Yalie Kamara is a Sierra Leonean-American writer and an Oakland native. She’s the author of A Brief Biography of My Name (Akashic Books/APBF, 2018), which was included in New–Generation African Poets: A Chapbook Box Set (Tano) and When The Living Sing (Ledge Mule Press, 2017). She is a Callaloo Fellow, a 2017 National Book Critics Circle Emerging Critics Fellow,\ and was a finalist for the 2017 Brunel International African Poetry Prize. She received an MA in French Culture and Civilization from Middlebury College, an MFA in poetry from Indiana University, Bloomington and is currently a doctoral student in Creative Writing and English Literature at the University of Cincinnati. For more: www.yaylala.com.
Marlin Jenkins: Your chapbook, A Brief Biography of My Name, is part of the most recent New-Generation African Poets Chapbook Box Set. How does it feel to have the chapbook be part of a set in this way?
Yalie Kamara: It’s really exciting to be in the company of other emerging poets from the African Diaspora. I’m really honored that this opportunity exists. Kwame Dawes and Chris Abani are doing something really important. I hadn’t been really aware of the work of many of my African writing peers. I think that in a lot of ways people my age were kind of writing in silos. At least some of us were, not knowing exactly who we were engaging with or who our audiences were. It’s really exciting to be part of this, to be in conversation with these different poets who represent such a diverse range of voices. I think it takes a lot of courage and vulnerability to write about some of the topics that we’re broaching in our work. We’re tackling some topics that may seem taboo when considering our respective cultural upbringings.
MJ: You mention vulnerability. How do you think about vulnerability when you’re writing poems?
YK: I think for me vulnerability is a type of poem that, when I write it, doesn’t initially make sense. What that means is, if I’m not writing it clearly or cogently, there’s something I’m afraid of sharing. And so it’s the poem, I think, that goes through a particular type of transformation, and a poem that grows with me as a person. I think vulnerability is sharing guarded parts of yourself, the parts that you know about yourself but don’t necessarily want scrutinized. So when I’m engaging with vulnerability in writing, I think it involves taking a big leap of courage and saying, “I’m okay if people ask me questions, even though I’m not sure of how to respond to those questions.” I am not saying that everyone needs to be willing to talk about everything that they write, but it’s a standard that I aspire to set for myself. In any case, I am willing to engage with difficult topics because there’s something really life-giving about getting these thoughts off of my chest.
MJ: I want to talk a little bit about this idea of kin and of lineage because that’s something I’ve heard you talk about a lot in conversations and also it’s very present in your poems. How do you think about that idea of kin, and how do you define it?
YK: For me, kin is important and a lot of it has to do with erasures in lineage. Being from West Africa and keeping in mind the whole history of the Transatlantic Slave Trade, there are parts of my history that I’ll never be able to know. For me, kin is my relation to someone either by bloodline or relation through means of emotional connection. I think the connective tissue is empathy—it cuts through time, location, and circumstance. I think that’s how I relate to the word kin. There’s so much I don’t know about my family’s past, given the violence of world history. I also give myself license to imagine my kin. So in that sense, kin is who I become connected to while I am in the act of imagining what happens when I fill the erasures in my past. It’s the power that results from imagining what and who have been taken from you.
MJ: I think that’s something that both of your chapbooks are doing in a really beautiful way, and I want to use that to talk about this idea of biography, but then also with what your book is doing with cataloging. I love how a lot of your poems feel like lists or like they’re taking inventory. Can you talk a little bit about the relationship between things like biography and history with that idea of cataloguing or inventory?
YK: It’s interesting that you’re using the term “cataloging” because I feel like I’m archiving all the time. I think that’s just how my brain works and how I make sense of the world—I think that’s the primary function of cataloguing in my life. When writing in a form that looks like archiving or inventorying, I am trying to capture moments that feel like they could soon become ephemera, if not because of my own memory failing, but because of the sort of nefarious motion of history and what it has (at times) done to misrepresent the brilliance, wonder, and fire of marginalized peoples. I know that this fear of forgetting is somewhere between completely rational and not, but I can’t shake that concern.
