Harriet Anena on Creative Writing, Literary Collaborations & Curiosity

#360Mentor is a continuation of the #40DayMentor series. In this episode, Robert Kabushenga (RK) speaks to Harriet Anena (HA) about creative writing, literary collaborations, and curiosity.

RK: Welcome Anena

HA: Thank you, Robert.

RK: How is New York?

HA: New York is good. It’s sunny here today.

RK: Thank you for agreeing to share with us today.

HA: Thank you for having me.

RK: My main interest today is to pick up on your industry. But also, Noah Harari has popularised the 4Cs creativity, collaboration, curiosity, and communication. You are at the centre of all those four skills. There are so many who refer to themselves as creative, what is creative?

HA: At the expense of inviting the wrath of godly people, I will say a creative is a god. Either you use the experiences around you to inform something new that you give birth to, that you produce, or it can be something completely different that nobody has heard about. When it comes to writing, the creativity in it speaks to the fact that everything we write about has been written about. We have been writing about love and relationships from time immemorial but what makes a poem that I write today stand out is the creativity, the colour that the writer adds to what would otherwise be mundane.

RK: Many of us go through life by just passing through it but you creatives see raw material in this. What kind of person does it take to see that?

HA: I think it takes training to be able to have a second pair of eyes and a second pair of ears, so to speak. When I am walking down the street, I am walking but also observing. My eyes are not just passing over things. Anything can inspire a piece of art. Once you get your writing ear or eye to observe and listen, there you may be able to notice things other people may not be able to. And once you have achieved that level of looking at things keenly and critically, you then move to the level of interrogation. Sometimes you might see something that doesn’t hit you at that level of depth. Part of creativity gets to a point where you don’t just pass by a stone because it is a stone; you ask what it speaks to you that another person may consider very obvious.

RK: How are you able to look beyond the obvious?

HA: That’s a hard question. I don’t know. What I can tell you is that as a writer, I live with a perpetual hunger to find raw materials for my work. That ensures that all my senses are often alert.

RK: So, you are always examining situations?

HA: Yes. Even when I deliberately decide to zone out, I’ll be listening within, to try and figure things out. To produce something from what I heard by the sidewalk. Once you have made the commitment, it becomes second nature. That’s why I find it difficult to explain.

RK: Let me make life more difficult for you. How do you separate yourself from perceptions and prejudices and being able to judge a situation objectively?

HA: I think objectivity is overrated.

RK: Why?

HA: For me, it’s personal experiences first. I have to come from a place of experience and knowledge. That’s why I think identity is the bedrock of creativity. When I am writing my poems, I am looking for metaphors or proverbs, or sayings in Acoli. Things that are from home. That is my starting point. When we talk about objectivity, that becomes another level of engagement with creative work. As a writer, I am very interested in taking a stand. I am not going to stand on the fence and lick somebody’s something. Because the reader will tell that you are pandering.

HA: Because as a creative, you are setting the agenda too. I have trained and practiced as a journalist and objectivity has always been hammered in. It’s understandable but for me when it comes to creative writing, I feel I have the leeway to take a stand and just say, this is what I stand for. This is my perspective. It is up to the reader to take it or not. I think what can be disingenuous is to try and straddle both sides. It usually falls flat.

RK: My friend Nobert Mao is the one who usually tells me, “you’re either cold or hot.”

HA: Exactly.

RK: Back to the point of identity, from a philosophical point, what is identity?

HA: It is many things. When somebody looks at my name for instance, what does it communicate? What values do I stand for? What badge do I wear when I go before the world? For me, identity my Acoli culture. It’s something that has grown since I left home. That’s when you start appreciating certain things that you took for granted. When I tell my friends I miss sweet bananas or sugarcanes, they say, I am so Ugandan. But as a writer, I always ask myself, what does home taste like? What is the smell of home? What is the colour of home? My tongue, my eyes and my memory remember those things.

RK: How does identity shape the way you communicate?

HA:  I think it does to a great extent. One of the ways I was raised or how girls are raised in African culture is having to use euphemisms when referring to certain things. And it used to bother me a lot. When I started becoming more self-aware, I kept asking myself why, among my friends, we refer to some parts of the body by euphemisms. I don’t know how rated your Twitter Space is but there are different names we give a woman’s vagina. We call it member, statehouse…

RK: Some people call it the place, the engine.

