The Gentle Spice of Ginger: A Conversation with Ber Anena ✺

Ber Anena & Ruoyu Wang

Interviews

The Gentle Spice of Ginger: A Conversation with Ber Anena ✺

Ruoyu: Anena, I adore the sensuality of this poem! It may seem simple to say, but you play with sound and form so brilliantly to establish a momentum and sense of place. “I taste something else / I don’t mind not knowing” feels so sensitive to the speaker’s two homes, the exploration and remembrance occurring simultaneously. I wonder as to how you differentiate between smell and taste, the way you root one sense in the present and another with memory and possibility.


Anena: So, let’s get this out of the way: I love food, but I especially love food that I’m familiar with. I also believe that among the many things that make a person, food is a big part of that identity. When I moved to New York for grad school in 2019, one of the things I worried about was how I would survive without the Acoli food I grew up on. I frequently search African and Asian stores and restaurants because of how important it is for me to keep that part of my identity alive (but also because I have a moody tummy that’s often resistant to unfamiliar cuisine).

In my writing, I often return to recollections of things said and done, but I also reach for memories of things eaten, and the places journeyed when I was in Uganda. The fear of losing the memory of what I hold dear is what frightens me into writing them, into imagining them as part of my everyday life. I believe that the character of a place is defined by, among other things, its smell and taste, and writing offers the possibility to re-live the past.




Ruoyu: Another sentimental feature of this poem I love is the narrative of taking “a journey by beverage,” where the cup is a “non-rickety boat that won’t come / undone should things get stormy—the weather / or the uniformed water keepers. ” When I read that last line, I’m reminded of how much there is being protected in this piece, and what is functioning as said protection. You mention smallness, that of the cup and of the child the speaker might’ve been—I’m interested in how writing for you may be a bodily experience. How do you place yourself within your surroundings to access new truths?


Anena: Thank you for that question. While I can’t describe myself as an outgoing person, my creativity thrives on the people and things that surround me. I watch, listen, and immerse myself in my surroundings because that is where I get a spark for a poem, a short story, or an essay. And as a Ugandan, and an African, my interactions with my surroundings in the United States will always be a juxtaposition, a comparison that often leads to feelings of nostalgia or gratitude, or regret or wonder, depending on the circumstances. One of my favorite places to be is my mind because there, I can travel and imagine and create. In my writing, I want to feel the softness of okra sauce on my tongue, to feel the gentle spice of ginger on the roof of my mouth when Mama’s ginger tea shows up in my poem.



 
Ruoyu: What are 1-3 pieces of bodies of art—this could be anything from other poems to TV show scripts—that have been deeply formative in creating the spaces your work exists in? In what way are they in conversation with each other (if at all)?


Anena: I’ll always be grateful for the work of Ugandan poet Okot p’Bitek. His Song of Lawino was very foundational to my becoming a writer and to discovering the world of literature in general. In 2023, I started a crazy routine of writing a poem a day (inspired by Professor Kwame Dawes’ 100-Day Haiku challenge prompt). Every day, before I write a poem, I have to read poems by other writers for inspiration, and thanks to the many online lit mags today, there is no shortage of inspirational writing.  




Ruoyu: If you could craft your dream undergraduate or graduate-level course in writing, what would it be centered on? What intersections, emotions, impulses, desires drive you to discover new revelations each time? Whose voices would you include in the curriculum?


Anena: A course I hope to teach one day will be on silence, voice, and the body. People often consider silence and voice as oppositional concepts, but I don’t consider them so. As someone interested in indigenous African feminisms, I’m interested in how voice functions outside of the written text and workshop podiums. I’m interested in the body as a voice (e.g. when the women in northern Uganda who staged a nude protest against the grabbing of their land by government-backed foreign investors were speaking with their bodies). I’m also interested in situations where silence serves as a voice that says I’m not going to speak now to live another day, or I’m not going to speak now until the noise has quieted down and people can actually hear me.

One of the lingering discourses about women and gender oppression in Africa is the argument that we didn’t have a voice. Unfortunately, that argument is often articulated from a Westernized idea of what voice is and instead of what voice can be/has been. While I can’t deny that women everywhere, due to patriarchy, didn’t have the platforms to have their voices heard, there were different ways in which they spoke—think proverbs, songs, folklore, and different ways the woman’s body was wielded as a weapon of resistance, or reprimand or gratitude.

The class would be intended for anyone interested in understanding the nexus between voice, silence, and the body. With everything happening on social media, the useful interactions but also the vicious attacks against individuals and groups that often lead to silences and even bodily harm, this course would be perfect to make that linkage between the contemporary and what happened in my grandmother’s generation, for instance. ✺

Read the piece here.


Ber Anena

Ber Anena is a Ugandan poet and writer whose work has appeared or is forthcoming in The Atlantic, adda, Off Assignment, Black Warrior Review, and elsewhere. She’s the author of the award-winning poetry collection, A Nation in Labour. Anena is a Ph.D. student in English at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln.  


