Arts + Culture

These 7 African Women Poets Will Keep You Calm, Cool, and Collected for the Summer

Here's 7 of our favorite female writers who are reshaping poetry worldwide to hold you over this summer.

When Beyoncé dropped Lemonade earlier this year, the world opened their ears to the brilliant work of the British-Somali poet Warsan Shire. But while the mainstream is only catching on to her now, Warsan has been a widely acclaimed poet for some time now. The 27-year-old poet published her first chapbook in 2011 titled Teaching My Mother How to Give Birth and was selected as a Young Poet Laureate in 2013.


In honor of Shire and the countless other African women influencing the poetry landscape today, we’ve gathered together our favorite contemporary poets to read this summer. Whether you’re looking for additions to your summer readings list, curious as to who the authors are behind the multitude of quotes you find so frequently shared on your timeline, but which often go uncited (do better internet.), or you simply want to marvel at the beauty and power of African women in the diaspora, we got you covered. These poets will teach you about love, identity and home all the same.

 

Photo courtesy of @nayyirahwaheed

1. Nayyirah Waheed

Although not much is known about the oft reclusive writer, Waheed is a U.S. based author whose work has garnered international acclaim. Writing on identity, immigration, and self-love in succinct and powerful sonnets, Waheed distinct voice has reshaped poetry. Waheed released two books, Salt, which was published in 2013 and Nejma, in 2014. You can follow Nayyirah on Twitter @nayyirahwaheed.

To give you a taste of Waheed’s work, in commemoration of Afeni Shakur’s passing, the writer wrote a homage to the famed rapper’s mother for VIBE magazine.

Favorite Quote: "warmed. slowly. repeatedly./ speak to him in. the language./ the language only he and you understand./ the language only you and he can speak./ remind him. / ‘tupac. you are my first poem. /a love poem." ― nayyirah waheed, Afeni Shakur: A Mother’s Love

 

Photo courtesy of Katy Richy.

2. Ladan Osman

Ladan Osman is a Somali-American poet and teacher. In 2011, Osman was awarded the Sillerman First Book Prize for her collection, The Kitchen Dweller's Testimony. Osman’s work transverses the realms of identity, specifically her Somali heritage and Muslim identity. In an interview with The Paris Review, Osman explains the thought-process behind her work. “It was important for me to address all the ways people attempt to override the narratives of our own lives, and the ways we subjugate ourselves and second-guess our own sense of witness,” she explains.

Favorite Quote: "I want to say 'Be!' to her but am an ordinary soul./ I watch for the fold under her eye to twitch. / I have many dreams, I say to her./ In my dreams I am better than myself." ― Ladan Osman, Ordinary Heaven

 

Photo courtesy of @ijeomaumebinyuo

3. Ijeoma Umebinyuo

Getting her start through the social media site Tumblr, Ijemoa Umebinyuo is a Nigerian poet born and raised in Lagos, Nigeria. She published her first collection of poems titled Questions for Ada in August of 2015. Writing of her personal story, Umebinyuo highlights the tribulations of being a woman, being foreign and being loved. You can follow Ijeoma on Twitter @ijeomaumebinyuo.

Favorite Quote: “So, here you are/ too foreign for home/ too foreign for here./ Never enough for both.” ―Ijeoma Umebinyuo, Questions for Ada

 

Photo courtesy of  Safia Elhillo.

4. Safia Elhillo

The Sudanese author who grew up in Washington, D.C. is a young poet on the rise. She is the poetry editor for the Kinfolks Quarterly: a journal of black expression and co-winner of the 2015 Brunel University African Poetry Prize. A former Tedx speaker and performer on TV1’s Verses and Flow, Elhillo speaks on lost translations, of home and of identity. Safia previously published her first short collection of poems titled, The Life and Times of Susie Knuckles and will publish her second collection in 2017 titled The January Children. You can follow Safia on Twitter @mafiasafia.

Favorite Quote: “I will say:/ Most men are afraid of me, you know?/ Or, I will say:/ In my culture we do not take our men’s names as our own/ You have nothing for me/ I have my own name/ I know/ now how this body works/ How it will never let a name go until it has taken it into the mouth and fed it to the breath/ I still know by heart" ―Safia Elhillo

 

Photo courtesy of @YrsaDaleyWard.

5. Yrsa Daley-Ward

The daughter of a Jamaican mother and a Nigerian father, Yrsa Daley-Ward published her debut book bone in 2014. The actress and writer speaks on womanhood and sexuality; and breathes honesty in her poems highlighting her struggles with depression and self-reliance. You can follow Yrsa Daley-Ward on Twitter @YrsaDaleyWard.

Favorite Quote: “The pastor makes twenty-four/ references to hell / in the sermon at church and forgets/ to talk / about love.” —Yrsa Daley-Ward, bone

 

Photo courtesy of @beingupile.

