Interesting things happen when Ghanaian fathers find themselves together in one room. It is common knowledge how extremely unfashionable it is to brag about yourself to others. Bragging about your children, however, is a completely different matter.
I met Akosua Atuah between July and August of 2016; our fathers had met a couple of weeks prior and it just so happened that one had a daughter who, come December, would release a spoken word EP (me) and the other had a daughter who, come December, would release a poetry anthology (Akosua). And clearly, these men thought, for the sake of networking, two emerging college-age poetesses, by force or fire, had to meet. I won’t lie, the enthusiasm with which my father kept sending me screenshots of Akosua’s Tumblr, consistently asking me if I’d called her yet, since he first gave me her number, kind of scared me. Eventually I did text her though, and we had brunch together, and then sat in East Legon traffic while jamming to Kanye West before she dropped me home.
The thing that most surprised me after I met Akosua Atuah, and followed/liked her on every social media platform I could find her on, was how I’d never heard of her before. Not only because she was in what most people would call “my circles,” but because everything I read of hers showed that she was an absolutely fantastic writer. It was more than obvious that she paid careful attention to her words and her craft, and was clearly particular about her aesthetic. Looking at her Tumblr was a humbling experience; the layout and photography on her Instagram was incredibly impressive. She was a poet who paid attention to her poetry in its entirety, not just the lyrics. I had a lot to learn from her. While in the car with her that one time, she told me she needed a new writing journal, and whereas most people might have found her exclusive pickiness about what kind of journal she wanted, it was only more confirmation for me for what I’d already seen of her personality: she could not be pleased with “just anything” (when it comes to journals, notebooks and pens, I’m the same way). I showed her where I got my favorite ones and we passed through – Acrilex, by the way – before she took me home. I say these things about her personality first because it made her book make so much more sense to me.
To begin with Outburst: The Things We Don’t Say, the anthology she eventually released in December, speaking entirely superficially, the book is beautiful. In fact, it is gorgeous. Everyone to whom I have shown it can barely help but comment on this fact first. The whole thing reeks of deliberate design, and anybody who picks it up can appreciate this before even reading a single poem. I daresay this book has the most stunning presentation I have ever seen of any book by a Ghanaian – and it has one of the most stunning presentations I have ever seen, period. (And yes, I do take into account that I have a bias towards both minimalism and black-and-white.) The purposeful design extends beyond the cover. As you turn the pages, you will notice the deliberate, careful structure of the poetry, noticing the spaces between words, the patterns of the lengths of the lines, the necessity of varying the alignment of the text and the conscious placement of photographs specifically shot for the anthology. (Speaking of those pictures, they evoke a slight twinge of jealousy, because at least from afar, it seems like the models and photographers are composed of a support system dedicated to helping Akosua succeed.)
On the content itself: Only about three or four poems into the book, I was already smiling like an idiot, the voice in my head screaming, “Yes! Yes! Yes, this is what I’ve always wanted to read!” It’s probably why I took so long to actually finish it. I had to keep pausing to recover, both from my excitement and from its profundity.
First, on how it’s written: Akosua Atuah is not pretentious. Pretentious poetry suffocates me – even, and especially, when I write it myself – but the poems in this book were saying exactly what they were saying, not saying them in a way that was intended to deliberately impress or confuse. You must know what I mean, for there are so many people out here trying to sound deep and consequently showing very little evidence of authenticity or comprehendability. (I feel evil for saying this, but it is what it is.) But I think the key to Akosua’s very real style is in her Author’s Preface at the beginning of the book:
“I thought it had to be dramatic with sound effects and imagery, but then I noticed that sometimes, the best advice is in the things we don’t say.”
She was not here to flash and blind her readers. She was here to tell the truth according to her experience, and on behalf of several others, because “it is important for them to know that somewhere, somehow, someone else has the same feeling.” I admit there were a few poems I was, nevertheless, unable to understand, but I know it was not because they were badly written; in fact, it’s a good thing when poetry invites you back for a rereading, either because what they said resonated so well that you must visit again and again, or because you need several opportunities to fully appreciate the meaning within the words. I think for me, each poem was one or the other.
