Conversation with Liberia’s Celebrated Poet, Dr. Patricia Jabbeh Wesley

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Dr. Patricia Jabbeh Wesley is an internationally celebrated Liberian poet. She’s a professor of English and Creative Writing at Penn State University. Her poems speak of her growing up in Liberia, her experience of the war, and her life of exile of which the longing for her homeland is the dominant theme. In all her poems, one sees her with deep sense of understanding and appreciation of her Grebo cultural upbringing. She has published four volumes of poetry with the latest being “Where the Road Turns.” Over the years, her works have received rave reviews from literary critics some of whom consider her poems as “fearless, eye-opening, breath-taking, and compassionate” as well as talking about the “everyday courage of a people whose stories would be lost if not for these poems.” The prolific Liberian poet has travelled widely in America giving reading to enthusiastic audiences at college and university campuses as well as poetry festivals and writer conferences. I sought her indulgence recently for this interview.  Despite her busy schedule, she found time to respond to my questions. Below are the excerpts:

Nvasekie N. Konneh: I have heard quite a bit about you as a poet from Liberia and for the first time, I have just read your bio on your website. For many Liberians and others who may not know you, how will you introduce yourself?
Dr. Patricia Jabbeh Wesley: I hate to talk about myself but in any case I am Patricia Jabbeh Wesley. I am a poet, a Liberian, a mother of four children and wife, an Associate Professor of English and Creative Writing at Penn State University. I am the author of four books of poetry, Where the Road Turns, (Autumn House Press, 2010) The River is Rising (Autumn House 2007), Becoming Ebony (Southern Illinois University Press, 2003), Before the Palm Could Bloom: Poems of Africa (New Issues Press, 1998). I am also a survivor of the Liberian civil war, a Grebo woman from Maryland County, Southeastern Liberia.

NNK: From what I have read about you, it seems like you have had a very wonderful career as a university professor and poet. How much of your poetry is reflected in what you do as a teacher and has your poetry in any way impacted by your work as teacher?  

PJW: Yes, I have lost a lot of years, but I’ve done pretty well. Remember I first began teaching in 1980 as a lecturer at the University of Liberia. Between that time and now, I’ve basically been teaching, interrupted by the civil war, however. Considering that I lost fifteen years waiting for the war and studying to reinvent myself or recover the loss of all my possessions like most Liberians who survived the war, I have done well and I have been blessed. A poet writes about their world, therefore, my work and life are often reflected in my poetry. I am inspired by my life as a poet, in my travels on poetry residencies and events, particularly to new places. I write about everything, including some things about my life as a teacher. I am also influenced by my students like any teacher. I would say rather that my poetry is informed by my teaching and my teaching is informed by my life as a poet. I bring more to my teaching because I am a poet than the other way around, I believe. The impact my teaching has had on my work is both positive and negative. The positive aspect is that I obtain writing material from my busy life, I meet many good people across the US and internationally, I connect to other writers as a teacher and writer, but I also lose time for writing as a result of my busy schedules of teaching and travel as a poet.

NNK: How has your poetry informed and impacted Liberians at home and abroad? 

PJW: This is a very interesting question because as I already stated, I hate to be the judge of my own success as a writer. From my humbled point of view, I would say that my work has indeed impacted Liberians. As you and I know very well, Liberia is not a very literate country. The fourteen years of war has made the low literacy rate higher by the enormous population of young people who were denied any form of education due to the long war. I’m pointing you to this fact to say that it would be impossible for my work to impact Liberians the way it would in a normal country. Having said that, I will say that most educated Liberians at home or in the Diaspora have been impacted by my writing one way or the other. I did not just begin writing after the war. I was always a writer, even as a teenager. With the new media technology today, I can say that my poetry and my other writings are being read around the world and in Liberia.

NNK: Given the fact that we don't have a reading culture in Liberia, how does that make you feel as a poet? 

PJW: Liberia has never had a great reading culture, even in the better days before the war. Most Liberians have no appreciation for literature. If we had a great literate culture without an appreciation for literature, I would still not be happy, but it is worse than that. Our people do not have an appreciation for literature and they are not a literate people. That’s a double curse, I’d say. As for my own feelings about this- well, I do not feel any more terrible than any other Liberian. As a poet, I see my role as a poet who writes poetry. I write about Liberia and its people, but I cannot worry about how many Liberians will read me in a given day or week or year. I wish they would read me, but if they choose not to, I will continue to write for the few who want to read poetry and for the many non-Liberians who do love literature. What is frustrating is not that we do not have a reading culture; instead, it is that those who are our most educated in such a country of low literacy rate do not appreciate the arts or literature. We lack an intellectual community that is not hung up on politics. Every time you see Liberians passionate about anything, it is about politics. The new mass media offers us many opportunities to engage one another in dialogue. But even on facebook, all Liberian discussions and debates are about politics. They seem to have no interest in talking about even scholarly issues. This to me signals the death of our nation. A nation that does not support its own cultural development and the arts is a nation ready to die.

