"Storm Over Biafra," by Ben Enwonwu, 1972.
.chisaraokwu. (she/her) is an Igbo American actor, poet, and healthcare futurist. Her work has appeared in many journals, including Glass, Berkeley Poetry Review, Midnight & Indigo, Cutthroat, the New England Journal of Medicine and Obsidian. She has been awarded fellowships and writing residencies in the US and in Italy, including Brooklyn Poets & Cave Canem. She earned her BA in History from Stanford University and her MD from the Duke University School of Medicine. Visit her website at The Joy + Well.
.chisaraokwu.’s poem “What Daddy Doesn’t Want Me to Know (California, 1989)” appears in the current issue of LPR. You can watch her read from her work here. .chisaraokwu. was kind enough to sit down with me and answer a few questions. Our interview follows.
LPR: I found your poem “What Daddy Doesn’t Want Me to Know (California, 1989)” haunting. I love how you begin with memories of schoolyards, fetching water and school uniforms, then end with the uniforms, “baby blue.” That last line is truly heart wrenching: “children dressed in baby blue school uniforms carrying bits of parents between wrinkled pages”. How much has this history in Nigeria influenced your writing and cultural identity?
.C.: Great question. Nigeria, its history, and specifically the Igbo culture, greatly influenced my entire life experience. It still does. I grew up in a bilingual home with two very proud Nigerian parents. I picked up the language, the mannerisms and identified more with the Nigerian Igbo culture of my parents than American culture. Also, being an inquisitive child, I had to know what the adults were talking about (or not talking about). The stories, the folktales, the food, their way of being – all of it was also my way of being. The Biafra War, however, was not my lived experience. And perhaps on some level, I wanted to know about it more because the adults were, understandably, so good at not talking about it. But, it’s those things we don’t talk about in life— the traumas and the joys—that shape so much of who we are and what we do. We forge identities out of those experiences (subconsciously or consciously); and, those experiences impact subsequent generations. In a way, I wanted to be closer to my people, hold space for their trauma and celebrate their joy. So that… desire, if you will… led to this life-long exploration and excavation of this 30-month war and the life-histories of those who survived it and their descendants.
LPR: I absolutely love the line “this war as bookends or a story no one knows how to end.” Do you think there will, eventually, be an independent Igbo state?
.C.: Wow. That’s not an easy question. I don’t know; I’m not well versed on the intricacies of declaring statehood. But my point in that line is two-fold: 1) that as long as a group of people is systematically oppressed and denied their right to exist as human beings and be respected as human beings then these wars will keep happening; and, 2) our silence about trauma and how it perpetuates its longevity. How do you stop a coming war? How do you end one? How do you close on chapter and start a new one? While we seem to have all the resources on how to do that individually—nation-states/governments the world over haven’t figured out how to reconcile and repair the breach that all of this trauma has exacted on humans. Can we manifest an existence where we are kinder to each other, to this earth? Have we really not figured out how to end the current “war-like” state of things? There’s another poem in this collection that asks the question, “What is an exit strategy without war?” Humans (more often than not, men) feel that the only way to move forward is through war, annihilation. I posit that there is another way to co-exist in this world.
LPR: What writers have influenced your craft and how?
.C.: I’d have to say Nikki Giovanni is one of my elders. Discovered her in college. It was the first time I read poetry and thought wait, this person writes like me! I can be a poet, too! LOL! (I know, the gall of my freshman-self thinking that the Nikki Giovanni writes like me!) But her writing was so accessible, expressive, and simple. I loved it. Her writing reminds me that I can be as plain about what I am saying or as complex as I want to be. No fear! Toni Morrison taught me to appreciate the long line, the lyric and that expressing our stories (no matter how dark) our mission-critical. There are so many that I’ll get in trouble for not mentioning them! Ocean Vuong, Jacqueline Johnson, JP Howard, Jericho Brown, JK Rowling, NK Jemisin.
But it’s not just writers. Music, clergy, professors, folks in my neighborhoods, have influenced my craft. Have you heard the music in our speech? The way someone from southern Louisiana speaks versus someone from North Carolina is wholly different, but the less attuned ear will declare it all “the southern accent.” Listen to someone from Napoli speak Italian versus someone from Sicilia or Florence. The rhythms, their essence is very different. Listen to how someone from Anambra State (Nigeria) speaks versus someone from Imo or Abia State. There are entire histories in how we speak and the words we use to express ourselves. Speaking different languages has sharpened my sense of rhythm, sound and intent in my work. You should hear the conversations my mother and I have about the Igbo and English languages! We start getting into tone, intent, context, story of speech, etymology. Yes, we nerd out. Well, mostly me. She’s a trooper though because as I said before, I’m inquisitive. I don’t let up. Writing is about translating all of that to the page.
