“Grief is not Tribal but a Bird that Flies Everywhere” INTERVIEW WITH RASAQ MALIK GBOLAHAN
By Phateema Salihu (Literature Voices)
Rasaq Malik Gbolahan is a graduate of the University of Ibadan. His chapbook, ‘No Home In This Land’, selected for Chapbook Box edited by Kwame Dawes and Chris Abani has been published. His work has appeared or is forthcoming in Colorado Review, Crab Orchard Review, LitHub, Michigan Quaterly Review, Minnesota Review, New Orleans Review, Prairie Schooner, Poet Lore, Rattle, Salt Hill, Spillway, Stand, Verse Daily, and elsewhere. He won Honorable Mention in 2015 Best of the Net for his poem Elegy, published in One. In 2017, Rattle and Poet Lore nominated his poems for the Pushcart Prize. He was shortlisted for Brunel International African Poetry Prize in 2017. He was a finalist for Sillerman First Book for African Poets in 2018.
Phateema: Rasaq, you appear as a grief-stricken poet in most of your poems, is this something you tend to appear as consciously or that’s how the muse comes for you?
Rasak Malik: In the course of writing, the act of grief comes naturally to me. Grief birthed through bullets trailing the backs of children returning from schools; Grief of women whose husbands are murdered by Boko Haram; Grief of a man whose wife is kidnapped by bandits. Many times, these tragic narratives return to me and I have to write about them. I have to lend a voice to the grief of the world, to the grief of those who have nothing to show for being alive. It is quite pathetic that we find ourselves craving peace in a country governed by failed leaders. Think of the killings happening in our states. Think of people fleeing home because home is an abyss. Think of dead bodies left in the streets. Think of missing loved ones. Think of police brutality. If I attempt to flee from writing about grief, and how it affects us, it tells how frail I am to bear the burdens of others; how weak I am to project my voice where they need me.
Weeks ago, I returned to The Poet Lied by Odia Ofeimun. Connecting the poem to the agitations of #EndSars# protesters, I found myself reading the poem repeatedly. In the poem titled “How can I sing?” the poet persona explores the anguish and trauma of witnessing the gross decadence in his homeland. In this country where carcasses litter the streets and the stench of blood fills the air, where should the masses go? He writes, “I cannot blind myself/to the putrefying carcasses in the market place/pulling giant vultures/from the sky.” Ditto, too. I cannot clog my mouth from speaking against the government, and I cannot cease writing about the grief of the world.
Phateema: Your most recent publication, if I’m not mistaken, “No home in this land” was published by the African Poetry Book Fund. I have been opportune to read from the collection and I’m sure I speak for everyone who has read it; if I say they are our realities as Nigerians living in Nigeria. I must commend you for not shying away from telling our bitter reality. What inspired the manuscript? How did you get the APBF to publish it?
Rasak Malik: The manuscript emerged from the poems I wrote after my service year. I have always written about the country and the problems wrecking it. In 2012, I wrote a poem some days after a bomb blast in a market in Suleja. It was a haunting moment for me, and for those whose memories of some of these tragic times remain inerasable. As a writer, I perform the crucial roles of documenting, narrating, and offering empathy and sympathy through my words. The dastardly activities of the insurgents affected everyone. Every day, I would listen to the radio and watch the TV, the images of bombed loved ones staring at me. They could be us. They could be me. After the massacre perpetrated by Al-Shabaab terrorists at the Garissa University College, Kenya, I was devastated for weeks. In the news, blood littered everywhere. I imagined being at the gory scene of the massacre, my body counted as dead, pulled over for a mass burial.
You know, grief is not tribal. Grief is a bird. It flies everywhere. In the poems that occupy the manuscript, my task is this: to immortalize the victims of Boko Haram insurgency, to document their stories. For example, the death of Abu Ali unsettled me. I was steeped in grief, and night after night I stared at his picture. I remember watching a video where his colleagues lifted me. That collective act of lifting him reminded me of “To an Athlete Dying Young,” by A.E. Housman. Ali’s gallantry was incontestable. He fought fiercely till the end. The heart-wrenching news of the kidnapping of the Chibok girls rocked the country. For years, we woke up each day to pray for their survival. These stories are necessary. We need the narratives to locate where the country burns, and how to douse this fire that spreads like an inferno.