6. Upile Chisala

Upile Chisala is a Malawian poet. Along with writing poetry, the recent college graduate who hopes to attend Oxford University in the fall is the co-founder of the Yanja Series, a monthly gathering for women of color in Baltimore for expression and creation. In 2015 Chisala published her first collection of poetry titled, soft magic., a collection of short poems that explore gender, identity, the diaspora and self-care. That is all to say, if anything else follow Chisala’s Instagram account. I promise it won’t fail you. You can also follow Upile on Twitter @BeingUpile.

Favorite Quote: “can’t I just be a black woman that loves herself in peace? / without having to explain why my skin/ ( be it light honey or molasses)/ is a dream?/ why my hair/ (coarse or sleek)/ is a crown?/ can’t I just be a black woman that loves being a black woman/ without having to be sorry/ or humble/ or polite about it?/ Damn it!/ who else has to justify loving themselves like this?/ who else has to fight for the right to call themselves a blessing?/ Goodness,/ can’t I just be a black woman that loves herself in peace??!!?” ― Upile Chisala

 

Photo courtesy of @wu_shire.

7. Warsan Shire

Born in Kenya to Somali parents, Shire and her family moved to the United Kingdom when she was a 1-year-old. Along with her chapbook, Teaching My Mother How to Give Birth, Shire released Her Blue Body in 2015. Warsan is currently working on her first full collection of poems to be released in 2016 titled Extreme Girlhood. You can follow Warsan on Twitter @warsan_shire.

Favorite Quote: "you can't make homes out of human beings/ someone should have already told you that / and if he wants to leave/ then let him leave / you are terrifying/ and strange and beautiful/ something not everyone knows how to love." —Warsan Shire, “For Women Who Are Difficult to Love”

You can watch Warsan’s video for the poem below.

Literature
Photo via TONL

Readers Share Literature that Gets Them Through the Holidays with Family

Books thin enough to slip into your bible

When I met the writer Taban Lo Liyong in Kampala, he gave me his most "carefree" book called Christmas in Lodwar. "It was the book where I was enjoying myself the most. You can read it by opening any page and it will make you feel better," he said.

Christmas in Lodwar was written about a Christmas Liyong once spent north of Lordwar, Kenya in 1979 when his Volvo Saloon broke down on his way to South Sudan. Open any page and you will find him meditating on leather aprons, political Jesus, learning pidgin, or village gossip. I decided to wait until the end of the year to read it because it was perfectly sized to fit into my bible, and I knew I'd need something to read through all the New Year's and Christmas services my family would take me to.

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OkayAfrica's 100 Women
Image courtesy of Upile Chisala.

100 Women: Upile Chisala Is the Malawian Writer Offering Black Women Solace Through Poetry

For the first feature in our OkayAfrica 100 Women series, we speak with Malawian poet Upile Chisala about the healing power of her words and her commitment to championing African women's narratives.

"African women own the best stories," the 23 year-old Malawian poet Upile Chisala tells me, when asked why she intentionally and uncompromisingly writes for other black women.

There's absolutely no argument to be had there. Especially when you read either of her self-published works Soft Magic and Nectar—or that of the countless African woman writers before her who've documented our existences with care.

The words of Chisala's most recent offering, Nectar are comforting in a way that I'm certain only another young, black woman writer's words could be—like, "darling, don't fold too much for people. It could break you." Upon reading them, I felt pity, sadness even, for those who may never be able to connect with a piece of literature on a level as visceral as what I experienced with Nectar.

For African women, storytelling is a lifeline, a treasured source of guidance, knowledge, healing and sisterhood that arises from the uninhibited expression of our shared experiences. It's in women like Chisala, who possess this audacious command over our stories, that one can readily recognize her own power, her own "soft magic." Her voice encourages internal confrontation to take place. And there, grappling with the pain, love, anxiety, optimism, anger, elation and generational trauma that has struck many of our lives, an unexpected strength is discovered. Upile braves all of these subjects for her readers, with pithy yet compassionate reassurances that serve as remedies each time they're revisited.

In conversation with the poet, she shares her journey to becoming a writer, the ways in which her Malawian upbringing shaped her storytelling, how she is learning to accept the gravity of her words, and why, she too, is in love with the writings of African women.

Image courtesy of Upile Chisala.

Is there a specific event that occurred in your life that led you to start writing poetry?

When I was younger I struggled with the fact that I'd only ever be able to experience life as this one character, Upile. To satiate this need to live life as someone else I gave all my dolls these elaborate life stories.

Eventually, I started writing these stories down and forcing everyone around me to read them. I remember my father pointing out that he'd never read a story about me and that he'd really like to. That became my struggle—writing about myself or people who looked like me. When I moved from Malawi to New Mexico for college at 17, I quickly grew tired of all the ignorant questions and assumptions [about me]. So, I decided I'd finally take on the challenge of telling my story my way. There, I found poetry and prose, and these two loves have carried my story since.

