The painful, joyful heart

September 05, 2005

As a young girl in Liberia, Patricia Jabbeh Wesley happened upon a book about the French Revolution on her father's bookshelf. "I was turning the pages, getting lost in the story and that's when I really fell in love with the printed word," she remembers, eyes glistening. "It was so real to me, especially that beautiful woman, Marie Antoinette. When I got to the page where they executed her, I was devastated!"

By her own account, Jabbeh Wesley's life—on and off the page—has been a story filled with strong women navigating landscapes of love, war, and loss. A passionate relationship to literature has anchored her to tradition and memories, and has provided imaginative escape during her most trying times in a refugee camp during the brutal Liberian civil war that lasted from 1989-1996.

"My latest poetry manuscript has finally arrived where I've been moving," explains the newest addition to Penn State Altoona's English department faculty, in her confident, lilting voice. "This book, called For the Rivers Rising, will tell the story of women, especially mothers, grandmothers, and daughters, and the connections between our different lives."

I sat down recently with Jabbeh Wesley in her new office at Penn State Altoona. Our lively discussion covered T.S. Eliot, the spirit of ancestors, and "craw-craw" swamp crabs. As Jabbeh Wesley put it, "Now this is a conversation!" Won't you listen in?

photo of woman posing with sculpture
Barry Reeger/UP Magazine

Patricia Jabbeh Wesley

Q: Your poems contain images from traditional Liberian village life as well as from the capital city of Monrovia. Where did you spend your childhood?

A: I grew up in both places. You see, I come from many traditions, the village culture of my ancestors and the city culture of Monrovia, where my father lived a very good life. I associate the village culture with my grandmother and, in my poems, I often mention "Aye-yah" which means grandmother. She is like a spirit through all my books.

Monrovia was a melting pot city. English is the national language but you could have neighbors who spoke four or five different languages, and
had four or five belief systems and dress patterns. Though I was growing up in this diverse culture, I didn't know our language, Grebo. We kids spoke English at home, at school and in the neighborhood.

So when I was eleven, my father sent me to a boarding school in his home village, Tugbakeh, where I was a stone's throw from my uncles' homes and the dances, rituals and festivities of the village. It took me a few months to learn Grebo, with kids teasing and fighting me, calling me "Monrovia snob" and all kinds of things, until I learned to speak like them and act like them and fight like them. I became close with my grandparents during this time and learned our traditional songs and dances. Most of the culture that runs through my books comes from that experience.

Q: When did you start writing poetry?

A: Well, when I was fourteen I went back to the city. That's when I fell in love with books. My father graduated from college in 1958 and he had his old textbooks in the house, including a big
book called English Literature and another book on European history. I used to read them, and also poems by Shakespeare, Donne, Browning and the Psalms from the Bible. These were my first connections to poetry, besides the poetry of the African oral tradition.

One day I copied every poem I loved into a little manuscript I made and wrote "Poems by Patricia Jabbeh" on the cover. Were they my poems? No! I plagiarized, I stole their words. At that time I didn't know I could write my own poems. I thought I wasn't good enough. My father always knew that I loved reading and writing, but he'd never seen anything I'd written. So, after dinner I told him "Pa, I just published a book." He said, "Where is it?" and I said, "This is it" and handed him the manuscript, which was neatly stapled, with a hard cover, just like a little book.

He read several poems and then he said, "Patricia, these are not your poems." He said, "Okay, come here, come
here. Sit right there and write a poem for me." I said, "What should I write about?" and he said, "Anything."
So I sat there and I wrote the poem and he read it and asked me, "You wrote this or you memorized and wrote this?"
I said, "This is mine." He said "Write me another poem" so I did. Then he said, "You are a writer. You can write. You're better than those guys and from now on you're going to be writing."

Q: What a beautiful story, Patricia. You're fortunate to have had someone believe in you.

A: Yes, I think so.

Q: I'm very struck by a voice in your books that can be, by turns, mournful and joyful

A: That's the reality of life. Life is both sad and happy. People say, "At times her poetry is so sad and at times her poetry is so funny." Well, you can be in the middle of bombing and something really funny happens! Even though people are dying around you, something really funny happens and you have to stop and laugh a bit, you know.

I remember a time during the war when we were so starved—there had been so little food for months. One day, at that time, people brought some strange looking crabs from the swamp in buckets to sell. They were terrible "craw craw" crabs, not food. Before the war we used to poison them to keep them away from our houses. My mom looked at me and she said, "Let me tell you one thing. You are my daughter but if you cook these crabs I will murder you!

So I didn't buy them. But we hadn't had protein for months. So they came back the next week and I told her "I'm
going to buy them and I'm going to cook them and if we don't die from eating them, you can kill me." So you see,
there are funny things that happen. Life is painful but in the pain, you can still find ways to laugh.

Q: As a poet who has lived through and written about war, do you feel poets have a social responsibility?