In 2017, I was on the shortlist of Brunel International African Poetry Prize. In 2018, APBF published my poetry manuscript. They publish this box set annually. They publish African writer
Phateema: Women and children can be seen acting as the central themes in your poems, do you identify as a feminist? What is this close affinity to them about?
Rasak Malik: Growing up, I witnessed the roles played by women in our society. I grew up under the tutelage of my mother. Apart from motherly roles, there are other roles played by these women. During war, nobody is safe. Sadly, these women and their children are more vulnerable. This is not to discard their gallantry and courage in the face of war. They are always trying to make sure their children are safe. They sacrifice their lives for the sake of their children. In my poems, they occupy the space of love. They contribute to the growth and progress of the world. They need to be celebrated. Sometimes when I look at my mother, I see in her the scars of struggles and survival. Women like our mothers shaped us, groomed us, armed us, guarded us, and they still support us.
In most news about war, children become memories of bloodshed. I think of Nigerian children, Syrian children, children hawking in the streets, children brutalized in the streets, children orphaned by blasts, children buried in unmarked graves. These are stories that wound our hearts. They cripple our dreams and burn our courage. Think of Alan Kurdi. Think of children passed from one hand to another hand during unrests. Think of children witnessing the fall of their homelands. Children watching smoke caress the sky. Think of all the children affected by war, waiting for love and hope.
Phateema: Does the euphoria of winning a prize ever die down in you? How has being shortlisted for the 2017 Brunel International African Poetry Prize forged you into the poet you are today? What does it feel like being seen as a poet; one of the brilliant ones in the offing?
Rasak Malik: Everything is temporary, even us. I have always believed in the power of writing in reflecting our stories and changing our society. Being shortlisted for Brunel encouraged me further to believe in the cause of documenting timely and important societal events. Before Brunel happened, I used to write daily. Even when responsibilities crowded my life, I still created time to read and write. I tell people that passion is the sea on which my ship sails. Winning prizes is essential but if it doesn’t happen, I wouldn’t change from being a writer. After Brunel, I realized that I haven’t changed from reading books. I read daily. I write more and I pay close attention to my poems. Editing has taught me the act of patience. Being a writer is a continuous teaching of patience because submitting your work and being rejected is unavoidable. You will feel the heat of rejections. You will thrash your work. You will experience weariness. Many things will happen to you. You will wake up one day to ask yourself if writing will save your life, or rescue you from poverty. The best thing to do is to keep moving. Don’t stop writing.
Phateema: How does it feel like, living in the same country that arouses your deepest feeling of pains we witness in most of your poems? How does your poetry remove such pains?
Rasak Malik: Living in Nigeria is a hard task. Growing up in Nigeria, one gets to know the aches that seep through the hearts of those who wake up daily to lament in the streets. After 60 years of Independence, the country still struggles to locate noteworthy achievements. It is this country where people are scared of the police. It is this country where the president travels abroad for medical intervention. It is in this country where bombs shred people to pieces. It is the same country, you know. It has become a generational thing. The failures of the government are pronounced throughout the country. It is terrible that there is no glimpse of hope. At the beginning of the #EndSars# protest, I expected the government to listen and address the desires of protesters. I expected him to be proactive; sadly, we are witnessing turbulence. The protest has been hijacked by hoodlums whose major intention is to rubbish the protest.
I don’t think my poems heal the wounds or remove the pains of the masses. I bring these events to the fore. I narrate them. I give a voice to the unheard; the men and women agitating for good governance; the people craving a good leadership. People say police brutality should end. People say the government should prioritize the demands of the citizens. Are they asking for much?
Phateema: Have you tried to dabble into other genres of writing?
