TLY: Today, at The Leaving Years, we welcome Patricia Jabbeh Wesley. Patricia is an acclaimed poet who holds a doctorate in English and Creative Writing. She is a professor of Creative Writing at Penn State Altoona. It is an honor and a pleasure to have her with us.
Patricia: My earliest memories of Maryland or Cape Palmas and mostly of my hometown of Tugbakeh and of my mother’s hometown of Dolokeh were of my Iyeeh (Grandma), a strong willed, powerful, tall and dark beauty, about six foot two, who may have developed her strength more because her husband became blind and she had to mostly take care of the farming and care of the family affairs. I was a city child until I was eleven, and at eleven, my father sent me and my siblings to a boarding school campus in his town of Tugbakeh. There, I spent three years between summers with my uncle and my maternal grandma, Iyeeh Juwie. My other powerful memory is of spending lots of time being taught our tradition by my paternal Bai (Grandfather) Duoju Jabbeh. I believe those two from each side of my families were important to my storytelling and my poetry today. I learned a lot about our culture and the Grebo people from my maternal grandma and my paternal grandpa. My Grandfather taught me everything from Grebo war history to stories of World War II, about Hitler, even standing up on his aging feet to demonstrate his hatred of Hitler and his war. Learning to speak the Grebo language and the importance of family and tradition were the most important memories of the years for me.
TLY: You have said about your poetry: “I write in English, but some of them are very traditional, and you can tell that they are written from my Grebo brain.” I took that to mean, while English is the vehicle for your poetry, the essence of your work comes from Grebo.
Patricia: You are right. Yes, even though African literature may be written in the language of the colonizer, even though it may use English words, often, the syntax and the exploration of our experiences are filtered through the lens of our cultural traditions, the African oral tradition. That is why the most important memory I can recall in that first question refers to my grandparents, who were the storehouse of this oral tradition in my two families. I use English, but the way my words are ordered on a page, the mind of the poem, my world view and the things that intrigue me about language are all rooted in that oral tradition of the Africa that is not often seen in the west. I write about my homeland not with the patronizing or the condescending spirit so often used by non-African writers when they explore my people. I write as if I am the storehouse of that tradition, and I see myself as the storehouse of that tradition because that is what oral tradition teaches.
TLY: In Before the Palm Could Bloom: Poems of Africa, you write about the Liberian Civil War that took place in the 1990s. What is it you would like your readers—and particularly those of us who have never experienced war on our own soil—to take away from the collection?
Patricia: This is usually an interesting question that can never be answered with ease. Really, I do not want them to take away anything in particular. When I write, I hope my readers will first experience language, the language of one who is writing in a different mode of communication than their original mother tongue, and Before the Palm Could Bloom: Poems of Africa has many poems written, in an almost Grebo syntax. Despite that, I want them to see poetry for what it is first in my books, to experience the beauty of language, the power of a poem to say so much in fewer words and to enjoy the poems even though my subject matter may be entirely different from theirs. A poem, whether it is of war or of peace, love or hate, must first be a poem. So, if they can see that, that is great. Then, secondary is the message that the images show. I want them to experience war through the eye of a poet. To understand that there was this war that killed and destroyed so many of us in a world that did not pay attention or help or care until the entire country was destroyed. That book has many of my angriest poems, particularly, poems about the rape of women and young children, the use of children as soldiers, the devastation of an entire region while the world ignored us. I want them to see how the violence created by war lovers devastates the lives of ordinary people and sends them into forced exile, turns the world’s best into refugees. If they can read the book without prejudice, I am sure they will see what I am saying.
TLY: You and your family lost everything in the war, and were forced to immigrate to the States to begin a new life. Would you say that the United States is now your home?
Patricia: I have had to answer this question dozens of times over the years, but always, there is no simple answer to it. NO and YES! The U.S. is kind of a home for me, but not my home or rather, not my only home. I see Liberia as my home always, the place where I belong wholly, where my roots are, where I do not need to define myself. Yes, America has become a second homeland for me, a place that I love, its freedom loving people, its ability to hold a democracy in place against all odds, its ability to stand up to discrimination is fascinating and makes me want to forever own this home. Like all other countries, it is not a perfect place, but its ability to hold together the most diverse nation in the world is a great blessing. America is the place that took me in during my years as a refugee and a destitute, therefore, there is no other place outside of Liberia, like America to me. In a way, this is my home and in a way, Liberia is also my home.
TLY: We hear a lot these days about how we are living in a “post racial” world. What are your thoughts on the matter?
Patricia: This is only a white idea. We black people do not believe this myth of the “post racial world or America” or talk about their "post racial America" like white people wish to believe. We live in a racist country every day, deal with racism every day, and no other people than we can say to the world whether or not this is a post racial world. It is a myth that white people would love to believe, particularly, those who do not want to do anything to resist racism. It makes people feel good to pretend that they have achieved an end to racism. Whenever I hear someone say this, I wonder if they are the same people who discriminate against me at work and everywhere I go, folks who pretend that they are not racist, but are the very ones who keep black people away from opportunities by institutionalized policies. I wish we could all say that, but it’s a lie.