I’m always trying to capture as many stories as I can. Collecting these stories allays that nervousness, but this action would be nothing if I wasn’t trying to share these stories. I think the feeling of writing in a way that looks like cataloguing also comes from growing up as a first-generation American and not quite understanding parts of the American culture. I came from a household in which my parents, whether knowingly or not, tried to create a satellite Sierra Leone in our household. That was kind of a trip, especially when growing up in one of the most soulful, eclectic, smart, and kooky places in America, which is the San Francisco Bay Area. I love it so much, but going from a pretty conservative household into the wilds of the Bay Area, I was kind of like, “What is this?” It was always a vertiginous experience. I spent a lot of time just closely observing. I think maybe that cataloging, that archiving, is also an outward expression of what it means to take stock and inventory of your surroundings if you feel like you’re not completely a part of a place. Archiving and cataloging is data collection, proof, evidence—it’s a kind of a survival tactic.
MJ: What happens for you, then, in the process of writing the poem when you’re writing about things that are vulnerable, writing about things that are unknown, or maybe leaning against repression? What happens when you sit down to write through those things?
YK: When I sit down to write about things that are vulnerable, it’s something that’s been on my mind for some time. It’s not like I just come to the computer like, “All right, time to get vulnerable!” It’s usually something that I’m kind of grappling with. I experience this back-and-forth in which I ask myself, “Do I share it? Do I keep it to myself?” And even that feeling of indecision is a clear sign that it’s something that I need to pursue. Before I even get to sitting down and writing it, I walk and I talk to myself and I sometimes record, and it’s cool because it looks like I’m talking on my phone when I’m on the street but I’m actually recording parts of a poem to myself, or an idea that I don’t want to lose. There’s a lot of conversing with the subject before the actual sit-down-and-write.
MJ: How do you know, once you’ve sat down and drafted something, that it’s something you want to share with the world and not keep for yourself?
YK: I usually have a verbal or physical reaction to what I’ve written. I’ll make some type of affirmative church sound that lets me know that I’m ready. Or I’ll do a little shimmy at my desk, like, “Yes, girl! You did THAT!” This isn’t to say that the poem is definitively done, but it is at least ready for sharing with another set of trusting eyes. When I’m a bit more quiet after finishing a poem (which means maybe letting out a sigh or whispering a “thank you”), it usually means that the poem is either just for me, or something that I am not ready to share. In short, I have to listen to what my body is saying.
MJ: I want to go back to that idea of thinking about the unknown in history and use that to talk about the idea of the unknown in the future. There’s a lot of looking, and moving, forward in your poems. I really love this line in the poem “Aubade For Every Room In Which My Mother Resides” in your first chapbook, When the Living Sing: “I walk toward the sound of splinter exiting kin,” with that kin idea coming back. I really love that line; it’s one I’ve been returning and returning to. And then, in Brief Biography, in the poem “New America” we have this ending: “a careless twirl toward / where I think I may belong.” And then in the final poem, “Three Days Before My Baptism,” we have this ending: “a flame scatters and runs toward the water.” I really love that sense of toward-ness in your poems. What do you think your poems are moving toward? Or, what are you, after having written these two chapbooks and putting them into the world, what are you moving toward?
YK: Freedom! I’m moving toward freedom. I’m moving toward defining myself. I’m moving toward my destiny and working to upend the oppression that waits for me and others who reside in marginalized bodies. I’m moving toward healing myself and nurturing the creative growth of different communities that comprise my world. I’m moving toward creating my own legacy. Not a legacy that’s independent of people around me, but just feeling finally that I have a type of agency in writing my story. And I think that’s what the ultimate move is. It’s honoring the past, but also making respectful space for the present and future iterations of myself as well. It’s ultimately moving toward what I define as a home for myself.
MJ: With that idea of defining the self, one of the central and beautiful things about A Brief Biography is the way you talk about naming and how the poems are so insistent on the importance of naming, and on the importance of what your name means to you. But we also have this really complex thread that questions when and how naming matters. For example, in the title poem, I love this moment: “As I write this my mother asks why the village / name matters if no one knows where [it] is.” And then, again, returning to the final poem, we have this: “an ancient pain. So old it has no name.” Can you talk more about how you think about the complex roles that names and naming have?
YK: I think that in order to name something—it presupposes that you have some type of privilege, and to not be able to name yourself means that you don’t have a particular type of freedom or agency or privilege or right. I think I’m insistent on that because I think that oppressed peoples, disenfranchised peoples, need to be naming themselves. That’s where so much of this comes from. I’m so obsessed with names and obsessed with naming things because I don’t think that you can extricate that from the act of establishing freedom, or stepping into yourself or your identity, which is why even having that be the name of the chapbook—I mean all these things are based on true stories. It took me like 31 years to learn what my whole name meant. Actually, not even 31 because by the time this book was published I realized that there’s a little bit more that I learned about my name, so it took 33 years. There are people who have documents of what their names mean and know who their great-great-grandparents are and all these other important historical details. I don’t have that luxury. People have these documents; I don’t have these documents. All I can rely on is what my parents tell me, what I learn from strangers, and, as the Internet has become more sophisticated, I am partially relying on it to show me the way, too. I’m trying to research in as many ways as I possibly can, which is both exhaustive and exhausting. And what I found is that the meanings of my name are actually the building blocks of my destiny: storyteller, Black girl, teacher—these are all the things that I am. While I’m no longer a Black girl, these names are who I have become.
