We were deeply saddened to learn of the recent passing of Natalie Smith Parra. Although she declined the official title, we considered Natalie an adviser, mentor, and inspiration. Besides being a wonderful writer, Natalie was a tireless advocate for social justice and prisoners caught in the criminal justice system. Natalie was active behind the scenes in Writing for Peace, even serving as a judge in our Young Writers Contest as she underwent chemo. We are republishing here an interview she did with adviser Patricia Jabbeh Wesley. Natalie was a huge admirer of Dr. Wesley, reading all of her books and many other interviews and publications before putting together her thoughtful questions.
All of us at Writing for Peace send our deepest condolences to Natalie’s family. We will miss her very much.
An Interview with Dr. Patricia Jabbeh Wesley, by Natalie Smith Parra
“In my dream, I’m on the road, flying Somewhere, stranded at an airport. I’ve lost my car or lost the keys In my lost purse Or I’m in the airport security line Without my passport, a lone traveler without a country” --From “In My Dream”
Dr. Patricia Jabbeh Wesley, Writing for Peace Adviser, is a poet, memoirist, and scholar, who was raised in Monrovia, Liberia, and fled her country’s civil war, arriving in her thirties as a refugee in the United States. She has been called one of the most prolific African poets of the 21st century. But her voice is also as American as a voice can be: the voice of the refugee, the displaced, the victim of violence, the immigrant. Her work is a call for peace, for justice, and is timely and essential in our current historical moment. Having to flee the Liberian civil war as a young mother has defined much of her work, and she knew if she survived that war, she would have to tell the story.
The works in her five poetry books play out on a world stage, both personal and universal, and immortalize the Liberian people’s suffering, and through their suffering, the suffering of refugees of the world, “…the simple ordinary world, where people are too ordinary to matter.”
Natalie: At what point in your life did you come to identify as a poet? Was it before or during the civil war?
Dr. Wesley: Natalie, let me first thank you for this interview, for taking the time to work with me, and for your contribution to Writing for Peace. It is my honor and privilege to be interviewed by you.
I have been writing poetry since I was a child. That was long before the civil war which began when I was already in my early thirties and a mother of 3. Writing began for me early in my life before my teens, but by 14, I was already playing with the writing of short stories and poems. I wrote poetry and short stories from the beginning, but I was more drawn to poetry than to stories. I guess by the time I was a college student, it was clear that I could write poetry better than prose, and during the civil war, I turned more to poetry. I don’t know when others identified me as a poet, but my high school friends knew I was a poet because I wrote poems regularly for my high school newspaper. I wrote my graduating class song and class poem when we were graduating, and continued writing poetry and stories until the war.
Natalie: Why poetry?
Dr. Wesley: Poetry did not really come as a surprise, but I believe that I’m a better poet than a prose writer, first, because I think more in metaphors and images than in details. Another factor that forced me to turn to poetry was the Liberian civil war. When one has to be on the run, be under the constant threat of bombs falling from the skies or being tortured in a camp, poetry is the one genre that works. Poetry does not lend itself to the long details that prose requires, and therefore, it is easier to write poetry in such crisis as war. I realized during the war that poetry has the ability to capture vivid images, to abbreviate suffering and to employ tightness of language to say the same thing that a long story could capture. I therefore began writing poetry on the run, writing whatever horrific situation before us at that moment even as it happened, painfully capturing the horrors in metaphors and images in poetry. During this time, I also realized that with poetry, you can spare everyone the bloody details that prose uses. Poetry also saves the reader or the writer the pain of narration that prose needs by its use of imagery and figurative language. It was the painful experiences of the war my family and I endured, the urgency that war created as we were constantly on the run, and the profoundness of human violence and pain that helped me realize that poetry was the genre I needed to be both an artist and a witness without compromising the story at hand. The decision to use poetry as a medium empowered me to tell not only my own story, but the story of my people, those that were dying daily, the survivors, and the dead.
Natalie: Would you tell us who some of your favorite poets and major influences, both contemporary and past are?
Dr. Wesley: I have too many favorite poets. My major influences are all within the African oral tradition, the stories my Iyeah (Grandmother) and Bai (Grandfather) told me from the Grebo tradition of storytelling, the oral narratives of our culture as Africans and the traditional dirges, songs, tales and fables. We are a deeply traditional people, so that tradition has influenced my poetics and my storytelling throughout my writing career. Besides, my father was a great motivating force and my first fan. It was his support that influenced whether I would become a writer or not.
Having made that clear, let me also say that there are writers that have helped shape my writing of poetry, and they are also important. I was drawn to writers like e.e. cummings, D. Lawrence, W. H. Auden, and to African poets like John Pepper Clark Bekederemo, Okot p’bitek, and from my country, Bai T. Moore. When I first discovered these authors, I was still in grade school, but there was something in their voices that moved me. Decades later on as I became a writer writing against war and about my own country’s war, I realized that these writers were war poets who cried out against injustice and war, and it was that that drew me without my knowing. But now, I was writing about my own country at war long after these writers influenced me. Most recently, I was drawn to Marie Howe’s use of couplet in her lines, couplets not in the traditional sense. I discovered her during my days in the doctoral program in Creative Writing, and from then on began to write these lines that are different from my first book. My second book’s use of couplets were patterned after her style of couplets. There are many other writers from the US, from around the world and Africa that have influenced me. But the foundation of my writing and what dictates how I arrange my lines, my thought, and the images that impress themselves on me is rooted in the rich African oral tradition I grew up on. Without this influence, I wouldn’t have become the voice that I am today.
