The making of a budding poet

Harriet Anena in her free time. She recently released her first poetry collection in which she tackles a series of issues in our society. Courtesy photos

What you need to know:

The writer. Harriet Anena, an up coming poet/author recently released her maiden poetry collection A Nation In Labour. Joseph Ssemutooke sought her out on her writing career and she shares her story

Who is Anena?
I was born and raised in Gulu District, northern Uganda. I went to Gulu Public Primary School, Sacred Heart Secondary School Gulu for O-Level, and Gulu Central High School for A-Level. I studied Mass Communication at Makerere University, and then recently completed an MA Human Rights from the same institution. Currently, I work for the African Centre for Media Excellence as the Special Projects Officer. I also do commercial farming, writing and research.

When did you start writing creatively?
I wrote my first poem in 2003, a piece that won a writing competition organised by the Acholi Religious Leaders Peace Initiative. That first poem – The plight of the Acholi child – secured me a bursary for A-Level education. I joined the fiction writing world much later in 2013, with my first ever published work which featured in the Caine Prize for African Writing Anthology. Since then, it’s been a juggle between poetry and fiction.

What inspires you to write poetry which today has no ready market?
I started writing poetry as a form of therapy. Having been born during the LRA insurgency, there were so many things I did not understand and so I sought for answers and solace in words. What mattered then was pouring my fears and hopes on a piece of paper. And now, for me poetry offers a platform for reflection and a reminder about what is happening around us. But I only started thinking seriously about publishing my work in 2013.
It is not absolutely accurate that there’s no ready market for poetry, as there is a growing market and interest in poetry in Uganda. A lot of people who ardently read my poems are not poets or creative writers for that matter. Additionally, since releasing my collection a few weeks ago, the interest and sales have been both surprising and inspiring. We can only get better.

Which books/writers especially had an influence on you as a young reader?
I cannot point to a particular writer or book that influenced me as a young reader, but I read a lot of Okot P’Bitek’s works, Wole Soyinka, Ayi Kwei Armah, Ngugi wa Thiong’o, among others.

Which books/writers do you read nowadays –as a practicing creative writer?
I read a lot of work by African writers. I am currently reading NoViolet Bulawayo’s We Need New Names. Jennifer Nansubuga Makumbi’s Kintu and Dilman Dila’s A Killing in the Sun, are great books I completed reading recently. I also read any poem I come across but I immensely admire Nii Ayikwei Parkes and Lydia Kasese’s poems.

What are your plans for writing in the future –what are you working on, what do you intend to have published in the short and long runs?
I am currently working on my second poetry collection, which should be out by early 2016. I am also writing a non-fiction novel. I hope my writing and those from colleagues in the arts can make Uganda a literary forest in the near future.

About ‘a nation in labour’
The eponymous poetry collection A Nation In Labour is a lamentation of our continued failure as a country to progress toward a better condition since independence. We need No New Mandela calls upon every one of us to act to improve our society before bemoaning the lack of a person to fill Nelson Mandela’s footsteps.

Unafraid decries the fact that our community is no longer afraid of doing anything, even burning fellow human beings in mob justice exploits. And Hemline Cop laments the absurd cruelness and hypocritical immorality with which men playing the moral police publicly undress women they deem indecently dressed. Just to explore a few of the 55 poems that make the collection as well as the themes they address.

So many celebrated men and women of letters through history have stressed the responsibility of writers to address the issues that affect their societies –to reflect on and interpret those issues.

And reading this maiden collection by Harriet Anena, you will not fail to realise that the writer aspires to live up to that responsibility.

From the condition of our political arena, to the aftermath of the Lord’s Resistance Army insurgency in northern Uganda, to the state of our romantic life, to the evolution of our ‘humanity’, Anena addresses a bevy of issues.

And while at it, she not only reveals an observant and contemplative mind, but also inevitably challenges the reader to think, rethink, reform and take action, among other efforts to better the situation.

Amidst the many issues that the collection tackles, however, the political issues facing us today take a bigger share than any other. From the all-permeating corruption eating us away, to the hypocrisy of our politicians, to the common man’s role in the political transformation of our country, it is political issue upon political issue.

One thing that might take you away from this brilliant collection, though, is that language-wise, Anena does not show herself as very adventurous or inventive poet. Her voice is steady and clear and image-evoking, yes, but all that is through the use of the usual language we are accustomed to, without much that could be considered novel.

In fact, most times her voice and language are too similar to what African poets have always produced through the years. Whereas she scores on the strengths of those now olden African poets (the likes of Okot P’Btek and Taban Lo Liyong), she also carries forward their weaknesses –such as the failure to fully embrace the English language with all its traditions.

For those who love to see poetry juggling the sounds of the Queen’s language, Anena’s work is almost entirely deficient on this front, with instruments like metre, rhyme, onomatopoeia and pun markedly devoid.