Why is it so important for you to write poems specifically for black women?

The lessons in self-hate that target black girls are ongoing, overwhelming, overt and subtle. I always want my writing to be a place where black girls and black womxn feel safe and celebrated.

When I decided to start unpacking all the self-hate I'd been handed throughout my life it was writing by black womxn where I found refuge and love. Black womxn have always lifted me. Writing about them and for them is important to me because it's my little way of lifting them as well.

Your poems are like therapy. I hear the word "healing" used a lot when describing your work. Do you think of them in that way when you're creating them?

It's never not surprising to me when someone says my work helped them. I have always thought of my writing as healing—for myself that is. I am trying to shake this habit of underestimating my impact. In the meantime, though, every message I receive appreciating my work gives me this joy and that never gets less exciting. I don't know how many times I've opened my inbox and wept. People share so much of their lives with me and I'm humbled by it and softer because of it.

Image courtesy of Upile Chisala.

Are there any particular authors whose works have had this same therapeutic effect on you?

I read Ntozake Shange's work and weep, every time. Yrsa-Daley-Ward's work makes me ugly-cry and I always come out the other side of her book Bone feeling new. I deeply love Sandra Cisneros, Q. Gibson, Mary Oliver, Koleka Putuma, and Sharon Olds. There are so many more names and so few names for the gifts their writing has given me.

Where do you find the inspiration to constantly mold and shape words into poems that hold so much meaning?

Sometimes I go months without writing. I struggle with being intentional about my craft and sticking to a routine. It's not a kind thing to do to myself. Writing has always been therapeutic for me so if I am not writing I am bottling things up until eventually I sit down at my computer and pour. What I write is what I find from just living in this black body and all the intersections of my existence. While writing Soft Magic I was going through a period of self-discovery and so the poems came as they came. And as I wrote Nectar I was looking backwards at my upbringing in Malawi and making meaning of its impact on my present. Inspiration is all around us, I just have to work on being more disciplined about making use of it.

It's clear that you also have a real appreciation for visual aesthetics. I love going through your Instagram account and taking in the color and looks. Where do writing, visual art and style intersect for you?

A short while ago I started calling myself a storyteller rather than a writer or a poet because I think it's more fitting. Photos can carry so many stories at once and mean different things to different people. Every time I am involved in creating an image I hope to honor the girls who look like me—the darker skinned, the curly haired, the fuller lipped, the thicker "thighed" and wider "hipped." For me, it's bigger than just putting on a fancy dress and smiling wide for the camera. It's about seeing myself as beautiful and celebrated and creating images that I wish I'd seen as a child. In this way, through photography I tell a story and my dream is that the right people don't just see me in those pictures but they see themselves.

Image courtesy of Upile Chisala.

What role does sisterhood play in your life and work?

I have so many sisters beyond my three immediate ones. Womxn are the lights of my life. I depend on womxn both in my life and in my work and have had the privilege of seeing how far-reaching true sisterhood can be. More womxn than men buy my books and invite me to read and endorse my work just because. Womxn keep me sane and keep a roof over my head.

If you absolutely had to pick, which of your poems is your favorite?

Easy.

"There is danger in letting people misname you.

If you are a fire, do not answer when they call you a spark."

(Nectar, page 2)

How does your Malawian heritage impact your work?

I always carry bits of my "Malawianness" into my writing. For many years Malawi was the only home I knew and so when I want to write about familiar things I unpack my memories from growing up in Zomba, to the weekends spent in Blantyre, and to my visits to my village in Likoma. I also find that being Malawian has in the past impacted what I write about negatively. I have this fear of writing about sex or sexuality or mental illness or dysfunction in the family because of that Malawian heritage and the taboo surrounding these themes. But I am working on it. I am working on being comfortable with making people uncomfortable.

What was the process of self-publishing your work?

I used Amazon's Createspace platform to self-publish. All the technical bits were straightforward, it was the writing and editing that hurt. In my mother's apartment in Baltimore, I wrote and edited both books myself, hence all the grammatical errors. I probably would have benefited from the pressure and support of a publishing house but doing it on my own has been an experience I needed. I have had to forego my shyness to sell my work to people wherever I go. I have had to be my biggest fan.

How did you come up with the titles of your books, Soft Magic and Nectar?

The title Soft Magic came to me when I was depressed and looking for little bits of joy. I would ride the train in Baltimore and just watch people perform sweet acts like smiling at each other or holding the door for strangers. 'Soft magic' is those subtle instances of joy that make life and living beautiful. When I was thinking about my journey and how I wanted to use my growth to help others the title Nectar came to me. Nectar is important for bees in the process of making honey and for me nectar refers to that essential part in our journeys to blooming. I stick with the gardening theme throughout the book and my only hope is that it's not cheesy.

