Claiming Two Traditions: A Conversation with Nehassaiu deGannes

Author Photo Credit: Greg Routt

Nehassaiu deGannes, is a daughter of the Caribbean diaspora––– a multi-hyphenate poet, actor and theatre-maker with degrees in English Lit (McGill,) African American Studies (Temple,) and an MFA in Literary Arts (Poetry) from Brown, where she also uncovered a parallel passion for acting and went on to train professionally at Trinity Rep Conservatory. Nehassaiu now acts Off-B’way, regionally and internationally. Shortlisted for the 2020 Montreal International Poetry Prize, her writing has appeared in several journals including Callaloo, The Caribbean Writer, Crab Orchard Review, American Poetry Review, and Poem/Memoir/Story, as well as two-award winning chapbooks, Percussion, Salt & Honey (Philbrick Prize,) and Undressing The River (Center For Book Arts National Award.) Recipient of fellowships from Cave Canem, Vermont Studio Center, Community of Writers, Rhode Island State Council on The Arts and The James Michener Caribbean Writers Institute, Nehassaiu has taught at RISD, Goddard, Rhode Island College and most recently, Princeton. She has been recognized with a Wall Street Journal national citation and a Berkshire Theatre Critics Award for her outstanding work as an actor. Nehassaiu (né-hé-sigh-u) has called many places home––– from the Caribbean to Canada to the Middle East and now, Brooklyn, NY, ancestral home of the Munsee-Lenape. Music for Exile is her first book.


Lisa Low: Nehassaiu, I’m so happy to see you and meet you at last. First, I want to tell you how much I absolutely loved your first book of poems, published by Tupelo Press, Music for Exile. It’s unbelievable.

Nehassaiu deGannes: That means so much to hear you say that, Lisa. Wow. Thank you.

LL: To me, it was infinitely complex and revolutionary, but we can get to that in a moment. First, I wanted to begin by asking what brought you to poetry. 

ND: Oh, that’s a good question. To tell you the truth, I don’t remember a moment before poetry. I was definitely a poet before I became a theatre artist and actor. My aunts and uncles and grandparents told me a story often. When I was three, my parents were emigrating to Canada and I stayed for a while with my mother’s family. Every day I would accompany my grandfather to the market for fresh produce, near the sea. The story is when we came home I would take my grandfather’s hat and put it on top of my head and I would take the empty fruit and vegetable sacks and traipse around the dining table regaling everyone with stories about all the people I had met that day in the market. 

I think the seeds of becoming a theatrical storyteller were there. But I think it’s also the poetry in the oral traditions of Caribbean culture. My earliest relationship to language is steeped with the poetry and musicality of those Caribbean storyteller traditions.

Then, if you flash forward, as I grew into a teenager, I loved English literature. My friends and I used to sit on the stoop and write short stories and novels in our adolescence. I envisioned myself as a writer, then.

But it’s not until high school when I studied Beowulf, The Canterbury Tales, Elizabeth Barrett Browning, and Margaret Atwood that I began to form the idea in my mind of a tradition. My parents always made sure my brother and I read Black writers too, but it wasn’t until I got to McGill that Black writers were in the curriculum. 

But an illuminating moment for me was hearing Joy Harjo’s description of how she writes from two distinct traditions, with a Native American elder on one shoulder and a white elder on the other.  That image resonated for me. All of a sudden I had the seeds in my mind: I recognized myself in that—the African oral storytelling tradition was over one shoulder, but on the other shoulder, for  I continued to study English Lit at McGill, where I attended college. In that moment I saw the gate, the door, the path I would take. Those two streams merge in me and that is who I am as a writer.

LL: Did being introduced to a canon of Black writers at McGill give you self-confidence?

ND: Yes, it gave me permission to write my life. I was aware that there were Black writers. My mother made certain I read Rosa Guy’s The Friends alongside Judy Blume and on my father’s shelves were a pride of James Baldwin titles, but at McGill, thanks to three wonderful professors, we studied the works of Toni Morrison, Alice Walker, Ama Ata Aidoo, Chinua Achebe, Ayi Kwei Armah and more with the same rigor that had informed my High School English Lit passions. Being given a whole new constellation helped me. It makes a difference to know the stories I have to tell are also worthy of the distinction “literature.” 

LL: Can we return for a moment to Joy Harjo and the white and Black literary traditions, because that description—of a white elder on one shoulder and a Black elder on the other—does seem to describe your work so well. It’s as if language is a fabric you tear to pieces and scatter and sow in a way that forces us to re-enter a new world. 

ND: You have just stated exactly what I am attempting to do, but until now I wasn’t certain that I was accomplishing it. The image of the merging of great, but different traditions is something that I have felt very strongly. Basically, I want to claim both streams. It is my lived reality. As well, your sense that I am tearing the fabric of language is deeply resonant. An archetypal force in my work is Oya, an insider/outsider in the Yoruba tradition – an immigrant to that pantheon. Oya is the hurricane force. The one that stands at the entrance to the cemetery. Her gale force winds transform by way of destruction. Her swirling skirts, also a means of dispersing healing leaves and herbs. In claiming both traditions I am not attempting to gloss over colonizig violence. Rather, I hope to do in language what Caribbean women before me did when they brilliantly veiled Oya behind the Catholic mask of Saint Teresa. To stand at the crossroads and re-enter the world from there.  

