Sunday, 19 February 2017

'India is on the rise and has much to offer to the world' : Conversation with Tijan M. Sallah

'India is on the rise and has much to offer to the world'

Conversation with Tijan M. Sallah
Nibir K. Ghosh
Tijan M. Sallah is a Gambian poet, short story writer, biographer and essayist. He is the most significant living Gambian poet and described by critics as one of Africa's most important writers following the generation of Chinua Achebe and Wole Soyinka.  His works have been broadcast over the BBC and the National Public Radio in the U.S. An economist by training, he has taught economics at several American universities before joining the World Bank, where he manages the agriculture, irrigation and rural development program for East African countries. A book of critical essays of his writings will appear in the fall, Tijan M. Sallah and the Development of Gambian Literature, edited by Professor Wumi Raji of Obafemi Awolowo University in Nigeria. He has published to date 9 books, of which two books (poetry and short story collection) were published with Writers Workshop of Calcutta, India, when Professor P. Lal, the editor and publisher, was alive. Some aspects of that encounter with Professor P. Lal are captured in this interview. His most recent books are, Dream Kingdom (a book of selected poems) and Chinua Achebe: Teacher of Light (a biography), both published by Africa World Press of Trenton, New Jersey. In this intimate conversation, Sallah dwells on many facets of his own writings and shares his adulation for the African literary icon, Chinua Achebe.
Ghosh: From the vantage point of your current celebrity status as a poet and author, who would you think of in the role of your mentors? Was Professor Sulayman S. Nyang, whom you adore in your poem, “There was a man from the Gambia,” a source of inspiration?
Sallah: I have several mentors Professor Sulayman S. Nyang, former Director of African Studies at Howard University, a compatriot, certainly stands out as one. He was one of the first Gambians to obtain a doctorate—and he received it in political science in the early seventies at the University of Virginia, before going into teaching. He published several articles on Gambian, African politics and Islam in Africa. As a student, I looked up on to him and he would often write, encourage, and share his publications. Of course, I had started writing since I was at St. Augustine’s High School, run by Irish Holy Ghost fathers, in the Gambia. There, my early mentor was Reverend Joseph Gough, an Irish priest, who inducted me into creative writing and published my first poem, “The African Redeemer”—a tribute to the then pan-African leader, Ghana’s first president, Osagyefo Kwame Nkrumah, in the high school paper, Sunu Kibaro. I also benefited greatly from the Gambia’s first internationally famous novelist and poet, Dr. Lenrie Peters, a Cambridge trained surgeon, who would read my early poetic scribblings at the margins of his medical practice at the Westfield Clinic in Kanifing, Sere Kunda, the Gambia. Later, when I came to the U.S., I studied under the American poet, H.L. Van Brunt, and published my first poem in the U.S., “Wormeaters,” in 1978 in the Atlanta Gazette. Subsequently, I got influenced and encouraged by several teachers and Appalachian writers at Berea College Lee Pennington, Jim Wayne Miller, Gurnie Norman, and Bill Best.  It’s hard to point to one single influence and mentor. Our people, the Wolof of Senegambia say, the benteki tree grew to its size because of deep roots in water and nutrients from several soil nooks and corners.
Ghosh: You have published articles and books extensively on political economy and agricultural development. You have often said that “economics speaks to the head, and literature (poetry) speaks to the heart.” When did you first realize you could harmoniously blend the ‘head’ and the ‘heart’?
Sallah: It happened unconsciously. I was at Berea College in Kentucky, when I tried a few courses in economics and enjoyed the mathematical precision of the discipline. I had an American teacher, Bill Stolte, who had just come back from Sabbatical from Cambridge University in England and was excited about Keynesian economics and taught it with interesting enthusiasm. I got hooked and did well in it. Despite this, I still had my heart in writing. Luckily, there were several campus publications at Berea—ranging from the literary (Linear B, published by the English Department, for which I later served in the editorial Board) to Cosmorama (the International Student magazine) to Onyx (the magazine for African Americans). I contributed to all publications and got recognized as a campus literary figure. In fact, it was at Berea I met Professor P. Lal of Calcutta, who was then a visiting professor in the Religion and Philosophy Department.
