Chemist and poet Hussani Abdulrahim weighs in on the 2020 Brunel International African Poetry Prize Shortlist

As you read through this review, please note that the explanations and views given here are absolutely my articulated thoughts and personal perception of this year’s shortlist. This write-up is in no way influenced or linked to the views or intentions of Konya Shamsrumi, the establishers of the Brunel Poetry Prize or the shortlisted poets. For biographies of the shortlisted poets and their poems, please visit the prize website. .

Shortlistee, Inua Ellams, image from London Theatre Direct

Once again, the Brunel International African Poetry
has come up with an exciting shortlist of six poets who offer a
conglomerate of brilliant poems with diverse themes. Two of the poets, Inua
Ellams (Nigeria) and Saradha Soobrayen (Mauritius), have been shortlisted
before. Completing the shortlist of six are:

  • Nour Kamel (Egypt)

  • Amanda Holiday (Sierra Leone)

  • Akosua Afriyie-Hwedie (Zambia/ Ghana/ Botswana) 

  • Rabha Ashry (Egypt).

Inua Ellams (Nigeria)

In a competition as stiff as the Brunel Prize, and in any
other credible one, I want to believe that cohesion is key. And it is this one
thing among many that screams most prominently in Inua’s batch of poems.

First, we see this in his titles (titles matter because
they draw in the reader’s curiosity). What is the significance of the f-word in Inua’s titles? Remove
the slash and you get a hint of what the poet is trying to explain. He’s merely
saying to hell with so many demons. This might sound mundane, but I think it’s
the poet’s intention to make his feelings known that he wants freedom and cares
not about several entities. Reading through, you find out that he talks of
anxiety, frustration and identity as central themes.

In Fuck / History,
the persona reminisces about childhood; about fitting in where belief is met
with doubts; about how language chiefly betrays one. The persona is at war with
a way of being. The following lines speak volumes of the poet’s situation:

...Sometimes I dream in Hausa and have no idea what is
being said / Sometimes Arabic calligraphy looks to me like flowers on fire /...

And we see that circumstances can change one’s perception
as the following lines portray:

...When the Imam's thug aimed an AK at our car / I
still believed / until I stared down the barrel and saw no light at the
tunnel's end..."

Ellams carries this frustration and anxiety into “Fuck / Nigeria”. Here
he speaks about the sad reality of war. How home becomes a place of constant
fear, blood and smoke. How war ravages the innocent and everywhere becomes
messed up. The poem is reminiscence of Rasak
Malik Gbolahan’s ideals so much so that one could be forgiven to even
mistake it as one of Rasaq Malik’s. It’s one of the strongest poems in the

And in Fuck / Boko
, we are served the harsh truth of gullible boys being
recruited to fight for a cause by those who deprived them of their progenitors.
We see how religion is been employed, insincerely carved to lure them. And the
cycle of deception and bloodshed continues.

In Fuck /
, I think the Poet’s persona is bent on making an attempt at
laying to waste what he deems as anomalies. He’s merely seeking a cure.

"I carry them into the water..." 

 Should mean an
attempt at purification, rebirth, or simply change. These are possible angles
to look at the poem.

One other poem I find interesting is Fuck / Boys. Here we see how boys
are molded into men who are told not to feel pain—because men should not show
weakness. Emotions make us weak. In the end, such a man is believed to posses a
heart of stone. What I love about this poem is the blatant manner in which it

It starts early / A man compliments the tight nut of his grandson's fist.../ The any strikes and winces / shake it off / we are men / we feel nothing...

Inua Ellams doesn’t mince words. What puts him in good
stead for the prize is cohesion and a dignified clarity. He is a front runner
for the prize

Akosua Afriyie-Hwedie (Zambia / Ghana / Botswana)

Over the years, we’ve become conversant with how the
Brunel Prize tends to bring to the fore fresh, exciting voices who are lesser
known in the African terrain. Say Elhillo, Adesina, Shire and others. In this vein,
I think they’ve uncovered a gem in Akosua Afriyie-Hwedie.

Akosua is the Theresa Lola of this year’s shortlist.
There is something nuanced about her poems that keeps you going on and on. An
ability to startle, armed with a bag full of wits which makes it harder to
predict how the next line will turn out. She turns language to dough and molds
it into different items of equal variant shapes and sizes.

