in no particular order. I believe l got here through persistence, risk-taking (self-publishing a first book!), relying on writer friends for guidance and reading. About rejections, they dampen the writing spirit, especially when you are just starting out. They can even kill your writing life, but taking them as non-personal feedback can help. I go back to my rejected work to see what I could’ve missed, or send it elsewhere.

 What makes a good poet/poem? Hm, I have no idea. What l personally do is read, write, consult those I look up to or those who have been at it for longer, learn. The rest falls in place eventually.

Syncity NG: It’s been great talking with you Harriet. Please end with a word of encouragement for struggling writers.

Harriet Anena: Thanks for having me. But, who is a struggling writer? Writing should be fulfilling. A piece of writing is a gift, a child, special regardless. The writer new to the trade should keep writing, reading, and acquire a good doze of patience.

You can get A Nation in Labour in bookstores nationwide. Send her a DM on Twitter (@ahpetite) or walk into any reputable bookstore and ask for a copy.


Recommended reading: Meet the first African author to write Nelson Mandela’s biography.

Writers must write about the things that preoccupy them (if you want other themes, maybe write them or read someone else?)”

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