Harriet Anena: I Question Politics through Poetry

Harriet Anena is a Ugandan author, poet, and journalist. She is the author of a collection of poems, A Nation In Labour, published in 2015. Anena worked with the Daily Monitor newspaper as a reporter, sub-editor, and deputy chief sub-editor from 2009 to September 2014.

Her brave journey as Uganda’s Emerging letters and words is mesmerizing, to say the least. She recently shared her brave decision to Empty her Bank Account to Go to Columbia for the MFA writing program.

You’d wonder, what more could such a great artist want to learn? We had an interview with Anena and thought to share it with you.

The Interview with Harriet Anena

Q 1: Briefly tell us about yourself and your writing.

Anena: Harriet Anena is a writer from Uganda. She is the 2018 joint winner of the Wole Soyinka Prize for Literature in Africa for her debut poetry collection, A Nation in Labour. She was shortlisted for the Commonwealth Short Story Prize in 2018 and longlisted for the Short Story Day Africa Prize in 2017 and 2018.

Q 2: What kind of writing do you do most frequently?

Anena: My first piece of creative work was a poem. That was in 2003. For the past four years, I have ventured into short story writing as well. What’s your latest work or literary project? I have three poems featured in New Daughters of Africa, an anthology of writing by women of African descent.

Q 3: What’s the cleverest thing you have done as a writer?

Anena: Uh?! Perhaps I would call it the riskiest thing ever done. That would be self-publishing my debut poetry collection, A Nation in Labour, including emptying my account to pay an editor and finance the printing, marketing and delivery process of the book. I’m glad it was worth it though.

Q 4: Do you think publishing is a big deal?

Anena: It is. Publishing in all its forms is a huge deal. I started writing for myself. To tame the demons in my head, to ask the questions I couldn’t ask anyone else then. While writing was a source of catharsis for me, I consider the process of penning my thoughts in a book, publishing. So, even at a personal level, publishing is a big deal.

Q 5: How would you describe your book (s)?

Anena: A Nation in Labour is a collection of poems heavily steeped on the theme of politics. So even where I am talking about gender, culture, the war in northern Uganda and relationships – I am looking at them with a political lens.

Q 6: What award or achievement keeps you impressed with yourself?

Meeting and getting to know at a personal level, writers whose work I admire and enjoy, and being in the presence of people who love books and write. At the African Book Festival in Berlin recently, I met Sefi Atta, Panashe Chigumadzi, Safia Elhillo, Novuyo Rosa Tshuma, Thando Mgqolozana, Ijangolet Ogwang, Pumla Dineo Gqola and so many writers who I just used to read and “meet” online. Such moments really energizes me, makes me tell myself, Eh, Anena, you have arrived (like we say in Uganda).

Q 7: Tell us about home and your family, how they like your work.

Anena: I grew up in a family where books were available. My dad loves reading. So at an early age, I read P’Bitek and Wole and Ngugi and Achebe and Shakespeare. When my mum speaks or sings, I hear poetry. I don’t think they were aware of how much that influenced interest in writing. My sister Caroline Ayugi is my biggest reader at home. I’m on her bumper all the time, sharing this and that so that we can have an input. But I have a feeling my writing makes my father uncomfortable. He once told someone I should be careful with my writing when he read a critical article I’d written in the papers. Overall, he’s happy with how much writing I have done. He wants us to write a book together.

If you’d like to support Harriet Anena’s MFA writing in Columbia, click here to donate on her Gofundme page. Remember to share!

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