Ghosh: Two of your books When Africa Was a Young Woman and Before the New Earth    were published in the 1980s in India by the late Professor P. Lal under the Writers Workshop Series in Calcutta. Since they were not the days of the internet with easy access to information, how did you come to know of Professor Lal’s enterprise?
Sallah: As I mentioned, I met Professor Lal quite fortuitously at a student poetry reading at Berea College. He heard me read my work, some of which had appeared in several American, British and African periodicals, and he was impressed. He told me to send him a manuscript of my poems after he returns to India for his consideration. And the rest is history. He subsequently accepted and published the work as When Africa Was a Young Woman, and it was reviewed in Amrita Bazaar Patrika, Calcutta’s oldest daily.
Ghosh: What visible transition/transformation do you visualize in your literary journey from When Africa Was a Young Woman to your latest work?
Sallah: When I look at my first published book When Africa Was a Young Woman in 1980 it was influenced by the Negritude movement in African poetry, a set of cultural nationalist and Pan Africanist pronouncements. Sometimes, I wished I never published some of the poems—they appear simple and na├»ve. The book, however, received favorable reception and was reviewed even over the BBC by the late Florence Akst in their programme, Africa Book of the Day in 1980.  Although my work has evolved a lot from political pronouncements to more individual expressions of experience and culture, and is considered now more mature, I still have to respect my beginnings. Our people, the Wolof, say a person who belittles his birthright diminishes his dignity. So I have to look back with nostalgic adulation at my cradle.
Ghosh: In order to learn the craft of writing, you suggest that a writer needs to read and study good writing. Who are the writers you cared to read in this respect?
Sallah: I loved Chinua Achebe for his attempt to domesticate English to serve his Igbo cultural sensibilities in novels like Things Fall Apart. I also like Soyinka for his prolific play with mythopoeic ambiguities in his poetry and drama, especially his complex use of images, symbols, and language to convey the interplay between Yoruba deities and the contemporary problems of modernity. I love Tagore’s works for its simplicity and for capturing Bengali and Indian sensibility in Gitanjali and in his Last Poems that Professor Lal translated. Above all, I am a fan of T.S. Eliot’s, The Waste Land, for its evocative and elegant use of images and universal foray into several twentieth century cultural milieus. “I have measured out my life with coffee spoons”—how apt Eliot describes twentieth century escapism “Humankind cannot bear too much reality.”
Ghosh: 62 poets from 23 African countries contributed to the widely acclaimed poetry anthology The New African Poetry you have edited in collaboration with Tanure Ojaide. Do you see any connecting thread in this collection in terms of themes and concerns? What elements specifically characterize the term “New”?
Sallah: Yes, we distinguish between four strands of African poetry, mostly written in foreign (European) languages:  the pre-colonial, the colonial, colonial cum independence; the independence. The pre-colonial were the traditional epics (of Sunjatta, of Shaka, etc.) and they are largely oral narratives (oratures) and some are now being recorded.  The second, the poets who wrote during the colonial period (Dennis Osadebay, Michael Dei-Annang, etc.), were mostly “apprentice” poets with pale imitations of European archetypes, not really adept at the craft, but evoking themes of heroism and valor, and inspired by Biblical and Greco-Roman lore; the third generation of poets were masters of the craft (e.g. Leopold Sedar Senghor, Wole Soyinka, Dennis Brutus, Lenrie Peters, Christopher Okigbo) and they were inspired by Eliot, Gerald Manley Hopkins etc. and used impressive imagery to convey a uniquely personal voice, some of it quite critical of colonialism; the fourth generation, whom we referred to as new in our anthology, wrote after political independence of African countries and wrote poetry that was personal (not influenced by European models) and drew from personal experiences and African traditions. It also was directed at self-responsibility and self-criticism of African leaders for corruption and misgovernance and for misleading the continent and causing much suffering to the hardworking poor.
Ghosh: From the diasporic angle, what is your take on the idea of “imaginary homelands”?