Identity is central to her Brunel Prize offering. In I’m deciding which language to spend the
night in,
we find a struggle for identity, how when faced with
different ways of being, confusion is what we beget. There’s a hint of what
colonialism does. It leaves us with a language foreign to our ideals. And
there’s a clash between mother tongue and the one enforced by circumstance.

In the poem, Condition,
she plays a fast one on our senses with this:

Brenda Fassie sings another Brenda Fassie... 

First you think it ridiculous but the next line reveals
that the poet knows her art well. The graceful use of enjambment makes her work
startling. But that poem (Condition)
which for me, towers above the rest, speaks of that softness in men been often
dismissed. The act of unbraiding a woman’s hair by a man is often frowned upon,
and I believe it’s this perception that Akosua tries to challenge.

Long distance
is a poem which speaks volumes of Akosua’s brilliance. She tackles what I
call hypocrisy in the diaspora. How finding ourselves in a foreign place
suddenly makes us search and care for our kind, those who perhaps can give us a
taste of home. I give it an interpretation of loss too. Being in a certain
place takes something away or inputs something different in one. Aside these,
the play with words is just something to read and take delight in.

Philosophy comes to light, albeit subtly, in How would your hand treat you if they were
not yours?
In a series of questions, Akosua interrogates our deeds
as humans. If the table is turned or when subject becomes predicate, whether
one would still bear with glee, the consequences.

In general, I prefer to just go through Akosua’s poems
without being on the lookout for perception, because they possess mines of
beauty.  Akosua is definitely a top
contender for the prize.

Rabha Ashry (Egypt)

Sometimes you fall in love with certain poets not because
they are overtly sublime but because their poems click something in you. This
is the case with Rabha Ashry. Her poems possess subtlety that is inexplicable.
They are silent yet loud in beauty. In the shortlist, I feel Rabha Ashry’s
place is akin to that of a brilliant student who prefers to take the back seat
and is quiet, disinterested in what goes on around. But her intelligence is
undoubted. Her poems shimmer. They come alive in a silent way. Anxiety and innocence
run through them. Here, displacement and identity take central stage.

The poem, Wrong,
gives us a biological progression of the persona and the duties assumed to be
attached at each turn. I think there’s a battle to fit into a society which
pressures one with a certain predestined pattern to life. This still is evident
in poems like Pray where
she says:

I don't know a god / just mama's green eyes following me / I pray too fast she says / I stumble...

and Red sea,
with these lines:

... I'm trying to explain why I fixate on beaches meant for winter. 

Red sea
also expresses a longing for home or past memories.

In subtler but anxiety-filled poems like drums, half asleep, on the wall
and red ink, there is
quivering, nostalgia and sickness for things abandoned or lost. Rabha manages
to warm her way into the reader’s heart with lines that read hallucinatory,
like water gushing fast from a hose. At one point, you feel the lines do not
add up. But a child-like tenderness, an aura that runs through like a river
which one can’t miss, survives. I believe there is more to come from Rabha
Ashry in the African poetry scene.

Read Part TWO

Hussani Abdulrahim
is a graduate of Pure Chemistry from Usmanu DanFodio University,
Sokoto, Nigeria. He has received several recognitions for his writings,
including, 2019 Poetically Written Prose Contest (winner),
Boston Review’s Aura Estrada 2019 Short Story Contest (finalist), 2019
Awele Creative Trust Short Story Contest (shortlist), WRR Green
Author Prize 2016 (joint-winner), 2018 Africa Book Club short story
contest (finalist), Nigerian Students Poetry Prize 2019 (shortlisted),
Ken Egas Poetry Prize 2018 (shortlisted), Eriata Oribhabor Poetry Prize
2019 (shortlisted) , Wordiators Championship 2018 first runner-up, 2018
ANA Kano/Peace Panel Poetry Prize (winner)… His works are forthcoming
or have appeared at Boston Review, the art-musefair, praxismagonline,
BPPC anthologies and several others. He resides in Kaduna and is
currently working on a poetry chapbook and a collection of short
stories. He believes that words have the power to heal the world of its
numerous ills.

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