A: I hate to say that artists are supposed to talk about social and political issues because that reduces literature to nothing, propaganda. What I try to do in my poetry is to show that the artist does not exist in isolation from his surroundings. I love a lot of American authors but one of the things that I don't like
is when people shut their eyes and close themselves. They're so far removed from the reality around them. Literature explores the experiences of a group of people. It doesn't exist in isolation of the experiences of a specific group of people.

Q: Does Liberia have literary figures you grew up admiring?

A: I want to answer your question, but first I have to explain the background. Liberia is a very small country. Without the war, we wouldn't have been noticed. The country was settled by freed slaves from America who didn't embrace the African culture. They actually did some enslaving of indigenous people—who were my
ancestors—similar to what they had suffered in the American South. So, in terms of literature, up until the mid 20th century, you mostly see an American settler kind of literature, with American images, written in isolation of the environment and culture of Africa. Everything written was glorifying how they came from the South. While African writers in other countries were writing about their anger at colonialism, using African images to portray their experiences, our people—who were the so-called elite, educated ones—frowned on anything African for a long time.

In the sixties and seventies, some Liberian writers started changing that, but Liberia has never produced a significant author. One of the predictions, when I was in college, was that I would be that author who gains recognition for Liberia. I hate to say it because it sounds snobbish. But since I published my books, I am treated carefully, like an egg, by all
those people who influenced me and nurtured me. They want me to succeed.

Q: Does that feel like pressure?

A: No, no, no! I get calls from other Liberian writers around the world, including those I read in school. Some are my former mentors who call and say, "We're proud of you!" and I say "But I am proud of you! I read your work when I was growing up." To me, they were famous but their books were self-published. They couldn't get published in African Writers' series, because authors from Nigeria, Kenya and Ghana set a very high standard.
If you go to the African Authors Database, I am listed there. Some of the people who mentored me are not in that database, because your work has to get reviews by scholars before you get that recognition. So the only pressure on me, perhaps, is that Liberians want me to help give Liberia a face in the literary world of Africa.

Q: You live in two contemporary literary worlds, the African and the American. What comparison can you make between them?

A: African poetry is very different from Western poetry. Africans have had a rough world—we've gone through slavery, colonialism, neo-colonialism and now we're going through the disillusionment of our own people letting us down, so you feel bitter and angry and sad. So African authors are different—they don't waste words, and their images are sharper and more alive. Some people in America call their images very dark and depressing, but I think that people who have not suffered hardships or seen life beyond the superficial level cannot go into the depths of poetry and enjoy images that are there for the painful heart.

Q: Is there any bias against women writers in Africa?

A: When my first book was published, some African scholars called me and wanted to know "What are you trying to do? Don't you know that African women write novels, not poetry?" Just like Western history, they thought women were not smart enough to write poetry. The major poets in African literature have been men. I said "I simply wrote a book" and I'm going to continue to write books! The funny part is I used to write fiction and only started writing more poetry because of the war. Poetry is more intense and more portable. One time they were bombing and I was writing a poem on my bunk bed and one of the other refugees looked at me and said "You've got to be a crazy woman" because everything was shaking and people were dying. But I needed to capture what was in my
mind and it was also my escape.

Q: What prompts you to write these days?

A: Poetry is about very deeply felt emotions. Poetry does not give birth when people are having a great time. When you win the lottery, you do not say, "Man, I'm going to my bedroom to write a poem." No! You call your friends and you start having a party! There's no place in your head for writing poetry. But when you lose your mother and you are so emotional that words cannot express the pain, that's when poetry becomes easy.

Q: Within modern and contemporary American poetry, whose work speaks to you?

A: Some of the poets I read as a kid were the World War I and World War II poets. I like T.S. Eliot but I do not see him as abstract and impersonal as he proclaimed he was. Even though he preached that poetry should be impersonal, I really don't buy that theory! "The Wasteland" is filled with destruction and mourning, and it's not dead of emotions. I also like Wallace Stevens, especially his poem "The Idea of Order at Key West." I love e.e. cummings. The modern poets were significant because they began to talk about key things that were troubling the world. Contemporary Western poetry springs from that violence.

Q: Do you think about your future readers and your legacy?

A: I think about what I'm going to leave behind. I feel that I owe something to the world. And I owe something to the country that nurtured me and saw itself murdered and destroyed by greedy people. My legacy is also my students. I try to teach them not to close off to experiences and feelings. You have to stay open and vulnerable. I tell my them, "Go to the inner city and write a poem, but don't write a poem about the inner city, don't write about the poor people, don't write about people on welfare, don't write about homeless people. Write about you in relation to the homeless people. Go and be there, exist in their world and then write a poem about you."

Patricia Jabbeh Wesley, Ph.D., is assistant professor of English at Penn State Altoona, pjw14@psu.edu. Her books of poetry include Before the Palm Could Bloom: Poems of Africa (1998) and Becoming Ebony (2003).

SIDEBAR

"The Women in My Family"

Last Updated September 05, 2005