‘To live their dreams, women must be brave and fearless in their pursuits’
Wana Udobang is a writer, poet, performer and storyteller. A First Class graduate of Journalism from the University of Creative Arts in Farnham, England, she has released three spoken word albums – ‘Dirty Laundry’, ‘In Memory of Forgetting’ and ‘Transcendence’. Her work as a performer has taken her across Africa, Europe and the U.S. even as she works on commissions for Edinburgh International Festival and Deutsches Museum in Germany, among others.
She was awarded the International Writing Programme Residency at the University of IOWA in 2021 and the inaugural Ama Ata Aidoo Fellowship at Northwestern University in 2022. With a background in journalism, she has worked as a freelancer with the Guardian, Aljazeera, CNN, Observer as well as producing and presenting documentaries for BBC Radio4 and BBC World Service. Udobang runs The Comfort Food poetry workshop, which uses memories around food as a conduit to create new poems. She curates Culture Diaries, an archival project, which uses multi-platform storytelling to document African artistes. In this interview with IJEOMA THOMAS-ODIA, she speaks on her passion for poetry and how she is advancing it through her exhibition.
Share with us your trajectory into the world of poetry coming from a journalism background?
I started scribbling things on paper when I was about 16. I think at the time it was my own way of journaling, but I was also trying to obscure the things I wanted to say, so that if anyone found it, they wouldn’t know or think I was writing about them. I was going through my own teenage angst at the time. My best friend read one of the things I had written and said to me, ‘this is poetic’. God bless her. I think it was the first time I considered something I had written to be poetry. She bought me a proper journal and I continued to write and consciously study poems from that moment. It was a thing I always did as my own form of catharsis, and it continued to grow along with everything else I was doing.
So my poetry always existed even before journalism. But I really started performing poetry in 2008, building community and testing out material with audiences. Bogobiri was one of the places where a lot of poets and I performed weekly for many years, just sharing our work, building friendship and getting encouraged by audience members. It was a fantastic space and community to build my writing and performance muscle.
What fuels your passion for poetry?
Mostly my experiences and the experiences of others. I’m interested in stories that take us through life and the things that influence our perspective. I think writing poems are also a form of documentation for me and I am fervent about documenting. I like the ways in which poetry can speak and connect to people, how it creates and invents language for people to feel seen and heard. I think it is such a powerful artistic medium. It’s an art form that lends itself to other mediums from film and sound to performance and installation. I love the fact that it can morph and present itself in a variety of ways and I think that keeps me interested and passionate about it
How do you assess the level of appreciation of poetry?
I think the moment I started finding poems and poets whose work spoke to me, whose work I could relate with, it allowed me to feel less alone in the practice and gave me permission with my own creativity and the things I wanted to say and speak about.
Tell us about your spoken word albums?
I have three spoken word albums – Dirty Laundry (2013), In Memory of Forgetting (2017) and Transcendence (2020). A lot of the works generally speak to themes around womanhood, desirability, shame, feminine agency, familial relationships, love, longing, healing and joy. I love the accessibility of sound and generally experimenting with my poems and finding different ways for them to meet and connect with people. Making albums have been a way to connect to people who wouldn’t typically read poetry or want to attend a performance.
What is the concept of Dirty Laundry?
Dirty Laundry is a multimedia installation of poetry printed on large-scale cloth hanging from laundry lines. It’s a literal representation of the metaphor ‘to hang your dirty laundry in public’. Underpinning this work is the idea around shame and how it has been used as a tool of suppression for women particularly in our culture. With these poems that speak to many themes that we usually conceal or sweep under the carpet from violence to sexual abuse and bodily autonomy, the works are on display for the viewers to both confront and interrogate.
There is also a participatory and public performance element to the project where viewers get to write out their own pieces of dirty laundry on pieces of cloth with women washing them as a kind of cleansing ritual. We have been very lucky to have the support of Ford Foundation to take the installation on a three-city tour – Lagos, Port Harcourt and Abuja.
What new project should your fans expect from you?
At the moment I’m finishing up the Dirty Laundry tour and hoping it can be installed in other cities across the continent and the world. At the same time, I’m always working on many things like my Comfort Food workshop, which is a poetry and storytelling workshop that uses food as a portal into memories, storytelling and creating new recipe poems. I hope to have a poetry concert soon, writing a book, and just generally continuing to produce artistic and impactful work. When it comes to what is next, I always let the universe decide.
What are you doing to pass on poetry to the next generation?
I love teaching and quiet mentorship. I teach at workshops, both virtual and in person, from time to time. I like a very organic mentoring relationship where younger folks and I can talk through things, and I can share experiences in casual and conversational ways. That’s why I call it quiet mentorship. But as much as I can, through my social media channels, I’m always sharing my lessons and thoughts to help people improve their work and prepare for the systems they will encounter along their creative journeys. Staying committed to my work and sharing my process is something I consider a form of legacy as well. I think being transparent as an artiste creates a blueprint or a pathway for other artistes to navigate their own career path because they get to see what is possible.
What lessons have you garnered over the years?
Wow! Too many lessons. The thing with lessons is that you really just have to experience life for yourself. But my most profound life lessons are basic and banal: Staying consistent, being kind, being honest, doing your best, making peace with the rest, being present and enjoying the moment.
I often feel that people’s experiences always inform how they move through life and what we think are important lessons might mean nothing to others. But simple things like honesty, kindness, consistency and choosing joy is something that cuts across us all but can sometimes be the hardest things to implement.
How do you get inspired and stay motivated?
Working in multiple mediums keeps me on my toes. So, I’m always inundated with ideas; I have to consciously slow my brain down quite a bit. But I’m inspired by everything around me from cities and people to other people’s art. I’m always consuming art that really keeps me inspired. Watching films, going to the theatre, visiting exhibitions, reading and just constant immersion in art. I also love talking and listening to people; human beings are always fascinating. But I am always present and living. The greatest inspiration I find is by living and feeling your way through life.
How can more women rise to the top and live their dreams?
By being brave and fearless in our pursuits, knowing that we need to be consistent in our work, advocating for ourselves and those who are deliberately silenced, being intentional about our relationships and decision making, holding the door for other women to walk through and most importantly building a life that is full and fulfilling because we want to be mentally healthy and emotionally well when we get to that top, whatever the top looks like.
I also feel like it is important to mention that women have been doing all of these things and we cannot deny the cultural, social and structural injustices and inequities that continue to inhibit women’s personal and professional growth. On a personal note, based on my own lived experience, I think it is important that we have an expansive view of our goals and dreams so that we don’t miss out on so many life-changing moments because of our fixed views of success. I have found in my journey that my successes have been series of moments, an encapsulation of many things and not a particular vision or goal. This is what has made my life enjoyable and truly rewarding.
How do you unwind?
I love cooking. I find it very therapeutic. But mostly I love cooking for people, gathering and hosting them in good conversation. I also really like swimming; being around bodies of water has a calming and relaxing effect on me.