Today, I met a poet in Monrovia. After 13 years of self exile in Liberia, I finally met a literary figure, who in turn fled Liberia's civil war and has lived in exile in the great United States of America, the country that has affected us in one way or another.
I say I lived in self exile in Liberia because the career that brought me here should have taken me to another project of international charity experimentation after a short stint but I ended up staying here for more than a decade. Therefore, I am in exile from the career I inadvertently started my adult life with. I am in exile from my family to some extent who never accepted or respected any of my choices and, have never made an effort to visit me here. I am in exile from my homeland, Pakistan, which I have loved all my life and am proud to carry its passport to this day. I am in exile from a more comfortable life I may have led elsewhere with stable electricity and water. I am in exile from other possibilities of living in cities with regular cultural events.
So, today an exile met a distinguished exile in this great city of Monrovia, a city full of exiles from India, Lebanon, and Guinea.
I have blogged about the poetry reading at the University of Liberia already. You can read it here. I mentioned I was quite star struck and excited but these feelings grew more intense over time, long after the end of the reading, long after I met Patricia Wesley, and even after she came to my house for dinner.
I have not admitted to her yet that I have been writing poems since I was quite young and, also kept a Diary since I can remember. I wrote typical poems about teenage angst in my school years. I wrote a sad few lines about a secret infatuation I had at university. I wrote some dramatic poems during my first real love affair in life. But after the death of Wesley, I just about stopped writing poems. I have written only one poem after his death.
I have shown my poems now and then to people but not been very sure or confident about them.
Some feelings of sadness, nostalgia, excitement and inspiration have been taking shape, deepening in in their intensity and passion since I've met Patricia.
When I heard Patricia say that she is known for writing a poem on anything and every occasion, I remembered how I would do the same when I was hardly a teenager. I would write a poem all the time, for New Years or for a class in school. I remember a poem I wrote when my aunt was about to leave after visiting us in Bucharest. And, I wondered to myself, why I just abandoned poetry, even if I was not very good at it. Why had I let a part of myself slip away?
When Patricia was over at our home for dinner, she read us and the rest of the guests, a few more poems for our privileged pleasure. She read a moving poem about her impressions of an execution in the United States and, then a very funny poem about the absurdity of the safety instructions that air crew recite during flights. She laughed at her latter poem and, we all enjoyed this experience. It was a revelation to me - a poet laughing and enjoying her own poems.
As you can appreciate, I have been simmering in anxiety, embarrassment, insecurity and regret. I have not aspired to be a great poet but writing poems was my secret pleasure, and some times my secret pouring of grief and tears. I wrote so many whiny poems to express my teenage angst but hardly any to commemorate all the real moments of my life. Why didn't I write in rage and grief on moments of shaming that loved ones participated in? Why didn't I convey my grief in the form of a few lines when I found my boyfriend was murdered? Why didn't I write poems to describe the nights of despair and fear when I came back to a new Monrovia, trying to carve a new life? What about the time some close friends stopped seeing me? What about how penniless I felt, literally and figuratively? Why didn't I find words for the tears I wept every single night after a day of putting up a strong face? What about the absurd reaction my family made when I wanted to name my daughter after my best friend and the middle name after my maternal grand mother and paternal aunt? What about the courage I plucked up to try to keep Wesley's business and hence, his honour, alive? What about the new relationship with an Indian man I plunged into? What about the experience of becoming a mother? Where did my poetry go? Did it dry up? Why didn't I stay loyal to myself and to my humble art?
A whole era has passed during my life for which I have no poems to remember that time.
Maybe to some extent, I have been shamed into silence and, to some extent, my soul has accepted this rejection, this loneliness, and shame. I have lived a gung ho life since Wesley was killed and, to some extent re-fashioned the atoms and ligaments of my psyche: from secret poet and introvert to strong, dragon woman. Where once I used to secretly cry when hurt and write secret poems, I have abandoned writing poems. I still cry of course in secret when frustrated or when I suddenly remember how my loved ones have spoken to me or made me feel. But I stopped writing poems in defeat.
After meeting, Patricia, I felt both joy and sadness, I must say. I felt such an honour in meeting a Liberian poet after all these years in exile in Liberia. I was struck by the notion that the civil war took her away from Liberia, during its height, and the end of the civil war brought me to Liberia, shortly after its end.
Unfortunately, I have not associated Liberia with thriving arts. You only have to look at the local newspapers to see what passes as journalism. There are no literary or musical events hosted by any government authority on arts and literature. In fact, I have hardly ever met Liberian intellectual or literary figure. So, we are simply not used to hearing Liberian interpretation of politics, social problems, and most importantly, the impact of the war. What are Liberian poets, writers, and musicians making of Liberian society today?
I have read some academic pieces on Liberia written by non-Liberian scholars but these cannot replace Liberian voices, intellectual and non-intellectual ones.
I really enjoyed meeting Patricia and, experience the range of emotions I did, and to think about my younger self the secret poet.
I suppose we go through life and as we experience its "slings and arrows," we are reborn over and over again. We not only journey through places, people, victories and failures but also through a universe of emotions, which end up residing in our soul side by side, especially if you take things to heart.