Sallah: Well, the twentieth and twenty-first century would be the era of “imaginary homelands.” Many of us live in societies overseas different from where we have our cultural roots. Globalization and the internet have created a flat world where we can communicate and keep in touch instantaneously with our loved ones in our “imaginary homelands.”  Our roots will continue to endure and be relevant to us so long as we remain in touch. The diaspora will continue to be a source of support through re-investments and through lobbying in the northern citadels of power for societies where we have our roots. For us in voluntary or involuntary exile, the uprooted, we will face challenges in our receiving societies where we will have to adapt, but also in culturally giving what is valuable from our roots to our uprooted posterity.
Ghosh: As a major African poet, how do you see African poetry in relation to the poetry penned by African Americans?
Sallah: African poetry in the sixties had similarity with the Afro-American poetry because it was influenced by protest for Africa, against colonialism, and for African America, against racism and white domination. African poetry, however, is deeper and has stronger cultural roots in a long tradition. Many African poets are now tapping into those rich cultural roots. It is no longer about dealing with reacting to Europe, which was the disturbance colonialism introduced, but about finding the beauty in our midst. Africans, like Asians and Europeans, have rich traditional cultures and their modern poets are tapping into those sources to reveal the subtleties of their aesthetics.
Ghosh: Does the idea of quest for “roots” stand in some kind of ambivalence with regard to the predominantly contemporary talk of globalization?
Sallah: Yes, the quest for roots gives people identity and meaning in a world where globalization wants to standardize everybody and turn every one into a hamburger eater and coca cola drinker. Someone described it as the “coca cola-ization” of the world maybe coca colonization. Globalization is valuable, don’t get me wrong; it brings the world closer, allows goods and ideas to flow. But its harmful effects on native cultures must be watched. I still love the kente cloth, and the Bambara bogola cloth, and the Indian saris; we all don’t need to wear suits and ties.
Ghosh: What challenges have you encountered in talking simulta-neously of your homeland and the land that you currently inhabit?
Sallah: Well, Americans are great welcoming people, but so long as you subscribe fully to American values. I guess it is the way to maintain unity in diversity. But once you have children, you begin to notice the challenges. It is difficult to get them adopt the good values of our ancient homelands. They think the ways of our imaginary homelands are backward. It will continue to be a work in progress with them to let recognize the value of roots.
Ghosh: You have co-authored, with Ngozi Okonjo Iweala, Chinua Achebe, Teacher of Light: A Biography. What inspired you to undertake the privilege of documenting the life and work of the legend who has recently departed for his heavenly abode?
Sallah: My co-author, Ngozi, had approached me that she was going through American bookstores but could not find any books on African heroes for her children. From this felt need came her suggestion: “Why don’t we do a book on African heroes?” We thought of doing a book with single chapters on great African heroes:  Kwame Nkrumah, Julius Nyerere, Leopold Sedar Senghor, Chinua Achebe, Ali Mazrui, Wole Soyinka, Nelson Mandela, Steven Biko, Samora Machel, Sekou Toure, Samory Toure, El Haj Umar Tall, Shaka Zulu, Dedan Kimathi etc. We started a chapter on Nkrumah but later discovered that a chapter on these great heroes would not do justice to their lives and will shortchange our readers. So we both agreed on concentrating on Chinua Achebe. I have been a long time admirer of Chinua Achebe. I studied his first novel, Things Fall Apart, at St. Augustine’s High School in the Gambia. This was in the early seventies when the school literature curricula was shifting from British colonial classics to African literature, for which Achebe was the harbinger. I had by then collected a lot of material on him, and recognized his pioneer role in the development of African literature, through his co-founding of the African Writers Series under the Heinemann Educational Books of England publishing imprint.
Ghosh: In the words of Ben Okri, Chinua Achebe was “one of the most important writers to deal with the issue of the historical clash of civilizations, and the sometimes disastrous and sometimes benevolent consequences.” Do you agree with Okri’s estimate of Achebe? If yes, what would you categorize as “disastrous” and “benevolent”?