Twitter: @ahpetite



Ruoyu Wang | Interviewer

Ruoyu Wang (王若雨) is based in Washington state, where they enjoy cold walks. An Adroit Prizes commended winner in poetry, their work appears in The Shore, Sine Theta, COUNTERCLOCK, and elsewhere. Find them at their website.

Published

Feb 19, 2024

The Gentle Spice of Ginger: A Conversation with Ber Anena ✺

Ber Anena & Ruoyu Wang

Interviews

Ruoyu: Anena, I adore the sensuality of this poem! It may seem simple to say, but you play with sound and form so brilliantly to establish a momentum and sense of place. “I taste something else / I don’t mind not knowing” feels so sensitive to the speaker’s two homes, the exploration and remembrance occurring simultaneously. I wonder as to how you differentiate between smell and taste, the way you root one sense in the present and another with memory and possibility.


Anena: So, let’s get this out of the way: I love food, but I especially love food that I’m familiar with. I also believe that among the many things that make a person, food is a big part of that identity. When I moved to New York for grad school in 2019, one of the things I worried about was how I would survive without the Acoli food I grew up on. I frequently search African and Asian stores and restaurants because of how important it is for me to keep that part of my identity alive (but also because I have a moody tummy that’s often resistant to unfamiliar cuisine).

In my writing, I often return to recollections of things said and done, but I also reach for memories of things eaten, and the places journeyed when I was in Uganda. The fear of losing the memory of what I hold dear is what frightens me into writing them, into imagining them as part of my everyday life. I believe that the character of a place is defined by, among other things, its smell and taste, and writing offers the possibility to re-live the past.




Ruoyu: Another sentimental feature of this poem I love is the narrative of taking “a journey by beverage,” where the cup is a “non-rickety boat that won’t come / undone should things get stormy—the weather / or the uniformed water keepers. ” When I read that last line, I’m reminded of how much there is being protected in this piece, and what is functioning as said protection. You mention smallness, that of the cup and of the child the speaker might’ve been—I’m interested in how writing for you may be a bodily experience. How do you place yourself within your surroundings to access new truths?


Anena: Thank you for that question. While I can’t describe myself as an outgoing person, my creativity thrives on the people and things that surround me. I watch, listen, and immerse myself in my surroundings because that is where I get a spark for a poem, a short story, or an essay. And as a Ugandan, and an African, my interactions with my surroundings in the United States will always be a juxtaposition, a comparison that often leads to feelings of nostalgia or gratitude, or regret or wonder, depending on the circumstances. One of my favorite places to be is my mind because there, I can travel and imagine and create. In my writing, I want to feel the softness of okra sauce on my tongue, to feel the gentle spice of ginger on the roof of my mouth when Mama’s ginger tea shows up in my poem.



 
Ruoyu: What are 1-3 pieces of bodies of art—this could be anything from other poems to TV show scripts—that have been deeply formative in creating the spaces your work exists in? In what way are they in conversation with each other (if at all)?


Anena: I’ll always be grateful for the work of Ugandan poet Okot p’Bitek. His Song of Lawino was very foundational to my becoming a writer and to discovering the world of literature in general. In 2023, I started a crazy routine of writing a poem a day (inspired by Professor Kwame Dawes’ 100-Day Haiku challenge prompt). Every day, before I write a poem, I have to read poems by other writers for inspiration, and thanks to the many online lit mags today, there is no shortage of inspirational writing.  




Ruoyu: If you could craft your dream undergraduate or graduate-level course in writing, what would it be centered on? What intersections, emotions, impulses, desires drive you to discover new revelations each time? Whose voices would you include in the curriculum?


Anena: A course I hope to teach one day will be on silence, voice, and the body. People often consider silence and voice as oppositional concepts, but I don’t consider them so. As someone interested in indigenous African feminisms, I’m interested in how voice functions outside of the written text and workshop podiums. I’m interested in the body as a voice (e.g. when the women in northern Uganda who staged a nude protest against the grabbing of their land by government-backed foreign investors were speaking with their bodies). I’m also interested in situations where silence serves as a voice that says I’m not going to speak now to live another day, or I’m not going to speak now until the noise has quieted down and people can actually hear me.

One of the lingering discourses about women and gender oppression in Africa is the argument that we didn’t have a voice. Unfortunately, that argument is often articulated from a Westernized idea of what voice is and instead of what voice can be/has been. While I can’t deny that women everywhere, due to patriarchy, didn’t have the platforms to have their voices heard, there were different ways in which they spoke—think proverbs, songs, folklore, and different ways the woman’s body was wielded as a weapon of resistance, or reprimand or gratitude.

The class would be intended for anyone interested in understanding the nexus between voice, silence, and the body. With everything happening on social media, the useful interactions but also the vicious attacks against individuals and groups that often lead to silences and even bodily harm, this course would be perfect to make that linkage between the contemporary and what happened in my grandmother’s generation, for instance. ✺