HA: There are so many euphemisms for it, and it used to bother me. But now as a writer, I consider it a wealth of language. So, when I am writing, I use those euphemisms not because I am covering things up but because they communicate a second meaning to what we know. Dr. Susan Kiguli asked what anchors my poetry. I remember saying something and she told me she thinks it relies on metaphors. And that is when I started noticing all the metaphors, many, homegrown.

RK: How important to an individual is the art of communication?

HA: Communication is very important. Even when you are not talking, you are communicating. If nobody understands you properly, it means you are not communicating effectively. Even with technology today and everybody trying to reach a vast audience, it’s even more critical that you communicate effectively. Say what you mean or people will call you out. And we know that image matters.

RK: There was a time when people’s intellectual ability was based on their English proficiency. Does this even matter?

HA: I am conflicted on that. I am an advocate for indigenous languages. If I cannot pronounce the word region or zero, I wouldn’t criminalize anybody for not having proper English pronunciation. But if you are a communicator [in English], you have to abide by the rules of the English grammar otherwise you may fail in what you are doing.

RK: What you are saying is that whatever language you can express yourself in, as long as you capture what you want to say…

HA: Absolutely. For writers today, there is a growing trend in translation and that is because people are beginning to appreciate the fact that we can consume art in more than one language. But also, there are things that the English language cannot relay. If I can write in Swahili why not? It does not make the art or language any less important.

RK: When you performed Footprints of Memory, we saw the experience of the LRA in different lenses. These experiences you talk about, what is it that the rest of the country missed?

HA: I was born during and lived through the war. I was at the source of insurgency and the experiences eventually became art. What I presented at the national theatre was work I had written for two years. It was hard work writing that book because at one point it even triggered depression. I was recalling many things. Up to date, I have not finished revising that poetry manuscript because it is very heavy. It chronicles the war from the beginning to the end. What made the writing difficult is that I had the experience; how do I then make sure it’s not just blood on the page? How do I make it art? And doing that means digging deep.

The rest of the country missed out on knowing what really happened in Northern Uganda. When I was in the north, I used to wonder: what does the rest of the country think about us? What do children from outside the north do? How do they go about daily life? What games do they play? The [northern] region was cut off from the rest of Uganda during the war. With that, you can’t have any nuance in understanding what’s going on. You can’t have any deep understanding when the only source of information you have is from the media or government.

RK: And also the protagonist…the public was left out. In terms of the narrative, how do you capture that in a manner that is forward-looking?

HA: What I do in my poems about the war is that I shift the voice to the people who have been victims or even participants in the war. They are the ones who speak. We see everything through their eyes. That captures their experiences firsthand. And doing that also means having sufficient knowledge of what people went through.

I was born during the war, and I lived through it but there are certain things I didn’t experience. So, I cannot claim authority over them. That means getting the opinion of the victims, sitting down with the grandmothers, aunties, to really understand the facts deeply. Once you get that, it ceases to be your story, it becomes the story of the people you are writing about. 

RK: How can communication of this kind help with closure? How can creative writing help to bring closure?

HA: I think it’s pretty straightforward. It’s very easy to reach people who are already accessible. That is why stories about the ordinary person always get lost. For a creative, it is essential to find the story of the ordinary person and let them tell their story. The mistake we make is to think that a person who has not gone to school is not smart enough. We find a neighbour who can speak English to translate the victim’s experience.

RK: And things get lost in translation.

HA: Exactly. So how do we reach the actual victim? By making sure that we don’t belittle their viewpoints and experiences. Once you tell the actual story, that’s the beginning of closure. That’s the beginning of a conversation. I was speaking with a friend two weeks ago and he was wondering why there is no book about northern Uganda written by a Ugandan chronically telling the story from beginning to the end. That speaks to your question: we need to get voices from the grassroots—to use the NGO speak—to make sure that real conversations and closure happen.

When I staged the Footprints of Memory production at the Uganda National Theatre, it was a combination of light and funny poems that got the audience laughing, and the heavy and heartbreaking ones when we transitioned into the war section. As creatives, we have a duty to make people uncomfortable about life’s realities.

Rk: if I am to drag you into the modern times of social media, imagine if this was the case when the war raged, what would have happened?

