November 29–December 5, 2021
Arao Ameny is a Maryland-based writer and poet from Lira, Lango region, Northern Uganda. She spent her early childhood in Uganda and grew up in the US. She is currently a biography writer and editor at the Poetry Foundation. She earned her MFA in fiction from the University of Baltimore in 2019. She also has an MA in journalism from Indiana University and a BA in political science with minors in international relations and communications from the University of Indianapolis. Her first published poem, “Home Is a Woman,” won the Southern Review’s 2020 James Olney Award. She was also a finalist for the UK-based Brunel International African Poetry Prize and a nominee for the Best New Poets anthology in 2021. This past spring, she was named a Brooklyn Poets Fellow for study in Joshua Mehigan’s workshop on The Sonnet.
Home Is a Woman
Before I enter the matatu
for the drive to Kampala then Lira
the driver stops me to tell me
he’s never seen me on this route
“you must live outside”
I remember I live outside my own country
I pretend not to hear
and he says it again, this time behind a cigarette and a smile
he asks me “who are your people? who is your father? your grandfather?”
saying he may know my people
I tell him my mother’s name and her mother’s name
and my great-grandmothers’ names
I tell him about the names of the land they could not inherit
unless their brothers or fathers or husbands gave it to them
I name and map the land, from that tree to the edge of the river
I tell him where my great-grandmothers were born
where my grandmothers were born
where my mother was born
I hum the names of the women in my family
over and over again like a forgotten prayer
a forbidden song
he asks again “who are your forefathers, you girl?”
I ask him “and who gave birth to them?” and I say the names of the women who gave
birth to them
our ride is silent from Kampala to Lira
he gives me a curious glance from the rearview mirror at my many faces
looking at me while I hold on to my suitcase
while I carry all the women living inside of me
I carry them home
—Originally published in the Southern Review, Spring 2020.
Tell us about the making of this poem.
I wrote “Home Is a Woman” in the summer of 2018. I was enrolled in an independent summer course with Professor Steven Leyva at the University of Baltimore. Unfortunately, it was also the summer my paternal grandmother passed away. I was named Arao after both my paternal and maternal grandmothers. She was my last living grandparent and her death shook me.
I had gone home to Lango for her funeral but I didn’t drop my poetry class. I was still turning in assignments when I was in Uganda. I wrote the poem during the six-hour car ride from Kampala to Lira about an earlier experience I had in a matatu. I told myself that when I left the car, I would have written something. I was thinking about Atat (grandmother) and I was thinking about her quiet strength. I was also thinking about my mother, and my mother’s mother. I’m not sure if it was grief or frustration or both, but instead of crying, I decided to write. I wrote the poem by hand in a journal I keep in my bag, transcribed it, and then turned it in as part of my assignment for class. For two full years I sent out the poem to literary journals, so this poem about “home” was literally looking for a home. I knew it was finished and it would be accepted somewhere, without any changes. I just had to be patient and not give up.
What are you working on right now?
After taking Joshua Mehigan’s workshop on the sonnet, I was inspired and bursting with ideas and energy. I am currently working on two poetry projects. The first project is called Sonnets for the Revolution. My country Uganda has had the same president since 1986. We have a military dictatorship. These sonnets I’m writing tackle numerous topics, mainly human rights abuses in Uganda and the lives lost as a result. I’m hoping to take our imperfect history and fit them into these little songs to talk about the political history, honor the stories of those who continue to advocate for true liberation, and those who have lost their lives in the process. The second project I am currently working on is revising a set of fifty-three poems called Letters for Ayaa. In my language Leb Lango, Ayaa means “mother.” The poems are “conversations” with my mother, and reflections of learning to live without her. They are fifty-three poems because that’s the age she passed away from leukemia.
For prose, I am adding onto a manuscript of short stories that I started as part of my thesis at the University of Baltimore.
What’s a good day for you?
A good day for me is waking up early to read. I’m a politics junkie so I scan my favorite online papers for news from the US and Uganda. Next, I pore through the stack of books on my desk to choose a poem and a short story to read with a cup of tea. A good day for me is a quiet day with little to no phone-ringing or texts coming in, where I am quiet for about three hours before I start the day.
Where’s home for you? How long have you lived there? What do you like about it? How is it changing? How does it compare to other places you’ve lived?
“Home” is a loaded question for me. I’ve lived outside of my home (Uganda) for most of my life, yet that is where I consider home. My parents brought our family to the US in the ’90s. My father came here to pursue higher education. Both he and my mother eventually got their PhDs. That’s a quick story of how I came here.
Uganda is where most of my family lives. That will always be home. It’s a complicated question because my mother always taught me that although we may live and work in the US, where I was born and where my grandparents were born (and buried) isn’t replaceable—I think I internalized her words and those words still define me.
