“…all of the power in the world lies in details. If I am able to accurately render the beauty of people who belong to an identity group that is systematically marginalized, then I may be able to restore some of the imbalance of prejudice and challenge people to think with their heart first.”
A Brief Biography of My Name from New-Generation African Poets: A Chapbook Box Set, Tano (Akashic Books, 2018)
DE and MS: Your chapbook is called A Brief Biography of My Name. How much of the content is about your life, and how much is imagined or taken from the experiences of others? Are the poems autobiographical? Are you the speaker in these poems, or do you imagine your readers also becoming the speakers?
This whole book is about my life and some of the places, people, and events that have informed it. I am the speaker in the poems. I think the poems are written in a way that makes a reader want to enter through the door of the story, so in that sense, they may feel inclined to implicate themselves in certain poems, which I think is great. That’s how I enter stories and poems. Even if they are not my own, there are points of deep resonance that really motivate me to continue reading.
DE: I know that in Nigeria, where I come from, and many other countries like Sierra Leone and the United States, there is some resistance from family and friends when you say you want to be a writer or an English major. When you knew that you wanted to write, did you face any resistance from your parents and relatives? Where there any books, persons or events that influenced your decision?
This is a fabulous question. To be honest, it wasn’t easy in the beginning. There was a lot of pressure placed on me to achieve the “American Dream,” which I understand, in retrospect, with a greater sense of empathy than I did growing up. There was the expectation that I’d either be a doctor, lawyer, or engineer. But I could never really get down with math or science, and I wasn’t compelled by the idea of law. Law was my last hope—I tried and tried to be interested, but it never clicked. I did all sorts of thing to sort of close off the poetry path—I earned a master’s in French Culture and Civilization, did volunteer management work for a nonprofit, directed a college readiness program at a college, all sorts of things. But writing just kept rearing its head every step of the way. It was kind of inescapable. I don’t know how much my internal struggle showed on the outside, but I am so happy that I let writing win.
There is a documentary called Poetic License about the US’s first youth poetry slam that I happened to stumble onto during my 11th grade spring break in 2002. I had never seen anything like it and was so unbelievably moved that I wanted to write and not stop. That was the turning point for me. It was the first time I’d seen young people my age writing poems and having venues to share them. I’d never seen young people with so much artistic agency. Following that, I began to attend poetry and spoken word workshops through Youth Speaks; I slammed for the SF Bay Area team at nationals for my junior and senior year of high school. This is also how I came to learn about 826 Valencia and work with them as well. I am still taken by how what seems like a coincidence changed the course of my life. I actually think I’d rather call that a blessing.
When I was younger, I think my mother was a bit dubious about this pursuit, because she was unsure of my overall commitment to writing and because of its seemingly impractical nature. In spite of this, she really came around to supporting me a long time ago. And for that, I’m extremely grateful. My sisters Fatmata, Kai, and Jenneh have been really supportive and kind as well. I think they all trusted me. As for the rest of my family, they trusted me because my mother, who is the matriarch, gave me her blessings! Even if they don’t understand every aspect of this journey, they see that it’s one that I’ve been on for many years. I’m now a PhD student in English Literature and Creative Writing, which is a sweet deal—I will become a doctor, but through the study of poetry, so really everybody wins!
DE and MS: How did you first get published and what was your reaction to it?
One of my first poems was published in My Words Consume Me: An Anthology of Youth Speaks Poets, which was published in 2003 by Youth Speaks and 826 Valencia. I was ecstatic to have my poem published in a physical book alongside youth poets that I had come to know from writing workshops and spoken word events put together by Youth Speaks. I felt really proud to be able to flip through such a beautiful and bold book and see my poem alongside some of my youth heroes. I’ll always be grateful that adults took the time to honor our voices in the way that they did. Before then, it was hard to imagine young people as published authors. Being a part of Youth Speaks, 826 Valencia, and this anthology have been some of the driving forces in my desire to support young artists.
MS: In your previous interview with Speaking of Marvels, you said you would like to ask other writers, “Did you ever want to give up on your chapbook? Why did you persist?” Now I would like to ask you the same. Did you ever want to give up? What made you keep going?