Sallah: Yes, I agree with Ben. Achebe was concerned about dialogue at the boundaries of civilizations. I don’t like the metaphor of the “clash of civilizations” as developed by Samuel Huntington. I think it is a pessimistic metaphor about human civilizations, that they inevitably go on a collision course when they meet. Instead, I prefer a “dialogue of civilizations.” Achebe was concerned about Europe’s long, domineer-ing monologue with Africa: a civilization talking and talking and talking down to Africans as if they were children, denying them of the worth of their own indigenous cultures because it was not captured in the permanence of the Western alphabet, it was not written. Achebe sought to change that by having Africans speak back, Africans write back:  The Empire Writes Back. He did so by choosing the Empire’s most dominant language, English, and bent English in ingenuous ways to accommodate his own Igbo or African sensibilities. It was a magnificent achievement. On the “disastrous” nature of the encounter, yes, it was both psychological and physical the inculcation of  colonial inferiority complexes, the valuing of everything European as beautiful and everything local as ugly; the wholesale obliteration of native cultures; the siphoning of  huge stocks of human resources (through slavery) and natural resources to serve Europe’s industry and consumer culture all these left an ugly scar on the African psychic and physical landscape. On the “benevolent” nature of the encounter,  Africans adopted European languages which enable them to speak with themselves and with the rest of the world, including Europeans.  Europe brought Western schools and modern science although there has been a long history of traditional science and technologies in Africa, which was reflected in various artisanal productions and herbal healing.
Ghosh: In underlining the inspiration to write Things Fall Apart, Achebe has referred to the proverb “that until the lions have their own historians, the history of the hunt will always glorify the hunter.” In what manner does the biography deal with the making of Achebe as a historian of “the lions”?
Sallah: Our biography on Achebe develops his early life in Ogidi to his education at Government College Umuahia to his college education at the University of Ibadan and showed how his urge to write came from his discovery of the absence of the African narrative and point of view in the colonial stories he read. He knew Europeans could not tell the story of Africans. Africans had to do it themselves. He became the first pioneer to tell the African story, the story of the “lions” so to speak in one of the most amazing novels of the twentieth century, Things Fall Apart.
Ghosh: Biographies are but the clothes and buttons of the man. The biography of the man himself cannot be written.” What is your take on this statement by Mark Twain? How much of the work is fact and how much of it fiction?
Sallah: Mark Twain, in his usual skeptical and comical view of life, is quite correct that every person is bigger than the story told about their lives. At best, a biography is only a sketch, a piecing together of facts and stories about a person’s life. It can never be the true story of the person. I found that one of the most difficult part to do in a biography is the early life of the subject. Since people are generally not famous or important when they are born, people don’t take much notice about their early lives. So the early record is scant or at best sketchy. Of course, later, when a subject becomes famous, it is another story a lot then is written about them. But their early lives are often a mystery.   So a biographer trying to reconstruct a subject’s early life is an imperfect detective enterprise, and the piecing together of pieces of disparate information and developing the sequence is at best speculative.
Ghosh: The African American movement in America has its first significant stirrings in the Harlem Renaissance of the 1920s. Can you recall any similar event that may have laid the grounds for an African literary renaissance?
Sallah: Yes, we had the Negritude Movement which reached full zenith in the 1960s, founded by the francophone African writers, Leopold Sedar Senghor—the accomplished poet and first President of Senegal, Aime Cesaire of Martinique, and Leon Gotran Damas of French Guyana. Negritude was a cultural nationalist movement which wrote beautiful but pompous poetry to resist the French colonial policy of assimilation. It was very much influenced by the French symbolist movement and the imagist movement in Western poetry. It however drew on African images and symbols to assert a rich cultural dialogue with Europe. It championed a dialogue between Africa and Europe at the banquet of world civilizations, as Leopold Senghor imaginatively put it.