Natalie: Do you have any favorite recently read novels? Short stories?
Dr. Wesley: I don’t have any favorite novels or short story collections. I’m currently reading a memoir, however, by a friend, Krystal Sital, and I love it. The book, Secrets We Kept: Three Women of Trinidad is an amazing book. I am often a reader of poetry more than of prose even though I love prose. In other words, Krystal’s book is a favorite, if there is a favorite prose book. As a poet, I read more poetry and have many favorite poetry books.
Natalie: Do you have any advice for young creatives living now as refugees, whether from war, poverty, or political or other violence?
Dr. Wesley: What do you mean by “young creatives?” Do you mean creative writers or artists? I guess that is what you mean. Well, young writers, whether free or refugee, should continue to write wherever they are writing, and if they are not already writing, they should begin to experiment with writing. Being able to use art as a tool in such a difficult situation is so important because poets can be a “witness” to the violent, turbulence of war and trauma in their writing and help the world heal. They must keep on writing, exploring the problems of war and violence that keep them in their sad situation. Writing about your pain brings healing to the young artist and all those around even while keeping the stories of the dead and survivors alive.
Natalie: First (or most important) memory of your new home after fleeing Monrovia?
Dr. Wesley: None to speak of. I hate to talk about this issue at this point. When you lose all that you have ever worked for, lose family and friends, and are forced to flee your homeland where your mother, father, stepmother, all your siblings and distant relatives are still in the heat of bombs and rockets, when the country you fled is still in a bloody war and you’re worried your family will be wiped out, when you have lost country and your entire world, there is no important memory about your new home where you fled, no comfort in a new home that is strange to you, when you arrive destitute with only the clothes on the backs of you and your children and husband, and when you need strangers to feed you, to give you a place to live, that is not the memory you go to. This was our situation when we fled. A war destitute person who had so much and lost it to become a stranger in a distant land, no matter whether they already knew that land (since we were former graduate students in America from 1983-85), that memory is not comfortable enough to return to. I’m sorry about this, but I believe this question was necessary to help me say what I said.
Natalie: Do you have a most healing or comforting memory of home in Liberia?
Dr. Wesley: Another difficult question. All of that memory involves my parents and family that were lost in the war or during the war or as a direct or indirect result of the war. I guess the only comforting memory is the time long before the Liberian civil war.
Natalie: I read your recent piece in Harvard Divinity, and I’d like to ask how your faith helped you to not only survive trauma, but thrive in the U.S.
Dr. Wesley: Well, as stated in that essay, my faith was very important to my and my family’s survival. We are strong believers in God, and pray a lot. We believe that many of the miracles that helped save us from being killed happened because of God’s grace. So glad you asked the question. Many interviewers leave this aspect of our humanity out, and you brought it up. Yes, thank you, faith was the most important and most relevant to our survival. Without prayer, trust in God, the miracles God sent our way, we would not have survived.
Natalie: How did you make the decision to join the board of Writing for Peace?
Dr. Wesley: This was a very easy decision because the work that Writing for Peace is doing is no different than what I have done for decades now. The use of writing as a tool in healing, finding peace and changing the world is something I have done in all of my books. So, the invitation to be a part was one of the best things that happened to me. I took no time in making that decision, and in fact, I felt so honored, I thought wow, this is such a blessing to meet others who think like you. I also have a blog (not very active now), but a very popular blog I started more than a decade ago called “Poetryforpeace,” therefore, I felt honored when I was asked to join the board. I am proud of all that is being done, and of writers like you who are making the difference. I have a lot to learn from Writing for Peace Advisers and writers though, and I am learning. It is a privilege to be a tiny voice in this powerful vision.
Natalie: Beside art, what is one concrete thing you think could really help bring peace to the world?
Dr. Wesley: I believe that voting for the leaders who have a heart for the world, who have traveled and understand how much damage powerful countries can do by poor leadership to the vulnerable people of the world is the next thing to using art to bring about peace.
Natalie: Do you have any writing projects in the works now?
Dr. Wesley: Yes. I have lots of writing projects I’m working on right now, some, I cannot yet talk about. I’m currently working on another book of poetry, a collection of stories that need lots of work, and I’m trying to get my memoir published and a children’s book published.
Alexis Bernaut Joins Sunday Live with Juniper Moon
Join us this Sunday, May 30 @ 6:00 pm – 7:00 pm, Mountain Time, when Sunday LIVE resumes with host Juniper Moon. We’re excited to welcome Alexis Bernaut!
Alexis Bernaut is a poet, translator, and musician, born in Paris in 1977.
His poetry has been published in several reviews and anthologies in France and abroad, and translated into English, Korean, Hebrew, and Romanian. In 2016, he was invited to the Seoul International Writers Festival. He is the translator of his late friend Sam Hamill, and Trinidadien novelist Earl Lovelace, among others. His first collection of poetry, Au matin suspendu, was published in December 2012. His latest book, Un miroir au coeur du brasier, was published in May 2020, and was shortlisted for the Prix Apollinaire Découverte awarded to younger poets.”
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