LPR: Yes to the notion of language and rhythm! Tone as well! I think about this often when books are translated from other languages. Jericho Brown, who you mention as an influence, wrote a poem called “Night Shift” which appeared in The New Yorker some time back. I read it there first. Later, I heard him read the same poem at Bennington College and the experience was truly inspired.
.C.: I love that you had that experience! He is very inspiring. And super-approachable. And I love following him on Twitter. His posts! He just dishes out gems on craft for the taking! Talk about accessibility. Love that.
LPR: What is the last book you read that made an impact on you?
.C.: I actually read two at the same time in June – Ilya Kaminsky’s Deaf Republic & Tina Chang’s Hybrida. I’m still processing both. Both poetry collections are haunting, honest expositions on human nature. Just go buy them or borrow them from your local library. You’ll see what I mean.
LPR: How do you have the time for all this? Aside from writing and reading, you run a company: The Joy+Well. Am I correct that you also have a Podcast? Talk to me about these endeavors. What has led you to them? How do you balance all of these projects?
.C.: Ha! I’m trying so hard not to be busy! Seriously. I have a couple of accountability partners to help with that and I’ve been doing better by taking time off – especially during this pandemic that still looms over us. Balance is about not giving into anyone’s idea of success but your own. And hopefully, your own ideas of success are aligned with your faith and not your fear. That’s how I’m achieving balance these days, remembering my faith and not relinquishing my power to fear.
And yes, I do have a podcast – The Joy+Well Conversations, Season 1 and Season 2! It’s a limited podcast series where I invite badass women of the African Diaspora to have a conversation with me about joy. Because if there is something we don’t talk about enough it is joy! I wanted a way to get us (BIWOC) to hear from other BIWOC about how they are living their joy out loud and unapologetically. In fact, that’s the whole premise of The Joy+Well, to support women in making joy their practice. So our offerings are geared towards that and are informed by my work in the arts, the medical field as a physician and certified trauma specialist, and in social justice. Folks can sign up for our almost weekly newsletter to see what we’re up to and hopefully soon, we’ll do a run of Poetry & Tea w/ Chi where we’ll be in conversation with each other about poetry of the African Diaspora (Afro Latin, Afro Asian, Afro Carib, Afro-Indigenous, etc) and how it relates to us today in our lives specifically and in society.
Listen, everyday there is something trying to break us. But like Lucille Clifton says, “come celebrate with me that everyday something has tried to kill me and has failed.” The Joy+Well is about that celebration and was borne out of the need to celebrate our joy more. The full origin story will be in a future episode of the podcast – something to do with Italy, an Italian, and a September 11 walk to a park in the Bronx. More on that later. 😉
Listen, everyday there is something trying to break us. But like Lucille Clifton says, “come celebrate with me that everyday something has tried to kill me and has failed.”
LPR: During the last year we’ve been asking writers if social isolation has influenced their writing and, if so, how. Now that this strange passage of time is coming to a close, are you seeing a difference in how you write or what you write about?
.C.: Wait! It’s coming to a close??? I’m not ready. Does Dr. Fauci know? No, seriously, does he know? Just kidding. I’ll tell you as an introvert with extroverted tendencies, I loved not having to go anywhere AND hated not being able to attend my regular get-togethers with my poet friends – whether in Brooklyn or Manhattan. I ended up writing a play, the first draft of a novel, and a lot of bad poetry. I don’t want it to sound like I was over-achieving in this pandemic. I literally took 30 minutes a day. That’s all I’d give myself, all I could give myself, and then move on with the rest of my day. And that was the biggest change that this pandemic did for my writing. I always do morning pages (my brain dumps) but to give myself just 30 minutes a day to write –and write poorly, I hadn’t done. In so doing I achieved my own measure of success. No one may ever read what I wrote but I did it for myself and it taught me even 30 minutes a day set aside is not only great but can lead to something great in the end. That whole process… that’s joy.