On the content itself: There was a lot. So much, I wonder how she managed to fit it all in a single book. But most of it was about grief, struggle and sadness. There is a reason for this: most of the content of this book was at least loosely triggered by the passing away of Akosua Atuah’s mother, at the age of thirteen. A girl barely a teenager, losing her parent and left to navigate life, womanhood and her own response to the death of an instrumental loved one is sure to produce some sort of chaos within her, and confusion as to how to manifest it. It is highly unlikely that she would find the most appropriate way immediately, in the midst of the processing, and the consequence, I suppose, is that it will all build up, like a disaster waiting to happen, and then BOOM – an Outburst. For the most part, that is what this book is. I can’t think – after all the pain and acting out – of a better or healthier way to explode.
I admire the boldness with which the first few poems set the tone. From “The Balm”, a quote that proves Akosua is a lexivist whether she knows it or not:
“My poems and its prose are for the ones that hold power in the flick of their wrists,
yet are too afraid to use it. The ones that have thunder in the midst of their
voices so much so that life stops for a second to grasp that solid piece of history.”
And right after that, there’s “Writer’s Task,” which is just so many things that I honestly feel that it deserves its own blog post. That’s the one that tells you all the things you shouldn’t expect the book to exclusively be about.
“…They will ask you,
and again, “why not write about the war or the fact that your land is facing many economic problems?”
And a couple of stanzas later:
“You tell them that you don’t need to write about those,
not because they aren’t of importance
but because that is all we hear.”
STANDING OVATION! I could have stopped reading the book there, and that would have been it. That poem did two of the bravest things a Ghanaian poet can do:
- Decide not to write about what “everyone else” is writing about, the way they are writing about it, the way they expect it to be written.
- Write what one genuinely feels one must write, how one feels one must write it, in order to be true to oneself.
Again, several things I can learn from Akosua Atuah, but I’m young and I have time.
Speaking of being true to oneself, you can see aspects of Akosua’s identity oozing through the pages, boldly, in defiance of whomever will refuse to accept her as she is. I am talking about how she talks about being an African woman, an African woman in America as seen by Africans back home, being African in general, being a woman in general, being a Christian – and goodness knows how dreadfully unpopular any of these things can be at any given time.
It is a book full of poems that allow themselves to be desolate with no happy endings sometimes – which is perfectly fine. It is a book full of affirmations that do not give desolation any chance to rear its head sometimes – which is perfectly fine. It is also a book full of poems that carve spaces for both at once, sometimes, which is great.
One impressive thing is how Akosua not only explores womanhood in her poems – several poets do that – but I notice and am extremely impressed by her poems that touch on manhood as well. “Man Made” is one of those poems (side note: it brought to mind a Sophia Thakur TED talk called “My boyfriend isn’t allowed to cry unfortunately”), and it asks the necessary questions of humanity and gender, this thing called “toxic masculinity”:
“So I asked them, “what is it about society shoving strength
down a man’s throat? Does crying or grieving or simply
feeling emotion make him less of a man?”
Or what about “A Stranger’s Words to Fathers.” which is just the surface exploration of the rift between father and daughter that I can unfortunately relate so well to? Or “Father’s love” which highlights the comfort of a caring father when one is in the pits of despair? But I have to say that my favorite is “Love him” because, my goodness, that poem is several levels of beautiful:
“Love a man that carries Christ in his
back pocket and always pulls
him out when you’re lost.”
I was only about halfway through with the book, when, one day, when depression rendered me completely unproductive and incapable of leaving my room, I just finished all the rest of the book in one sitting. It left me very pleasantly exhausted. It carried me through the sadness; poetry can do that for you. During and since reading, one of the quotes that sustains me is:
“Remind your melancholy that it will always be that muse that allows you to draw a blossoming flower through dark times.”
To say the least about how I feel about this book, I am impressed. And although I barely know Akosua, I am so, so proud of her and this milestone she has achieved for herself and, whether or not she knows it, all of us aspiring young writers. Look at what she achieved before she even graduated from college.
Support the art, the industry, support Akosua Atuah. Purchase her book. It is not something you will regret. The book needs to be read.
Update: Following from the number of people who have asked me where it is available in Ghana, I know now that it is for sale at LifeForms Gh, which is on the same street as MetroTV. I also know that Akosua is working on getting more stores in Ghana involved. When she does, I will update this post again.