Thanks for asking! I didn’t have the desire to ever give up on the chapbook. I was really honored and blown away that my chapbook was chosen to be a part of this collection. As you may know, New-Generation African Poets: A Chapbook Box Set is published yearly and highlights the work of select emerging African poets. I was really excited to be part of this chapbook set that represents voices from the African diaspora (there are ten other poets included in this collection that are from Sierra Leone, Kenya, Nigeria, Tunisia, Sudan, and South Africa with ties to US, the Caribbean, and Germany). I was pleased to work with Chris Abani and Kwame Dawes, two multi-genre artist/scholars that I’ve long admired, so this felt special. The whole editing process happened quite quickly with the publishers (African Poetry Book Fund out of the University of Nebraska and Akashic Books out of Brooklyn). I didn’t want to give up because I saw the enormity of the opportunity and felt honored to receive such a fantastic platform to share my work.
DE and MS: Also in your interview, you said that you are “excited about writing that doesn’t estrange itself from vulnerability.” Could you explain what that means for you?
What I meant by that was I really appreciate and enjoy poetry that doesn’t obfuscate the emotional content that is at the core of the writing. I like poetry that doesn’t run away from its own truth.
DE: While reading the poem “Space,” I wondered if there was ever a time that the letter “I” was deleted from your name and no one noticed. If this incident occurred, how did it affect you?
Yes, thanks for asking! I usually share that it’s based on a true story whenever I share it at readings. I removed the “i” from my name for a long time in 1st grade. For several months, at least. It didn’t make me feel cared for. It felt as though my name wasn’t significant enough to be preserved. I am kind of shocked that I was compelled to even conduct this type of social experiment as a child, but it taught me a lot about some of the limits of adults’ concern for details.
DE and MS: Your brother Jonathan and your nephew are two interesting characters in the chapbook. The poems “I ask my brother Jonathan to write about Oakland and, and he describes his room” and “Sweet Baby Fabulist” show us race from the perspective of a teen and a child. What was the motive for telling their stories?
I think all of the power in the world lies in details. If I am able to accurately render the beauty of people who belong to an identity group that is systematically marginalized, then I may be able to restore some of the imbalance of prejudice and challenge people to think with their heart first. Or to correct behavior that decreases the quality of someone else’s life. More than this, though, I think it’s important to create mirrors through words. I want to gift members of my community (I mean community in terms that transcend race and biology) with portraits of themselves that show their complexity, beauty, and dignity. To see yourself in art that is honest and celebrates you, I think, can make walking this life a little easier.
DE and MS: Is the poem “Three days before my baptism” about motherhood and the pain of abortion?
The poem is about spiritual transformation. Spiritual transformation is a part of my brief biography, and this brief biography chronicles parts of my life story, and these stories are the lifeblood of my identity.
DE and MS: Several of your poems end on a triumphant note, the victory of you taking control of your identity and your body (“A Brief Biography of My Name,” “Space,” “Pest Control,” and “Three Days Before My Baptism”). Were those poems ways for you to claim your identity, or were they expressions of your triumph after you had already done so?
This is a fantastic question. I think that every poem I write is one about trying to find home, which I think is a synonym of identity. I think while they do have a triumphant tone, they capture the spirit of a particular moment. I’m trying to render the emotion of a particular moment.
Life is always changing, so I’m invested in rendering the most accurate depiction of a moment. It so often feels that we are in states of constant physical, emotional, and spiritual evolution and regression, and the comfort that writing provides is the account of an understanding of a particular time. The aforementioned poems and others make my world a little easier to navigate and my hope is that it resonates for other readers in a similar way. I also hope that it inspires writers to document their life’s journeys. Sometimes the triumph is in completing the poem and archiving the moment more than the content of the poem.
Yalie Kamara is a Sierra Leonean-American writer and native of Oakland, California. She is the author of two collections of poetry, A Brief Biography of My Name (Akashic Books/African Poetry Book Fund, 2018), which is a part of the New-Generation African Poets: A Chapbook Box Set (Tano) series, and When The Living Sing (Ledge Mule Press, 2017). She was a finalist for the 2017 Brunel International African Poetry Prize and a 2017 National Book Critics Circle Emerging Critics Fellow. She is also a Callaloo Fellow in poetry. She earned an MA in French Culture and Civilization from Middlebury College, an MFA in Creative Writing (poetry) at Indiana University. She is currently pursuing her PhD in English and Creative Writing at the University of Cincinnati, where she is a Yates fellow. Kamara’s poetry, fiction, interviews, and translations have either appeared or are forthcoming in Callaloo, Furious Flower: Seeding the Future of African American Poetry, Vinyl Poetry and Prose, Pop-Up Magazine, Black Camera: An International Journal, Puerto del Sol, and elsewhere. In between her studies, she worked in the field of social justice specializing in educational access and arts facilitation. She has lived in France and Brazil, and has a particularly soft spot for Oakland, Washington DC, and Paris.