If you’re looking for a “Backlist” read from the African Diaspora, look no further than A Woman In Her Prime by Asare Konadu. This Ghanaian Lit novel centers around the coming of age of Pokuwaa, an industrious farmer from a traditional African village, as she attempts to conceive.
Coming in at a mere 107 pages, this book is excellent for readers who are looking to read something short this week without feeling overwhelmed by their page count.
The drama in A Woman In Her Prime centers around infertility. However, the way Konadu describes the daily activity of Brenhoma, the village Pokuwaa lives in, readers come to understand Pokuwaa’s infertility is not the main focus of the book. Instead, we see the various interpersonal relationships within Brenhoma and get a feel for how every character that’s introduced fits into village life.
The author also explores the role of traditional religious practices in the character’s lives, the “seasons” of the village as they move from harvest to planting and back, and even inserts a brief mystery to push the story forward. All these topics and actions are condensed within what could technically be considered a novella.
I think what most pleasantly surprises me about this book is that while Konadu positions Pokuwaa as having infertility issues, he does not make this her only characteristic in the story. Likewise, outside of a few characters, he does not let the villagers of Brenhoma harass Pokuwaa about the particulars of her womb. And these two attributes of his story were refreshing because it felt as if he not only understood that Pokuwaa is more than her womb, but as a male author he showed significantly more empathy for his character than I was expecting from him as a writer.
A Woman in Her Prime shows how important a woman’s role is in society is as the vessel of life even though society can often strip a woman of her agency. By emphasizing the traditional religious sacrifices and gender norms Pokuwaa goes through as she’s trying to conceive, Konadu allows room for commentary on the psychological toll infertility can take on a woman and her partner.
If you’ve read this novel before, I’d suggest following up with The Joys of Motherhood by Buchi Emecheta and The Secret Lives of Baba Segi’s Wives by Lola Shoneyin. Each of these stories deal with infertility in women from the African Diaspora.
I’ve done a blog post for The Secret Lives of Baba Segi’s Wives which you can check out earlier on my blog and even added some additional books you may enjoy to follow up with. Check it out and tell me if you’ve read any of the books in the comment section.
I read Emecheta’s book in 2015 and was BLOWN away by how simplistic the writing was. The story follows a woman named, Nnu Ego, as she grows from being a young woman in her father’s compound all the way up until she has kids of her own and onto her passing. Subjects like colonialization, women’s rights in Africa, and how cultural religion is carried out versus the colonizer’s religion are all talked about in The Joys of Motherhood. A lot of critics compare this book to Things Fall Apart by Chinua Achebe, but If you enjoyed Beloved by Toni Morrison, you’ll definitely enjoy Emecheta’s book.
Readers, have you heard of any of these books before?
Face Me: a declaration reveals the complexities of a mixed race identity through religion, sex, American history, and colorism. The poems in Face Me reject any white supremacy that dictates Biblical interpretations, historical truths, and beauty standards. This collection of poems follows a journey that begins in uncertainty, but concludes in celebration. Within its pages, declarations are unwaveringly signed and spoken. Black bodies are praised and exalted. Faith is reexamined and reclaimed. And Face Me exists not as a question, but as a command.
Thank you so much for your time and for offering me the opportunity to read your poetry collection, Face Me: a declaration, Ms. Keenan! So far, I’ve read it twice, and each time something new jumps out at me.
Adira: What was your inspiration for Face Me: a declaration? Did you always know you wanted to write this work in the form of poetry, or did you have another medium in mind?
Olivia Keenan: I have been writing poetry since I was in middle school, and I have always been especially inspired by slam poetry. A lot of the poems in the book came from slam poems I wrote and performed during open mics at my university. Therefore, it was always a book of poems, but many of the poems were inspired by pieces I wrote to be performed as spoken word.
A: I ask this because you have some stunning pictures included in your collection that offer readers a glimpse of the very body you are seeking to reclaim in your poetry. Is there a story behind these photos?
OK: Yes, there is a story behind the photos. I took a photography class in high school, and I think that is where I learned about the power of photos, especially when accompanied with words. Therefore, I wanted to incorporate photography alongside the journey of the poems. While the poems were inspired by slam poetry, the photos were inspired by the poems.
