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PEN World Voices Festival As It Happened: “The Arrivants”

By Brian Matta

Photo: Beowulf Sheehan/PEN Word Voices Festival of International Literature

To celebrate Kamau Brathwaite’s The Arrivants, Teju Cole, Nathalie Handal, and Binyavanga Wainaina spoke about the poet’s life and read from his work. The discussion was moderated by Brent Hayes Edwards at the Crosby Street Hotel on Wednesday, May 6.

The conversation began with Edwards giving some background information about Brathwaite’s life and how he came to write the poems in The Arrivants. Brathwaite was born in Barbados, but went to school in England. While doing his graduate studies, he traveled to Ghana as part of the Ministry of Education to make sure that the colony’s rural areas were up to the standards of the colonial government. This experience was the catalyst for him to begin writing The Arrivants, which eventually became a trilogy. Through these poems, the reader sees how Brathwaite is using the dialect of rural Ghana to speak about how language enslaves people, and how the way out of this enslavement is to manipulate the language with the dialect itself. Edwards said that a missing piece to the panel was Brathwaite’s performance of his own poetry, since the poet was unable to make it to the panel due to poor health. Edwards explained that Brathwaite performs his poetry by moving and gesturing as he reads.

The first panelist was Handal, a Palestinian poet, editor, and WWB contributor, who was raised in Haiti. She read the poem, “New World A-Comin’,” where Brathwaite writes, “It will be a long, long time before this land again.” Handal explained that the reason she read the poem was to show how Brathwaite was struggling to find the Caribbean identity. She went on to say that Brathwaite noticed that there were similarities between Ghana and the African Diaspora, so there is a connection between the reconstruction of identity and the relationship to one’s own identity.

The second panelist was writer, photographer, and Bard College professor Cole. He read “Caliban,” saying that the reason he read the poem was because when he wakes up he wants to be Ariel, but the world turns him into Caliban. He said, Brathwaite has not only a prolific voice, but also a voice that shapes identity. Like Handal, Cole was interested in the Caribbean identity. Cole says, in order to fully understand Brathwaite’s language, his poems can’t just be read, they have to be performed out loud. Brathwaite’s performative aspect of his poetry is a part of the collective voice of the whole Caribbean. He dances around the podium and delivers the lines using the rural dialect of Ghana, which helped create the way the Caribbean speaks.

The panel concluded with Wainaina, a Kenyan writer and Bard Fellow. He read from the prelude to the first part of the trilogy “Work Songs and Blues.” A line from the prelude—“year has come around again” —was relevant again today, Wainaina said, because when Brathwaite was writing these poems is similar to today’s political situation in Africa.

In light of the Arab Spring and other recent revolutions in Africa, the content of Brathwaite’s poetry has gained a new urgency like that it had fifty years ago.

YOU MAY ALSO LIKE: WWB's January 2013 Issue "Writing from Haiti"

For complete coverage of the 2015 PEN World Voices Festival, click here

Published May 10, 2015   Copyright 2015 Brian Matta

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