Multilingual Poetry: Kwame Write in Paris, Accra, Copenhagen

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“I have different dialects and different languages together at the same time in my work to have a kind of engagement and openness. It’s not just about understanding it directly.”

Poetry performance by Kwame Write

Poetry performance by Kwame Write in Copenhagen

Kwame Aidoo, more widely known as Kwame Write, is a multimodal artist who works in and often combines installations, videos, music, writing, and poetry. Here he talks to MULOSIGE about the language of water and about multilingualism in his life and work. Kwame was born in Andé, Ivory Coast, and grew up in Tema, Ghana. He is the founder and creative director of Inkfluent and organizes the arts and literature festival Nkabom, which will take place in Ghana from August 23-26. He performed his piece “Queue to the Tap Dance” at the art and literature venue Sorte Firkant in Copenhagen last month, and is currently completing an artist-in-residency in Paris. 

Introduce yourself and your work to our readers.

I was born in Andé, near Abidjan, to a single mother. My mom had three other children, my sisters, so growing up I was the only boy. After a few years we left the Ivory Coast and went back to my mother’s country Ghana, which is where I grew up. My mom is Ashanti, and Ashantis have a dense history of expansion, of science, and of art.

I grew up in the 90’s when hip hop was really strong and I grew up in Tema, which is outside the biggest urban space in Ghana, Accra. In Tema it’s more laid-back and residential, but growing up you needed to have a talent. Most of the youth were dancers, rappers, or musicians. I ended up in science school though, because it’s still a society where they are pushing kids to be doctors or lawyers- that’s what’s more functional in society, and it’s easier to follow the norm. So I ended up finishing a degree in biochemistry and worked in the oil industry, but I was really more leaning onto a sense of creativity. I always wanted to invent new ways.  

Also, growing around just women was very interesting to me and it sparked a sense of feminism and also opened my eyes to several things around me which are male-dominated. So, with time, I grew to want to speak to my society.

In “Queue to the Tap Dance” you incorporate visuals with the spoken word. Why do you use these mediums together?

It’s a digital revolutionary era, which is really beautiful, but it also gets us to be less attentive. People lose attention to things really quickly- they’ll go to their phones or they’ll do something else because there is a lot of information around us. So after performing for a while I realized that there are other ways to do poetry, that it can mean touching senses other than the ear. So I’m looking to engage your eyes or sometimes the sense of touch, of smell, of everything, with poetry.

I also use sculpture. For instance, the buckets I used in ‘Queue to the Tap Dance’ had Adrinka symbols from the Ashanti Kingdom. You could see these symbols and just pass by them because they are visually appealing, but they have philosophies and stories behind them. I add these subtle messages which go beyond just the poetry.

‘Queue to the Tap Dance’ is about water and bodies and how they are sustained with vibration. Also, where I’m from there are a lot of water shortages, especially in the more marginalized spaces- i.e. the slums. People have to form a queue to fetch water, and it’s mostly women and girls who do this job, as it’s not considered ‘a man’s job.’ So that cuts away time they could invest in school or to work on building themselves.

You’ve mentioned a lot of the everyday subjects as well as the cultural traditions that you draw material from. Are there any texts or oral traditions that you read or listen to that have influenced you and, if so, what languages are they in?

My grandmother was always speaking in codes- riddles, proverbs, oral stories. I got to grow up with her, and she inculcated a particular passion for me to dig into oral stories, mostly in Ashanti.

Oral folk stories are really powerful, and they show how language is layered. To just translate them directly to English, you lose some value of the language because it’s coined, it’s poetry, and translations don’t do justice to them. So that’s why I speak Ashanti in my poetry, or I speak Ga or Ewe. There are more than 80 languages where I come from, just in Ghana. Also, it’s a communal society, so you get to know a lot of words growing up from lots of different dialects and languages.

It sounds like Ghana is a very multilingual environment and everyone grows up being exposed to lots of different languages, but what has your experience of multilingualism been in other places you’ve lived?

Paris is also a multicultural space where there are a lot of people from different parts of the world, but the difference is how it’s more structured to have a lot of walls. It’s more limiting than cities in Ghana are. Even the public transport, for example, is a really different experience. We have the trotro (minibus) which is the size of an ambulance but with 24 seats. People sit really close to each other. No matter where you’re from or what language you speak in, you get to make a new friend in trotros. It doesn’t happen in underground trains. The people on public transport in Paris don’t usually talk to each other. You are just sitting straight or just standing in a metro until you get to your point. That’s the easiest form of comparison that you could understand, the fact that even the architecture of a space affects the way people manipulate themselves around what the society has to offer and what they want to give back to the society.

I think people are more afraid of each other in Europe. It’s more like a closed space, so it affects how people are willing to give and also take. That goes to say a lot, because supposedly poor societies, I’ve realized they are open to a lot more things than very rich societies where people are more boxed in or closed.

I was curious about why you use multilingual material- you’ve mentioned that there’s something lost when you translate words, but what effect do they have when your audience probably doesn’t understand them?

It’s not supposed to be totally understood, it’s supposed to be felt sometimes. Poetry, whatever language it is in, is just like music. You obviously listen to music from different languages which you don’t even get, but you still vibe to it. That’s the thing, that’s the connection.

I feel we each are born with a sense of knowledge about a global feel of things, but we get to be socialized so you are Danish now, you are English now, you are French now. So you get to have a leaning to a nationalist culture, but babies are open to tap into whatever they can grab from. That is where we should take things back to: openness to accept other culture forms or to be open to tap into all these. That is why I have different dialects and different languages together at the same time in my work- it’s to have a kind of engagement and openness. It’s not about just understanding it directly.

It’s also a point of inquiry. It’s not to answer things, it’s a point of inquiry and openness where I try to dance around the colors of language to have a broader view of things. It’s also to open you to the point to where you get to feel language also, you get to taste the language also.

Explore more of Kwame Write’s work at https://kwamewrite.blogspot.co.uk/

About the Author:

July Blalack
July Blalack is researching North African literature for the European Research Council's MULOSIGE project. She holds a Masters degree from the University of Virginia and her history of Mauritanian prose was recently published in 'The Oxford Handbook of Arab Novelistic Traditions.'

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