NNK: What has been your most exciting experience as a writer? 

PJW: My most exciting experience as a writer is not one. It is hard to put my finger on anything. I would not like to say winning awards for my work because these awards are great, but they are just things. What I would say is most exciting is the ability to create a life outside of the real world, to bring things to life, to keep other peoples’ stories alive by the power of language. My most exciting experience is that as a writer, I have the ability to recreate a world no one else can create and share that world with the real world.

NNK: How did you get inspired to write poems and who are some of the poets who have inspired your writings? 

PJW: I began writing since childhood, probably at about eleven years old. I know that I wrote my first real poems at about fourteen. My father and paternal grandfather were my first fans, cheering me on and affirming me. My grandfather did not see me writing, but he would listen to me weave a tale or retell a story, and say, “She’s going to be a book woman someday. She’s going to write books.” I have been inspired by many great writers in Africa, in the US and in the world. Writers like John Pepper Clark Bekederemo of Nigeria, Wole Soyinka, Chinua Achebe, and our own Liberian writers like Bai T. Moore were my first writers. I also loved reading American poets like e.e. Cummings, Robert Frost, T.S Eliot, among others. Finally, my biggest influence remains the oral literature and culture of our people. The oral tradition that I grew up on, my grandmother’s tales, the proverbs and fables from our cultures, the common sayings, etc. are my biggest influence. These are my best books of learning.

NNK: As a university professor, your schedule must be very tight, how do handle that and still find the time to commit to your writings? 

PJW: My life is a busy one. I know that I joggle things by working very hard. I rise early and go to bed late. My writing suffers like anyone else, but I write mostly from inspiration and write whenever I feel the inspiration, no matter where that is. As a mother, wife, teacher, and poet, I manage my life in a way that I can take care of my family even while holding on to my career. Thing has not always been like this. I am the mother of four children. When my children were much younger, I put most of my life on the hold. My youngest was old enough to go to preschool before I picked up my career from where I had left it.  In my early years as a young woman, I focused on teaching and obtaining more education. When the children came, I taught full time at first at the University of Liberia. Later, I taught part time at various universities in Michigan. When my youngest was enrolled in preschool and the older kids could help out with babysitting, I reenrolled in grad school and worked on my doctorate even while promoting my first book of poems. From 1998, I began to make changes in my life to make space for my career in writing and teaching.

NNK: What is your biggest challenge as a Liberian writer living in America?
PJW: Interesting question indeed. My biggest challenge is that like me, my work is in exile. I believe that the writer in exile, whether exile is voluntary or not, produces work that is in exile. Imagine writing about the life of people who cannot read what it is you have written and you will know what I’m talking about. My biggest challenge has been negotiating the different spaces between my life as a Diaspora, exiled Liberian and my life as a Liberian woman. I have learned to overcome these challenges, however, but they never go away. Writing as a black woman from Africa in America has not been easy, but it is now easier. I’ve been blessed to have built up a community and joined a great community of writers who have accepted me, but it was not always like this. Sadly, again, Liberians are unaware of what it is I am doing, I mean Liberians in the Diaspora. Other Africans are far ahead of us, and of course, are reading me and studying me, but Liberians do not seem to understand anything except you speak to them in politics.

NNK:  Is your poetry informed by real life experience or pure imagination?
PJW: I write about my life experiences. Poetry is mostly about real life and mine is about my life experiences, including my life in the Liberian civil war, children, and everything around me. The only use of imagination in my writing has to do with the use of literary devices.

NNK: You have written four books of poetry. Thematically, are you dealing with the same issue or there is diversity of issues addressed as may be suggested by the title of each book?

PJW: I probably answered the last part of the question. But also, I hate to talk about this when I do interviews. Could you please insert what you think and what reviewers say? Maybe I can approach this from another angle: I write from inspiration, and mostly inspiration from the life around me. Even though many reviewers think I write about war, I do write about everything. I have written much and still do write about the Liberian experience of the civil war, the massacres our people experienced, the suffering I saw, the death of children, the use of children as soldiers, the destruction of our country and more. I also write about my family, my children, bringing up children, living in the Diaspora, the difficulty of being uprooted from my homeland, etc. I seek to negotiate the spaces of our new homeland of whatever Diaspora we live in and that of the homelands we have lost as Africans. Mine is that of a town crier, bemoaning the loss of innocence, of the loss of life and homeland even while celebrating what it means to be African and Liberian despite all the pain.

NNK: I have seen some amazing videos of your poetic performances to enthusiastic audiences on college campuses and writers conferences. Do you get such enthusiastic reception from the Liberian or African community in the US or in Africa?