Home for me is closer. With social media, I can talk to poets, writers, genealogists and artists, or I can even livestream events, so home doesn’t feel like an airplane ride away. I don’t feel disconnected like I used to. For me, nothing compares to Uganda because that is where my memories of my early childhood live and nothing can compare to that.
Spent any time in Brooklyn? If so, when and where? Share with us your experiences, impressions, etc.
I lived in New York City (the Bronx) for eight years. I traveled to Brooklyn frequently, mainly to visit the Brooklyn Public Library. I spent hours looking for new poems and short stories. I also loved Greenlight Bookstore for their literary events, the most memorable being a reading and conversation with Teju Cole. Afterwards, I used to go to this Nigerian restaurant to pick up some jollof rice, grilled fish and plantain. Last but not least, I enjoyed going to literary events at Medgar Evers College (CUNY). I once attended the National Black Writers Conference and had the opportunity to listen to Mukoma Wa Ngugi read his poetry and prose.
What does a poetry community mean to you? Have you found that where you live? Why or why not?
For me, a poetry community is a group of peers or mentors who share what they are reading, who expose me to new poets and writers. A poetry community for me is where I am fully immersed, exchange ideas, listen, and come with my full self, where I am safe. It’s a place of reciprocity, no judgement and, of course, a place I can fail and learn. It’s a place where I also affirm others, uplift others, celebrate others and read others’ work with the same time, care, attention I give my own work and words.
During this ongoing pandemic, I’ve found community in online poetry workshops where we check in once a month to see what we’re all working on, offer feedback and just be around others who are going through the same writing journey.
Tell us about some Brooklyn poets who have been important to you.
Some Brooklyn poets who have been important to me are Audre Lorde and Alicia Ostriker, poets who have strong feminist themes in their work. I used to spend time at the Brooklyn Public Library looking for books with Lorde’s poetry or essays. I read Ostriker’s work on the Poetry Foundation website and I’ve been hooked ever since.
Who were your poetry mentors and how did they influence you?
My poetry mentors are my grandmothers, my mother and older women in my family. Those were my first storytellers, the first poets. Because of them, I am interested in poetry, folktales, proverbs, praise songs, short stories and cultural dances, which are all reservoirs of poetry.
Tell us about the last book(s) and/or poem(s) that stood out to you and why.
The last book I read that stood out to me was Modern Sudanese Poetry: An Anthology, published by the African Poetry Book Fund, edited and translated from Arabic to English by Adil Babikir. The collection spans over sixty years of Sudanese poetry and features thirty-one acclaimed poets, men and women, from diverse cultural backgrounds and experiences. These poets are known in their country Sudan, in northern Africa, in the Arab World, but widely unknown in the US or to English readers. Admittedly, the only poets I know are the ones who have published in English, mainly Al-Saddiq Al-Raddi, Mamoun Eltilib and Najlaa Osman Eltom. So needless to say, reading this book was a learning experience for me. I’ve read this book twice cover-to-cover already and a poem I continue to revisit is called “Songs of October” by Mohammed El-Makki Ibrahim. Here’s an excerpt:
He was twenty,
yet to see a thousand suns still heading his way;
yet to taste the bliss of marriage.
He was unarmed,
except for a chant on his lips,
and a stone on his hand.
He was at the frontline,
leading the way.
A shot was fired;
a bath of blood poured.
Out of his fellows’ arms he slipped away.
His blood scented the ground, sending quivers on the soil veins.
An approaching dawn bolted back; his hair went gray.
The night’s hair split into two braids …
What are some books or poems you’ve been meaning to read for years and still haven’t gotten to?
I’ve been meaning to read all of Christopher Okigbo’s published work. I’ve only read Labyrinths. I have his other three books—Heavensgate, Limits and Poems: Four Canzones—on my desk and on my to-do list.
Describe your reading process. Do you read one book at a time, cover to cover, or dip in and out of multiple books? Do you plan out your reading in advance or discover your next read at random? Do you prefer physical books or digital texts? Are you a note-taker?
I now read one book at a time. Yes, I plan my reading in advance, because otherwise life and the stress of a pandemic can be consuming.
I prefer physical books. I like taking notes, using highlighters and writing memorable lines on index cards.
What’s one thing you’d like to try in a poem or sequence of poems that you haven’t tried before?
I would like to experiment with dream work, recording my dreams, translating them and writing until a poem appears.
Where are some places you like to read and write (besides home, assuming you like to be there)?
I like to read and write in the park near a lake or a body of water. I like writing in nature.
What are some Brooklyn spaces you love? Why?
When I lived in NYC, I loved walking across the Brooklyn Bridge. I also enjoyed visiting the Brooklyn Historical Society; I got so many writing ideas after viewing the archives, especially maps and newspapers.
Fill in the blanks in these lines by Whitman:
I celebrate my beating heart
And what I fill you also fill,
For every strip of light to me as good as the light within you.