Harriet Anena grew up during the LRA's reign of terror. She is a poet, journalist, writer, farmer and survivor. Tiah caught up with her to discuss her latest volume of poetry, A Nation in Labour.
Tiah: You have a poetry collection out, A Nation in Labour. In an interview you stated that it began as a form of therapy while looking for answers. Now that it is published, can you say that the act of writing was therapeutic and led you to answers? Or did the poems take you to places outside your intentions?
Harriet: Writing the poems was immensely therapeutic, especially the ones under the “Scratching Destiny" section of the book. Here, I explore my experiences as a child who lived through the LRA insurgency in northern Uganda and the post-war period. Today, I still keenly watch how people are piecing back the torn pieces of their lives; but also the post-war challenges such as child-headed homes, land disputes, crime, alcoholism, etc. All these issues feature in my writing.
Tiah: Hilda Twongyeirwe has been quoted as saying, "Men have been there for too long, let’s have some space.” Is poetry providing the space you need? Or are you finding that your poems are being confined by being interpreted as through a male prisim?
Harriet: I believe that words, whether weaved as poetry or prose, can always find space to survive and thrive; one just needs to find out the how. In Uganda, some of the most incredible poets are women – Rehema Nanfuka, Beverley Nambozo Nsengiyunva, Melissa Kiguwa, Lillian A Aujo, to mention but a few. It is these women and a couple of other writers, who steady my hands as I put pen to paper.
Basing on the feedback I have received following the publication of A Nation In Labour, I’m even more convinced that words can tear down any confines within which they may be caged –whether it being political, gender or economic confines.
Tiah: There seems to be a constant debate if politics should be present in poetry (or even ficiton). But as a woman, myself, I struggle to understand how any woman's writing can be non-political. Especially in the unending debates of how women's writing should be classified and interpreted. Or is it possible to divorce politics from the pen?
Harriet: I think it depends on how one defines politics. For me, life is political. There are poems that I tag as ‘political’ in my collection, because they explore issues to do with governance of the country, party politics, defections and electioneering, etc. But when you read the poem I bow for my boobs, for instance, it tells you a story about a woman fed up with her husband’s daily drunkenness and failure to provide for the family. She feels powerless and can’t punch the man back. But when she stands before the mirror naked and looks at her breasts, a thought occurs to her that these could actually be her weapon. She prays to her breasts to “turn into stones” so she can “pelt her husband” and send him to the grave. One can argue that this is a social or relationship poem, but there is family politics involved, where the man and woman exercise power in their own way, and we clearly see one as the governed (oppressed/frustrated) and the other as the governor (oppressor).
Tiah: Following that, does 'African poetry' also create a box that hems your writing in?
Harriet: No. I write whatever my hands, heart and mind tells me to. If a reader or a reviewer wants to give it a label of ‘African poetry’ or ‘Acholi poetry’ then that is their business. I write and allow my work to live its life once its published.
Tiah: Lastly, what question do you wish I'd asked? Please answer it.
Harriet: I wished you’d asked me what else I do outside writing poetry. I know of friends who say they don’t have time to write because they have full-time day jobs which they can’t quit because, well, writing can’t pay bills.
But I have a full-time job and I’m a farmer too, and in between the busyness, I ensure I find a seat at the table of my life for poetry or prose to sit. It’s tough, but doable.
On Harriet's Bedside Table:
I have been reading The Secrets of the FBI by Ronald Kessler and Crossroads, an anthology of non-fiction by Ugandan women. I also read at least one short story or flash fiction or a poem a day. The internet has made it all so easy to access creative works.
Harriet Anena is a poet and writer from Gulu, Uganda. She is the author of A Nation In Labour – a collection of social conscience poetry. Her poems have also 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.
Anena’s 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.