TLY: You are a remarkably strong, hopeful spirit. And, I say spirit because you convey such faith in your poems. One poem I have returned to again and again is “When I Get to Heaven.” And yet, in addition to devotion, there is defiance there too of a kind of faith that seeks to efface ethnic traditions and cultures.
Patricia: You’re speaking of “When I Get to Heaven,” in Before the Palm Could Bloom. I convey my faith because I was brought up Christian, but as an adult, I embraced my faith by accepting Christ and living in the faith as truthfully as possible and also because my faith was important in helping my family and me survive the war. And yet, in that poem, I am not really effacing my ethnic tradition, but decrying a Western culture that effaces our traditional ways of seeing God. So, in that poem, I am saying that yes, “When I Get to Heaven,” I’ll do these things which are my culture, and yes, there is a place in Heaven for us Africans to be true to our values and our traditions.
TLY: Speaking of family, I so admire the poem “This is What I Tell My Daughter.” You address a difficult subject: teenage pregnancy. What responses has the poem received?
Patricia: The poem is one of the most popular of my poems, written very long ago before my second book became a book, first published by The Cortland Review, (and you can listen to the audio on their site). In that poem, yes, I address the difficult years of raising teenagers, a kind of therapy for myself and to explore my experience of raising a strong willed young woman. I received very many great responses when I read any of those poems about my children, especially, from college young people. They would explode with clapping even before I began to read one of those first daughter poems about race, pregnancy, cultural clash, etc. The best response I got was from my late father who laughed so loud and hard on the phone after he read the poem. “I knew someone would pay my debt,” he said of my strong willed daughter. “You’re getting exactly what I got from you,” he concluded.
TLY: Your poems are joyous and sobering, and also you bring a sense of humor to the table. Laughter is a kind of medicine, they say. Do you believe it to be true?
Patricia: Well, as you and I know, our voice comes through in our writing. I come from a very hilarious family. My mother’s line of family is a very humorous species. My mother was the most hilarious, bringing folks to their feet by her sense of humorous storytelling, her ability to capture a room by a mere statement. And her children can also be funny. My youngest on her side (she had me as a teenager, a single mother long before she got married and had four others), who was born 18 years later on my birthday and is very funny too. My children are funny as well as I am. But I also have that other side of me, the tough, hard, fierce, independent thinker, the critic and the fire starter, I would say, something I also got from my mother’s side, but mostly from my father. My father was a tough disciplinarian, a political independent thinker, a student activist in his day, and after college, he refused to work for the Liberian government in a day when they needed everyone. In 1958, he began working for USAID, where he remained out of the corruption of our politics in Liberia. So, I am a firm, hard person who has this other side of being funny. I think that helps me. My father was always feared and known as a hardliner by all his people while most do not know how to place me. One moment, I can be very funny, and at another, I can be hated for the stance I take. That is seen in my poems, as you can see.
TLY: Patricia, I can’t thank you enough for the taking the time. I know you are incredibly busy. Before we let you go, please tell us about any new projects you are working on so we can keep up with you and your work.
Patricia: Well, I would say old projects. I’m still seeking an agent for my memoir. I am still trying to recover from this climate in politics to get back to sending out inquiries. I’m editing a huge children’s book, working on a book of short stories and of course, a new book of poems is at 60 pages already. I can’t say which will be published first, but I’m trying to stay focused like everyone else in this strangely sad climate in the world. Thanks for opening my mouth to things I often neglect to think about.
More about Patricia:
The author of several collections of poetry, including Where the Road Turns (2010), The River Is Rising (2007), Crab Orchard Series in Poetry–winner, Becoming Ebony (2003), and Before the Palm Could Bloom: Poems of Africa (1998), her poems have also been featured in former U.S. Poet Laureate Ted Kooser’s syndicated newspaper column, “American Life in Poetry.”
Additional honors include the Victor E. Ward Foundation Crystal Award for Contributions to Liberian Literature, an Irving S. Gilmore Emerging Artist Grant from the Kalamazoo Foundation, an Art Fund Individual Artist Grant from the Arts Council of Greater Kalamazoo, and a World Bank Fellowship.
“Where the Road Turns is a rich and textured collection of poems interested in gender roles, issues of cultural identity, and migration. The book opens with the poem ‘Cheede, My Bride: A Grebo Man Laments—1985,’ a narrative poem from the perspective of a Grebo man who contemplates the role of his wife in society: ‘in Monrovia, women wear pants and a man / may walk around, twisting like a woman’ and ‘they say women fell trees and men walk / upon them like bridges.’”—Renee Emerson, New Pages
“The poems of Patricia Jabbeh Wesley are fearless, eye-opening, breathtaking, and compassionate. She writes of a homeland devastated by war and violence, of a culture's survival beneath the flames of that war, and of the everyday courage of people whose stories would be lost if not for these poems. Wesley writes of her Liberia with urgency and with artistry, in poems that remain in the mind and heart long after the reader has closed Becoming Ebony. These are political poems in the best sense of the word—wise, necessary, undeniable.”—Allison Joseph, author of Imitation of Life and In Every Seam
Patricia Jabbeh Wesley
The Open Wounds of Being: The Poetics of Testimony in the Works of Patricia Jabbeh Wesley by Chielozona Eze, Interdisciplinary Literary Studies,Vol. 16, No. 2 (2014), pp. 282-306
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