HA: The war would have ended faster than it did. If not, there would have been more help given to the community because so much happened, but the world knew so little. When people don’t know about something, they don’t prioritise it. Even right now, when you talk about the war, people do not take you seriously because they do not know the extent of what happened. If we had social media at the time we had the war, it would not have taken 20 years. Or at least there would have been a better appreciation of the situation because people would be aware of what’s happening.

RK: Let me ask you, as a creative person, if you were to advise anybody who wanted to stand out in the age we are in today, what would you tell them?

HA: I think there are so many surface-level experts these days. People don’t go skin deep. And I think for you to be able to communicate effectively, you must have a good grasp of the subject that you are going to be talking about. There are so many resources out there but because of how fleeting social media content is, we get tempted to dish out information as fast as possible. I believe one of the best skills a communicator can have today is to pause and check whether they have the correct information. Anybody can talk about anything these days, but a deeper understanding of an issue places you in a good position to either come up with better perspectives or something that will push the conversation forward.

RK: Tell me about your recent production.

HA: I had a screening of the poetry recital, Echoes of Home at the Kampala International Theatre Festival.  It was first performed live in New York. The production is a compilation of a dozen poems that speak to the concept of home. It had a lot of references about memory and home. I had a conversation with Peter Kagayi after the screening and he asked me what my fascination with memory is. I hadn’t even realised that Echoes like Footprints tackle the subject of memory a lot. 

RK: I brought this up because I wanted you to tell me about collaboration. You have to collaborate with lots of people, what goes into this?

HA: I believe that writing or creativity is very collaborative. I mentioned earlier that a lot of writers always say writing is a lonely process. But for me, writing is very collaborative because you are borrowing from many people and events. All those are invisible partners. For Footprints of Memory for instance, which was directed by Deborah Asiimwe, we were going to have a solo production but once we started interrogating the poems, we realised we needed to add music to the poems.  We needed instrumentalists and we ended up with a team of seven artists. It was still Anena’s production, but it had all these branches that united. Collaboration can strengthen a piece of work. It helps you to reach a bigger audience. Each collaborator is trying to reach a set of networks, experiences, and skills. If you look at a country like Uganda where buying books is not very robust, collaboration becomes the way forward. Even in the process of producing a book, you need an editor, a proofreader… You won’t come out of nowhere and become a celebrated author without collaborating with other people first.

RK: Knowing about that reality that you have described, what people skills enable you to build an effective collaboration?

HA: I am good at reaching out to people.

RK: I know that.

HA: When I want something, I will go for it. I will identify the people who share my vision, and I will reach out to them. In the creative/ literary world, people are always often willing to help/collaborate. I get amused when young writers get surprised that I respond to their DM or emails asking for advice. That shows that many people are afraid to reach out. They are afraid of rejection, which slows down their writing journey. We are in a global village. When someone shares their work online, the first thing to do is check which magazine or journal has published their work. Can you submit my work there too?  It’s being attentive to the little things. There are literary festivals and conferences to attend. Organisers want the big-name writers, but they have space for upcoming writers too. You have to take that initiative. Nobody is going to hand anything to you on a silver platter. I recently saw a quote that stated young writers should know that established writers owe them nothing. They don’t owe you feedback or recommendation letters. So, if you don’t reach out to them, they are not going to come looking for you. It takes courage. Just send someone a message to pick their mind. The worse they can do is say no.

RK: Many of us are ruled by the future. In a situation like that, how does one develop the skill of curiosity?

HA: For a creative, it is about consuming art. You will be amazed at how many writers don’t read. Somebody sends me a manuscript and I can tell they have not read a poem closely in their lifetime. Your lack of knowledge will show up in your work. Unless you are curious, unless you are reading other writers, you are not going to understand how it’s done. Even the most accomplished writer reads every day. They have people who read their work and give them feedback. Writing is a continuous journey. For a writer who is afraid of reaching out to other writers, one of the things you can do is read. Or to find opportunities for workshops or conferences where people are giving lessons on how you can improve your art. Once you get the confidence from being among other writers, then you can reach out to an established writer. They will appreciate that you have put in the effort.

RK: Personally, the way I have been able to grow my curiosity is by reading. The pleasure of knowing that you are better off than you were before, shows you that curiosity will always drive you to a pleasurable experience. In the process of doing that, you acquire the styles that work for you.