I have four sets of photos: one of my face, one of my feet, one of my hands, and a final one of my stomach. The same picture or a similar picture of each of these body parts shows up in each section of my book. So, I wanted the photos of the first part to not only embody the themes of the first section (shame, hurt, pain), but to also show a sense of growth within the other photos from the second and third section.
A:There are three sections in Face Me: a declaration: “exposition,” “development,” and “recapitulation.”
In each section, you take care in showing the speaker, who is a Black woman of mixed-race heritage, as she’s gradually coming undone and then carefully stitching herself back together again to reestablish her identity on her own terms. In the final section, readers see the speaker reveling in her agency and taking ownership of her body.
As a writer, did you find that your experiences as a Black woman of mixed race impacted the topics you explored in your collection? If so, were there any real-life moments or emotions that found their way into your writing?
OK: I love this question! And I love the way the question encapsulates the purpose of the three sections in the book. The poems are full of my experiences; sometimes the book feels like an autobiography of my journey through high school and college. For example, most of the poems in the first section are inspired by my experiences in high school and the beginning of college, which was a time where I was most ashamed of my body and myself. I discuss being Black in suburbia and suburban high schools, and being mixed in a very segregated city. I go to the University of Virginia, which was founded by Thomas Jefferson, and when I first entered, I had an idealized view of Jefferson from my previous education. My experiences in high school and the beginning of college were heavily influenced by my desire, or need at times, to please white people (especially white men). So I think the first section is most influenced by those themes.
In the second section, my experiences as a freshman in college are dominated by an enlightenment of sorts. I start to question the religious groups I am a part of, and to question my desire to please white Americans (such as Jefferson). The section also includes experiences I’ve had with men in college, and exposes how I feel about my body when I, too, look at it through a white gaze. Therefore, I think this section reveals moments when I recognize where my shame is coming from, or when my hurt and pain come from white superiority.
In the final section, my most recent emotions come to light. But these experiences are somewhat more abstract. The section more so signifies a period of reclamation and celebration of the body and mind. It isn’t a one-time experience, but rather months of reflection.
A: You start your collection off with “click.” Here, your speaker appears to be parsing through her feelings about the murder of a Black man while also showing moments where she is unsure about her own Blackness. She does this while also succumbing to moments where her implicit bias toward other Black people peeks through in times of panic. Why was it important for you to start your poetry collection simultaneously tackling all three of these issues?
OK: I think it was important for me to start the poetry collection with this because it was one of the poems that kicked off the whole project. Most of the poems are heavily edited and revised. This poem was written hastily at like 3 AM during the summer of 2020. It is not heavily edited, and it tackles things through a stream of consciousness style of writing. I wrote it minutes after watching a video of the murder of George Floyd on Instagram. I wanted to show right away the desperation of my poetry, and how one instance of violence towards Black people impacted me in so many ways. It made me scared, and confused, and ashamed, and angry. I thought a poem that dealt with so many issues, in such a desperate way, would start off the book appropriately– in order to show readers why I needed to write to parse through so many layers of emotions.
A: One of the things that drew me to Face Me: a declaration originally was your reading of “princess mobutu” on Instagram.
The line where you state, “I am not a slave story/ I am not enslaved to a story,” feels apropos in a time where African-Americans and Americans alike are beginning to come to terms with the fact that our race has been pigeonholed into having our stories start (and sometimes end) with American Chattel Slavery as the nation’s only reference point to who we are expected to be.
With this in mind, is there a specific audience or moment in American history that you are speaking to with your work?
OK: I’m glad you pointed out that line, because I think it embodies most of what I was trying to get across in the poem. The specific, intended audience of the poem is girls like me: especially little Black girls who need a Disney princess who looks like them. Unfortunately, most of the representation I saw of Black people in movies as a young girl had to do with slavery or struggling through racism. Rarely did I just see a Black woman enjoying life, or being rescued by the prince, or being a superhero! Therefore, that line is Princess Mobutu claiming she is not “enslaved” to any stories of struggle and pain. Princess Mobutu claims her own story, and that is a character I know I would have benefitted from seeing as an impressionable young girl.
A: The theme of fetishization of Black and female bodies appears to play a major role in poems, like “white boys still don’t let me sign the damn declaration of independence” and “Me and Jefferson.”