Ghosh: While working on the biography you may have had several opportunities to meet and talk to Chinua Achebe. What strands of his personality did strike you as unique or extraordinary?
Sallah: Achebe struck me as a grand African sage, a village wise man who drew on proverbs, aphorisms, folktales and anecdotes to illustrate and share an African point of view. He was a master story teller, who gestures with his hands when responding, and speaks slowly but picks his words carefully. He did not seem like someone who was in a haste.  The fast internet world of instant messages and communications had little meaning to him. He did a lot of his writing in long hand. There was an enduring human quality about him.
Ghosh: It is believed Joyce Cary’s Mister Johnson and Joseph Conrad’s The Sound and the Fury spurred an agitated Achebe to paint the landscape of Africa from an insider’s point of view. How do you see this in the light of Frantz Fanon’s concerns in Black Skin, White Masks in the portrayal of the subaltern as culturally inferior and subhuman?
Sallah: Yes, Cary’s book and Conrad’s novel, I believe, offended him so much that he had to craft a counter-narrative, drawing on his own indigenous sensibilities. He thought Cary and Conrad were quite ignorant about Africa, despite their having written books about Africa.  For Achebe, the colonial story teller was an observer and not a participant in the African cultural scene. Therefore, their perspectives were limited and could not substitute for the Africans. He believed more Africans needed to tell their stories.
Ghosh: In your own opinion, to what extent did Achebe succeed in portraying the contradictory pulls of traditional African culture and invasive Western values?
Sallah: He did so by developing the generational divide between his characters, between for example, Obi Okonkwo, the hero of Things Fall Apart, who was hardworking and masculine and stuck to traditional religion and ways to the extent of defending it by committing suicide, and his son, Nwoye, who was effeminate and adopted Western Christian values. He developed this generational divide in his subse-quent novels.
Ghosh: Do you agree that Achebe’s novels are stronger on ideology than on narrative interest?
Sallah: I don’t agree.  Achebe’s novels are strong on both.
Ghosh: Did Achebe ever contemplate writing a novel depicting what Gunnar Myrdal called the “American Dilemma”?
Sallah: I don’t believe. Achebe admired America but had little interest in telling the American story. He believed Americans had enough story tellers to tell their own story.
Ghosh: Since you have had an Indian connection, what message would you like to give to young upcoming writers in India?
Sallah: India is on the rise and has much to offer to the world. Young upcoming Indian writers must capture the rich experiences of the current moment of India's interphase with globalization to tell the story of the poor, the disenfranchised, the marginalized, the socially excluded because of, for example, caste, to those fortunate Indians and the world at large. I truly believe that literature has a social mission and that its highest purpose is to capture the struggles of the current moment to uplift humanity to its highest ideals through imaginative narratives. Young Indian writers must draw cultural resources from the myriad glories of the past (the architectural and theosophic achievements of the Harrapan and Mughal civilizations, the complex array of vedic and other spiritual literatures; the wonderful simplicity of Tagore's Bengali narratives, culminating in the mystical Gitanjali; but they must not forget contemporary India and its high tech achievements in information technology in Bangalore and cinematic achievements in Bollywood. They must not forget the widening gap between the rich and poor; they must sing how the lives of peasants herding cows, sheep and goats in Bihar must be valued and uplifted on the same scale as the elites living in the mansions of Delhi.
The task of the young Indian writer must be that of a chameleon revolutionary, to change colors with the environment in order to see and tell the stories of the true lives of Indians
all for the betterment of India and the world.
Ghosh: Thank you so much for this lively and insightful conversation. It was wonderful talking to you.
·         Nibir K. Ghosh, Chief Editor Re-Markings, is UGC Emeritus Professor, Department of English Studies & Research, Agra College, Agra. He was Senior Fulbright Fellow at the University of Washington, Seattle, U.S.A. during 2003-04.