PJW: Well, the Liberian community has not given me much of a chance nor has it given anyone of artistic talent a chance to show what they can do. I have read to a few Liberian audiences in the US, and I can count those times on my hand. During those three or four times, they have received me with the same kind of reverence and enthusiasm or even more. I recall reading a poem in Minnesota when I was invited to keynote at the Liberian Women’s Initiative forum. I read just one poem, and the entire room stood up, applauding, screaming and excited to my surprise. I read again at a major awards program, and the audience went wild. I don’t think there are many audiences who will hear me read and just be cold, so I am not surprised that a room full of Liberians will get emotional and excited when I read. What is important to me is not the applauds or the immediate emotional outburst, but rather, what follows after that. When I read at a place and they are excited, but do not invite me or other poets to bring their own poetry to their meetings after that, when they host programs and parties just to have fun and a good time, talk and shout politics, and do not realize the importance of what those who are not political aspirants do, then we have a long way to go. When I read for other institutions and they love it, they follow up with invitations. Let me give you an example. We have a very powerful Maryland Association in the US. The leadership is aware of my poetry, my poetry that celebrates Grebo culture and celebrates our life as a people. They have been given complimentary copies of my books and have heard a lot about me. But they have never reached out to me to invite me to share what I do, something that is about their culture with them. I do not worry about that. I only feel sorry for our people’s lack of vision for culture and the arts, that’s all. I will continue to be a poet and work hard to achieve my dreams, and I will write about my people and put them on the map whether or not Liberians support me. The world is bigger than Liberians and the world has received me very well. Liberians can take as long as they want to promote their own culture.

NNK: By the number of books of poetry you have published and the rock star reception you get from place to place, is it safe to say you are the most successful Liberian poet of all times?  

PJW: You know, I will not be the judge here, my brother. I will say this. When I was a young woman in my twenties, teaching at the University of Liberia in the 1980s, one of my then former professors who is now a friend said to me, “you will be the Liberian poet of the 1980s.” I had already written a few of my best poems that are now published in my first book, but I had not published in any reputable journal. At the time, I believed her not because of the way she said it, but because I knew since I was a small child that there was something upon me. I knew that I had something with power inside of me, and I knew that somehow, I had a mission in this life, but I did not know yet how I would fulfill that mission. Of course, I did not become the poet of the 1980s like she said. No one was the poet of the 1980s.  The one thing I know for sure is that I have been fortunate with a gift and despite my own procrastinations, my busy life of family and childrearing for years, God has kept me remembering that I had a story to tell. I have not been the best custodian of the vision, but I have managed to keep myself afloat and have been fortunate to have met people here in the US who were kind enough to remind me that I was able to do it. Maybe I am the most successful so far. I hope however, that there will come others after me who will do far better. Unless another Liberian can use my success to build up himself or herself to become better than me, then the road I am clearing will have been a wasted journey.

NNK: How can we make poetry and other forms of art to be accepted as parts of our Liberian social, political, cultural and intellectual developments? 

PJW: One of us needs to be Minister of Art and Culture and make the President do something about it, hahaha! Can you imagine that we have a government in Liberia with no interest in literature? When I was in Liberia, I had a scheduled appointment with President Ellen Johnson-Sirleaf, and I was excited to tell her about the need for teaching our own literature in the schools. I even got a memo about my invitation, but the same day of the meeting, the meeting was canceled. Now tell me whether I would not have met her if I had been a member of the campaign? Do you think I would have struggled to see the President if other Liberians around her were aware of what I do for the country they love? Can you imagine what one of my African friends said when I told her I had to visit the Ministry of Education to propose that they teach my books in the schools? She said, “What are you talking about? Are they crazy to not see the value of teaching your poetry? Is it something you need to?” To make our culture and art accepted by our people will take a whole new philosophy, a national philosophy hammered into our people years after years, in the schools, on the streets, in the market places, and the only person who can do that is the President and her team. Liberians do not listen to anyone else, you know. We have made a bit of progress in the new appreciation among Liberian women for their own clothing, so it is possible. Let’s thank our President for her fashion. Liberian women can proudly dress up in lappa suits and not be called “country woman” or “lappa woman.” See how bad we were? I believe we need to keep writing and singing and doing whatever we are gifted to do until a real literary person becomes a big enough shot to create an avenue. Maybe Liberians will listen to them from such a high place. In the meantime, we have to keep on writing, writing, writing.

Note: This interview was conducted two years ago with Dr. Patricia Wesley and it's an excerpt from my forthcoming book, Liberian Voices, which is a collection of reviews of books written by Liberian writers as well as interviews such as this. This book is a follow-up to my current book, "The Land of My Father's Birth," a memoir of the Liberian civil war. I can be reached @ 267-206-8909 or [email protected]

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