Why do you think the art of writing is such a powerful tool for African women?

African womxn own the best stories and we are far from monolithic; writing gives us a chance to share them on our terms. The exclusive nature of the publishing industry and academia and the film industry make it hard for us to be visible but we're here and every day we are kicking down doors and demanding to be counted in. I also think the celebrating should start at home and we don't have to wait on the West for validation.

I am so in love with the writing of African womxn, we all need more of it in our lives.

Image courtesy of Upile Chisala.

Upile breaks down two of her poems for us:

Pray for the creatives whose vulnerability amuses us,

whose pain reminds us of our own,

who had to feel something again and again for our sake.

"Often we romanticize sad poetry and prose. We repost it and leaves comments like "I can relate" or "I feel this". But we forget that a lot of writers write from real experiences and have to capitalize off of their hurt. They make their pain look pretty and we have something to use as a screensaver. I wrote this as a reminder to check up on your creatives."

Darling,

Have you ever not pulled things from the wreckage?

Who left the healing up to you?

The mending?

The restoring?

The making things whole again?

Are you tired?

Do your arms hurt?

Who offers you honey when you need it?

Who lets you rest?

(Nectar, page 9)

"I am convinced that worry has sent so many of the womxn in my family to early graves. This poem was for them. I wish they'd gotten more rest whilst they were living. They were always healing others and taking on burdens even as their backs weakened. I think worry weighs heavily on the body. In my grandmother's last years she used two walking sticks. In her illness she was still worrying about other people. Often women carry the brunt of it, they carry their share and our shares and then some."

Follow Upile Chisala on Instagram and Twitter. You can keep up with her new releases and purchase her previous works via her website. She is currently writing a collection of poems tentatively titled "Homeward," and is the co-founder of a craft making company called Khaya Means Home.

*

This article appears as part of OkayAfrica's 100 Women 2018—a project highlighting the impactful work done by African women across the globe. Throughout March, we will be publishing a series of profiles, videos, interviews and feature stories on these inspirational women.

Click here to see the entire list of 2018 honorees.

Interview
Merry-Lynn. Photo courtesy of the artist.

You Need This Merry-Lynn EP In Your Life

Interview: Rising R&B newcomer Merry-Lynn's Petrichor EP is a breath of fresh air.

Iyere-Eke Merrylynn Ehinomen, also known as Merry-Lynn, is a rising singer and songwriter based in Abuja, Nigeria. She recently released her debut EP, Petrichor, which presents a masterful blend of reggae and R&B with a modern twist across its six tracks.

Drawing you in with its resonant bass line and alluring vocals, EP opener "Skin," is a major head-bopper. Merry-Lynn pours her heart out over the rippling guitar chords singing "When you gonna call me baby?/ Or don't you think about me lately?" Before you know it you're midway through the sultry and euphoric cut, "Temptation," and fully locked-in to this musical experience.

In "Boy Tears" the young singer, who was born in 1997, graces us with vivid lyricism and audacious delivery as she rhymes "too" and "fooled," enriching each line with subtle nuance. She also enlists Nigerian hitmaker King Perryy on the melancholic heartbreak tune "911"—a remixed version of the original track that was released earlier in the year

Merry-Lynn's decision to work exclusively with Nigerian producer Veen on the project seemingly enabled her to truly experiment and find the distinctive sound that sets her apart from the crowd. Emotionally rich and enlightened, this tape is a smooth sonic ride for any lover of good music. There's no doubt that, with Petrichor, Merry-Lynn has delivered a reliably-solid debut.

We got to know the R&B newcomer a little bit more in a recent interview below.

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popular
Tiwa Savage "Owo Mi Da" cover.

Tiwa Savage Drops Two New Songs 'Owo Mi Da' & 'Attention'

The Nigerian star has shared two new bangers—"Owo Mi Da" and "Attention"—a day early due to leaks.

Tiwa Savage has returned with not-one-but-two new singles, "Owo Mi Da" and "Attention."

While the tracks were originally slated to drop tomorrow, Wednesday, the Nigerian superstar rushed released them due to leaks. "You guys couldn't wait na so my songs don leak o .... FUCK IT OUT NOW," Tiwa wrote on her social pages.

The addictive and upbeat "Owo Mi Da" was co-written by fellow Nigerian hitmaker Olamide and produced by Pheelz.

Video: Tiwa Savage On Female Artists Having to Work Twice As Hard

The smoother "Attention" is a song aimed at a man who isn't taking enough notice of his woman. " I guarantee all the ladies will know the lyrics to this one word for word," Tiwa wrote about the track. It was produced by Blaqjerzee.

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