Decolonizing Poetry: an interview with Ijeoma Umebinyuo.

Image courtesy of Ijeoma Umebinyuo
I know who I am and where I am from. Shrinking myself is not an option. — Ijeoma Umebinyuo

Women of color don’t often have the luxury of sitting down to read poetry in which the words are affirmations of our lives, our pain, our love, our happiness, our sadness. We’re told to quiet ourselves, that our experiences aren’t as important, they don’t matter to the rest of the world. Our love, our resilience has allowed us to push past such notions. I remember being curled up in bed, reading Questions for Ada and feeling such gratitude that Ijeoma Umebinyuo had written such beautiful, heartbreaking and affirming words.

I am happy to share my interview with Ijeoma. I also hope that those of you who haven’t yet read Questions for Ada, will soak in her poems with as much love as I did.

When did you first start writing poems?

My father insists I began writing when I was seven years old. I remember writing poetry at the age of ten. The same age I fell in love with books and writing.

Image courtesy of Ijeoma Umebinyuo

Who is your intended audience?

For a lot of people who do not see themselves represented often in literature. For African girls and boys. For black girls. For women with color. For immigrants. For those who feel alone. For mental health. For everyone and anyone who believes that healing is needed, that narratives like mine are not only important but very necessary. Ultimately, I am writing because of the human experience.

What parts of your identity contribute the most to your writing?

My identity as an Igbo woman, as an African and a child who was born and raised in Nigeria.

If you identify as a feminist, how has it influenced your writing?

I am a feminist. I am a womanist, I am aware of what happens when race and gender are erased and it is important none of that is done to me.

For a woman to write, to speak, to narrate and to curate stories like I do, being a feminist isn’t an option: It is a necessity.

What is your writing process? Is it free-flowing, unexpected, edited, careful?

Sometimes, it is free-flowing. Sometimes it is sitting up all night and editing. Sometimes, it is unexpected with editing afterwards. Careful? No, I believe in writing dangerously.

I cannot think of a single poem that I read in Questions for Ada to which I didn’t connect to. Every one was affirming and healing. Who inspires your poems?

Thank you for connecting to my words. You know, while writing, I am inspired by my grandmother who was stopped from being as equally educated as her brothers because she was born a woman. I am inspired by my grandfather whose storytelling skills are unmatched.

I have found that as a WoC that making a space for myself within this world can be difficult but reading your poems helped me see that there is room for us, for our ideas and emotions. Is there anything in particular which keeps you receptive to all the themes you write about without feeling like you need to shrink yourself or words?

I am a strong believer in knowing who you are and what you believe in. Writing to me is political, I have grown and will keep growing with my writings but the foundation of who I am will never be compromised. I believe in knowing your power and using that. I believe in finding your purpose; growing and constantly learning. I will be the first to tell you that nobody will tell me who I am, just like Chinua Achebe said. I believe when you find your voice, you have to unwrap it and use it. It is very important.

When has shrinking ourselves because of fear helped us? It has never helped. Fear is an emotion that should visit and when it leaves, it should make you brave. It should make you want to do more, create more and learn more. Fear is normal but when we let fear stay too long, it paralyses us.

You see, we are privileged to have platforms to celebrate us. Platforms we can use to make our voices heard, why not use it? What is fear? If the truth is on your side, what is fear? Believing in fear makes us shrink, makes us disbelievers of our power.

The more we think our voice is not important, the more we lose our right to own our narrative.

There has never been a group of people whose loss of their narrative did not contribute to their downfall, the story you tell is the most powerful. I come from an oral tradition, I believe that the written word combined with the oral tradition of storytelling is even more powerful. The written word cannot be erased. Political dissidents are prosecuted for writing, how powerful is that? That writing stands in the face of oppression and does not back down. We must always remember, we have the key to that room, the room where your ideas and emotions are welcomed. You have the key. I know who I am and where I am from. Shrinking myself is not an option.

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