Was this connection between your speaker and Sally Hemings intentional in your work?
OK: There is definitely a connection between my speaker and Sally Hemings in my work, but I also intentionally keep it ambiguous. As I mentioned previously, I am a student at the University of Virginia, which is a place where Thomas Jefferson is heavily discussed, both to be idolized and criticized. So it wasn’t until I was in college that I made the connection between Sally and I, but all of the emotions in the book towards my body and the white male gaze have been there my whole life — before I ever knew who Sally Hemings was. I wanted to demonstrate how history repeats itself, even as a university student in 2021. But I also wanted to keep any connections nameless, because I know many Black women of all ages and time periods can relate to wrestling with their own bodies and sexualities in a much similar way.
I also mention Jefferson a lot, and I make sure to mention him by name. And I think when people see Jefferson juxtaposed with a Black woman, they immediately think of Sally Hemings. I wanted this effect, once again, to accentuate the cyclical history of fetishization of Black female bodies.
A: The same way historians grapple with the question of Sally Hemings ability to have a “consensual” relationship with Thomas Jefferson because of her status as an enslaved woman feels similar to how Christianity has modified the original meaning of the Song of Songs in the Bible’s Old Testament to fit their message.
As a person of faith who lives in a time when sexuality, especially for women and female-bodied persons, is heavily guarded by the messaging in traditional Christianity, why did you feel it was important to insert this message of female agency and ownership into your poems?
I think it was important for me to insert this message into my poems because the book begins in a place of shame and rejection. And I wanted to include all the ways I’ve felt ashamed, because being a Black female in America is so multi-faceted and intersectional. I’ve felt rejected by America and American history, or white individuals in my life, or educational institutions, and I’ve especially felt rejected from Christianity. Therefore I think most of my shame was rooted in Christianity, particularly from what I’ve been told by white Christians.
Throughout the beginning of the book I seem to think that my “liberation” can be found if I please the white gaze, or even if I succumb to being sexualized by the white gaze. At the same time, I felt ashamed for merely being sexual, or having sexual desires. The book concludes where I reclaim the beauty of my body, and understand that I can find liberation when I reject the white gaze. Rejecting the white gaze also means rejecting shame I’ve accumulated from Christianity. So I am also liberated from sexual shame, and can reclaim the beauty of my sexual being and desires.
A: What writers or pieces of art have influenced your writing?
OK: My poetry is heavily influenced by slam poetry, both of my own and of others’. It is therefore influenced by contemporary Black poets who also partake in slam poetry and spoken word. Some of these poets include Danez Smith, Jericho Brown, and Raych Jackson. I think some of my descriptions and understandings of God are influenced by The Color Purple by Alice Walker and Mary Oliver. My interactions with the history of Thomas Jefferson are inspired by Mistressby Chet’La Sebree. The photos are influenced by black and white photography in general. But I particularly love the book Citizen by Claudia Rankine, and how that book uses photography with poetry and the written word.
A: Do you have any advice you would give to people who want to write?
OK: My biggest advice is to take advantage of the time you have to write. I don’t think I would have been able to write a book if not for COVID. Because of COVID, all of my plans for the summer of 2020 were cancelled, and then when the school year started, most of my extracurricular activities were postponed too. This meant I had a LOT of time to write, and I took advantage of that time. Even when I wasn’t writing specifically for my book, I was taking time to journal or write random poems. I think my consistency with writing when I had time also improved my mental health and self-confidence during a difficult year. Finding time to write about literally anything is one of the best moves I made in the past year!
A: I want to commend you on how raw and evocative your writing is in Face Me: a declaration. There’s so much depth to your work that I keep thinking about the poems well after I’ve closed the collection’s pages. Are you working on anything new readers can look forward to?
OK: I am not working on anything right now — I think I am pretty tired! But I am an English Major with a concentration in Poetry writing, so I will have to write a manuscript in my final semester of college (in two years). I think that by that point I will feel refreshed again, and hopefully another collection will come then! I also do open mics at my university, so maybe I will have a few new performance poems in the upcoming year!
A: Thank you so much for your time and the opportunity to review your poetry collection, Ms. Keenan. I can’t wait to see what you publish next!
