[Interview] Octavia McBride-Ahebee

Octavia McBride-Ahebee lives in Philadelphia in the United States.

Her work has  been featured in journals and magazines that include  Damazine: A Literary Journal of the Muslim World; Fingernails Across The Chalkboard: Poetry And Prose on HIV/AIDS From the Black Diaspora; Under Our Skin: Literature of Breast Cancer; Sea Breeze: A Journal of Contemporary Liberian Writing; The Journal of the National Medical Association (Art in Medicine Section) and the Beloit Poetry Journal.

Her poetry collections include Assuming Voices (Lit Pot Press, 2003) and Where My Birthmark Dances (Finishing Line Press, 2011).

In this interview, Octavia McBride-Ahebee talks about her concerns as a writer:

How would you describe your latest book, Where My Birthmark Dances?

My newest collection of poetry, Where My Birthmark Dances was published this past summer - 2011 - by Finishing Line Press. In it I present various human relationships within the context of global inequality. Never are my subjects victims. They seek to be victorious despite great odds.

"Where My Birthmark Dances", the lead poem of this collection, exemplifies the tenor and intention of this project. Told through the voice of a Haitian child, whose mother has left him and Haiti to seek a some fortune in North America as a nanny, this poem invites the children the Haitian nanny is now caring for to consider her, to consider where she has come from, what she has left behind and what physical journey has brought her to them. "Where My Birthmark Dances" is the direct appeal of a small boy, a son, to the children now being cared for by his mother; it is an appeal to them to know who she is and to love her in his absence.
… my mother battled waves
as tall as a thousand ice-cream sundaes piled high
to be there with you
to push back the hair from your face
so your eyes - unobstructed - could dream big

wearing a pink dress, patterned with rainbows
smelling of moth balls, she left me
under the guard of a mosquito net
perfumed with insecticide and the salt of her own tears
in the month of May when the ocean felt young and full of itself

from the harbor named peace she boarded a boat
with the madness of the history of Haiti holding her hand
with its Boogie pushing her to you
with her fear eating the ocean’s confidence …
What is your next project?

I am working on a collection of love stories set in Cote d’Ivoire because I was so in love when I lived there and I was surrounded by so many stories of love.

Who influenced you the most as a writer?

A few days after winning the Nobel Prize for Literature, the French-Algerian writer Albert Camus wrote a letter of gratitude to his former elementary school teacher-Louis Germain. Camus essentially stated that it was Germain’s recognition of his humanity and the nurturing of his intellect that had left an indelible impression on Camus and paved the way for his literary successes.

I taught for nine years as a fourth grade teacher at the International Community School of Abidjan, in Cote d’Ivoire. As a gesture of thanks and in recognition of my influence on her daughter, at the close of a school year, a parent gave me a copy of Camus’ letter to his beloved Germain. To say I was touched would be an understatement. But, I, too, as a writer, know so intimately the profound influence a teacher can have on his or her student.

I share all of this as an oral libation to Rose Martin and as recognition to those first educators in our lives who ignited those passions that would come to guide our existence. Martin, now deceased, was a teacher at the Overbrook Elementary School, in Philadelphia. Each year she organized the Black Poetry Panorama, in which just about every student, from kindergarten to sixth grade, had to learn and recite several poems for this huge and anticipated event.

Imagine a community of about 400 households filled with African-American children learning poems by Langston Hughes, Paul Laurence Dunbar, Nikki Giovanni, Claude McKay, Robert Hayden, James Weldon Jonson, Gwendolyn Brooks and Countee Cullen to name a few.

This was more than 40 years ago and even my mother, who now has Alzheimer’s, can still recall and recite Langston Hughes’ poem "The Negro Mother" because of the time she helped me to memorize this very long poem.

I came of age in a school setting and a neighborhood community that saw magic in words knew the power of a poem to inspire and respected the writer as one who could be part of a vanguard.

At this time I was also very much influenced by my father and his passion for learning about the African continent. As a boy, he had spent many summers with his aunt, who lived in Oxford, Pennsylvania, the home of Lincoln University, where many African students attended, like Nigeria’s first president Nnamdi Azikiwe; Ghana’s first president Kwame Nkrumah and Namibia’s SWAPO Chairman Mose Penaani Tjitendero. There was a clear affirmation in my early life that the world was big and I could be a part a vital player in it.

All of this marked my literary awakening as a young student, but not yet as a writer. It was when I entered junior high school and attended a small, very progressive all-girls Catholic school that my political awakening was sudden and intense. My teachers were nuns, who did not wear habits, had spent years in Central and South American countries working with displaced, landless farmers and using the philosophy of liberation theology as their guide. They were radical women who introduced me to the art of Diego Rivera, Jose Orozco and David Siqueiros as well as the writing of Ernesto Cardenal, Carlos Fuentes and Octavio Paz. These sisters with their wide view of the world fused my literary and political passions to make me want to write.

At age 18, in 1981, I visited China as part of the Williams College’s Winter Study Program and then that summer I went to Lesotho, South Africa, Botswana and Zimbabwe, which had just gained its independence . Later I would visit Kenya.

At this point, in addition to my beloved African-American poets and other writers from the Americas, I came to adore Audre Lorde, June Jordan and I was now taken with writers from Africa and its Diaspora. I read Maryse Conde, Eric Williams, V. S. Naipaul, Bernard Dadie, Nadine Gordimer, Bessie Head, Breyten Breytenbach, Ngugi wa Thiong’o, Wole Soyinka, Chinua Achebe, Mariam Ba, and Ama Ata Aidoo.

When did you start writing?