LL: Yes, I get that in reading your work. I feel like you’re trying to use language to bring two traditions into balance by creating a new language. To me it’s like you are a discoverer.  As if in language you are re-inventing a place where we can all live in a lush, more equal, world. 

ND: Yes.  At times I am inventing language to give voice to my experience of living in a place no one else has lived – a place between worlds – a liminal, cross-cultural intersectional space. Even by the age of three, I had lived in three different Caribbean countries and Canada, viscerally experiencing a polyphony of English languages. Different patois, dialects, accents. Different syntactical possibilities! That awareness was amplified by further travel and movement, of being at once inside and outside several cultures. I know the pain of displacement and inherit the trauma of enslavement, but I want to be careful, because while I am a poetic refugee, I was never a refugee in the sense of immediate political and economic exile. But, yes, my work comes from foraging and forging a language. That’s very exciting to me that you got it.  

LL: You said nobody can be in your mind, but I feel like I know what it is to be you. That’s how clear a window your poems give. But there’s a political dimension we haven’t fully discussed. 

For example, in the poem “Ocean Voyager” the speaker, Refusing/ to be the one/ explored, levels her gaze at  “Sam” (a “Yank.”) To me that’s tied to the consideration of women as second best and also to the domination of western over non-western cultures. Your poems actively rebel. There is a place for rage in them. I am thinking of the repeating historical characters of Angelique and Mary Walmsley pictured as heroes who fight back. These are gendered figures of colonial oppression.

ND: Yes. The heroic figures you mention and their acts of resistance are so poignant for me. They are emblematic of, yes, the rage. There is this axis or leverage or fulcrum in that colonial gaze. In that gendered, dominant white gaze. There is a way in which the Black body and the Black female body as victim fits into that narrative. But to place the Black body solely as victim doesn’t upset the hierarchy. When Angelique sets fire to her master’s estate and Mary Walmsley boils the white child, it’s a resistance that upsets the hierarchy. 

I also have written and performed a one-woman show with Mary Walmsley as a character in it. It’s a different telling of that story because it’s a dramatic monologue. And what struck me as odd was that when I performed it, audiences could not comprehend, they were horrified, when Mary puts the white child in the tub of boiling water, but that gets revealed only at the end of a 90-minute show demonstrating the casual cruelties placed upon the Black body—that their children had been stolen from them, that they had been tortured. 

We’ve become inured to Black suffering. We’ve normalized the Black body as a place of pain. Those moments of Mary Walmsley’s rebellion—it is one of the most potent forms of resistance. In Mary Walmsley and Angelique the Black body asserts personhood at the same level as the oppressor and seeks to right the wrong. It doesn’t just make the Black body a victim. It confronts the injustice and seeks to right the wrong on equal terms.

LL: Yes. Again, to me, it’s like what you say in “Ocean Voyager.” It’s a leveling of the gaze and a toppling of the accepted hierarchies. I picture it as a leveling of a tilted planet. A setting right of the imbalance of injustice that ends up making us all lopsided and suffering. You point out that the west has been burning the Black body and in return your work displays the burning of the white body. Because without the white person seeing and feeling that extremity, the extremity of Black suffering can’t be fully understood.

ND: It comes back to the notion there are many paths to the one god. They are equal portals to the universal. Colonialism asserts white supremacy as if there is only one portal. It has been my project to see that I can take either door into the room. That both of these traditions grant equal access to the universal; both are windows into humanity.

LL: But, honestly, Nehassaiu, I am floored by the many ingenious, flexible ways you use poetry as a language of linguistic intervention to re-write the world’s imbalances.

ND: Of course I benefit from my predecessors. All poetry has form; even free verse has form. I was introduced to exploring form from Sonia Sanchez, and she in turn from Louise Bogan, her teacher. I have benefited from the work of the Black Arts movement, the Harlem Renaissance, and the Caribbean poets who claimed from language Kamau Brathwaite’s assertion that “the hurricane does not howl in pentameter.” I can come along and inherit. I can claim these traditions. 

LL: I feel it most strongly, perhaps, in your invocation poem “To Khadejha.” In that poem you stumble upon your old friend’s visual art at the Toronto museum and tell her you are trying to do in words what she is doing in art. Speaking of this, I know you are an actor and a playwright, that you teach drama at Princeton. You are a true renaissance woman. I am curious whether you would say your main path is poetry or drama?

ND: Playwrights kept casting me in their plays. Also, I studied dance in high school. And to be honest, a few years ago, I was even thinking of stopping poetry to focus on acting. Then I got a call from a poet who helped me find the shape and arc of the book-length and Music for Exile suddenly became clear to me as a book with a through-line. Then I got a call from Jeffrey Levine at Tupelo Press and he took the book. For now, I speak to my traditions as an actor, a playwright, and a poet. I explore the same themes in multiple mediums and forms.


Lisa Low

Lisa Low is a scholar, book reviewer, film critic, theatre critic, and poet living in Connecticut. Her poetry has appeared in many literary journals including Valparaiso Poetry Review, Green Hills Literary Lantern, American Journal of Poetry, Phoebe, and Delmarva Review. Her book reviews have appeared in Tupelo Quarterly, Lit Pub, Heavy Feather, The Literary Review and Poetry International. She is co-editor with Anthony Harding of Milton, the Metaphysicals, and Romanticism (Cambridge UP, 1994). She received her doctorate in English Literature from the University of Massachusetts and spent twenty years as an English professor, teaching at Cornell College, Colby College, and Pace University. Visit her at

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