HA: You can either learn how other people are writing or their work can inspire your own writing style. One of the challenges of being a young writer is writing clichés. I usually tell young writers, that you are a god. Someone has already created the phrase you use so often, create yours too. That is what will set you apart. Reading will not only improve your writing, but it can make you better than the people you are reading.

RK: One of the reasons I ended up in broadcasting is because I used to be obsessed with radio. And most of the radio presenters used to have powerful delivery. And you can tell a bland guy from the one who has flair. And that influences you in a way.

HA: Especially now when the world is a global village; you cannot be in your corner alone. You need different perspectives so that it informs yours, otherwise, you will be operating centuries back from where the world is. I started by writing for the page and it took me a while to believe that I could perform. By the time I did the last performance in Kampala in 2019, I had reached out to different people who were good at poetry performances. It made me realise that anything is possible if you put your mind to it.

Comrade Otoa: We have so many stories, but we are not getting enough of them out there, what should we do?

HA: It takes consistency. There is no shortcut. And sometimes, it gets frustrating especially for people who want to get things very fast. The arts generally take time to bear fruit. For Uganda or even African countries where appreciation for art is very low, it means that an artist has to work doubly hard before they can earn from their art. The first major recognition I got for my poetry was from Ghana. Then Nigeria. So, I would say, just keep at it. I was listening to Jennifer Makumbi earlier today and she said she finished writing her book, The First Woman in 2003 and it was only published in 2020. I am not saying you should wait for 17 years but the way the industry works here is that it takes real patience and consistency. Putting yourself in people’s faces so that they remember you. There are so many things competing for attention. When I started writing, I shared my poems on Facebook. Some of them show up on my timeline memory and I cringe. But I remember at the time, I would be motivated by people’s comments that the poems were so good. It gave me morale at the time. And once you start putting your work out there, keep at it. Don’t come out once and disappear. There are many platforms that you can use to share your work. Using tech to reach more audiences knowing that the journey is usually slow but consistent, helps.

Joan Atim: I studied at Aboke Girls School, and they used to tell us to sleep in shorts with money on us. In case the rebels came, you had to run off. You brought back memories.

HA: I was at Sacred Heart Secondary School, a girls’ school as well. We had to sleep with clothes on too. You weren’t sure when you had to jump and hide.

RK: And this was the life you lived as young people.  

HA: Yes. The war brought all that to us. I had questions and the only place to answer them was on the page. I wrote them down in the form of poems. The war essentially, I guess inspired my writing journey.

RK: Where we are today, tell me about you living and working in America in a diverse cultural context.

HA: First of all, one of the things that I appreciate here is the very high appreciation for all forms of art. People are attuned to all sorts of art and that was is inspiring. I couldn’t wait to have a poetry performance.

The second issue that lingered on my mind was how to fit in. Would I fit in? Would I measure up? There was a lot of imposter syndrome when I arrived in New York. I wrote an essay about it. I was worried about my accent. But America beats you into shape.

The first time I was out on the streets, I wondered why people were walking so fast. People were talking so loudly. And when it comes to your creative work, you try to make sure you are loud as well. And so for me, I needed to find out what would make me stand out. The temptation to be like the rest was high because you want to belong. And then later, you realise that that will not help. At least for me. I needed to remain Anena even when I was far away from home. The question was: how do I promote my writing without erasing who I am? So I stopped trying to be like everyone else.

RK: What will you say to people who want to write at a prize-winning level. How do you become that effective?

HA: It takes a lot of practice. It takes many things, including being open to receiving feedback, which can be extremely painful. As creative people, we think we know stuff. Our ego is fat. But unless you are willing to open yourself to criticism for growth, you are going to be living in your head. Some people want to publish a book but they have not even published a short story or a poem, which is okay but who is going to pick that book off the shelf? You have to be very categorical and intentional about your writing journey. How do you climb the tree from the ground and not just parachute to the top?

RK: If you don’t do that, you will never know how to come down.

HA: Exactly. I started my journey by publishing my work on social media but that is not enough. You must reach out to people who have been in the trade. And know that honest feedback is going to hurt most times, but you must grow a tough skin to learn from your weaknesses.

RK: Thank you very much, Anena. Continue to shine and hold the Ugandan flag high in those places.

HA: Thank you so much and for the opportunity.

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