Genta Nishku

PEN World Voices festival continues this week, focusing on the broad topic of Africa. On May 6, festival organizers invited writers Teju Cole, Nathalie Handal and Binyavanga Wainaina to discuss The Arrivants: a New World Trilogy by Barbadian author Edward Kamau Brathwaite. The trilogy is a collection of the author’s first three poetry publications: Rights of Passage, Masks, and Islands.

The evening was moderated by Brent Hayes Edwards, who after a brief overview of Brathwaite’s life, played a recording of one of the first poems in The Arrivants, “New World is A-Coming.” The poem sparked some key discussion themes for the night. As Handal put it, Brathwaite’s work, which seeks to understand and answer the question of an African identity at home and abroad, is also very much concerned with the reconstruction that begins to happen to a fragmented identity. Brathwaite is a believer in poetry’s power to "save a broken world." Through the use of “nation language” in his writing, he attempts to unify the spirit of the Caribbean through song.

Cole highlighted the necessity of reading Brathwaite beyond the “elevator pitch” qualities often attributed to him— that of the oral poet, closely connected to the people and the earth, the “African” one (Brathwaite spent years working in Ghana). Once past that, one can appreciate the deeply literary qualities of Brathwaite’s poetry, which Cole compares to that of Hopkins. 

Wainaina remarked that, though he had been aware of Brathwaite’s work, he had not encountered it until after he left Kenya in 1990 and had not read The Arrivants until later. This, he said, was perhaps a good thing. Brathwaite’s poems are making a bigger impact now as their invocations to make imagination of a different world a reality are better matched with the African diaspora of today, which Wainaina said is experiencing a “heating up from which there is no retreat.”

The moderator began asking the panelists how their own writing treats the issue of displacement and if, through their work, they are “writing their way home.” The panelists, who have each experienced the diaspora in different ways, offered their unique perspective. Teju Cole emphasized the importance of placing his work within the specific context of the black Atlantic experience, which greatly differs from the West or East African experience. Binyavanga Wainaina spoke of how becoming displaced from home gave him the ability to explore and stretch more of himself in his writing, especially while writing his memoir, One Day I Will Write About This Place.

This idea that one must leave home to find its real meaning was taken further by Nathalie Handal. She found the idea erroneous, proven when after years of traveling she realized she had always known the meaning of home-- the one hidden in a place's smallest details and greatest truths. Problems arise when one is constantly told they cannot understand these meanings, are automatically placed in the margins, their identities constricted to narrow ideas or hyphenated labels. Handal spoke of her interest in how worlds can exist at the same time in life and on the page, forming relationships between fragments and how well Brathwaite elucidates on this in The Arrivants and his other work. Her impassioned and beautifully woven comments were interrupted mid-flow by Cole’s attempt at a joke, which unfortunately only served to cut short Handal’s thoughts. 

The event continued with the panelists reading more poetry from The Arrivants. Discussion on the poems touched upon the idea of openness expressed within them-- an openness to contrast the closed borders and barriers put in place by colonialism and slavery. The question of language was also considered when Cole read from Brathwaite’s poem “Caliban,” that “savage” Shakespearean character who, made to learn the language of the colonizer, is able to both curse and sing in a new language. 

Listen to Kamau Brathwaite's reading of Negus which was also the poem selected by Nathalie Handal.

Overall, it was an insightful evening, though there were missed opportunities to delve deeper into Brathwaite’s work, life and the significance of the diaspora. In particular, the author’s practice of “myth-making” not only in his works, but also the creation of a myth surrounding himself and his return to Africa was highlighted by audience members. There were also several instances of playful comments and exchanges among the panelists which, though entertaining, detracted from the night’s discussion. 

The night ended with Binyavanga Wainaina extending his thanks to Teju Cole for being one of the first to sign the now famous letter protesting PEN America’s decision to give their annual Freedom of Expression Courage Award to Charlie Hebdo. If writers are expected to be thinkers, he said, there is little reason to expect homogeneity of opinions. 

Genta Nishku is a Development Associate at Make the Road New York, a community-based, social justice organization in New York City. She holds a BA in Classical Studies and English literature from Hunter College. She is currently working on translating the poetry of Albanian writer Migjeni. Twitter @gentanishku.