Rasak Malik: Yes. I write stories and poems in my native language. I write non-fiction. I review books too. Some of my reviews have been published online.
Phateema: When did you start writing and what was the trigger?
Rasak Malik: I wrote my first poem when I was in secondary school. It was after the passing of Gani Fawehinmi, the late human rights activist and lawyer. I remember vividly that I was addicted to reading recommended African and non-African poems in school. My literature teacher took us through the ritual of reading and explaining the poems to us in class. I became immersed in memorizing them. For example, Kofi Awoonor’s “Songs of Sorrow” was a sad anthem to us in class. Despite the heartbreaking lines of the poem, I enjoyed reading it. “To an Athlete Dying Young,” by A.E. Housman had similar effect on me. The ordinariness of life is seen through the character of an athlete who wins a race for his town and he is lifted, and when he dies, he is lowered by the same people that lifted him. This image and others shaped my ideas about life. After my debut poem, I never stopped reading. As an undergraduate, I took the gospel of poetry to everywhere. I performed my poems on different stages on campus. I have always loved to recite and perform my poems. It offers me joy to share my words with people. I do tell people that poetry is not about money, but about creating a better world. People should be able to see themselves through your words. They should be able to see the aesthetics in your words.
Phateema: You regard yourself as a cultural enthusiast and a lover of the Yoruba cosmology, can you share with us what this means to you and what you are doing with it? Between the written and the performative, which of these has greater influence on you? Which one commands more influence on society and how?
Rasak Malik: I grew up in Iseyin, and you can call me a local boy. I am familiar with cultural festivals and the rituals of becoming. I lived with elders and I learnt from their words and silence. Before my paternal grandma died, I spent some weeks with her during holidays. Every morning, we would accompany her to her farm. We would listen to the sonorous voices of birds, and in their clarity, we found bliss. During masquerade festival in Iganna, I watched stellar performances in the streets. In Iseyin, my mother brought the past to us by narrating stories at nightfall. She is from Igbo-Ora, and Gelede is one traditional dance she taught us. Also, I participated actively in reading indigenous texts in school. I read keenly and it aided my passion for studying these texts that occupy my shelf now that my passion for my language and the promotion of indigenous literacy inspired my collaboration with Oredola Ibrahim to create a digital platform for the publication of works written in Yoruba. We started the online journal, ATELEWO in 2017, and we have been able to publish works written in Yoruba. Recently, we did a documentary on one of the veteran indigenous authors, Lawuyi Ogunniran. Sadly, the man died two weeks after our visitation to his house.
Also, I love both the written and the performative. I always enjoy performing my poems. In performance, the beauty of a poem reflects. It depends on how you render the lines, and how performative you make it look in front of your audience. For example, I love to sing. Songs play roles in my performance.
Phateema: Do you subscribe to writers who write in a particular way just to get published in journals or international magazines? Why do some of your contemporaries resent publishing outside Nigeria? What are their arguments? Do you feel limited or guilty by their arguments?
Rasak Malik: I believe everyone has the liberty to make choices. I understand the rush to make names and appear in journals abroad, but staying true to one’s art is important. As a poet, I read more African poets than non-African poets. I do tell people that a good literary foundation is cardinal to the growth of a writer. If you want to be a good writer, read widely. Reading western writers is important. Read and stay true to your art. Sooner or later, your work will speak for you and take you to places. Also, I do not resent publishing outside the country. My poems have appeared in international journals. I have poems published in Nigerian journals. My poems started appearing in journals in 2011. The defunct Sentinel by Richard Ali published my poem. Saraba, a literary journal by the duo of Dami Ajayi and Emmanuel Iduma also published my poem. African journals like Kalahari, Ngiga, and others published my poems. However, we need to work collectively to promote home-based journals. It is our duty to vanguard this course so that we can create lasting memories of our works.
Phateema: What can you say about the Nigerian literary environment when you started to what it is now? Has it improved for the better or worse? What are the aces that put Nigerian writers ahead of other African writers? Do you agree with Ben Okri’s assertion that the future of world literature is in Africa?