I always wrote as a teen, but I consciously assumed the identity of a writer after my trip to China, in 1981, right when the Middle Kingdom was just reopening itself to the world. I was 18, African-American, female, traveling with an almost all-white American group and yet I had never consciously explored my perception of myself as an American.

Being the product of all-girl schools from 7-12 grade, I really had, unlike many African-American girls, a strong sense of allegiance to my female self, which would later be heavily reinforced by my reading This Bridge Called My Back (Kitchen Table Press, 1983), Where and When I Enter (Bantam Books, 1985), and the writing of Bell Hooks and Angela Davis.

But one evening in Shanghai, when I had long grown tired of my traveling companions and I wandered the streets on my own, an old man called out to me saying, “Please stop, you, the American.”

I was transfixed and surprised by my own vulnerability that his identification of me as an American created.

I did stop and asked how did he know I was American.

For the most part, the people of color that one saw then in China were a few African students and Africans affiliated with the diplomatic corps. He - Mr. George Lee - said it was the way I moved, the way I carried by backpack, the way I held my head.

He invited me to his home, a very humble apartment that he shared with his wife, son and daughter-in-law. They served me a feast, probably using most of their rations for the month and they, especially the son, told me of their lost years, of what had happened to them during the Cultural Revolution. The son had been a promising violinist and had his musical education interrupted and was forced to abandon his studies, leave the city and work as farmhand.

There was a violin in the apartment and I asked him to play and he was so ashamed, because he thought his skill level was subpar.

Well, I had played the violin throughout my school years and I showed him what subpar was.

He laughed and he played and that was one of the most memorable evenings of my life and it inspired my first short story, "The American and Mr. Lee".

How would describe the writing you are doing now?

I am fascinated by different cultures and what happens when cultures converge as well as why and how people move throughout the world. My two books of poetry are very much influenced by these interests.

My poetry, for the most part, is narrative vignettes that are dense and emotionally difficult, but they are honest. Just a few lines from, "The Welcome", my narrative poem that conveys the fear, the loss and the desperation of a woman fleeing her homeland exemplifies this point.

The Haitian narrator states:
… I fled home with 42 bodies of hope
in a boat built with none
a boat unfamiliar with the magnitude of sustained desire
spooked by the weighty fears
of those riding in it
and the moon's promise of crazed retribution
if it failed to move to the cruel rhythm of the lunar beat.

We held on with our dread and our vomit
and the death grips they gave
when we thought of home
and heads of lovers
- faces full of lashes and hyssop-stained breath -
without bodies
that rolled
with no wind behind them
down hills that hollered even when the sun was hanging …
In "In Defense of Flowers", I juxtapose the beauty of nature with the brutal nature of human beings. A Liberian woman, a victim of a horrific civil war, flees her fellow countryman and finds protection and sustenance from a flowering bush:
... I run to hide in the voluminous fury of a jasmine shrub in
its pale butter blossoms shield me
from the bloodletting
bathing its roots
I snort, in silent gulps, which claim my dignity
the calming splendor of the jasmine’s bouquet
I am rescued
for an instance
from a hunter high
on the dizziness of his own deprivation
I am rescued
from my brother
by a perfumed bush.
I am emphatic about the narrative, especially concerning the African continent, not be a singular one; one of only doom and gloom. There are many narratives to be told.

My time spent in Cote d’Ivoire was rich and exhilarating and truly celebratory. My daughter - Sojourner - was 7 when we left Cote d’Ivoire. Fluent then in English, French and making great strides with her Baoule and a student at a school where more than 70 nationalities were represented, Sojourner came to know the world with many hearts. So when we left Cote d'Ivoire due to its civil strife and landed in Philadelphia, my hometown, Sojourner was decidedly unimpressed.

It was not my city that was as disappointing as it was the general value system held in esteem here, in the States. Kids laughed when they discovered she spoke other languages. They, as well as adults, cringed when she shared what foods of the world she loved. On dress down, when students could shed their uniforms for less formal wear, Sojourner insisted on wearing clothing made of material with intricate designs that told stories of its own. These were talking clothes that she had worn in her previous life to a wedding, a baptism, a funeral, a communion or to a relative’s dissertation defense. Her new compatriots, both young and old, were neither impressed by travel nor to listening to the way others move in the world.

Sojourner never doubted her place in world and never allowed others to shame her into smallness. She came home one day from school, not upset, but incredulous, that some classmates had laughed at the natural state of her hair and part of her response to me was, ”Mom, they don’t even have combs with names …”

Thus this poem was born - one of celebration - "Victory Threads":
Victory Threads
For Sojourner

I heard her friends laugh at her
that laugh which is square
that stops at points
never to wonder
only to breathe in
base expulsions of uncurious air

she had proclaimed
in a combined fit
of wistfulness and swaggering insolence
she had had combs in Abidjan
with names
- Akissi, Ahou, Abla, Ama , Adjoua -
who understood the temperament
of each day’s hair story
who could dress your head
while weaving choruses of victory threads in your brain
preparing you to meet the day
haughty and wholly armored.
What are you main concerns as a writer?

My writing is very much informed by the years I lived in various parts of Africa.

My poetry, for the most part, gives voice to women who historically have not been heard: African women, women in refugee camps, women who are victims of civil war, isolated, rural women who battle such health challenges as obstetric fistula and breast cancer as well as immigrant women trying to find their place in their newly adopted countries.

More increasingly, my poetry addresses the environmental devastation created by corporate entities in the name of development.

What advice would you give to other writers?

I will leave you with the generous and simple advice of poet Mary Oliver:
Instructions for living a life.
Pay attention.
Be astonished.
Tell about it.
Photo Credit: The Apiary Corp

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monique said…
I met you and your daughters 5 years ago at Robin's Bookstore. I was impressed with both of you and look forward to getting your book.

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