Thank you so much for your wonderful and thoughtful questions! I loved answering these, and I appreciate you taking the time to do all of this 🙂
A: Thank you for your time, Ms. Dixon! I got a chance to read your essay collection, The Incredible Shrinking Woman, and your poetry collection, No God In This Room, last month, and both pieces really resonated with me!
What was the process like writing and getting The Incredible Shrinking Woman published? Did you find your experience with an independent press different than working with a larger publisher?
AD: The manuscript started as a series of individual essays in 2012. I was going through a pretty rough breakup and I found poetry wasn’t giving me the space I needed to express everything I was feeling. I began writing personal essays as a remedy. In 2016, I attended a creative non-fiction conference and started toying with the idea of pulling together a book. I threw together every essay I’d written over that four-year span and started trying to make sense of it. It didn’t go too well and I went back and forth in adding and subtracting pieces from it. I continued to write and publish work from time to time and in late 2019 I thought I’d come up with a decent manuscript. I researched presses I thought would be a good home for the book and came up with a list of four. I did not pursue publishing with a larger press at all. Fortunately for me, Split/Lip was on my first-choice list and wanted to give the book home.
Working with an independent press has been great! From the very beginning I’ve felt that they were not only interested in the book, but also me as a person. Writing personal essays can be a very scary thing and having a group of people working on your project who respect that is a gift. Being with an indie press allowed me to have a stronger voice in the kinds of edits I was willing or unwilling to accept. I also had amazing freedom in deciding on my cover design, promo events, and blurbs. It felt more like a collaboration than someone doing me a favor by publishing my work.
A: Did you have a specific audience in mind when you were writing The Incredible Shrinking Woman?
AD: I generally consider myself my first audience and from there I hope to find a connection with people who’ve had similar experiences. I hope that I am writing for people who feel on the fringes or invisible—kinda like background music. Those people who help make the world go ‘round but aren’t necessarily the ones in the spotlight. I think it is important to craft stories for audiences who are dynamic and interesting in ways that may not always get attention. There is a world of people who feel as if they don’t have a voice and I hope that in my exploration of my own invisibility and shrinking I am helping them be seen and heard as well.
A: In a virtual craft chat with The Writer’s Center, you mentioned “wanting to be seen and then being afraid when you [were] seen [and] working through what you’re asking people to see.” Did this sentiment play into naming your essay collection The Incredible Shrinking Woman?
AD: The collection had several names, but this one seemed to fit the best once the final slate of essays was solidified. When I began writing, I thought I was writing about something completely different, but as the manuscript progressed it seemed more and more, I was writing about ideas of shrinking and invisibility. I’d never considered just how much time I’d spent trying to fit into boxes and roles that never seemed to contain all I believe I am. But I also had to confront what it means to be seen. Asking for it and actually having it are worlds different. There’s a bit of a play on words with the title, too. There is the active shrinking that takes place, but there are also elements of a sideshow or exposure in the use of the word incredible.
A: My favorite essay in your collection is “Reader’s Insert.” In the piece, you say:
“For as long as I can remember, I’ve slipped myself into roles that don’t quite fit, roles that aren’t quite real…I’ve always felt invisible, so accurately telling the story of me starts with a disappearing act.
Invisible. It’s a word that has gotten blowback from friends and family in ways I never expected. I suppose they think they see me. But I don’t think anyone really does. At least in terms of a whole person, that is.”
This quote resonated with me because, as a Black woman, there seems to be a substantial gap between the expectations placed on us individually and as a group versus the actual empathy that is offered to us as human beings. Instead, we seem to be rendered as invisible or treated as pieces of a whole. Did your perception or definition of yourself change as you wrote this collection of essays and came into your voice as a writer?
AD: My greatest fear putting the collection in the world was being exposed and judged. I thought people would see me as weak or damaged in some way, but I found that I grew more confident personally and creatively as the collection took shape. I think it is partially because I was able to let go of some experiences that had been weighing me down and also realizing there are dynamic parts of me I should share with the world despite my fears. As well, by examining some of the issues in the collection, I was able to see parts of myself I couldn’t while I was in the thick of it. I learned I am much stronger than I knew and that I have so much to offer to not only myself but also the world. I think writing the book helped me unlock portions of myself I’d hidden away in order to fit what I thought the world wanted to see of me.
