This week in the Obukiko Forums, we have Harriet Anena. Harriet Anena is a poet, and journalist, essayist, teacher, editor and writer from Gulu, Uganda. She is the author of A Nation In Labour – a poetry collection. Her poems have been published by Prairie Schooner, Lawino Magazine, African Writers Trust, African Sun Press, Babishai Niwe Foundation, The Real G Inc, among others. In 2013, she was shortlisted for the Ghana Poetry Prize. Harriet Anena was named as joint winner of the 2018 Wole Soyinka Prize for Literature in Africa for her book A Nation in Labour. Her short stories have featured in the Caine Prize anthology 2013, Sooo Many Stories, Bookslive and Writivism, among others. She finds great pleasure in bullying words for poetic pleasure. Anena has been accepted to Columbia University, for an MFA in Creative Writing and is currently fundraising for the course that starts in August 2019 with a GoFundMe page and had a poetry and music experience in Uganda on the 28th, 29th and 30th of June.
Procedure for participation is simple:
Scroll to the bottom of this page and use the form there to ask your question or hit reply to one of the existing responses and use the form to reply to that.
Ask your question and wait for Anena’s reply.
Anena will enter the conversation at 12 noon EAT and exit after 2 hours/when we run out of questions/when he is tired, whichever comes first. But you can leave your question before the session starts and he will answer when the session starts.
Hi Ronald. Thank you! I’m glad you could make it to the show.
I believe that my director understood my vision and my work which made it easy for her to help me translate the poems from the page to the stage.
Hello Mable, thank you! Nice name meanwhile.
The first poems I read were Okot p’Bitek. Then in high school, I read Henry Barlow’s Building the Nation and all the poems that were on the set text. Otherwise, I read Mills & Boon more than anything 🙂
Often times, african parents are not very supportive of some the avenues that their children want to pursue. I know someone who’s mother abhors the fact that they write for a living. Have you had this same issue?
The lack of support to writers generally, not just poets, comes from the misinformation and misconception that arts don’t sell. A parent would rather their child is a doctor or pilot, someone with an office. As a writer, my office is in my head, on the tip of my pen, on the pages I bleed on. While my dad is an avid reader and introduced me to reading early, he wanted me to study law. Of course he was disappointed when I took a different path. He is proud of me now. And I don’t hold anything against him, because it’s the system that makes it hard for one to earn from their art. And for any parent, they would want to see their children earn something tangible after school.
My writing journey began in 2003, when i entered a writing competition and won. Thereafter, writing became a routine, but mostly because i had questions i needed answered, i needed to imagine what life outside the war-torn northern Uganda was. Everyone was so busy trying to stay safe and alive to answer my questions, so I bled them on a page, and felt a sense of release after. Until 2013, I had been writing for myself.
Honestly, I don’t know. Like I said earlier, I read more novels than poetry while growing up. But I guess Song of Lawino left an imprint whose impact I didn’t know was as big until now. I made a gamble with that one poem in 2003, and never looked back, even when I wasn’t sure what I wrote was actually poetry proper.
A Nation in Labour – the title poem of my debut collection, was born in 2012, a year that the office of the prime minister was engulfed in a cash scandal. Donors had cut aid, while others withheld it. It was also the year Uganda was celebrating it’s 50th year of attaining independence from the British. There were voices telling the donors, we don’t need your aid, you can take it, while others were pleading with the donors to reinstate funding since it was the ordinary man suffering. In all those exchanges, I saw confusion and contradiction and dishonesty and pride and suffering and uncertainty. Don’t women in labour feel the uncertainty I was seeing and hearing and reading about? Definitely. So I wrote a poem which paints Uganda as a woman in labour, a woman who is unsure whether the baby will come out still or alive, and what it’s future will hold.
My poems get born out of things and people I see, hear, read about and imagine. And that happens all the time, so how do I know this is what i should write about. It always just hits me, a hit that can’t be ignored. So when that happens, i write the poem down immediately.
It’s about planning really. You can have one job a day and still fail to accomplish what you are suppose to. The realisation that writing is my life keeps me going. Even if I have a different 9-5 job, I have to find time for my writing, whether it being at midnight or 4am. Time is never enough so I create it.
Thank you. I developed my editing skills while working at the Daily Monitor but studying journalism also helped a big deal. The trick is to read and know the rules, so that when someone sends you work with the rules broken, you’ll be able to identify it. So for a start, I’d suggest you read a lot, know the grammar rules so that you can break or correct them accordingly. Also look out for editing courses, especially if you want to edit creative writing. Short Story Day Africa (SSDA) runs an editing mentorship program yearly. One of the people who went through the SSDA program is my editor; very professional and thorough guy.
Related…A Nation In Labor wasn’t edited in Uganda because, as per that interview with SMS, you failed to find editors you were confident in here. What are your thoughts on this service in Uganda now? Have there been positive changes since then?
Thank you. Fingers and toes crossed about the money. I’m looking forward to sharpening my writing craft, making use of the networks and people who move and make things work in the writing industry there. Despite my strides as a writer, I’ve never really studied creative writing, and so I hope getting into the course will make me even better at what I have been doing.
The trend for African writers after going to outside countries for further studies in writing is to stay there. I understand the reasons and the main one seems to understandably be that the opportunities are better over there. Is this a potential outcome for you or are you determined to come back and use the knowledge gained there to uplift the sector here while on the ground?
Hey Harriet. What are your most important tips for those looking to self publish? I saw somewhere that you have 2 poetry collections waiting to be published and released. Will you self publish again? Why or why not?
A Nation in Labour is self-published. Once I realised that I was not going to get a publisher, I invested in an editor. A lot of times people give their work to teachers, friends, family members or journalists. While these can give you valuable feedback, often at no cost, it’s important to invest in a professional editor who will do proper chopping and mending or even discarding.
I no longer suffer from writer’s block. I have trained myself into a routine of writing daily. It doesn’t matter whether it’s a word, a paragraph or a page. But it takes persistence to get to that place of habit.
Hey Harriet. Wonderful show. Quick question, when you perform a poem, what audience do you have in mind for those poems and what do you want them to take away from the show. For example nation in labor.
I don’t think about the audience when writing and I also don’t prescribe what they should take away. All I go with is my package of performance. If the audience sees what my content carried, so be it, if they see other things, also fine. I believe that audiences are smart enough to discern what they can from any piece of art and so they don’t put them in any kind of box. In fact, often times, my readers and audiences have pointed me to stuff I didn’t know existed in my work.