Rasak Malik: Well, I think there is a need to keep supporting progress; progress in terms of promoting new literary initiatives; progress in terms of organizing more of literary events. I believe in the future of Nigerian writing and Africa. We have brilliant writers all over the world. We keep writing our stories and telling the world that we are independent, fiery, brave, courageous, etc. We need to do more, and I am glad that we are on the right path concerning this noble cause.
Phateema: You’ve been submitting to Brunel prize for four years before you got shortlisted right? What was the motivation for you to keep sending? How do you handle rejections?
Rasak Malik: Five years of submitting to a literary prize is arduous. However, one shouldn’t relent. Apart from the fact that one gets to compete with others for a prize, it creates the chance to know what others think of one’s work. Over the years, I have submitted to literary prizes not because of winning, but also because there is no crime in trying. I kept submitting my poems and I never got weary of submitting. The day I received a message that I was on Brunel shortlist, it was hard to believe. I screamed my lungs out. I was glad that at the end of the day, it happened.
Rejection is part of writing. It is inescapable. Not everyone will like your poems. That doesn’t mean that your poems are bad, and it doesn’t mean you shouldn’t check the rejected poems in case there is a need to reedit or do something to revamp it. Whenever a journal rejects my poems, I try to read again and look at the possibility of editing or changing some lines. Editing is a job that one must learn to do.
Phateema: There is a recent decline in literary criticism of pieces everywhere as young poets are brainwashed with insincere comments and praises. How can we bring back the criticism culture and why do you think the old critics have gone cold?
Rasak Malik: I always remember years when criticism was potent enough to direct us through the labyrinths of our works. We had critics that were groomed in the art of examining a work critically, and offering genuine and insightful contributions. It was quite interesting that we had people whose comments where unsentimental and sincere to us. These days, digital praise singers have hijacked the important work of a critic. The result of which is the present display of extreme confidence and hazy satisfaction on what they have written. If these young writers are ready to face criticism without quivering or being discouraged, I think that is best thing to embrace. A good critic will identify the intricacies of a work and offer his/her comments on it. A critic has the liberty to engage a work and help the writer in shaping the work. Also, we still have some good critics online. We all need to allow them to read and engage our works.
Phateema: In your poem, “What my children remember,” these lines: “My children remember the mornings after our houses became ruins, the sadness on the faces of those who managed to bury their beloveds after the blast, those who resorted to singing a threnody every night for years, those who dressed their hearts in grief as war buried their dreams.”
How are you able to come up with such emotion-filled lines in most of your poems about the war?
Rasak Malik: You know these things happened in works and how to engage a subject without exaggerating. In war Nigeria: the killings, the gunshots, the kidnappings. Being a writer, I understand how creativity everything happens: children are killed, children become orphans and houses are torched. Like I said, my poems chronicle these events as a way of ‘historising’ our traumas. There are things that are forgotten, erased from the chapters of history. I spent years listening to news, researching about events surrounding the unrest perpetrated by the insurgents. In my poems, I try to let people feel and experience this because we all need to see when and where humanity is wrecked by those who are quite glad to throw bombs into the air. After an explosion, the fragment of the dead will be in the streets. These bodies are proofs of the casualties we have to live with for the rest of our lives.
Phateema: What should we expect from Rasaq next?
Rasak Malik: I have a poetry chapbook forthcoming from Konya Shamsrumi. People should watch out for this.
Phateema: Thanks for the time. We wish you well.
Rasak Malik: Thanks.
Phateema Salihu is a poet and activist who has been described as a hurricane because of her passion and dedication to literature and art. She is a member of the Hill-Top Creative Arts Foundation and one of the rising literary voices emerging from Niger State. Her works have been published or are forthcoming in Praxis Magazine, Brittle Papers, Kalahari Review and so on. She is the moderator, Hill-Top Weekly Book Chat Review. She has published a collection of poems titled: SKETCHES. Facebook/Instagram: Phateema Salihu, email: email@example.com