A: Your essay, “Native Tongue,” was another favorite for me. One of the things I loved about your essays is the way that you give voice to those Black girls who aren’t labeled as being “conventionally Black” in the way you described your cousins as being with their “Salt N’ Pepa hairstyles” or even your best friend, Greta. Why was it important for you to tell this particular story of coming into your Blackness in “Native Tongue?”
AD: It was important for me because I think sometimes there’s an idea that if you are born into a particular background you settle in smoothly. For me, I always felt loved and cared for, but I struggled to find where I fit within the confines of the culture around me. I so badly wanted to be like my cousins and my parents, but I never considered the idea there were other avenues that were tailored to me. And I think it was important to recognize and acknowledge my own narrow view of what I thought Blackness entailed.
A: There’s a line in “Vagina, Slightly Used,” where you say:
“It’s because I’d felt so invisible my entire existence that I gathered greedily what was laid out before me. I’ve always felt like my being deemed desirable by a man was a fluke.”
In the same way you give voice to the “non-conventional” Black girls, you represent for women who are believed to take up too much space physically with their bodies and those Black women who are denying themselves a “fairytale ending” because the world said we can’t/don’t deserve one.
Currently, soundbites of “image consultants,” like Kevin Samuels, and celebrities, like B. Simone, are going viral for shaming Black women for daring to believing we deserve a happy ending. Do you feel as if there is starting to be a movement to commodify the inherent “shame” that Black women, like yourself and I, are fed throughout our lives by mass media and brands?
AD: I do. I think people are so intent on solidifying their own importance, and pockets, that they are willing to sacrifice the well-being of others in order to do so. I think it’s easy to prey on people’s insecurities while setting impossible standards they can never achieve because the goal posts always move. There is a part of me that feels some of this is a backlash to the “less desirable” women starting to gain confidence or ignoring what society thinks they should be. The shameful part of it is when other Black people, who know discrimination and harm first hand, take part in it denigrating their own people for the sake of profit and popularity.
A: The Incredible Shrinking Woman is raw and has so many visceral moments that left me, as a reader, swept up emotionally in your words because of their authenticity and how true they rang in my lived experience as a Black woman. How were you able to draw on so many powerful emotions as a writer, and not become bogged down by them long enough to get your thoughts onto the paper?
AD: I was able to do that in some instances, but there were a few times that I got lost. I couldn’t read “Liturgy” without crying for about a year after I wrote it. Part of that was because I hadn’t really dealt with that grief. Fortunately, I’d processed, or started to process, most of the other topics I covered in the book. I look at my subjects as a bruise. If I can touch it and there is only an ache then I feel safe writing about it. If there is marked pain, then I know that I am not ready to fully explore that topic for public consumption.
A: Music is heavily attached to your writing with your father being a DJ. What’s on your playlist now?
AD: I have a playlist for everything, but there are few things I have on repeat right now. “Everything I Wanted” by Nuq, “Moment” by Victoria Monet, “Good & Plenty” by Alex Isley, “I Mean It” by PJ, “Vibe” by Cookie Kawaii, and “Whoa (Remix)” by Snoh Aalegra feat Pharell Williams. I’ve also been using “Whatever Lola Wants” by Sarah Vaughn and “All Blues” by Miles Davis to craft a few pieces on my plate at the moment.
A: What writers or pieces of art have influenced your writing?
A: Do you have any advice you would give to people who want to write?
AD: I would say write for yourself before anyone else. If there is no heart or passion behind what you are writing your audience can tell. If you don’t like what you are writing why would your readers?
A: Thank you so much for your time, Ms. Dixon! I can’t wait to read more of your work!
Athena’s work has appeared in various publications both online and in print. She is a Pushcart Prize nominee (2016, 2017), a Best of the Net nominee (2017), a Callaloo fellow (Oxford 2017), a V.O.N.A. fellow (2018), and a Tin House Workshop attendee (Winter 2019). Athena is a member of the Moving Forewards Memoir Writers Collective. Additionally, she has presented at AWP (2013, 2020), HippoCamp (2016, 2017, 2018, 2019, 2020) and The Muse and the Marketplace (2019) among other panels and conferences.