Published as 'finding beauty in our midst’: Conversation with Tijan M. Sallah in Re-Markings Vol. 12 No.2, September 2013 issue of Re-Markings ISSN 0972-611X ( 
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Thursday, 16 February 2017

The Inimitable Jayanta Mahapatra



Jayanta Mahapatra

Re-Markings Vol. 5 No.2 September 2006


Tart green pods
hang from the tamarind tree.
The wonder of sweetness
builds through the leaves.
Long shadows spring out
of nowhere as I watch.
The storm has come and passed,
visible still on the horizon.
Today I feel I am surrounded
by a wall of dead fruit;
they are unconcerned
of how I have lived my life.
They seem to insist
I am a traveller lost in the dark
and that the strange ceremony
which once began in darkness
is like the lonely mountain wind
over the grasses.
When I walk up the slope,
a slow thirst for happiness
seeks the worn doorsill
where my dead mother had sat,
as she sternly forbade us
to pluck the fruit
childhood’s sunrise had shaped
so temptingly for our eyes.

Poem of the Sleepless Nights


The crucifix on the wall holds
a body of humiliating husks.
Rain runs down the callused windows of our sleep.
There is this tale of the unhappy woman
With her body willing to be burnt to death
and the child born blind
with the enormous eyes of sunlight
guarding the secrets of the sky.

All I’ve wanted to do was to spy on God
all my life, to feel empty and light,
but our pains met merely on long sleepless nights.


A Disturbed Sky


The lewd calls of a caged parrot at dawn.
I can never know what its voice is searching for.
The sunlight crawls down the householder’s spine
while the immensities of space are numb with silence.

The voices that are heard in the garden
hold plausible lies. The rice is more golden than ever,
the jasmines are whiter, and the goodbyes of mothers to their young who die without reason are louder.

I’ve searched everywhere and found nothing there.
Not even the place where I heard those voices.
There’s only something like a sky with sunken cheeks sitting on the arm of the chair staring at me.

Mother lay in her last illness a walking distance away,
her feeble voice walking against the wind.
Today my sky is the last thing I’ll ever know:
this sky of voices suffering the retribution
of an unseen purpose’s vengeance
that knows nothing can move it
like the sun, here or ever.

The Years
Like leaves returning to the tree,
the past years sprout green;
so much love spent at times,
and a poet loses sight of love
because he loads his life with words.
Again and again the pigeons fly back,
Planning their small strategies,
Choosing slender weeds from the ground.

Awake and sleeping,
I feel their exhaustion.
I thought I saw my words
wanting to leave my memory,
and knew my poem had no meaning.

But the years continue to exist
in their glass tower with the veiled view,
with the kiss not taken,
and the word afraid of being no more.

And these years lie in the future,
and we do not know it.
Words are as far away as their pain.
In the thick cashew groves
Policemen pick up the last clues
of a young woman’s murder; they know
this is not the real end of the story.
Padma Shri Jayanta Mahapatra, Physicist and Poet, holds the distinction of being the first Indian poet in English to have received the Sahitya Akademi Award (1981) for Relationship. His other volumes include Close the Sky, Ten by Ten, Svayamvara & Other Poems, A Father's Hours, Temple, A Rain of Rites, Waiting, The False Start, Life Signs, Dispossessed Nests, A Whiteness of Bone, Burden of Waves and Fruit and Bare Face. He writes in English and Oriya. He adorns Re-Markings as a distinguished member of its Advisory Board.