When you have an obsession to figure out what something means, I think you need to go with it because it is doing the work of reconnecting you to some part of yourself. In terms of an ancient pain I’m thinking about cultural practices and historical inheritance: what we inadvertently inherit and what we don’t know about our family and the ways that generations literally show up, in behaviors, in thinking, in patterns and just kind of like quirks and just things that like are in our DNA. We don’t know what it is but we know it’s something from the past, so even naming that is a start. It’s just a way of figuring out how to be in line with one’s destiny. Knowing where we come from does the work of helping us move forward, and that is a relief, and to even feel relief is a type of liberation. I don’t think I will always be able to learn everything about my past, and that’s fine. It’s not a defeat because I think that we have enough power to intuit things that seem impossible to know about our pasts and that of our family. But that only occurs if we’re listening closely enough.
MJ: Changing gears a little bit, I want to ask you about this past summer when you were in Ann Arbor at the Neutral Zone at the Volume Summer Institute, this beautiful program for young writers to come and work on their writing for a week. You were the poetry instructor there, and I just want to ask: what is your goal as a teacher of poetry to young people?
YK: I love the Volume Summer Institute! It was so fantastic being there, because 16 years ago I was a student in the poetry workshop that I had the fortune of teaching this past summer. Coming back was a really deep honor. In terms of what I want to teach, there’s all kinds of things I am interested in. In spite of this, I think that the most important thing that I want to express to writers of different levels, but particularly beginning writers, is the importance of detail. A detail is a marvelous window that really promotes connectivity. We get to peer into the marrow of the work. And it also allows us to be better readers. I think that once we appreciate and understand the value of a unit of detail, it just changes everything, including our perceptions of what we’re reading and how we write. And I think that also opens up people’s hearts.
Additionally, as an educator I am interested in thinking more expansively about models of feedback in workshop settings. Sometimes the feedback is not actually saying anything; sometimes the feedback is just listening. I think that really establishing a space where writers feel comfortable reading their work is of utmost importance. Workshopping is good—I’m all about workshopping—but sometimes workshopping should just be listening and not necessarily about correcting or editing a student. As an educator, I want to make sure to be training my own ears, eyes, mind, and heart to what the students are seeing and what they’re bringing to the classroom.
MJ: As we wrap up, I just want to ask a two-part ‘and/or’ question: what is bringing you joy recently and/or what do you find yourself thinking a lot about?
YK: Young people are bringing me joy. Being an aunt and an educator has been a huge blessing. While there’s a lot that’s broken and damaged in this world, I’ve been thinking a lot about how it’s not completely lost. Figures of authority often demoralize or disorient young people—I am continually taken by young people’s investment in bringing beauty and light into the world. I am inspired by their candor, solidarity, and commitment to truth-telling. I love watching my nephews Elijah and Kema grow up—I have been inspired by the ways that they see the world and how astute and funny they are. They have such developed senses of humor and have perfect timing when delivering jokes. It is so refreshing to step out of the humdrum of adulthood.
I’m also thinking a lot about spirituality and what it means to deepen my faith. I am thinking about love, and the socially and politically radical ideologies of Jesus. I also laugh and frown about my pettiness and how it sometimes gets in the way of absorbing these teachings. I am learning to forgive myself and press on. I am thinking a lot about Nia Wilson and her senseless death in Oakland. She’s really on my mind, and again we’re talking about kin, and Wilson is a last name in my family. I think about her, I think about her name and how her first name means “purpose,” last name means “desire,” and just thinking about what importance that holds. I am ruminating on this tragedy and what happens now—how do we carry on for those who are killed, who are forcibly disappeared, who have left, who are gone—how do we carry on legacies? I don’t want these questions to be explored in an expressly somber way, but how do we celebrate their lives? And more specifically, how do we not stop celebrating their lives? How do we make sure that we’re not forgetting to celebrate? And be open to celebrating people’s lives in spite of. Just a lot of learning how to shout at the storm is what I’m doing right now.